Seattle's Lucha Libre Wrestlers are Fighting for their Sport in the State Legislature
There is only one lucha libre school in Washington state—and its luchadores are lobbying the government to make their sport more accessible.
The house lights dropped, the hip-hop blared, a rainbow of strobe lights darted around the room, and the crowd's din of pre-fight conversation cranked up to a roar of applause and cheers. El Chicano was the first luchador to enter the stark, cement-walled gym. He paraded around the room to a mix of boos and cheers before leaping into the ring with a loud, definitive stomp.
With biceps as big as my head, a broad chest and a sizeable beer belly, he resembled an old-timey strongman. But rather than a black wrestling singlet, he wore a black and white American flag tank top, red, white and blue tights, red leather wrestling boots and a black and white mask. His tag team partner, Alcotán entered the room to a chant of "rudos, rudos, rudos" from the man sitting behind me. In lucha libre, rudos are the bad guys or heels and there were lots of rudos fans on my side of the room.
Their opponents—tecnicos, the good guys—were Halcón Negro and Rey Jaguar. After some posturing, shit talking and instructions from the ref, Halcón Negro and Alcotán stepped out of the ring and the match was underway.
Chicano and Rey Jaguar immediately locked in a grapple hold. The crowd chanted, "Chi-Can-O! "Chi-Can-O." He responded by dropping to the ground and hurling Rey Jaguar across the ring in one fluid motion. The fight continued in a blur of flying bodies, drop kicks, punches, teammates tagging in and out, until eventually, the rudos emerged victorious.
It was an auspicious start to Lucha Libre Volcánica's monthly show at their training gym in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood and my first experience seeing lucha libre—or any form of professional wrestling, for that matter—live.
Conversations about counter culture in Seattle these days typically revolve around its accelerating death. Amazon, Google and other tech companies have brought an influx of wealth that's driving real estate costs up, pushing artists out, and further homogenizing an already fairly homogenous and extremely white city. It's surprising that Seattle has a lucha libre scene at all—even more surprising that its heart is just a few blocks away from Amazon's new headquarters.
The Seattle lucha community is small—Lucha Volcánica is the only school in Washington—and very grassroots. But they're dedicated to putting on high quality performances and they've drawn a loyal fan base. The luchadores talk of building careers as wrestlers and performing lucha libre throughout the state. But that is currently impossible. The Washington Department of Licensing classifies lucha libre and WWE-style professional wrestling in the same category as combat sports such as MMA and boxing. That classification comes with steep fees, liability coverage and safety regulations.
Lucha Volánica's owner Jose Gómez says because of that, putting on events is prohibitively expensive. "It's a lot of money. Around $8,000, $9,000 for each event. This is a young company. It's worth it. But it's hard to make show like that."
For the past two years, Gómez and his luchadores have been working with a Seattle wrestling promoter named Jake Stratton and his crew of wrestlers to lobby the Washington State Legislature to reclassify lucha libre and pro wrestling as "theatrical wrestling." They're hoping they can get help from the state before they too fall victim to the city's culture-crushing money machine.
Gómez started training to be a luchador when he was 14. Growing up in Mexico City in the '60s and early '70s, lucha libre wrestling was hugely popular, and Gómez wanted in. He worked out every day in the gym and made his professional debut at 16. Wrestling under the name La Garra, Gómez spent 25 years traveling around as a luchador in Mexico, the United States and even Russia. At the peak of his career he worked for Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, the oldest lucha promotion company in Mexico. He wrestled legends such as Blue Demon, El Rayo de Jalisco, Ultimo Dragón and others.
"Lucha is part of my life," says Gómez. "This sport, you never end learning. Every time you wrestle you learn something new."
These days Gómez is doing more teaching than learning. Though the short, barrel-chested man is now 53, it's easy to imagine him still throwing down in the ring, as he sometimes still does under the name Peligro. In 1998, He and his family moved to the Seattle suburb of Kent, Washington. For over a decade, lucha took a backseat to family and work responsibilities. Then in 2010, Gómez started his school, Lucha Libre Volcánica.
"I like bringing some of my Mexican culture to USA," he explains. "We are making history here. We are the first escuela in Washington."
