Tending to two toddlers parked in a stroller on the sidelines, she cheers for Shadow, a stone-faced fighter wearing a black bandana around his head and a shirt that reads, “F--- You You F---kin F---.”
Between drags on a cigarette, the woman yells for Shadow to fight harder. She boos and heckles his opponent, the Aztec Warrior. When Shadow lands another hit, the woman screams.
“Again! Again! In the head!”
Another woman scoffs at the wrestlers, “Did that hurt?”
And then a third, in a singsongy voice, shouts, “I don’t see blooooood!”
It’s the kind of cheering and heckling you hear at a Spokane Anarchy Wrestling fight. The amateur hardcore wrestling group puts on a show — dubbed the Saturday Night Massacre — every week. They fight in the rain. In the heat. In the snow.
They’re free shows. Family events. People come with coolers, lawn chairs, and sun hats. They bring their families. Between fights, the wrestlers’ kids toddle in the dirt patch that is the ring. They eat hot dogs. And, as a family, they cheer for blood.
Blood is what these people — the crowd, the fighters — want, after all. And to get it, fighters use homemade weapons — axe handles wrapped in barbed wire, torches blazing with fire — and the crowd goes wild.
It all makes the men of SAW feel like real wrestlers. Like celebrities. Like superhumans. If they wrestle hard enough to draw blood, they mean something to that cheering crowd. They become a team, and they mean something to each other.
“We’re 13 Hillyard boys,” David “Reaper” Morse says. “We put this together six years ago. These guys were like, ‘Let’s get the homies together and beat the hell out of each other.’ We’re savage about it, man.’”
And maybe, one day, if they proved that they could fight and deal with real pain, they, too, could realize their dream of being pro wrestlers.
So they started hitting each other. And people started cheering. But they wanted the crowd to scream. So they brought in weapons. And, now, four years later, nothing — being smashed in the face with barbed wire, putting their heads through car windows or even being set on fire — could make them stop.
“My reason to live is dead.” John Ryken, 32, grasps the metal tags he had made recently for his little girls. They’re a constant reminder of his daughters: Helen, 3, and Gail, 2.
Four days before Christmas 2009, his young daughters died in an apartment fire. In a KXLY story on Dec. 31, neighbors said they could hear the girls and their grandmother screaming — but they couldn’t help them. The three of them died huddled together at the foot of a bed in the second-story apartment.
And Ryken, who lives in Airway Heights and attends community college, says he’s been aimless ever since.
“Every time I wake up in the morning and my kids aren’t there, there’s a void,” he says.
Ryken walks with a wide stance, as if he’s ready for a fight to break out at any time. He glares from underneath the brim of a cowboy hat, a sheen of stubble across his face. Most of his teeth are missing.
Filled with grief and a longing for acceptance, Ryken found Spokane Anarchy Wrestling two months ago.
All it took was one practice for Ryken to become his character. As Crazy Jay, he leaves the real world — with grief and pain — and enters the backyard, where he is known as a hard fighter.
“I found a home with SAW. It’s my tension release every week,” he says. “I’ll sit there with my dog tags [before a fight] and talk to my kids and say, ‘Help Daddy. Daddy needs help with this match.’”
Then there’s Zach Pabst. The 17-year-old dropped out of Shadle Park High midway through his junior year. In the backyard he is known as Komodo — a skinny, scrappy fighter with a head of carrot-orange hair who has earned respect for taking every hit and every blow. He gets thrown — literally thrown — by the other fighters. And sometimes he gets knocked out cold. But he always comes back.
Pabst’s dad is making him quit SAW after Wrestle Rave, the group’s big yearly event. His dad saw a video of one of his fights with longtime SAW fighter, Killer. In that fight, Killer jumped off a 20-foot roof onto Pabst’s chest.
“When I saw him climbing the roof, my heart started to race and I’m like, ‘I’m going to die,’” Pabst says.
