Professional wrestler Matt Cross, perhaps better known as his other stage name M-Dogg 20, has performed in several different wrestling leagues in nearly 20 countries. In fact, when I talked to him, he had just gotten back from an isolated Inuit community in Nunavut, Canada, where he wrestled, spoke to the local kids and sampled some whale meat (he described the taste and texture as "a pencil eraser including the metal fastener").
Even with all of his globetrotting, however, there’s one event and place every year, however, that is a highlight on his relentlessly busy wrestling schedule: Milwaukee’s own Mondo Lucha.
"It seems like some guy always comes around and is like, ‘Wrestling is cool. Music is cool. Let’s put them together,'’’ Cross said. "It sounds cool on paper and then it never works. Mondo Lucha has been able to – uniquely, from what I can gather from my 12-year career – blend this variety show idea of music, high-quality nationally touring wrestlers and all the other things they bring to the table. It’s a very good, entertaining mix that doesn’t cater to just one group."
This year’s performance at the Turner Hall Ballroom Saturday night marks the fifth anniversary of Mondo Lucha, an extravaganza of wrestling, live music, burlesque and more. In an interview back in 2008, co-creator Andrew Gorzalski described the event as "watching the ‘Donnie & Marie Show’ on acid."
Five years later, Gorzalski’s goals haven’t changed all that much.
"The core idea of why we do it is to bring the fun back to wrestling," Gorzalski said. "It’s kind of like a throwback to the people who’d watch wrestling on TV with their grandpa and watch The Crusher."
To make sure the show goes off well, Gorzalski and the show’s co-creator Jay Gilkay start preparing for Mondo Lucha off and on about four months ago. They piece together the story "like kids in a backyard, making up crazy stuff."
"We’re pretty much just 10-year-olds with a budget," Gorzalski joked.
Still, the two try to find the right balance of silliness, awesomeness and kitsch for the event. On the other hand, Cross and the rest of the wrestlers don’t do much preparation at all for the event, which contradicts the popular notion that wrestling is fake.
"I think people have this idea that we get together two months ahead of time and we’re playing all of these intricate moves, but that’s never happened to me in my twelve years," Cross said. "It’s more like being in a band, but you show up in a city, and you meet your bandmates that day, and then a half an hour later, you perform new songs that you just wrote."
The idea for Mondo Lucha came to Gorzalski and his friend Jay Gilkay, both lifelong wrestling fans, as they watched other shows and thought to themselves they could do better.
"It’s one of those things, like, as a filmmaker, you start to lose patience for most films and that sort of propels you to start making them," Gorzalski said. "It feels a little bit like that."
One of their main goals in Mondo Lucha was bringing back a sense of wide-eyed enthusiasm, excitement and almost innocence back to the sport. Gorzalski and Gilkay noticed the prevalence of the Internet and what Gorzalski called an increase in "smart audiences" started to drain away from the pure, unadulterated fun and joy of wrestling.
"It’s almost like how baseball cards got ruined," Gorzalski said. "Before, when you were a kid, you were like, ‘Oh cool, I got baseball cards! How many Brewers did I get?’ That was the end of the conversation. But somewhere along the line, people got ‘smart’ and starting saying, ‘Oh, this one’s worth this much.’ Now, there’s this marketplace, and everyone’s almost over-informed about it. It took the fun out of baseball cards, and in a lot of ways the same thing took the fun out of wrestling. We’re trying to be genuine and a throwback to just pure fun, and I think we’re achieving that."
After five years, it seems that their plan is working. The crowd, a diverse mix of wrestling fans and those completely new to the sport, seems to be enjoying Gorzalski’s "cavalcade of entertainment." And even a veteran like Cross, who joined with Mondo Lucha after its first year, sometimes finds himself transformed into the kind of wide-eyed spectator Mondo Lucha hopes to create.
"Last year, I tagged with Xavier Mustafa, who’s a larger African-American gentleman," Cross recalled. "He went to the top rope and hit a moonsault – like a flying backflip – that I couldn’t believe, and I do this for a living. It was an absolute spectacle. The pop of the crowd is something that still sticks with me. If you see me, I’m like running in a circle and grabbing my head. It looks like I lost my mind because I did."
It’s reactions like those, both in the ring and in the crowd, that have gained Mondo Lucha quite a following over the past five years. And who knows what the next five may bring. Gorzalski said that they’re looking into doing a bit more touring, and he’d love to take their wrestling show even further, maybe even to television.
"It’d be sort of the alternative to the WWE, like a different flavor," he said. "Almost the hip wrestling show."
Professional wrestling may be far away from its glory years, but Cross – both as a participant and as just a fan – sees some future potential in Mondo Lucha.
"It’s good to see people trying new things and to see the activity that we all love so much just evolve, and I think Mondo Lucha is a part of that evolution."
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.