It's a cloudy Saturday evening in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Reseda, and an uninterrupted chain of pro wrestling loyalists have been in line since 11 a.m. for a show they knew wouldn't begin for another eight hours. The event is called Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, and these are the indefatigable followers who queue up like Star Wars fans the night before a premiere. Among the die-hards in line this evening are Reseda Rita, a 20-something convert who comes for the energy, as if she were at a gig; DaShawn 2 Cents, a YouTuber who interviews wrestlers from his hot tub; Tim, a stout Uber driver from Oakland who's made every show since 2009; and Matt McCarthy, a comedian turned pro wrestling podcaster. Once inside, they'll lead the chant: “P-Dub-G! P-Dub-G!”
There's no one profile that fits PWG's fanbase. Mexicans from East L.A., millennial IT managers from Marin County, rednecks from Colorado and neon-haired hipsters are among the 300 or so people gathered, many of whom have been attending since the late-’00s. Taking place roughly 10 times a year, PWG is a kind of pro wrestling revival where punk-rock Baryshnikovs are flown in to showcase their skills and entertain the audience via a form of physical storytelling that's tantamount to ballet but a lot less stuffy.
“This doesn't have glitz and glamour,” says Marty Scurll, aka “The Villain,” an English wrestler who's part of the night's untelevised supercard. That's part of the secret of PWG's business model: Book any wrestler in the world, just don't air their match on TV. In the pro wrestling business, a wrestler signed to a promotion that has a TV deal, such as WWE (the major league of pro wrestling), generally cannot wrestle on another televised wrestling show. Think of it like Emilia Clarke's Game of Thrones contract preventing her from appearing on another televised show inspired by medieval mythology. Eschewing a TV deal allows the league to subvert the establishment while booking all of the top stars. The shows are, in fact, filmed, but they're released only on DVD and Blu-ray. In other words, a TV deal would kill PWG.
Since it originated in City of Industry in 2003, PWG has seen 174 shows filmed and cataloged in a DVD library that includes some of the earliest matches of current WWE stars such as Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, Sami Zayn and, most recently, Kassius Ohno, who wrestled in PWG as “Chris Hero.”
From a wrestler's point of view, PWG offers a purer and more physical style that eschews the soapy dramatization of the TV product. WWE, for example, has a staff of 20 to 30 writers; PWG has none. Imagine seeing a big-budget stunt show at Universal Studios that relies on verisimilitude as opposed to action-film cliches. The only sound effects at a PWG show are a clanking wrestling ring and the sound of skin colliding with skin, which happens continuously for three hours during high-pressure bouts that blend martial arts with physical improv.
Seeing an ex-WWE superstar like Cody Rhodes, who's wrestling here on the night I attend, is like seeing an arena rocker playing a free-jazz set at a local coffeehouse. “It's a different kind of art, mate,” says Scurll, who flew in from England to wrestle for this particular show. “There's no silly storylines, just pure in-ring action where we're telling stories with our bodies.” Like the other wrestlers in the PWG locker room, Scurll is an independent contractor who barnstorms around the globe and relies on booking fees and selling as many cheeky T-shirts as possible. There's no health care plan or union for the pro wrestler. The fans are their only safety net.
At a PWG show, the wrestlers run their own micro-economy of swag over wrestling ropes like a clothesline at a flea market. The yearly earnings of a PWG wrestler varies wildly; a tiny fraction, usually ex-WWE stars like Rhodes (son of wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes), can make the minimum salary of an MLB baseball player, wrestling for upward of 30 different promotions a year, with any number of opponents, from the masked flyers of Mexico to the United Kingdom's more technical wizards to Japan's “strong style.”
Pro wrestling is currently more popular in those three markets than anywhere else in the world, along with the United States, where L.A. is the hottest spot in the country. PWG borrows from the world's diverse talent pool and acts like an international farm system for the majors, namely WWE.
On July 1 and 2, New Japan (Japan's top wrestling promotion) will come to Los Angeles for a special event at the Long Beach Convention Center. It's the first time New Japan is hosting an independently produced pro wrestling event in America. The New Japan show is a byproduct of L.A.'s growing status as a pro wrestling Mecca, a city where “strong style” is not only respected but aped inside the PWG ring.
