Investigative journalist, comedian, filmmaker and popular podcast host Harmon Leon (who, full disclosure, regularly writes for Observer) has gone back undercover to infiltrate American subcultures and explore the phenomenon of cultural tribalism with the release of his eighth book, Tribespotting: Undercover (Cult)ure Stories.
With artwork by cartoonist Keith Knight to enhance the enlightening narrative, Leon dives headfirst into some of our countries most unusual tribes during such a divided time in the United States. From furries and trophy wife hunters, to a church for ex-hookers who walk the streets for Jesus and a group of white supremacists who recruit at Applebee’s, Tribespotting not only examines tribal behaviors but also their many manifestations within modern culture.
Published by 39 West Press, Leon’s book, which is now available for purchase, will officially launch with a multimedia extravaganza performance/book release party (it’s open to the public—get your tickets here) at Quimby’s Bookstore in Brooklyn on Thursday, Oct. 24., at 8 p.m. And in honor of the celebration, Leon has shared the below chapter of Tribespotting with Observer.
Body-Slammin’ for Jesus
Dr. Shock, the good-ol’-boy ring announcer, asked the crowd, “Are you ready for some good old fashion wrasslin’?” Hungry for wrestling excitement, they responded with cheers and applause. The bell rang, and an overweight wrestler known as Mr. Evil flew off the ropes, delivering a crushing hangman’s neck breaker to his unfortunate opponent, Dixie Dynamite.
“Come on, Dixie, come on!” screamed a redheaded kid.
Ka-pow! Dixie was leveled in the back of the head with a metal folding chair. As his body was carried out of the wrestling ring, Dr. Shock, who stood on stage in front of a large wooden cross, said to the hardened wrestling fans, “Hey, how many people love Jesus Christ?”
It was a typical Saturday night in rural Georgia, where wrestling is religion—literally! At the Harvest Church, body-slammin’ for Jesus was the ultimate battle of good versus evil.
Inside the dressing room, bare-chested Christian wrestlers donned in spandex tights wrapped their wrists with tape and grabbed each other, practicing ring moves that had been crafted with biblical symbolism in mind. “He’s going to hit me. I’m going to land on my back, and we’re going to call that move The Fallen Angel,” instructed Rob Adonis, the founder of Ultimate Christian Wrestling (UCW).
This perfect marriage of Christianity and WWE-style wrestling was resurrected by Adonis in June 2003. “Our first show was in Canton, Georgia—at a skating rink. We packed out the place. About 200 people were there,” he explained. “We had three people that made a move and were saved that night.”
After spending five years in mainstream wrestling, inspiration for UCW struck Adonis in the middle of the night. “I woke up on my birthday in a cold sweat,” he said. “I felt I had something laid on me to do. It’s been a stellar ride ever since.”
UCW spreads its wrestling gospel of Jesus all over the state of Georgia. “Typically, in every show, 10% of the crowd will make a move to give their life to Christ,” Adonis said. “So, if we have a hundred in the crowd, 10 people will move. And that’s what we’re going for. It’s the folks that don’t know Christ, that don’t have any idea about salvation or forgiveness of sin. That’s the one’s we’re really trying to go after.”
As the rowdy crowd filed into the church and took their seats in metal folding chairs, a DJ spun Christian rock music, setting the spiritual tone for the high-flying, body-slamming action that was about to commence. At the concession stand, popular items included Where the Big Boys Pray T-shirts and other impulse wrestling swag, such as Bibles. Hordes of small children scurried about the auditorium, waiting restlessly for their favorite grapplers to take the ring.
Since UCW falls into the category of independent Christian wrestling, the athletes range in size from muscled with big pot bellies (“heels”) to scrawny skinny kids (“baby-faces”) who wrestle in street clothes.
“We got characters at this point that have gotten so much popularity that they’ve got a following,” expounded Adonis. “And these people, collectively, they will find people that won’t go to church… but they go to wrestling shows. And they come in and meet Christ. It’s a life changing experience.”
Between matches, the adrenaline-filled wrestlers gathered in the dressing room for a prayer. Mr. Evil, Dustin Powers, Frankie Valentine, and Dixie Dynamite—all in their ridiculous wrestling outfits—bowed their heads. “Thank you God for letting us do what we enjoy,” prayed Adonis. “We’re doing all this for you and your kingdom, God…”
But not everyone agrees that it is a good idea to mix the pacifist message of Christ with the violence of hitting people on the head with metal folding chairs. While putting on a karate robe, Adonis shared with the group an encounter he had with a pastor who frowned upon the idea of Christian wrestling.
“He told me, ‘Everyone at our church is already saved, and we want to keep it that way!’ Man, I got to get a copy of that Bible he’s using,” Adonis said with a laugh. “Wow, does God win in his Bible, too?!”
Plus, there were a few moments that, understandably, raised some Christian eyebrows.
“Every woman’s dream,” announced Dr. Shock, “Frankie Valentine. LET’S MAKE SOME NOISE!” The crowd went wild as Valentine appeared in the ring with the outline of his large package clearly visible in his tight tights, leaving nothing for the Christian imagination.
Adonis assured me that the costume was biblically accurate. “There were men in the Bible who dressed up in loincloths and ran through the marketplace all in the name of Christ,” he said. “Our philosophy is to get them in here. Do whatever you got to do, and give them the truth. The truth will set them free. You know, that’s our goal.”
