The fighting isn't real, but the following surely is. When observing the over-the-top antics of professional wrestling, it’s easy to overlook the headlock it maintains on the popular culture. Casual viewers of World Wrestling Entertainment might not realize it’s a publicly traded corporation luring executives away from Sports Illustrated and Miramax Films, just to name two examples from last year. Just hours from now, when the company broadcasts “Raw,” its most popular show, live from the Laredo for the first time, it comes into a city with a thriving wrestling fandom.
Approximations provided by the Laredo Energy Arena, which hosts "Raw" tomorrow, show healthy attendance at WWE shows for the last two years. The two shows in 2010, July 28 and Dec. 15, saw 6,000 and 6,500 attendants. A show on July 26, 2011 pulled in 5,400, and January's “Smackdown” TV taping drew close to 7,000 fans.
In an e-mail to Laredo Scene, LEA Marketing Manager Rafael Benavides pointed out that televised shows offer less seating overall because the WWE crew takes up some of the arena’s floor space.
A non-televised Raw brand show in March of 2009 drew over 9,000 people.
While waiting for WWE’s recognized stars and large-scale productions, wrestling fans have been slaking their thirst with a local wrestling scene that has grown into a micro industry all its own. In October of 2010, the Laredo Wrestling Alliance held its first show, and it now holds at least one a month.
“For me, it was always about trying to be the promoter,” said LWA founder Rey Chavarria. “I don’t want to be known as the guy in the ring. I want for someone who came through my company and made it big to say that I helped him get his start.”
The shows bear Chavarria’s mark in every respect. He discusses the match outcomes with his talent and allows them to decide how to get there, and he himself gets in the ring as “Ace.” Under this persona, Chavarria’s been bruised, beaten and thrown head first through wooden boards. All of this in a ring he and his roster put up and tear down for every show.
“It’s called paying your dues,” he said, explaining that it’s a tradition for up-and-comers in small companies. LWA wrestlers also put away the chairs, which Chavarria has to rent. All told, the promotion spends about $1,200 on each show.
“That’s going into the venue, equipment rental,” said Chavarria.
The wrestlers of the LWA, most of whom hold down “regular” jobs, perform for free. The crowds they draw range from 250 to as many as 400 by Chavarria’s estimates. A ticket is usually $5.
“We recover probably seventy-five percent (of costs) for each show,” Chavarria explained.
In March, Chavarria took a big step forward and started contacting past-their-prime talent with big names to come to Laredo for his shows. He needed $600 to bring 63-year-old Chavo Guerrero to Laredo, and that’s not counting the travel and lodging expenses he would need to book this veteran. He said his wrestlers came forward and offered what they could to make it happen.
This kind of investment in the organization is found in another local promotion that started as a splinter group of the LWA. In 2011, one of Chavarria’s early partners, Benjamin “Bones” Nuñez, cut ties with company. Nuñez helped train some of the LWA’s first crop, and many of them followed him in what would eventually become 5 Star Wrestling. Though he pays his wrestlers, Nuñez said many of them offer to return it to help the company grow.
“I just think it’s awesome that there’s so much wrestling in Laredo,” Nuñez said about the two homegrown promotions. “I’m glad I get to train some of these guys and introduce them to this.”
Having performed locally and in San Antonio, 5 Star Wrestling uses social media to get people into its ongoing storylines. Nuñez posts videos of his wrestlers in character calling out an adversary or otherwise advancing a feud (segments called “promos” in industry parlance).
“Without a big budget, you have to get creative and take advantage of everything you can,” he said, adding that he wants to one day have a weekly local wrestling show in a consistent venue. “Part of the challenge for that is a lot of venues for shows like this in Laredo are outdoors, and you know how crazy Laredo weather can be.”
Chavarria and Nuñez both said they'd heard fans say they don't go to wrestling matches in Nuevo Laredo anymore because of the drug-related violence.
The local shows draw entire families, native Laredoans and a few transplants. What they witness is a meeting of divergent cultures. Mexican luchadores, faces covered in colorful masks, put on aerial displays in between more ground-based matches. Throughout a given show, the stock elements of American wrestling appear including the heel faction whose members always interfere in each other’s matches. There are “commissioners” who make matches and mediate disputes, though rarely objectively. There are so-called character wrestlers providing comedy and others like LWA’s cholos, and the “Arab assassin” Burhan who clearly play on class and cultural stereotypes.
Amid all this, the audience is an active participant in a kind of cultural ritual, observes TAMIU film professor Marcela Moran. In 2008 Moran directed and produced a documentary short called Audencia, which focuses on the audiences at local lucha libre events.
“What I saw was a lot of people, a lot of women, who seemed to feel this was a place they could just let their hair down,” said Moran. “Women would be yelling vulgarities at the bad guys. It was a place you could go to not follow the rules of society.”
Moran also noticed that the shows were a community production.
