A frenzy of fiddle notes fill the air as Darren Mulligan, a.k.a. the Irish Car Bomb Sean Mulligan, jigs his way into the hastily assembled ring in the middle of a VFW hall in south suburban Summit. The husky 6-foot-3 wrestler climbs the corner ropes, raises a bottle of Jameson, and pours a shot as the crowd of 200 claps to a rousing Celtic rock song.
“Don’t touch my whiskey!” barks Mulligan, pointing his beefy finger at the front row, which is made up almost entirely of 30-ish dudes in black T-shirts—and one guy in a Spider-Man mask. Adrenaline sufficiently pumped, the Irish Car Bomb is ready to go off. Even in the low-budget mayhem of tonight’s indie league Resistance Pro event, professional wrestling rides on the muscled backs of its larger-than-life characters. And Mulligan’s Irish bruiser is a doozy.
Within seconds, Mulligan is trading blows with the tattooed and bearded Cody Jones, a fireplug in black-and-red skivvies that leave far too little to the imagination. For 10 minutes, the match is even. But when Mulligan launches off the ropes on an attack, Jones surprises him with a devastating flying kick to the face and then pounces for the pin, delivering a few cheap shots for good measure. Just before the ref counts three, though, Mulligan pulls his beleaguered body off the floor. He struggles to the corner for another swig of whiskey and is revitalized like Popeye after a can of spinach.
“Somebody’s going to wake up with a hangover!” he growls.
He tosses Jones over his shoulder and hurls the smaller wrestler’s limp body onto the canvas with a thunderous crash. The crowd goes nuts, and an exhausted Mulligan takes a victory lap, high-fiving his way out the door.
There are hundreds of small wrestling outfits around the country, but Lockport-based Resistance Pro gained notoriety a few years ago thanks to the involvement of the world’s most famous teahouse proprietor and cat enthusiast, Billy Corgan. As Resistance Pro’s creative director, the Smashing Pumpkins frontman wrote characters and story lines that helped the league grab the interest of AMC for a reality series. But when the show deal fizzled toward the end of 2014, so did the relationship between Corgan and Jacques and Gabriel Baron, the Lockport brothers who started Resistance Pro in 2011. Seventy percent of the wrestlers on their roster walked, too.
The organization soon went bankrupt after habitually overpaying for established WWE stars and booking events at pricey nightclubs in River North. But Resistance Pro pulled itself off the mat and rebooted last year to focus, Jacques Baron says, on “undiscovered local talent and more intriguing story lines.”
Mulligan, who joined the league last year, is part of this new grassroots approach. About 12 years ago, after burning out on the standup comedy circuit, he saw a flier for a fantasy camp from the now-defunct Windy City Pro Wrestling. “My passion was always wrestling,” he says. “I was like, How can I take this comedy angle and turn it into what I really want to do?”
By day, the 36-year-old Lockport resident sells janitorial supplies (“Toilet paper to the layman,” he tells me with a wink). But on weekends, he dons tights the colors of the Irish flag and throws his body around with reckless abandon.
Mulligan and his indie brethren certainly don’t wrestle for the money. Resistance Pro’s talent makes between $25 and $100 per match—barely enough for gas for the 25 or so wrestlers (out of about 50) who drive in from out of state.
“Professional wrestlers, we’re narcissists and masochists,” says Stephane Robert, 31, a Ukrainian Village resident who wrestles as the ASS: Arrogant Super-Star Rob Fury. “We train countless hours and get ourselves in peak condition. Why? To beat the shit out of each other for the applause and adulation of the fans.”
While the action might be fake (or “predetermined,” as Robert puts it), the training—and the physicality—is very real. “It’s an illusion of mutilation,” Robert says. “We hit each other, but not to hurt each other. You have to control all of your actual hits.”
Robert, who works as an admissions adviser for a local IT training school, was both the captain of his high school JV football team and a theater geek. Pro wrestling provided the perfect outlet for combining his two passions. Sporting a Mohawk and blue tights, he clearly relishes his role as a bad guy. After winning his match against an acrobatic masked fighter called Spider Monkey, he sprays Champagne to mess with the next fight, also dousing the front-row crazies, who pay twice the $10 general admission to be a part of the action.
While the plot lines are straightforward—basically good versus evil—that doesn’t mean they’re easy to pull off. “The story has to be executed,” says Dick Griffiths, 32, a fan from Wicker Park, who is wearing goggles and a medieval-knight-style chain-mail hood. “You know what happens at the end of Star Wars, but it’s still a great movie. It’s all about the journey.”
The same can be said for the wrestlers themselves. Like Bob Stolzman, 30, who has taken his big-top brawler character, Yabo the Clown, on the road to compete in tournaments as far away as Minnesota. Based on the detail he’s put into his persona—he inflates balloons and juggles in the ring—the sturdy 6-foot-4 Stolzman, who lives in west suburban Bartlett and works as a welder, clearly has one eye on graduating to the next level.
“There are some wrestlers where this is their full-time job,” says the 10-year veteran, who beats reigning champ Cobra in the heavyweight title bout thanks to a devastating leg drop that makes excellent use of his floppy size 18 shoes. “It’s hard. You have to market yourself. If a promoter reaches out to you, you’re in luck.”
After the last match of the night, wrestlers and staff dismantle the stage. Stolzman, still in his clown makeup, holds his 10-month-old daughter while his wife sells Yabo T-shirts. I ask him how long he plans to keep up this punishing pursuit. “Ten more years would be good,” he says. “Maybe longer.”
He cracks a sly smile under his painted-on one. “I love beating my body up, to be honest. Being sore means I did a good job.”