The auditorium of the Knights of Columbus hall in West Allis, Wisconsin–more like a large multipurpose room, really–is filled to capacity. The Reverend Axl Future, “Spiritual Adviser to the Alliance of Violence,” swaggers down a gauntlet formed by 300-plus screaming and chanting wrestling fans. The crowd is held at bay by the runway–long folding tables set up in two parallel lines that lead to a red-and-blue wrestling ring plopped down dead center in the room. A thick flock of metal folding chairs, six or seven rows deep, surrounds the ring, reaching all the way back to the faux pine paneling of the walls.

The bulk of the crowd is male, from toddlers to adults. Many wear T-shirts emblazoned with wrestling slogans like “Kill ‘Em All! Let Stone Cold Sort ‘Em Out!,” “Two Words: S*CK IT!,” and “Got Head?” Females in the audience are outnumbered eight to one. Some of the women are laughing, others look bored, but most stand with their fists high in the air, hollering right along with the guys.

The theme from The Omen blares over the PA. Bible in hand, clad in a black priest’s robe and ripped long johns, the Reverend advances. He’s followed by his partner, Arc Angel Vincent, who’s dressed in a flowing white shirt and pants that, with his sunken eyes and gaunt face, lend him the appearance of a maniacal choirboy. He snarls at the crowd. Together they are “The Saint ‘n’ Sinner,” three-time tag team champions of Mid American Wrestling. An independent Milwaukee-based wrestling promotion, Mid American puts on an average of 15 to 20 cards (a slate of six to ten wrestling matches) a year–picture World Wrestling Federation events without the staging, lights, or budget. As the pair parades through the throng of fans, the Reverend throws water at a wildly screaming man who seems possessed by demons–or maybe it’s just the beer.

Roland Barthes theorized in his essay “The World of Wrestling” that the sport has become the modern extension of the grandiloquence of ancient theater. “The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.”

On the American sideshow circuit of the early 20th century, wrestlers practiced a simple, elegant style that mixed scientific execution with finesse and charisma. It was a time when “hookers” took on all comers at the carnival. They knew how to wow a crowd, ending a match with a single hold. Professional wrestling, as it exists today, grew out of this tradition (now often referred to as “old school”), although it has been transformed almost beyond recognition into a sport that’s more performance than display of technical skill.

“It’s one of the only truly American art forms, along with comic books and jazz,” says Reverend Axl. His real name is Rocco Malce, and he’s a 34-year-old Chicagoan who also publishes a wrestling zine called Claw Hold! “I like to do something until I get bored, and so far wrestling hasn’t bored me. I’m always learning something new.”

Malce became a wrestling fan in the early 80s. The only child of divorced parents–his father was an antiques dealer, his mother a tattoo artist–he spent his childhood in New York City.

“As a kid, I wasn’t into sports or wrestling or anything like that,” he remembers. “I never got in fights at school. I mostly just read a lot. I was quiet, serious, kept to myself.”

In high school, a friend got regular access to ringside seats at Madison Square Garden. “We’d go see the WWF there every third Sunday of the month, without fail,” he says. “If we couldn’t get seats, then we’d go to this local Irish bar right around the corner where they’d show the wrestling card live. Looking back in retrospect, I guess I must’ve been a wrestling geek.”

Malce watched and read every wrestling-related thing he could get his hands on. Then he moved to Chicago in 1984 to attend the School of the Art Institute and, in a performance art class that was required as part of the school’s first-year program, he went from spectator to performer.

“Now, I definitely don’t want to say that the Art Institute inspired me to become a wrestler,” he says. “But the teacher was trying to help us decide what we were going to do for our final project. All of us were asked what we found really interesting, and when it came to me, of course I said ‘wrestling!’ and the teacher got real excited and said yeah, that was perfect. So I ended up doing this wrestling-performance art thing.”

After a year at SAIC, Malce dropped out, unimpressed with the imposed broad eclecticism of the school and bored with formal education in general. He bounced around awhile between New York and Chicago, and eventually split for Las Vegas, where he stayed for a year working as a craps dealer. When that got old, he moved to LA, where he knocked around, working a series of odd jobs he’ll describe only as “nothing moral or legal.” He moved back to Chicago in 1989 and while working as a bar back, bartender, and bouncer at various establishments, including the now defunct Limelight, it hit him that maybe he could work at something he loved. He decided to become a wrestling manager.

