It’s Saturday night in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Hobo Hank is winning. His opponent, Ozzie Gallegos, a flannel-wearing, longhaired grunge-type from Seattle, can’t seem to get the upper hand. The crowd is loving it, riled up by Gallegos’ earlier proclamation that “I’m the guy who’s going to beat your hero!”
Hobo Hank is the city’s favorite “babyface” – a wrestling term for “good guy.” He’s a down-on-his-luck everyman who doesn’t always fight clean, but always fights for what’s right. He’ll do what it takes to get ahead, but somehow never quite can.
Gallegos, on the other hand, is a “heel,” mainly by virtue of hailing from out-of-state. Gallegos has slipped out of the ring to dodge Hank’s barrage of blows. But Hank is right behind him, sweaty, grunting and unstoppable. Gallegos comes up against the metal barrier separating the competition area from the seats and Hank is on him, grabbing his head and forcing his face into his greasy armpit. Gallegos struggles for a moment, then goes limp while the crowd chants “HO-BO HANK, HO-BO HANK.”
Hobo Hank stars for the Destiny Wrestling Organization, an Albuquerque-based independent professional wrestling league, one of dozens across the United States and one of hundreds that have risen (and mostly fallen) over the last century. The matches take place in the gymnasium of the Westside Community Center, typically drawing one to two hundred spectators who occupy folding chairs around the ring and the bleachers against the wall.
DWO is a far cry from the WWE. When it was founded in the early 2000s, the league was little more than an excuse for four high school friends to screw around in their backyards, mimicking the moves they’d seen on television. Adam Merrick, the 31-year-old commissioner of DWO, recalls: “We just did it for fun … We didn’t take it seriously at all.” But after a few years they began to organize their first ticketed events – amateur affairs at the National Guard Armory or a gym at one of the local Native American reservations. Slowly, they adopted a more professional approach to training, and were able to consistently present believable performances in the ring. Merrick, whose slight frame precluded success in a physical arena, became the “commissioner” and worked to develop the backstories of the characters. “Of course in boxing, it’s just two guys fighting. MMA, just two guys fighting. There’s not so much set-up,” Merrick says. “With wrestling there’s a backstory to it. There’s a reason these two guys are fighting.” Merrick and members of DWO used YouTube as a platform to develop these storylines. In a long series of videos, DWO wrestlers grimace and flex their muscles, growling insults to each other and referencing betrayals, victories and defeats going back nearly a decade. For a small outfit based out of a small city, there is a significant dichotomy between the larger-than-life personas that the wrestlers project in the ring and the fact that, well, they’re nowhere close to being on a Hulk Hogan level. This dichotomy gives the typical DWO show a surreal quality. Almost all of these guys have day jobs and none of them are famous outside the circuit of independent leagues. But an event attendee would never guess that by the way the wrestlers carry themselves in the ring. For the ten minutes or so that they will wrestle in the Westside Community Center, they are heroes and villains of mythical proportions.
Hobo Hank exemplifies this duality in a peculiar way. Unlike many of the babyface wrestlers, he is no oiled-up goliath in a flashy costume. Instead, he’s a bit dumpy, a scrabble-hardened face in a dirty orange jacket and torn-up jeans. He enters the arena to the tune of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Mr. Bojangles,” carrying an over-the-shoulder backpack and a sign that reads “Will Rassle 4 Food God Bless.” Despite – or perhaps because of – his unassuming character, the crowd loves him.
In real life, Hobo Hank is Joe Singer, the general manager of a Chili’s restaurant in Los Lunas, a bedroom community some forty miles south of Albuquerque. He is 35 years old, though he wears those years heavily, and lives in a trailer with his wife Lisa and ten-year-old daughter Chelsea. He’s been wrestling since he was fifteen.
“Right after [Lisa] and I started dating,” he says, “her mom asked me ‘what do you want to do with your life?’ I told her I’d always wanted to be a professional wrestler.” His future mother-in-law was much more supportive than one might expect a future mother-in-law to be. She was familiar with a group of local wrestlers, including long-time professional Leo Luna, and put Singer in touch with them. Luna, then on the verge of retirement, set up an introductory training session with another older wrestler named Ernest “The Animal” Baca, and, together, they showed young Singer the ropes.
“But in 1994, [professional wrestlers] wouldn’t just teach anybody. You had to prove yourself,” says Singer. Baca and Luna threw him around the ring, pinned him to the mat and placed him in a series of brutal holds until Singer was crying out in pain. The night after his first session, as he lay in bed, muscles screaming in agony, he seriously considered not going back. But the next day he did. Luna and Baca once again did their best to push him past his limits. After four nights in a row, it was clear Singer would come back again and again. So they slowly started to teach him the real secrets of wrestling – the tricks behind how to take a fall, how to sell a chokehold, and how to work the crowd by winning them over, or enraging them to root against you.
