Billy Dixon and Lo McGrath resurrected D.C.'s indie wrestling scene in 2019; Credit: Jaylee Photography

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Billy Dixon climbed into the ring on Feb. 20, 2022, to resounding cheers. Clad in a black muscle tee and camo pants, Dixon waved his Chocolate City Championship belt in the air. As a co-founder of Pro Wrestling Vibe and a leading visionary in the growth and visibility of Black and LGBTQ wrestlers, Dixon had done this countless times before. But this show was a little different.

Moments before Dixon slid into the ring, a doctor had determined that he was not fit to participate and refused to sign off—a requirement under his license issued by the D.C. Combat Sports Commission. Fully aware of the possible repercussions, Dixon participated against the doctor’s orders.

The show ended, and eventually the commission yanked Dixon’s license. But given all the seemingly arbitrary, and at times contradictory, rules that the commission had imposed on pro wrestlers and their events for the past four years, the revocation didn’t much bother Dixon—he was all but finished organizing matches in the District—until his company decided to put on one final show.

Dixon wanted to be part of the final performance, so he and Vibe co-founder Lo McGrath found a workaround. They got Dixon a referee’s license for $50, which, by their account, was initially approved by the combat sports commission. Then, about a week before the final show, Dixon received notice that he still owed a $2,500 fine for the revocation of his wrestler’s license. The commission said he could not referee until the fine was paid.

Dixon and McGrath negotiated until Deputy Commissioner Sheldon Skip Brown agreed to accept a reduced, $250 fee. But the Office of Administrative Hearings is responsible for adjudicating licensing fines, not the commission, according to an OAH representative and Combat Sports Commission Chairman Andrew Huff. McGrath and Dixon then scrambled to find a courier to deliver a physical check (the only form of payment the deputy would accept) before the main event, BRAUMATICA, on Sunday, Feb. 19.

Brown confirmed to them that he received the check, but about two hours later he told Dixon that the commission still would not issue him a referee’s license. A spokesperson for the office says, “OAH would not have records regarding the specific discussions or attempts to resolve issues between parties outside of the hearing process.” Both Brown and a representative for the Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection—under which the Commission operates—did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

The runaround that Dixon and McGrath described leading up to their final show is typical of the treatment they say they received from the commission. Pro wrestling performers and organizers tell City Paper that their experience working with the commission was replete with “inconsistent,” “hyper-vague,” and “unclear” regulations. So now, after four years of “Black, Queer, Punk, Hood, and DC as fuck” matches, pro wrestling in D.C., as many have come to know it, is dead. 

“We knew we were on borrowed time,” McGrath says. “D.C. is notorious for being openly hostile to indie wrestling.” 

Vibe is not the first wrestling company to have tried and failed to run shows in the District—it’s just the latest.

McGrath and Dixon launched Vibe following the dissolution of their initial D.C. wrestling company, Prime Time Pro Wrestling, which began organizing semiregular wrestling events at DC Brau in 2019, just before the start of the pandemic. As lockdown regulations started to relax, Dixon and McGrath relaunched Prime Time as Pro Wrestling Vibe.

For Erica Leigh, the first woman and out LGBTQ wrestler to win the East Coast Wrestling Association Heavyweight title in 2022, Vibe was pivotal to establishing a space for queer wrestlers, largely because it was founded by and is run by queer people, she says. When people like Dixon, who is Black and queer, are “in charge of telling their own stories and pitching their own ideas,” she says, “that not only translates into a more genuine emotional experience for the audience, but a more cathartic experience for the wrestler.” 

It’s no secret that professional wrestling of this sort is not as much of a combat sport as it is scripted entertainment. The “actors” participate in preplanned fights, perform as referees, and in some cases as members of the audience. CEO and co-founder of DC Brau Brewing Brandon Skall likens it to an “experiential art.” He says it was the main reason he was so quick to offer up his brewery when McGrath first posted on Facebook looking for an event space in D.C. 

Pre-pandemic, DC Brau provided a space for two Prime Time wrestling events. Skall describes the performances as “transcending wrestling and the way people have come to think about the sport, to become a social commentary.”

“I don’t know how to give it words. The stories we were able to tell in D.C. are some that we haven’t been able to tell anywhere else,” says McGrath, who also runs shows in Chicago where they live. “The avenue for storytelling that pro-wrestling gives us is so unique.”

Erica Leigh above Killian McMurphy at BRAUMATICA; Courtesy of Lo McGrath; Credit: Jaylee Photography

Vibe’s most recent, and final show on Feb. 19, according to McGrath, was a perfect illustration of the impact wrestling performances can have for the queer community.