First he had to learn the ropes. Mick Foley, the recently retired WWF superstar known primarily as Mankind, and variously as Cactus Jack and Dude Love, described the proliferation of shady wrestling schools in his best-selling autobiography, Have a Nice Day! “Throughout much of the history of the business, wrestling trainers have often had two schools of thought about aspiring wrestlers. The first school is to take anybody who has the money, teach him the bare essentials, and throw him to the wolves. The other is the ‘Let’s show them wrestling is real’ school…to exercise them until they puke, and then get them in the ring and eat them alive. Some [instructors] would intentionally injure a prospective student, so as to send him back to the real world with a different outlook on wrestling.” There are hundreds of wrestling schools across the country, many of which are fly-by-night, cropping up without much preparation and folding quickly due to mismanagement.

After searching for a reputable instructor, Malce found one in “Lifeguard” Sonny Rogers–“an old-school guy, a regular fellow. Everybody knows him.” At the time Rogers was teaching at Windy City Wrestling. Although he liked Rogers, Malce became frustrated with the school and dropped out.

Rogers, too, soon quit the school, and called Malce at home wondering if he wanted to continue studying privately. “It was Sonny who really encouraged me to start wrestling. I never considered myself a big guy, but Sonny told me, ‘Hey, why just be a manager? You’re big enough, why don’t you wrestle?'” After some instruction and practice, Rogers gave him his first lead–a wrestling promoter in Indiana who was looking for new blood. Malce got an audition and the gig.

“I always get nervous before a match, but that first one, all I remember is getting into the ring and getting punched full square in the side of the face, and I thought to myself, ‘OK, so this is how it’s going to be.'”

“Hardcore wrestling is an extreme style,” says Carmine DeSpirito, the founder of Mid American Wrestling. “Wrestling is for adults. It has always been a simulated fight between two guys. It’s not a simulated Olympic wrestling match! It’s a simulated fight! In real life, if a fight broke out between two guys who hated each other, would they give their opponent a suplex or grab the nearest beer bottle and crack it over the other guy’s head? What’s more realistic? A wrestling match is the series of events that allow the wrestling fan to feel a wide spectrum of emotions.

“The fans know that what they are seeing is more than likely not real, so in order to achieve that suspension of disbelief, you must be as realistic as possible. For an independent promoter like myself, I feel I must give the fans something different than what they can see on television. Not better, but different. So in ways I must top what is seen on television. If I didn’t, why would anyone buy a ticket?

“Wrestling evolved like this,” he says. “In the early 1900s it was two guys rolling around in holds for 90 minutes.” (Some matches went on for five hours or more.) “In the 1930s, it became a bit more advanced when different moves were invented, and in the 50s, with the advent of TV, wrestling became more showmanlike than sportsmanlike. They started to hit the ropes, use dropkicks, etc. They started to develop a wrestling psychology, which is basically what-to-do-when during a match to get the best reaction from the fans.

“In the mid-1980s, wrestling became more family oriented, where wrestlers were portrayed as cartoon characters. Then, in about 1990, the business died. Those kids who watched wrestling were now in college. They didn’t care anymore. So, it took a good five years for everyone to realize that the business must change in order to bring back the fans. Vince McMahon [owner of the WWF] did it with Monday Night RAW. He went back to his roots of being a showman and dished out a modern-day Barnum-like program of sensationalism and humbuggery.”

Vince McMahon’s wrestling revolution went beyond showmanship. A shrewd businessman, McMahon set the industry’s metamorphosis in motion after he bought WWF–then a regional promotion–from his father, Vince McMahon Sr., in 1982. Taking full advantage of the emerging popularity of cable television, McMahon Jr. used videotape, then a relatively new technology, to distribute his program to stations all over the country. At the time, wrestling promotions were strictly regional operations, with promoters booking wrestling cards in their territory, then buying or bartering time on the local TV stations. Videotape made McMahon’s cards ubiquitous. Competing regions had to either keep up or fall by the wayside and, as wrestling grew into a national obsession, many disappeared.

“I’ve been a fan since I was ten years old,” says DeSpirito, who’s a dead ringer for Penn Gillette. “My first live wrestling match was at Asbury Park Convention Hall in New Jersey in 1980. I used to carry stacks of wrestling magazines to school. I’d pin the kids on the wrestling team during gym class.” But he wasn’t interested in participating in organized sports. Instead, wrestling drew him into the artistic arena.

He started to go to live matches and shoot stills for a photography class during his junior year of high school. “One day I decided that my shots were better than most in the magazines, so I sent them in. I was offered a spot as a freelance photographer for a magazine called Wrestling Eye.” He eventually moved up to editor, where he stayed for seven years.

