By Adam Thomas, Editorial Intern
It’s Friday night on March 29th at PCW ULTRA’s Wrestle Summit and Jake Atlas has just stepped into the ring to defend his title against a challenger from Canada’s IMPACT! Wrestling Federation, Dezmond Xavier.
Atlas takes off his blue sequined blazer, shining under the stage lights and struts confidently in blue short shorts and white boots in front of a cheering crowd. He uses suggestive body language to taunt his opponent. He’s the very picture of the modern day “face” – or hero character – in professional wrestling: young and handsome and clean cut, but he’s also very L.A. – a true blue Latino hero who recently came out of the closet.
Xavier lets his moves speak for him. He pretends to walk away into a corner before instantly committing to a panther like double back flip that culminates in a powerful aerial kick straight to the back of Atlas’ head – knocking the cocky star to the ground instantly. The audience of hundreds lets out a collective cry while Xavier goes for a pin on the stunned Atlas straight away, attempting to end the night’s Ultra-Light Championship bout before it’s really begun.
Atlas escapes of course. He’s a hometown favorite here at Wilmington’s International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union Memorial Hall, and a rising star in the L.A. Indy wrestling scene. Though he struggles against Xavier, who chases him around the ring for much of the match in a stunning display of acrobatic prowess, Atlas eventually delivers his signature finisher – a modified backwards Tornado DDT from a handstand on the ropes – and pins Xavier. Atlas rises and grasps his belt, his title ably defended, before screaming to the crowd while they chant back, “Whose house? Jake’s House!”
“He’s just one of those up and coming kids,” says Joseph Cabibbo about Atlas. “I’ve seen a million of ‘em and he’s one of them. He’s just going to be a star.”
Cabibbo should know. While fans of Atlas may have been chanting that it was “Jake’s House” during Wrestle Summit, in reality it was Cabibbo’s. Because Cabibbo is one half of the duo that runs PCW ULTRA – the company that put on the night’s events, including Atlas’ match with Xavier. As the primary talent manager and “Booker,” – the wrestling slang for essentially, the Lead Writer – it was Cabibbo that ultimately decided that Atlas should win the night’s bout of pre-planned pugilism and flying physicality.
“You have to be a specialist to understand – not just the falls and the [maneuvers of] wrestling and all that – that’s one thing. But the way you put it all together and train an audience . . . It’s like no other business around,” says Cabibbo.
Cabibbo is a strikingly intimidating figure at first glance. His shaved head and wild, dark beard just starting to gray sit atop a bulky frame underneath. He looks like he might be Santa Claus’ evil twin brother. But Cabibbo isn’t a bad guy at all; he just plays one in the ring.
That’s because the 44-year old Cabibbo, in addition to being the creative force behind PCW ULTRA, also brings his talents to fans directly as a performer with 20 years of experience in the independent professional wrestling scene, best known for his now retired character The Almighty Sheik. Now he plays Josef Samael, an evil, guttural creature and part of a tag-team of violence loving baddies – known in the wrestling lingo as “heels” – called Warbeast with his teammate Jacob Fatu.
During the night’s performance at Wrestle Summit, Cabibbo, after spending all day working behind the scenes already, comes out in a classically styled wrestler’s leotard and demonstrates his trademark brutal, theatrical style with Fatu in a match against two other teams, and they’re all pairs of heels. The match starts in the ring but spills out into the crowd halfway through, with Cabibbo and Fatu swinging folding chairs at their opponents and driving them into tables, leaving a trail of carnage behind while half the audience chases them around the hall on foot, breaking the already thin fourth wall just that bit more, but obviously rapt in their attention.
Before the show and while eating a sandwich, Cabibbo waxes philosophically about his methods for playing a good heel, something he’s done for more years than many in the audience have been alive.
