The onslaught of pro wrestling primed to unfold this week in Tampa, Fla. feels like a year in the making. The independent pro wrestling events surrounding last April’s WrestleMania 36 totaled more than any previous year, but they also brought with them a shift in attitude as it pertains to marginalized populations.

EFFY’s Big Gay Brunch, AJ Gray’s For The Culture, Jamie Senegal’s Jalex Take Back The Power, Uncanny Attractions’ Drags and Dropkicks and the now-defunct Prime Time Pro Wrestling stood as 2020’s Mania week flagbearers at the time. These shows pledged to bring inclusive events and environments on a scale unlike any seen at a WrestleMania week to date.

Copious amounts of LGBTQ and Black talent and talent of marginalized genders were set to storm pro wrestling’s most high profile period. The mission statement was clear: we belong.

Pro wrestling is for everyone.

Covid-19 had other plans.

After last year’s WrestleMania week festivities in Tampa were put on the backburner as the reality of the global coronavirus pandemic set in, independent pro wrestling experienced a year of acclimation and improvisation in order to survive.

That year also saw many of the statements that were meant to be made in Tampa last April ring out through the pro wrestling world. The Big Gay Brunch and For The Culture took place in October as part of GCW’s The Collective. Billy Dixon’s Paris Is Bumping paired pro wrestling and ballroom amazingly well.

Billy Dixon

Uncanny Attractions produced the all-cinematic The Wrestlers Take Manhattan event. MV Young is gearing up for his third DIY-esque Polyam Cult Party event. Black Wrestlers Matter and Mission Pro Wrestling built new platforms for Black and female talent respectively.

As the road to WrestleMania ramped up, so did the acceleration of these focused events. January’s GCW Fight Forever saw the Big Gay Brunch and For The Culture return along with the introduction of the women’s wrestling event Allie Kat’s Real Hot Girl Shit. And in March, Butch vs. Gore’s Cassandro Cup became one of the most successful independent pro wrestling events ever in terms of viewership and engagement.

Other promotions took notice, with many of the wrestlers on those shows showing up in promotions not focused on featuring marginalized communities throughout the country. The power and presence of underrepresented populations in pro wrestling isn’t a secret anymore. The goal of last April felt met to an extent. So what has the mission become as the pro wrestling world turns its eyes toward Tampa once again?

“Shove it down your throat,” Butch vs. Gore’s Billy Dixon told Outsports.

Butch vs. Gore will participate in its first WrestleMania week this year as part of IWTV’s Showcase of the Independents. Cassandro Cup winner Edith Surreal will face Lee Moriarty for the IWTV Independent Wrestling title at Thursday’s IWTV Family Reunion event. A Butch vs. Gore four-way tag team battle (Jordan Blade/Eel O’Neal vs. Erica Leigh/Boar vs. Jared Evans/Ashton Starr vs. AC Mack/MV Young) will also take place at the event.

Cassandro Cup winner Edith Surreal challenges IWTV Independent Wrestling champion Lee Moriarty at IWTV Family Reunion

Butch vs. Gore’s involvement in IWTV’s Showcase of the Independents is the latest in its partnership with independent pro wrestling streaming platform. The success of that partnership has given Dixon a “sense of validation,” especially after the Cassandro Cup brought in a record number of viewers for its premiere last month. But that success doesn’t mean that the push for inclusion and diversity throughout pro wrestling is over.

“Butch vs. Gore should not exist. Big Gay Brunch, For the Culture; these high profile shows should not exist. Ideally, wrestling should be a meritocracy, but, clearly, we haven’t seen that take place. So we create these sub-communities to prove that we are equal,” Dixon said.

”The purpose of Butch vs. Gore is to shove [equality] down your throat because, ideally, our company shouldn’t have to exist. But we can’t change the fact that white supremacy and the patriarchy exists, so we have to create these communities,” he added.

That chip-on-the-shoulder attitude is shared by EFFY, though he isn’t feeling as stressed heading into Saturday’s Big Gay Brunch after running two Big Gay events under the GCW banner.

“I always try to be objective about my anxieties,” EFFY told Outsports. “I know what the real stressors are now. I know what to be ready for; once it’s go time, it’s go time.”

Like other events with a focus on marginalized populations, EFFY wants the BIg Gay Brunch to engage with groups that might not see themselves within pro wrestling presentations. For EFFY, that entails promoting the event to the local LGBTQ groups in central Florida and bringing on LGBTQ-owned lube company Boy Butter as a sponsor for the Big Gay Brunch’s Boy Butter Slippery Scramble match.

