Derek and Dustin Mehl, aka the Stoner Brothers, run a wrestling school called Stoner University. (Image Courtesy of Pat Mazzera)

Hoodslam, the 420-Friendly, Anti-Racist Wrestling Troupe, Might Just Be the Bay Area’s Best Startup

I’m waiting in line to enter the Oakland Metro Operahouse for Hoodslam’s special 4/20 wrestling event. Some fans are exchanging vape hits. I’m offered several, which I politely refuse. The thought of being inside this venue stoned terrifies me. One guy produces a grocery bag of airplane bottles of liquor, asking me to grab one. I’m taken aback by all the generosity from people I’ve never met. And so, I reach into the bag and pull out a bottle of Schnapps. “I always put one stinker in there,” my new friend explains.

The night’s energy feels more like a hardcore show than a wrestling performance. The fans stand shoulder-to-shoulder — there are no seats — on the weathered wood floor, surrounding a ring that will disappear shortly after the event concludes. Though we’re all witnessing simulated violence, there’s no sense of aggression between any of the onlookers; it’s oddly congenial. Admittedly, though, the clouds of weed and cheap beers are probably helping.

Within the growing cohort of indie wrestling promotions, Hoodslam doesn’t fit neatly into any one category. Some organizations, like Lucha VaVOOM, lean into the Mexican Lucha Libre style, paired with comedy. Meanwhile, Chikara offers “family-friendly” wrestling. Another California outfit, All Pro Wrestling, has a similar aesthetic and commentary of WWE matches. L.A.-based Lucha Underground might be the closest thing to Hoodslam in terms of style, but it’s more polished, and also on TV.

Hoodslam, on the other hand, has elements of all these promotions — save for the “family friendly” part. There’s some comedy, and while it’s not televised, you can watch it on Twitch. The matches themselves range from purely gonzo theatrics to pro-level athleticism. Wherever they fall on that spectrum, though, the performers often spill out of the ring, forcing the standing-room-only blob of fans to shift accordingly. It only gets more bizarre from there: At one moment in the evening, I’m watching two men, one in a banana suit, exchange nut-shots; at another, a recurring character, the Ghost of Charlie Chaplin, makes an appearance and (to the untrained eye at least) seemingly invisibly chokes his opponent.

The most unique part of the Hoodslam 4/20 card, however, was the “Smoklahoma Iron Lung Challenge” match, a tag-team bout where the winner was decided by the team that could finish their blunt first (I think).

All of this, of course, is meant to be diverse — certainly more diverse than the sanitized wrestling monopoly that is the WWE. But it’s also meant to be diverse in the truest, most contemporary sense, too. Along those lines, Sam Khandaghabadi is of Middle Eastern descent. He noticed a particular lack of representation when he’d attend shows. Wrestling, especially the WWE, holds a losing record in this regard — the Middle East has mostly been used as a villainous plot device, rarely portrayed in a positive or accurate light. “When I first went to [wrestling] shows, I didn’t go, ‘Oh man, I hope one day I can be like that white guy shouting fake Arab [sic] at everybody.’ That was never my goal. I remember pulling my hat low, hoping no one would think I’m like that person,” Khandaghabadi explains. A former cannabis club employee, he founded Hoodslam originally as an inclusive event for dispensary patients.

Though Hoodslam is often, if not always, raunchy and vulgar, Khandaghabadi draws a line between distasteful and discriminatory. The extremely creepy Nurse Ratchet, for example, has a signature move called the “STD Test.” It looks like a prostate exam. Nonetheless, Khandaghabadi argues, “We want to shock the senses and give you something you haven’t seen, but not ever at the risk of not being inclusive.”

In a lot of ways commentator “Broseph” Joe Brody perfectly embodies this dichotomy — and the overall whimsy of the promotion. During Hoodslam events, he enters the ring to “Photograph” by Nickelback, all the while wielding Axe body-spray cans. He’s jacked, and looks like someone who’d ask if you’re still using the bench press when you clearly just got there. He’s an asshole, and serves as the quintessential heel.

In person, he’s A.J. Kirsch, a former contestant on the reality show WWE Tough Enough. Kirsch is calm, friendly and not a fighter nor a fan of confrontation — though he and Broseph are both gym rats and unironic Nickelback fans. Onstage, Broseph revels in antagonizing the audience. Throughout the event, fans yell “Fuck you, bro!” to him, and he’ll yell “Fuck you, bro” back. “Between the opening chords of ‘Photograph’ and Axe body spray, it took the crowd no time at all to be like, ‘Oh, yeah. Fuck that guy,’” Kirsch says.

In between matches, Broseph jumps into the ring, hyping up the audience and the next match. For those close to the ring, you might get a shot of Jack poured in your mouth — which, by my own observation, is requested by yelling, “Fuck you, bro!”

Another popular chant at Hoodslam is “fuck the fans.” Broseph will sometimes start it, but other times, the fans themselves will yell it, unprovoked. In the end, however, it’s all obviously theater ; once the show is over, the wrestlers and Broseph have a warm and familiar rapport with the fans. “When it’s the show, it’s full fucking bro mode. But when it’s not the show, I’m living a life that I worked really hard to cultivate. So the last thing I want is for anybody to leave and [be] like, ‘I think that guy’s really an asshole.’ I don’t want to be that guy,” says Kirsch.

Hoodslam, the event, is the main product. But like other Bay Area startups, it’s also an incubator for local talent, some of whom have gone on to larger stages. Two Hoodslam wrestlers and real-life twins, Derek and Dustin Mehl, wrestle as the Stoner Brothers and run a wrestling school called Stoner University. Students learn wrestling essentials like how to “bump” and general wrestling etiquette; some participate in Stoner U pre-show matches at Hoodslam. It’s one way Hoodslam gives back to the community.

So for all the Axe spraying, blunt smoking and STD testing, Hoodslam never aims to hit below the belt (or in Hoodslam parlance—go for the nut shot). If anything, it only wants to play to the top of the room. Or as Khandaghabadi tells me, “We know it’s a show. And the audience knows it’s a show. We don’t want them to feel their intelligence being insulted.”