At the Ralph Lauren store in NorthPark Center, there are certain questions to which you can expect answers. What looks good with pink chinos? When is the fall line coming in? Are pocket squares really back in fashion? Do you have this sweater in another size? That sort of thing.
You wouldn't, however, expect an answer to this one: Is there somewhere near Dallas where one could, if one was so inclined, watch two grown men beat each other bloody in a ring that may or may not be surrounded by thorny rose bushes? Nor should you. That's maybe more of an outlet mall question.
But if you happen to ask it while Steven Incontrera is on the clock at Ralph Lauren, you're in luck. He'll point you in the direction of Xtreme Championship Wrestling, tell you all about the Friday-night fights they've been putting on for the past six years, since a wheelchair-bound man known simply as Nite bought a clean-cut promotion called Texas Championship Wrestling and introduced it to the dark side. Incontrera will fill you in on the crazy cast of characters in the ring, guys with names like Drunk Adam and Sidd Murder, and the crazier cast of characters outside of it, the fans who heckle his friends as much as the wrestlers. He may also try to sell you a pair of pink chinos.
That's pretty much how I learned of the existence of XCW. That's why I'm in Incontrera's car right now, along with his roommate Blake and their friend Clay, tagging along on a trip to Denton and the XCW Arena to see for myself what he told me about: the bloody faces, the flying chairs, the drunken fans. Maybe even some rose bushes.
I never expected to run into a wrestling fan at Ralph Lauren. Certainly not one who has a framed collection of wrestling pins titled "20 Years of Wrestlemania" hanging on the wall of his bathroom, near his neatly arranged assortment of Prada skin-care products. But then, you never know where you'll run into a wrestling fan. Or a wrestler.
"My friend was in Austin at one of those paint-your-own-pottery places, you know?" Incontrera says during the drive, while he's running down the who's-who of XCW. "And he was like, 'You'll never guess who came in.' 'Who?' 'Jacob Ladder.'"
Jacob Ladder, he explains, is one of XCW's star attractions. His gimmick is one as old as wrestling itself: He's a Satan worshiper. He plays the part to the hilt, with serpents tattooed on his face in place of sideburns, and pentagrams on his boots and tights. He uses Van Halen's "Running With the Devil" or Mötley Crüe's "Shout at the Devil" as his theme music and leads the audience in "Six! Six! Six!" chants, just in case someone missed all the other subtle clues. In XCW, where even the good guys are a little bad, Ladder is a hero.
"So he went and talked to him," Incontrera continues. "He's like, 'Hey, are you Jacob Ladder?'" He tries to mimic Ladder's forged-at-Satan's-side growl in response: "'Yeah. You want a menu? What kind of pottery do you want to paint?'"
Welcome to a different kind of professional wrestling, where a Satan worshiper who paints his own pottery tries to entertain a guy who sells pink chinos for a living. Where a tag team duo known as The Niggaz does not necessarily include two black guys. Where the audience is (mostly) in on the joke but still keeps laughing at the punch line. Where wrestlers are willing to have their faces gouged by barbed wire in exchange for a $20 payday. Welcome to XCW.
Seven years ago, Texas Championship Wrestling was just another local promotion in a market full of them. People were attempting to capitalize on the resurgence of interest in professional wrestling brought about by Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment, as well as trying to fill the giant hole left behind when the legendary World Class Championship Wrestling went away, along with its sellout shows at the Sportatorium. None of them was doing such a good job.
TCW was based in Plano then and run by a political science professor at Collin County Community College named Tom Caiazzo, who doubled as TCW's evil Emperor Tommy Nero. (Not surprisingly, Incontrera and Blake were students of Caiazzo at Quad C.) Nite was just an employee, a jack-of-all-trades, but he had ideas, ways to set the promotion apart from the other cookie-cutter WWE clones. He took them to Caiazzo, who had an idea of his own: Why didn't Nite just buy him out and do it himself? TCW was losing money, and Caiazzo wanted out.
A year later, Nite moved the promotion to Denton, and Xtreme Championship Wrestling was born. Six years later, it's the only promotion left in North Texas, and one of only two (Professional Championship Wrestling in Austin is the other) in the state that runs a weekly show.
"You could go see the same shows just about everywhere, and then you came to XCW to see a fight," Nite says. "That's what we put on. We changed more to get fans, but also, as we started growing, our fans changed. It was less families and little kids and more college students and guys that just wanted to have a good time."
