On the first Friday of every month, about half a mile from Jack London Square, hundreds of people line up around the block, submit to pat downs, cram into a dark, sweaty, metal venue to watch half-naked men pretend to hurt each other. It’s called Hoodslam—an independent wrestling show—and every month grown men and women turn up for it to lose their fucking minds.
The inside of the Oakland Metro Operahouse has vaulted wooden ceilings, three bars, and bathrooms without mirrors. I come into the show half-drunk and shell out a couple of crumpled singles for a plastic cup of PBR while I try to figure out what exactly I’m in for.
Truth be told, I was one of the 15 American boys who didn’t watch some incarnation of WWE (then WWF) as a kid, and I actively tried to stay away from the older guys who wore black Undertaker shirts on the playground. I don’t get it. It isn’t real, I would think to myself before going back to playing baseball and minding my parents. Yeah, I was that kid. With the single overhead light spilling down onto the black mat, I am very keenly aware of how out of place I feel. The crowd is thick around the ring, and there’s a steady push in my back as more people file in.
I drink half the beer very quickly and nod my head to “Mama Said Knock You Out.” More bodies come through the front door and the pulse in the room quickens. Fans that are close enough slap their palms on the mat in unison. Someone holds up a sign reading Welcome to BROakland. One person fires up a joint, and then five others do too. A band on the corner of the stage screams out an intro that I only get pieces of. Drink some beers, smoke some weed, get fucked up it’s HOOD-SLAM. Don’t bring your fucking kids! HOOD-SLAM.
A man appears in the ring in a cut off and white-framed sunglasses. He’s got thick, meaty arms, a close haircut, and a bottle of bourbon in his hand as he climbs the ropes and hams for the roaring crowd. This is Broseph Joe Brody, the voice of Hoodslam. He pours whiskey in the open mouths of fans on the other side of the ring, and then takes a pull for himself. Hands high above his head, he spits out the booze and lets the shouts from the fans soak a little before sitting down behind a table on stage and turning on his microphone.
“Oh, hey bro!” he yells with a grin and then launches into the run-down of the show.
It’s hot and loud, but Brody’s delivery is smooth, and despite myself, I’m excited. The first match pits Street Fighter’s Ryu against Mortal Kombat’s Sub-Zero. They pull punches, take dives, bulge their eyes in the face of pretend pain, occasionally sprinkling in elements of magic from the video games. Ryu charges a hadouken; Sub-Zero counters by “freezing” Ryu with blue silly string. Scorpion pops up from the crowd and mixes it up in the ring. It’s good fun, and it only gets better the more I think about it.
“This is the realest shit in the history of real,” says Brody as Sub-Zero is freezing the Street Fighter hero. It’s a throw-away line, one that should get buried in all the rest of the commentary, but it resonates. It’s tongue in cheek, but there’s truth in it too. A new kind of reality emerges in the fantasy. We all agree that silly sting can immobilize, that punches are landing, that arms are about to be snapped, and once we all begin to collectively pretend, the airy world of shadow pain begins to stiffen. It all starts to matter.
Scorpion ends up pinning Sub-Zero and Ryu, winning a match he wasn’t billed for. Brody is appropriately stunned, but regains enough poise to lead us further down the undercard. After Ryu and Sub-Zero comes the “Super Barrio Brother” Jesus Kruze and “Ultragirl” Brittany Wonder. Then a giant banana and the “Dark Noche” Bat Manuel. Then the Stoner Brothers Rick Scott and Scott Rick, then Doc Atrocity and his minions—the list goes on and on, and I fall deeper through the looking glass.
After a while it all runs together for me—the whole experience melting into sound and light and screams. We all start moving together, the crowd, and the wrestlers, and the show. It becomes clear to me that we’re all in on it, that we always have been. We believe because it’s more fun that way, because there’s a charm in pretending.
On the Hoodslam website they tell you not to bring your fucking kids. And they’re right, you shouldn’t. But not because of the violence, or the Fuck the Fans! Chant, or Broseph Joe Brody leaning over the ropes, pouring bourbon in thirsty, expectant mouths between bouts—you don’t bring your fucking kids because sooner or later you are one yourself. You don’t bring your fucking kids because before the end of the night you’re not going to be adult enough to take care of them.
Despite the booze, and the Fuck the Fans!, and the metal, it’s play, and everyone loves it because it is precisely that. We lose ourselves in the noise, the way smoke hangs in light, and the fantasy—the incredible notion that if we all believe that this is real then it might actually be. Our eyes follow light and sound, it’s sleight of hand, beautiful and garish, but we never blink.
We’re three hours removed from Ryu and Sub-Zero by now, and most of the crowd has wandered out. Somehow the show goes on. The last match of the night pairs Virgil Flynn, the “Best Athlete in the East Bay,” with B-Boy in a showdown between Northern and Southern California for Flynn’s title and a small, gold fanny-pack.
Virgil, the hometown favorite, is taut, his body made of twisted wire. He’s quick, and flexible, and strong, and for half an hour he and B-Boy throw each other around the ring, cling to ropes, cast desperate eyes up to ceiling. I’m close enough now to see their mouths move while they grapple, whispering to each other what comes next.
I don’t know any of the names of the moves that I’m seeing, but eventually B-Boy is on his back in the center of the ring and Virgil is climbing up the ropes, one by one, higher and higher into the air. We all know what will happen next. Virgil spreads his arms out wide, and yells with anticipation and belief. This is real. I look at him at the top of the ropes, chest heaving, face locked in faux-anguish, fingers flaring off of his open palms, and I know that I’m going with him as he launches himself into the air. I’ll follow him through the fantasy to our new reality. I’ll follow him this month, and the month after that, and the month after that.
 The Hoodslam Band, as they’re formally known, change their name from month to month, each time a different incarnation of the same dirty joke: Urethra Franklin, Dusty Loads, the Seattle SeaCocks, Bare Naked Labia…You get the idea.
Joel Bahr is a contributing editor for The East Bay Review and a writer living in Oakland.