Vampiro comes out of the shadows
Even the most fanatical wrestling fan may not know the name Ian Hodgkinson. But that hasn't stopped other Canadians from following him into the heart of darkness
MARK KEAST - Toronto Sun
|Vampiro during his WCW days. -- SLAM! file photo
It was another evening of orchestrated chaos, and by that we mean everything went according to plan. Standing outside the Arena Naucalpan, in a suburb dominated by industrial plants 25 kilometres northeast of Mexico City, a young wrestler named Matt DeRosa from Markham leans up against a taxi. We're down a side street, late at night, and anyone who has been to Mexico City will tell you it isn't a good place to be hanging out.
It's the City of Vice. A Wal-Mart of drugs, firearms and smuggled goods. Hundreds of $20 prostitutes. Cops on the take. Kidnappings. The largest, darkest alley in the world, as someone described it.
Nonetheless, we're in pretty good company. DeRosa, 25, an imposing figure, is wearing, among other things, a black, hooded mask. Only this is no ordinary mask. DeRosa is a luchador, a pro wrestler looking to make his mark in a country where wrestling ranks second to soccer in popularity.
In Mexico, lucha libre (meaning "free fight") is not just flamboyant entertainment, it's viewed as actual sport, with traditions and heroes respected with hallowedness comparable to hockey in Canada.
"Being Canadian and coming here, you have to follow traditions," he said. "It might not mean a lot back home, but it means a lot here."
DeRosa, who took home about $100 US for his night's work, trained for a few weeks before he came here, did some pro wrestling in places like Puerto Rico, but is looking to make the grade in Mexico.
The mask is the most recognizable feature of lucha libre, and has a unique place in Mexican culture, a throwback to Mexico's Aztec ancestors, the religious leaders and warriors who donned them. Those wrestlers who wear masks in the ring, and it's not all of them, don't dare take them off in public. It allows them to protect their real identities while taking on a character in the ring. The greats of the past, El Santo, Blue Demon, heroes to the Mexican people, were buried in those masks.
Mrs. DeRosa didn't raise any dummies. Matt isn't going to mess with tradition, in a sport and in a country where on occasion the crowd's passion boils over to violence, and a gun is pulled, or someone gets stabbed in the leg with a screwdriver, or someone gets a fist to the side of the head.
DeRosa has heard the stories.
"I walked in with it on," he said. "And I'll walk out of here with it on."
DeRosa's schtick this night was the character Steelman, but the secret was soon out -- he was a stand-in. We're waiting on the real Steelman, a Torontonian named Manny Clausi, who is inside trying to get his suspension lifted after wandering into the crowd during a match and began throwing chairs around.
"I start riots, that's what I do," said Clausi, who is known more in these parts for his older gimmick, the Canadian Bulldog.
On the surface, Canadians seem well represented on the Mexican wrestling scene.
Chris Jericho and Val Venis of World Wrestling Entertainment also apprenticed here. But look behind the red curtain and you'll find only a few foreigners, or extranjeros. This is a tough business to break into in an even tougher city.
That's what makes the story of Ian Hodgkinson so surreal.
Hodgkinson is the Colonel Kurtz of Mexican wrestling. He came here full of ideals but soon got swept up the river, lost in a jungle of drugs, sex and excess.
DeRosa says he looks up to Hodgkinson, a drifter, rock star wannabe from Thunder Bay who blew the doors off lucha libre, and admires much of what he has accomplished.
Only time will tell whether DeRosa becomes a Cpt. Willard and escapes or is swallowed up by the madness that surrounds the sport.
For Hodgkinson, the City of Vice was a utopia he stumbled on by accident and a place where he became a hero to the Mexican people.
With his heyday of the 1990s in the past, foreigners inside and outside wrestling circles, and wrestlers in Toronto, now know him more by reputation.
"Hodgkinson was an absolute phenom (in Mexico)," Clausi said. "He basically busted it wide open down here. I don't know if you know that."
We accompany Hodgkinson to a bar called Bulldog on San Juan Mixcoac, in the heart of the city. This is where Hodgkinson says his reputation in Mexico City during the 1990s really grew legs.
"If you want to hear all the good stuff, I'll tell you," he said. "I just don't want you guys to think I'm a psycho.
"I used to own this town."
In 1989, two short months after arriving in Mexico City with a one-way plane ticket and $70 in his pocket, he became a luchador.
