OTT Wrestling
Over The Top Wrestling

Independent Wrestling – OTT vs ICW

It’s MacDara Conroy vs the independent wrestling scene, RIGHT HERE on…

It wasn’t the best of starts, to be honest. I’d been looking forward to this weekend of squared-circle action — comprising Over the Top Wrestling‘s show at the Tivoli on the Saturday, and Sunday’s first visit to Dublin by the UK promotion Insane Championship Wrestling — for many weeks, as it’s not so often we’re treated to this kind of thing in Ireland.

Just over the Irish Sea, there’s been a quiet renaissance in independent professional wrestling going on for more than 20 years, in the spirit of both the electric style of US underground phenomena like ECW and Ring of Honor, and the legacy of the ‘World of Sport’ years, the smoky town halls and bodyslams before the football results of a Saturday, though less Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks and grandmas with handbags, more Mark ‘Rollerball’ Rocco and Johnny Saint and others who never became household names but profoundly influenced the art of wrestling (to nick a phrase from Colt Cabana) the world over.

It’s a renaissance that’s exploded in the last 18 months or so as the mainstream (or at least BBC Three and the Guardian) discovered the existence of Scotland’s ICW and its accidental mascot, the inimitable Grado. At the same time, the ardent fanbase of the US promotions so long emulated by their British counterparts has come to respect the resurgent UK scene as its own thing.

A decade ago British indie wrestling stalwarts like Doug Williams and Nigel McGuinness stood lonely on American soil. But today even WWE, wrestling’s major league, has room for the likes of Paige (the former Britani Knight) and Neville (previously known as PAC), plus a few Irish wrestlers who built their reputations in the UK and internationally: Sheamus, Becky Lynch, Finn Bálor. And bubbling just below them in the underground, shows in the indie hotbeds of the west coast (Pro Wrestling Guerrilla), the midwest and north-east (Ring of Honor, CHIKARA, CZW) draw houses of more discerning fans eager to see the exciting talents they watch on streaming services provided by ICW, Revolution Pro Wrestling and  PROGRESS. It’s a list of names that includes but is by no means limited to incredible in-ring performers like Zack Sabre Jr, Marty Scurll and Will Ospreay — the latter of whom was the star attraction at Over the Top Wrestling’s second monthly show of 2016.

Starting in 2014 as the ‘adult’ brand of promoters and training school Main Stage Wrestling, Over the Top — or OTT to its hardcore fans — takes its cues from the same wellspring of irreverence that inspired the Glasgow-based ICW, that being a nostalgia for the extremities of the legendary ECW and the so-called ‘Attitude Era’ in the then WWF. Barry Blaustein’s documentary Beyond the Mat provides some good insight into that climate, where the kid-friendly cartoonishness of goodies versus baddies made way for a more edgy presentation — sex and violence, good taste be damned, but also a greater understanding that kayfabe was broken, and more and more fans were in on the con that wrestling is ‘real’. The pining for those days has only grown in the current ‘PG era’, whereby WWE has cleaned up its image to appease TV networks and toy company executives, and pushed the likes of John Cena, clean-cut musclebound supermen that harken back to the Hulk Hogan days, as its top stars.

Still, that’s not to trivialise or belittle the wrestling itself, as that attitude comes with a thirst for arresting performance, and the spectacular moves and frequently jaw-dropping athleticism that come with it. The undercard on this Father Ted-themed show (featuring a silly-but-funny run-in by Michael ‘Father Stone’ Redmond, Joe ‘Father Damo’ Rooney and Patrick ‘Eoin McLove’ McDonnell) had it in spades, proving that these wrestlers are much more than their gimmicks — mostly broad stereotypes that verged from the classic (Paul Tracey’s ‘Lord of the Manor’ schtick) to the wryly absurd (a D4 rugby player who carries his ball to ringside) to the borderline offensive (the Lads from the Flats, and fighting Traveller clan the Wards; both fan favourites, it must be noted).