Though he says he had lots of friends in school, Pabst says that he’s found a community — a second family, even — with SAW.
“These guys know how to take care of each other,” he says, “and that’s why I want to stick around.”
Jesse Lawson hates that SAW is labeled as backyard wrestling. “Backyard wrestling is going out there and totally annihilating somebody for fun,” Lawson, 21, says. “I consider myself a pro wrestler who just happens to have to wrestle in a backyard.”
Lawson, who wrestles as Mad Man, is the founder of SAW. He has no professional training, but he’s a lifelong fan of the sport.
“I was born on a Saturday night, my dad was watching the WWF Saturday Night Main Event. I’ve been watching wrestling since I came out,” he says. “It’s my passion for life.”
What Lawson has created with SAW is different than mainstream wrestling on television.
Weapons and blood — real blood, and lots of it — are key to Spokane Anarchy Wrestling. Though the wrestlers of SAW pull off suplexes, drops and holds, their style of wrestling is hardcore: a bloody subgenre that’s been called “garbage wrestling,” referring to the homemade weapons used by hardcore wrestlers.
Hardcore wrestling reached the height of its popularity in the late ’90s when World Championship Wrestling and the then-World Wrestling Federation created divisions for the style. But it slipped in popularity when critics pointed out that the blood and weapons were simply masking a lack of wrestling skills on the part of the athletes.
But it’s a style that backyard wrestling groups worldwide have embraced, perhaps because it’s relatively simple to mimic. Like other backyard groups around the planet — that have been appearing and disappearing for decades — SAW has an arsenal of grizzly, post-apocalyptic looking weapons: crutches, baseball bats, hockey sticks and axe handles. Fluorescent light tubes can be smashed over an opponent’s head. Faces are slammed into ladders. An opponent is filleted over a barbed wire-wrapped table. Heads are smacked with cookie sheets and stop signs.
Lawson remembers the exact date of SAW’s first fight. It was Sept. 23, 2006, in the park next to St. Patrick’s Parish in northeast Spokane. And though only a few friends were there to watch and everyone was eventually asked to leave the park by police, the wrestlers who fought that day — King Chaos, Killer, Master Mayhem, Shadow — are still with SAW today.
“We had only five people come. And then, week by week, more of the neighborhood kids were coming,” Lawson says.
After that, wrestlers turned out every Wednesday to practice and every Saturday to perform. Their ranks now hover between 12 and 25 wrestlers.
“We’d practice 10 suplexes in a row until we got it right. We weren’t just going out and just doing it. We were perfecting the moves where neither one of us got hurt,” he says. “Honestly I’m shocked none of us got seriously hurt.”
Lawson, a Rogers High School dropout, became known as the fierce, face-painted Mad Man. He was a step closer to his dream of being a pro wrestler.
“I remember the first time a kid asked me for an autograph,” Lawson says. “Best feeling in the world.”
Lawson, whose father died in 1997, says he was “pretty much abandoned by his family.” But he found a kinship among his fellow fighters and the fans of SAW.
“This is my family,” he says. “These are the ones I call if I have to call someone at 4 in the morning.”
Today, Lawson is dreaming bigger. He wants a permanent home for SAW: a building with a real wrestling ring. Seats for fans. He wants to be able to charge admission and attract touring wrestling groups.
He’s trying to make SAW more professional. He’s assembled a management team. And the wrestlers have to abide by rules: no drugs, no drinking, show up to practice or you don’t fight.
Lawson says it’s just that one detail that’s tying them to that “backyard” label: They wrestle each week in a backyard.
Pro wrestling is just as much — if not more — about acting as it is about fighting. Matches are comedies. Dramas. The wrestlers of World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly the WWF) are often huge, rippling-muscled mountainous men trained to be scholars of their art. The fight is less of a street brawl than it is a ballroom dance. A WWE wrestler is an athlete and an actor. But backyard wrestling is all about the fight — about making the audience question again if the fight is real.