One ex-WWE star who's wrestled for PWG is Johnny Mundo, an L.A. local who's the current world champion of Lucha Underground, and also moonlights as a stuntman and improv actor. “I look at wrestling as physical improv, where you have rules, and then play within them to tell a story.” Mundo lives with a flock of stuntmen in the Valley and actually has a wrestling ring and prop weapons in his backyard. “I teach them wrestling, and they teach me stuntwork,” says Mundo, who looks like a cross between Jim Morrison and the guy from Speed 2. The Temple, Lucha Underground's 500-seat Aztecan warehouse in Boyle Heights, is where he does most of his simulated fighting. “There are people who've been coming to every taping … we call them believers,” Mundo tells me over a coffee in Burbank, only a block from Flappers Comedy Club, where legendary wrestlers like Jake the Snake come to practice their stand-up routines.
Lucha Underground is the first of its kind: A high-drama television show, not unlike Sons of Anarchy, that also features a pro wrestling league driven by acrobatic stars like Mundo. Because PWG is untelevised, Lucha Underground, which is in its third season, allows its stars to wrestle there. On the card tonight, in a show titled “Only Kings Understand Each Other,” are two notable monsters from Lucha Underground's stable: a stocky ex-Olympian named Jeff Cobb (“Matanza Cueto” in Lucha Underground) and Brian Cage, who was released by the WWE in 2009 and now looks like a mowhawked Lou Ferrigno.
If Lucha Underground is Saturday Night Live, then PWG is Second City.
On March 15, Lucha Underground became the first pro wrestling show available to stream on Netflix. It will be followed in June by GLOW, a comedy starring Alison Brie that's based on the '80s televised women's promotion, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. It feels timely since one of the most in-vogue aspects of the sport are female pro wrestlers — like bubbly blonde PWG pioneer Candice LeRae, who wrestles men twice her size. LaRae, who isn't wrestling on the night I attend, has a cult appeal that grew when Venice Beach's Ronda Rousey signed to the UFC in 2012. Rousey's “Iron Mike”–style undefeated streak gave women's wrestling a jolt of realness — as many even believed she could compete with male fighters, which helped female wrestlers gain the respect they deserved.
On Oct. 17, 2014, Rousey, who as a child would sleep with a Hulk Hogan Wrestling Buddy, attended her first PWG show. PWG's shows are often interactive experiences, inside jokes that 200 people share at once, and that night, Rousey was cheered on to chop a wrestler across his chest.
The crowd erupted when Rousey delivered the chop, and it turned out to be a sort of turning point in PWG's history. The promotion has since counted a number of celebrities among its attendees, including Joe Manganiello, Sofia Vergara, Community's Gillian Jacobs and, unsurprisingly, Alison Brie. Guitarist Adam Jones of metal band Tool is a regular as well, as PWG is a favorite with musicians who come here to experience what it must have felt like seeing The Ramones at CBGB in 1974.
“It's the hardest ticket in wrestling to get,” says Dave Meltzer, the one-man ESPN of pro wrestling journalism, whose cultish appeal has one tag team tonight, the Young Bucks, print his mug all over their tights. Hailing from Rancho Cucamonga, the Young Bucks are regarded as the most entertaining and highest-grossing tag team in wrestling; along with PWG World Champion Zack Sabre Jr. (a skinny, technically skilled Englishman who looks like a soccer forward), they are PWG's biggest stars who have yet to accept a WWE contract.
