I’ve not gone to a lot of wrestling shows, I’ll hold my hand up and say that – it’s not easy with mobility issues. Until two years ago, I only watched WWE, and infrequently at that. Then I started this blog, and began to watch regularly, before getting seduced over to BritWres via WCPW and Progress. My first live show was WCPW in June last year. I stood for the whole thing on one of the days, and quickly realised how impractical that was. I took some time off, reconsidered, and began to approach wrestling with an accessibility viewpoint, trying to make my experiences easier and better.
Since that first WCPW weekend, I’ve gone to Fight Club: Pro’s Dream Tag Team Invitational in March, Progress in May, and ACW in June this year. I’m now booked to see Chikara’s King of Trios in September (if they ever tell me if there’s a seat available!), along with Progress’ Alexandra Palace show, and Lucha Forever in October, along with ACW again in August. I’m taking July off, for wallet reasons. (Unless certain faves will be at Progress.) So, like I said, I’ve not got a lot of experience with these things.
ACW at Keeton’s Hall in Bermondsey, south-east London, was the first small show I’d been to, the first village hall show, where the ring skirts don’t meet the floor, and the air conditioning is some fans that appear to be haphazardly stuck to the walls. It was also the first family-friendly show I’d been to, and Emmy and I spent much of the journey trying to think of ways to edit the chants we’d used the weekend before at Progress so we weren’t swearing our heads off every five seconds.
To say I wasn’t expecting much would be unfair. I knew I was getting Jimmy Havoc vs. Jack Sexsmith, because that was the reason I’d booked the tickets in the first place – I’d been promising Sexsmith that I loved him more than Havoc, no, really, and that I’d prove it by cheering him if they were ever in a match… and then the show came up. I had to put my money where my mouth was. So I knew those two would be there, I knew Paul Robinson, the Bhangra Knights, the London Riots; I knew Damon Moser and Chuck Mambo by reputation. A friend who’d been before let me know that Chakara and Bobbi Tyler were good, and worth a watch. I knew I was going to get to watch some wrestling, and if bits of it were crap, it had been cheap and I got to see some faves.
Sitting in the hall as the music became more and more like a Year Six school disco from 1999, Emmy and I had a bit of a giggle about just how small everything was, compared to the slick, neat, all-black aesthetic of Progress. One day of SSS16, I’d worn a dress, rather than a wrestling shirt, and felt a bit out of place. At ACW, I was wearing a wrestling shirt, rather than a dress, and felt much the same. There were small kids ambling around, people’s grandmas cheerfully eating crisps, a number of people using wheelchairs or other mobility aids, which obviously made me feel very welcome. The three small merch tables were being idly manned. It was a far cry from the bustle of the weekend before at Progress.
When the show started, though – it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter where we were, it didn’t matter that there were quiet spots sometimes, as opposed to the roar of Progress. It didn’t matter that the room was hot, that the announce mic was on the fritz, that the entrance curtain seemed sometimes difficult to escape from and like it was about to eat some of the wrestlers. None of that mattered.
Chuck Mambo vs. Earl Black Jr. set the tone – easy to pick your side, fun and energetic; a simple story where good triumphed over evil, and we got to cheer for a leggy blonde who was wreathed in smiles throughout. Chakara and Bobbi Tyler are unfairly good for how young they are, and they told a good story, so I look forward to seeing more of them, though they were very nearly upstaged by The Hitset, who came out with Chakara. Spike Trivet and Alex Cupid played well to the audience, and I realised that what I was watching was closer to pantomime than any other form of theatre – and that was good, that was exactly the right way to play it for the audience.
Connor Mills and James Best stole my heart for doing the incredible flippy brilliance that always makes me, child of a gymnast and diver that I am, gasp and marvel. The eight-man tag match was interesting, and managed to remain easy to follow, with Hustle Malone and Kelly Sixx as my faves, even though they, and the London Riots and Bhangra Knights, were eventually defeated by The Hitset. Some brilliant clowning moments in that match, with a tone that ducked from joking to serious in moments. The title match between Damon Moser and Paul Robinson was an absolute treat, complete with Robinson’s vicious snarls at the crowd as he lost via DQ, keeping that title.
But I’ve skipped a match. The match that was the entire reason for me going to the show – two of my favourite wrestlers, two of my favourite men, in a #1 contender’s match. I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting a lot out of this. I knew Jack had been injured at SSS16, I’d seen the bruise and the wounded look myself, and when he came out, interrupting Danny Garnell, to tell us that he was too injured to compete, I let myself believe it for a second. And then Jimmy’s music hit, and I’m pretty sure the smile on my face was not a nice one.
