Her voice reeks of cheap cigars and reveals a lifetime of giving orders. "Never in a million years did I ever think I was gonna own a wrestling federation!" Audra Angeli-Morse, the Sicilian powerhouse of the San Francisco music scene is known for booking creative, crazy music nights, like a peep show where large and lovely go-go dancers prowl on the bar and then head to the back room to perform wacky $1 sex shows. But these days, she gets the most attention for an act she created a few years ago: Incredibly Strange Wrestling (ISW).
Founded in 1995, ISW is a souped-up hybrid of punk rock and Mexican wrestling unlike any wrestling or rock show you've ever seen. Fans crush themselves against the ring, howling as they hurl corn tortillas at the likes of ISW wrestlers El Homo Loco, Klu Klux Klown, and Uncle NAMBLA. The masked wrestlers act out elaborate story lines pulled from today's headlines. In the background, bands like the Dwarves, Mike Watt, and the Donnas keep the mob happy as they wait for the next wrestling drama to unfold. Audra will even get in the ring herself on occasion, "just because sometimes [the wrestlers] need to be put in their place, to keep control of my federation."
Mexican wrestling, or Lucha Libre as it's known south of the border, is a different animal from the WWF or WCW Americans are used to. As Audra explains: "There's the whole mask factor. The reason for anyone wearing a mask, whether it's a bank robbery or wrestling, is to hide their identity." The fighting style differs as well. "Lucha is a lot faster paced, it's more flying from the third rope and [tackling] somebody than just some submission hold on the mat." In Mexico, Lucha wrestlers loom as large as Spiderman in the popular imagination, with a series of comic books and films that dramatize their battles.
These days, you don't need to take much time explaining Lucha to gringos; it has already penetrated the American pop-culture bubble. Mexican wrestlers appear in billboard ads for Miller Lite. The WCW and WWF have started to feature Lucha wrestling, and it's one of the more popular draws. (Audra warns: "There's a lot of people who do Lucha Libre now, but most of them are retarded amateurs so you should go to the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre.")
But back in 1995, Lucha Libre didn't seem like such an obvious idea. Audra's gig booking bands at the Paradise Lounge, a San Francisco music venue, was getting stale. Then, on a trip to Tijuana with her boyfriend to buy masks and related toys (don't ask why) the lightbulb of inspiration went off. "I was kind of bored with shows and I was tired of going to a baseball game and hearing 'Louie, Louie' again for the seventh inning stretch. I thought both needed something for me to enjoy them more. And when I saw Lucha Libre, I was like, 'that's rock and roll!'"
She hooked up with partners and fellow Lucha lovers Brett Kibele and Auggie Ragone (and Los Angeles rock and roller Johnny Legend, but don't ever bring him up to Audra -- she's still bitter). "We decided since I have a club and all these rock bands at my disposal, let's just put on a show." As an after-hours event at the Paradise, they pieced together a makeshift ring and charged $2 a head to watch Audra and her friends beat the hell out of each other in crazy costumes. "I wore a tutu and the mask and [was] literally wrestling."
The response was so immediate and passionate that they found a bona fide wrestling ring for the next show -- legend says it was the ring Hulk Hogan wrestled in when he was getting his start. After only two events, the wrestlers signed on with Lollapalooza 1995, repeatedly challenging Courtney Love to get in the ring and show what she was really made of. She declined. In October 1997, Audra and Brett took the show on the road, bringing the wrestling extravaganza to 21 cities with 15 wrestlers in tow. That venture nearly proved to be the death of ISW.
The Fights Behind the Fights
The history of ISW is just as turbulent out of the ring as in. Johnny Legend got booted in 1996 over allegations that he was pocketing the wrestlers' cash. He took the idea back home to L.A. and set up the competing Incredibly Strange Rock and Roll Wrestling. Auggie was next to go because of, according to Audra, a "relaxed work ethic" and a tendency to "take total credit for the whole event."
But what broke ISW's hottest promotions duo was the '97 tour. Tension had been building like a bad tequila drunk, and it came to a head at 7 a.m. in a Kansas motel room. Bickering between Audra and Brett about who got which room spilled out into the hallway as a full-on brawl.
"The only reason we didn't get kicked out of the hotel was because we gave this whole bullshit story that we were practicing our matches," recalls Audra. The hotel may have bought the story, but everyone knew that Brett and Audra were over for good. (Maybe. The two were recently seen talking in a shady bar on Mission Street, so who knows what the future holds?) Audra misses having a partner as obsessed with ISW as she is, and with as much at stake in it -- but the show has finally hit the big time. Just like in Tijuana.
More Than Ready to Rumble
Incrediby Strange Wrestling has packed 1500 into the Fillmore Theater; Wrestling World Magazine, the Lariat and other wrestling rags now list ISW statistics; and the WWF is beginning to treat ISW as a scouting ground.
There's also an upcoming comic book, a series of trading cards (to be designed by Chuck Sperry, who does the ISW posters); another national tour, and talk of taking the show to Europe. Plus, for homebodies, there's a soundtrack in the works featuring the usual star turns by Bimbo Toolshed, Supersuckers, and various European psychobillies.
Looks like ISW is here to stay. At least until the next big thing takes its place.
See also: Strangest Wrestling Matches Ever
Sarah Jacobson is a writer/filmmaker.