“They way the shows were pulled off, there were a lot of in-kind donations,” she said. “There are a lot of ways in which the community, people sitting in the audience, were not only enjoying the show, but helped make it happen.”
For LWA and 5 Star, these community partnerships reach a whole new level. Notable voices from local sports media like Bryan Benway and Ryan Bailey have acted as ring announcers and play-by-play commentators for LWA shows. In what was likely a first for a Laredo politician, former candidate for the 341st District Court Fernando Sanchez tapped 5 Star to put on a show for his campaign.
Amid all this is a local business owner who turned his wrestling addiction into his livelihood.
“I started doing this at the Santa Fe Flea Market on the weekends,” said Oscar Zamarron, owner of Laredo’s Wrestling Shop, which now occupies a tight space in an office suite on Arkansas Street. The walls are covered by WWE characters from the 80s, 90s and today. His collectables include a still-packaged children’s watch with the likeness of Lex Luger, a 90s star of now-defunct World Championship Wrestling and a cardboard Hulk Hogan promotional for Wrestlemania VII.
When a customer walked in and bought two action figures, Zamarron offered to sell her tickets to the next LWA show. In turn, the LWA lets him to get in the ring during the shows to plug his shop by tossing free merchandise to the fans.He’s hosted special autograph signings or local wrestlers Madness and The Freak. The LWA gets more promotion, and Zamarron gets foot traffic in his store.
He said sales pick up when a major WWE event comes to Laredo. Fans have been buying licensed WWE character shirts from him in anticipation of tomorrow’s “Raw.”
“I’ve sold a lot of John Cena shirts,” he said. “What I’m doing is carrying a lot of the kid sized shirts because they don’t sell those at the live shows.”
But it doesn't stop at a local shop selling WWE merchandise. Local wrestlers are branding themselves, taking advantage of their independent contractor status and using each show as a chance to sell shirts with their ring names. Havoc, a massive brute who competes with a bandana covering his mouth, sells his shirts from the parking lot at the end of each show. In his autobiography, Hulk Hogan describes doing this early in his career.
Meanwhile Polo Arispe, who dons a mask for 5 Star, started earning extra money making merchandise for other wrestlers. He recently ordered a sample plush doll made for Texas Joe, an LWA wrestler.
Texas Joe is one of several in the local scene who practice the “hardcore” style of wrestling. He’s broken fluorescent light tubes over opponents’ heads, and in May he speared rival South Side off the ring apron and into a wooden board set on fire. The fire spread through South Sides’ back until Chavarria put it out. Stressing that the wrestlers themselves decide what moves and sequences they want to execute, Chavarria said he takes safety precautions when his wrestlers want to go hardcore. Still, the occurrence of these stunts highlights a long-standing concern by critics of the ersatz sport: the fact that wrestling operates largely unregulated, whether it be independent promotions or WWE.
While he was still a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, Rick Santorum took a lot of blame for helping create a no-holds-barred business atmosphere for professional wrestling because in 1987 he worked as a lobbyist for WWE (then World Wrestling Federation). A Philadelphia Inquirer article from November of that year details Santorum’s part in the push to pull pro wrestling out from under the state athletic commission. The basic argument hasn't changed. It’s not real, so it doesn't need regulation. It’s proven effective though the rules vary from state to state.
In Texas, it’s not regulated at all.
Randy Nesbitt, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation said no state body currently oversees professional wrestling, and none will until the legislature passes a bill to that effect. With no such bill in sight, the only possibilities for oversight, Nesbitt suggested, might come not for the wrestling events but for the promotions as businesses under the Texas Department of Insurance.
Chavarria registered LWA as an LLC under the Texas Secretary of State, and many independent promotions follow similar requirements as small businesses. If the promotions have to self-regulate for individual shows, keeping the action traditional and minimizing the use of weapons is one natural safeguard, at least according to wrestling purists like Prince Fontenot.
“Your first job as a wrestler is to put a butt every 18 inches,” he said, referring to the distance between chairs. “But that doesn't mean you need to be setting someone on fire. I mean, look, we can put a table with AIDS needles and have a, call it a death match, and you’ll get people’s attention. But we need to know where the line is.”
A competitive body builder and former LWA champion himself, Fontenot spent years as a wrestler and promoter in Texas and Georgia. He’s seen multiple companies thrive in bigger cities and thinks it can happen locally as well.
“You could have a situation where one group has more American style, with the story lines and all that, and another has the Mexican style,” he said. “You can do wrestling all kinds of ways.”
Certainly, there’s no shortage in Laredo of wrestling fans, young and old. On the day Zamarron spoke with Laredo Scene in his shop, a family of four walked in. A young boy looked into the glass case at an action figure of WWE’s Alberto Del Rio.
“You know he’s injured, right?” Zamarron asked the boy. It was a Monday. “Raw” would be on in a few hours.
“I know,” the gentleman with the boy said. He patted his pocket. “I signed up for the text alerts.”