Referee Brie Montoya judges in favor of O.C. Hayes at an Ugly Dojo wrestling match. (Photo by Erin Bucknell, courtesy of The Ugly Dojo)

The Thrill of the Ring

Sacramento’s small-town professional wrestling scene is just as colorful as the big league

Back Web Only May 17, 2024 By Becky Grunewald

The alley entrance of a warehouse behind the Broadway Taco Bell on a recent Saturday was a portal to another world. A world of drama, where fans chanted and booed lustily, the air redolent of masculine funk. A world where old scores were settled and new feuds began — one where good battled evil as the crowd gazed rapt at beefy bodies in Spandex shorts, the slap of flesh against flesh ringing out. This was The Ugly Dojo — a six-month-old amateur wrestling academy and troupe — but to these fans it might as well have been the Thunderdome.

The impresario behind this venture is Big Ugly, government name Gabe Jimenez, also known as JD Bishop, a legend in the local wrestling scene — although he laughingly says, “In this business, that just means that you’re old.” He’s been wrestling since 1991. Raised in Sacramento, he was inspired as a kid by WWF (now known as WWE) superstar Rowdy Roddy Piper and later trained with him in the Pacific Northwest. Jimenez took over an outfit called Sacramento Pro Wrestling in 2001 and ran it for 12 years. 

A family affair

For Jimenez, wrestling is a family affair. He eventually stepped back from SPW (which now stands for Supreme Pro Wrestling and is still active) to focus on going to college and being a single dad. But he was pulled back in when his daughter Abigail “La Bruja” Ellison and son Titus Jimenez wanted to train with him. 

“My son Titus, he’s all over the world: Japan, Italy, Canada, Mexico and then all over the country,” he says. “And then my youngest son, James Bishop, he’s 15, he was the camera guy at the (Ugly Dojo) show. He’s been training for about five months, since we opened up, and probably in about four to five months he’ll have his first match.” Abigail is also wrestling “a lot,” he says.

Due to Jimenez’ deep wrestling connections, The Ugly Dojo has grown fast. “I have a total of 10 students right now, and that’s probably more than I want, because the more students you have, the less time each student gets. I like to keep my numbers down so every student’s getting quality time.” 

Wrestling is his hobby and a true labor of love; his day job is as a home health aide. He says that the money from the matinees and from the students he’s training just go to keep the lights on at The Ugly Dojo and that he made more money when he was simply a wrestling performer rather than a promoter and trainer.

A ref enters the ring

Jimenez’ good reputation in wrestling pulled in referee Brianna, stage name Brie Montoya. She’s a relatively new wrestling fan who comes from a performance background in burlesque. A professional archivist, she tends to dive deep into topics that interest her. 

“I got really obsessed really quickly,” Montoya says of her first forays into wrestling fandom in 2018. “I borrowed some DVDs from the library of WWE events. They had a woman referee, and I was like, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ I know my body is not going to be happy if I try to be a wrestler, but this is something I might do.”

She was living in Portland, Oregon at the time and, coincidentally, a fellow burlesque performer knew of a wrestling school in Seattle where she could be trained by the very female referee she had noticed: Aubrey Edwards, who now refs for All Elite Wrestling, the second biggest wrestling promotion after WWE. 

Montoya started to referee matches in 2019, put her hobby on hold during the pandemic (during which she also moved to Sacramento) and got a recommendation from a fellow referee in Pacifica, where she was traveling frequently to ref, to reach out to Big Ugly. She went to a class at The Ugly Dojo a few months ago, and she and Jimenez formed a professional relationship of mutual respect.

Bobby Callahan, “The Metal Mechanic,” chokes El Flaco Loco, known off-stage as punk rock musician and teacher Danny Reynoso. (Photo by Becky Grunewald)

“What made me feel really comfortable really quickly is him impressing upon the importance of the referee in a wrestling match and making me feel valued,” she says. She also elaborates that the Dojo is an equitable and inclusive space where “nobody’s trying to hit on me. Nobody’s trying to talk down to me because I’m a woman.”

She echoed Jimenez in saying that she’s not in this for the money. When she started reffing in the Northwest, she was happy if the amount covered her gas money.

During the match at The Dojo, Montoya brings a light-footed, poker-faced intensity to her role, even when the raucous crowd is chanting, “Ref, you suck!”

Inspired by Lucha Libre

The Dojo match culminates with a bout between another longtime local wrestler, El Flaco Loco, and his silken-haired opponent, Bobby Callahan, “The Metal Mechanic,” who carries an outsized wrench with him into the ring.

Flaco, aka punk rock musician and teacher Danny Reynoso, has a signature entrance move: He strips off his outer, Lucha Libre-style full-face mask to reveal an inner mask. It’s somehow never not funny and is an homage to luchador Mil Mascaras (thousand masks), who transfixed a young Reynoso when he first saw him on TV. 

“I was just drawn to him, not even knowing, as a Mexican who’s been Americanized, that this is a part of my culture,” Reynoso says. “My father never said it was fake. He just said, ‘They’re putting on a show.’ … So that was when (I) got into wrestling as a fan, and I’ve always been a fan my entire life.”

Nicknamed “Flaco” (Skinny) as a kid, he started to do a wrestling-type character to promote a video store he worked at called Cinemania. He would do in-store promos as the character. Once, that involved sitting in a window display, drinking Tecate and flipping people off. 

In the ‘90s, Reynoso got involved with Bay Area outfit Incredibly Strange Wrestling, which trafficked more in wild gimmicks than skillful, technical wrestling. Around 2000 he got his mind blown by the DIY, punk intensity of a SPW wrestling show he went to at The Colonial Theater, shared a wrestling tape with the promoter (who happened to be The Big Ugly), and a long wrestling friendship was born. Although first, some hard truths had to be shared. Reynoso says, “I give him the tape, and he got back to me right away. He’s like, ‘You suck as a wrestler, but you’re pretty good on the mic. So if you want, I can train you.’”

He started to wrestle with SPW, as well as with Revolutionary Pro Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Iron, and some promotions in Nevada and Oregon. He semi-retired from wrestling for a decade, and then about two years ago got talked back into it by a friend and “got bit by the bug again.”

Now in his early 50s and finding that he doesn’t bounce back from injuries like he used to (he details a particularly gruesome one involving a guitar-smashing stunt that resulted in him getting staples put into his scalp), Reynoso is still thriving. “Honestly, these past two years have been my most successful financially, but I make more from the merch table than from the promoter,” he says.

At a Saturday night show put on by the Total Wrestling Federation at The Colonial, which is attended by several hundred people (including City Councilman Eric Guerra), Flaco is on stage getting his butt kicked by two guys in tights, one of whom is 7 feet tall. When it’s over, a female wrestler who is not even in the match runs in and kicks him while he’s down. Still, he’s loving it, saying, “This is what real wrestling is. It’s homegrown. It’s in your face. It’s genuine.”

Editor’s note May 20, 2024: This story has been edited to reflect referee Brie Montoya’s request to remove her last name and workplace.

Stay up to date on business in the Capital Region: Subscribe to the Comstock’s newsletter today.

Recommended For You

Giving Students a Fighting Chance With Combat U

When Dr. Luke Wood was finding his sea legs as Sac State’s new president, he walked over to Urijah Faber’s Ultimate Fitness gym on Folsom Boulevard, put on his boxing gloves and sparred with the gym owner. Then a light went off in Wood’s head. Since he was reinventing the university anyway, why not use the opportunity to partner with Faber in setting up a system so students could go to school for fighting?

May 3, 2024 Sasha Abramsky