People pay next to nothing to gather around a ringed square and watch spandex-clad men and women scream, pile-drive and clothesline each other.
Pro-wrestling is alive in Seattle — and guess what folks, it’s barely legal.
If you want to see a wrestling show in Washington, the first thing you’ll notice is that most are free or pay-what-you-want on a donation basis. That’s no accident. A loophole in state law allows a charity-supported promotion to bend the more stringent rules on combat sports, such as boxing.
The organizers save a lot of cash in the process — but they say that limits wrestling’s potential to grow.
“Because of the way the Department of Licensing runs, we can’t charge admission or get money to reinvest in the show,” says Thom Swanson of 3-2-1 BATTLE!. He’s also known as Murray Grande when he commentates for wrestling or roller derby. “This is a bare-bones, punk rock production.”
3-2-1 BATTLE, Lucha Libre Volcánica and other professional wrestling troupes throughout the state hope lawmakers will change regulations and treat their sport not like boxing, but as its own unique category.
The Department of Licensing regulates professional wrestling as a combat sport — similar to boxing or mixed martial arts. That requires promoters to buy licenses for all participants, to pay for an ambulance and paramedics to stand by at the event, and to pay the Department of Licensing 6 percent of the cash made, plus $1 for every ticket sold.
That price is too high for most local promoters.
“We’re not a big company,” says Jose Gómez, called The Professor by his students at Lucha Libre Volcánica. “You know the WWE? They have money, but we don’t have this money.”
They hope the Washington State Legislature can change that. Rep. Zack Hudgins’ (D-11) bill would help more wrestling productions charge for tickets by creating a “theatrical wrestling school” license. The bill also would loosen restrictions for a paramedical unit at each wrestling school event, so an ambulance would not be required at the venue.
Legislators often refer to the legislation as the “Lucha Bill” because Lucha Libre Volcánica had been heavily involved in previous versions, though Gómez told the Globalist that time did not permit as much involvement this year. Supporters also find hope in the bill’s last line: “The legislature finds that Washington is ready to rumble.”
“We’re trying to have fun,” Hudgins says, “but it’s a serious issue because it’s about trying to make the government work for people.”
At one hearing, one legislator caused a brief ruckus when asking if wrestling is “predetermined.”
“Is there no Santa Claus?” Hudgins replied to giggles from the committee.
But that detail is at the center of the bill. Unlike boxing or MMA, many professional wrestling matches are predetermined. Because many matches are scripted, groups like Legalize Wrestling argue that professional wrestling is fundamentally different from other combat sports.
Wrestlers are trying to sell the fantasy that the contest is real. Therefore, the group argues, they don’t need the all the safety regulations of other sports like boxing since it’s theoretically less dangerous.
However, people still get hurt.
“This is a predetermined contest but it is a very highly athletic exhibition and they are literally putting their lives on the line for each and every move. Right now it’s for love and nothing else,” Swanson says.
Swanson hopes that if the bill is passed, 3-2-1 BATTLE! will be able to hold professional matches and pay its wrestlers as well as bring in touring performers from around the country.
Arguments like this have a long history in the professional wrestling industry. Through the 1980s, wrestling promoters tried to convince audiences that wrestling was real. But promoters for companies like the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), known at the time as World Wrestling Federation, dropped the act by the end of the decade in order to get looser regulations for things like requirements for paramedics during events.
According to Jake Stratton of Legalize Wrestling, the state advocacy group for independent professional wrestling that supports the bill, this proposed wrestling school license will not only help promoters put on shows, it will help them invest in the skills of the community.
“It’s a path that’s going to allow people to start a pro-wrestling empire with a smaller investment,” said Stratton, who plays a manager called the Kiwanis Adonis for 3-2-1 BATTLE!, “with more of an investment of skill and hard work and more of a love of business than, ‘I’ve got enough money to put on a show.’”
Right now many promoters and training schools perform for the public on a monthly basis. Lucha Libre Volcánica, for example, only puts on shows once a month in Seattle. Many of its 25 wrestling students want to perform more often than that.
La Avispa, a luchador for Lucha Libre Volcánica, is excited about the bill’s potential, saying it will give wrestlers like her the much coveted opportunity to show off her skills in front of a live audience.
“It’s a win for everyone,” she says, “performers, promoters and fans.”
Right now it’s not clear how much money being classified as a different sport would save professional wrestling productions from what it costs now. Susan Colard of the Department of Licensing’s Combat Sports Division said Legalize Wrestling and Hudgins modeled their bill on the already existing Mixed Martial Arts Training School license, which only requires a business license and a flat fee of $500 from the promoter to the Department of Licensing.
This is the third time legislation has been proposed on this issue. Last year a similar bill made it to the Senate floor, but was not passed before session ended. Hudgins said that the other legislators are more familiar with the issue now and he hopes the bill will pass.
Gómez has similar hopes. While Lucha Libre has taken a cultural hold in Seattle, the new bill could allow his school to make enough money to bring Lucha Libre stars from across the globe, including from Mexico City.
For a man trained 45 years as a luchador, who came over from Mexico and became a small business owner, the chance to further spread his culture to Washington is a dream come true.
Correction: an earlier version of this story misspelled Rep. Zack Hudgin’s name. It has been corrected.