The ring is dimly lit. The heavy metal music is pounding. The crowd of about 90 people is restless and the show is about to start. Mexican mustache styles.
In a moment, a colorful parade of characters with names like Big Duke, Dirty Doug, Sasha Darevko, Motros Jungle and SoCal Crazy will slap and slam each other into submission. It’s a two-hour spectacle that event organizer SoCal Pro Wrestling offers twice a month in North County.
For many in the audience and some in the ring, it’s an escape from reality to a world where heroes and villains duke it out for supremacy.
Many of the fans who gathered for one of the shows at the Escondido Sport & Fitness gym on a recent Friday night grew up watching pro wrestling in its TV heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. The live events offer much more than just entertainment, they said.
Here, the audience can become part of the action, screaming at the wrestlers within inches of their faces, and then chatting with them afterward.
“You can see the action live, no commercials. It’s a lot better than watching it on TV. I guarantee you that!” said Paul Weiner, 57, of Poway.
Weiner, who has attended the matches regularly since 2011, said he and a group of other fans created a club, the Loud Proud Crew, whose members show up to cheer or jeer at the competitors.
The wrestlers, some of whom are semiprofessionals and others rookie students, say they, too, feed on the crowd’s energy.
“If you think the crowd doesn’t matter, then we’d be just two guys fighting in our underwear,” said Ryan Colberg, a wrestler who goes by the name of Anthony Idol. “When people are enjoying themselves, it makes it all worthwhile.”
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SoCal Pro Wrestling is the brainchild of owner Jeff Dino, who promotes the shows held in Escondido and at the Oceanside Boys & Girls Club each month.
While similar outfits have come and gone, SoCal Pro Wrestling has managed to survive more than eight years, Dino said. Over time, it has gained a small but dedicated fan base. The Oceanside Boys & Girls Club has seating for 300 people, and the shows sell out regularly, he said.
The company not only organizes the events but it also runs a wrestling school, where people can learn the tricks of the trade.
Dino, 33, said he started the organization because there wasn’t anything like it at the time in San Diego County.
Growing up, Dino said, he attended wrestling shows staged by a Vista-based organization called California Championship Wrestling in the late 1990s. But that company had long disappeared when he started SoCal Pro Wrestling in 2007.
“I wanted to see something like I saw as a kid,” Dino said. “Now, the people that are in our school get trained to be able to perform on our live events.”
Running the company is a full-time job for him, Dino said. Besides the wrestling shows, the wrestlers are also available for presentations at birthday parties, corporate events and other functions. SoCal Wrestling also sells videos, action figures and other merchandise through its website.
The company is one of about 10 businesses that regularly organize wrestling matches in the state, Dino said.
Those organizations can sometimes act as steppingstones for wrestling’s version of the big leagues, the World Wrestling Entertainment or WWE.
But most wrestlers will remain with organizations like SoCal, and maybe travel abroad to Mexico or Japan for matches.
Fans say the smaller wrestling shows offer audiences the opportunity to watch the action up close and personal without having to drive very far.
“It’s a whole lot of fun,” said San Diego resident Jason Doering, 37, who has been attending the shows since 2012. “I’ve made friendships with the fans and the wrestlers. They are all good people. It’s like a little community.”
For the price of a movie, audiences are treated to two-hour shows that consist of eight or nine matches.
The company’s roster of about two dozen wrestlers includes a few women but is largely made up of men. The characters and their fighting styles reflect the diversity of the border region. They range from physical, American-style pro wrestling fighters to more acrobatic, Mexican Lucha Libre-inspired luchadores.
Colberg’s Anthony Idol alter ego is one part wrestling legend Hulk Hogan and one part 1980s punk singer Billy Idol. The former Whittier College football player wears a tight, red outfit with a thick steel chain around his wide neck, a horseshoe mustache and short, bleached blond hair.
Before a recent match, Colberg, 38, said he started wrestling about nine years ago, training in Tijuana and Los Angeles. A personal trainer by day, Colberg said he gave up wrestling for a while but started again about two years ago.
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“I’m not the guy that the WWE is looking for, but there’s plenty of wrestling out there,” he said. “I’d like to see if I can make a living doing this, and making a living doesn’t necessarily have to be on TV, but it probably means being on TV. I’m going to dedicate some time to it and see where it goes.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Nestor Bustos, a shorter, leaner wrestler from Orange County, who wears a yellow and black mask — sometimes the outfit is black and blue — as part of his wrestling persona, SoCal Crazy.
A native of Mexico City, Bustos said he was inspired by Mexican wrestlers he watched as a child with his father in Mexico. Bustos, who is a supervising maintenance technician at an Alzheimer’s facility, has been wrestling for about 13 years and is one of the SoCal trainers.
For Bustos, wrestling is a departure from daily life and work.
“For me, this is a sanctuary,” Bustos said, sitting on the edge of the ring in Escondido. “I’m not so much in it for the money because I do have a regular job. I’m more in it for the camaraderie, the friendships and the traveling that you get to do.”