“The focus was that this is our community, this is our room,” McGrath says. “As a queer person, people come out because of the pro-wrestling community at DC Brau.” McGrath says they often joke that their email inbox is “an elephant graveyard of people coming out.” 

McGrath continues, “There’s this sense of, ‘I have to be there. Not Maryland or Virginia. It has to be D.C. proper.’ Our success showed wrestlers that their identities aren’t just welcomed in indie wrestling, but openly celebrated and highlighted. A lot of our storylines only work because of queerness.” 

Eel O’Neal and Jordan Blade at Pro Wrestling Vibe’s final D.C. event, BRAUMATICA; Courtesy of Lo McGrath; Credit: Jaylee Photography

Tim German, who performs as wrestler Eel O’Neal says putting on shows in front of that community “feels like being a rockstar.” 

But German had the same premonition as McGrath that Vibe’s lifespan was limited.

“We’re used to it at this point. That’s the sort of mentality a lot of people have,” he says. “Before Vibe opened up its doors, [independent, professional] wrestling in D.C. hadn’t happened for 10 years.”

Jonathan Martin found wrestling as a teenager in 2013. His goal was to start a wrestling company in D.C., and in 2019 he founded F1ght Club as a space specifically for Black wrestlers. But the cost of operating in the District and dealing with the commission made it impossible to maintain the business, he says. He now hosts F1ght Club events almost exclusively to Maryland.  

Martin says the final straw came with an October show in Southeast. The sold-out show had around 400 people in the building—standing room only. Even then, it didn’t pencil out. Martin rattles off the various costs: Wrestlers cost about $2,000 total, commission fees, at 5 percent of gross profits, came to about $800, and the insurance for the wrestlers cost another $2,000. After paying taxes on the event’s earnings, Martin estimates that F1ght Club walked away with just $700.

A final report on earnings and ticket sales that McGrath submitted to the commission shows a similar cost. The event pulled in just over $5,000, but D.C. taxes and commission fees cost them more than 20 percent, leaving $4,000 to cover the cost of hosting the show. McGrath doubts Vibe would have been able to survive as long as it did without DC Brau’s financial support.

“We talk about allyship and standing with marginalized communities,” McGrath says, but there’s no better way to do this than “to put your business and money on the line the way Brau did.”

Martin says he raised F1ght Club’s financial issues to Brown, the deputy commissioner. Martin suggested scaling payments so the smaller shows F1ght Club puts on—which max out at around 150 people—don’t get hit with the same fees as larger shows. Brown suggested raising ticket prices, but Martin says he couldn’t charge $50 for a F1ght Club show when a ticket to WWE Smackdown at Capital One Arena costs $20.

“Pro wrestling on the independent level is incredibly unprofitable,” Dixon says. For their most recent D.C. shows, he says he reached into his own savings to keep the company running by the commission’s rules.

“We had sponsorships which were lovely [and] we never did not sell out a show. But when your profits—tangible profits—are being funneled through something you don’t understand … at the end of the day there’s just no money.”

F1ght Club and Vibe both found the commission’s rules confusing. Skall says he encountered a clear disconnect between the regulations that were laid out in writing, and demands the commission made. In November, he says an event with Vibe was going smoothly until the Friday before the Sunday show when one commissioner started asking for a missing insurance form. Dixon and McGrath say the request sent them on a “wild goose hunt” to identify this missing insurance form and how they could add it to their existing policy.

Skall asked the Commission to send an example but received policies “that didn’t seem to be relevant.” Even Brau’s insurance provider, Skall recalls, didn’t know what the forms were. Skall finally got on the phone with his own insurance company—with which he says Brau holds a multimillion-dollar policy—and the commissioner to try and solve the problem, but “it just seemed like we were going in circles,” he says.

Following the phone conversation, around 3 p.m. the Friday before the Sunday event, Skall was directed to an insurance agency in Dallas that specializes in coverage for combat sports. In both Skall and McGrath’s telling of the story, following the three-way call, Deputy Commissioner Brown called back to speak with Skall individually and offer a solution. 

Brown put Brau in contact with Cole Insurance Agency, a provider he knew that could put together a last-minute $10,000 policy for DC Brau that would allow the event to go on under the commission’s rules. “Just call him, give him payment, and we’re good to go,” Skall recalls Brown saying. But Skall was hesitant to agree to something he had not had sufficient time to review; at the time, despite several email requests to Cole Insurance, he still had not seen a copy of the policy itself. Plus, Skall already had insurance and his provider dissuaded him from signing a policy without seeing at least an outline of the coverage.

