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Mexican wrestling's all-American villain

The spit of land at the mouth of the Nueces River defied five settlement parties before 1839, when a Yankee speculator, Colonel Henry Lawrence Kinney, demonstrated the benefits of illegal trade across the new border separating Texas from Mexico. The colonel, who’d awarded himself that rank for unspecified actions performed in Florida’s Seminole Wars, would go on to pursue a colorful career that included charges of treason and election to the Texas congress before he died in a gunfight in Matamoros. Despite the intercession of a devastating hurricane in 1919, Kinney’s Nueces outpost grew to become present-day Corpus Christi, a city of 307,953 with such tourist attractions as an aquarium, a decommissioned aircraft carrier, and the Mirador de la Flor, a monument to the Tejano pop singer Selena whose inscription reads, in part, her persona enriched the lives of those she touched. There’s also a minor-league ballpark, where one night two summers ago I saw a white man taunt a largely Mexican crowd to the edge of violence.

I arrived at Whataburger Field in the high heat of an early-September afternoon and was met at the gate by a man named Steven Ship. Ship is a ponytailed music-industry veteran turned TV producer turned fight promoter who has spent years trying to bring big-time Mexican wrestling — lucha libre — to the United States. He’d called a few weeks earlier to say that he’d landed a slot on two MTV channels and that there was a new fighter he wanted me to see.

“My name is RJ Brewer, and I’m from the greatest city in the United States: Phoenix, Arizona,” the fighter said in a video that Ship sent me.

I never had to scale a fence to get what I wanted. I cut lawns because I wanted to, not because I had to. See, my mother is a very, very powerful woman, probably the most powerful woman in the United States of America. And she taught me at an early age that if I see something wrong, make it right. That’s exactly what she’s doing in Phoenix, Arizona, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do here.

Ship’s fighter was the make-believe son of Arizona governor Jan Brewer, famous for both her aggressive anti-immigration policies and her finger-wagging confrontation with President Obama beside Air Force One on a Phoenix tarmac. In 2010, Brewer signed into law Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which allows state authorities to direct police to check the immigration status of persons detained in stops. While opponents call it an invitation to racial profiling, the law survived a U.S. Supreme Court challenge with its central provision intact and has inspired similar legislation throughout the country. Attaching his fighter to Brewer and her law was a canny move on Ship’s part, meant to get the maximum possible rise out of his audience, which is at least 80 percent Mexican-American.

Putting over a pro-wrestling persona is not easy. The task requires a thorough mastery of “kayfabe,” a carny-derived term for the extreme strain of method acting peculiar to the sport. American pro wrestlers treat kayfabe with a devotion that requires denying the obvious. It’s a head game. When you know you’re faking and the audience knows you’re faking and you know the audience knows you know you’re faking because the fact that pro wrestling is fake has been documented, verified, and repeated to the point of cliché, and yet you stay in character on the walk from the locker room to your Mazda just in case someone is pointing his phone’s camera at you from a window above the alley — that’s kayfabe.

Luchadores elevate kayfabe to the realm of the soul. They wear artful costumes designed to telegraph their allegiances, though their audiences fully expect those allegiances to shift, prove false, and suffer betrayals for reasons that may never be explained.

Ship led me to the locker room. We were accompanied by the stage manager, who was predicting a riot. “My job,” he said, “is to get him out of the building alive tonight.” Then I stood before him: the bad man of lucha libre, dressed in cargo shorts, a muscle shirt, and sneakers, sitting on a weight bench owned by a Double-A affiliate of the Houston Astros. He had a seven-dollar haircut and an attentive gaze.

“I see the kids screaming at me, I see the middle fingers, and I say to myself, They don’t belong here. They don’t have the right to be screaming at me. They’re probably not even here legally,” he said. “I don’t try to be the RJ Brewer character; at that point I am. It’s like selling cars or being a waiter or bartender at a restaurant. You’re onstage. You’re just selling a different product. I’m selling my views. I’m selling hate.”

