On Saturday nights in suburbia, hundreds gather to watch men in tights grapple in staged combat that has been described as ballet with violence. But forgive the occasional off-script moment when the tough guys get a twitch of emotion and the tears begin to fall. Story by Tom Conroy and Rich Rovito.
The marquee outside the Knights of Columbus Hall in West Allis whispers more than it shouts, in modestly small red LED lights: “Brew City Wrestling. Bell 7:30PM.” A kindly older woman collects the $17 general admission entry fee from early arrivers, most of them clad in jeans and T-shirts. A night at the opera, this is not. An air of excitement swirls as the increasingly anxious crowd, made up mostly of men, young and old, files into the single- story concrete building that long has been a mecca for local professional wrestling. Many are toting antsy young kids. A few bring dates.
Just beyond the ticket-taker in the main hall is the square ring framed on each side by the familiar three ropes, where several men in spandex bun-huggers and knee-high lace-ups get limber and work their way into character. Their stomps, slams and grunts reverberate through the building.
Frankie DeFalco shuffles around, a frenzy of activity slowed only by a hip that has been replaced and other lingering maladies from three decades in the ring, plus the 320 pounds he now packs onto his 5-foot-11 frame. A tattoo in black script on his right forearm serves as a business card: “Brew City Wrestling.” Now 56, DeFalco has jet black hair that’s graying at the temples. His dark beard is a mix of salt and pepper. He launched Brew City in 2004 as a grappler/owner but has focused solely on his role as owner and promoter since his last bout in 2013. “This is a blue-collar tradition in Milwaukee,” says DeFalco, who lives in Franklin. “We provide for the 9-to-5 guys who bust their butts every day so they can unwind once a month at these shows.” Although he’s held down a job as an insurance salesman for the past 17 years to help carve out a workaday living, wrestling remains DeFalco’s passion.
DeFalco was “The Thumper” as a wrestler. He was no slouch, but he wasn’t exactly Hulk Hogan either. He found work in top-flight organizations such as the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment), the National Wrestling Alliance and the American Wrestling Association, where he started in 1980.
His shows have become the biggest regular grappling draws in town, but they’re far from the only ones. Each December, Great Lakes Championship Wrestling, founded by Dave Herro, has orchestrated the Blizzard Brawl with crowds as large as 2,000 people packing the Waukesha Expo Center. Upstarts like 4th Wall Wrestling, launched by Ted Trisco and Mario Crivello, are fighting to gain a foothold.
As other blue-collar escapes have faded in Milwaukee – hello, bowling – wrestling has seen a resurgence, with hundreds packing small suburban venues like the Knights of Columbus to melt their worries away in the antics of guys named Sadist, “His Holiness” Shawn Priest, “Ice Cream Man” Tylor Sundae and a tag-team known as Psychotic Rage. For most of its history a made-for-TV spectacle, wrestling at the local level in Milwaukee has seen growth as an in-person experience, with no cameras. Fans seem to prefer live theater to watching from the couch. Local independent pro wrestling often is run on a shoestring budget, with few frills and minimal pay for wrestlers. The wrestlers and the often zany characters they portray are what attract fans.
Prior to the national expansion of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (which is known today as WWE) in the 1980s, professional wrestling was composed of regional territories. Most of these territories fell under the governing body of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), which was responsible for deciding who would hold its championship belts and helping the regional territories promote their shows. One of the largest territories in the country was the Minnesota-based American Wrestling Association (AWA).
In Minneapolis, a former Olympic wrestler named Verne Gagne became a sensation in the 1950’s, thanks to his national exposure on the DuMont Television Network. Professional wrestling was far different then. While the outcomes of matches were still predetermined, the style of wrestling was meant to replicate the competition seen in amateur wrestling. Gagne stressed the importance of his company staying true to the fundamentals of the real sport, as he knew them. This would ultimately be his business downfall in the 1980s, as he was reluctant to promote a young wrestler who gained popularity for his bodybuilder physique and charisma. His name was Hulk Hogan, and he made himself and Vince McMahon multi-millionaires shortly after making the jump to the WWF in 1983. Gagne struggled for the remainder of the 1980s as other major stars left for the spotlight of the WWF, and declining revenue forced Gagne to shut down the AWA in 1991.
In its heyday, the AWA gave a start to the young Frankie DeFalco. He took to wrestling like many young boys do: watching it on television starting at age 5 in his native Franklin. “It was a ritual for me every Saturday morning,” he says. He wasn’t alone: The sport grew explosively from the 1960s onward as boys watched the over-the-top bouts on grainy TV feeds with their fathers and grandfathers. DeFalco idolized the top stars of the AWA, including Gagne, Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, and Baron von Raschke. As a teenager, DeFalco got a job working security at sporting events and concerts. This also included AWA wrestling shows, and DeFalco got to know the wrestlers he idolized. In May 1979, DeFalco embarked on his dream of becoming a professional wrestler himself.
