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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.

Frankie DeFalco. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

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.

Brew City Wrestling match. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

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.

Read the rest of this story in the January issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Find a copy on newsstands beginning Monday, Jan. 2, buy a copy online at milwaukeemag.com/shop, or read it now using Member Pass.