Laurence Cole, the owner and founder of Cole Insurance, says it was clear to him that “the promoter felt he was being forced to use us.” After several email exchanges, Cole decided to stop pushing an uninterested client. 

But just a few hours after they were told to purchase the policy, Commission Chairman Andrew Huff followed up by email to tell Skall that, if DC Brau believed their existing insurance would suffice, they could go ahead with the event.

In the run-up to Vibe’s final event this past February, the commission reversed itself again. A week before the event, Huff and the rest of the commission prompted Vibe for the additional policy. This time, Skall went through with the insurance purchase.

Huff says the commission was able to offer flexibility for Vibe’s November event because of the misunderstanding and the time crunch. “It was in our purview to offer flexibility,” he says. But since he and Brown had explained the insurance requirements between the November and February shows, they could not overlook the insurance requirement.

“I don’t know anything about the [insurance] company that was used or recommended,” Huff tells City Paper. “I don’t know anything about that particular company, but I do know it is a common type of insurance.” 

Wrestlers also talk about the inconsistent logistical hurdles that the commission would impose. As a condition of their commission-issued licenses, wrestlers in D.C. are required to get physicals annually and before each match. 

Leigh, the 2022 ECWA heavyweight champ, says the first time she wrestled in D.C. she wasn’t aware she was required to show proof of a recent HIV test. The doctor said to “promise you’ll get tested after,” she recalls.

Savannah Gall, a collaborator with F1ght Club and a commentator at the recent Vibe match, has heard wrestlers tell stories about physicians giving unsolicited medical advice during the pre-match checkups. 

The pre-event medical checkups, Dixon says, are often administered late, as fans are coming into the event. Wrestlers undergo blood pressure tests and other medical screenings in front of audiences, contradicting the characters the performers take on for the show, he explains. 

Martin says the commission oversteps in other ways as well. Multiple times, he says, commissioners have prompted organizers for wrestlers’ “legal” names. In a community with a large number of trans people, Martin sees this as an invasion of privacy and an attempt to force him into revealing a person’s dead name. Some wrestlers have talked about filing ethics complaints. But even so, they maintain that D.C. is the safest place for the LGBTQ+ wrestling community. 

Since Vibe announced it was shutting down, Gall says a lot of the performers are taking a break. “Because this was more of an LGBTQ performance,” she says, for “a lot of the wrestlers this was their safe space.” And there is no substitute, she says.

For Martin and the Black wrestling community at F1ght Club, he says, it’s not always as easy as getting into a ring. Many wrestlers feel uncomfortable performing in less diverse and more conservative regions. But when Black wrestlers do shows for F1ght Club, “the feeling is different.” That’s why Martin has tried hard to stick as close to D.C. as possible.

“I would not want to go to a place where we’re putting marginalized people in front of people who will make fun,” he states. And teaming up with McGrath and Dixon, F1ght Club’s safe space grew to include the LGBTQ+ community in D.C.

“F1ght Club was born for marginalized people,” Martin says. “Now there’s no place for us to go.”

Huff, for his part, says commissioners consider themselves ambassadors for the sports they oversee, and they ideally are working toward the same goal as the promoters, athletes, and performers.

“We want events in these sports within the District,” he says.

Huff blames the expensive nature of putting on shows in general in D.C. “We realize there’s a challenge among promoters—from all types of combat sports at the independent level.” But, he explains, “We can do very little about that fact.” 

The commission has made some changes in recent years that seek to address the financial strains. Huff notes he recently adjusted the medical requirements for wrestlers. Performers were once required to submit medical paperwork every six months, but can now do it on an annual basis. Licensing fees have also been reduced under Huff’s leadership, from $200 to $25 per wrestler, F1ght Club’s Martin notes

Even with these adjustments, independent wrestlers see themselves as overregulated for the theater they’re performing.

“We’re not MMA, we’re not boxing, we’re not combat sports,” Martin says. “We’re athletic entertainers—ballet with a little bit of violence.” 

The only path forward, German says, requires the Commision to prioritize the community’s needs rather than stick to the way events have always been run in D.C. 

Huff says he is open to conversations on deregulation. The commission only ensures the laws around these types of events are enforced; they have no role in making them, he points out.

But it’s the commission’s style of enforcement that is so frustrating, German says. “It’s this lack of respect and lack of communication. How many times can we be told that we are bothering them?” he says. “We’re people, and we’re artists, and this is our creative outlet, and that’s the conversation that’s hard to have with them.”