During the interview, “RJ” did something I wasn’t expecting: he indicated my notebook, looked me in the eye, and disavowed some of his character’s more extreme beliefs. This presented a major breach of kayfabe, one so startlingly flagrant as to seem calculated. In fact, admitting the obvious point that he wasn’t actually related to Brewer while insisting “My message is real” may simply have added another level to the performance. While we were at it, he confirmed that his real name was John Stagikas, that he was thirty-one, and that he was from Framingham, Massachusetts. He’d played wide receiver for Assumption College in Worcester until surgery to remove a cyst in his throat derailed him in his junior year. In 2000, having lost what he called “the football bug,” he’d enrolled in wrestling classes under the tutelage of the famous Killer Kowalski.

“Make the people notice you,” Kowalski advised him.

At this Stagikas had failed consistently. He chose the hopelessly earnest stage name “Hurricane” John Walters, finishing off opponents with a combination backbreaker rack and facedown slam he called the Hurricane DDT. Barrel-chested and athletic, he carried on as though endowed with some innate righteousness for which he deserved to win. His all-American-golden-boy posture was easy to lampoon. He was playing the traditional “face,” a role out of fashion since the prime of Hulk Hogan, whom the Hurricane by comparison made seem a subtle master of character development. In the early aughts, a period known to wrestling’s followers as the Attitude Era, Stagikas/Walters was a man out of time. For most of the next decade, he shuttled between circuits of varying repute. In the process, he learned that technical proficiency is a surprisingly small part of the business. What he was doing was less pro wrestling than just very good wrestling. Nobody wanted to see that.

His career might have ended right there — with lightning-striped tights in the back of his closet and a set of Google results to explain to potential employers — except that Steve Ship came around looking for a new white star to round out an impressive cast of técnicos (lucha libre’s equivalent of the American “face”), rudos (antagonists, who in America are called “heels”), minis (self-explanatory), and cross-dressing performers known as exóticos.

In John Stagikas, Ship saw his ideal RJ Brewer. He didn’t need to tinker much with his Walters persona; he just needed to give it a different context. Ship planned to turn all of Stagikas’s failings into strengths, transforming him from unimaginative face into clown prince of the rudos, and to build a North American franchise — English-language crossover matches, action figures, video games — around his gringo buffoonery.

Steve Ship is not the first promoter to put a nationalistic provocateur in the ring. His inspiration derives from the wrestlers billed as Nikolai Volkoff of the Soviet Union and the Iron Sheik of Iran, who enjoyed long careers during wrestling’s Reagan-era heyday. Making the same concept work in lucha libre has been a matter of escalating the rhetoric, finding the right performer, and understanding who the real heel is. Several years ago, at Arco Arena in Sacramento, Ship introduced me to a twenty-six-year-old by the name of Jack Evans, a compact, rheumy-eyed chain-smoker with a permanent hangover and a fade haircut. Cast as a leader of the Foreign Legion, a horde of non-Mexican wrestlers, Evans would pester the crowd with racial meanness until the native luchador Super Fly and his partner, Crazy Boy, who wore a red basketball jersey that said mexican power, came out to crush him. This was all back before Governor Brewer signed SB 1070, so Jack Evans was just supposed to be a typical American jerk.

I’d been hanging around backstage on the 2009 Invasion Tour, an American offshoot of the Mexican Asistencia Asesoría y Administración league, for a newspaper series on outsider sports, the kind that tend to be televised only on channels entirely devoted to televising them. For several years, the AAA had been falling behind its chief rival in Mexico, the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, and hoped to make up ground north of the border. A luchador called Abismo Negro, who was supposed to join us on Ship’s Invasion Tour, had just died of a heart attack. But some pretty big stars — La Parka and El Mesías in particular — plus the usual cast of minis and exóticos did come on board.

Back in the locker room, I watched a Canadian veteran named Vampiro ice his neck while a luchador called Konnan sat on the rubdown table. There was a buffet spread with queso blanco, pickled jalapeños, and mango juice.

“I swear to God, when I hit that railing, I thought I broke my fucking leg,” Vampiro said. “And then when you hit me in the back of the neck . . . ”

“My bad,” Konnan said. “It won’t happen again.”

