Son of Slam

"Mexico sucks!"

Under normal barroom conditions -- particularly in a southern-Arizona beer joint heavily populated with Hispanics -- them's fightin' words.

But as the anti-nationalist proclamation echoes through Tucson's Wildcat House on a recent Sunday afternoon, them's more like wrestlin' words.

"Butt-biting midgets," "masked Mexican wrestlers," "marauding mat maidens." For the next several hours, all will be grappling for God (and country) during an international grudge match held in a frat-rat watering hole near the University of Arizona.

There's the pint-size Superfly who calls himself L'il Nasty Boy, a cocky little fellow who favors spandex and garish fake furs and boasts that he was once on the Jerry Springer Show.

Imagine a Spanish-speaking Ethel Mertz in a homemade Flashdance outfit, and you have the formidable Lettie Rivera, a veteran in the autumn of her career who has taken more falls than she can remember.

And the guy with the shaved head who looks like Pugsley Addams' criminally insane older brother? He's known as Section 8 (military shorthand for mental case), a beefy racial baiter who brags he's "the most hated man in Mexico."

These are but a handful of the luminaries who make up the ironically named World Wrestling Association, a somewhat less-than-global pro wrestling federation whose stars rarely shine anywhere but in bouts staged in cities on both sides of the Arizona/Sonora border.

Bargain-basement costuming. Missed-by-a-mile wrestling moves. Groaner-quality agony that wouldn't cut the mustard in a driver's ed scare movie. Okay, so World Wrestling Federation on cable TV it ain't.

Which is fine by George Crawford, an ex-boxer turned gym owner who's been promoting his low-rent border bouts for the past several years. During that time, he's staged dozens of matches in Tucson, Douglas, Sierra Vista, Sells, on Indian reservations and in several towns on the southern side of the United States border.

"Small cities are my cup of tea," says Crawford, who draws most of his talent and audiences from southern Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. "They get no live entertainment, and I like to think I bring them a nice show."

Crawford may be one of the few people in his troupe to fess up that the "show" is exactly that -- a show.

Caught backstage (in reality, a partitioned-off dressing area that hides the performers from the crowded picnic tables surrounding the ring) before the match, one grappler gets downright indignant when it's suggested that his ring moves are premeditated -- even though he and another wrestler of his stature are having a spirited conversation about who's going to hit whom over the head with a crutch.

"Choreography?!" snorts the diminutive L'il Nasty Boy. "What's that? I've never heard the word! Choreo-what?"

Quickly changing the line of questioning, a visitor asks how much money someone like L'il Nasty Boy might earn for taking an unscripted crutch beating.

Idly polishing his Day-Glo shades, the sub-five-footer answers, "Not enough, baby, not enough. There's never enough money, right?"

Not for nothing did this show-biz savvy vet cool his boots in Jerry Springer's green room for an episode devoted to "Invasion of the Little People."

"I hate that phrase!" growls L'il Nasty Boy, unleashing a stream of invective at height-challenged actor Billy Barty, founder of the Little People of America support group.

"I was born a midget and I've been one ever since!" proclaims the man who is, by medical definition, quite clearly a dwarf, not a midget. "Call me what I am!"

Why argue the point: Midgets wrestle; dwarves get tossed.

Let the games begin!

If you've seen one of Crawford's Mexican mauler matches, you haven't seen them all. Still, you've come close.

Even within the wide-open scope of these rules-be-damned, anything-goes bouts, the casual observer quickly realizes that there are only so many wrestling moves under el sol -- and even the most energetic performer can quickly run through the entire repertoire.

Tossed against the ropes with even the slightest force, wrestlers invariably careen around the ring like a pinball traveling at warp speed. No match is ever complete without an attack-from-the-rear death dive from one of the support poles. And woe to the grappler who doesn't act as though he's been sideswiped by a Mack truck every time he hits the mat. Mere hair-pulling, meanwhile, merits histrionics worthy of the Spanish Inquisition, and if the action doesn't spill out of the ring at least once during each bout, someone's wrestling future is not long for this world. Like the man said, it's a nice show.

A crowd-pleasing Spanglish version of Mexico's famed luca libre ("free wrestling") matches, today's card looks like the Gong Show as it might have been staged by Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson of Plan 9 From Outer Space fame and staffed by a team of fugitive carnies. One of the commentators who calls himself CBS (don't ask) resembles a young David Crosby in silver lamé. A slight, androgynous figure in a referee's shirt is identified as Mini Azteca -- or, some ringsiders wonder, is it Minnie Azteca? And over in the corner, Lettie Rivera and the unfortunately named Shitara, her vixenish archenemy, chatter away in Spanish like a couple of housewives over a clothesline.