WHERE THE ACTION IS
Action Zone Wrestling gears up for “Anniversary Annihilation.”
by Lance Tominaga
April 21, 2014: It began innocently enough. There I was, inside the Waipahu Fil-Com Center, enjoying another adrenaline-filled evening of Action Zone Wrestling, Hawaii’s only professional wrestling promotion.
It happened during the AZW Tag Team title match. The defending champs Urban Swag were up against the dastardly team called The Regime. Alas, things weren’t going so well for our heroes. The Regime (the villainous Al Ahmed and his growling brute, Jafar the Butcher) were dominating the action.
At one point, Al Ahmed had his opponent, Kid Romeo, lying helplessly in the middle of the ring. He picked Romeo up by his neck and jammed his head under one arm. Oh no! He was going to deliver the dreaded DDT!
Then it happened.
Without any provocation, Al Ahmed paused, turned toward us and pointed a menacing finger in my direction. He shot an angry glare straight at me.
“This is for YOU, fat boy!”
Then he promptly dropped Kid Romeo on his head.
The audience oohed. Naturally, I reacted as any other proud, red-blooded American male would. I looked to my left. I looked to my right. And then I shrugged, “Who, me?”
Of course, you know this means war.
The villainous duo of El Ahmed (pointing) and Jafar the Butcher.
This coming Monday, in the main event of Action Zone Wrestling’s “Anniversary Annihilation” show at the Waipahu Fil-Com Center, AZW Heavyweight Champion Ativalu defends his title against former champ Hard Knox Harrington in a “Last Man Standing” match.
It’s a fitting way to celebrate the company’s tenth anniversary. After all, Hawaii has seen a slew of professional wrestling promotions come and go since 1997 – World League Wrestling, Super Wrestling Force, Third Wave eXplosion, NWA Hawaii, Hawaii Championship Wrestling, etc. – and AZW, yes, is the last promotion standing.
AZW is the brainchild of Daryl Bonilla, a former wrestler who also has an extensive résumé as an actor and stand-up comedian. He got his start in the business in 1997, shortly after appearing in the independent film, Beyond Paradise.
“I was always a big fan of wrestling,” Bonilla recalls. “Then one day I was surfing channels and came cross World League Wrestling, which was run by Lars Anderson. I later went to watch a show, and literally that first night Lars asked me to ring announce the first match. I did that, then returned from the ring and sat down. Then Lars says, ‘Hey, would you mind doing commentary?’ I guess he liked what I did, and he brought me on as the host of the promotion. That’s really how it started.”
Bonilla would later try his hand as an in-ring performer, calling himself “DDB – Dangerous Daryl Bonilla,” but soon grew disillusioned with the business.
“I saw a lot of wasted potential in the other promotions,” he explains. “A lot of promotions started out on the right track, but they fell away from their original goals. A lot of wrestlers weren’t happy. I always believe that if you’re not happy at the place you’re at, you shouldn’t be there. So I stepped away and went back to acting for a while. In the back of my mind, though, I kept thinking that maybe I could just [build a successful promotion] myself.”
With Bonilla at the helm, AZW made its debut in the summer of 2005. The main event pitted A.J. Styles against Jamie Noble. Today, Styles is regarded as one of the top stars in the industry, while Noble is seen regularly in the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), the world’s billion-dollar sports entertainment company.
Although he no longer performs in the ring, Bonilla spends much of his time these days grappling with the various elements of pro wrestling.
“I do a little bit of everything,” he says. “Besides the financing, I book the venues and do the matchmaking. I produce and edit our TV shows. I help out with our Web site. And I help the wrestlers when it comes to creating and developing their characters.
“When I started AZW, I told the guys two things: I would give them a place to ply their craft, and that it would be fun. No matter where they may go from here, they will have had fun working in AZW, and they will have had the opportunity to develop and grow.”
"Dangerous" Daryl Bonilla runs the show at AZW.
Several AZW wrestlers have moved on to bigger promotions on the Mainland. Former AZW champion Jeff Cobb, for example, landed a contract with Lucha Underground, a pro wrestling TV series aired on the El Rey Network. Another AZW alumnus, Ali Shabazz, was recently profiled in the national magazine, Pro Wrestling Illustrated.