Vampiro gave that some consideration. The luchadores were in their forties, and they had been hitting and kicking and body-slamming one another for many years. No matter what Konnan said, it would almost certainly happen again.

“For a couple guys who are already broken-down,” Vampiro said, “we can really light it up.”

Konnan agreed that they could really light it up. Their fight had drawn nearly 6,000 spectators, despite Vampiro’s less-than-wholehearted commitment to the entire undertaking. In a sport defined by elaborate masquerade, he left the locker room in sweats. Yet the crowd received him rapturously. As his business with Konnan wrapped up, I asked Vampiro how he’d gotten his start. He told me about growing up in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Born Ian Hodgkinson, he’d abandoned junior-league hockey for rock music and drugged his way through the L.A. goth scene of the late 1980s, compiling a résumé loaded with such superbly unverifiable gigs as Milli Vanilli bodyguard. By the early 1990s, still dressed in thick makeup, cowboy boots, and sprayed-out purple hair, he had turned up in Mexico City. Calling himself El Vampiro Canadiense, he painted his face whiter than its natural pallor. He draped long, dark braids over his eyes. With goth intensity, he entered the ring to Guns N’ Roses’s “Welcome to the Jungle.” Cast against the traditional acrobatics and sexual slapstick of the sport, he was a glam-rock apostle of the north, a dark, brooding, and vagabond antihero.

His timing was magnificent. In a decade when NAFTA remade the continental economy, when the number of Mexicans living in the United States increased by 50 percent, to 20 million, and annual remittances nearly doubled, to $7 billion, Hodgkinson became a star of films (Vampiro: Guerrero de la Noche), a subject of corridos, and an object of lust. There were dolls and lunch boxes, posters and calendars. An advice column appeared under his name. Circo magazine named him one of the fifty most beautiful people in Latin America. Along the way, he traded Guns N’ Roses for AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” His renown expanded no matter the inconsistency of his stage name: The Canadian Vampire Casanova, Vampiro Casanova, El Vampiro, or simply Vampiro. (When asked about these changes, Hodgkinson said, “I didn’t speak fucking Spanish.”) In lucha libre, as in politics, popular success flows from the astute selection of enemies, and Hodgkinson found an able foil in Charles Ashenoff, the bulky Cuban who wrestled as Konnan. Fueled by a fight over Vampiro’s signature hairstyle, the two men began a feud they nurtured across decades.

“Vampiro, what can I say?” Konnan told Pro Wrestling Torch in 1994.

He came into Mexico and he was a real big, big, big star. His popularity has dipped because a lot of times for press conferences he hasn’t shown up, a lot of times he was gonna give away tickets at the Arena Mexico and he never showed up. Then he said he was going to quit wrestling because he had epilepsy and asthma, but yet he was going to start a rock band. I would publicly put in newspapers that it takes the same energy to play a guitar and jump up and down on stage as it does wrestling, so he can’t have epilepsy or asthma. Then when his rock and roll career died, he came back into wrestling.

Though intended as trash talk, Konnan’s account was fairly accurate: Hodgkinson had briefly quit wrestling to front a punk band, just because that was his thing. In light of his marginal grappling skills, manifest distractibility, and apparent disdain for the wrestling business, promoters started casting him as a rudo. But to fans on both sides of the border he remained a singularly enduring técnico. In 2005, he accepted a commission to lead a Mexico City chapter of the Guardian Angels vigilante group. Decades past his prime, Hodgkinson was doing this tour to “get the fuck out of Mexico City,” he said, “and to shop.” He was a hard man to know.

The morning after the Sacramento fight, he took a seat behind the bus driver, stretched out his bum leg, and began eating his breakfast of beef jerky and Milk Duds. The production coordinator was taking attendance — “Super Fly está, Laredo está” — and the driver was taking votes for the day’s lunch stop. Mall food court beat out IHOP by a wide margin. As the bus rolled down I-80, the luchadores watched Kung Fu Panda.