“If somebody gets hurt in a match, you feel like crap,” Lorin “Burbs” Rupert says. “Yes, it’s unprofessional. It’s dangerous. It’s rowdy. But we’re brothers. It works.”
As the fad surged through the ’90s and early 2000s, backyarders became the bane of suburbs and the target of the media — not to mention parents’ worst fear for their children.
Though WWE pros like the Hardy Boyz and Rob Van Dam started in backyards, the organization boasts “Don’t Try This” videos on its website and condemns backyard wrestling:
“WWE is adamantly opposed to the concept of ‘backyard wrestling’ because of the risk of injury to untrained amateurs. … Parents should let their loved ones know that practicing ‘backyard wrestling’ is not a path to WWE Superstardom.”
Despite being condemned by the WWE and receiving tons of bad press, backyard wrestling isn’t illegal.
Jennifer DeRuwe, a Spokane police spokeswoman, says that there is nothing legally wrong with what SAW is doing.
“Everybody is a willing participant,” she says. “To assault somebody there has to be an intent to hurt you, and you don’t really have that in this situation.”
SAW wrestlers know they will be injured sooner or later. And that’s OK with them.
“We know we’re gonna get hurt,” Rupert says. “It’s when, not if.”
Brad Bushman has made a career out of studying violence: why people act out violently, what attracts us to violence and what it is about humans that makes us cheer as boxers, wrestlers or ultimate fighters beat each other.
The University of Michigan psychology professor concludes that groups like SAW are not made up of athletes. They’re made up of people looking to fill a void.
“People like it. They feel good after they vent their anger,” he says. “But they feel good after they eat chocolate, or after they take street drugs. I’m not sure the brain mechanism is exactly the same, but I think it’s similar.”
Bushman says he thinks that engaging in a violent activity like wrestling is simply a public ploy for attention. To feel supported and loved, no matter the cost.
David Livingstone Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of New England and operator of a website called Real Human Nature, says blood sports are practically encoded in our DNA.
“I’m afraid I think it’s part of human nature. We have this two-sided character. We’re inclined to both do violence to others and to enjoy watching it and thinking about it,” he says. “And at the same time, we’re also horrified by it.”
Smith, whose recent research revolved around dehumanization, thinks wrestlers like those in SAW think of their ability to fight and deal with pain as a commodity.
“There’s some reason for people doing it — some people might be doing it because they are screwed up, but I doubt it. If you look at culture where warriors play a role, [they’re] glamorized. They are regarded as sexually attractive. We found the same thing in street gangs: The more violent, daring members of gangs have a sort of glamour about them.”
Smith questions whether SAW members hurt themselves more than other athletes, such as ballerinas or marathon runners.
“There’s certain kinds of pain that people inflict on themselves that’s regarded as socially acceptable. It’s just done in a way that we’re more accustomed to, but there probably isn’t a profound difference.”
Bushman disagrees — especially because at SAW, there are children sitting on the sidelines.
“We know that children have a difficult — a very difficult — time distinguishing what’s real and what’s not before age 7. Even WWE, which is fake. They don’t know that it’s fake,” he says. “They want to become like adults.
“I would never take my kids to something like that.”
Today is the day they fight — according to David “Reaper” Morse — like warriors. “Until somebody quits,” he says.
John Bacon — president of SAW and known onstage as King Chaos — volunteers his East Central house and backyard every week for SAW matches. For today, the day of Wrestle Rave IV, the 24-year-old is decked out in full white face paint, black Xs over his eyes and stripes painted down over his mouth and goatee. They look like teeth.
The wrestlers fight in the middle of Bacon’s backyard: a grassless L-shaped space. In one corner of it, his wife, Jazmine, grills hot dogs on a George Foreman Grill and sells bottles of water for a quarter. The crowd sets up lawn chairs and strollers around the edges of the yard.
