Most people aren't excited to make a homecoming, when they know it will involve taking a physical beating. Professional wrestler Shane "Swerve" Strickland isn't most people.
Strickland was born in Tacoma, but his military family moved shortly after his birth. After spending his youth moving around, he eventually enlisted in the Army and became a signal support specialist before finding his calling in the squared circle. Working for independent wrestling promotions like Philadelphia's Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW), Strickland built up a reputation as an ultra-athletic and high-flying in-ring performer. This led him to El Rey Network's storyline-intensive Lucha Underground (often described as "a soap opera with wrestling") where he plays the masked wrestler Killshot.
This Friday, January 13, Strickland makes his Seattle wrestling debut when he faces off against former WWE superstar Cody Rhodes (two-time Intercontinental Champion and son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes) in the headlining match of DEFY1 Legacy at Washington Hall. It's the premiere event for the new DEFY Wrestling promotion, which looks to bring the country's top indie wrestlers to Seattle.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Strickland about the art of wrestling theatrics, the grind of staring out in indie wrestling, and what he's trying to prove at DEFY1 Legacy.
Considering you didn’t spend your youth growing in the Northwest, why did you decide to rep Tacoma as your hometown for your wrestling career?
Well nobody else was really coming from the Washington area. [On the East Coast wrestling scene] a lot of people cite Richmond, Virginia and Philadelphia as their hometown, but not a lot of people represented Tacoma, Washington. I figured it was something different from everybody else, and it’s literally my hometown. So I went that route with it.
What was your first exposure to pro wrestling?
When I was 12, I started hanging out with sister’s friend’s younger brother, and he watched it every week, so I just started watching it with him. When we moved, I got away from it for a couple of months, but I tuned back into WWE Smackdown in the 2002 era. I started playing the video games and got really into it around that time.
Who were your favorite superstars as a kid?
Rey Mysterio, for sure. Edge was a big one. Shawn Michaels big influence. Eddie Guerrero. JBL. John Morrison. I’ve pretty much branched off and done my own thing, but there’s something I took away from each and every one of those guys.
So what led you to start actively pursuing a pro wrestling career?
When I was 18, I had just finished my full training of the military—my annual AIT training. I was living in Pennsylvania for about six months and working a regular job. I was doing Comcast cable, and then I switched over to doing UPS work. And I decided I wanted to do something more.
Me and my friends were fans of wrestling. We were all backyarding [backyard wrestling], and I actually wanted to try and get into the ring and train. Nobody else really thought they could do something like that, so I just took it on myself. I moved to Virginia, where my mom was living at the time. I looked up a wrestling school that was in my mother’s area, and it was one like two miles away from our house. I moved down there on a weekend and started training that Tuesday. And I took off ever since then.
What constitutes the daily grind for an indie pro wrestler?
Well early on, when you’re just training like a year into wrestling, it’s doing your daily job, leaving work come home for like a couple of minutes, and go to the training school. You train maybe three to four times a week. When there are weekend shows, you show up early to help take the ring down, load it in the truck, drive it to the venue at like 10 in the morning, unload the ring truck, put the ring together, pick up whoever is coming in for the show from the airport, make drives to get food for the veterans, get in the ring a little bit before the show, train, and perform in the show if you’re on the card. If you’re not on the show, you’re just working security or running around handling whatever the promoter needs. When the show is over you take apart the ring, you load it back up, bring it to the home venue, and unload it, and you get home around 3 or 4 in the morning. And that’s what I was doing often.
Sometimes when I had military weekends, I would do my drills and be done around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, get permission to leave a little bit earlier, drive two hours up to Philadelphia for CZW, help out with anything they needed in the show, perform in the show, get the ring cleaned up, load up after the show, take it the venue, load it back in, and then get back home around 4 or 5 in the morning… just to start drill at like 7:30am. So it was definitely grind.
It was a lot of sacrificing. A lot of the time, to make it as far as you really, really want to go, the furthest you could possibly go in wrestling, you have to sacrifice something. There’s no way you can get around it. If you want to keep everything that you love in life, all you’re ever going to be is just an average wrestler doing the weekend thing. You have to do more than what’s asked of you. Something has to go. You’re going to have to sacrifice money, relationships, jobs… I sacrificed all of those things and more. But now I’ve made it to the point where I can give back for all the sacrifices that I’ve made.
What’s your favorite aspect of the pro wrestling? In-ring work? Cutting promos?
I’m more about the theatrics. I love the art of it. I love putting my story in-ring; like me not directly telling what’s happening, but putting in enough theatrics so that the fans can honestly pick up the entire story based on what they see. I like getting the response to of the story we’re portraying in the ring.
What’s your favorite part about getting to play the Killshot character on Lucha Underground?
The story arc. I have a background story that I can pull from and put in the ring. Killshot’s character is completely opposite of Shane Strickland’s character, and I get to mess with that and manipulate that—I can play with those theatrics and the psychology of the character into the ring. I get to show those dynamics of the character: the good, the bad, the things he would do, his motivations, his weaknesses, his strengths. I get to try different ways to keep showing all that to the audience of Lucha.
How do you compare the Shane Strickland character to Killshot?
Well Shane Strickland and the Killshot character are parallels. Shane Strickland has a military background and does the right thing, Killshot is the one who did the wrong thing in the military. Killshot is Shane Strickland if he left the military, went AWOL, fled the country and was captured. He has a lot of pain and anguish going inside of his brain; you see a lot of PTSD with the character.
What area’s do you feel like you can grow as a performer?
I can improve my speaking and grow into my physical stature. Even my in-ring ability can improve. A lot of people say it’s up to par with the best out, there but I still want to get better. Every time I watch a match of mine, I always try to correct something; and I always end of correcting a million things. A lot of people say I overthink it or I’m just too hard on myself, but that’s the chip on my shoulder that keeps me going and keeps me getting better.
Your DEFY1 Legacy opponent Cody Rhodes successful carved out a post-WWE career in the indie scene over the past year. Do you feel like independent wrestling has gained more legitimacy in the past few years? Does it feel different?
Absolutely. When you have John Cena putting up pictures of Kenny Omaga on his Instagram, you know there’s an influence now; you know there’s something different. When you see WWE putting Gabe Sapolsky from Ring of Honor and Evolve on their WWE Network, you know there’s an influence. You can see it. You can sense it. It’s like they flipped a switch on what is allowed kind of flipped the switch on what is allowed, and it’s honesty opened up typical WWE fans’ eyes to what more is out there.
And when that happened, the independents grew. Now the opportunities in the business have blown up a lot more because fans want to see where those stars are coming from. Guys like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Austin Aries, Samoa Joe… those guys have to make it [in the WWE] in order to help our business out here. And when that happened, Cody Rhodes was able to leave WWE and make a whole new living doing what we do. So it definitely helps both sides.
Is the end goal for you a shot in the WWE or are you content for now working the indie scene?
Right now, I’m good. I’m seeing a lot more opportunities internationally as well. There’s still a lot more to do, but I’m still happy with what’s going on right now.
What are you most looking forward to about wrestling at DEFY1 Legacy?
I’m trying to prove to everyone that I honestly can be one of the best in the business. I want people to see that like this isn’t me getting a chance to wrestle Cody Rhodes, I want this to feel like a chance for Cody Rhodes to wrestle me. I’m grateful for the opportunity, but I don’t want to make it seem like this is a gift. This is something I’ve earned.
Jan 13, Washington Hall, $30–$50