He got into it because of his girlfriend: “I saw the movie, then a few months later I was introduced to her and roller derby at the same time. She invited me to come along to watch her, and I was immediately enthralled — girls hitting each other.”
Another guy came over from England last year and signed up as soon as he heard about it. That guy's nephew was involved, and he wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Was it like that movie? Will there be fighting?
If you wanted to play, and you could prove your skills to L.A.'s newest team, you checked a special website for the availability of your desired moniker: “Raven Busther,” maybe, or “Julius Pleasar,” “Apex Twin,” “Shaft,” “Rink Crash,” “Billy Motion” or, yes, “Flamin' Frenzy.” Once named, the chosen few showed up in North Hollywood Park at the appointed hour — 2 p.m. on a Saturday — for the historic moment: the very first “bout” for the Drive-By City Rollers, and the first men's roller derby flat-track meet in Los Angeles since 1978.
Roller derby began as a coed sport back in the 1930s, but the early 1980s saw it disappear into pro-wrestling fakery. “There were no rules, no protection, elbowing, clotheslining — those guys were renegades, basically,” says Black Star Heroine, who competes for the Angel City Derby Girls and coaches the new guys' team.
Black Star credits her interest in roller derby to the A&E series Roller Girls. That 2006 reality show followed the women's league in Dallas, which had formed five years before and reinvented the sport. Thanks to those beginnings, female roller derby has countless leagues, a thriving social media network and a Las Vegas convention. There was even a movie, the Drew Barrymore vehicle Whip It, which is something of a love/hate thing among the faithful.
Although they'll wear short shorts, cute tops or fishnets, roller derby girls tend to be tomboys or punk rockers. “We're all kind of misfits with a hobby in common, but we're not bullies,” Black Star says. “People ask that all the time.”
It's rare for women to so overshadow men in an American sport, and so the men who comprise the Drive-By City Rollers have a lot to live up to. A few dozen other men's teams are scattered around the country, but they're all newbies: The Bakersfield team they face today, the Slick City Rollerz, has been together for only a year.
Arriving bright and early that Saturday, the teams set up the P.A. system and mark out the oval track with hot pink tape before a steady stream of roller girls (many proudly calling themselves “groupies”) and other fans (many with their kids) begin to arrive.
The 160-strong crowd is colorful: highly tattooed, energy drink-chugging, ice cream-loving. The boisterous atmosphere is reminiscent of a wrestling match, though with far more literate, well-designed signs. There are no paunchy, middle-aged men reminiscing about high school glories — most of those in attendance are women who play themselves, some of whom have a match of their own later that night. It's quite an audience before which to make your debut.
Once the music begins and the nonstop commentary by announcers Dumptruck and the Ill Reverend Mic echoes across the park, skater kids and locals alike come over to check things out. The curious first-timers in the crowd are all expecting a good time; one openly hopes for “some blood, a broken nose, something like that.”
Adjusting his helmet, knee, elbow and wrist guards before he pops in his mouth guard, Drive-By City Rollers captain Killvester Stallone quickly explains the setup. (The fact that seven referees are on duty — “RefRehensible,” “Tomikazi” and “RefTribution” among them — gives you an idea how many rules there are.)
Each bout consists of two 30-minute halves, with each “jam” lasting up to two minutes. Points are scored by each team's “jammer” weaving, bouncing, forcing or racing his way through a pack of four blockers, who thwart his path any way they can in the legal target zone — shoulders to midthigh and shoulders to ribs, never the back.
Cue lots of big men bunching together, moving in formation and occasionally skidding and sliding off the rink as the jammers perform balletic, skillful, tiptoe feats to score. But then there are those pesky rules, and penalties, which can see your jammer or a couple of blockers off the track.
From the start, the gold-and-black-clad rookies fall far behind. They're down 99-37 at halftime, though Killvester isn't shaken: “We just need to make a few final adjustments, get the points back, and then hopefully we can turn this thing around.”
An inspirational pep talk from an already hoarse Black Star sees the team come roaring back, and suddenly the Drive-By City Rollers, while still trailing 106-82, are within hailing distance of an upset.
The crowd gets louder, the pace gets frantic, penalties are decried and the coaches get even jumpier. But the amazing comeback is not to be; the Bakersfield team eases away again to win it, 151-93.
The crowd lines the track to high-five both teams as they take a lap of honor, and then it's time for the dusted but happy Drive-By City Rollers to help pull up the tape, disassemble the P.A. and make their way to the bar for a hard-earned beer. With a few bucks made from selling T-shirts, chips and Pop-Rings, less the standard donation to a local charity, they're on their way.
As for their coach, she's beyond proud: “There's no way to go but up from here.”