Guys like Incontrera and his friends.
"If we get into wrestling, Steven, we should be a gay tag team," Blake says from the backseat as we near the XCW Arena, a former rock club just off the highway and the promotion's base of operations for the past year. We just stopped at a convenience store outside Denton and filled up a cooler with beer. "We'd be the most unpopular wrestlers in Texas. Dude, Texas has a natural repulsion to homosexuality."
Incontrera laughs, considering the idea. It reminds him of something. "We wave dollars at Brett Barnes sometimes," he tells me, referring to the current XCW champion, a muscle-bound pretty boy who doesn't look unlike a male stripper. "They start freaking out." He drops his voice an octave and adds a twang. "'What the fuck, you faggot!'"
I start to regret my choice of traveling companions. I came to see blood in the ring, not trickling down my face because someone's aim was off when he was firing a full beer can at one of these guys. It's not like they blend in here, where more than a few of the necks are red and almost all of the collars are blue. Incontrera is wearing a sports coat, for Christ's sake, a fact that is tempered only slightly by the Lex "The Total Package" T-shirt he's wearing underneath it.
But they enjoy the attention from the other fans. They are, in fact, fans of the other fans. For instance: the chubby Goth kid who never misses a match, perched ringside in a camp chair the size of a throne, drinking Mountain Dew out of a three-liter bottle and rubbing his girlfriend's feet. (His name is Ryan Ridgway, I find out later.)
He's here tonight, of course, along with 100 or so others. The crowds have grown in the past year, since XCW moved into its permanent home. Before, when it was based in a strip mall on the other side of town, it'd draw maybe 50 or 60 people, and that was on a good night.
"I think a lot of it is word-of-mouth, because the shows are so good," says Lady Draven, XCW's only regular female wrestler. "You know, like these last few WWE pay-per-views--I'll go out and watch them with some friends, and it'll be like, 'Why would I waste $35 to pay for this when you could go to XCW and see a better show for less, and something that's more real?' And there's a lot of people who didn't go for all this time, even though their friends were begging them to. They finally go for one show, and they're hooked. I think XCW puts on a superior product than what other people are putting out there."
That may be taking it a little far. XCW tries hard, but it still has a ways to go before it can equal WWE in the production value department. Right now, that amounts to an iMac and a video projector. The black walls and dim fluorescent lighting in the "arena"--not to mention the cheap beer and cheaper pizza in just about everyone's hands--make it feel like a party in someone's basement, which it more or less is. It's two weeks until BattleBox 6, XCW's answer to Wrestlemania.
There is a buzz in the crowd when a promo for the event flashes across the huge video screen behind the ring: "Violence...It's Coming...Blood...It's Coming...Mayhem...It's Coming...4/29...BattleBox."
If you want to know how Nite has set XCW apart, well, there's the recipe.
Before the matches begin, I scan the crowd. I see at least half a dozen children here, none of whom, I'd guess, have hit double digits yet. Based on what I've heard about XCW, that seems like an insanely bad job of parenting. When I ask Nite about this later, he shrugs it off.
"Most of those kids hear worse at school," he says, and if episodes of South Park are any indication, he's right. "They're there to see a great show. They're there for the entertainment. It's a cheap place to bring your entire family. I'm not really surprised, being that there's just not a whole lot to do in Denton. For 40 bucks, you're able to bring, you know, your kid, your wife or whatever and sit down and have a good time. They can pretty much yell and scream all they want to and get away with it. You don't have to get onto 'em for it. Unless they say something they're not supposed to, but...you know?"
The kids are indoctrinated to the ways of XCW from the beginning. There's no kiddie pool here. The T, XCW's ring announcer, comes out as XCW's rap-metal theme song fills the room, accompanied by a highlight reel culled from the promotion's six years in business on the video screen, with enough blood to pass for a slasher film. The T warms up the crowd, promoting a new sponsor and BattleBox at the same time. "When you see someone getting their face smashed in a fucking fence, it's gonna be a Hurricane Fence!"
He finishes up with the rules for tonight. "Don't throw anything in the ring or spit at the wrestlers..." He pauses so the crowd can do its part of the routine.
"Because they'll put your head in a Hurricane Fence! Now let's get it on, because it's time to get Textreme!" The audience finishes the sentence with him. They know the drill.