“It’s a little weird because here we are in Hawaii, this small and isolated place, yet there are still people who aren’t aware of AZW,” Bonilla says. “And when they do see an AZW show, they’re shocked in a good way because their expectations were so low. They watch what we do, and they say, ‘Wow, these guys are as good as some of the stuff we see on TV!’ When guys like Jeff Cobb bring us attention, I hope we start getting our just due because we draw good crowds and put on consistently good shows. Guys like Jeff and Ali Shabazz give their respect to AZW and it’s great to see them flourish.”
Over the years, AZW has built a loyal following of supporters.
“We have fans who come out to every single show,” says Bonilla. “I can’t appreciate them enough. When times are tough and tickets aren’t selling like they used to, you can guarantee that these hardcore fans are going to keep you going. We have a good rapport with the fans, and it makes for a great atmosphere at our shows. And when we bring in guest performers from the Mainland, they all leave loving AZW and our fans.”
Super fan Carl Zakabi has been following AZW since year one. “I love the local flavor of the shows and the wrestlers,” he says. “There’s a lot of local humor that just cracks me up. And I like that they’ll take the time to talk story with you after the show. They’re good people.”
As the 2014 ESPN Sports Festival drew near, I knew I would come face to face with Al Ahmed again. For the third consecutive year, the stars of AZW were going to be a part of the big event at the Neal Blaisdell Center Exhibition Hall.
When the day arrived, I was happy to see that my arch-nemesis was scheduled to appear in the very first match. That meant I wouldn’t have to wait much longer to get my revenge. My weeks of careful planning would finally bear fruit.
The masked villain was matched up against “Rock Hard” Rocko Shinoda, an undersized but scrappy grappler who also had a personal beef against Al Ahmed. When the bell sounded to begin the match, I sat at the front of the bleachers, ready to spring into action. Outwardly, I looked cool and calm. Inside, I was seething.
The bout went back and forth, and for a moment it looked like Al Ahmed would get another tainted victory. The fans booed and jeered, but it didn’t faze him. Al Ahmed grabbed the courageous Rocko and whipped him against the ring post. But to everyone’s surprise, Rocko leaped onto the second rope, climbed to the top and – in one motion – catapulted himself onto the surprised Al Ahmed. Their bodies crashed to the mat, with Rocko firmly on top. Al Ahmed’s shoulders were pinned as the referee dropped down to make the count.
“One…Two…Three!” Rocko Shinoda wins!
The crowd erupted in cheers as the defeated Al Ahmed glanced around, shocked and angry. It was time for me to make my move.
Ryan Franklin, aka "Rock Hard Rocko Shinoda," dives onto his opponent.
“Rocko Shinoda” wrestled the very first match in AZW history, losing to the company’s first champion, AkuA. Today, at age 31, the multiple-time tag team champion is still going strong, He recently formed a team with the massive force known as “The Final Solution.”
“I love tag team wrestling,” says Ryan Franklin, aka “Rock Hard Rocko Shinoda.” “I grew up watching teams like the Hart Foundation, and tag team wrestling is a lot of fun. I love the dynamic between me and Final Solution – the big man and the small man. It’s a lot more fun when the person you’re teaming with is practically your opposite.”
Franklin, who played baseball for the Farrington Governors as a high school senior, fulfilled a childhood dream when he became a pro wrestler. “Training to be a wrestler was tough, but I got through it,” he says, smiling. “I just love everything about pro wrestling. I love the in-ring action. I love the storytelling. I love doing promos. It’s just an incredible adrenaline rush.”
“When you have a great match, it’s just the best feeling in the world,” says Joseph Tramontano Jr., who wreaks havoc in the ring as “Hard Knox Harrington.” “There’s no such thing as a perfect match, but when you know you went out there and did great, you have this incredible rush and I swear it doesn’t go away until five or six hours after the match. I’d still be amped up at 3 or 4 in the morning.
“In the locker room, I’m Joseph Tramontano. But when I walk to ring, I become Hard Knox Harrington. It’s hard to describe, really. It’s a high. It really is like a drug.”
