Headlock and Load

Posted May 13, 2010 in Feature Story

Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” pulses through the sound system. As the Rocky theme song pounds, zealous fans circle as Empire Wrestling Federation members Spandexed to the max mingle in the incongruous setting of a Pomona art gallery, Andi Campognone Projects. 

The artistic element of the wrestlers that come through the ranks of Jesse Hernandez’s School of Hard Knocks is finally getting the mainstream appreciation they crave, and it’s through the lens of award-winning photographer Thomas McGovern. This past weekend, the gallery hosted a book release party with McGovern’s poetic photographs displayed.

What started as a leisurely bike ride through his new hometown, the urban sprawl known as the City of San Bernardino, turned into four years of documenting the Inland Empire wrestling scene with his camera and pen. The result is the recently published book Hard Boys + Bad Girls. McGovern’s work has hung in collections in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Library of Congress. His photos graced the pages of The Village Voice, and the book Pandemic: Facing AIDS.

The Cal State San Bernardino art professor rolled up on the funky, little storefront totally by chance. The strange noises coming from behind the school’s windows lured the storyteller in him through the doors.

So Many Times It Happens Too Fast

“I heard this ‘boom boom’ coming out of the storefront,” McGovern recalls. He stepped inside the aptly titled wrestling school. “I introduced myself as a photographer and within seconds they dragged me inside.”

For the next couple of years, McGovern captured the angst, ambition, pride and joy of the School of Hard Knocks crew. He became enthralled by the wrestlers’ fantasies of greatness and their pull-themselves-up-by-their-boot-straps mentality, their discipline, drive and sophisticated awareness of their characters’ strength mixed with sexuality.

“They express the zeitgeist of our times—sex and the obsession with fame,” McGovern says. “They are not just enmeshed in those issues, they are engaged in them . . . It might just look like kids flying at each other, but it’s not . . . There is this mythic struggle between good and evil. You get to see this beautiful story that is more Marvel Comics than Aesop’s Fables.”

Rising Up to the Challenge of Their Rival

Jesse Hernandez teaches a hybrid form of wrestling, part American and part Mexican wrestling, the latter known famously as lucha libre—Chris Jericho even looked to Hernandez for lucha libre training before heading south of the border. One thing Hernandez tells everyone—Jericho or a newbie—is to always posture for the camera, whether flash bulbs are lighting up or not.

“From the moment they step forward through the curtain, they need to be photo ready, or they could look weak,” Hernandez says. “They are always posing. It’s like bullfighting. It’s in the way they stand.”

Every picture tells a story. Most of the wrestlers come from humble backgrounds, a perfect setting for fantasies to unfold. Their day jobs range from serving in the military to a funeral home director to a nightshift convenience store manager and plenty other vocations in between.

“They get to pretend to be someone else,” Hernandez says. “And the fans get to scream and yell and get out their aggression.”

Little old ladies with walkers have been known to get vicious.

“We’re athletic actors,” says Eddie Mattson, who also wrestles as the persona Icarus Eagle. A lifelong wrestling fan, Mattson can rattle off every one of the early matches that sucked him into the world of wrestling as well as his first times in front of an audience.

“It’s fun getting to be different characters,” Mattson says. “It’s just like Al Pacino playing a different character in different movies. We use different gimmicks, different names . . . It’s just another form of entertainment.”

You Must Fight Just To Keep Them Alive

Nearly all of the Hard Knocks wrestlers can think back to the moment when, as children, wrestling took hold of their imaginations.

“It’s such an improbable dream,” McGovern says. “But they’ve always been driven by this idea that they have to work hard to achieve what they want and that everything they will earn in life they will have to earn through focus and dedication.”

The Hard Knocks gang does not reach their goals alone. Hernandez, who has worked as a professional wrestler, referee and coach for three decades, serves as their coach, mentor and protector. He’s like a father to the wrestlers, Mattson says.

“Jesse constantly nurtures the idea of them all taking each other’s well-being into account,” McGovern says. “It’s interesting this nurturing part of it, yet they’re doing their best to be brutal.”

Setting your sights on becoming a professional wrestler seems as plausible to some as, say, becoming a professional baseball player or a circus clown. The declaration doesn’t always go over so well. Detractors may even be sure to say that the pie-in-the-sky dream sounds sort of silly. But what each wrestler who makes it through the School of Hard Knocks has is a relentless reach for the stars.

“If you peel back the bravado, they’ll say, ‘Maybe I won’t make it,’” McGovern says. “They take shit from their friends. But they all believe that if you aim high, there is a chance you might have something happen for you. If you don’t aim for the top, you sure as hell are not going to get there.”

