Thoughts on Insane Fight Club

grado

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.

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The Wrestlegasm Pay it Forward Giveaway – Closed

Once upon a time I thought WWE/F was king. No other form of wrestling interested me. If it wasn’t on TV I didn’t care. Then some 5 or 6 years into my wrestling fandom I was taken to a random, low-rent indie show in a Tennessee town so remote and obscure I defy anyone outside the area to have heard of it. The impact this show had on me was startling. It taught me the value of the show I couldn’t see at the click of a button. I wrote an extended piece on this event and you can listen to me reading it by clicking here. It’s a nice story, even if I do say so myself, and you get to hear my dulcet tones.

Several years passed before I started enjoying indie wrestling again. I didn’t really know how to access it, and I certainly didn’t fully know what I was talking about until after I launched this blog in 2009. Andrew introduced me to most of it. Without his influence I doubt I’d have the connection to CHIKARA I do now. Most, if not all, of the independent wrestling I got into first was American. It was fun, but it always had a slight distance to it. Then British wrestling started building up a head of steam again.

It’s taken a while for me to really understand British wrestling. Andrew got it straight away; maybe because he has easier access to local shows in Lancashire than I do in Cardiff. Where it clicked with him immediately, it’s taken me to longer. His patience in helping me put faces to names and in learning a new wrestling culture means that I now know what it’s really about. It’s not easy trying to get involved with something new, but British wrestling is worth the effort. It’s a completely different beast to American wrestling. It has its own unique quirks and dysfunctions. The fans are different. Most importantly, it’s a warm and welcoming scene for newcomers. I kind of love it now.

I’ve never gotten into a new wrestling gang without being introduced to it by someone else. Sometimes you need somebody with a little more knowledge to guide you. For that reason, I want to give one person the gift of British wrestling with a little giveaway. I’m paying it forward.

The Prizes

One person will win…

One copy of Carrie Dunn’s new book Spandex, Screw Jobs & Cheap Pops – Inside the Business of British Pro Wrestling. Carrie is a freelance journalist, an academic and founding editor of The Only Way is Suplex. The book explores the current resurgence in British wrestling, interviewing some of its biggest performers and promoters, and contemplating where the scene is heading. It’s a brilliant dissection of British wrestling, whether you’re a newbie or a more seasoned follower.

One copy of the Preston City Wrestling’s SpringSlam DVD (March 2013). PCW is one of the fastest growing promotions in the UK, selling out their venue and regularly putting on Supershow weekends, where fans can attend Q&A sessions and Meet & Greets, as well as see multiple shows over the course of a weekend. They’re not just experts at showcasing top UK talent, but also in attracting interest from international wrestlers. Recent visitors include Akira Tozawa, Johnny Gargano, Kevin Steen, The Young Bucks, Goldust, Lita and Chris Masters.

One copy of Progress Wrestling’s Chapter Seven: Every Sinner Has a Past, Every Sinner Has a Future DVD (May 2013). Progress is the only promotion putting on regular shows in Central London and, to date, has sold out every one of its shows well in advance of show day. With an almost exclusively British flavour and a strong focus on promoting new talent, Progress is the perfect place to catch both established UK wrestlers and up-and-coming stars of the future.

How to Enter

1) Follow @Wrestlegasm on Twitter

2) Tweet a link to this blog post and include the hashtag #PIFgiveaway

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-The giveaway will close on Tuesday 25th June 2013 at 7.00pm (UK time).

-Please enter only once per Twitter account. Spammers will be blocked and their entry will be void.

-The giveaway is open internationally.

-The winner will be chosen at random.

Good luck!

ICYMI: Number 3

When Andrew arrives at the pearly gates and they evaluate what he did with his life, watching wrestling matches will rack up more hours than any other single task. The guy’s done a lot of DVD miles. Every week he picks one of his favourite matches to share with you. Here’s number three…

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I’m lucky enough to have a local promotion* that has allowed me to see the likes of Kevin Steen, Akira Tozawa, Colt Cabana, The Young Bucks, Paul London, Brian Kendrick, Super Crazy, Davey Richards, Michael Elgin, Johnny Gargano, Lita, John Morrison and Chris Masters over the last two years. I’ve been even more lucky to find myself being introduced to a group of young British wrestlers who are standing toe-to-toe with these imports, and not looking out of place in the slightest.