The fighters prop their weapons against a dilapidated shed, onto which Bacon has nailed a bell. The refs ring it at the end of each match.
The “backstage” area is the yard of a boarded-up house next door. From its back porch, Bacon reads from a clipboard the 10 matches that will make up the day. Some of the matches are fixed, while others are less scripted.
The wrestlers listen intently to the rules — there are plenty of them for a sport that aims for gory results:
- Only one wrestler can use the cheese grater.
- Don’t jump into any fight you aren’t a part of.
- Don’t use the back gate unless you’re fighting.
- And, please, Darold Miller says, don’t swear.
“We really want to keep down the F bombs,” he says. He’s wearing a T-shirt that says, “F--- You I’m Big Daddy D.”
Before Wrestle Rave gets started, someone stops to include Arianna, Reaper’s 22-month-old daughter. She’s wearing an American flag swimsuit, and she gets her face striped with blue war paint.
Reaper’s wife, Sarah Morse, says she doesn’t worry about Arianna seeing the fights. She says Arianna understands they’re fake and no one is really getting hurt. The young girl loves wrestling, Morse says.
“If she’s throwing a tantrum,” she says, “I just throw in one of the DVDs and she’s like, ‘Go daddy!’”
The fights begin out in the main yard as the day’s announcer — a skinny guy who asked someone to hold his glasses — gets in on the action. He brings his opponent to the ground, snatching a hockey stick wrapped in barbed wire from a pile of weapons and thwacking him on the back. The crowd yells. The announcer cheers for himself and raises his shirt to show his nipple to everyone. The crowd laughs.
A few minutes later, his opponent gets carried offstage on an army stretcher. He’s bleeding and moaning, but it’s clearly a drama. It’s just play fighting.
Next, Porno Mike goes up against Crazy Jay. It seems fairly scripted: Mike flips Jay with the huracanrana (a pro-wrestling move). Jay lays Mike on “the table” (a piece of particle board lying across two stacks of tires) and twice flies off the roof of the house onto Mike’s chest. When Mike pins Jay, his manager — a tall guy in a three-piece suit — thrusts his hand in the air. Mike’s playing the villain here, and the crowd boos him. It’s exactly the response the wrestlers hoped for.
As the sun makes its way across the afternoon sky, the mood starts to change. The crowd swells to around 70 people. The cheers for blood grow louder.
Josh “Biggie” Elkins, 31, struts out from backstage followed by his manager (and wife), Carrie, and a young crowd favorite, Gary “Zilla” McKay. Soon Biggie is sparring with King Chaos. As they roll in the dirt, the crowd is divided: The back half chants for Biggie, the front goes for Chaos.
Biggie — an absolute hulk of a man — has Chaos nearly pinned at one point, but when he tries to drop an elbow onto his chest, Chaos rolls aside. And the faking stops: Biggie’s in pain. Chaos slams Biggie’s face into a ladder. They scuffle again, but Biggie’s falling behind. Carrie’s on her knees, feet from her husband’s face, yelling, “Biggie, focus. Biggie, FOCUS!” She looks worried.
Biggie’s red face paint is now smeared on his white jersey, and what’s left on his face is shiny with sweat and dotted with dirt and blood. From the sidelines, it’s starting to look real.
But like WWE, the tables turn. Biggie pins Chaos and the bell rings. Both men lay there before being helped up. Blood pools in the inner corners of Biggie’s eyes and it looks like he’s crying blood. He’s dazed, half whispering, half moaning: “I don’t even know where I’m at right now.”
And then there’s the Death Match: an unscripted three-man brawl where anything goes and the winner walks away with a belt.
One competitor is eliminated fast — and then it’s just the lanky Zilla pitted against the cocky, weapon-happy Brian “Madd Maxe” Hood. Hood was only recently allowed back after his entire faction (essentially his wrestling “team”) was asked to leave two years ago because SAW thought they were out of control.
