Son of Slam

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Still, isn't a "nice" wrestling match a contradiction of terms?

According to Crawford, and no.

"I've really tried to clean it up," says the promoter, who says he depends heavily on the family trade to meet his nut. "When I took this over, everything was a lot rougher."

"Rough" seems to be a pretty charitable way to describe the border wrestling scene prior to Crawford's cleanup campaign. His predecessor, says Crawford, staged matches in feed lots and dog-racing parks, rarely in such relatively family-friendly arenas like today's barnlike beer 'n' burger palace. "He had guys wearing dresses, a guy in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, foul language, you name it," recalls Crawford, as he helps a wrestler wiggle into a face mask. "I'm trying to add professionalism.

"Today I want to draw the kids, too, so I got rid of all the swearing," continues Crawford, whose match pulls in 320 fans this day. "I'd like to take out the racial part, too, but this is the U.S.A. vs. Mexico. You've got to create some heat."

Even if it's refried heat, nobody seems to mind.

Or at least not much.

A collective groan goes up from one corner of the bar when several ringsiders spy a wrestler applying "blood" to his forehead before he's even entered the ring.

"This is goofy," says one spectator, a twentysomething rock concert tee-shirt peddler who came to the match with friends to pound down beers. "We've had better fights in the backyard when we were drunk. I'd rather be watching WWF, particularly for $11" -- the cost of Crawford's show.

Still, concedes the ringsider, "this beats staying home."

In fact, half the fun seems to be dissing the spectacle: When the announcer frantically notes that one of the wrestlers is "looking mighty frustrated," a teenager mutters, "How can he tell? The guy's wearing a mask, for chrissake."

Truth be told, Crawford's low-budget grapple-ganza looks an awful lot like the old TV wrestling matches of yore that filled the airwaves in the years long before pay-per-view glam slams, best-selling wrestling bios and a former ring star turned Minnesota governor.

Following in the time-worn body slams of such legendary pioneers as Gorgeous George (the peroxided pummeler who insisted that the ring be spritzed with perfume) or the Fabulous Moolah (the onetime ring fatale who now operates her own wrestling academy), Crawford's cadre of queso commandos might have stepped right out of a match on a 1960s UHF station.

Either that or a live-action cartoon show.

Seated perilously close to one side of the ring is a table of Latino youngsters who frequently find themselves in the thick of it. Judging from their shrieks of joy whenever the action spills out of the ring and onto their table (something that occurs with growing regularity throughout the bout), the kids are in hog heaven, rollicking in the redneck equivalent of a Chuck E. Cheese party.

In a card packed with exciting moments, several incidents get a particularly strong strangle hold on the audience's attention:

• After the announcer pleads with a battling Lettie Rivera and Shitara to kiss and make up, the women approach each other for what appears a conciliatory clinch. While the audience primes itself for a lesbian lip lock (some philistine in the crowd has been shouting "Eat her!" through the entire bout), Lettie blows the goodwill gesture to hell when she hauls off and smacks Shitara in the puss.

• A sweaty free-for-all that looks like Night of the Living Dead in ski masks culminates when practically everyone but the paying customers wind up in the ring.

• A ferocious face-off between ass-gnashing L'il Nasty Boy and fellow dwarf star "Pitbull" Patterson ("pound for pound, the strongest midget in the world") proves to be the biggest little crowd-pleaser on the card. Spilling out of the ring and onto several nearby tables, the Lilliputian lollapalooza ends in a torrent of broom-closet havoc; weapons include a trash can, a house-paint tray and the aforementioned crutch, now wielded with wild -- and unchoreographed -- abandon.

Thanks to the apocryphal story of Lana Turner's discovery while sipping a malt at Schwab's Drug Store, people who dreamed of a show-business career used to think the best way to catch Hollywood's eye was by sitting on a soda-fountain stool.

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Dewey Webb