At first Volcánica consisted of just Gómez, his brother and his son. But as word of mouth spread they picked up more students here and there. They started training in a tiny Judo and boxing gym sandwiched between two auto repair shops in Renton, another suburb just south of Seattle. The space was too small to host matches so they only put on three or four shows a year at a college campus, a Seattle arts and culture event and the occasional fight at a bar or Indian casino.
Today the school has grown to 28 members—18 of whom have gotten the call up to perform shows, the rest still just students. Some of the luchadores are Mexican immigrants who grew up watching lucha libre. Others are white guys who came to lucha via their love of American pro wrestling. Volcánica boasts the Pacific Northwest's only luchadora, a woman who wrestles under the name La Avispa.
"I don't make money for this. It's my hobby. I have my regular job. But it is part of my dream to make lucha libre in Washington," says Gómez. Performers get paid for wrestling in shows, but it's far from enough to live on.
Earlier this year, Volcánica took an important step forward when they moved to their current space at Evolv Fitness, the gym in South Lake Union. Evolv is big enough to host matches, so Gómez and his wrestlers can now put on at least a show a month.
Although Volcánica's current situation is an improvement over years past, making lucha libre work in Washington longterm will require that legislative assistance.
"I've described [this bill] as trying to right-size the regulations to fit the sport better while keeping the participants safe," explains Rep. Zack Hudgins, a Democrat who represents the south suburbs where Lucha Volcanica has its roots, and the lead sponsor on the theatrical wrestling bill. "Lucha libre and theatrical wrestling is about entertainment. It's about collaborative work together."
Though wrestlers get slammed into the ground, leap off the top rope, throw, kick and punch each other, the goal is to convince the audience your opponent is hurt, not to actually hurt them.
"It's not that we're not athletic or that lucha is not dangerous to some extent, because it is. But the difference is we're working together. I'm not trying to knock you unconscious. I'm not trying to hurt you," explains Ave Rex, one of Volcánica's star luchadores. (Per tradition, luchadores often play up the mystery of the masks and maintain anonymity in public. Ave Rex asked to be identified only by his wrestling name in this story.)
He continues, "If it were real, when I dived to the outside, the person would just step aside and that's the end of the show, I've got a broken neck. But that's not what the audience comes for. They're not there for blood."
Ave Rex says one practical thing the bill would do for them is eliminate the requirement that promoters have an ambulance and two EMTs on site for the duration of matches. "It's one of the largest costs we were running into. It's a few hundred dollars per hour to have them onsite. Shows always start late and run long so it really adds up."
Wrestlers have gotten around the high costs in a variety of ways. Volcánica's most common technique is to solicit non-mandatory donations from its audience instead of officially selling tickets. Doing so puts them in a gray area outside some of the DOL's regulations. Other times, they put on matches at Indian casinos. Stratton's old promotion Seattle Semi-Pro would put on matches at bars without bothering to go through official channels. This worked until a disgruntled former SSP wrestler tipped off the DOL.
This is the second time Hudgins has pushed his theatrical wrestling bill. His original impetus came from Bill Pease, a neighborhood activist in Seattle's South Park neighborhood. The neighborhood is 47 percent Latino. Pease was putting together a neighborhood event and wanted to include lucha libre as a nod to the community's Latino roots. When he ran into the DOL's regulations, he wasn't sure he could put on the matches. He ended up getting the $10,000 necessary from a local arts and culture grant.
"I was out at dinner and Bill was telling me he was having trouble putting on a lucha libre show," says Hudgins. "I thought maybe we should look at the regulations and drop a bill and see what we can do about it."
The bill passed through the House, but the legislative session ended before the Senate voted on it. And though it died, it got wrestlers from Volcánica and other promotions down to Olympia to testify on the bill. That in turn helped them connect with the DOL who spent last summer working with the wrestlers on the bill's language.
"We literally sat down with the DOL folks and went line by line and had a discussion why this is superfluous and why this should stay and this should go," Ave Rex tells me.
Hudgins introduced that modified bill in this year's session. Ave Rex says it'll be tough to keep lucha going long term in Washington if the bill doesn't pass.