That said, there's nothing much extreme--or Textreme, even--about the first match, a bout between Kit Karson and Lady Draven, except for Karson's prematch brandishing of a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire and the fact that it is a man fighting a woman. But it does serve as a microcosm for XCW. In one corner, there's Karson, a holdover from the days of wrestling at the Sportatorium in downtown Dallas. He gives XCW a sense of history, a direct link to the days when the Von Erich family controlled Dallas with an iron claw. In the other, there's Lady Draven, a woman in a man's, man's, man's world, representing wrestling's new era. And surrounding them on all sides is a sharp-tongued crowd eager to participate in the action and close enough to do so.
"Kick him in the fucking Rogaine!" someone yells as the two wrestlers lock up in the center of the ring.
Karson quickly grabs the upper hand, spiking Draven's head into the mat with a pile driver. "That's why you don't get chicks!" says a dude with long dreadlocks. Karson pulls down the straps of his singlet, baring his chest. A woman yells, "That's why you don't get chicks!" Everyone laughs. The match is over soon after. On his way backstage, Karson confronts a fan sitting ringside. He puts his hands down his tights and rubs them in the fan's face. Now that is extreme.
The rest of the card is similarly more extreme in attitude than action. It's not a surprise, since XCW's bloodiest show of the year is coming up soon. Incontrera and his friends go nuts for Bullman Downs, another former Sportatorium regular, chanting "Woods! Woods! Woods!" It's a nod to the Bullman's "hometown" in The Woods, at least as it's listed on the XCW Web site. When Drunk Adam comes out, Incontrera rushes back to the cooler for a special can of Steel Reserve he bought, hoping it would be the beer the skinny wrestler would drink ringside, part of his I'll-do-anything-cuz-I'm-so-effed-up gimmick. He doesn't, but they still cheer on his hard-core antics, including an attempt to whack his opponent with a steel chair; it won't fold up properly, so he ditches it in favor of a coil of barbed wire, which works even better.
Drunk Adam is a favorite of everyone here, because he's the smallest, craziest guy on the roster. He's had Everclear poured on his chest and lit on fire and didn't even miss any time. ("Back the next week," he says with pride.) He was torn to shreds in the aforementioned rose bush match and still went out drinking with some of the fans after the show. When BattleBox comes around in a few weeks, his face will be hidden by, as old-school wrestling announcers call it, "the crimson mask." He remains spotless tonight. He has to save himself.
But even though Drunk Adam represents the new generation of extreme performers, he values the addition of the old guard from the Sportatorium days.
"You learn in wrestling school how to wrestle, but these older guys will teach you how to be a wrestler," he says. Adam keeps the business side of wrestling as hidden as possible, never giving away any secrets or personal information about himself, at least not to the media. "They teach you a lot of the psychology and just how to behave yourself out of the ring."
By the time intermission comes, everyone is happy with the show. Except Blake.
"We haven't been called faggot once," he says. He seems stunned and maybe a little disappointed.
They get their chance during the next match, when former champ Action Jackson runs in from the back, interrupting the Brett Barnes vs. Gemini bout and causing a disqualification. Jackson grabs the mike and starts yelling at Barnes.
"It took three of y'all to beat me," he says. "You can't beat me one-on-one, you little short motherfucker!" Then he looks across the ring and gestures to Incontrera and his friends standing against the wall. "You got your little gay friends to prop you up." They are positively beaming.
The next match is the main event, a tag match featuring Spudz McKenzie and Jack Drastic against The Niggaz. Despite the name, one member of The Niggaz, Ricky Jackson, is white. He's the mouthy one of the duo, saying things like "This is for Kunta Kinte, bitch!"--his lack of pigment notwithstanding. He spends more time fighting with the crowd than with his opponents. Predictably, his ire eventually is directed in our direction.
"I see three dudes with no bitches," Ricky says, pointing at Incontrera, Blake and Clay. "Who's the fag now?"
The Niggaz win, and a postmatch brawl erupts, involving The Niggaz and a rival tag team, Gemini and Sidd Murder, who comes to the ring with a tire iron in tow, his weapon of choice. The fight spills over into the first few rows of seats, and eventually The Niggaz are chased from the arena. Gemini, Sidd Murder, Spudz and Jack Drastic celebrate in the ring while Lil' Jon & the East Side Boyz's "I Don't Give a Fuck" plays. Hunter, a little white kid with glasses who's maybe 6 or 7, jumps in the ring with them, shaking what little he has to prove that he also does not give a fuck. Drunk Adam comes out from the back and pounds beers with the audience.
