All too often when professional wrestling and the mainstream media cross paths it’s more collision than harmonious union. We’re sometimes left feeling sheepish that the spotlight’s been shone on a salacious or maybe even lethal corner of the industry. Most regularly, we’re left peeking through our fingers and cringing at inept interviews or amateur reactions to professional situations.
Outside the cosy confines of the British wrestling community, there is an inherent misunderstanding and disinterest in the media in relation to wrestling’s place in the world. It seems bizarre that a form of theatre so ingrained in British popular culture just a few decades ago needs careful explaining all over again. Yet every magazine show that books a WWE Superstar or local nightly news bulletin filling its quota of ‘small town kids made good’ stories trot out the same tired questions on whether wrestling is real or not. There must be hours worth of Sunday Brunch footage where Tim Lovejoy and Simon Rimmer ask, “But does it actually hurt?” before handing over to a segment on making your own Easter eggs and the like, the second the reply ends.
WrestleTalk TV, at least in its current incarnation tucked away on late night Challenge, is the best case against ‘all publicity is good publicity’. ‘Something is better than nothing’ does not apply here. If its purpose is to make British wrestling sit comfortably among more popular forms of mainstream entertainment, it fails. Its low rent production, unbalanced views and as we’ve seen recently, unprofessional social media interaction outside the show, would do nothing to persuade casual fans that British wrestling has something special to offer that WWE can’t deliver. It’s everything I wish to distance myself from.
This lack of understanding, laziness and life-sucking self-sabotage is what made Insane Fight Club – the BBC1 documentary on Glasgow’s ICW – such a refreshing gulp of oxygen, if a little vodka scented. It dealt briefly with the question of what wrestling is, but didn’t dwell on it. It trusted the viewers’ intelligence enough not to spend an hour holding their hands through the ABCs of winning and losing when you know how your match is going to end. This programme showcased the people and not just the process.
Not only did Insane Fight Club avoid patronising its audience, it also sidestepped the trap of ridiculing its subjects. Television currently has a nasty habit of making documentaries where the tone is set a little too low and judgemental. We end up being encouraged to point and laugh at quirks of personality or practice. This show got it so right, it made the strength of community surrounding ICW and its fans alluring. It presented their lifestyle and sense of belonging without commentary.
What made Insane Fight Club great as a piece of television and quite different to most other wrestling TV was tapping into the human element of ICW’s story, therefore taking it from a show for wrestling fans to a documentary about the people, just with wrestling as its backdrop. Jack Jester’s pursuit to impress his father, who had been supportive of his son’s career but had never felt able to watch him wrestle, was endearing. You truly willed his dad to stay in situ as Jester became champion for the first time. Even when he was dangerously close to bleeding out too much.
Grado’s need to please and be adored is impossible not to indulge. How can you not be smitten with a man who wanders into Nicky Clark’s London salon in full ring attire and after getting his highlights tinted, has the man himself perform his catchphrase “It’s yersel!” into Grado’s phone camera. He humbled himself in front of dream opponent Colt Cabana who – maybe arguably given Mad Man Manson and Danny Hope’s recent genius – sets the standard internationally for comedy matches. But you get the feeling that for all his posturing and laughter chasing, Grado doesn’t yet realise his own star potential. Maybe watching back the penny might drop, but you also slightly feel that part of the attraction is that he doesn’t understand how bankable his silliness really is.
Most intriguing was promoter Mark Dallas, whose intense desire to elevate himself, his family, friends and staff to a better standard of living via ICW brought viewers to his side. The story of how he’s begun implementing his plan to monetise his passion and turn hobbies into careers played out throughout the documentary. It charted the journey from ICW’s regular venue to a much larger building for one epic show.
We tagged along on alcohol-fuelled brainstorming sessions where he and his team devised unorthodox ticket selling tactics. You have to question whether the long term goal of a profitable business marries up with Dallas’ spending. Particularly when he lavishes over £1000 on hotels to “make them feel like stars.” He spoke most sense when he debunked the most worn out debate in British wrestling – that dotting imported, well known, international talent among your regular roster is absolutely essential if you want to run a growing, thriving business within the British wrestling industry.
Braver than letting the cameras into his finances, Mark Dallas let us peer in on his family and what ICW is doing for his relationship with his son, Danny, who lives with autism. While Dallas clearly struggles in accepting his son’s developmental disability, he just as obviously wants to do his best by his family. He tearfully relayed the day when Danny didn’t want to go to nursery school because he felt different, before explaining that he used a DVD of himself standing in the middle of the ICW ring to help his son understand that it’s okay to be different. Dad is different. It worked, and it clearly meant everything to him as a parent.
Insane Fight Club was not without its flaws. In displaying the bloody, hardcore nature of ICW it may have given unaccustomed viewers the impression that you can’t attend a British wrestling show without going home spattered in blood. This is obviously not true. The bleeding debate is fierce and divisive. Hardcore shows are in the minority on the British scene and many are far more family friendly. In the same vein, storyline meetings and marketing ventures in many promotions are not accompanied by such a flagrant drinking culture. At least, not until the aftershow parties.
Other promoters may worry that viewers might assume all independent wrestling businesses are run on the ICW model. The wisest promotions spend sparingly on accommodation, for example, and ensure profits plough forward into future shows, avoiding short term extravagance in the name of balancing the books. But not only did Dallas make clear that his shows are designed for a very specific adult audience and that he’s running the company in his own style, it’s also a little unfair to ask one promotion to represent the wide variety of choice offered by British wrestling. After all, ICW were chosen because their following has become something of a sub-culture in Glasgow. The programme was made to shed light on ICW, not make it the BritWres poster child. But overall, in presenting a sensitively made documentary on one sector of British wrestling, there is hope that the mainstream profile has been raised for everyone. And that can only be a good thing.