DeSpirito promoted a few wrestling cards back east in the late 80s, but says he had trouble breaking into the business because there were so many regional promotions already firmly entrenched up and down the east coast. After he met professional wrestler Frankie “the Thumper” DeFalco in 1992 on a trip to Milwaukee, they decided to launch Mid American Wrestling. “It was the logical place to start up,” DeSpirito says. Wisconsin was a state, he discovered, that had no athletic commission and very little competition. “DeFalco helped me and we were partners,” he says of the origins of the promotion. “After about a year I took it by the horns and I’ve been running it by myself since.” DeSpirito’s currently Mid American’s full-time promoter and matchmaker. DeFalco is still involved as a performer.

There are hundreds of small promotions like Mid American Wrestling all across the country, providing an accessible alternative to the two major televised wrestling promotions, WWF and World Championship Wrestling. In general, these small promotions are independently funded, owner operated, locally focused, and usually untelevised, although some do make it onto local stations or public access cable. They don’t function as a farm league to the majors. They’re independent professional wrestling promotions that exist outside of the two TV giants.

Malce met up with DeSpirito in 1995. “I had a friend who was getting a tryout with Mid American Wrestling,” remembers Malce, “and I got in on that audition and then we both got in with Carmine.” He and DeSpirito found they had a lot in common and became fast friends. “It’s interesting for me to watch him,” says Malce of DeSpirito, “knowing his love of old-school wrestling, with his appreciation and understanding of it…to see him promote [today]. How he does it is really to the benefit of the fans.”

In the 1950s men built like fireplugs would lock in wrestling holds for minutes at a time. They could easily wear down younger, more agile opponents. Malce tells a story about midwestern wrestling legend Dick Murdoch, “an old-school guy with a huge gut on him, no front teeth, who looked like a big redneck. So he’s set to wrestle this young kid, a wiseacre, who didn’t know his [wrestling] history.

“So this young kid thought, ‘Why are they putting me with this old guy? Let me mess around with him in the ring a little bit and show him up.’ Well, Murdoch took him to school and stretched him. Put him in moves so no air could get into his lungs. He showed this kid up and got a classic pin that this kid could not kick out and told the referee, ‘You’re counting to three, ’cause I’m sitting here until you do.’ When he went [backstage], he wasn’t even out of breath, and he said to the promoter, ‘Who the hell is this idiot you put me in the ring with?'”

Malce and DeSpirito can watch old wrestling tapes together for hours on end. “Watching how the old-school guys work a match,” Malce exclaims, “you look at an old tape and the first thing you think is–this is so boring!–the finishing move was just a body slam! But then, you see how hot the crowd is and you start thinking ‘what was it that they did to get the crowd that hot and then how can I translate that?'”

Across the ring from Reverend Axl and Arc Angel Vincent looms the Mauler, a hulk with wild eyes and a face that contorts like Silly Putty. He’s dressed in what look like surgical scrubs, his “uniform” from the mental institution he’s recently escaped from, as we’re told by the ring announcer.

The Mauler is joined by his partner, Barfly Mike, a burly guy wearing a Budweiser T-shirt and shorts. He clutches a tallboy that he ceremoniously thrusts up into the air, which elicits cheers from the crowd. He cocks his hand, letting a long stream of beer flow down into his mouth. The crowd cheers even louder.

The tag teams are working a “thumbtack match” on a mat strewn with silver thumbtacks. After a series of tags, knockdowns, and kick outs, each wrestler has, at least once, been partially covered in tacks.

The Reverend grabs a metal folding chair from ringside and, after hoisting it over his head, brings it down, seemingly full force, on the head of Barfly Mike. Then he picks up the dazed and confused wrestler, and throws him over the ropes and onto a table that collapses under his weight with a loud crash.

Barfly Mike just lies there, eyes open, staring up at the stained foam ceiling tile. When he rolls off the flattened table “paramedics” drag him away. The Mauler meets a similar fate, as the Saint ‘n’ Sinner work him over, throwing him into the ropes. He bounces off and lands flat-faced, spread-eagled and bloodied, across the field of thumbtacks. He’s taken away by stretcher, tacks and all.

The wrestlers’ moves are often orchestrated by a sideways glance here, a nod or a hand gesture there–signals that can be caught by an observant bystander. However, even though the story lines and finishes are predetermined, the actual matches are often totally improvised. Sometimes wrestlers discuss a rough outline of what moves they want to do before they get into the ring, but that’s no guarantee of what will ultimately happen.

