Ryan Ramos (in yellow) collides with his opponent Angel at a recent match in Midway City. Photos by Matt Cohn.
Ryan Ramos dreamed of being a professional wrestler as a kid growing up on the west side of Long Beach during the late '80s, watching pro wrestling stars Hulk Hogan, Randy "Macho Man" Savage and Jake "The Snake" Roberts on Saturday morning TV.
Now, at age 34, he's realized that dream. But don't look for him at the next World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) extravaganza at Staples Center: Ramos is plying his trade on the grass-roots, in-your-face indie wrestling circuit.
There are no massive lighting trusses, mega sound systems and flashy pyrotechnics at an indie wrestling event. Indie matches take place in the industrial parks, warehouses, parking lots and American Legion Halls of towns like Newhall, Turlock, Lincoln Heights and Midway City. Indie wrestlers like Ramos don't get world-wide media exposure and enormous salaries like the WWE wrestlers do, but there are trade-offs.
"We create everything---our identities, our characters, our move sets. We're free," said Ramos' colleague Sean Black, known to indie wrestling fans as "The Urban Juggernaut."
Ramos, who studied theater at Millikan High School, had his first professional wrestling match in 2009 after a grueling six-month stint at the Santino Brothers Wrestling Academy in Bell Gardens. (There are several wrestling schools in southern California, and many of the WWE. stars got their start this way.) With a solid background in the basics of the game---body slams, drop-kicks, clotheslines, etc.—he found himself traveling to Las Vegas to compete in shows, and appeared on Orange County TV channel KDOC's "Championship Wrestling From Hollywood."
He once helped set a Guinness World Record for most wrestlers in a Battle Royal: 159 wrestlers in three rings, all throwing down their best moves at once in an aggro free-for-all.
The vocabulary of wrestling is straight out of 1920s vaudeville and carny talk: The good guy is a "face." The bad guy is a "heel." An audible crowd reaction is a "pop," usually caused by a convincing kick, punch or throw—a "sell."
Ramos has played both face and heel during his career, and has elicited strong reactions from crowds, especially at the more "underground" indie shows, where the heckling gets very salty and a spectator or two will occasionally confront a wrestler after the show. Ramos doesn't see this as a bad thing.
"That's when you know you've got the fans, when you blur that line between reality and showmanship," he said.
Professional wrestling is theater, with heroes, villains, and storylines to capture a fan's interest. Even though the matches are obviously choreographed, the physicality and athleticism of the wrestlers are undeniably real: There's nothing fake about a 300-pound man leaping off the top rope and pancaking himself on the "mat," which is actually a metal grid with a big spring in the middle, covered in sheets of plywood and a tarp. In the edgier indie shows, wrestlers will push the envelope, breaking fluorescent light bulbs over each other's heads, smacking each other with chairs or flinging each other out of the ring and onto the concrete floor.
Orange County Championship Wrestling (OCCW) events, which often take place at the American Legion Post 555 on Beach Boulevard in Midway City, are among the most family-friendly of the local indie wrestling shows.
OCCW President and CEO John De La O, a jiu-jitsu instructor and mixed martial artist who holds a 5th-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, strongly discourages overly-profane language among the wrestlers.
"We are all role models as adults," he said. De La O said he looks for professionalism in his wrestlers. "I want guys who are well-disciplined and good at reading the crowd. I want them to show up on time, follow the plan and deliver a good in-ring product."
De La O has no problem shifting personality gears, though, when he steps into character as Jonathan Malice, the OCCW heavyweight champ. Speaking of one of his opponents in this Sunday's "Midway City Meltdown" event, Malice laid the smack down: "I have a ton of respect for Mikey O'Shea. He electrifies the crowd, and never takes a backward step from anyone. I will beat him down and pin his ass with all due respect."
Wrestlers like Ramos, De La O and Black may never wrestle in the big show, but they each gain great satisfaction from entertaining enthusiastic indie crowds and emulating their own childhood heroes.
"I got into the game a little late, but I'll keep doing it 'til my body can't take it anymore," said Ramos.
"Whether we're 'heel' or 'face,' our primary goal is entertaining you," said Black. "We'll give you every dollar's worth."
De La O offered this assessment of indie wrestling's place in the cultural firmament: "I have no problem calling it 'low-brow entertainment.' We can't all go to the opera every night of the week."
Advance tickets for Sunday's "Midway City Meltdown" at American Legion Post 555 (14582 Beach Boulevard, in Midway City), which features Ryan Ramos, Sean Black, John De La O and many other talented and electrifying wrestlers, including a Ladies Match---Tab Jackson vs. Kikyo Nakamura---are available at the De La O Jiu-Jitsu TrainingCenter (714.527.1845). Tickets will also be available at the door on Sunday. Doors open at noon, first match is at 1:00PM.
Above, second from the bottom: Sean Black, "The Urban Juggernaut," gets his kicks in Midway City against Mikey O'Shea.