Twenty-five years ago on Eastside Drive in San Jose, Anthony Trevino and his friend Jose Portillo began memorizing and copying the moves of “Hitman” Bret Hart and “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels from their 60-minute Iron Man match at Wrestlemania XII.
Soon, they were improvising their own moves on each other and copying others from TV. Friends joined them after school, hosting their own makeshift wrestling matches in neighbors’ front yards until shooed away by adults. After finding a friendly backyard, the practice continued, expanded and got a name: The Underground Wrestling Alliance.
This weekend, UGWA kicks off the return of downtown venue/bar The Ritz with an event featuring much of the Bay’s up-and-coming wrestling talent. It’s a major night for a scrappy group that almost never made it out of the backyard.
“We were like lepers,” says Trevino, head of UGWA. “Back then, any affiliation with backyard wrestling was the mark of death for a wrestler.”
Aside from (sometimes valid) concerns about the safety of the endeavor, back then, backyard wrestling was seen as stepping on the toes of the existing pro wrestling industry.
“There were so many gatekeepers trying to squeeze money out of kids with a dream, keeping things super carnie,” Trevino says, referring to pro wrestling’s origins as a carnival sideshow.
All that began to change with the advent of YouTube and MySpace. In the Web 2.0 era, backyard promotions became cult hits, and wrestlers with backgrounds as “yarders”—like CM Punk and Seth Rollins—began to break through to the mainstream.
In the 2010s, UGWA found itself among peers as other indie promoters across the country began using improved streaming technologies to reach new audiences. Nationally, Game Changer Wrestling, a “hardcore” promotion with ties to the backyard scene and a punk rock aesthetic, became an underground sensation.
During this time, Hoodslam also emerged in the East Bay, sharpening a uniquely Bay Area take on the performance/sport hybrid by embracing larger-than-life characters with a hip hop-meets Saturday morning cartoon sheen, like the hyphy looney-tune Drugz Bunny, one-legged Hip Hop Harry, and zombielike Nurse Ratchet.
And with the new guard, a new generation of badass black, brown, queer and women wrestlers began to get equal time and respect. These days, most wrestlers in the Bay Area scene are people of color; a variety of queer identities are represented. Gone are the days where a women’s division was just a sideshow for ogling: now, women take down men in intergender matches all the time.
“Things are so much more inclusive now to people of all walks of life. It’s punk in the best way possible,” Trevino says.
Most recently, while UGWA was on hold during the pandemic, two Bay Area wrestling stars—Shotzi Blackheart and Will Hobbs—rocketed to national attention on WWE and AEW, respectively, finally shining a light on the Bay’s criminally overlooked wrestling scene.
Now in its second-quarter century in operation, UGWA is still happily waving the banner for a new generation of freaky Bay Area grapplers. Trevino—now known by his alias Bossman Slash—has hit the ground running, hosting backyard-style shows in the LVL UP patio, and introducing SF drag queen Pollo Del Mar as UGWA’s new Executive Vice President.
“She’s the EVP of MGS,” says the Bossman, referencing one the favorite chants of UGWA’s large LGBT fanbase: “More Gay Shit.”
And so, after 18 months away, UGWA returns to its home base of the Ritz for a banger of a show: the mammoth Juicy Finau takes on touring sensation Matthew Justice, San Jose Champion Titus Alexander defends his title against LGBT wrestling icon and Hoodslam founder Dark Sheik, and a long-awaited matchup for Bay Area fans finally unfolds: UGWA’s favorite son Dave Dutra takes on NorCal wrestling legend Superbeast.
After everything, the underground is here to stay.
UGWA: Return of the Ritz
Sun, 5pm, $25
The Ritz, San Jose
Find Tickets Here