By Ann Sterzinger

One night last fall I woke up and my top front teeth were gone. I started to panic, but my friends pushed me back onto the couch and shoved some Vicodin in my mouth. I tried to dredge up recollections of the evening, but I was drawing a blank, probably thanks to the six tequila shots I’d sunk to numb myself for the plunge into the cold, wet clay. That’ll teach me to mud wrestle outside on a September night in Wisconsin. Someone turned on the Packer game, and I maneuvered a beer bottle past the stumps of my incisors.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been damaged in the ring. The Incognito Mosquito–my masked, malaria-infested, mud-wrestling alter ego–was no stranger to scripts gone painfully awry. Wrestling is only half fake: there are rarely hard feelings before or after a match, but the fight instinct takes over between plot twists. Usually I wound up with at least a nasty ladder of bruises–and once, a few months earlier, a large fellow had done a real drop instead of a fake onto my back and knocked me out, face down in the mud.

This was, however, the first time I couldn’t remember the injury (or the hospital) at all, and also the first time I’d lost body parts. I would’ve never had the sense to retire voluntarily, but when I called up D.P. Ness, the owner and manager of the Madison-based MWO, or Mud Wrestling Organization, to ask what the hell had happened to me, he regretfully insisted I hang up my wings and tighty whities. Whatever I’d done, I’d managed to frighten this huge man (“six pounds, nine inches,” he likes to say)–a guy who doesn’t hesitate to jump into the mud wearing nothing but a jockstrap.

The MWO, which Ness founded with a handful of fellow bored, reckless restaurant and bar employees in 1999, has been doing enviably well since the Mosquito’s disappearance. Madison was always a dull town for anyone who wasn’t in college; then in 1996 the Hotel Washington bar complex burned down, and this past New Year’s Eve O’Cayz Corral, the last decent rock club after that disaster, met a fiery end too. But what really killed the loser social scene was the exodus of the Onion staff to New York and the subsequent mothballing of the Museum of Bathroom Tissue, curated by senior editor Carol Kolb. The museum had been connected to the Down Below Lounge, an unlicensed hangout that occasionally booked bands–though more often people just dropped in to play cards or watch monster movies. By February of this year, the local entertainment scene had grown so dreary that Ness and his muddy minions were more notorious than any rock band in town. They’re even landing out-of-town gigs now, the lucky bastards.

Like most small-time rock bands, MWO wrestlers get paid for shit–$50 a night tops, if Ness can cover his costs after the venue takes its cut. Unlike most rock bands, the wrestlers create that imperative sense of danger by putting themselves in the way of physical harm. Chicago’s obnoxiously puritanical liquor and nudity laws (you can’t mix the two) make MWO shows here too risky for venue owners, but I caught up with my old comrades in mud on a recent Wednesday night at a Banana Joe’s in Milwaukee. About 30 wrestlers, handlers, and referees had piled into a rented tour bus to get there. I walked in an hour before the fights were supposed to begin, as Ness and the troops devoted equal time to setting up the ring and tossing back shots of whiskey. Like rock ‘n’ roll, mud wrestling is often more inspired when lubricated.

I went to the back bar to get a dollar-fifty vodka drink and watch the mud get mixed. “I’m a dirty whore!” my old pal the Pez Dispensor yelled. She was crouched ringside, stirring water into powdered clay with her feet, her black pleather bondage/scuba gear already covered with a light gray crust. Meanwhile, the Banana Joe’s staff–amused by the proceedings, as bar staff tend to be–helped tighten the bungee cords around the double-stacked hay bales used to delineate the pit. In the center, I knew, were two queen-size mattresses (at my first match we used box springs–bad idea), over which a plastic tarp had been thrown to hold the six inches of mud.

“Well, I mussay it’s going splendiferously,” said Luscious Johnny Lush, the MWO’s mush-mouthed ringside announcer, offering me a swig of generic tequila from a leopard-fur canteen around his neck. I asked him how often the MWO’s been getting work since my retirement. “I don’t have any idea. I don’t care. Just focus on the show,” he slurred. “Who the hell’s wrestling first?”

By way of a pep talk, Ness exhorted the wrestlers to make sure they got into the shower (a camping shower bag attached to a tubing frame and plastic curtain) right after their matches so they wouldn’t track more mud around the venue than necessary. “If you guys listen to me and do what I say, there might be hot water,” Ness said, his chin dusted with clay. “If I don’t get what I want tonight, the showers will be cold!” It was no empty threat–in January 2000, a bewildered, blue, nearly hypothermic Incognito Mosquito was revived in a restaurant kitchen sink after enduring an outdoor garden hosing. “Show me your tits!” Ness added, slapping a giant Afro wig on his shaved head. The MWO’s manager is obsessed with hair. He once dragged a female spectator into the pit and body slammed her for snatching the wig from his head. He also insists that all his wrestlers shave their pubic hair: “Because D.P. Ness is clean…clean-cut.”

In the side bar they were using as a backstage, the wrestlers struck mock porn poses for photographers. From time to time they wandered out into the main bar and mingled with the crowd, half in and half out of character as their states of inebriation dictated.

Backstage, Nikki the Nutcracker–a sharp Teutonic blond in a wifebeater and a miniskirt–ranted about her opponent for the night, who was none other than Ness himself. “D.P. Ness is a megalomaniac,” she huffed. “He only cares about power, fame, and lining his pocket.”

“Call him Dick for short,” chortled Marti the Muffdiver, slapping by in a pair of scuba flippers.

“He never pays me, he doesn’t care if we get hurt–he doesn’t care about the people who are making him rich and powerful,” Nikki continued. “He owes his success to our talent. I haven’t exactly made a lot of friends in the MWO, but I think I can speak for the rest of the wrestlers when I say that he must be stopped, and I’m going to be the one to stop him.” She revealed her plans to settle her vendetta once and for all–she would challenge Ness to ante up and agree that ownership of the MWO would go to the winner of the match that night.

