The United Kingdom, a place enriched with tradition, pale skin tones and beer. Professional wrestling ain’t the first thing that comes to mind. But, when you’re an avid wrestling fan like myself with a plane ticket to Heathrow Airport, the first thing that comes to mind is: ‘When’s the next WCPW show?’
Personally, professional wrestling is a high-octane thrill ride, filled with incredible acrobatics, simulated fights, cheesy storytelling and a whole cast of charismatic misfits too weird to realistically fit into society. Watching wrestling is like watching a 10 minute action scene in a movie, except there is only one take, it’s performed in front of a live audience and the spills, falls and wild brawls actually hurt. What’s that? Think there was a scoff coming from behind the black mirror. But indeed, it’s a performance art with physicality attached to it. If someone were to run at you full speed, only to jump into the air and plant two feet right in your face, there’s a good chance it’ll leave a nice tread pattern on your cheek. Show mum the new face tattoo you got, she’ll love it!
Of course that’s not to suggest that professional wrestling is a sport like mixed martial arts, boxing or any other combat-based fighting. The outcomes are predetermined and the objective of wrestlers is not to hurt their ‘opponent’, but to make it look like they did. The argument could be made there’s more skill in creating those smoke and mirror scenarios. Action scenes in films are performed by stuntmen or perhaps the actors themselves with the help of proper training to execute everything as safely and as realistically as possible. It’s no different in wrestling, except the physicality of it is shown right in front of you without the use of a makeup department. There’s bruises, welts and sweat, as well as facial expressions emoting absolute exhaustion. Add to the fact they do it 300 days a year, travel thousands of kilometres on the road and fly from country to country. If you’re a top sought after talent you may be looking at a 6 figure salary, but for the majority of wrestlers the expectation is a “hotdog and a handshake” deal.
But there’s a different kind of thrill and high they get from pushing the human body to it’s limits. Remember that Jason Statham movie ‘Crank’? Where Statham’s character ‘Chev Chelios’ is injected with a poison that will kill him if his heart rate drops? Anyway, a wacky adventure ensues as ‘Chev’ tries anything to keep his adrenaline pumping long enough to find an antidote. Wrestlers are kind of like a chav lad having sex with Amy Smart in the middle of a Chinese market. The crowd is cheering them on, so better do a quick waist lock.
Speaking of English people, I had the good fortune of being able to experience this weird subculture live and in person for the very first time in this Australian’s life. Growing up, watching wrestling was always apart of my weekly routine. The WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) had everything an 8 year old kid would want in a TV show; real life cartoon characters, awesome violence, pyrotechnics and 3 chord rock music. It’s transfixing. Like most kids, we emulated what we saw on TV with our friends. We let our imaginations think we were Triple H taking a sip of water, looking up to the sky, spreading our arms out and spitting mist into the air. We acted like John Cena, lifting our friends up on our shoulders, popping our hips and…well not actually giving them the ‘FU’ that would’ve hurt them. We mimicked ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin throwing up middle fingers and dropping ‘ohh hell yeah’ and ‘that’s the bottom line’ when we sa fit.
But through all the elbow drops, body slams and catchphrases we dished out, eventually the friends grow up and out of it. All of a sudden you’re 21 years old and still watching half naked people in tights touch each other. It’s weird being a fan of something that’s very niche, at least in mainstream pop culture. Wrestling was something once widely accepted by a lot of people, even in adulthood. In 2017 however, it’s far removed from the heyday and boom period of the late 90s.
Attending live shows in the UK was very new to me. I’ve never experienced the energy of a live crowd, the loud bang of bodies hitting a plywood mat, or even seeing a wrestling ring in person before.
One company or ‘wrestling promotion’ I had been following since it first began was WhatCulture Pro Wrestling (WCPW). Based in the North East of England in the city I lived in for 6 months, Newcastle upon Tyne. WCPW was started up in mid 2016 by an online pop culture website called ‘WhatCulture’. The company has several YouTube channels including a wrestling channel with over 1 million subscribers, as well as millions of readers on their own platform who happened to also be wrestling fans. So, it seemed only tempting to start up an independent wrestling promotion, gather all the top local UK talent and lure mainstream stars all across the globe, to come perform for a little promotion just off the Geordie Shore.
In a spur of the moment decision on the day of the event, I decided to attend their March 6th ‘Exit Wounds’ show at the local university’s gymnasium. Walking into the venue was a weird feeling. I had never been around so many wrestling fans before. There was a certain sense of camaraderie and positive vibes washing over me. It was like being in a crowded elevator except everyone in it was your mate and you’re just having a laugh the whole way through. As dramatic as it sounds, being a wrestling fan is a lot like being in isolation. To be a fan was to be the brunt of a joke and a lot of times I kept my fandom secretive for fear of weird looks or embarrassment. Insecurities are strange.
Regardless, there I was by myself at a wrestling show but not really feeling alone cause everyone around me was smiling and enjoying themselves. Kids, parents, teenagers, young adults, baby boomers, even a handicapped guy in a wheelchair was getting into the action.
The card was stacked with great talent. The highlight of the night was watching world renowned athlete and a guy who might as well have springs for feet, ‘Will Ospreay’. An acrobatic high-flyer from Essex who is only 24 years old, wrestling a fast paced style and taking risks I’d have been shitting myself to do even in my emulating age. Fun fact: I once broke my nose doing a somersault from one couch to another when I kneed myself in the face.