His training began at the Martin Luther King Center in Milwaukee, where he learned the ropes from former wrestler Al “King Kong” Patterson. DeFalco’s talent was evident enough that he was granted his first match just six weeks after his training began. With the AWA on the wane and the national WWF on the rise, DeFalco capitalized on the changing landscape. On top of his continued work with AWA, DeFalco gained national exposure on televised WWF bouts. His primary job was to lose to more established wrestlers to make them look good. Searching for DeFalco on YouTube, one can find old WWF matches pitting him against legends like Andre the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude.
The AWA also was home to another Milwaukee wrestling legend, a stocky veteran from Milwaukee who wrestled as “The Crusher.” Reggie Lisowski in real life, The Crusher developed an interest in wrestling while stationed in Germany during World War II, and took up training at the Eagles Club on Wisconsin Avenue upon his return home. Lisowski split his time between bricklaying during the day and traveling to Chicago for small shows at night. In order to set himself apart, he created the character of a barrel-chested tough man who drank beer and overpowered his opponents with a brawling style. He caught the attention of Gagne and the Minneapolis territory, and would quickly become one of the biggest stars of the AWA.
The Crusher spoke in a raspy Milwaukee accent about his training regimen of running along Lake Michigan with a keg of beer on each shoulder. He referred to his opponents as “dat bum” or “turkeynecks” and often took them out with his dreaded “bolo punch,” a cross between a hook and an uppercut. He liked to brag in his interviews that after he was done with his opponents, he was going to “go dancing on Wisconsin Avenue” with his “dollies,” his term of endearment for Polish barmaids. He and his onscreen “cousin” Dick the Bruiser became a legendary tag team. He was inducted into the World Championship Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1994.
The Crusher was also seen on-camera in the front row with fellow AWA star “Mad Dog” Vachon when WWF’s Over the Edge 1998 pay-per-view was broadcast from the Wisconsin Center Arena (now the UW Milwaukee Panther Arena). DeFalco remembers this event well because it was the night that WWF announcer Jerry “The King” Lawler grabbed Vachon’s prosthetic leg as a gag (Vachon lost his leg in a car accident in 1987). “Crusher was literally chasing him around the arena. He was about to knock his head off,” recalls DeFalco. It was one of the last notable appearances for The Crusher in the spotlight, and he died in 2005 at the age of 79. Perhaps more than anyone in Milwaukee wrestling, he created a legacy that lingers in the current scene. Dave Herro, Great Lakes Championship Wrestling’s founder and promoter, launched the Blizzard Brawl, originally called Seasons Beatings, nearly two decades ago as a tribute to The Crusher.
Herro designed it as a one-shot deal, and had no intention of making the event an annual occurrence. But fans wanted more, and Herro eventually obliged.
DeFalco’s foray into the local wrestling scene began the year before The Crusher died.
Making his way back to Milwaukee after years on the road, DeFalco felt that the area was in need of more local wrestling entertainment. Using his various connections and relationships, DeFalco was able to secure sponsors to launch Brew City Wrestling in January 2004. From the start, the organization has been dedicated to providing classic family entertainment. “I don’t believe in over-thetop violence. My guys aren’t out here getting bloody. We are a family show,” explains DeFalco. The reputation of BCW was positive enough that DeFalco was able to secure a deal with the Knights of Columbus for his now-monthly shows in West Allis. The company has since expanded to shows across the state and, in 2015, opened Thumper’s Den Wrestling Academy in Cudahy.
These days, DeFalco still gets uneasy about the “is wrestling fake?” question. But some of his contemporaries no longer attempt to gloss over the scripted nature of the sport, an admission that was taboo in the past. “Wrestling is fake and people know it,” Herro says. But that doesn’t diminish its appeal, any more than television viewers knowing that the Real Housewives are anything but real diminishes the series’ popularity.
“Everyone has their issues and we all want that escape,” Herro says. “It helps you forget what’s going on in your everyday life.”
The crowd begins filing in an hour before the match.
A scantily clad woman in stiletto heels saunters through the crowd hawking raffle tickets as Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” blares from large ringside speakers.
The hordes of wrestling fans have come to see the action in the ring and to raise funds for the family of Shawn Weber, who rarely missed a Brew City event until succumbing to pneumonia in November 2013 at the age of 20, several months after receiving a heart transplant. Proceeds from the show were earmarked for Weber’s headstone.
All of the wrestlers on the card donate their paychecks for Weber.
The crowd gets whipped into a frenzy several times during the seven-match event.
Dave Madaus of West Allis takes in the action while struggling to keep track of five young kids.
“I think it’s a great atmosphere. I love how the crowd gets into it. Wrestlers are even out in the hallway interacting with the kids,” says Madaus, who went to high school with a wrestler known as Dysfunction, who is one of many bruisers in the house tonight.