“It’s really easy to me because [after 20 years] I know how to work a room . . . you have to limit yourself as far as what you’re going to give the audience, because you don’t want them to react positively to you. But at the same time, you don’t want them to react negatively to you in a way that is cheap. Like you don’t want to look at a lady who is overweight and go ‘you big fat blah blah blah,’ that’s not cool. That lady’s going to feel like crap. So, you want to use yourself to represent everything bad in that audience’s life that they can identify with. If a boss doesn’t give you respect you look through somebody. If somebody cheats you in life you cheat the good guy. You do stuff that they can identify with and you get heat with the drama of it . . . I find that it’s best to emasculate a man and scare a woman. Those are two really foolproof ways to get under somebody’s skin.”
Still, Cabibbo warns that playing a good heel is a balancing act, talking about times when crowds have gone out of control with rage and having to fend off assaults in past shows.
“It’s a real strange thing,” says Cabibbo. “Everyone knows its entertainment, but everybody’s emotions can get the best of them. It’s weird. It’s like at first, they’re just playing along. Until they’re not.”
When he’s not playing a brooding bad-man though, Cabibbo’s talent truly shines as a creative who lives and breathes his craft, and he’s as nice as Mister Rogers off stage. If he isn’t regaling you with a story from his past days wrestling in Puerto Rico or Japan, he’s talking about his plans for the next show: how to make it better than the last, how to get bigger talent, how to grow PCW ULTRA – which in the wrestling world is a business arrangement known as a Federation, Fed, or Promotion interchangeably, essentially the equivalent of a theater troupe – into a bigger and better show for the audience.
Which is a good thing for Cabibbo’s business partner, Mike Sharnagl, the owner and founder of PCW ULTRA. Originally founded as Pacific Coast Wrestling in 2015, Sharnagl, who has a day job working in marketing, says he attended a local independent wrestling show and decided that he could do it better, fronting the money to start the business. He handles the logistical and marketing aspects of the enterprise, while Cabibbo handles the nitty gritty wrestling details like booking.
“No one was doing any kind of wrestling in the South Bay, and I live in the South Bay,” says Sharnagl, who lives in Lomita. “It turned out that he [Cabibbo] was my perfect, I dunno, my other being here. We work great together because we’re in completely separate channels, but working for the same goal. He’s like ‘I booked this guy and that guy and it’s going to be ridiculous. People’s minds are going to blow!’ and I’m like ‘I got a taco guy! So, people are going to be so stoked because now they can eat tacos!’”
With their first shows originally playing to a gym in Torrance in 2016, the pair’s new venture soon saw the venue filled to capacity once they were able to book the TV wrestling legend of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Rob Van Dam. Cabibbo felt that venues that would host roller derby matches would likely be good for wrestling, and they soon found the ILWU Memorial Hall in Wilmington, moving there in 2017. Since then they’ve been setting up a series of six to eight major shows a year, three years now.
It couldn’t have begun at a better time, too, since the previously extremely small, mostly underground, and often very amateur world of the independent wrestling scene has exploded nation-wide. All across the U.S. thanks to a distaste amongst fans for the McMahon machine that is the World Wrestling Entertainment behemoth, fandom culture on social media and a resurgent attendance in high quality wrestling schools (the Santino Brothers academy is the big one in L.A.).
According to Grecco Bray, who works for PCW ULTRA as a line producer, though the average person not following Indy wrestling on social media wouldn’t know it, these days there are often nine to twelve different wrestling shows running in California alone during any given week, and it’s diversifying.
“Wrestling became really limited thanks to Vince McMahon,” says Bray. “It was a monopoly. He was Caesar. He took over everything. He killed everything. Five years ago, you could have sworn wrestling was going to die. But then my generation came up and said ‘We’re old enough, we have an idea on how to do this, and we can do different styles.’ The Territories are coming back.”
“The Territories” are how the professional wrestling world in the U.S. was organized from the 1950s through the 1970s. It was a cartel-like system where different, wrestling federations and promotions divided the US into regions, generally keeping talent localized and making money from live shows, which allowed for different styles to develop in different regions. McMahon took over what would become the WWE in the 1980s and slowly but surely bought out smaller promotions and federations until he created a conglomerate that brought professional wrestling into the mainstream on cable TV, but also homogenized the industry.