Adds Aleki Lee, 27, whose in-ring persona is “Sexy Aleki”: “Wrestling is my therapy. It’s my passion. When I walk through those curtains, it’s like the whole world disappears. All my problems, all the drama, anything negative in my life – it all stays in the back. And for the 15 minutes or so when I’m in the ring, it’s like I’m a superhero. You feel like you can do anything.”
Edwin Flores (the popular AZW wrestler “Kaimana”) describes his love for pro wrestling this way: “Where else can you take out your aggression on someone,” he says, “and not go to jail?”
Former champ Hard Knox Harrington has his sights on regaining the AZW title.
Tramontano Jr. and Lee are both second-generation wrestlers. Lee’s father is Siva Afi, who performed in local wrestling rings in the 1970s and ’80s before reaching the national stage as part of the WWE. Lee’s uncles are Afa and Sika Anoa‘i, better known as the legendary “Wild Samoans.” Afa, who Lee affectionately calls “Pops,” and his son Samu both helped train the athletic Aleki.
“Pops would hold me back a little because he wanted to make sure everyone knew that he wasn’t giving me anything just because I was related to him by blood,” says Lee, who played volleyball for the St. Louis Crusaders, recounting his formative years training under Afa in Florida. “After every match, no matter how good you thought it was, he would sit down with us and point out every mistake. Maybe we were half a step late on our timing, or a half-second too early. He’d also go over the psychology of everything we did in the ring. And if we did something that didn’t make sense, he’d rip us a new one.”
Lee laughs at the memory. “Looking back, I appreciate everything that I went through,” he says. “It was a bit frustrating to be as good as I was and not get a lot of title opportunities, but it all paid off a little more when the titles finally did come my way.”
Tramontano Jr.’s father wrestled under the name “JT Wolfen,” and father and son briefly teamed in Hawaii as “The East Coast Connection.”
“It’s a bond between me and my Dad,” says the younger Tramontano. “We’d always watch wrestling on Sundays together. He started training to be a professional wrestler when I was about five, so he’s the one who really got me into the business. Even today, whenever there’s a pay-per-view or some other wrestling show on TV, we’d watch it together.”
In pro wrestling, the family that wrestles together also spends time in the E.R. together. The results may be scripted, but the injuries are all too real.
“You go out there and you put your body on the line,” says Tramontano Jr., 37. “You sacrifice a lot to put on a good show for the fans. This sport can take a healthy, athletic man with no physical problems, and by the time it’s done with you’ll be in chronic pain for the rest of your life.”
“Hard Knox” should know. He once snapped his collarbone during a match and was out of action for over a year. “I had to have a plate and screws put in because it wouldn’t heal on its own,” he recalls. “I’ve also had separated shoulders. I broke my pinky finger at the last show. I don’t have full range of motion with my neck. My back gives me problems. And my knees are messed up.”
Even training to become a pro wrestler can be a brutal experience.
“When I decided I wanted to try pro wrestling, I went to one of the independent promotions here [in 1998] to train,” recalls Flores. “That first day, I got my butt kicked. I had a handprint on my chest and a Nike emblem on my forehead. I felt like I was in a car crash. I was just five minutes away from home, but I couldn’t even drive. I had to rest for a half hour before I could start the car. Then, the next day, I went through it all over again.”
And then there is Sexy Aleki. Last year, after a “Hardcore Street Fight,” Lee went home with nine staples stretched across his scalp.
“Kaimana hit me with a trash can lid and the handle caught the top part of my head and split it open,” Lee explains. (Ironically, Sexy Aleki and Kaimana are now a team. They captured the AZW Tag Team belts in a four-way elimination match last month.)
Former rivals Sexy Aleki (left) and Kaimana now reign as the AZW Tag Team Champions.
Oh. Don’t ever say the F-word to a pro wrestler.