With his demonic, KISS-like face paint, long purple hair, upper-body tattoos, a studded leather coat, leather pants and cowboy boots, Hodgkinson cometed into lucha libre as the character El Vampiro.
Hodgkinson suddenly was the star he had always dreamed of becoming. Only instead of a playing a guitar, Hodgkinson was playing up an image in the ring, on TV, in video games, comic books, and in action movies like Vampiro: Guerrero de la Noche (Vampiro: Warrior of the Night).
Promoters later changed Hodgkinson's name to El Vampiro Casanova as herds of star-struck teenaged girls came to wrestling arenas for the first time.
"I had access to anything and everything, in excess, 24 hours a day," Hodgkinson said. "Good, bad, and ugly. Women, drugs, fame, alcohol, power."
Placing temptation that intense in front of Hodgkinson was like handing a match to an arsonist.
"I don't think I ever adjusted," he said. "The reality was it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. It got to the point that it got so huge. It was so intense. No one teaches you how to handle something like that overnight, especially when you're in your 20s. Basically it was let's go seven days a week, wrestling 20-30 times a week constantly for six years. And it really messed me up.
"It was a question of what drugs didn't I do? I was really young, I didn't trust anybody, didn't have any friends. I was really insecure, had a lot of stupid money, and crazy power. I was turning down movies, soap operas. I'm assuming it was fun when I was doing things, but in reality when the day came to an end I was alone, even more insecure, paranoid.
"I didn't know who my friends were, because everybody around me was a leech. Promoters basically didn't care if I was hurt or injured or tired. I had to go on."
The seeds of that insecurity go back to his youth. Hodgkinson and his two younger sisters were raised by their mother, Edna, a nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital, after her husband left when Hodgkinson was four.
He was raised in a Greek Catholic environment and went to a Roman Catholic school. Edna says her son always was independent, going back to his days as a goaltender playing minor hockey in Thunder Bay.
In hockey, Edna says, Ian was ahead of his time and should have been playing more with the older kids, partly because of his bigger frame.
"Ian at 12 and 13 could have played with 18 years olds," she said.
When he was 12, already at 6-feet, with size 13 feet, Hodgkinson used to tape his birth certificate inside his helmet because tournament organizers didn't believe he he was as young as he claimed. It was the individual streak that his mother says turned off the hockey establishment after he was drafted by the Kingston Canadiens in 1984. He didn't stay long after showing up to training camp with dyed hair, a leather jacket and earrings.
"They didn't appreciate his individuality, and he didn't want to sell his soul," Edna said. "Even before he went on to the ice, demands were made. He didn't want to compromise. Why would he?"
During his early teens, Hodgkinson became the victim of sexual abuse in a high-profile case in Thunder Bay involving a priest, something he would later talk about openly on an Oprah-like Mexican talk show.
With the sexual abuse stigma hanging over him and his hockey career in tatters, Hodgkinson left Thunder Bay and floated around Canada.
He tried getting into the wrestling business and the music business. He dreamed of the glam lifestyle while doing petty crime.
He drifted to Montreal and then Los Angeles, where he worked as a bouncer at a club owned by Mickey Rourke, followed by a stint as a bodyguard for Milli Vanilli.
As far as Hodgkinson can remember it was around 1987 that he arrived in Toronto.
He lived on the streets, in crack houses, piecing together any work he could as a bouncer in places like the Big Bop, or working in Gold's Gym.
"I was treated like crap in Toronto," he said. "I was ridiculed, laughed at ... a street kid selling drugs. I was just hustling, nickel and diming. I did things I'm not proud of."
Tired of hustling, he put in a call to an old-time wrestler in Montreal who told him that if he really wanted to learn wrestling, he should head south to Mexico.
Hodgkinson picked up the phone again and dialled. One meeting with Adolfo Bonales, the international agent for Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre and he was on his way.
"Here, they have me a chance," he said.
Hodgkinson was like nothing the country had ever seen. With the birth of televised wrestling in Mexico coinciding with his arrival, the timing and circumstances in Mexico were perfect.
He was just being himself and it was the celebrity that found him.
"All the rock 'n' roll, I was the first athlete to get involved in that and cause a scene," he said.
He talks of stripping to the waist after a wrestling match, heading into one of the city's worst ghettos at three in the morning "looking for things ... playing with my band ... I was known everywhere for being Keith Richards."