I’ll be showing some PCW footage in future editions of ICYMI, but for now I want to mention their second ever show; a tournament to crown their first ever champion back in September 2011. I came out of this show singing the praises of two young wrestlers. One, Noam Dar, has gone on to wrestle some of the biggest import names to have come over to the UK of late, as well as wrestling on the Dragon Gate UK tour back in February.

The other person was a wrestler called Jack Gallagher. Billed from the Snake Pit gym in Wigan (home of the Catch as Catch Can style often alluded to by Jim Ross) he only wrestled one match that night, being beaten in the first round by his Scottish opponent Lionheart. Despite being described by Lionheart as “Sheamus with AIDS” I was left amazed at the skill that Jack brought to the ring. I’m a big fan of that, admittedly quite old fashioned, World of Sport-style and seeing someone young do that was a highlight.

Jack is currently wrestling over in Japan for the Zero One promotion as Jack Anthony, and although a lot of our American readers will undoubtedly be unfamiliar with him I urge you to give this a look. Click here if the video doesn’t load on your mobile device.

*Disclaimer : I am slightly involved behind the scenes at Preston City Wrestling but any comments I make are strictly as a fan.

(Rae’s Edit: Jack has proven himself to be a very insightful writer, formerly here and now here. I’m also rather fond of his Twitter bio.)

andrew

ICYMI: Number 2

When Andrew arrives at the pearly gates and they evaluate what he did with his life, watching wrestling matches will rack up more hours than any other single task. The guy’s done a lot of DVD miles. Every week he picks one of his favourite matches to share with you. Here’s number two…

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There’s been a lot written about Mick McManus following his death earlier this week, but it seemed only right that I should pay my respects in this week’s ICYMI.

McManus was one of, if not the, preeminent villains (not heels, villains) during the World of Sport era. As a child I found Kendo Nagasaki sinister, Giant Haystacks imposing and Catweazle creepy as hell. But McManus scared me. He was, despite his 5’6″ stature, someone who looked like he would genuinely hurt you if he felt it was necessary. Yet despite this he was, by every account, a true gentleman; in fact after retiring from the ring he became a noted expert in the field of porcelain. Not something you might expect from the likes of Randy Orton perhaps.

For younger (and overseas) readers it might be hard to grasp just how big a deal wrestling was in the UK once upon a time. Televised twice weekly and drawing larger audiences than the FA Cup final it often preceded, British wrestling was immense. The National Union of Shopkeepers unsuccessfully lobbied the TV channel to ask them to move the broadcast slot from Saturday afternoon as housewives weren’t leaving the house to buy groceries. The Royal Family were known to be fans, and McManus was photographed with the likes of Prince Philip and then Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

McManus died at the age of 93 after refusing to eat following the death of his wife in January. Despite pleas and visits from friends including Sir Richard Attenborough, he slipped into a coma and passed away.

andrew

What you see when you’re not looking – Part Two

The first ‘What you see when you’re not looking’ post was originally going to include this topic. Then the first turned out to be longer than I expected and I didn’t want to do this point a disservice by tagging it onto the end of something else. So, this is part two – on why wrestling has to stop clinging to the sex industry. 

When we took a step back from blogging and observed without commenting, it became clearer to me just how much the sex industry remains unnecessarily intertwined with the wrestling business. The truth is, we should have cut those apron strings years ago. It’s outdated. It’s harmful to the business as it moves forward and becomes more popular – especially with children – and it’s damaging to the position of women in the industry. WWE is probably cleaner than it’s ever been, but on the independent scene, wrestling’s fixation with the sleazier side is reigning in its potential to be a legitimate and credible form of entertainment. It’s not good enough to say that wrestling is sleazy and always will be. It can change, if promotions are inclined to put the wheels in motion.

For all the rose-tinted harping back to the late 1990s and the 2000s, it was murky. When the American government feel the need to intervene, you know you’re getting something wrong. It was time to start cleaning up wrestling. The government’s concerns largely surrounded health, but wrestling needed an overhaul in every way. The landscape has changed dramatically since I first became a wrestling fan in 1997. It’s changed since we started this blog in 2009. But it’s hit a stumbling block, particularly when it comes to women.

I’m confident we’ll never see a repeat of Trish Stratus barking like a dog on her hands and knees on worldwide television again. I sincerely hope that bra and panties matches have been left in the ‘what were we thinking?’ category of wrestling history. But the connection to the porn industry that hangs around wrestling like a stale smell the day after a party is just one of the reasons I sometimes find it embarrassing to plug it as entertainment to my friends and family and to the young children in my life.

