STOCKTON -- In the center of a starkly lighted wrestling ring, RJ Brewer glared at the overwhelmingly Latino crowd and spread the flag of Arizona across his back.
Buff, mean, white and glistening with baby oil, he snatched the microphone from the referee. "I come from the greatest city in the United States: Phoenix, Arizona!" the wrestler yelled in English. "Phoenix is the only city with a woman in power with the guts to get into the president's face and address the real problem in this country!"
The audience knows that the "problem" he is referring to is illegal immigration. And the woman is his so-called mother — conservative Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the nation's toughest law against illegal immigrants.
PHOTOS: Wrestler takes his message to the mat
"You suck, RJ Brewer!" screamed 9-year-old Felipe Soria, spiky-haired and looking like a brown-skinned Bart Simpson. Chants of "Mexico! Mexico!" echoed through the packed arena.
Brewer taunted back: "How dare you boo an American hero!"
Characters are the stock in trade of pro wrestling, drawing audiences into its epic battles of good versus evil. And "RJ Brewer" — a shaved-headed, in-your-face crusader against illegal immigration created two years ago by the Mexican American wrestling promotion company Lucha Libre USA — is el mero malo, the chief bad guy.
Brewer (he won't say what, if anything, the RJ stands for) has wrestled his way across the Southwest on the "Masked Warriors" tour, to almost entirely hostile crowds. They boo and heckle nonstop. They throw popcorn, lemons, pretzels and beverages at him. They swear at him in Spanish.
"Es un racista!" said Cristian Sanchez, a 19-year-old clutching a green mask, screaming himself hoarse. "I know he's a racist! … viva Mexico!"
For his part, Brewer is defiant, questioning the legal status of his opponents, bragging about his powerful "mother" and taking potshots at the quality of Mexican beer.
For some shows, he wears red tights with "SB1070" stenciled on the back. That's the name of the anti-illegal immigration law that was passed in Arizona.
"I may have one or two supporters in the crowd, but it's 99% against me," he said proudly.
Unlike most of the other wrestlers, Brewer rarely signs autographs. Then again, he said, "no one wants my autograph. They'd rather throw stuff at me." When he does give out a souvenir signature — as he did after one show for a 5-year-old who waved a sign questioning the wrestler's legal status — he doesn't tout it because it's not exactly in keeping with his bad-boy role.
RJ Brewer is actually John Stagikas, a 32-year-old wrestling veteran from the Boston area.
Pale and menacing, he could pass as a neo-Nazi in tights. But spend a few minutes with him and he comes across as thoughtful, articulate and somewhat sensitive. He has nothing against Mexicans and worries about being seen as a bona fide racist.
"A lot of people call me a bigot and a racist, that I'm against the Mexican people, and that's not true," Stagikas said.
He has loved pro wrestling for as long as he can remember. As a youngster, he would be crushed if he missed an important match. Never a big guy, he bulked up when he was 18 and then played football — safety and receiver — at Assumption College in Massachusetts, a Division II school.
After graduation, he waited tables, worked in real estate and trained shelter dogs before stumbling into pro wrestling on the New England circuits, sometimes for just $10 a match. He played various characters through the years, but nothing like RJ Brewer.
And while he's not living la vida Hulk Hogan, wrestling has helped pay for some of the finer things.
"I'm not making crazy money, but I'm paid fairly well," Stagikas said. "I bought a villa in Costa Rica when they were dirt cheap."
When Lucha Libre USA approached him about joining its circuit, "at first the character was supposed to be kind of like a mama's boy from Arizona, more like a frat boy," Stagikas said. "I was like, all right, I'll try it. But it came more natural to me to not be some pretty boy with hair spiked but to be a political character."
He and the Lucha Libre USA organizers eventually settled on a character who they would say was Gov. Brewer's son. They knew right away they had found the perfect villain.
"It's a really electric atmosphere. No one is sitting, everyone's glued to the ring," said Steven Ship, chief executive of Lucha Libre USA. "It's hard not to get caught up in the frenzy."
Stagikas added: "When I hear the boos and the screaming, I know I'm doing my job."
By now, he is fairly fluent in all forms of Spanish profanity.
RJ Brewer's calling card is the large Arizona flag he drapes around his shoulders when he takes the stage.