Also in the house: Matt Winchester, a Waukesha native. At 6-feet-2 and more than 300 pounds, with both arms accented with tattoos and a face defined by lambchop sideburns and a goatee, Winchester is friendly and polite – outside of the ring. Inside it, he’s the Beer City Bruiser.
During his match, Winchester is serenaded with chants of “BEER, BEER, BEER!”
“Performing in front of people is such an addiction,” he says. “I love hearing the crowd. I love hearing them boo. I’m a good guy here tonight, but I like being a bad guy. You can get the crowd really mad at you, and it’s really a lot of fun.”
For more than 15 years, Winchester has eked out a living in wrestling.
“This is all I do,” he says. “It’s very tough. You’re on your own, basically, unless you get signed by a big company. You’ve got to call promoters and send out promo packages and get yourself booked. But you’re your own boss, so if I need a week off to be with the family, I can take it off. But if I need to make a house payment, I’ve got to wrestle.”
Winchester crosses the country and sometimes treks into Canada for matches, never knowing what medical maladies await. He’s shattered his front teeth, torn his left bicep clean off the bone and blown out his ACL. The chipped tooth came from a folding chair to the face. “My wife and daughters never have seen me with my front teeth,” he says. “My girls told me not to get them fixed because then they wouldn’t recognize me.”
Winchester also helps book other wrestlers for DeFalco. He wouldn’t say specifically how much he gets paid for each show. He also is the head trainer at DeFalco’s wrestling school and recently landed work with Ring of Honor Wrestling, a national promotion.
“I’m making enough to make a living out of it,” Winchester insists.
The Brew City Wrestling event in Waukesha culminates with a battle royale, where many wrestlers compete until just one remains in the ring.
Winchester climbs into the ring sporting a black tank top, shorts, knee sleeves, black boots and black therapeutic tape on his shoulder. His left wrist is heavily wrapped. “WINCHESTER” is emblazoned on the rear of his trunks.
“I’ve come home to Waukesha, Wisconsin, to kick some ass,” he yells into the microphone.
He struts in the middle of the ring like Magic Mike before taking several shots to the face. He recovers quickly and performs a suplex on another wrestler. He later argues with a pair of grapplers before all is resolved in a goofy group hug.
As the feature match reaches its pinnacle, DeFalco enters the ring in shorts, a polo shirt, black socks and white tennis shoes as “Thunderstruck” blares from the speakers. Chants of “FRANK-IE! FRANK-IE!” ring out as the crowd rises to its feet. Not an official participant in the match, he nonetheless tosses the two remaining wrestlers out of the ring. Then, with a bit of a struggle due to his compromised mobility, he steps over the top rope, a move that disqualifies him. Next, DeFalco returns to the ring with Weber’s ringside chair, which still sits vacant at every match, puts it in the center of the ring, makes the sign of the cross and points skyward. “This is for you, my friend,” he says. DeFalco embraces members of the Weber family. As Weber’s mother hugs each of the teary wrestlers who have crowded into the ring, DeFalco announces that $3,000 has been raised.
DeFalco retired as a wrestler on a warm and humid late September night in 2013. His exit came in a steel cage match in front of more than 500 revved-up fans, including many friends and family, packing the Knights of Columbus hall.
Peeking from behind a curtain prior to the match, DeFalco became overwhelmed at the size of the crowd that gathered for his swansong. The burly grappler retreated to a private room to weep.
As DeFalco approached the cage, Beer City Bruiser kicked at the door, which smacked DeFalco in the face. “I was dazed, got my bearings back and then issued a very big whupping on him,” DeFalco says.
Bedlam ensued until finally, and fittingly, DeFalco employed his painful signature Sicilian leg lock on JP, forcing him to tap out in submission.
An emotional DeFalco then thanked the crowd for their support over the years. He removed his sweat-soaked elbow pads, handing one to an aunt, the other to a cousin. West Allis Mayor Dan Devine presented him with a plaque and proclaimed it Frankie DeFalco Day.
When DeFalco returned to the locker room, rousing applause from other wrestlers greeted him.
“That started the tears again,” he says.
He still struggles with sciatica and a damaged Achilles heel. It’s one reason he gets frustrated when people call wrestling “fake.” While the matches’ outcomes may be predetermined and the wrestlers may be faking their punches, injuries happen all the time. The aches and pains that DeFalco still deails with daily remind him how “real” the scripted bouts can be for the fellas in the ring.
Tune in to WUWM’s (89.7 FM) “Lake Effect” Jan. 12 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.
Rich Rovito is a regular contributor to the magazine. Tom Conroy is a former editorial intern and recent Marquette University graduate.
‘Brotherhood of Bruisers’ appears in the January issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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