Order has been restored, and the heroes have prevailed. It's the way all good wrestling shows end. The cursing, drinking and dangerously close violence? That's the way a good XCW show ends. The crowd roars its approval.
"X-C-Dub! X-C-Dub! X-C-Dub! X-C-Dub!"
On the way home, I'm satisfied with my first trip to the XCW Arena, even though there was less bloodshed than I had anticipated. But the next day, once the Budweiser tall boys wear off, I realize I missed something: Jacob Ladder. I have to see this pottery-painting disciple of the devil. No way around it. I call Incontrera to make plans to go again.
Blake can't go this time, but Incontrera shows up in a bright pink shirt, as if he's asking for it, despite his lack of reinforcements. As we walk in, they spot Bullman Downs, the supposed denizen of "The Woods," behind the arena, talking on a cell phone.
"Aw, I can't see that!" Incontrera says. "Kayfabe that shit!" Kayfabe is an old carny term, meaning to never let the crowd in on the secret, always stay in character.
Tonight's action is much like last Friday's, with an emphasis on getting the crowd primed for next weekend's BattleBox. Rodney Mack, who was wrestling for WWE a few months ago and is now working the independent circuit, comes out during one match, but he's here more for a meet-and-greet rather than to beat and beat. He signs autographs at the snack bar during intermission.
Once the intermission is over, the moment I've been waiting for arrives. The first guitar chords of the Crüe's "Shout at the Devil" hit the speakers, and the audience is immediately on its feet. Ryan Ridgway and his girlfriend, both in 666 T-shirts, pump devil horns above their heads in time with the music.
"He burned in hell so he could wrestle for you XCW fans," The T says. "Jacob Ladder!"
He comes out from the locker room to a "Ladder! Ladder!" chant. He's a pretty scary-looking dude, even if he didn't have the serpents tattooed on his face, 240 pounds of muscle and a glare that makes me nervous from 100 feet away. His opponent tonight, Bull, is a big guy with a buzz cut and a beer belly, but he's not quite as menacing. Bull is a member of the Tru-Life Playaz, along with Brett Barnes, Eddie Atlas, Hotstuff Hernandez and a few others. He is, apparently, a lesser member of the group.
"I would say 'end his career,' but he doesn't have one!" Ridgway yells, giving Bull the double bird.
"Go back to the Sportatorium, beeyatch," Incontrera follows. Bull shoots him a look.
Ladder gains the early advantage, twisting Bull's arm behind his back and holding it up for the crowd to see. "I'm gonna break this damn thing!" I know wrestling is choreographed--really, I do--but seriously, it looks like he might.
Bull fights back and eventually takes the lead. As he circles the ring, Incontrera again yells, "Go back to the Sportatorium!" Bull takes his attention off Ladder and turns to where we're standing. "You are so fucking gay!" Mission accomplished.
The match doesn't last much longer. Todd Diamond--who manages another wrestler, John Allen, "The Professional"--runs out from the back, distracting Bull long enough for Ladder to roll him up for the pin and the win.
"A big 'Hail Satan!' for your winner, Jacob Ladder!" The T says. But it's not over. Storylines have to be advanced. Diamond takes the mike. "I want to apologize," he tells Ladder. Smart man.
"Ladder, kick his ass!" someone yells. An "Asshole!" chant breaks out. Ladder soaks in it before beginning his half of the interview.
"We need to take care of the Tru-Life Playaz," he says. "But I don't need your help. I've got these people--and Satan--on my side." He storms to the back.
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When I read this quote in my notebook later the next day, it makes me laugh. Probably 90 percent of the people here would punch Ladder in the face if he said that outside the arena, if he were just a guy they ran into at a paint-your-own-pottery place. At the very least, they would insist he attend church services with them on Sunday.
But on that night, in a darkened room where men (and one woman) give up their bodies in exchange for a little bit of pocket money and a few minutes of glory, these God-fearing, beer-drinking all-Americans were willing to follow him to the gates of hell. As long as they are entertained.
As Incontrera said early that first Friday, "That's XCW style for you."
In the Blood