Though Zilla — who’s wrestled with SAW for a year — is spry, he’s no match for Madd Maxe.
Maxe, dreadlocked and wearing a knee-length red T-shirt, plays the villain well, pulling out his infamous cheese grater and raking it across Zilla’s forehead. The crowd jeers. Zilla cries out in pain.
And that’s when this fight stops being fake.
The punches and hits keep coming, and Zilla’s tired. Wobbly-legged. A little dazed.
What started as a comedy has turned into a tragedy, a sad story of two men trying to win the love of a crowd. This match feels like a hanging, and the crowd is the bloodthirsty lynch mob.
Zilla, 20, is stumbling around the yard, tripping over the weapons scattered across the dirt from earlier fights. When Maxe catches him, Zilla refuses to tap out.
He gets Madd Maxe on the table and climbs a few rungs of the nearby ladder, preparing to jump on him.
The crowd yells for Zilla to go higher. He doesn’t want to, but he reluctantly steps a few rungs further. He’s about to cry, but the crowd coaxes him to the roof.
From the sidelines, Zilla doesn’t look like a wrestler any more. He’s dropped his character. He’s just a kid, standing on the roof of a house, crying, bleeding, panting, holding his head. His chest is heaving from exhaustion.
The crowd — at its loudest and largest all day — is chanting, “ZIL-LA! ZIL-LA! ZIL-LA!”
He hesitates. Stops. Backs up. He crosses himself and shakes his head. The crowd is on its feet, chanting louder and louder.
“ZIL-LA! ZIL-LA! ZIL-LA!”
In this moment, there seems to be no way out for him: If he backs down, he’s back to just Gary McKay, and he’ll lose the respect of the crowd and the wrestlers he calls family.
He wants to be Zilla — to stay Zilla.
So he jumps.
It’s not over. The worst is yet to come. After Zilla crashes into the table, Maxe gets up while Zilla lays dazed on the ground. Maxe grabs “Barbie”: a stick wrapped with barbed wire that Maxe douses in lighter fluid and lights on fire. It’s not just smoldering: It’s a raging inferno on a stick.
He hits Zilla with the flaming torch. It knocks him back to the ground — and for a second, it appears Zilla is on fire.
And now the crowd doesn’t want any more. The jump — the crying, scared kid on the roof — was entertainment. But the kid on fire is too much.
Someone’s screaming. A woman shrieks, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” Someone else pleads for them to stop. Another shouts, “That’s so f---ed!”
The ref asks Zilla if he’s had enough. Zilla says no.
The backstage explodes. Biggie is being held back by his wife. Half of the crowd is begging for Zilla to give in, and half is cheering for him to get revenge. He rolls on the ground, crying, covering his face and feebly swatting Maxe away. But he won’t tap out.
The crowd closes in — but the SAW management team pushes them back.
Zilla’s writhing on the ground when Maxe pins him. Maxe takes the belt.
Backstage, one of the refs loses it, screaming at Maxe that this is a family, and that fight was dirty. That wasn’t even a fight, it was an ass-kicking — he throws his striped referee jersey in the dirt and says he quits.
Madd Maxe sneers, “You’re a bitch that can’t handle a Death Match.”
And as the wrestlers argue backstage, half the crowd leaves. The festive mood of Wrestle Rave has soured. People came to watch wrestling. They didn’t come to see a kid get beat up.
Zilla’s being told to breathe as blood drips down his face. The people who are reassuring him — Chaos, Master Mayhem, Shadow — are bloody themselves.
Jesse “Mad Man” Lawson tries to get the next fight going, one in which he’ll throw his opponent through a television set.
But some of the wrestlers are still angry. How can we start another fight when someone just got blatantly beaten up? Is this what we are becoming?
SAW managers say they don’t see the problem. Fighters know what they’re getting into. They know that they’ll be hurt. Management won’t stop a fight — no matter what.
Zilla got what he asked for.