Wrestlers know how to execute a move, but that move can hurt like hell, and possibly cause serious injury. A misplaced hit can paralyze an opponent. Risky props and dangerous staging can go awry, as in the now infamous accident in which Owen Hart, the beloved WWF babyface (a good guy), was killed when a harness rig that was supposed to lower him into the ring from a catwalk high above the crowd malfunctioned, sending him plunging to his death in front of an arena full of fans. Mick Foley tells a story in his book about the time his ear was ripped off his head when he became entangled in barbed wire that encircled the ring as “rope.”

At a recent Mid American match, Mad Man Pondo brought a staple gun into the ring and proceeded to attach dollar bills to the forehead and nose of his opponent, Hardcore Craig, who then wrestled the rest of the match with the money stapled to his bloody face. Hardcore Craig yanked the staples out himself with a pair of pliers after the match–the one in his forehead had gone in so deep that it splayed out into the bone.

The Mauler, now Mid American’s “commissioner,” retired last year after 13 years in the ring, explaining on Mid American’s Web site, “Each morning that I wake up, the first thing I feel is pain. In every joint, muscle, and tendon that makes up my body. The doctor has said for four years that he would do my surgeries, after I got out of the ring. But that meant no more wrestling, and I wasn’t ready for that. Now, I’m ready for that.”

Wendy Solomon, programming director for the Chicago Underground Film Festival, is a longtime wrestling fan. “In the big shows,” says Solomon, “like the WWF or the WCW, the plots are outlandish and outrageous and watching the action is entertaining. Skillful wrestlers are great to watch. Their skills in the ring, combined with a little suspension of disbelief, provide some fun, but not too brutal, entertainment.

“However,” she adds, “If I really want to watch people beat the crap out of each other, then I go to Mid American Wrestling. Their hardcore matches are some heavy-duty shit. I know that they’re not going to do anything to permanently harm their opponent, but they really are rolling in thumbtacks and whacking each other with barbed-wire-covered baseball bats. I like watching Mid American because I can’t believe that they are doing such crazy stuff.”

Ian Rotten, Mid American’s former heavyweight champion, has so much scar tissue built up on his forehead that all he has to do during a match is hit it at the right angle to get “busted open.” Following one match, as he was leaving the ring, he vomited blood onto the floor in front of the crowd. He had been unable to avoid swallowing the constant flow of blood pouring down his face from his ruptured scar tissue during the last minutes of his match. “It was disgusting,” commented one onlooker who witnessed the plasma projectile. “That was so gross, it had to be real.”

Malce says the violence of wrestling is a mirror of society. “After the Rodney King incident, there was a lot of billy club beatings in wrestling. After the Mike Tyson fight, there was a lot of biting of ears. Promoters know what’s already effective in getting an emotional charge out of people.

“Wrestling is one of the last things that you’d say has subtlety involved, but there’s a lot more work and theory involved behind a match. If a promoter thinks short term, and books something too often, they’re shooting themselves in the foot to a certain degree, because they have to top themselves all the time.”

On one WWF pay-per-view special, the ring announcers kept calling a particular wrestler “Mr. Ass.” Mr. Ass had on wrestling briefs that were made of sheer black mesh, with only a shiny little strip of black Lycra that stretched over his privates and reached around to floss his butt.

“He used to be Billy Gunn,” explains Malce, “and then he was B.A. Billy Gunn, then he was Bad A. Billy Gunn, and finally, they just started calling him Bad Ass, and then letting him put it on his tights and now they’re printing T-shirts that say Bad Ass. I mean we’re talking a time period of maybe two to three years in which this has happened. So it’s funny to think back to when they wouldn’t even say his name on the air. It was mostly like an in-joke for him and now it’s to where they’re selling T-shirts with that on them. That’s very accelerated evolution.”

In late 1999, Coca-Cola stopped advertising on WWF programming, stating that the company no longer wanted its corporate image associated with the lewd language and behavior on WWF programs. But 78 other sponsors remained, drawn by the strong ratings and prime demographics (18- to 34-year-old men). Shortly after the Coke announcement, the WWF announced that they’d not only resold the Coke spots at higher rates but had seen a 230 percent increase in gross ad sales for the fourth quarter of 1999. Obviously, controversy draws viewers and where the viewers go, the advertisers will follow.

