During an intense match between Gato Negro and Mega Boy, the fight spilled out of the ring and onto the mats, then into the audience. As the wrestlers chased each other back into the narrow space between the bleachers and the folding table where a drowsy woman sat selling posters and masks, a crowd of wildy excited boys and men surged toward the action. I ran in the opposite direction and came around the back, pushing in next to the wrestlers as the crowd closed in tighter around them.
One of the luchadores chased the other into the neighboring music tent and slammed him onto the stage, startling the musicians who were setting up for their act. The bow-tied referee arrived on the scene, looking dismayed. He pointed emphatically back in the direction of the wrestling ring, and shouted in the slow, simplified English that people tend to use with foreigners and dogs, “GOOO BACK TO THE RING!” They returned.
Later, I stood next to the white vinyl tent that served as a dressing room, chatting with the delegation of local American wrestlers who were competing alongside the Luchadores, flown in from Mexico City for the weekend.
A bored woman in a sweat shirt stood near me, waiting for someone. As the American wrestlers filed in, she hugged one of them- her boyfriend- and immediately recoiled. “Ew. You’re all sweaty. Don’t think you’re gonna get in my car like that!”
“Ok” I told them, “I’m gonna need your names, and what city you come from.” Badd Blood had come up from Compton, Cowboy Texas Thompson had relocated to Portland by way of El Paso, and Emperor Void hailed from “the mean streets of Beaverton.”
And then there was Heart Throb Erik Hanson, from “every woman’s fantasy.”
“Sorry,” I said, “where do you come from?”
He repeated himself slowly, as if he were spelling something over the phone for a particularly slow customer service representative. “I’m from Every. Woman’s. Fantasy.”
Wrestling is a world of stark, and often hilarious contrasts. The sport itself occupies an uncertain middle territory, somewhere between theater and sport; a little bit of athleticism, a lot of Vaudeville. The preparation for the matches is part practice, part rehearsal. They don’t choreograph their moves per se, but they do talk about what would look cool beforehand. They try to keep it fresh.
For example, a temporary chain-link fence had been erected overnight, to create a sort of caged-in area where the event sponsors and their guests were milling around with a few scantily clad girls, enjoying the free margaritas and guacamole. It was decided during practice that it would be awesome to jump from the third rope into the cage, and so this was incorporated into that evening’s match.
Likewise, the displays of brawn and fury are part real, partly staged. The ring is made of plywood, and the resonating smack of their bodies repeatedly slamming into it can’t be faked, but the blows sometimes are.
“Like, if a guy knows what he’s doing, and I trust him, we’ll put on a good show, and make it look like it really hurts. But, if it’s some kid who doesn’t know his stuff, I’ll give him a hard time. But I’m not gonna risk my career over some nobody, you know?” explained Damon Scythe of Hillsboro. “In the end, it’s really about entertainment, because that’s what wrestling is.”
Inside the ring, the wrestlers’ personas are full of fury and vengeance; they menace their opponents, sweaty and greasy-haired, brandishing whips and giant snakes, inciting the enthralled audience to a frenzy, as they scream threats into tinny-sounding microphones.
They make much ado of their storied, and very public feuds, and some of these grudges are convincing enough to be a little scary. After the match however, the same wrestlers who were throwing each other into the cheap seats minutes before lounge inside the tent, text-messaging friends, and taping their ankles in companionable silence. One of their daughters is playing next to them, and El Pequeno Alibrije has taken his dragon mask off. Without it, he’s damp, and slightly handsome, but aside from the shiny vinyl pants, he seems just like an ordinary guy.
The contrasts seem particularly marked for the Mexican wrestlers; Histerio, Mascarita, El Oriental, and El Pequeno Alibrije. While the competitiors from the United States were emphatic that wrestling is purely a labor of love for them, some of the Mexican wrestlers have achieved celebrity status.
At home, they receive the adulation of their fans, merchandising deals, national television coverage, and coveted tourist visas to spend weekends in the United States.
But in Portland Oregon, they play to a crowd of barely a hundred souls underneath the spanners of a gritty bridge, shivering in their lycra tights as they squeeze through the tight spot between the porta-potty and the plastic chairs, on their way into the arena.
After the match, a crowd of young fans mobs them, jostling to get their Mega Boy posters signed, or to flex their prepubescent muscles next to midget wrestler Mascarita. Fathers pose their young boys next to the goose-pimpled ring girls and snap cell phone photos.
Soon, the fans are gone; having moved on to eat a deep fried candy bar or have their weights guessed or get a t-shirt airbrushed, and the wrestlers, American and Mexican both, are inside the tent, goofing off. A voluptuous ring girl has entered the tent, and she ushers me in to take photos of her posing with the wrestlers.
They clown and nuzzle, making victory signs and half-hearted attempts to squeeze her considerable endowments. One of them pretends to use her chest as a pillow, and she whoops and giggles, a little flattered, a little embarrassed.
Moments later, the tent empties out. The Mexican wrestlers are obligated to make an appearance in the margarita cage, and the American wrestlers are moving on, heading back home to their lives in the suburbs. Damon Scythe stops to chat for a minute, and graciously waits for Gato Negro’s wife to be photographed with his docile five-foot long python.
Gato Negro, who is originally from Veracruz but now lives in Hillsboro, collects his gym bag and serape from the jumble of costumes and jackets and junk food on the folding table. “What are you going to do now?” I ask him.
“I have to work. I have two jobs.”
“Which one are you going to now?”
“The one at the club. I’m a bouncer.”
And with that, he dons his giant souvenir sombrero, sighs a little, and heads back out into the daylight.