After one more crushing throw from the ropes, Gallegos, lying in a collapsed pile on the ground, submits to Hobo Hank. The referee holds up Hank’s hand and the crowd cheers. Hank, always stoic, catches his breath and takes a moment to bask in his victory.
But then, a dark-suited figure appears on the edge of the stage, microphone in hand, eyes hidden behind wrap-around sunglasses. “No, no, no, no, NO!” He shouts. “You saw it! I saw it! We all SAW IT!” It’s not at all clear what he’s talking about, but the audience is suddenly quiet, aghast. They’re listening to Matthew Roblez, 46, a sleazy attorney/talent manager, and DWO’s “director of competition.” He is also Hobo Hank’s nemesis.
Roblez slithers into the ring and hisses into his mike: “Hobo Hank is automatically disqualified! This match goes to Ozzie GALLEGOS!”
The crowd erupts into booing; Hank’s stoic facade is cracked as he shouts into Roblez’s face.
This isn’t the first time a win has been stolen from Hank by the slimy Roblez. Six months ago, Roblez surreptitiously sabotaged Hank’s match against the Almighty Sheik, and then had another villain hold him down while the Sheik attempted to blind Hank with an honest-to-god fireball (or at least a bit of flash paper ignited via sleight of hand). The blood is bad between these two archetypes, the duplicitous lawyer and the perpetually down-on-his-luck hobo.
Despite the boos, the ref gives in to Roblez’s cajoling and lifts the right hand of the still prone Gallegos. Hank grimaces, shakes his head and goes backstage, screwed over once again.
The most important concept in professional wrestling is the one that separates it from competitive sports: kayfabe – a word that is both hard to define and of uncertain origin, though many believe it comes from carnival slang. The fact that pro-wrestling matches are scripted is well known; yet fans continue to tune in and show up. This is the nature of kayfabe: it is a shared illusion, a fantasy that performer and audience member agree to participate in.
Joe Singer alludes to kayfabe when he talks about what drew him to wrestling in the first place.
“When I was a kid, about eight years old, I was raised by great-grandparents,” he says. “My great-grandma was in a wheelchair and my great-grandfather had Alzheimer’s. So my day was to wake up at five a.m., change my grandfather’s diapers, bathe him, feed him and clean the house before I went to school – third grade. Then I’d come home and cook again. And that was my life. To me, wrestling was my escape, I could actually be a kid watching it.” The sprawling stories of cartoonish villains and good guys were the fantasy that he longed for. In a world of endless, murky struggle, the idea that problems could be solved through wrestling, and that the heroes would surely win in the end, had great appeal. “I never watched as a casual fan,” he adds. “To me it was all about figuring out what they were doing, how they were doing it, and why they were doing it. It was like trying to learn a magic trick.”
These days, wrestlers still perform the same magic tricks they have for a century, but they are less likely to pretend that they are actually magic. Adam Merrick, for instance, speaks openly of meetings where storylines are planned out. And the training is no longer a process of hazing before parting the curtains for the worthy few, but resembles a training regimen for most any other sport.
In Albuquerque, training duties now fall to Adam Montoya, aka “Mosh Pit Mike.” In a ring in his backyard – though he is quick to point out, “It’s not backyard wrestling!” – Montoya runs new recruits through a string of cardio drills: jogging in place, throwing themselves to the ground and then leaping back onto their feet. Only after exercising will he initiate mock matches between neophytes. The battles are brief, an intro of circling in the ring, then bursts of holds and throws in which the emphasis is on “selling,” the act of displaying pain and passion for the audience.
After each practice match, Montoya offers tips to the new guys.
“That was great,” he says to Eric Martinez, a short, nimble high school senior who is a particularly promising student. “Next time, though, don’t dodge the clothesline way out there. It makes you look weak. So focus more on getting in close and looking strong.” Eric nods.
After stripping Hobo Hank of a victory earlier in the evening, Matthew Roblez’s machinations continue to shift the balance toward his favored heels. In a match between the meaty Texan heel, Chad Thomas, and a wild haired trickster named Mikey McFinnigan, Roblez holds the irascible McFinnigan against the ropes while Thomas beats him senseless. But then, as Thomas is being declared the winner by the hapless referee, something unexpected happens. Hobo Hank appears, stalking to the squared circle with purpose. Thomas moves to block him from entering the ring, but Hank grabs a chair on the way and swings it into the Texan’s face, knocking the giant to the ground. The crowd responds with confusion. And then, Adam Merrick, the Commissioner himself, wearing blue jeans, a dress shirt, tie and vest, takes to the ring and grabs the microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Merrick begins. “It’s come to my attention that Matthew Roblez…” He pauses for a chorus of boos. “May not be an impartial Director of Competition.” He goes silent again for a beat, absorbing the crowd’s response. “And I’ve realized that I need to do something to regain my power from Matthew Roblez. So I went out and got myself a new advisor. Ladies and gentlemen… the NEW ADVISOR OF DESTINY WRESTLING…”
None other than Eric Bischoff, one-time president of WCW – a rival league of the WWF that enjoyed a pay-per-view heyday in the mid-1990s – steps out from behind the curtain. Bischoff stands tall in the ring, the crowd’s chant of “HO-LY SHIT,” rhythmic and overwhelming, drowning out his words. In his glory days, Bischoff headed the second-largest wrestling outfit in the world, and now, here he is, in Albuquerque, at the Westside Community Center.