The whole night had great action, and the performances were top notch. WCPW really did grab top talent for the event. Even bringing in former WWE star Cody Rhodes (son of Dusty Rhodes and brother of Goldust) and now current WWE talent and NXT champion: Drew McIntyre. Indie stars like Marty Scurll, El Ligero, Rampage, Primate, Martin Kirby, Viper, Kay Lee Ray and Joe Hendry all graced the ring that night as well. I walked away from the show smiling ear to ear that I decided live in the North of England where the wrestling business is currently spiking in popularity and drawing the eyes of the world.
Following this event came ‘the big one’. The mother of all wrestling shows in the UK. Vince McMahon’s billion-dollar boot kicks down the door of the O2 arena and says “Put a goddam Raw in here”. That’s right, WWE Monday Night Raw emanating from the O2 arena in ‘Ye Olde’ London England. Now, obviously this isn’t British Style Wrestling its American Style, but it’s taking place in the UK so it still counts.
Yes, the land of the giants. WWE twice a year, travel across the pond to do the whole UK and Ireland tour. Being from Australia, we unfortunately don’t get the television tapings due to time zone differences. But in the UK it’s manageable for them and this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to watch a program I’ve grown up with since I was failing grade 3 maths.
Once again the overwhelming feeling of comradery and welcoming smiles filled my heart as I entered the arena. All demographics were present that night, along with overpriced merchandise and handwritten signs for the TV cameras.
One of the main components to seeing live wrestling is fan participation. Chants are often synonymous with the European football crowd but at wrestling shows it takes that atmosphere to a whole new level. Whether it’s simply booing or cheering performers, to repeating a line from a promo or even just coming up with clever wordplay to garner a reaction out of the wrestlers. Its incredible to watch a chant slowly pick up steam. Starting from a small group of mates to 20,000 people singing “Oh Mickie you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickie” (Mickie James was the wrestler and the chant started with a couple lads sitting in front of me). I’ve always had the inkling that non wrestling fans could enjoy a wrestling show just on fan participation alone.
The show was entertaining all the way through. Larger than life characters, big LED screens, strobe lights and deafening music left me feeling giddy all night. A notable standout was the “Tag Team Turmoil Match.” That might sound like a weird BDSM scene but I assure you, it’s just some lads having a wrestle. 2 teams of 2 start the match and once one team is beaten, another team enters. It keeps going until there is one remaining team. Kind of like Gladiator except there’s no budget for Russell Crowe.
I did attend 2 more independent shows while I was over there, this time with a friend who also happened to be a former professional wrestler herself. The smaller event we went to was a RAD PRO show in South Shields. By definition, this was your local Sunday evening family outing. Held in a little social club where the ring is only a few feet from touching the ceiling, this was where young wrestlers started their journey. Performing in front of 30 to 40 people, the majority of them just kids and parents who live nearby. Everyone knows each other. Their kids are friends with another family’s kids, his mum came to watch her son wrestle and have a drink with the other parents, her dad is ringing the bell and playing the entrance music on his laptop. It was £5 entry for a 2 hour show and it was honestly a surreal experience being amongst some of the most friendly and welcoming bunch of people whom also like the same weird thing I like.
The friend I went with knew everybody there and used to wrestle for the promotion herself. You could see the joy it brought her seeing old friends she used to train and wrestle with. Wrestlers have a unique bond with each other that differs from an ordinary friendship. I liken it to veteran soldiers meeting again. Having fought in the trenches, shared meals together, marched across the land and injured themselves along the way. They all protect and help each other out because it’s hard to endure the grind of being a wrestler alone.
The last show I went to was another WCPW show “Built To Destroy” held at the O2 Academy in Newcastle. The highlight of that show was a “Hardcore Match” between Primate and Jimmy Havoc. Now, I’m okay with a bit of gritty violence. Massive respect for wrestlers willing to go that extra mile to make something memorable and to tell an interesting story. Jimmy Havoc is a man whom legitimately scares me. Prior to this match he just wrestled over in the states for a promotion called CZW (Combat Zone Wrestling). He competed and won the annual “Tournament of Death”, where all the matches are Hardcore based. Featuring some objects that really should not be used on the human body. Including; barbed wire, nails, glass panes, thumbtacks, fire, fluorescent light tubes, nail guns, syringes, and anything else that draws a lot of blood. This is the seedy underbelly of wrestling that’s been tucked away from the mainstream eye. Only done in small indie promotions where there are very few level-headed people present that can advise “hey maybe we shouldn’t do that guys”. It’s often needlessly and excessively violent and hard to watch if you haven’t got the stomach for it.
Thankfully, there was only a fraction of that here. Just a nice antipasto entrée of violence. One really cringe worthy and kind of humorous spot in the match was Jimmy Havoc pulling out an A4 piece of paper (with his face on it) and using the edge of it to paper cut the skin between Primate’s fingers. Like nails on a chalkboard really. There was tables, a staple gun, road signs, and even an ironing board wrapped in barbed wire. Matches like this have an odd mix of being sinister and really inventive at the same time. Great bout overall. The crowd was chanting “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy fucking Havoc!” all the way through.
The whole night featured awesome wrestling with most of the names I listed earlier. I could gush on and on about how much professional wrestling means to me. If you come away from reading this with an appreciation for it, that’s a win in my book. It’s theatre, soap opera, simulated fighting and a rock concert all rolled into one self-aware, zombified performance art. It certainly isn’t for everyone. If the journey through British wrestling showed me anything is that wrestling doesn’t need a mainstream audience for it to exist. Whether it’s the billion dollar conglomerate of WWE to the small RAD PRO audience in the North East of England. Wrestling’s audience has some of the most loyal and dedicated people that wouldn’t go a day without thinking about it. For every 10 kids that grow out of watching it there’s always the 1 that sticks around for life. Either they end up becoming a fan or a wrestler themselves.