Wrestling promoters sensed the buzz and threw him into matches with little or no training.
"Everybody fell in love with the image, and thought I was this teddy bear guy," he said. "It was hard to come to grips with because there was no substance to why I was famous.
"I'd come to your house and steal everything you got in a heartbeat and take your daughter."
Then the twinkle in the eye, the mischievous grin that appears only on occasion, returns to the boyish face.
"I still will," he said.
In those heydays, Hodgkinson estimates that out of 15,000 fans packed into a stadium, 14,000 were girls.
"He was a freak," said Lilian Reyes of Luchas 2000 Magazine. "Everybody loved Vampiro. I remember I was in high school and all my friends wanted to see Vampiro. He was a Frank Sinatra kind of thing."
The long history of pro wrestling in Mexico was at another peak -- movie stars, soap opera stars, the leading recording artists of the day, all would come to Mexico's wrestling arenas to watch the rock and roll wrestler.
Jose Luis Jair Soria, 33, one of the most popular wrestlers in Mexico and Japan today, wrestling under the name Shocker, says he remembers Vampiro as one of the biggest stars in Mexico.
"I wanted to be like him," he said. "Everywhere he performed we would have full houses. Everybody would want to go where he was.
"Now that all those doors are open we can take advantage of it. Wrestling has always been big in Mexico, then he came along and there was a big boom."
Long hair and tattoos among young people became popular after Vampiro. Hodgkinson bridged the world of Johnny Ramone with that of El Santo, and soon punk rock and heavy metal bubbled to the surface across Mexico's cultural landscape.
"It changed the business," Hodgkinson said. "When I came here, I had no talent. I didn't know what I was doing, but they said I had charisma. I don't know what I do, but it just gets done and the people dig it, and it's going on 15 years now."
Many of the older wrestlers resented the glam he brought to the old sport. He was a foreigner without a lucha libre background and they made him pay for it in the ring.
"When I first started, I was getting my ass kicked on a daily basis, getting beat up in the dressing room," he said. "But I was making 15 times the money they were. I had all this fame, girls.
"I was flying first class, and they were taking the bus. I never asked for it. My boss just took care of me that way. There was resentment, even up to this day."
The crowd is filing in for another show, but the glam rock look is long gone. Before the match, Hodgkinson sits dressed in a grey sweatshirt, track pants and short hair. Now 37, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound physique is fraying at the edges.
Shouts of "Vampiro!" fill the air, but he doesn't seem to hear it. Hodgkinson, now a rudo or "villain," still is among the top seven or eight wrestlers in the country in terms of popularity, but it's nowhere near what it was.
The teenaged girls who loved him when he was younger have grown up. Not that it's a bad thing, he adds. He's weary of the life, tired of the travel, the injuries, the politics of the business.
He has made some money, not millions, but enough to support his ex-wife Kitsu and his four-year-old daughter, Dasha, the two people he credits for straightening out his life. He also bought his mom a house in Thunder Bay.
But the fatigue of a hard lifestyle shows around the eyes and he quietly is anxious for his wrestling career to end.
Three more years, he says, then that's it and he can concentrate on being a father, opening a gym in Guadalajara, and starting a self-defence school, applying his martial arts training in a business he thinks should do very well in a country as lawless as Mexico.
His passion for the country runs deep. "Mexico" is tattooed on one of the biceps.
"He speaks better Spanish than Mexicans," Clausi said.
Hodgkinson misses nothing about Canada, except his mother and perhaps the snow.
Hodgkinson's match doesn't go well on this night and he is angry. He's frustrated with what he felt was a lack of interest shown by the other wrestlers and the fight carries over into the dressing room, for real.
Afterward, in the parking garage next to the arena while signing autographs for kids shouting his name, Hodgkinson plays down the superstar status afforded most wrestlers who compete in Mexico.
"Once it's over I don't want to hear about it," he said. "Sometimes I'm just so disappointed in my company, the attitude of the guys, the level of their work. I spent all this time training, and it's just frustrating. Wrestling is falling behind here, but they just don't want to update the product."
Interest in seeing lucha libre live has dipped noticeably. On a Friday night a few weeks ago, Arena Mexico, which holds over 18,000, was only half full. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, some estimates peg the number of arenas across the country hosting wrestling events at more than 200. Now it's probably fewer than 40. The sheer scope of television coverage -- which contributed to Vampiro's rise in popularity -- and the availability in recent years of other grappling and fighting options from around the world, has given Mexicans less of a reason to come to the stadium.