So, the sexually explicit clothing can be explained away as biblical. But what about the gratuitous violence and all the blood?
“We try to avoid the blood,” Adonis explained. “It happens on accident, yeah. We always have chairs flying. I’ve had my nose busted open a couple of times from some miscues. The crowd goes crazy. People like gore.”
After a moment, taking a more Christian approach, Adonis added” “We don’t like blood, because one, it’s not real sanitary. Two, we don’t like to mar up our mat; we like to keep it all nice and clean. And three, most churches don’t want to see it; the kids don’t want to see it. So, if there’s any blood, it’s purely because there’s something sticking out of the chair, and boom, it hits you and rips you open.”
Before the main event, which was billed as the Ultimate Showdown, I sat down with announcer Dr. Shock, who has done it all in the wrestling business, including running American All Pro- Wrestling.
“I was in the mainstream. I was being booked in bars, mountain homes and trailer parks. If there’s a place to put a wrestling ring, I’ve put one there,” he said.
“What made you tire of the mainstream?” I asked.
“Just the vulgarity, the alcohol, the cursing… stuff you’d associate with wrestling nowadays. When I got redirected in church and to Jesus, it was hard for me to go out Saturday night.”
As a result, Dr. Shock sold his wrestling organization and gave himself to the heavyweight champ of all-time: Jesus Christ.
“What’s the big difference between UCW and the WWE?” I asked him.
“The WWE, that’s a whole different realm, a whole different realm,” replied Dr. Shock. “I don’t even watch that stuff on TV. Mainly, it’s based on how big the guy can be and how good looking the lady can be. It has nothing to do with Jesus… in my opinion.”
Finally, it was time for the main event. “Hey, I just got to say something,” announced Dr. Shock. “How many people love Jesus Christ?”
As the crowed responded with applause and cheers, Mr. Evil— clad in dark shades, a trench coat and carrying the heavyweight belt on his shoulder—entered the ring to a cloud of smoke and Drowning Pool’s “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor,” which blared over the church’s sound system. The cheers and applause quickly morphed into boos, jeers and taunts.
“Go home!” heckled someone from the crowd. Mr. Evil, in the most un-Christian way possible, told the man to shut up.
“Let me tell you one thing… when Mr. Evil comes through that door, you stand on your feet and pay him the respect that I demand and deserve,” hollered Mr. Evil, referring to himself in the third- person. “You see that belt right there. I have earned your respect. So, I expect everyone out here to stand, or I’m going to come out there and slap you upside the head.”
It appeared that the 300-pound Mr. Evil was the embodiment of Satan himself—that was until he removed his trench coat, revealing his large belly, which, in my view, lessened his previously threatening stature.
While Mr. Evil warmed up, Rob Adonis, with a towel around his neck, made a grand entrance, high-fiving little kids before mounting the top rope to greet the cheering fans.
The bell rang, and with a quick drop kick and a flip, Mr. Evil landed his girthy ass right on top of Adonis. The crowd went wild. Things got much worse for Adonis as Dr. Evil slammed him to the mat, strangling him with a towel and crucifying him with a guillotine.
“That’s illegal ref! That’s illegal!” screamed the redheaded kid.
Adding insult to injury, the champ handcuffed Adonis to the ropes and then let his manager stomp on, choke and kick him.
To a sea of boos, Mr. Evil raised his arms in the air, signaling retention of the Ultimate Christian Wrestling heavyweight belt. Poor Rob Adonis was left handcuffed in the ring.
“Hold on, we got a little more,” announced Dr. Shock, as a few tired fans began to head toward the exit.
Rob Adonis, free from the ropes but with one side of the handcuffs still locked around his wrist, had something symbolic to say. “As I’m looking at this chain wrapped around my wrist, handcuffed, as I was handcuffed to this rope, I’m reminded of a message I want to share with you,” he told the crowd. “This represents the chains of bondage within a person’s soul. Are you living a life right now that’s got you shackled in chains? There’s only one addiction out there, and that’s the addiction to Christ!”
Clearly moved, the wrestling crowd was once again on their feet, hooting and applauding with their fists raised in the air.
“Woo!” “That’s right!” “Amen bro!”
To conclude the evening’s festivities, the pastor of Harvest Church entered the ring with one final sales pitch. “God brought wrestling to our area!” he proclaimed. “If you want to make that decision tonight to follow our lord, Jesus Christ, stand up.”
As a line of small children were led by trained counselors to a small room for more prayer, Adonis boasted about the UCW’s grand tally of saved souls. “Tonight, we topped over 300 souls saved!” he exclaimed. “Eight to 10 people made a move tonight!”
With the bone-crunching, soul-saving spectacle complete, Dr. Shock summarized the impact of UCW’s mission: “Everywhere we go, it’s gotten bigger and better. And it’s because of Jesus. Put him first, and you ain’t got a problem. So, as far as wrestling goes, it’s Christian wrestling or no wrestling at all.”
From Tribespotting: Undercover Cult(ure) Stories by Harmon Leon. Copyright 2019 by Harmon Leon. Excerpted by permission of the author and 39 West Press. Excerpt edited by Observer.