I asked D.P. Ness what he thought of the Nutcracker’s accusations. “That conceited little tramp,” he said, curling his lip. “She will feel the largeness of D.P. Ness tonight. She will be overwhelmed. D.P. Ness will wear her out.”

An hour after the show was supposed to begin, the Lush finally took the stage, and the Tiki Girl and the Cowgirl (whose straight jobs are at a strip bar) tossed door prizes at the crowd. “It’s going to be a major-league night here in Milwaukee for the Major League of Mud Wrestling!” he said. “The Milwaukee Bucks have clinched the division, and tonight we will do the same. I’m the commissioner, dammit!”

In case you missed this earlier, the MWO isn’t a bikini mud-wrestling league–while there’s plenty of flesh to be seen, some of it is rather hairy. Coed wrestling allows for more spectacular entertainment–as the bigger men can pitch the smaller women through the air–and in theory adding WWF-style personalities, choreography, drama, and viciousness to the traditional sensuality of mud wrestling gives it even broader appeal.

The Pez Dispensor, who currently claims the title of Intergender Heavyweight Champion of the World, was first up against the Pope of Porn, who meandered about before the match with a cigarette dangling from his lips and assorted females bearing up the train of his robes, which he ditched for Y-fronts and deely bobbers before jumping into the mud. “Wouldn’t you know it!” the Lush said as the Pope began the match with a domineering leg lock. “The Pope of Porn goes straight for the missionary. That’s sick and wrong!” The Pope knew the holds, but the seasoned Dispensor used the slimy, treacherous ring to her advantage. “Normal pro wrestling moves will not work in the mud!” the Lush announced as she slithered from her opponent’s clutches. But then the Soldier of Justice, drunk and overexcited, jumped into the ring and helped the Pope pin her to the mat in what the Lush dubbed an illegal double-team. The match ended, but the Dispensor was not stripped of her title.

Two drunken goobs in baseball caps, aping the Soldier of Justice, jumped from the crowd into the pit at the end of the next bout, a spanking match between the hot-pants clad Panama Red and Lady Mudiva, decked out in bondage gear and hair extensions–and started to fondle and body slam the performers. The wrestlers on the sidelines screamed in fury–jumping in on another wrestler’s match is part of the show, but having untrained drunks in the ring is dangerous.

“Get the fuck off the wrestlers now or we’ll kick your fucking ass!” yelled Miss Pussycat.

Bereft of his usual wit, the Lush added, “You can’t be throwing our girls around the ring cuz that’s going to piss us off, frat boys!” The heedless intruders had to be dragged from the pit.

Next, the team of Miss Pussycat and the Naughty Nurse toppled Marti the Muffdiver with little effort. Marti screamed “You alcoholic!” at the Lush as he announced his defeat, but he was obviously enjoying himself. The Lush moved on to rile up the crowd for the franchise match between the Nutcracker and Ness. Nikki, brandishing her trademark giant nutcracker, announced her wager to Ness, who accepted. She proceeded to bring him down, beating the big man with the nutcracker and a barrage of smuggled-in props–none of them breakaway–including a guitar and an entire drum kit. After about five minutes, she took him out for good with a blow to the head from the kick drum. The crowd, mostly unfamiliar with the cast of the MWO, seemed unsure whether to cheer or boo. After the Nutcracker ran her victory lap around the ring, Ness raised his head and shook mud all over the front row.

In real life, the directorship of the MWO didn’t change hands–Ricky Hegwood, not Nicole Gruter, will still book the gigs and have the hay bales delivered from a farm near Madison. But in the wrestling universe, a new dynasty had begun. Later Gruter, stepping out of character, explained that the MWO, like the larger pro wrestling leagues, keeps its story lines very simple so drunken spectators can follow them through all the tits, ass, and violence. “It’s all about revenge, jealousy, and money…and power.”

In the final match of the evening, the Tiki Girl and the Cowgirl faced off against the Soldier of Justice, who allegedly was dating both of them at once. “He thinks he can have a girl in every port!” the Tiki Girl yelled. The duo’s style was more foxy boxing and less WWF than the traditional MWO shtick, but the room loved the tightly choreographed moves. The girls grabbed the Soldier by his briefs to ride him like a bronco, shaking themselves with crisp professionalism; he feinted and rolled away from their attacks like a trench vet dodging sniper fire. The Lush announced the winner to a crowd that, with the show it was getting, couldn’t care less about the verdict: “Despite the fact that his balls were almost ripped off in the most vicious wedgie I’ve ever seen, the SOLDIER OF JUSTICE HAS WON THIS MATCH!”

The acrobatics ended with a too-familiar scene. The Cowgirl had gotten a lot of mud and an unidentifiable chunk of plastic stuck up under her eyelid, and water spilled onto the clay-smeared floor while a medical student from the audience helped bend her back over a bathroom sink stuffed with paper towels. “You gotta get her out of here,” one of Banana Joe’s bouncers yelled over her whimpering. “Your bus is about to leave.”

I felt terrible for the girl. I’d seen her wrestle before, and she always put on a fairly humorous show; now she was afraid for her eyesight. But as I worked myself into a righteous state over the pain and the sacrifice she’d made for the audience–now relatively safe as they drove home drunk, probably still mad that it had cost a whole 12 bucks–the Pez Dispensor appeared over my shoulder, her own eyes bright red and tearing. “She’ll be OK,” the Dispensor said. “Jesus, I’ve got mud in my eyes too!”

Hey…yeah, I thought. What’s she crying about? I got my fucking TEETH knocked out!

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.