On Halloween night, a few weeks back, in a dank, dimly-lit Elks Lodge in the blue-collar Los Angeles suburb of Downey, two brawny men step into a ring, ready for combat, as a crowd of 50, thirsty for blood, howls in anticipation. The two men are not boxers or mixed martial arts fighters—they’re competitors in a series of gory, small-time wrestling bouts known as Death Matches, where fighters with names like Homeless Jimmy, Chewy, Danny Havoc, and Kyle The Beast bludgeon each other with terrifying homemade weapons, some designed and created by the fans themselves. One fighter lifts a wooden baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, the other wields a club slathered in shards of broken glass, and the two men begin circling each other, talking playfully vicious smack: “Only thing you’d win is an Ugly Contest!” As violence looms, the crowd urges them on, while a stout, big-bearded man in the back of the room surveys the scene through fashionable, octagonal glasses, his face a mix of rapt curiosity and unabashed delight.
He is Cayetano “Tanky” Reyna, and his role here is vital—he’s the one who crafted these weapons. Tanky, 28, has become famous in Death Match circles for his devilish, inventive creations: tomahawks made with splintered CDs; a cane converted into a wicked scythe; a Super Soaker speckled with outward-facing thumbtacks, eager to bury themselves in an opponent’s skin. Tanky builds his weapons mainly at night, once his daughters have gone to bed and his girlfriend has left for her overnight shift working the register at a local Von’s grocery store. The workshop behind his house in the East L.A. suburbs is a small, tin storage shack that Hellraiser Radio, a popular wrestling podcast, has christened “Tanky’s Twisted Toolshed.” In the weeks leading up to a fight, a visitor might find Tanky leaning over his workbench, surrounded by the tools of his trade: razor wire, bags of thumbtacks, duct tape, scissors, pliers, a hot glue gun, and a staple gun he’s nicknamed “Bitch.” Most nights, as he works on his weapons, Tanky blasts a headbanging playlist of horror-core rap—D-12, Bizarre, Hopsin, Tech N9ne—though, if he’s in a “mellow” mood, he’ll rock out to Slipknot instead. “I’m not exactly a Simon and Garfunkel kind of guy,” he smirks. But despite his hard-edge taste in music, Tanky approaches his craft with the artistry, care, and intricate technique of a violin builder. Of course, he is not making a Stradivarius but an improvised instrument of war that someone will soon use to whack another human being bloody.
The birth of Death Matches is often traced to the early 1990s, when a Puerto Rican fight promoter named Victor Quiñones moved to Japan and introduced a series of hardcore wrestling bouts which boasted frightening new weapons—baseball bats with barbed wire, fluorescent light bulbs, even live piranhas—and as a result, were frequently awash in blood. In the years that followed, promoters in the U.S. followed suit, and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) was born.
At first, the ECW’s fights were concentrated in Philadelphia, the New York metro area, and Detroit, but soon spread west, and the league’s popularity exploded once its fights began to be broadcast nationally on Spike TV (known at the time as TNN). In 2001, the ECW folded, but independent promoters began putting on similar events, called Death Matches, usually held in empty warehouses and VFW halls, with little governance from any central league office or local authorities. On the East Coast, where interest is strongest, fights draw crowds in the hundreds; in Southern California, the audience tends to range from about 20 people to 75.
While fighters are not meant to harbor actual malice for one another and actual Death Match deaths are extremely rare, the fights can be legitimately dangerous, despite the presence of doctors and medics. Tanky recalls one match where a fighter got sliced across the neck: “He was bleeding really bad, but kept going ‘til the fight was done. At the hospital, they said if the cut was two centimeters over, it would’ve hit his artery. An ‘unsurvivable’ wound.”
Tanky’s interest in Death Matches is tied to one of his earliest memories, at five-years-old, when he was alone one night and caught the movie Nightmare on Elm Streeton TV. “I was transfixed,” he says. “I’d never seen anything like it.” A fascination with horror films was instantly ignited, and he began to gobble slasher flicks up like Skittles. His love for the macabre shaded his other interests, too—rap music was good, but dark, horror-tinged rap was better. A lifelong pro wrestling fan, he felt he’d really found his groove when, in his early 20s, he discovered Death Matches. “It’s basically the horror genre version of wrestling,” he explains. “Bloodier. Freakier. More twisted.”
Tanky was delighted to discover that some Death Matches were accompanied by advertisements inviting fans to bring their own weapons. He’d always been a D.I.Y. tinkerer, good at fixing cars and handy around the house, and the sort of interactive spirit on display at the matches resonated with him. So before attending his next competition, he took a child’s red Wiffle ball bat, and, with black duct tape and a bag of thumbtacks, cobbled together a handmade club that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Game of Thrones. Seeing his crudely-fashioned weapon used in battle was a thrill, and from there, Tanky leapt all the way in. Now, a few years later, he’s a recognized fixture of the Death Match circuit—fighters, promoters, and fans give him a respectful nod as he arrives in a VFW parking lot before the match, lugging a golf bag full of his latest creations, eager to see what new twisted stuff he’s got in store.