"I'm busting my head against a wall trying to change it, but you can't convince the older guys, the hardliners," Hodgkinson said. "You would think in a city this size you could get 18,000 people to an event, but they do the same show every week, for over 70 years."
He says he's trying to convince the owners of CMLL to start up a more extreme version of wrestling, more violent, more North Americanized, but it's an uphill battle.
"Even the wrestlers are brainwashed, but they're half-retarded anyway," he said.
Still, passion for the sport runs deep. On any given night there's a wrestling show in Mexico City.
The two-hour broadcast on Televisa every Saturday is the highest rated program in Mexico during that time slot. In North America, pro wrestling has perhaps been overexposed to a degree. Not here.
The live gate may be down, but there's no arguing the extent to which lucha libre permeates Mexican culture. Luchadors appear in movies, cartoon shows, TV talk shows, video games. Kids pour over comic books showing the conquests of their heroes, storied names of the past like El Santo, Blue Demon, Black Shadow. Unlike Superman, however, these heroes are real.
What also sets Mexican wrestling apart is its technique. Some in the business say that if you master Mexican wrestling, you can master all other wrestling techniques. Wild acrobatics, often spectacular, flying leaps and backward flips off the top of the ropes are what it's known for. But lucha libre is considered more technical in its style, a tip of the hat to its Olympic-style origins.
"American wrestling is more about hard, physical moves," said Chad Socolovitch, 31, an American from Cheboygan, Mich., who wrestles here under the name Gigolo Americano. "Mexico has all the technique."
Japan, he added, where lucha libre wrestlers get paid anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 US for one to two weeks of work, is more about brawling. "They kick your ass over there."
As in all pro wrestling, the results of the matches are predetermined, but no one should doubt the high level of athleticism and physical fitness involved, according to the people who compete in it.
"Every punch, every kick is real," Soria said. "We have to practise a lot of years to become who we are."
"Try to look at the Harlem Globetrotters," Hodgkinson said, interjecting. "You think they're fake? Try to play basketball with them."
The physicality of the sport takes a toll. Most luchadors will hand you a shopping list of busted bones, torn ligaments, and concussions suffered during matches.
Hodgkinson talks about a broken neck that ended his burgeoning World Championship Wrestling career, broken legs, and numerous concussions he has had. He points to a steel plate inserted down one leg to help repair a busted ankle.
Most of the wrestlers compete for a variety of Mexican companies, as well as some in Japan and the U.S., as free agents.
What they get paid is determined by popularity and where a wrestler sits on that night's card. Most of the time, wrestlers are paid based on a percentage of the gate fees. Socolovitch says the starting range is typically about 400 pesos a night, but a more popular wrestler like Latin Lover can make 5,000 pesos a night.
Hodgkinson, as one of the bigger earners here, says he brings in around $1,000 US per event, wrestling around three times per week.
"If I worked more and really busted my ass, I could make a ton of dough down here," he said.
But given his druthers, Hodgkinson would rather be home with Dasha.
He's in the front seat of a cab now, being driven through the streets of Mexico City in the early hours of a Sunday morning.
As we brush along another infamous Mexican district, Zona Rosa, a seedy beehive of alcohol, drugs and prostitution during the height of Hodgkinson's popularity in the 1990s (and now the city's gay neighbourhood) he shifts the subject from his wrestling persona to the Ian Hodgkinson he really wants to talk about.
This is his badge of honour. Not his successful career as one of the top pro wrestlers in Mexico or that short stint in the defunct WCW circuit where he made a name for himself in the late 1990s fighting alongside the Misfits.
It's his life of debauchery.
He expresses humility and some embarrassment about the celebrity, yet loves talking about the personal excesses that in part caused it.
He's an individual searching for approval and validation, perhaps a reality for any son who grows up in a fatherless home. He's a rock star who has survived the hard lifestyle and came out on the other side. This is how he wants to be seen.
No one in Mexico knows his name is Ian, he says. Based on the twists and turns his life has taken, perhaps it's best he kept the dual personality. He says he was submerged in the gothic lifestyle, bridging the fantastical Vampiro character with his life outside the ring, going to black masses, gatherings.