"It's a wonder really that Lucha Volcánica has been able to be around for this long other than Jose just being stubborn as hell really. And he has also a bunch of dedicated performers too," he says.
His hope is that by lowering the financial barrier to lucha libre, Volcánica can grow and Washington can build a lucha scene beyond Gómez's school. "For us it would ideally open up opportunities to grow the company, grow the sport, gain visibility for lucha. Ultimately it would help us cultivate more talent if more people would be seeing us. The more feasible that is as a business, then I think the likelier there would be more companies, more promoters."
Though his biological father is Mexican, Ave Rex was adopted as a baby by white parents in Vancouver, Washington, a suburban city just across the border from Portland, Oregon. His first taste of lucha libre came from the World Wrestling Federation. Like many American teenagers, Ave Rex was a huge pro wrestling fan.
"I had never seen Lucha until [World Championship Wrestling President] Eric Bishoff brought in Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, Silver King. That blew my fucking mind. Lucha moves at a different clip, everything is done so quickly, all of the acrobatic stunts," Ave Rex explains.
Still, his path to lucha was winding and unexpected. Ave Rex landed in Tacoma to attend the University of Puget Sound. He dabbled in some acting classes, dated a circus performer who got him into tumbling and acrobatics. He started training American pro wrestling in Tacoma. Someone in his wrestling class introduced him Volcánica and he never looked back.
"I just flat out fell in love with it. It's hard work. It's the sweat and grit. It's the relationships that you forge. You get in the ring with somebody and you're actually trusting this person with your life or at the very least to not hurt you," Ave Rex explains.
After a few months of training with Volcánica, Gómez called him up to perform.
"There's such a high and a rush. You leave the show and go drink two beers and you're like 'I don't feel anything.' You're so jacked on adrenaline."
Sitting in the gym at that recent show at Evolv, it's easy to understand why. The room was filled with at least 100 people sitting in folding chairs around three sides of the ring and another 30 or so standing in the back. The crowd was at least 65 percent Latino and many people brought their whole family out to watch. Everyone seemed thrilled to be there and fully into the action unfolding in (and sometime outside of) the ring.
I was amazed at how easy it was to suspend disbelief. Sure sometimes the stage combat punches were clearly whiffs. And wrestlers' feigned pain was campy. But the throws and body slams and top rope dives were very real. And when Viento got kicked in the face during the final bout of the night, his nose was actually bleeding. Each match lasted a little less than a half hour and bodies were flying nearly nonstop. The crowd loved it. We whooped and cheered and clapped when, after El Chicano delivered a particularly severe beat down, Rey Jaguar staggered to his feet, flipped Chicano over his shoulder and pinned him to the mat. We booed when Guerrero Nocturno tried to rip off Ave Rex's mask (a serious lucha taboo) during their heated grudge match.
And though the matches are scripted, I certainly didn't know who was going to win. For a while it looked like La Avispa and Gringo Loco were kicking ass and taking names against Sonico and Bat Boy. But I was surprised when Sonico and Bay Boy rallied late in the match and won.
Their fight in the legislature took a similar turn. For a while things were looking up for Rep. Hudgin's theatrical wrestling bill. It passed unanimously out of the House and passed out of Senate committee. Then, in nearly identical fashion to last year's session, the bill got stuck on the Senate floor waiting to get called up for a vote. The regular session ended before the Senate voted on it.
Then there was another glimmer of hope. Much like their national counterparts, Washington's state legislature is a broken mess of partisan obstruction. As such, the legislators were unable to pass a state budget and had to go into a special session this year (as they have in all recent years). But once again, the session ended without action on theatrical wrestling.
Still, the unanimous House vote bodes well for the bill's future. Hudgins says, "It almost made it. I will reintroduce it [next year] or work with another member to make sure it is reintroduced."
Gómez thinks that if the bill does eventually pass, it will open the door for new promoters to come in and help lucha libre grow in the state.
"I have gotten a couple emails from guys wanting to make shows in Washington. But I tell them it is not easy to make shows here. There is too much required. If this legislation passes we'll do more shows here," he says.
Either way, Gómez is deeply proud of the scene he's built and is going to do his damnedest to keep it alive.
"Lucha Libre Volcánica was born here in Washington. It will stay here."