Tom Benno may appear to be a mild-mannered Oak Park lawyer, but he has an inner-wrestler. His name is Apocalypto. Dressed in a black, hooded robe, he wears a mask with a mouth that twists from a frown to a smile.
He introduced the character at the Nov. 5 Reincarnation Show at the Addison Community Center. The house lights went off as Apocalypto made his dramatic entrance to the Darth Vader march. At the climax of his match, Apocalypto lifted a 250-pound wrestling villain by the throat and slammed him to the mat. He calls the patented move "The Apocalypse."
Benno, 57, was the captain of his high school wrestling team in Boston and continued his grappling at Colgate University. After obtaining a doctorate in political philosophy, Benno embarked on a career in law enforcement and investigation. Changing direction, slightly, he graduated from John Marshall Law School in the 1990s and has enjoyed great success as a trial attorney.
When he opened a law office at 694 Larch in Elmhurst, he found it had a 3,500-square-foot space in the rear. Then he met Carlos Robles, a former boxer-turned-trainer.
"We were like long-lost brothers," Benno recalled. "We had the same dream of bringing our two cultures together."
What better way to do this than through wrestling. They formed the Gladiators Azteca Lucha Libre Association (GALLI). "We fuse Mexican-style wrestling with the American style," Benno said. He described the Mexican version as "very high-flying, very gymnastic and extremely fast-paced." Plus, the Latin wrestlers are arrayed in colorful costumes and masks. Today, GALLI has 32 wrestlers, half of them grappling lucha libre style, the other half "wrasslin'" the American way.
The partners transformed the back room into a training center for boxers and wrestlers. The space also doubles as a 200-seat arena. The most recent show on Jan. 6 was sold out. Mexican and American food items were available, along with wrestling-related merchandise. Tickets for the family-friendly event ranged from $5 to $15.
Colored lights and strobes flashed as rap and mariachi music played over the loud speakers. Unfurled above the wrestling ring was a Lucha Libre International banner. The place was packed with wrestling aficionados of mixed ages and ethnicities. Benno greeted the crowd wearing a brown sport coat and glasses, which concealed his identity as Apocalypto.
When the show began, Robles introduced the wrestlers in English and in Spanish. There were cheers from the Justified fans and roars from the Apocalypto crowd. The seven-match event started with a villain stalking the crowd and taunting, "Don't clap for me. You people are so ugly." He continued his insults, and the crowd responded with chants of "Loser."
The tag-team matches featured vicious throws, body slams and clothes-lining. Bodies flew from the ring and landed on bare concrete. This wasn't enough for some competitors, who jumped on the fallen.
The crowd was boisterous throughout, especially at the start of the third match, when one team came out waving a Mexican flag, while their opponents hoisted the red, white and blue. Chants of "Viva Mexico" competed with shouts of "U-S-A, U-S-A" (and one lone voice singing "Oh Canada").
The wrestlers wore diabolical masks and very little else. Red marks appeared on their backs and welts on their arms. After ring-shaking body slams, they reached to massage their lower backs. Sometimes they came up limping but always "recovered" during the course of the match. With the exception of the pulled kicks and punches, the combat was Spartan-like in its intensity.
During the intermission, Seymour Butz, as he is professionally known, said he had been an AWA referee for 15 years. He has spent the past two years policing the GALLI matches.
"I don't speak Spanish," he said, "so I'm lost in translation out there."
He noted that the lucha libre tag-team matches often degenerated into two-on-one affairs. Despite the violent nature of the sport, however, he noted, "We're all one big happy family."
Butz appeared to be extending matches sometimes by not quite reaching the number 3 during a pin and good naturedly endured the protests from the wrestlers. He is a big fan of the lucha libre style.
"GALLI offers more entertainment than the WWE," he said, "at a 10th of the price."
In the sixth match, the villain came out reading a book, enjoying it while sitting on the ropes. Responding to the cat calls from the crowd, he shouted back, "I'm trying to read here!" which caused the fans to erupt, "Teacher's Pet! Teacher's Pet!"
The Showcase Match came last and featured a villain who could double for Alice Cooper. He had black face paint smeared on his cheeks, wild straggly black hair and wore a seedy black raincoat. He swung a heavy rope, with a noose knotted at the end.
Justified in all his muscular glory, wearing a black cowboy hat tilted at a rakish angle and the briefest of briefs, took the center of ring. A sizable contingent of dressed-to-kill young females squealed and raised their signs paying tribute to their hero. The villain snatched one of the Justified signs out of their hands and ripped it apart.
The Darth Vader theme started and Apocalypto came through the curtain to raucous applause. The 57-year-old masked avenger held his own in the ring, while Justified did much of the heavy lifting. The match came to a thunderous conclusion with Apocalypto slamming his opponent with his signature move and the referee finally making it to three.
"Many wrestling fans are turned-off by TV wrestling," Benno said, prior to the match, "It's ultra-violent, with scantily-clad women and sexual innuendo. Our matches don't have any profanity or innuendo and good always triumphs over evil."
The GALLI matches showcase high-risk moves performed at a breakneck pace. "Luchadores" launch themselves at opponents from the top ropes. "They are excellently conditioned," Benno said, explaining their appeal to the 15-35 female crowd. "They are graceful and athletic and perform very dangerous moves."
Benno is more old-school American when he's stalking the ring as Apocalypto. "Carlos didn't think I could do it, but I went through two years of training and lost 40 pounds," Benno said. Weightlifting and core training enabled him to execute the power moves typical of American wrestling.
"It's a sporting event and a show combined," Benno said. "All the moves are real. You'll see red marks after body slams. It's like training to become a stunt man." Though some of the combat is choreographed, Benno likes to occasionally "improvise a maneuver to excite the crowd. It's a real-life interactive sports drama."
In this sweaty morality fable, Benno is leader of the heroic "Apocalyptic Alliance." For example, he and the 6-foot-3, 265-pound Justified do battle with wrestling "heels" like Noriega, the former Puerto Rican champion. The matches also feature 300-pound "grunt and groaners" in the "Dick the Bruiser mold," Benno said.
So far, the GALLI shows have attracted mixed audiences of blue- and white-collar fans. "They're hooked," Benno said. "They tell me the shows are reminiscent of the ones they used to see at the Amphitheater."
Robles was certainly a fan back then, though he admits becoming a wrestling promoter by accident. Forced to retire from the boxing ring by a torn retina, Robles started training fighters at a gym in Villa Park. "It had an old wrestling ring," Robles said, "Lucha libre wrestlers started coming there to train."
When he was introduced to Benno, Robles said it was love at first sight.
"We both had the same dream of bringing our cultures together," he recalled. Robles also harbored a vision of helping underprivileged youth. "When kids are serious about boxing but can't afford it, I train them for free."
Robles' fighters compete in USA Boxing tournaments, and one of his young charges has won three state titles. About 90 percent of the kids who give his gym a try find they have no stomach for fighting. Still, he has 30 students boxing and wrestling at the GALLI facility.
"Boxing opened the doors for lucha libre," Robles said. "That's how God works. He's very benevolent."
Benno also envisions a higher purpose for GALLI than thrilling audiences. With his practice already blessed by seven-figure settlements, he's been able to do a healthy percentage of pro bono work.
"I want wrestling to provide enough money so I can do more of that kind of work," he said.
Benno's next match is at 6:45 p.m., Feb. 24, at his Elmhurst venue, 694 Larch. Tickets can be obtained from their website, or by calling Robles at (630) 847-5950.