I’d already promised to cheer for Jack, but Jimmy, as always, made it easy. He started off very matey, drawing similarities between the two of them, reminding Jack that Jimmy had helped train him, giving him a chance to back out – but also making it very clear that he would think less of him if Jack did so. Taunting him. And so, reluctantly, Jack took the sling off, and the match began.
Now, Jack Sexsmith is one of the most believable babyfaces in the game for me, from the agony on his face when parts of his body are being manipulated to the sheer shock and elation when something goes right for him. He’s got the right frame for it, too, slim and narrow, not over-tall, and an open, honest face. While he can seem cock-sure and over-confident, there’s something in his reaction to a cheer from the crowd that says he’s still not quite sure of the response he’s going to get. There’s a nervousness there, a softness, and that’s what makes him human enough for us to love. Watching him not only hold his usual vulnerability, but the added worry of his torn bicep; his whole body told us of his trepidation and made his decision to participate so much more meaningful. He looked battered and afraid, but hopeful, the way the best heroes are; aching for approval and needing the roar of the crowd to bolster then against evil.
And Jimmy Havoc plays either side of the coin pretty well, but he’s at his best when he’s a little sadistic, when he’s enjoying hurting someone – not necessarily because they’ve done anything to him, but just because he likes to do it. To see Jimmy Havoc on screen is not the same as seeing him live, because live you feel his presence like a cold rush of air, something makes you sit up straighter and take notice. When Jimmy walks in the room, it doesn’t matter where you are – village hall, Camden club, arena venue – because he walks into every space like he’s taking the main event at WrestleMania, and he knows he’s winning. It’s that aura that makes him so easy to love or hate, because he draws every eye. Part of it could be the get-up; the mask and the coat and the contacts, but there’s more to it than that, the way he demands attention, and holds it until he’s done speaking. The way he pays attention, eyes sliding over every detail, seeing his opponent, seeing the crowd, and looking right through them.
The match was a perfect example of the way wrestling is a microcosm for the battle between good and evil. I wouldn’t say ACW had any complex plot points, but that can be for the best. It didn’t need them. Havoc worked Sexsmith’s injured arm mercilessly, taunting him, telling him that he could give up at any point. Every time Sexsmith was down, the crowd rallied behind him, clapping our hands like we were trying to bring Tinkerbell back. And it struck me that it’s a lot like what you face, going into things being openly queer. You go in knowing people will use that as something they can twist and bend to rile you up, you hurt and ache, but you know the fight is more important than just you. So you get up, you rally, and you carry on, because the alternative is just not something you can contemplate.
As I’ve said, both of these guys are favourites, and outside of the ring, I adore them both. So it speaks to the skill of both performers that I could cheerfully have got into the ring and stood in Havoc’s way, keeping Sexsmith safe behind me. I wanted to protect him, I wanted him to win but wanted the punishment to stop. Every time he was on the ground, and Havoc gave him the choice to give up, part of me wanted him to quit. To stop letting himself be hurt. But a larger part of me cheered to for him to rise again, to take the victory, to prove himself. I’m not ashamed to admit there were a few tears falling as I begged under my breath for him to get up.
Which is exactly what he did. One quick roll up while Havoc was busy lording it over the audience that he was taking an easy win, and it was all over. I don’t think I’ve ever cheered so loudly – the picture shows clearly just how elated Emmy and I are that the hero vanquished the villain. And that’s wrestling. The match played on every heartstring, every emotion, and the best part is, I let it. I gave myself over to the theatre of violence, just for the afternoon, and rode the emotions like a wave.
I’m not saying that I went to the greatest wrestling show in the world that afternoon. What I am saying is that I came out of that show feeling like I had, overwhelmed with emotion, thrilled by new talent I hadn’t seen before, desperate to congratulate my good boys and just wallow in the joy of wrestling. I got to watch one of my boys take a win that felt so hard-fought that I wept. Wrestling has a myriad of forms, but I’ll always say, the best is when it makes you feel, and I felt like I was overflowing with feelings that afternoon.
Come and join me and Emmy back at ACW on 5th August for Jack Sexsmith’s title shot. I’ll be the redhead with the stick, holding a packet of tissues, and cheering on a performer who excels at everything he does. I do believe in unicorns. I do. I do.