“Yeah. Fake. Everybody says pro wrestling is fake,” says Kaimana, who’s wrestled some of the biggest names in the industry, including Samoa Joe, Jushin Thunder Liger, Steve Corino and El Generico (Sami Zayn in the WWE and NXT). “In the old days, if someone said that to a wrestler like Stan Hansen or Vader, they’d get choked out. Granted, we do know the outcome. But what happens to get to that point is up to us. We do get hurt. I’m never a hundred percent when I’m in the ring. I always have aches and pains.”
He smiles. “But I still love it.”
Adds Lee, “There’s not much ‘fake’ about what we do. We don’t go out there and tell people that we’re fighting each other for real. We’re there to put on a show and entertain people. At the end of the day, I’m not trying to put anyone in the hospital and seriously injure him for the rest of his life. If I can protect my opponent and protect myself while putting on a good show, then I’ve done my job.”
Summarizes fan Carl Zakabi: “I always tell people, ‘Hey, you pay $12 to go to a movie, and you know the movie’s not real. You’re there to be entertained. You’re there to escape the pressures of everyday life. All those falls and bumps that the wrestlers take – those are real. You have to appreciate that.”
Pro wrestlers belong to a unique fraternity. It’s a bond that they all share.
“I’ve made a lot of good friends in this business,” explains Tramontano Jr. “I love spending time with the boys. Some of the best friends I’ve ever had are in wrestling.”
Says Lee, “It’s like a brotherhood. Not everyone gets along with each other, but we all realize that it takes two to have a great match. I know this: In wrestling, you could absolutely hate someone [in the locker room], but you’re at the same bar and that person gets into a fight, I guarantee you that you’ll be the first to back him up.”
Any advice for aspiring pro wrestlers?
“If you really want it, don’t give up,” says Franklin. “You have to be really determined and motivated because training to be a wrestler is a very tough experience. But don’t give up. I got through it, and [pro wrestling] has been everything I wanted it to be.”
“The most important thing to learn in this business is respect,” says Lee. “The three things that I always try to teach other wrestlers involve respect: Give it. Earn it. Receive it.”
It was time for Al Ahmed to earn my respect.
I stood up, my steel-cold eyes shooting daggers at the masked man. I cupped my hands to my mouth and yelled.
“Good fo’ you!”
Yes! I did it! Man, that felt so good! Al Ahmed, clearly shaken, stumbled out of the ring and walked gingerly to the backstage area.
Good fo’ you. That’ll teach him. Don’t ever mess with me again!
That night, for the first time in weeks, I went to bed with complete peace of mind. I had defended my honor. I had exacted my revenge. I imagined poor old Al Ahmed in his bed, sobbing uncontrollably, his pillow soaked from his tears.
Good fo' you, Al Ahmed. Good fo' you, indeed.
AZW wrestlers have a loyal fan base. Here, fan favorite Kenryu Takadoki shares a moment with a young fan.
You can catch the stars of Action Zone Wrestling at their next show, “Anniversary Annihilation,” Monday, June 22nd at 7:30 p.m. at the Waipahu Fil-Com Center. Admission is $20 at the door. The scheduled main event is new AZW Champion Ativalu defending his title against former champion Hard Knox Harrington. Also, AZW Tag Team Champions Kaimana and Sexy Aleki will defend their titles against The Regime (El Ahmed and Jafar the Butcher).
“It’s the biggest show of the year,” says Hard Knox Harrington. Everybody goes all out and tries to give their best performance. Me and Ativalu, we’re in the main event and it’s a “Last Standing Match.” You can expect some brutality in that one!”
Adds Daryl Bonilla, “If you’re a wrestling fan and you’re in Hawaii, you need to be at Anniversary Annihilation. The guys are going to go out there and put everything on the line. We’re going to blow people’s minds and no one is going to leave disappointed.”
For more information, visit actionzonewrestling.com. You can also catch AZW’s “Sunday Night Slam” Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on OLELO 53.
Then, come on out to the ESPN 1420 Sports Festival presented by Kaiser Permanente on Saturday, June 27 at the Neal Blaisdell Center Exhibition Hall. AZW will present a series of exhibition matches throughout the day. Admission to the Sports Festival is free.
The Samoan phenom Ativalu is the AZW Heavyweight Champion. Will he retain his title at "Anniversary Annihilation"?