Sweat dripped, stage lights flashed and the crowd cheered as 30 to 40 wrestlers took turns in the ring at The Graduate on Sunday.
At the show put on by Cen-Cal Professional Wrestling, they heckled each other, backflipped off of ropes and flew through the air to land on their opponents. But backstage, before the show, the atmosphere was more low-key. Wrestlers hugged, joked around and changed into their costumes.
“People see pro wrestling, they think MMA (mixed martial arts),” said Brian Campbell, a co-founder of the local wrestling company, who added that wrestling isn’t about “beating each other up.” “Everybody’s safe in the ring; everyone can go home to their family.”
One of the wrestlers, R.J. Castillo, said being in the ring has always been his dream. Castillo, an Army veteran who did a tour in Afghanistan, said his persona, “R.J. Cruz,” is modeled off 1990s hip-hop culture.
“It’s not a making-money business,” said Castillo, who is a security guard when he isn’t wrestling. “I would love to do it as long as I can.”
Sage Sin, whose stage name is “The Pumpkin Queen Sage Sin Supreme,” said wrestling is “kind of a weird world.” Her big Sunday matchup was against “Rik Luxury.”
“His daughter loves me to death,” Sin said. “It’s kind of awkward whenever he has to be like, ‘OK, I have to go beat up the Pumpkin Queen.’ ”
“It’s the best $15 you could ever spend,” said Rebecca Rodriguez, who came to The Graduate to watch The Pumpkin Queen and another wrestler, “Billy the Blade,” whom she describes as “Axl Rose’s terrible cousin.”
Rodriguez said she enjoys the blood and sweat she sees in the ring.
“They f--- each other up,” Rodriguez said. “It’s pretty cool.”
When asked to describe her persona, Sin smiles before saying, “She is a hardcore a--kicker.”
“I don’t mind getting my hands dirty,” she said. “It’s the freedom to be the good guy and the bad guy.”
And that’s what Rodriguez loves about Sin.
“She just goes up against the guys, and nothing stops her,” she said.
Campbell — along with three other men, including Dominick “Diskord” Balsamo — started the wrestling company in 2015.
“When we’re in the ring, we want to tell a story,” Campbell said. Campbell has about eight years of experience wrestling under his alter ego “Metalhead Maniac Sledge.” “It’s the good guy versus the bad guy, right?”
“I got tired of going into locker rooms and seeing wrestlers putting their bodies on the line for chump change,” Campbell said. “I wanted to treat wrestlers how I felt I should be treated — paying them for their time.”
He also wanted to see more family-friendly entertainment in the San Luis Obispo area.
“There’s nothing super family-oriented in SLO,” Campbell said. “Pro wrestling is great for kids; we put on a family-friendly show.”
Castillo, sporting a backward baseball cap and neon pants, entered the ring to Kris Kross’ “Jump.” He grinned at his opponent “Max X” as he busted out some hip-hop dance moves. The crowd loved it, chanting, “R.J.! R.J.! R.J.!”
“You’re painting a picture. You’re telling a story, just like an artist would,” he said before the show. “We’re not there to kill each other. What we do is entertainment; it’s not fake.”