One of the many controversies involves a move called “crotch chopping.” It’s a move popularized by D-Generation X, a popular faction within the WWF, in which they swing one or both of their arms in an up-and-down motion toward their crotches, often accompanied by the team’s catchphrase, “Two words: suck it!” An Indiana University study in conjunction with the television tabloid Inside Edition counted 1,658 such incidents on WWF RAW within a one-year period. Unsurprisingly, people are concerned about the message this sends to kids.

Ian Rotten says he and his little boy, a toddler, were shopping in a store one day when a woman came up to the boy and pinched his cheeks, saying, “Oh, look how cute you are.” The toddler replied, “Hey lady…suck it!” and made the crotch-chopping motion. The woman was appalled and stalked off in a huff. Rotten was amused.

“That could happen to any parent,” Malce protests. But when prodded, he concedes, “That really is a move a kid would get from watching wrestling. That’s why the WWF is catching all this flak. Personally I’m not for censorship of any kind, but I like wrestling where there are some restrictions put on it like for regular TV. Somewhere in between cable and regular TV, I like those inhibitions. I don’t like excessive cursing. I don’t like excessive nudity. I think it’s more clever to have to work around a lot of stuff and just suggest it. This is just me, speaking personally. I don’t believe in censorship, it’s just whatever the market will bear. If the public thinks it’s too offensive, they will stop watching and it will change.

“I have yet to come across somebody who went to an indie wrestling card who didn’t have a ball,” he says. “It’s possible to learn something in every match. It’s more than moves–there’s psychology, pacing, crowd manipulation. People come back and start to learn the language of wrestling, and it’s then they realize that it’s not what people assume it is. When they break it down, they see that it’s subtle.

“I hang out with wrestlers and we talk, and there’s all these key words we use with each other. It’s dangerous–you start to look at everything like wrestling. I was talking to this nonwrestling friend of mine, and somehow we got on the topic of Marilyn Manson, and I said, ‘You know, he doesn’t act that way at home. He admits it, and in that way it’s just like wrestling. It’s all a work. A work can be bad if the audience doesn’t know it’s a work, but most of the time the audience does know,’ and the guy I was with says, ‘Can’t you ever stop talking about wrestling?'”

Malce’s other favorite topic is tattoos. He’s covered with them. “My mother bought me my first tattoo when I was 17. One of the analogies I like is that old-school tattooing is a lot like old-school wrestling. There’s this master-apprentice relationship–if you wanted to learn how to tattoo, you work in our shop and you clean our machines for a year, then I give you a machine that’s been disassembled and when you can reassemble it, you can start tattooing and all you are doing is just filling in–you’re doing Tazes and peacocks and robins and anchors for years. Maybe you’re lucky and someone will come in and want you to draw something out, but mostly it was just paying your dues.

“Then there came the tattooists who would say, ‘Oh, I can buy a machine through the mail, and I can practice on my friends,’ and whether they were punk rockers in squats or pothead art students or just skateboard kids, they said, ‘I want to tattoo things that have never been tattooed before. I don’t want to draw it out, I just want to draw it right on the skin and learn.’

“The way of learning tattooing radically changed in the space of five or six years because of these kids, but a lot of the checks and balances were stopped. Even though all the creativity could be drained out of you in the master-apprentice relationship, you knew your craft, you wouldn’t hurt anyone. Now you have people doing terrible tattoos, working out of their kitchens in unsanitary conditions.

“It’s the same with wrestling, where you’ve got these kids who are like ‘I watch a lot of tapes, I can do this. I’ll set up a ring in my backyard so I can practice. I don’t want to apprentice for someone and just set up the ring for a year before he teaches me a headlock.’ A lot of the old wrestling knowledge has been lost.

“Nowadays, tattooing is coming back to its roots. There was a reason why you had big outlines and bright colors and there was a reason why you didn’t use single needles. And unless you’re very talented, it’s hard to overcome those reasons. The same with wrestling. Certainly getting hit in the head with a chair 25 times isn’t a substitute for good ring psychology or being an athlete, but that’s the reason why you learn the ropes. Every match can’t be over the top all the time. You can’t go back to old-school tattooing and you can’t go back to old-school wrestling, no matter how much I love it or talk about it. The stakes have been raised. It’s hard to shock people anymore.”

Mid American Wrestling’s eighth annual Summer Sizzler Spectacular is Sunday, July 23, at 3 PM at the Brat Shop, 12304 75th, at Highway 50 and I-94, Kenosha, Wisconsin. Call 414-777-3941 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Susan Anderson.