But it was best exemplified on the night by UK import Will Ospreay, the appropriately named ‘Aerial Assassin’, a young man with oodles of charisma to match his in-ring ability and who handily stole the show in his main event three-way match against similarly agile Brummie grappler Ryan Smile and the OTT champion Pete Dunne. He’s shortly headed abroad for a stint with the respected New Japan Pro Wrestling where he’s sure to be a star, like Bray’s own Fergal ‘Finn Bálor’ Devitt before him.

Alas, as much as I enjoyed the wrestling I witnessed, I didn’t get to see all of it. The show ran after 11pm, poor form for an event at a venue like the Tivoli that’s relatively out of the way in Dublin 8, a half-hour hoof from my last bus home, so I missed the end of the main event. Considering Ospreay was my main reason for going (and likely for many others; they wouldn’t have booked him otherwise) that was a bummer, to say the least. OTT may be a relatively new promotion, but they’ve been doing these shows almost monthly now since 2014 so they should have a better handle on their timing, and maybe not waste 10 minutes making a hames of a raffle for bottles of vodka.

The night could have done without such a late intermission, too, which only allowed an already leery crowd to get even more sozzled on six-packs of cheap lager and turn the atmosphere unnecessarily hostile. When I go to a wrestling show — hell, any show for that matter — I don’t need drunk women getting all up in my face or arseholes in the crowd deliberately blocking my path as I try to force through to the only exit in the overcrowded nightclub. (I see the next show has a strictly limited capacity.)

I suppose it’s my own fault for expecting more from a night out in Ireland, but I can’t get over the feeling that drinking culture has co-opted something I hold so dear — and to such a patronising, laddish degree, as supported by the tweet above in response to honest complaints. I don’t need that bullshit with my wrestling, thanks.

Still, as much as that experience left a bad taste, I made the return trip to Dublin the following night for the Insane Championship Wrestling show at The Academy, a more central and better managed venue where drinks aren’t sold by the multiple. ICW itself is a more slick promotion, too, with a strong visual identity, a pristine ring and professional stage set-up (the event, like every other on this UK and Ireland tour, was being recorded for its streaming service) that’s a stark contrast to its no-fucks-to-give sweary and violent content. While hardly on the scale of WWE’s big-time arena events — it was a standing show, after all, and this old man would much prefer a seat for three hours — the ‘controlled chaos’ of the night’s entertainment was certainly run along similar lines.

And what a difference a bit less booze and a bit more organisation makes. The audience didn’t get in the way of the wrestling (well, except for one beanpole who decided to stand right in front of me for a match or two) and that made for a far better show, full of pantomime skullduggery and brawling bruisers and spectacular flights from the top rope.

The biggest responses from the crowd, a more diehard contingent with many of the same faces from the previous evening, were reserved for former WWE superstar Drew Galloway, who squared off with the dynamic Noam Dar, and Belfast’s Big Damo, a Fergal Devitt trainee fresh from winning the ICW World Title the previous night before his hometown crowd, and who took his fight with the nefarious Jack Jester out into the crowd, and even behind the bar, which is about as smashed as things got. Yet neither was my favourite match on the card, which saw another Belfast grappler, Luther Valentine, in a thrilling high-energy clash with Mark Coffey.

But the loudest pop, naturally, was for Grado — a comedy wrestler who can pull off some amazing moves when need be, and who’s the true embodiment of ICW’s spirit. From running small community centre shows a decade ago to potentially filling Glasgow’s 15,000-seat Hydro this November? It was never supposed to happen. These guys were just doing it for the love of it, it was never meant to get this big, or get this good. But they have, and they’re just the top dogs of a UK-wide wrestling scene that’s growing in size, quality, diversity — and popularity — by the month.

Maybe Ireland can carve some space in that scene. We almost did, a decade ago, when Irish Whip Wrestling packed the SFX before fizzling out. And I can’t see it happening just yet, not till there’s an alternative to the boozy lad culture that currently runs the show. Surely under-18s here deserve to see talents like Will Ospreay over fake Kanes and Undertakers as much as, if not more than, the ‘fuck PG’ hardcore crowd.

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