At the Westfield mall in San Jose, the luchadores passed up a make-your-own-salad place and Hot Dog on a Stick, opting instead for Mongolian barbecue; then they did some shopping. They returned to the bus with tubs of protein powder from GNC and pink bags from Victoria’s Secret. We all sat outside the bus and watched Jack Evans smoke some cigarettes and listened to him talk about the relative merits of the strip clubs in Mexico City versus here until the promoters called vámonos. We drove on to the Sheraton, then the arena.

When the lights dimmed that night, Jack Evans, Silver King, and the rest of the Foreign Legion got the crowd worked up. The heroic técnicos took their scripted beating. Then a hush fell. And just when all seemed lost, that familiar crunch of electric guitar erupted from the speakers, that bear hug of a bass line, that nails-to-chalkboard screech:

Back in black
I hit the sack
I been too long, I’m glad to be back

And here was Vampiro in black jeans, black armbands, and a black sleeveless shirt, a dark and ageless blur lurching down the runway, diving headfirst into the ring, and pummeling each opponent harder than the last. In due time, he turned his wrath on Silver King, the villainous traitor of Coahuila.

As the crowd urged him on, Vampiro lumbered around the ring, moved into the stands, then stopped to rest, his hands on his knees, at which point Silver King smashed him with a chair. The referee got in some blows, too. The assault went on and on, but never did the crowd lose faith. A chant went up: “Vam-pee-RO! Vam-pee-RO!”

Finally the great champion summoned the strength to flip Silver King onto the cement. He gave the crowd a slow burn. Bending to one knee, he reached down for the discarded chair as if it were the Sword in the Stone.

Soon enough Silver King would be vanquished, the damnable referee would get his, and the unmoored Canadian who fought for the Mexican cause would take his victory lap through a crowd clamoring with cries of “Te quiero mucho” to touch his dark and ragged garments. But as he raised the chair above his head in agonizing slow motion, taking up the weapon of desperados in the name of righteousness, Vampiro looked stricken, torn, hurt on some cosmic level, as if the whole continent were turning faithless and cruel and there was no way to tell what anybody might do next.

In preparation for my trip to Corpus Christi, I looked into how things had turned out for Vampiro. Under his real name, he was still listed as the leader of the Mexico City Guardian Angels. I also found a dispatch from the U.K. Sun that told how he’d slept through a burglary at his Guadalajara apartment, panicked at the sight of responding police officers, and leaped from his fourth-story bedroom window, breaking his back. When I contacted him to verify that account, he denied it, adding, “I don’t have any interest at all in wrestling. I am out of touch and I just don’t want to know about it anymore.”

In Vampiro’s absence, Ship had assembled a new cast with crossover appeal in mind. Some of his masked técnicos billed their hometowns as Mexican cities — Guadalajara, Chihuahua, Torreón — but others claimed San Juan and even Atlanta. (Promotional materials noted that Marco Corleone, a spiky-haired gringo, had paid his dues in Mexico, “dominating the ring and capturing his audience with the highest vertical leap in the business.”)

About an hour before showtime, I stood under a giant statue of a home-run slugger, watching hundreds of Latino families pass through the gates of Whataburger Field. There were thumb-wrestling puppets and face painters for the kids. Vendors hawked máscaras. Ring girls posed in flag bikinis — both Mexican and American. A man dressed up as a taco distributed T-shirts via slingshot.

I wandered down under the bleachers to watch the luchadores make their preparations and to find the promotion’s lead writer, Alex Abrahantes. He’d wrestled on the American circuit as Too Phat Yutzak Arafat, Keeper of the Harem, after a trainer told him, “You look dark. I’m going to make you an Arab.” Abrahantes’s path from there to inventing characters like RJ Brewer wasn’t tough to imagine. I asked what kind of wrestler it would take to bring the act to life.

“When you walk into the crowd,” Abrahantes said, “you have this energy where you evoke emotion from them and you draw energy from them.” He explained that Stagikas “has done a great job of portraying the character and making it his own. He’ll add things to the character. He has a really good mind for psychology, which is a big part of this industry.”

