“Yeah, Fridays and Sundays.” Roberts has 51 hard years ground into his face. He’s small, five foot eight, with short — Marine Corps short — receding black hair. He wears glasses with big, big rims. One arm of his eyepiece is fastened to a brown plastic lens frame with what looks to be a Band-Aid. This fashion statement complements a layer of white stubble sprouting along his chin and underneath his nose. Roberts said he used to wrestle under the name Sheik Abdul. So far, everyone I’ve met in wrestling world has been leery of facts, starting with the year they were born, but I note Roberts has the remnants of an athlete’s barrel chest and talks how I imagine a wrestler would talk. Good enough for tonight.
“How many wrestling schools in Tijuana?”
“Three that I know of. They’re very good.”
Traffic is gloriously light, so light it feels like Super Bowl Sunday. “Is Tijuana wrestling considered minor or major league?”
“It’s like a farm club you see in baseball. When major-league wrestling comes to Tijuana they use a lot of guys out of the wrestling schools.”
We arrive at the border. Roberts picks the easternmost lane for entry. The rattling van shudder-stops, then eases forward behind four, three, now two cars. Roberts touches his forehead with the index finger of his right hand, then, likewise, touches his right shoulder, then his left shoulder, then quickly brings together both hands in prayer, then nods at a Mexican border guard and we are through.
In return for the tour I offer to host dinner. Roberts makes his way to Los Albanilon, a neighborhood restaurant located on the corner of Allende and Matamoros, five minutes from downtown.
The south side of Los Albanilon is open to the street and therefore open to smells of diesel, gasoline, and rubber. Roberts and I select a table near an interior wall and order a plateful of tacos. In one of those rare moments when the world fits together perfectly, I observe, behind partially drawn curtains, a black-haired boy huddled close to an ancient TV. He’s watching a Hulk Hogan movie.
Conversation begins with wrestling. Roberts asserts, “Vince McMahon Senior was the best wwf [World Wrestling Federation] in the world. He had everything, but he died and his son took over and destroyed it.”
“Hold it, Junior is the one who made real money. He took the wwf to civic arenas, got it on pay-per-view TV, cable TV, made it a brand name.”
Roberts shakes his head. “Vince McMahon Senior was the one who got all the good wrestlers. He traveled the world getting the best wrestlers, and then when he died, his son destroyed the wwf by letting those guys go.”
Dinner arrives on two diminutive green plastic plates. Each plate holds three tiny tacos and a lettuce salad. “Do you know any wrestlers who made it to the bigs?”
“Psychosis. He went Triple-A. He was invited to wrestle for the ecw [Extreme Championship Wrestling]. People in Philadelphia and the whole ecw community, even the promoter, were shocked. They’d never seen Mexican wrestling the way it was done that night. Rey Misterio Jr., Konnan, Psychosis, all those guys are Mexican wrestlers I know very well. They made it.”
I try a bite of lettuce salad. An additional bite consumes the offering. “How about the business end? Have you ever promoted a wrestling card?”
“Two years ago I did a show in Chula Vista right off Main Street. Okay, I didn’t sell out, but I drew more than the guy who was promoting boxing. I drew 165 people. I had a dang good show, a dang good show.”
“How many matches on your card?” I select the middle taco from my green plastic plate. Again, one bite consumes half.
“Five. All top names too. I didn’t have no first- or second-match sleepers. I had guys who wanted to work and wanted to wrestle.”
“Who was the headliner?”
“It was,” Roberts pauses a full five beats, “Apocalypse and Cyclops against, what’s-his-name, the Mexican kid,” three beats pass, “I forget.”
“What did you pay the top guy?”
“I paid him decent, I paid him more than…”
“A hundred bucks?”
“Naw, it averaged out to 80 bucks. I paid them decent. I didn’t disappoint them,” three beats, “there were some guys from L.A. who came down and did it for 40 bucks.”
“You can’t live on that. You can’t buy gas on that. Why do people do it, train that long and that hard for 40 bucks a match?”
“Guys do it because they don’t have anything else to do — they have free time, so they train. They don’t care.”
I lean back, peek into the adjoining room, observe Hulkster bitch-slapping a bearded villain. “There’s no pro wrestling in San Diego. How come?”
“San Diego can be a market if we get the right people to put it on. I could make it big. I can make wrestling big. We can knock the wwf out of town, knock the wcw [World Championship Wrestling] out of town. I can bring in big names. I just need a couple of sponsors, that’s all.
“I worked with this guy, he did a promotion a couple of years ago. He wants me to do a show, a big ‘Mexico versus U.S.A.’ show. It will work — nobody has ever done a show like that.”
Tonight’s main event is for the championship De Las Americas, Thunderbird of Tijuana versus the Imposter of the U.S.A. “Think back to when you were wrestling. How would Sheik Abdul describe pro wresting?”
“You do things you’re not supposed to do. When the commissioner comes in and says, ‘Don’t use no foreign objects,’ we did anyway and got suspended. Like, I’ve put a guy on the floor, in the ring, in his own puddle of blood. I got suspended and a $200 fine. The referee was supposed to stop it. He didn’t, and he got blackballed from wrestling.”