Echoing Meltzer's sentiment about the difficulty of obtaining tickets, a fan who goes by Zombie says, “I'd say about 90 seconds is all you get.” Basically, if you can't be online the moment tickets go on sale or checkout with lightening speed — you won't get a ticket. Ticket sales are announced with little fanfare on PWG's official Twitter (usually a month in advance of a show). General admission is $65 and front row is $85 — which is the PWG equivalent to winning the lottery. “They could easily sell 2,000 tickets … but people swear that there's something magical about that building,” Meltzer says, referring to American Legion Post #308, the PWG clubhouse in Reseda, a privately run space for U.S. military veterans to drink, play bingo, host bat mitzvahs and scowl at the politics of the day. Independent pro wrestling, more than any form of live entertainment, is staunchly apolitical — as it offers fans escapism rather than activism. Most pro wrestling fans are Gen-Xers who've remained loyal since the boom in the '80s. Excalibur, one of the masked founders of PWG from that same generation, makes it a point to get the politics out of the way at the start of the show, where he cheekily reminds everyone to recycle and that “every month is Black History Month. Every month is Women's History Month … every week is SHARK WEEK!”
Legion Larry, aka “Mr. Saigon,” is the landlord of post 308. He's a grizzled Vietnam vet with a crusty persona that's so absurdly off-putting that he's become part of the show, kind of like the security guard on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, except Larry's role is limited to making sure nobody acts like a shmuck or pukes all over his parquet floors. He's the Grampa Simpson of PWG.
By 9 p.m., a line of fans wraps around the ring to fill up pitchers with cold beer to mitigate the sweltering heat inside Larry's hall, where the lights hang so low that a wrestler will occasionally flip into one. When that happens, fans chant: “Fuck that light!” The PWG ring bell, covered with punk and metal band stickers, is used to signal the start of tonight's seven matches, in which gymnastically inclined wrestlers like Ricochet will flip into crowded rows of plastic chairs and fans. Ricochet, wearing a mask, wrestles for Lucha Underground as “Prince Puma.” At a PWG show, he's “King Ricochet.”
Joey Ryan, an L.A. native whose pro wrestling gimmick combines the best and worst aspects of '80s Tom Selleck, is one of the founders of PWG. Ryan used to be a nursing assistant at a mental health facility but now wrestles three nights a week in promotions like Lucha Underground and Torrance's Pacific Coast Wrestling.
“When WWE started acknowledging independent wrestling existed, it brought a lot of new eyes to indie wrestling,” he says. “When they say, 'Kevin Owens has been grinding for 15 years,' their regular audience goes and Googles him and his entire wrestling history comes up.” In PWG, Kevin Owens would use his real name, Kevin Steen. If PWG had a Hall of Fame, Steen would be one of its first inductees.
“WWE scouts are there, so the word gets out,” Meltzer says. Sean Waltman, an ex-WWE star who's close with WWE brass, attended “Only Kings Understand Each Other.” Perhaps he was there to court the next Kevin Owens.
Inglewood is in the process of constructing a new stadium for the Rams, and many insiders believe it could draw WrestleMania to Los Angeles in 2020. Held annually, WrestleMania is pro wrestling's Super Bowl. This year's event, held on April 2, boasts several PWG alumni, such as strongman Cesaro, Samoa Joe, Seth Rollins, AJ Styles and Owens. With scouts showing up at PWG shows, the wrestlers work their asses off with the hope of getting a WWE tryout. But others work their asses off because it's just what they do.
The Young Bucks, who declined a WWE deal since freelancing can be just as bankable for them, tend to steal every show by delivering a medley of preposterously coordinated super kicks, a kind of dance, like two hair metal guitarists swinging their axes in unison. They're “heels,” or bad guys, but before the show they mingle with the fans and flirt with the women like rock stars handing out VIP passes.
To keep it from being overexposed, PWG is a “protected” experience, which is pro wrestling jargon for when a promoter ensures his top-billed star never looks weak. The fact that PWG's matches go down in an unhip suburb like Reseda is no accident. Two masked wrestlers known as Super Dragon and Excalibur won't even talk about PWG. “Because we don't need to,” says Super Dragon. He's at least 6 feet tall and 250 pounds, so when he gives me a stone-cold stare that signals his unwillingness to give me access, well, I don't feel it's my place to push. You see, PWG doesn't want to become too big to succeed or draw the ire of the establishment. It's the pissed-off punk band that doesn't want to cheapen its authenticity or DIY appeal, which is for the moment as bulletproof as King Kong.
The two next rounds of PWG shows take place on Saturday, March 18, and Saturday, April 21. You can try to get tickets here.