On British wrestling, and why I love it

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Johnny Kidd going out on top. Ignore the photographer.

Now is a great time to be a wrestling fan in Britain.

I wasn’t watching during the dark days of the tribute shows of the 1990s, or the failed supershows that tried to fill the Coventry Skydome by spending more thousands on flying in international talent than they actually got through the door. But the industry has had its rough patches since the demise of World of Sport, and it’s fair to say that right now it couldn’t be in better health.

For someone who, in December, kept saying “I really should have a break and spread out the wrestling next year”, four shows in nine days was a little bit outrageous. My defence is that there were a few shows to which my boyfriend and I knew we wanted to go, and then they all ended up being at the same time so we just thought “Fuck it, let’s make it a holiday”.

It’s a testament to the UK wrestling scene that we have so much to choose from. Home-grown promotions like Progress, PCW, RPW and of course, ICW – whose soon-to-be legendary arena show I’ll attend in November – are developing massive followings. In fact, their reputations are growing on the global stage, to the point where they can work with major international names: Progress and RPW held qualifiers for WWE’s Global Cruiserweight Series, and the latter regularly features stars from New Japan and Ring of Honor. The smaller indies are doing the same. In the last couple of weeks, they’ve given me Chikara and Stardom.

It’s amazing to think that Stardom, a company which isn’t far off having more belts than regular wrestlers, was able to tour Europe. That’s the benefit of being able to work with other small promotions in the UK, France and Spain. With the help of British Empire Wrestling in a tiny bar in Tooting, south London, they put on a fantastic eight-woman tournament to determine the next #1 contender to Io Shirai’s title.

By definition this was always going to be a show about imports. The main reason I made the trek from up north was to see Kairi Hojo’s elbow drop in person.

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Look at it.

Which we did, and it was great, though it was odd to see the most adorable wrestler on the planet not named Becky Lynch working heel. Then again, when she comes to the ring on the shoulders of a terrifying German woman called Alpha Female, all you can do is sit back and enjoy the carnage as they brutalise Progress regulars Toni Storm and Dahlia Black. (As a side note, Alpha Female is such a great heel that she made a friend’s ten-year-old cry, but they made up after the show so all is well.)

What surprised me as the show went on was how much impact the UK wrestlers made. Kay Lee Ray went just nine minutes in the ring against Io Shirai, but the title match was visceral, aggressive and booked to make both look like stars.

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It wasn’t all this fun. (Photo by Naila Zahoor)

Ayesha Ray, who only appeared in the first round, was a new discovery for me who exuded badass heel from the second she stepped through the curtain. But the biggest revelation of the night was Nixon Newell, BEW’s women’s champion, who had a fantastic draw against Mayu Iwatani to see her through to a triple threat final. In the end she lost out to American Santana Garrett (who also hugged my friend’s ten-year-old before the show, so +10 for her), but there’s absolutely no doubt that Newell is a star. I’ll be very surprised if WWE doesn’t come calling one day.

As if I wasn’t already sold on her, she cropped up again beating three men a week later. This time she was working in Fight Club Pro, about which I knew basically nothing except that this was the second Chikara tour for which they’d done the pre-show. They’re clearly going from strength to strength, because the two matches they put on were really impressive. Special shout-out to Travis Banks, who stumbled around after losing the four-way and knocked my friend’s pint of water right into my lap.

It’s great that Chikara is doing overseas tours now, and that last year’s four dates were successful enough to lead to a longer stint. Not everyone will be aware of a family-orientated, comic-book-inspired wrestling promotion with a penchant for ant gimmicks, but if there’s an avant-garde in the art of wrestling – and there is – Chikara’s at the forefront. Time travel has been used as a plot device. It shut down for an entire year once for the sake of an angle. And there’s nothing more fun than a night in its company. Put it this way: where else would I have seen an ancient Egyptian snake demon hypnotise his opponent – a hermit crab who can only move sideways – into a dance-off, which ends when the hermit crab pincers himself doing the Macarena?

Dispiritingly damp though I was (thanks Travis), I watched every match with a smile on my face. There’s a whole separate post to be written on the complexities of intergender wrestling, but it was great to see talented women like Heidi Lovelace and champion Princess Kimber Lee working at a really high level (though Heidi could have done with more to do). As for the main event, well, that was something special.

It’s well known that Chikara’s founder, ‘Director of Fun’ and utter genius Mike Quackenbush is a huge fan of old-school British wrestling. He also happens to be a fantastic wrestler who had to retire due to injury. So when Johnny Kidd, his friend who also happens to be a veteran of nearly 40 years on the UK scene who should really be in some sort of British Wrestling Hall of Fame by now, challenged Quack to one more match to mark his retirement, I was both excited and a little bit worried for his health.

Speaking of promos: he sums this match up better than I can.

 

I needn’t have worried. Contested under World of Sport rules (eight three-minute rounds, victory by two falls, two submissions or a knockout), the match was exceptional. Kidd is 60 years old, and he moves like someone much younger – I’m 25 and I’m pretty sure he’s fitter now than I ever have been or will be. He’ll be a huge loss to the industry. And as a major fan of Quack, I have to say I feel a bit cheated.

He’s supposed to be injured, right – that leg injury he talked about that ended his career? Alright, so he wasn’t doing moonsaults and the format probably went some way to protecting him, but from the moment he walked out he looked just as great as ever. It was like he’d never been away. He’s clearly been working us.

If you love a bit of technical wrestling and you’re a mark for submission holds, which I am, then this is the sort of match you could watch forever. I was ready for another eight rounds, and not a single person in the room would have objected. It was also a fitting reminder of the rich heritage of British wrestling at a time when its future looks bright.

I could mention that I went to Progress Super Strong Style 16 over that same weekend, but you probably already know it was great. Chances are you’ve heard that Chris Hero made his Progress debut in the three best matches of the weekend, and that Mark Andrews worked four matches on Monday after Mark Haskins had to pull out. The news is definitely out that Tommy End could kill a man with a kick.

Damn, it’s a great time to be a wrestling fan in this country.

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