Wrestlers bring their own style of WWE to Sonoma County
In wrestling circles, they call it a “moonsault.”
One wrestler bulldozes his nemesis onto the mat, then clambers up the ropes to stand Titanic-style on the turnbuckle, beefy arms outstretched to the crowd. He bounces once, twice and again, gaining momentum each time. Then he's airborne, flipping backward through space and landing with a thud in the center of the ring - right on top of his opponent's ribcage.
When executed correctly, the move can be lethal to a match, a nearly surefire way to get an opponent to writhe around in pain, leaving him vulnerable for a pin. During Phoenix Pro Wrestling (PPW) nights at the Phoenix Theater in downtown Petaluma, the moonsault usually unlocks another level for the audience, too: It inspires hundreds of fans standing around the ring to raise their hands to their temples, shake their heads in disbelief and collectively roar, “Ohhhh!”
The scene during these two-hour events is practically nonstop mayhem, one wince-inducing moment after another. You scream. You laugh. You boo. You hiss.
Every once in a while, you'll catch yourself ducking or lunging in place, an unconscious reaction to the combat unfolding mere feet away. You get so invested in the storylines behind every battle, you almost forget it's entertainment. According to founder Josh Drake, that's exactly the point.
“With PPW, you're watching a spectacle every time,” he said. “There's always a new twist. Always an unexpected turn. At its best, wrestling is like a soap opera. In the end, it's all about storytelling.”
In a nutshell, PPW is a localized spin on modern wrestling shows such as World Wrestling Entertainment.
Like WWE, Phoenix Pro Wrestling is part performance art. But competitors in PPW are professionals. All have attended wrestling schools to learn the craft, and most are booked regularly to fight at other venues for other leagues in cities around the West.
All the peripheral personalities are legitimate, too. Referees go through a rigorous training process. Security guards are trained in crowd control. Commentator Tim Livingston has called dozens of matches, and the announcer - Antioch resident and thespian Donovan Troi - has a voice that makes Michael Buffer sound like Taylor Swift.
Even the production is top-notch. Drake and co-producer Jim Agius hire a full audio/video crew to film and record each event, and they usually post still pictures to Facebook and video to YouTube within a few weeks of the final bell.
“Each of our wrestling shows is a sample platter of entertainment,” Agius quipped. “If you don't like what's going on at any particular moment, it will be over in five minutes and you can watch something else.”
Drake, who grew up in Petaluma, is no stranger to putting on wrestling events at the Phoenix. Back in 2005, he and a roommate organized punk slam wrestling events, a series of matches interspersed with live punk music performances. They did about eight shows and folded the endeavor due to lack of interest.
Nine years later, after connecting with Agius at a party, Drake decided to try again, this time with a focus on wrestling only. They began PPW in November 2014, and it's been going strong ever since.
Drake has had a lifelong obsession with wrestling. As a kid, he was fascinated by the Legion of Doom, a tag team of wrestlers who performed in orange costumes topped with black spikes. Drake also loved Lex Luger, a major figure in the 1991 World Championship Wrestling's “Super Brawl 1: Return of the Rising Sun.” He still ranks it as some of the best TV he's ever seen.
“It was a galvanizing moment for me,” he said of seeing “Super Brawl.” “Without that, I'm not sure we'd have PPW today.”
Drake sets the tone for PPW. On fight nights, he plays the ringmaster, patrolling the circa-1905 Phoenix in a bedazzled tuxedo jacket. He'll often start and end the night with greetings and announcements. Among the faithful fans, he's just as much of a celebrity as the wrestlers.
The main events
Aside from Drake's swagger, each PPW show plays out differently. The five-year anniversary event in November 2019 unfolded inside a steel cage. Some fights feature female wrestlers.
The most recent event, held in mid-January, comprised two main parts: a 20-wrestler “Battle Royale” free-for-all won by the last person standing and a series of contests pitting wrestlers against each other head-to-head, tag team-style or in triple-threat (which is three wrestlers fighting simultaneously).
The Battle Royale was fast and furious, with the prize a trophy named after Drake's late brother, who died in 2018. Wrestlers were eliminated when they were tossed from the ring, but at several points during the action there were as many as nine fighters on the mat at once.