The words "dark lotus" (named after the lotus flower, which the Chinese regard as spiritual, rooted in muddy, murky waters, but which blooms on the surface, symbolic of how one can rise through dark times if they have a sincere heart) are tattooed at the base of each hand.
"I lived right over there, right in the heart of the smut," he said. "Zona Rosa, the pink zone, used to be the place to be."
The pink zone that was a red-light district. Makes one wonder how badass it really was.
"Very f------ red," Hodgkinson said. "So red you gotta close your eyes."
As the cab arrives at the Bulldog, he's anxious to provide an unsettling snapshot to yesteryears, his apocalypse then.
"You're with Elvis now," he said, climbing out of the cab.
We jump the line and security men open the door for him. Drinks are free. Everybody inside knows him, teens and twenty-somethings stare at him, shake his hand and have photos taken with him. He grabs a drink and makes his way over to five teenaged girls who lead him up a staircase, where they fawn over him as he looks out over the proceedings. He plays the game with them. There are the stairs which lead to the party rooms downstairs, he says. This was his hangout, his place of refuge during the crazy years.
Hundreds of young Mexicans, shoulder to shoulder, wedge into the place and young girls dance and gyrate on bar tops to heavy metal music. Booze and drugs flow freely. But almost as soon as the evening starts Hodgkinson is bored, turning down another free drink and walking away from the girls. Time to leave. Something to do with having to get up early to fight. Back into the jungle.
In the cab, a few minutes after pulling away from Arena Naucalpan, DeRosa finally feels safe enough to pull off the black lucha libre mask.
He relaxes, rubbing the wounds from a night's work.
"I've been kicked in the face," DeRosa said. "Tonight I got elbowed in the mouth. I don't want the other guy to miss, to tell you the truth. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to catch a kick directly to my temple, but kick me in the face, kick me in the jaw, kick me in the back. That's why you go to school. That's why you learn. It's a trade. But I don't think just anyone can come down here and do it."
Two Toronto-area lucha libre wrestlers wouldn't disagree. Four nights a week at Squared Circle Training in Etobicoke, El Fuego, 36, and one of his students, Steve Cvjetkovich, 25, take young students through a typical training session of arm drags, tumbling, body slams and flying leaps that characterize the sport.
Both have experienced Mexico's renowned training regimen for lucha libre students.
Both will train you and help you get started in the sport, tapping you into the contacts they made while they trained in Mexico.
The doors are opened to anyone who wants to go to Mexico, providing that person can get into a training school, then on to the good side of a trainer or promoter. Fuego has dabbled a bit on the CMLL circuit, and also has wrestled in North America.
But by no means is it as easy as it sounds. Cvjetkovich says those people who see themselves as potential wrestlers might think otherwise once they get a taste of the physicality inherent in lucha libre.
"Nine out of 10 people wash out of (Squared Circle Training) within the first month," he said. "If they wash out of here, even if you're a wrestler and you think you know what you're doing, you'll die in Mexico City. "
From a distance, Fuego has followed Hodgkinson's career, and the challenges of surviving in Mexico makes him respect him more.
Cvjetkovich says Hodgkinson's success comes down to the fact that he stayed in Mexico, he endured.
"He really adapted to the style there," he said. "Other guys didn't stay there that long. He had a flashy gimmick, and your personality and charisma are a major part of the battle in being a successful wrestler.
"If you see someone enough, you're going to get used to them. They're going to be a regular part of the show."
CMLL is broadcast in Canada now on Telelatino, Fridays at midnight and Saturday afternoons at 4:30 p.m., and there's talk of bringing live lucha libre events to Toronto.
Hodgkinson, somewhat surprisingly considering his memories of Toronto, says he would grapple here again. He wrestled at the Air Canada Centre once when he was with WCW.
When we get back to Toronto, there's an e-mail on the computer. Hodgkinson wants to make sure we got home all right, and that we got what we wanted. He's worried about the impression he made.
"The biggest thing I would like to get across is that I am satisfied that I was right all along," he wrote. "What I brought to Mexico was ahead of its time. The punk explosion, it was underground here and I see that it has become a major influence throughout pro wrestling worldwide. I am happy I was the first one here, the original bad boy.
"When you live low in the gutter, it's better to burn out than die. I had to let it go, but I know who I am. I still lurk in the shadows."
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