This story originally appeared in Rudo Can’t Fail issue 8
By Vandal Drummond
Head to the corner of Whittier Boulevard and Clela Street in East Los Angeles and you will see a modern non-descript strip mall connected to an ancient liquor store. An annex in the parking lot is a tiny donut shop that looks like it has been parked there longer than the liquor store. Before the bereft-of-character strip mall sprouted, there stood an L-shaped auto garage. The long leg of the letter L was the bay where Gil Arellano worked on cars when business was good, and hung out with fellow luchadores, chatting everything from wrestling, cars, to the news of the day. The foot of the L was a boxy, rectangular room, most likely built for the purpose of supplying auto parts. Gil had other ideas. He had a wrestling ring built in there in 1972. When he finished his auto work at the end of his day, he would get out of his mechanic threads, put on his t-shirt and trunks, and teach local boys traditional lucha libre. The room and ring served as the seed of Southern California’s lucha libre scene for the next 34 years. Before getting into the gym itself, I want to give an informal in-a-nutshell illustration of its most pertinent legacy. The southland has always had quite a collection of folks who moved here from Mexico and South America, and a handful of them were already trained wrestlers. Together, they formed The CLLP (Club Latino de Luchadores Profesionales). By 1973, they began promoting weekly shows, first at a theater called Arena Center, and then at a dance hall on 25th & Main Street called Hadco Plaza (which is where the club enjoyed its most consistent and lengthy success). This began an impressive legacy that continues to this day. Several of the pioneers of Los Angeles lucha, most notably El Moro and Chivo Garcia, passed the baton to the next generation.
Garcia’s three sons are Kayam, Enigma de Oro and El Estudiante. While Estudiante retired some time ago, Kayam and Enigma de Oro continue to wrestle regularly, while holding down jobs; Kayam is a school teacher, Enigma a registered nurse. El Moro was Jose Torres, who ushered in sons Capitan Oro, Principe Indu, and Superboy. All three have been amazingly talented workers, though it is Superboy who has enjoyed the greatest success. After becoming established on the Los Angeles and Tijuana scene, Superboy, along with a few other locals, scored a tour of Japan’s newly formed Michinoku Pro promotion in 1993. The work-rate that he and fellow local boy Piloto Suicida showed was impressive enough that they were brought back repeatedly. Superboy alone did at least twenty tours. Fast forward to the present — Superboy is retired from active wrestling, but promotes shows in Los Angeles. He now has three sons to carry the “El Moro” tradition into a third generation. Superboy Jr. and Indu Jr., a tall and beefy masked duo, resemble a lucha style version of old school The Assassins (Jody Hamilton and Tom Renesto), only they throw some graceful flying into the bad-ass brawls! Add to the mix Superboy’s youngest son, Legacy, a sleek kid still in his teens, and like his big bros, has a natural instinct for the sport. And many of the original members of CLLP from the 1970s —Jalisco I, Gori Chavez, As Negro, Dr. Muerte, Piloto Nuclear, Triton, Loverboy, Enrique Medina, Franky Lima, to name a scant few— are either still involved in the local scene, or continue to attend shows. It’s the most collective and enduring regional wrestling connection I know of in the U.S. and very much a family, complete with both comradery as well as jealousy. Yet, no matter how much professional jealousies may have wrestlers’ at one another’s throats, I am always amazed how cohesively they come together and help out if there’s a crisis, be it an in-ring injury or illness in a wrestler’s family.
And now back to the gym! It was Bill Anderson who introduced me to Gil and his gym in 1988. After realizing a full time career as a wrestler was not my bag a few years earlier, I still had the itch to be involved. Bill was kind enough to let me sit in on the classes where he taught up and coming wrestlers on Saturday mornings. We had been friends for five years at the time, and all he charged me was the gym fee. Shock hit me when Bill said the fee was five dollars. Five dollars? I would say the average cost to use a ring back then was between $20 and $75 per hour. Wrestling schools –and rings- were few and far between in that era.
The moment I walked into the gym, I fell in love with place. Now— ask anybody who knows me, and
they will tell you, I love a phenomenal “Five Star” match as much as the next guy, but if given the choice between a card loaded with show-stealers in a state-of-the-art arena versus a line-up of average ho-hum matches in an antiquated tiny venue with history, a bit of grime, and a lot of character, I’m going to choose the latter. I am a sucker for ambience. From the moment you opened the mammoth wooden sliding door and stepped foot into Gil’s Gym, you could feel its history at first glance. There was little ventilation, but generous were the musty odors of sweat, still air, and experience. The ring was sturdy, but had obviously weathered plenty of suplexes and mat-work. The turnbuckles definitely suffered the weight of luchadores pouncing upon them, leaving them with a wicked case of plancha damage, some bandaged with duct tape.
