Hoodslam brings populist pro wrestling to the heart of Oakland
Photography by Mikul Eriksson & Syra McCarthy
Ho-ly shit! Ho-ly shit! Ho-ly shit!
On a Hoodslam night, it’s not uncommon to exit the Oakland Metro with the chant still ringing in your ears. It was Banks and Tom who led me to my first Hoodslam. The idea had been communicated to me, vaguely but enthusiastically, that we’d be watching a wrestling show at the Oakland Metro, and that yes, we should bring along a few pints of Hennessy and a blunt for good measure.
At that point, early on in 2012, I couldn’t really remember the last time I had tuned in to anything pro wrestling-related. Naturally, I had fond memories of Revenge on N64, The Rock before anybody knew his first or last name, and of course, telling other kids to suck it–but my short-lived love affair with the world of wrestling wasn’t something I figured I’d ever rekindle.
Suffice to say, the next three hours or so were damn near revelatory. As sensory experiences go, it’s bonkers: the snarl-serenade of the death metal Hoodslam theme song, the Bufferesque boom of ring announcer Ike Burner’s voice, as he made introductions between drags from the blunt between his fingers, the muddled thump of palms slapping the side of the ring, and an endless chorus of fuck you’s. Tables get smashed, drinks get poured, boobies get paraded around, and full-on acrobatics are executed with utter precision. There’s even a guy in a fucking Pink Panther suit.
As is the case with most cool scenes in Oakland, Hoodslam leaves you with questions. I wondered how something like that had come together. For that matter, I couldn’t figure out why the fuck nobody had told me such a thing existed in Oakland. What I did know for sure, was that I was going back, soon.
A year later, with a handful of Hoodslams under my belt as a fan, I decided to find out a bit more. As it turns out–again, typical of most Oakland subcultures–Hoodslam is a surprisingly accessible universe. When I tracked down A.J. Kirsch (known to Hoodslam audiences as wrestler and color-commentator Joe “Broseph” Brody) and Kevin Michael Johnson, better known as Drugs Bunny, Hoodslam’s beloved coke-addled rabbit antihero, both were more than happy to provide some context for the all the insanity I had witnessed over the course of a few memorable First Fridays.
“Fuck the Fans”
The mythology of Hoodslam can be traced back to corner of San Pablo and 24th, a few blocks outside of Uptown Oakland, where the now-mostly-defunct Victory Warehouse sits. A little over two years ago, frustrated by the constraints of today’s family-friendly pro wrestling climate, Sam Khandaghabadi (who wrestles as The Dark Sheik) imagined a wrestling show by the wrestlers, and for the wrestlers. While higher-profile events on the circuit meant catering to a more PG-13 demographic, Hoodslam represented a space where wrestlers could drink, smoke, fuck around, and put on shows organized around a simple mantra: “fuck the fans”. And yet, ironically enough, the show started to find its audience. As the rumors swirled about an Oakland-centric, no holds barred wrestling show for grown-ups, Hoodslam’s popularity swelled, and the show made its way from the outskirts of Uptown to Jack London’s Oakland Metro.
Today, Hoodslam is a legitimate spectacle, drawing anywhere from 700 to 800 fans on a regular basis. “We call it the accidental phenomenon,” Drugs told me, “because it’s the biggest wrestling show in the Bay Area, and it wasn’t even supposed to be for fans eyes–ever.” It’s worth noting too, that despite the top-notch, high-flying athleticism of the actual stunts being executed, most of Hoodslam’s audience, like myself, could hardly be described as wrestling fans. From the burlesque and freak show intermissions, to the zany ass characters, to the energy reverberating through the room, there’s something about it that transcends the genre, making it accessible not only to wrestling buffs, but to just about anyone looking to witness something strange and entertaining off the beaten path. And even as the show evolves, Hoodslam retains a signature vibe that’s distinct to its humble beginnings in The Town: “Even though we have fans coming from all over the Bay Area, it all started in the heart of Oakland,” says Drugs, “that’s where this baby was born and raised.”
“This Is Real”
Technically speaking, there are a handful of things that distinguish Hoodslam from your typical, televised pro wrestling event. Hoodslam is standing room only, with no barricade, which means that, should you shove your way through to the front, you’ll find yourself about ten feet away from the action. For another, it’s a 21+ event: smoking, drinking heavily and cussing is all highly encouraged, and so is fan-wrestler antagonism. The cast of characters too, reflects a pretty serious appreciation for all things absurd. There’s a heavily blunted duo called the Stoner Brothers, and nostalgia-based favorites from Wonderwoman to E. Honda to the Pink Panther. The screamcore band that plays everyone in changes names from night to night, though I’m partial to “Twisted Fister” and “Urethra Franklin”.
As far as the show goes too, there are things you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. I’ve watched bizarro strip shows and circus freak oddities. I’ve seen guys slammed onto a bed of thumbtacks. I’ve watched Virgil Flynn, maybe Hoodslam’s truest talent, barrel through the air, fifteen feet off the ground, with Cirque-de-Soleil body control. If you’ve been any time recently, you’ve probably heard the crowd go absolutely ape shit when Drugs stands up on the turnbuckle, shoves his hand into a ziplock of unidentified white powder, and smothers his face with it before hopping back in the ring.
It’s that fucked up, subversive sense of humor that makes Hoodslam so endearing. And nothing sums it up quite as succinctly as the event’s signature chant: This Is Real. “There’s kind of a double meaning to it,” Kirsch explains: “On the one hand it pokes fun at the fact that wrestling, for the longest time, was portrayed as reality–as a genuine athletic competition–and people weren’t ‘in on it’.” And, as he explained, when you find yourself screaming “This Is Real” in response to say, a dude in a Winnie the Pooh costume beating the shit out of The Pink Panther, there’s a sense of mutual understanding in the room: “It’s a show, you’re here to be entertained. Have some fun with it.” And yet the “realness” isn’t strictly ironic either. “At the same time,” Kirsch told me, “it represents the feeling amongst the performers when we’re at Hoodslam. Everyone is there for each other–to combine our passion, to combine our efforts, and put on the most entertaining show we could possibly be capable of.”
I guess that’s part of the magic of this thing. Hoodslam, more than anything else, has a heart. Walking into the Metro on a First Friday can feel like getting initiated into a secret society, complete with its own rules, and traditions, and myths. And yet, it’s that rare word-of-mouth phenomenon that draws you in not because it’s exclusive, but because it feels legitimately welcoming. Yes, your tolerance for loud noise, sweaty dudes and vulgar shit has to be higher than average bear. But Hoodslam is a place where dudes with day jobs become larger than life–where ten bucks gets you a front row seat, where if you’re lucky, Joe Brody might even lace you with a shot of Beam from over the ropes. It’s a place where folks bring signs from home to celebrate dudes you’ve never heard of–where cartoonishness comes to life, and regular joes become heroes. There’s a strange kind of CBGB feeling to it all, like you’re in on the ground floor for something special–even if pro wrestling, on the national stage, might be past its glory days. Hoodslam feels authentically dope because you feel like you’re a part of it when you’re there. And in that sense, Hoodslam is about as real as it gets.