Finally, the chant settles down and Bischoff’s words can be heard.
“I’ve been having several long conversations with my new best friend here, Hobo Hank,” Bischoff says as he puts his arm around Hank. Roblez’s jaw hangs open. “And you know, I freaking hate lawyers… So here’s what I’m going to do…” Bischoff then lays out his plan to return to the next DWO event and preside over a match between Roblez’s favored henchman, Chad Thomas, and Hank. “And it gets sweeter,” Bischoff continues. “Chairs will be legal. And not only that…” Bischoff jabs his godlike finger toward Roblez, who is cowering below him outside the ring. “But I’m going to take a piece of YOUR skinny ass.” Roblez appears terrified at this threat of violence.
The crowd cheers again.
It is deafening.
Singer’s chance at the big time came about sixteen years ago.
“I applied to the WCW and Eric Bischoff was the president,” he says. “I sent them and WWE tapes. About three weeks later, WWE called me and said that they liked the video and they wanted me to get bigger, to six percent body fat and 240 pounds. They put me on a list and said they’d call back in six months and if I could get to that point they’d bring me up to do some things.” He smiles. “That was a big day in our house.”
So Singer started hitting the gym every day. But fate had other plans for him.
Through a wry smile, Singer explains, “WCW closed about four months into my six-month [training], and when that happened, every wrestler with a contract at WCW was up for grabs [for the WWE]. There was just no way a guy like me could get a shot. I just wasn’t big enough compared to those other guys.”
But he never stopped wrestling. He toured throughout Texas and Colorado, hired by a variety of independent leagues, and carpooled with fellow performers Carlos Gallegos (no relation to Ozzie, and known in the ring these days as “Thunder”) and Mosh Pit Mike.
In the early 2000s, he appeared as “Fireman,” a fearsome, masked heel. A promoter suggested that he adopt a new character: “A homeless guy who would show up drunk and say crazy things into the microphone,” Singer remembers. Not only was the El Paso-based promoter interested in seeing how the new gimmick played to the crowd, he also wanted to lengthen the evening’s lineup by having Singer wrestle twice – once with a mask on and once without. Singer adds that the promoter hinted at putting Hobo Hank in line for a league title. “So I said I’d do it. I wanted a championship belt.”
On the drive home, Singer began to have second thoughts. The character didn’t seem very positive in its portrayal of the homeless. It would be the first time he’d wrestle without a mask and he was worried about how it would characterize him on a personal level. “So I called the director and told him I didn’t feel good about it, that I can’t do this.”
However, it was too late. The character’s name, Hobo Hank, had already appeared in promotions. At the last minute, Singer grabbed some worn-out clothes from his closet. “Pretty much the outfit you see today, the jeans with holes, the orange jacket.” When he arrived in El Paso, he performed “Hobo Hank” for the first time, but not as the promoter envisioned it. Instead, he played Hank as more of a down-to-earth character, a normal guy who happens to have found himself homeless. “And the crowd ate every bit of it up,” Singer says. “They cheered as loud for me that night as they did for the headliner.”
As the evening in Albuquerque winds down, a snaking crowd of spectators forms, mostly to pose for photos with Eric Bischoff and Hobo Hank.
“I try to be super personable,” says Singer. “I remember as a kid, getting to touch a wrestler’s hand was the biggest thing in the world for me. So I always come out for intermission and stick around after. When little kids come up I always kneel down and ask them their name.”
Tomorrow morning, the Westside Community Center’s gym will be used for pickup basketball games rather than epic struggles between good and evil. On Monday, Matthew Roblez will begin another day, not as the director of competition who uses men as pawns and will do anything to get ahead, nor even as an attorney, but as a structural engineer at McNeil Engineering. Commissioner Adam Merrick, ringmaster of this muscle-bound circus of babyfaces and heels, will report to his job as a tech agent for Citi Bank. And Hobo Hank will again become Joe Singer, general manager at Chili’s, father and husband.
“There are definitely times where it’s weird,” Singer says of his local fame. “Like last Sunday night when I was running around cleaning up and getting stuff ready [at Chili’s], all I could think was ‘24 hours ago I was hugging Eric Bischoff and the crowd was screaming for me.’” Singer has no delusions Hobo Hank will ever obtain national wrestling prominence, but says that when Bischoff hugged him, “it was almost like being in a seventy-thousand-seat arena. The seventeen-year-old me was pretty excited.’”