I fully appreciate that not all promotions are looking to be family friendly, although I think they could do a better job at letting families know when a show won’t be for kids. I also acknowledge that being a woman in my early thirties, I’m looking for something very different to what I was searching for when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Your tastes change. You become more discerning. You have a clearer view of what you will and won’t let slide without comment. When I was much younger, when hormones were raging, I was terribly unsure of myself and every conversation felt like it had to be loaded with sniggering innuendo and sexuality. I wasn’t as concerned with women’s place in wrestling. I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t really know how to protest it. I have changed, the world has changed and wrestling has changed. It just needs one last, very easy push to make itself properly current.

Outside the CHIKARA and Shimmer bubble, wrestling still feels sexist. It makes me sad when fans at British wrestling shows are genuinely surprised when the couple of women on the card put on a great match. It’s especially disappointing when they feel the need to point out that they’re ‘Really good, and not just good for girls, either’. WWE has to take some of the responsibility here. For almost everyone it’s the first wrestling they’re exposed to. If their promotion of women involves nothing but one-minute matches and boyfriend or beauty stories, we’re not telling the young people and children watching that women have more to offer. It should be a given, but it isn’t. It just feeds the notion that the female purpose in wrestling is merely decorative. The rest of the responsibility lies with anyone who doesn’t make an effort correct these archaic views.

Women already struggle to get their names on the card in both mainstream and indie wrestling (British and overseas) simply because the impression is that crowds won’t get behind them. When, for example, porn stars or exotic dancers are hired to act as valets, interval entertainment or even makeshift wrestlers, the female wrestlers find themselves competing with both the male talent and the additional bookings. Very rarely are men hired in wrestling because they’ve had a career in the sex industry. You’ll never see a man on the roster overshadowed by someone who works in porn. It’s blatant pandering to dinosaurs of the game and hormone infested young men who have money to burn. Just because the lowest common denominator sells, it doesn’t mean you should sell it. If your wrestling and your stories are good you shouldn’t need porn, and a little social conscience goes an awful long way.

I’m not on a crusade against sex. We’re all grown-ups and we all enjoy our sex lives. I’m not even trying to banish pornography. It’s not my cup of tea, but as long as it isn’t hurting anyone, I don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s universally a terrible thing. Most crucially, I’m not suggesting we rid wrestling of ‘attraction’. It’s a highly visual medium and aesthetics are crucial. Wrestlers, particularly in the mainstream, are hired for their good (or less so) looks to fit who the company wants them to be; just like actors in a TV show. It’s obviously not the only reason talent are hired, but having ‘a look’ that you then shape the stories around – whether appealing to the eye or not – is a fundamental part of wrestling. The irony that I’m writing this post on a website called Wrestlegasm isn’t lost on me. And I’m definitely not ignoring that ultimately wrestling is a load of oiled, half-naked folk rolling around with each other with a story as its backdrop. But there is a stark difference between Dolph Ziggler and AJ Lee kissing on camera to sell their relationship, for example, and sex for the sake of selling sex. The latter is what we need to move away from.

Wrestling, and indie wrestling especially, needs to think carefully about the language it uses, too. You can only pull the Jack Swagger/Zeb Colter trick of being outlandishly politically incorrect if you’re making it absolutely clear that the views your ‘characters’ are peddling are completely unacceptable. Without the caveat of million-dollar TV contracts hanging over your head, there’s little incentive to get that balance right every single time.  It’s not enough just to book women on shows. How they’re treated is important too. On the unregulated and non-televised circuit, women are sometimes on the receiving end of unsavoury sexual banter. Eva Wiseman recently wrote an excellent column in the Observer on lad culture in universities. She talked about how you can find it difficult to remove yourself from derogatory behaviour and language because when you’re in a group where it’s expected, you play along to fit in. It’s the only option. There is an awful lot of that in wrestling. I believe it’s one of the reasons so many people leave wrestling as they grow older.

There’s a great deal of tolerating what was once acceptable and it’s very disappointing. I’d like to see braver booking, cleverer stories and less reliance on the sex industry to raise interest in wrestling products. The gap between the two needs to grow larger. Fans will follow where promoters lead. They just need to have the courage to move forward.

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