You Trade Your Passion for Glory

Some do make it though. Hernandez’s graduates have wrestled in the World Wrestling Federation, which became World Wrestling Entertainment, and the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling. Many of his students stayed with the Empire Wrestling Federation.

“Anyone who gets in my ring and starts trying it, it gets in their blood,” Hernandez says. The limelight is addictive, he says, the adrenaline intoxicating. DK Murphy, an Irish brute of a wrestler, spent time on the outside of the ring while recovering from a nearly fatal wrestling accident.

“That was the worst time of my life,” Murphy says. Once he got past worrying about actually dying from his neck injury, his obsession transitioned to getting back in the ring. The thought of not wrestling again was the most crippling part of his injury.

Watching the 2009 Mickey Rourke movie The Wrestler depicting an over-the-hill, achy has-been was a little too real, Murphy says. “I can’t watch that movie too much,” he says. It’s too close to what he knows is a possible reality since he can’t imagine ever not wrestling.

Face to Face, Out in the Heat

While the stories are made up, the physicality of the sport is real. Career-ending injuries as well as untimely deaths are not uncommon in the sport. But wrestlers are innately crowd pleasers, and they go to great lengths to work the room.

The fans drive the performances.

“Unlike theater, where there isn’t all that much direct interaction with the audience, wrestling is deeply involved with the audience,” McGovern says. “They are putting on a play with their body.” One wrestler described it to McGovern as a ballet with blood and guts.

The wrestling matches get determined by fans. If the personae don’t enthrall the crowd, they change. If spectators lose their zeal for a match, someone is pinned quickly. The twisty narrative feeds off the fervor of the fans.

“You have to have the crowd behind you, whether they are booing or cheering you on,” says the green-Spandexed Mighty Mike Mountain. He loves delving into the psychology of the crowd interaction. “We get away with being jerks, talking smack to the kids. At the end of the day, it’s all about what the people think.”

Have the Guts, Got the Glory

Some people might think the female wrestlers are basically eye candy, the requisite T&A in an overly masculine field.

The women will tell you you’re wrong.

Hurricane Havana grew up with 14 older brothers beating her black and blue. When the modeling agency she worked for asked her if she was interested in trying out for a wrestling casting call, she didn’t hesitate. “Once I started, I couldn’t live without it,” she says.

Hurricane Havana loves escaping into her tough persona and lives vicariously through her character. “It’s a relaxing time for me even though I’m getting beat up,” she says. “And it’s empowering. It teaches men there is no way to mess with tough women.”

Her rival Sexy Starrlitt’s snotty spoiled rich-girl character is tough on the outside, but the performance is a stretch from her real self. The stay-at-home mom confesses to being quite shy, and she hasn’t yet told her 4-year-old son about her moonlighting. “I don’t want him to think it’s OK to hit women,” she says. Hurricane Havana and Sexy Starrlitt both wrestle men and women.

They’re Rising Up, Straight to the Top

Hernandez instills a sense of pride in his students, men and women, which translates to other areas of their lives. And for the younger wrestlers, he encourages their parents not to let them come to practices if their grades aren’t up to snuff.

The Friar, a lucha libre-style 14-year-old wrestler, is at the mercy of his report card. To emulate his famous Mexican wrestler uncle Adonis, the Friar must hit the books. His father, Alfred Uribe, says the four years of wrestling his son has experienced boosted his confidence.

The Friar doesn’t tell his school friends about his other life in the ring, but his cousins know the deal. They had no idea he ran with such a hip crowd. “I’m impressed,” says 10-year-old Nicholas Samaniego, who attended the exhibit with his mom and brother. “He put in a lot of work.”

As admirers roam through the gallery, the wrestlers work the crowd. While they indulge fans by putting them in headlocks or threatening to smack their frappuccinos from their grips, they break character occasionally to marvel in the glamour of becoming art exhibit-worthy.

While they are used to the performance art aspect of the gig, hanging in frames and having their faces immortalized in books available through Amazon is an all-new type of high.

“It’s good for the business and good for what we do,” Mighty Mike Mountain says. “This is awesome. I’m in total shock and awe,” he says looking around at the scene, getting a little choked up. “The Mountain is moved.”

Thomas McGovern’s “Hard Boys + Bad Girls” solo exhibition at Andi Campognone Projects, 558B W. 2nd St., Pomona, (909) 629-4500; www.andicampognone.com, www.thomasmcgovern.net. Thru May 29. By appointment only. For more info about Inland Empire wrestling, go to www.empirewrestlingfederation.com or call (909) 886-5201.


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