LA Times- Front Page Feature

 
By Hector Becerra, Los Angeles Times

April 10, 2012

STOCKTON — In the center of a starkly lighted wrestling ring, RJ Brewer glared at the overwhelmingly Latino crowd and spread the flag of Arizona across his back.

Buff, mean, white and glistening with baby oil, he snatched the microphone from the referee. “I come from the greatest city in the United States: Phoenix, Arizona!” the wrestler yelled in English. “Phoenix is the only city with a woman in power with the guts to get into the president’s face and address the real problem in this country!”

The audience knows that the “problem” he is referring to is illegal immigration. And the woman is his so-called mother — conservative Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the nation’s toughest law against illegal immigrants.

“You suck, RJ Brewer!” screamed 9-year-old Felipe Soria, spiky-haired and looking like a brown-skinned Bart Simpson. Chants of “Mexico! Mexico!” echoed through the packed arena.

Brewer taunted back: “How dare you boo an American hero!”

Characters are the stock in trade of pro wrestling, drawing audiences into its epic battles of good versus evil. And “RJ Brewer” — a shaved-headed, in-your-face crusader against illegal immigration created two years ago by the Mexican American wrestling promotion company Lucha Libre USA — is el mero malo, the chief bad guy.

Brewer (he won’t say what, if anything, the RJ stands for) has wrestled his way across the Southwest on the “Masked Warriors” tour, to almost entirely hostile crowds. They boo and heckle nonstop. They throw popcorn, lemons, pretzels and beverages at him. They swear at him in Spanish.

Es un racista!” said Cristian Sanchez, a 19-year-old clutching a green mask, screaming himself hoarse. “I know he’s a racist! … viva Mexico!”

For his part, Brewer is defiant, questioning the legal status of his opponents, bragging about his powerful “mother” and taking potshots at the quality of Mexican beer.

For some shows, he wears red tights with “SB1070″ stenciled on the back. That’s the name of the anti-illegal immigration law that was passed in Arizona.

“I may have one or two supporters in the crowd, but it’s 99% against me,” he said proudly.

Unlike most of the other wrestlers, Brewer rarely signs autographs. Then again, he said, “no one wants my autograph. They’d rather throw stuff at me.” When he does give out a souvenir signature — as he did after one show for a 5-year-old who waved a sign questioning the wrestler’s legal status — he doesn’t tout it because it’s not exactly in keeping with his bad-boy role.

RJ Brewer is actually John Stagikas, a 32-year-old wrestling veteran from the Boston area.

Pale and menacing, he could pass as a neo-Nazi in tights. But spend a few minutes with him and he comes across as thoughtful, articulate and somewhat sensitive. He has nothing against Mexicans and worries about being seen as a bona fide racist.

“A lot of people call me a bigot and a racist, that I’m against the Mexican people, and that’s not true,” Stagikas said.

He has loved pro wrestling for as long as he can remember. As a youngster, he would be crushed if he missed an important match. Never a big guy, he bulked up when he was 18 and then played football — safety and receiver — at Assumption College in Massachusetts, a Division II school.

After graduation, he waited tables, worked in real estate and trained shelter dogs before stumbling into pro wrestling on the New England circuits, sometimes for just $10 a match. He played various characters through the years, but nothing like RJ Brewer.

And while he’s not living la vida Hulk Hogan, wrestling has helped pay for some of the finer things.

“I’m not making crazy money, but I’m paid fairly well,” Stagikas said. “I bought a villa in Costa Rica when they were dirt cheap.”

When Lucha Libre USA approached him about joining its circuit, “at first the character was supposed to be kind of like a mama’s boy from Arizona, more like a frat boy,” Stagikas said. “I was like, all right, I’ll try it. But it came more natural to me to not be some pretty boy with hair spiked but to be a political character.”

He and the Lucha Libre USA organizers eventually settled on a character who they would say was Gov. Brewer’s son. They knew right away they had found the perfect villain.

“It’s a really electric atmosphere. No one is sitting, everyone’s glued to the ring,” said Steven Ship, chief executive of Lucha Libre USA. “It’s hard not to get caught up in the frenzy.”

Stagikas added: “When I hear the boos and the screaming, I know I’m doing my job.”

By now, he is fairly fluent in all forms of Spanish profanity.

RJ Brewer’s calling card is the large Arizona flag he drapes around his shoulders when he takes the stage.

Stagikas takes the role seriously. He reads newspapers and watches TV news and political debates to sharpen his declarations on illegal immigration. Stagikas wants his trash talk to sound credible, and he doesn’t want to be seen a mere lunatic ranter.

“I’d rather not attract the Ted Nugent crowd,” he said.

His father eats up his bad guy role. But his mother — his real mother — worries a little about her son.

Emotions do run high whenever he has a match, and security guards are warned to keep an eye out in case the crowd gets too riled up.

In Stockton, one guard stared out at the roughly 3,000 wrestling fanatics in the arena, many wearing masks and face paint that made them look like extras from a Mexican version of “Braveheart.” “What can we do?” he said. “I’m not paid enough to get trampled.”

Most matches, however, are trouble-free. There’s just a lot of bilingual trash talk and snacks thrown into the ring.

On this night in Stockton, the voice of the ring announcer bellows through the arena: “He is the Arizona Patriot … RJ Brewer!”

Brewer takes the microphone and vows to unmask and retire his rival, Blue Demon Jr. — the son of a legendary Mexican wrestler — and “send him with a one-way ticket back to Mexico.”

Cheers erupted when Blue Demon Jr. took the microphone.

“You talk about your mother … and about the Mexicans, but you forgot to tell people one thing,” the Mexican wrestler told Brewer in Spanish. “Son of mine, I’m your daddy!”

“Y te voy a regresar a tu casa, a punto de patadas — con tu madre!” he said. I’m going to kick you back home — to your mother!

The bell clanged and the two wrestlers grappled, kicked and slapped. Blue Demon Jr. stuffed a discarded pretzel into Brewer’s mouth.

A few cheers of “U.S.A.” rang through the hall. When the Mexican wrestler seemed on the defensive, the crowd yelled: “Si se puede! Yes, we can!

Brewer pulled out some “brass knuckles” hidden in a corner of the ring and punched Blue Demon Jr., seeming to pull close to victory. But then the referee discovered the weapon and it dropped to the floor. In the confusion, Blue Demon Jr. found the knuckles and knocked out Brewer.

The Mexican wrestler told the adoring crowd that he knows, undocumented or not, they earn their money with a lot of sweat, blood and hard work.

Then, standing over his prone opponent, he told Brewer: “Go back to your mother, the governor.”

The delighted crowd roared.

Defeated, Brewer staggered back to his dressing room, his head hung low. He puffed his cheeks in exhaustion and began to pick away at the wraps around his wrists.

Outside, the crackle of the cheering crowd continued to reverberate through the arena.

“I lost,” the wrestler said with a wink. “That seems to happen a lot.”

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