As Abrahantes spoke, I considered the suggestion that a few script changes might elevate John Stagikas/Hurricane Walters/RJ Brewer from a strained Captain America act into a credibly venomous xenophobe, just like that. Americans had loved booing Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik, but they seemed genuinely to despise Rowdy Roddy Piper, a Canadian who portrayed a Scotsman. Maybe there’s just some ineffable quality, a kind of metakayfabe, that allows performers comfortable beyond a certain level of cognitive dissonance to cast a spell over their audience.

Across the locker room, Stagikas stood alone, shirtless; s.b. 1070 was emblazoned on the backside of his tights. I followed him out to the hall, where he rested his forehead against a fence near some disused pretzel machines. Deep in thought, perhaps, becoming RJ Brewer. He paced a tight circle, cracked his neck, and peeked out at the crowd. On the loudspeakers, an announcer asked whether Corpus Christi was ready. Brewer prepared to “cut a promo,” provoking the crowd before returning to the locker room while the undercard is fought.

“One on each side, guys, let’s go,” the stage manager said. Uniformed police officers moved into position, flanking Brewer, who walked out across the turf with the swagger of a beach bully. “Meh-hee-CO! Meh-hee-CO!” people chanted. Then Brewer took the microphone.

“Finally I get to wrestle in a baseball park,” he announced, “which means plenty of fresh air, which means I don’t have to smell you people.”

When he’d finished his introductory speech, he walked back toward third base and down into the dugout. He stood at the gateway to the tunnel leading back to the locker room, artificial fog obscuring his face. His police escorts started to giggle. Before he could slip completely out of view, he was confronted by a boy of perhaps six, who ran down the aisle and declared, in English: “Hey! I don’t like you.”

“I don’t like you either, you little twerp,” Brewer said. “Get out of my face.”

Down the hall, the stage manager kept up the aggro patter — “My job isn’t complete,” he told Brewer, “until you get shanked in an alley somewhere” — though the crowd outside seemed more inclined to cheer for airborne camisetas than to shank anybody. When the minis and exóticos performed, rollicking laughter sounded in the night air, and when Mini Park led a dance-off, children selected from the audience won by acclamation.

Back in the locker room, Stagikas practiced a few moves with the luchador who was to vanquish him in the final act, Blue Demon Jr., then attempted small talk.

“How about just over the border, the Mexico–U.S. border? Is it hot there?” Stagikas inquired.

Blue Demon Jr. affirmed that climatological assessment. Stagikas walked the hall, presumably getting back into character. He did some push-ups, listened for his cue, then entered the ring as RJ Brewer.

The luchadores set to each other. A smack in the mouth, a rub of the jaw, and the crowd was chanting again, louder and sharper, “Meh-hee-CO! Meh-hee-CO!” Brewer complained to the ref, faked quitting the match, and then threw a sucker punch. By the time Brewer hoisted Blue Demon Jr. to the turnbuckle, unlaced his opponent’s mask, and started to pry it off, grown men were leaning forward in their seats: for a luchador, no humiliation can surpass an unmasking.

Just as rehearsed, Blue Demon Jr. caught Brewer in the ribs. The violence went on and on, a trading of body slams and clotheslinings, great exclamations, groans and squeals, near-pin after near-pin until at last the figure of RJ Brewer lay prone on the mat, under the able grasp of the adopted son of Blue Demon, champion of Nuevo Leon. The people seemed pleased as they went off to buy more T-shirts and masks. Of course, they couldn’t do much about the power people like Jan Brewer have in their adopted homeland, but that night they’d watched her putative son stumble away, holding his head in both hands, defeated, shamed, and perhaps something more.

Stagikas could not have known it then, but the next few years would bring stardom. He had managed to make himself noticed. The crowds would grow. The production would elevate him to the leadership of a rudo gang called the Right. In January, he appeared in character on Nightline, telling an interviewer, “this is really how I feel.” Currently, Brewer and his gang are on a nine-city tour making stops in Houston, San Jose, Los Angeles, and, yes, Phoenix. So far as anyone knows, the American face Hurricane Walters has been permanently retired.

is the author of Saving the School, published last August by the Penguin Press. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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