MERCED — John Martin has come a long way since he was simply known as Johnny Plinko.
Plinko was Martin's wrestling character based on the television game show "The Price is Right."
"I was working nights so I would watch 'The Price is Right' during the day," said Martin, who lives in Atwater.
Plinko had signature moves based on the show, such as the Barker Breaker and the Overbidder.
He would yodel when he climbed to the top rope. His weight was announced at the beginning of matches as being close to 200 pounds without going over.
Martin's wrestling character is still named Johnny Plinko, but now he's the "Heartbeat of America."
Martin was in the middle of the ring on Saturday night at the American Legion Hall in Merced, with an American flag prominently displayed on his pants as he wrestled against Sheik Khan Abadi.
The bad guy won as Abadi, never afraid to cheat when the referee was not looking. He pinned Plinko much to the dismay of the crowd.
The match was part of Lucha Xtreme's visit to Merced as they recorded four TV shows that will air on KAIL, a Fresno TV station, in the next four weeks.
Martin and the other professional wrestlers put on a show for the crowd of about 150 people.
There were aerial acrobatics from some high-flying wrestlers such as Al Azar and Super Tiger. The two masked wrestlers engaged in a battle that was like watching a well choreographed gymnastic routine as each maneuver set up the next. The two wrestlers thrilled the crowd as they flung their bodies around the ring with flips off the ropes, somersaults and flying elbows.
Other wrestlers such as INS Legacy members Brian Tannen, JR Kratos and the Suburban Commandos, D-Unit and T-Rent, were impressive as they showed off their sheer brute strength.
Then there were the other professional wrestling gimmicks that crowds love. Hubcaps, branding irons and a bullet-proof vest were used as weapons while the referee's back was turned.
If anything, the wrestlers were able to keep the crowd engaged with the action in the ring.
"A lot of what happens in the ring is more improvisation than people think," said A.J. Kirsch. "A good match is more about connecting with the people. You can have a great match with another wrestler you've never met if you can get the crowd involved. That's the art of professional wrestling."
Kirsch played the role of crowd antagonist as he taunted the crowd while wearing his Hollywood sunglasses.
He even brought out his cell phone during his match against Wise Guy to take pictures as he kicked him.
Other full-time jobs
Many of the wrestlers such as Kirsch have full-time jobs when they aren't masquerading on weekends.
They are bouncers, warehouse workers and professional video gamers.
Taylor Correa drives a forklift in Reno on Monday through Thursday. On the weekends he puts in his fangs, puts in his green contact lenses and applies his makeup and becomes Chupacabra, who is a crowd favorite.
"It's my inner self," said Correa, who is always looking to bite the referee or opponents when he's in the ring. "My character is an extension of myself. What you see out there is me in my daily life times 10.
"At first my boss didn't believe what I did on the weekends. Then I showed him videos of me wrestling in front of a thousand people."
Martin works for an after-school elementary program and coaches junior high school baseball.
He loves being in the ring, and it was an added bonus to do it near his home.
"I usually have to drive an hour or an hour and a half to a show," Martin said. "It's nice when they say we have to be here at five and I can leave my house at 4:55.
"This was a really big thing for me, especially the reaction I got from the crowd tonight. It was pretty awesome."
Martin will likely get to wrestle in front of his home crowd again when Lucha Xtreme returns to Merced on April 20.
Reporter Shawn Jansen can be reached at (209) 385-2462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.