The lights dim and dramatic orchestral music to befit a Tolkien epic reverberates off the walls of Washington Hall. An audience, as if on cue, claps and shouts “De-fy! De-fy!” in unison as a fog machine creates faux haze over an elevated rope-wrapped ring. On one recent Friday evening in the Central District, the historic century-old brick building housed three raucous hours of independent wrestling—masked luchadors, tag-team body slams, thunderous claps of 200-pound muscled wrestlers hitting the mat, repeatedly.
Wrestling is like a soap opera, but with athletes: There are villains, heroes, rivalries, tension-generating walk-on music, and elaborate hair and makeup. In Washington, though, the sport has long been dormant. Now, a professional independent scene is making a comeback like a luchador who’s returned for revenge.
“When I first started wrestling in the early ’90s...in the Northwest, a young wrestler could wrestle four or five times a week,” says Matt Farmer, who founded Defy Wrestling, a Seattle-based company that produces an alternative to bigger, commercialized promotions, in 2017 with Jim Perry. By the mid-2000s, he says, those opportunities dwindled down to once a week “if you were lucky.” The National Wrestling Alliance, the governing organization behind professional wrestling, ran a Pacific Northwest chapter that folded in 1992, after four decades. A revival in the early aughts lasted only a few years. Cost-prohibitive fees and restrictions made it tough for the already shrunken circuit. The coup de grace: the massively popular, and televised, World Wrestling Entertainment that folks watched from the comfort of their homes.
Then lawmakers tagged in. During the 2017 state legislative session, House Bill 1420 on theatrical wrestling was signed into law, allowing promoters, such as Defy, to operate professionally produced and legally ticketed events. “Theatrical wrestling has a long history in Washington,” states the bill, “and while large-scale professional wrestling companies have dominated the field in recent years, independent theatrical wrestling again has the potential to thrive in this state…. The legislature finds that Washington is ready to rumble.”
Maritza Ayala is ready, too. The 26-year-old wrestler goes by Danika Della Rouge—she’s a swoosh of neon pink hair in the ring—and has over 20 matches under her belt. She’s been wrestling for nearly three years and can’t think of anything else she’d rather do, despite the aches. “People say that wrestling is fake, but every time we hit the mat [we’re] damaging our body—my body hurts 24/7,” she says. That’s the nature of a physically demanding show, no matter how nimbly choreographed the matchups may be.
Nevertheless, Defy, whose fights attract a growing local talent pool and internationally adored stars alike, has a gritty vibe. And that, says Farmer, is the goal. “To me, wrestling at its best is collaborative…. We wanted our events to have a rock concert feel.” The spectacle of some 100-odd fans crammed in a humid performance hall chanting their favorite wrestlers’ names ought to accomplish that.
► In the Ring: Pro wrestlers—likely including Danika Della Rouge—will descend on Leavenworth on August 31 for Defy’s big King of the Mountain showcase (cancelled). Other events to note: An all ages match at Temple Theatre in Tacoma (Aug 23); Defy returns to Washington Hall (Sept 27).
Editor's note: This article has been updated on August 5 to include other upcoming Deft events and note that the King of the Mountain showcase has been cancelled.