Inspiration strikes Tanky from a variety of sources. (An elegant Aztec weapon he glimpsed in the video game Mortal Kombat led him to fashion a version with a broom handle and broken CDs.) Japanese fighting videos on YouTube might feature a type of axe he’s never seen before, so he’ll craft what he calls “my own twisted variation.” The nails, staples, and thumbtacks come mostly from Home Depot, but Tanky’s Toolshed is also piled high with promising debris he’s scavenged during his town’s annual Trash Month, when his West Covina neighbors heap their junk curbside—unwanted chairs, lamps, desks, bathroom mirrors, and shower doors. These treasures provide him with a mountain of raw materials, and for weeks, each spring, Tanky and his girlfriend Alyssa will tool around in her Kia, packing her back seat and trunk with alleyway finds. “It’s like Christmas for me!” Tanky beams. “Every night we hit the jackpot.” As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s Death Match weapon. The fighters seem to respond to Tanky’s handiwork with a mix of respect and revulsion. After all, as much as they admire his twisted imagination, they’re the ones who have to actually wield these weapons—or worse yet, be confronted by them—in the ring. “My goal in life,” Tanky says with a glint in his eye, “is to get a called a sick fuck by every single Death Match wrestler. So far it’s worked!” Only once have fighters refused to fight with one of his creations: in 2015 when he presented competitors with a homemade scythe he made by mounting a fiendish curved fishing knife atop a skull-capped walking cane, a weapon he named Karma. “They were like, ‘Fuck no!’” Tanky laughs. “Like, ‘We may be crazy, but we’re not suicidal.’”
While many of Tanky’s battle toys showcase his distinctive brand of brutal craftsmanship, he also has a fondness for seeing ordinary objects used in combat—an old computer keyboard; a cheese grater; photo frames; a baking pan—items you might find around the house. As bloody as a Death Match can get, Tanky explains, it’s also a bit of a show. The crowd knows, at least at some level, that the fighters are performers, not actual enemies. “But when they use everyday things,” he says, “it feels like a real fight in a real-life situation, where people just use whatever they can get their hands on.” Though Tanky considers himself an artisan, not a fighter, it doesn’t mean he escapes from his work unscathed. “Every weapon I’ve ever made,” he says, “I’ve hurt myself somehow.” The first time he experimented with barbed wire, he bought a six-foot strand at the hardware store, and back at his workshop, somehow got himself engulfed in it, slicing up his legs and his face. He says he’s lost count of the number of staples that have bit him, leaving a twin-pronged spider’s mark, and he even had to toss out a favorite pair of Converse sneakers, since the soles were too thin, and all the thumbtacks he stepped on in his workshop kept poking through. “If a weapon’s kind enough not to cut me up when I’m making it,” he says, “then it gets me when I’m trying to put it in my car.”
“It’s like Christmas for me!” Tanky beams. “Every night we hit the jackpot.” As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s Death Match weapon.
Many of Tanky’s friends share his love of Death Matches, but there are some people in his life who struggle to understand the appeal, like his grandmother Donna, or Alyssa’s mom. “They don’t like to come in the workshop,” he says. “I think it gives them the willies.” Still, they seem to recognize his skills as a weapons maker and the passion he has for his craft. “I think they just wish I made some money from all of this work,” he says. Tanky, a stay-at-home dad without a regular job, receives no income from his dedicated weapons-building. “But I don’t expect to be paid,” he says. “After all, I find most everything in the trash, in junk piles. I’m just doing what I love.” That said, he appreciates that promoters seem to go out of their way to flip him and Alyssa tickets to the fights, and that so many folks respect his place in the Death Match ecosystem.
Tanky’s biggest fans may be his two daughters—Emily, 10, and Rosalie, 8—who often help him make his weapons, out in the Twisted Toolshed. It’s a strange, surprisingly sweet tableau, to see them seated one night on his workbench, one on each side of him, wearing pajamas and boots (for safety reasons, slippers are forbidden in the workshop), while lovingly gluing thumbtacks and crumbled glass to the business end of a Louisville Slugger. The overall vibe is of a doting dad helping his kids decorate their dollhouse, even if this particular crafts project, a few nights later, will be soaked and dripping with blood in some grungy warehouse or VFW hall. Pleased with his daughters’ handiwork, Tanky sings his encouragement, wraps them both in a hug, and carries them off to their room to read bedtime stories and tuck them in for the night.
Back in Downey, between fights, Tanky makes an admission. He’d one day like to step in the ring himself. His behavior in the toolshed doesn’t inspire much hope—“I get stuck with a single thumbtack in my workshop, I start bawling”—but the thought won’t go away. “I just want to try it once, to say I did it,” he says, “And to see what all these weapons feel like in my own hands, in the heat of battle, when it really counts.”