“McMahon’s one size fits all notion has kind of gone away,” Bray says. “[The style of show in] Northern California is different from Southern California which is different from the Deep South. Because people are different and crowds have different needs.”
It’s in the mixing of these different styles where Cabibbo and Sharnagl’s PCW ULTRA finds its unique spin as a company. Some, like Atlas, come from a gymnastics background, others, like the pink spandex clad Japanese superhero caricature “Happy Man,” play at screwball comedy. Brutal weapon matches, mixed sex tag-team matches, and of course, it wouldn’t be SoCal if there weren’t Luchadors. The winner of the night’s championship match was Mil Muertes, who brought a pure luchador gimmick (albeit with an undead theme).
Combined, it’s as Cabibbo pitches, a “circus act,” where if you don’t find one matchup entertaining, you only have to wait a few minutes to see if the next might catch your eye. It’s a broad-based, vaudevillian approach that he and Sharnagl devised in order to try and appeal to more locals, especially families, looking for an alternative to a movie for a good Friday night out rather than only focus on bringing in hardcore Indy wrestling fans, who Cabibbo says have become more sophisticated due to social media.
“If for instance, somebody is going into the WWE [fans] know about it, thanks to the internet,” says Cabibbo. “They’re into the intricacies. They understand if two people are dating. They understand if two people have legitimate heat – what we call anger in the business. There’s also times where we work heat, and they think they’re smart to it but we’re able to get them in a different way!”
Talking about “working heat” – creating false anger between two performers that the audience believes is real – is the art of professional wrestling that the average person doesn’t see. It’s what bookers like Cabibbo are most in charge of creating by forming a fictional narrative around the actual lives of the performers. And it all plays out in real-time, all day, every day.
“The best way to describe wrestling is [it’s] kind of 24-hour live theater,” says Bray. “What I compare it to is it’s Shakespeare. At the end of Macbeth there’s a huge fight scene. Macbeth and MacDuff pull out their giant phallic symbols and beat the crap out of each other for like 15 minutes in most productions. [Wrestling], every match, hypothetically would be the last 15 minutes of Macbeth. Except you’re already geared up and you’re just ready to go and boom. That is theater.”
Like any good cultural product, wrestling, whether at the local level of Indy shows like Wrestle Summit or at the national level with the WWE, reflects the world around it, and this includes politics. Cabibbo retired his best known persona, The Almighty Sheik, because he felt an “evil Arab” might not be as appealing in a post-post-9/11 world. There’s also debate about the nature of one of the core tropes of the craft – faces and heels – when relativism is a major element of living in a digitally globalized world.
“What we’re running into in the modern day is that one man’s heel is another man’s face,” says Bray. “The example I use is the political one: the president’s a professional wrestler. He cuts a really good gimmick, his crowds get excited, but they don’t believe he’s going to do these things. He never had to take the abuse, but he does everything else a professional wrestler does. Which is, ‘I’m the good guy, they’re the bad guy, watch me next Sunday rumble in the jungle with that person there, I’m upset.’ The reason I use him as an example, is that he’s a hero for a group of people. He’s also the biggest villain in the world. And there is no one size fits all. In some territories, he’s a face. In some territories, he’s a heel, and it’s the same thing for any of these guys.”
Two days after Wrestle Summit, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO brought more politics regarding wrestling to public attention with a segment focusing on the abusive treatment of wrestlers in McMahon’s WWE. The segment highlighted many major issues that both Bray and Cabibbo spoke of in interviews with Random Lengths News, including how wrestlers are entering into an almost entirely unregulated industry of simulated combat that sees most dying young due to years of wear and tear on their bodies.
