Seattle smackdown! Monthly semi-pro meets give wrestlers and fans alike an outlet for raw energy
It's 8:30 p.m., the first Wednesday of June. The show doesn't start for another hour and a half, but the No. 1 fan is already outside Re-bar downtown — waiting for...
Special to The Seattle Times
It's 8:30 p.m., the first Wednesday of June. The show doesn't start for another hour and a half, but the No. 1 fan is already outside Re-bar downtown — waiting for her monthly fix. Crystal Lewis, a paragon of Seattle style with her choppy hair dyed red and complementary lip piercing, has come to the show as she always does, earlier than anyone else. With the built-up stress of an entire month working at a Shoreline homeless shelter, she's ready for action.
"I want to make sure my friends have enough room to sit," she explains. Over the past three years, she's brought every friend she has in Seattle. Most of them became converts, who now bring their friends.
What seemed to be only a trickle of attendees suddenly turns into a flood. By 10 p.m., the bar is nearly full. Two announcers, one in a dress shirt and shiny aviator sunglasses, the other looking like an off-duty car salesman, hit the stage.
"Welcome to another edition of Seattle Semi-Pro Wrestling!"
Did he just say "wrestling"?
Wrestling, as in thick-necked adult babies pretending to hurt each other with piledrivers? Gigantic blond men ripping their shirts off and screaming? Misogynistic storylines? Choreographed aerial stunts?
Well, yes ... and no. Seattle Semi-Pro Wrestling is more like a pro-wrestling cabaret, with an emphasis on colorful characters and unique theatrics, wrapped in intense physical performance. It's a comedic and athletic ritual with a Seattle sensibility.
Like the World Wrestling Entertainment spectacles, Seattle Semi-Pro Wrestling (SSP) has evolving stories that change every month, characters that go from good to evil and back again. These wrestlers, though, may weigh in at 150 pounds. And their characters come from local cultural stereotypes — an obnoxious mascara-wearing raver, or a powerhouse karaoke god.
Their audiences are made up of urban Seattleites, from baristas to Boeing engineers, who breathe and seethe with every plot twist and finishing move. They're allowed — no, encouraged — to gulp down $1 beers and hurl the empties at the wrestlers. Indeed, as Wednesday's show begins, an onslaught of cans takes flight, striking everyone from wrestler to referee.
Drink up and hurl!
Crystal is now joined by friends, their tabletop crowded with beer, which they drink quickly in order to have an arsenal in time for the first match. Sitting front and center to the stage, the 24-year-old seems to know almost everyone who passes by, including the wrestlers and announcers.
"The energy is the first thing that draws you in," she says. "This is a place that, regardless of how crappy your month has been, you can go and just yell and throw things while you watch people fighting."
And that's as it should be, says Nathaniel Pinzon, one of SSP's co-founders and a wrestler himself. "This is for the plebeians, you know? And I don't mean that in a bad way at all."
Pinzon goes by the name Deevious Silvertongue, a wearer of paisley frocks and shiny pants. He and six others began performing shows as SSP in 2003. Now the collective has grown to include more than 30 people, encompassing wrestlers, videographers and others. Everyone plays a role in the production, and no one earns a dime.
Weeks before the June show I'm at a coffeehouse with Pinzon and another wrestler, Simba Sixkiller, real name Simon Tesfai. At 22, Tesfai is SSP's youngest, and some say most dangerous, competitor. Simba is a thin man with a penchant for smelly cigars, ladders and violent victory by any means necessary. Tesfai may be slight, but is in person infinitely more cordial than his wrestling counterpart.
The two are talking about a recent incident in which Pinzon won a coveted SSP trophy in a victory over Tesfai. He accidentally broke it at the next show, a legitimate mistake that was made part of the story after it happened. Now Tesfai will never get to win the trophy.
"I've got a lot of very real anger about that," he says. "At the next show, it's going to be unleashed." There is some joking in his eyes, right next to the sense that he isn't entirely kidding. Pinzon laughs, but that doesn't ease the palpable tension. These are two friends who have alter egos that hate each other. It's apparent they don't always know which side of their mind to listen to.
"The character has a lot of my own attributes," Tesfai tells me. "A lot of people don't know if they're talking to me or Simba."
They may not take their work home with them, but when the moment comes, they insist they're no longer Pinzon and Tesfai, neighbors on Capitol Hill, no longer the head talent booker at Re-bar (Pinzon) or a sales representative for a Central District beauty supply company (Tesfai). They become Deevious and Simba and will fight to the death, or the end of the show.
"It's not fake"
The initial seed for SSP was planted in 2003, at a pro-wrestling-themed party for Speakeasy Internet clients. Several of the wrestlers, both trained and semi-trained, decided that night they wanted to get together and wrestle more often. They quickly got a monthly slot at Re-bar (later, the club offered Pinzon the job of booking agent) and are now wrestlers-in-residence, though they occasionally do shows in warehouses and high-school gymnasiums.
"There were some people, like me, who were interested in wrestling for the theatrical aspect," says Pinzon, who was involved with both amateur wrestling and drama in high school. "Then there were athletic types who were more interested in the physicality."
Tesfai is one of the "athletic types," although he does use psychology in his ring work. He was trained by a former referee on the East Coast and has been wrestling professionally since he was 14, in both paying and non-paying gigs. He also has a collection of more than 400 wrestling videotapes, which he shares with friends and studies to learn new tricks.
"My first memories are of pro wrestling," he says, eyes widening. "It's what I always wanted to do."
SSP is genuine pro wrestling, where competitors perform moves that look painful, but are relatively safe if one knows how to execute them properly. The outcomes are fixed, and there is a certain choreography to each match. Just don't call it "fake" to a wrestler's face.
"It's not fake, because I invest my time and my body into it," Tesfai explains. "That's real." He envisions a new cultural perspective on the much-maligned sport. "We want to prove that wrestling isn't a lowbrow art form for the lowest common denominator."
Thrown into the scene
That's not as easy as it might seem.
At the June show, Nikki P. (who refuses to give me her last name so she won't be identified as someone who goes to wrestling shows) is visibly uncomfortable. Her curly blond hair and tight-fitting green shirt give her a suburban appeal that makes her stand out, sandwiched out of her element by hipsters and punk rockers. I ask how her friends convinced her to go.
"It was more dragging than convincing," she says. "I'm really nervous about this. I'm more of a girly-girl."
What finally convinced her?
"The beer throwing."
During the show, Pinzon as Deevious appears from backstage, dressed in sparkly pants, his curly afro floating up to the heavens. Female fans run up to the front of the stage, bowing in worship, while men hurl cans at his head. Later, he's climbing up an unstable lighting fixture, only to drop his body down hard on his opponent in a victory slam.
In his match, Simba comes out and humiliates his opponent, dancing around in front of the crowd with a cocky grin, then attacks a fan, putting one of his cigars out on her pants after slamming her down on the mat (don't worry; she was in on it).
The action is narrated by Jackson Lowe and Evil Kimmel. Kimmel is the wrestling persona of Ryen Rapp, a 30-year-old car salesman in his other life. Rapp was a fan who was so participatory, he was asked to join. Like Pinzon and Tesfai, he waxes philosophical on the purpose of wrestling in Seattle culture.
"Wrestling is like Shakespeare-meets-athleticism," says Rapp. "It comes out of angst. You can feel that among people in our age group — we're pissed, and wrestling focuses that angst into positive energy."
Halfway through the show, I find the frightened fan, Nikki P., holding a beer can with a grin on her face. Who knows, maybe next month she'll proudly drag her friends to the show.
Paul Rice is a freelance writer living in Seattle: firstname.lastname@example.org.