The plywood walls were plastered with posters advertising local lucha matches; some new and pristine, most ancient, torn, and frayed at the edges. The majority of these posters and flyers advertised Los Angeles and Tijuana cards throughout the years, and surrounding them were photos, newspaper clippings, and magazine profiles of local boys who made the pages of Lucha Libre Magazine. For a touch of inspiration for the boys, there were three posters of non-wrestling photos of icons: bikinied Rossy Mendoza, Wendy Whoppers, and an adorable painting of a topless Batgirl sprinting through Gotham. So I attended Bill’s classes regularly, and met his up and coming students. That’s where I met Riki Ataki and the late Stephan DeLeon, two of the greatest friends I met through the biz. It’s where a
wide-eyed Louis Mucciolo had his first lesson, asking me “So… how much of this is real?” He was the enthusiastic fan who became the talented Louie Spicolli within the year. Other students checking into Bill’s classes that I have fond memories of are Randy “The Beast” Neverman, Marco The Persian Terror, and Jaime “The Harlem Warlord” Cardriche. Longtime journeyman Mando Lopez would frequently stroll in to visit Bill, greeting the greener students with a hearty “Hola, Cementos!” When Bill wound up his classes around 11:00, the local lucha libre students would trickle in for the beginners’ classes, which were taught by one of several local veterans. Each week I would observe the drills they did; it looked appealing, but complicated. One day Chacal Rivera, a mainstay on the L.A. lucha scene, as well as Gil’s assistant mechanic, was teaching the class. When he had the boys warming up with forward and three-quarter rolls, he looked at me and motioned for me to get into the ring. His English was as good as my Spanish (a few words and phrases), but he waved me in. I was hesitant, but Bill urged me to give it a go.
I was jazzed that Chacal wanted me to join the crew. He was one of the many folks I saw since attending my first local lucha style card in 1981, and he was high on my list of favorite grapplers. And within weeks, I was hooked. Gil’s Gym was easily the greatest bargain I have encountered when it comes to wrestling schools. There were no contracts, no promises, but good quality classes for $5 per lesson. And each teacher had his own method of operation when it came to teaching lucha libre, so students avoided a paint-by-numbers approach, and were able to develop their own style. Classes were strict, physically draining, but always fun. When it came to the wrestling ring itself, there is definitely a generational divide in regards to its quality. Fisico Nuclear (my closest friend who began wrestling in 1992) and I loved taking bumps in Gil’s ring. The next generation of local American wrestlers who would work out at Gil’s (cool thing about Gil— if you wanted to use his ring when there were no classes, the price was still $5!) would say, “That ring is like bumping on cement!” I initially rolled my eyes at the new kids complaining about the surface of Gil’s ring, but it did not take long to figure why the difference of opinion makes complete sense. Like I said, when I began training in 1982, pro wrestling was not the national mainstream juggernaut it is today. Finding a ring to train in was a bitch, and when we did, it was often either a boxing ring or a cheap, unsteady piece of work that swayed like a ship when you hit the ropes. Boxing rings were REALLY like bumping on cement, and the cheap rings often had torn surfaces or missing boards under the mat.
So many of the rings I’ve worked or trained in after 1990 are trampolines compared to the average ring available to a student or an indie worker. Therefore, I can understand the following generation saw Gil’s ring as stiff. I actually felt like Goldilocks at Gil’s; boxing rings are too hard, bouncy rings feel too springy, but Gil’s was a happy medium, just right! And I learned that once you learned to bump in Gil’s stiff but padded ring, you could bump anywhere! Seriously, we learned to bump precisely in Gil’s ring, or else we limped home. I get the feeling that the guys who learned in an easy-bump ring try higher and wilder bumps before really getting the basics down, and get a false sense of security, leading to more frequent injuries (that said, those kids in the generation following me could bump better than I ever could!). When 2006 rolled around, the tenant who owned the property hiked Gil’s lease. It was an extravagant enough increase, and Gil decided it was time to close the shop that made Los Angeles’ independent wrestling scene the unique phenomenon that is. Unlike the 1980s, there are a number of gyms, trainers and schools available in Southern California. Whether you want to learn pure lucha style, American style, or the hybrid styles that have gained popularity over the years, there are plenty of schools to choose from. Yet, whether I’m talking with a wrestler who remembers Gil’s ring as cement or merely firmly-grounded, we all agree, quite wistfully, that there is something missing on the corner of Whittier and Clela.
Thank you, Gil Arellano, for your gym!