“In the WWE they’ll fix you if you’re broke, but they don’t have to,” says Cabibbo. “You’re an independent contractor, so it’s basically – they protect you in a way that they’re protecting their contracted race horses. This is a business that’s infamous for chewing people up and spitting them out . . . pro wrestling is ‘enter at your own risk.’ Everyone knows and no one is surprised by it. That is the way it is. I recommend that anyone who wrestles, whether it’s for a living or not, that they have insurance. If they choose to wrestle without insurance that’s on them – I don’t recommend it at all. I don’t.”
Healthcare is a major issue for wrestling at its highest levels in the WWE, but it’s even more precarious at the “minor league” level of the independent wrestling world. Shane Strickland, a ten-year veteran (in both wrestling and the military) who represented PCW ULTRA as their champion Swerve against Muertes during Wrestle Summit, agreed that a lack of performer protection was the most critical issue in the industry today.
“We’re pretty much all on our own,” says Strickland. “I’d say 80 to 85 percent of independent wrestlers don’t have health insurance. So every night we’re in the ring it’s a gamble.”
While the economic realities of smaller shows make healthcare a sore spot in the Indy scene, other once common problems are improving according to Strickland.
“Smaller promotions, there’s times when there are shady workings in the back and performers don’t get paid,” says Strickland. “Those guys are getting weeded out more, those promotions, because of the internet age. Once one bad thing happens everybody hears about it.”
In general, Strickland is positive about the internet’s influence on the industry beyond just its effect on preventing abuse. Saying that he sees more and more crossover between Indy wrestling and mainstream entertainment, especially music, due to social media and in turn, success in terms of both fame and fortune.
“It’s starting to become the cool thing, to like wrestling, when it wasn’t [before],” Strickland says. “It was taboo to be a wrestling fan, like ‘oh you like that fake crap?’ But nowadays that’s changed, wrestlers are more relatable. We’re just like you, we were nerds too. I wouldn’t even just say it’s wrestling, but entertainment [in general]. There’s independent rock shows in bars, and there’s independent wrestling shows in clubs.”_
The comparison to Indie music scenes is apt. During Wrestle Summit, while plenty of attendees are families with small children, and more traditional wrestling fans are decked out in WCW or WWE branded clothing, there is a major presence of young adults and teenagers dressed like they were ready for a punk rock show. All spiky hair and denim jackets covered in band pins like a military uniform is covered in medals.
“It’s like a punk scene or anything like that,” says Derek Lounsbury, a fan who drove down from Tacoma, Washington to see his local wrestlers appearing at Wrestle Summit from the DEFY promotion. “It’s not super mainstream, the independent wrestling scene, but it has a high retention rate, right? It’s different from what I think people are used to. It’s more inclusive. It’s more open. It’s more welcoming, I think, to more people than it’s ever been.”
Ultimately, the presence of both dedicated fans like Lounsbury and a families at the ILWU Memorial Hall for Wrestle Summit means Cabibbo’s booking and Sharnagl’s marketing efforts are working. By the time the lights dimmed and the first bell was rung, every seat in the 800-person capacity hall was filled, ready to watch the spectacle of grown men and women flinging themselves at each other in coordinated epic battles of good versus evil, and evil versus other evil, all complete with burlesque costumes and campy stereotypes.
For Scharnagl, the next step is to connect with more South Bay businesses to fill vendor space at shows, and neither he nor Cabibbo are settling for their current plateau of success. Sharnagl is setting his sights on potentially moving to an even larger venue such as California State University Long Beach’s Walter Pyramid or the Grand Chapiteau in San Pedro.
“The whole goal is to build this area,” Sharnagl says. “I want everyone [in the South Bay] to be like, ‘this is mine.’”
So if you find yourself hankering for an old-fashioned show of testosterone and tights covered spectacle, then perhaps seeking out a local independent show might be right up your alley. If you’re in the South Bay, PCW ULTRA is planning for their next show, Mind Crawler, to take place at the ILWU Memorial Hall at 231 W. C Street in Wilmington on June 14, with ticket prices varying. More information is at http://www.pcwultra.com/.
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