EFFY’s Big Gay Brunch

Such practices are vital to engaging underrepresented audiences and EFFY wants independent pro wrestling to better understand the benefits of engaging local populations. “Wrestling sometimes has its head down completely,” EFFY said. “We are still a niche form of entertainment. When I look at what we can offer an audience, I think it’s something very unique … it’s essential to bring us into the community because there is so much more wrestling can offer if we’re willing to get out of our own headspace and our normalized community.”

The return to where the Big Gay Brunch was originally set to debut last year provides an interesting narrative heading into Saturday’s show as well, but EFFY seems ready to excise the “ghost” of last year’s canceled events.

“To put this as positively as possible, we’re ready to be past Tampa,” EFFY said. “I think we’re ready for the events to be incredible, but this has been sort of a ghost hanging over everybody for a year now … this is sort of going to be the relic show of what the pandemic was, and, hopefully by July or August, we’re looking back and saying, ‘OK, we’ve really gotten it together since then.’”

The events themselves have to take place before that ghost is banished, though. However, unlike last year where these focused GCW events were set to premiere, EFFY sees these events as established “anchors” for The Collective.

“When you’re able to put a show on for like minded individuals like you, there is a camaraderie that rubs off to people that may not be a part of those communities. They are welcome to come into and enjoy as well,” EFFY said. “Now we get to show up in Florida and say, ‘We know we’re good now. We’ve seen the acceptance. Let’s give you the best possible show.’ We don’t have to have that chip on our shoulder as much anymore. But maybe that chip being there a little bit is what made us so fun to begin with.”

Dixon points to the inclusion of Edith Surreal in GCW’s Acid Cup tournament this weekend as another sign of that validation. Surreal is the only woman and LGBTQ person in the field of 16, and her presence speaks to the slow but steady progression that has resulted from GCW’s promotion of marginalized-focused events.

GCW For The Culture

But that doesn’t mean the speed of increased diversity on GCW events isn’t above criticism. “These cards are great, but I understand and agree with some of the very valid concerns about some of these shows and their intention,” Dixon said. “What people have to realize is that us as marginalized people of all different varieties, we don’t have the luxury of being so morally upstanding because it means you don’t get booked.”

“The unfortunate reality is that life isn’t fair, but you have to make do and make it happen for yourself … we’re all working toward bigger, brighter dreams, and that means sometimes doing things that you may not agree with 100 percent, but these platforms have launched careers, Dixon added. “The more we see Big Gay Brunches, Real Hot Girl Shit and For The Culture, at some point [GCW owner] Brett Lauderdale will have to book multiple women’s matches on his cards. At some point, a Black person is going to become GCW World champion for more than five minutes.”

That continual effort to force the pro wrestling world to expand its view is also personal for many of the wrestlers lacing up their boots this week. And seizing control in these environments to keep showing the industry what diverse presentations deliver is a key component of what viewers will take in at these events.

“With this card, I’ve looked toward the performers that we have and said, ‘where would you go with this,’ instead of it being me telling them what to do,” EFFY said. His own “Soul on a Pole” match with Ace Perry also speaks to how EFFY wants storytelling to progress as the Big Gay Brunch grows. “To me, just having an exhibition match is lazier than having a reason for it and building it up. Putting a world behind it and giving motivation; that takes a little more work … people can hang onto that and come back for that.”

Allie Kat’s Real Hot Girl Shit

Dixon also carries purpose into his dog collar, or “pup collar”, match against former GCW World champion AJ Gray at the Big Gay Brunch. “My match with AJ Gray is probably the most important match I’ve ever had because I have to prove a lot of people wrong, “ Dixon said. “People are very vocal about not believing in me as a talent .. people are going to have no choice but to respect me after this match and finally accept that I’m not going anywhere and I’m a top guy.”

Dixon’s determination is indicative of what these WrestleMania week events aim to accomplish as a whole and the wrestlers that proliferate their cards. “This is our weekend. I’m not worried about anyone else. Let’s show up, show out and make the show that we think is the best,” EFFY said. “We don’t even have to be polite about it anymore.”

IWTV Family Reunion take place Thursday, April 8, at 12 p.m. EDT on IWTV. GCW For The Culture takes place Thursday, April 8, at 11:59 p.m. EDT on FiteTV. Allie Kat’s Real Hot Girl Shit takes place Friday, April 9, at 12 p.m. EDT on FiteTV, EFFY’s Big Gay Brunch takes place Saturday, April 10, at 11 a.m. EDT on FiteTV.