Where to begin with what has become the biggest independently run professional wrestling show in England in 30 years? (To my knowledge Scotland’s ICW still hold the record for the biggest indie show in the U.K. in that time).
I guess we need to go back a little over a year to PROGRESS Wrestling‘s show at Alexandra Palace in September 2017, Chase The Sun, where they announced this fairly monumental undertaking.
Since then the hype has built, with a few contractual bumps along the way, until we finally arrived at this past weekend and what, I think it’s fair to say, became something of PROGRESS’ answer to WWE’s Wrestlemania (albeit on a slightly different scale and with a very different attitude).
The Wembley Warm-Up – Phoenix, Cavendish Square – 29/09/18
Before 4,750 made their way to the arena on Sunday 30th September there was the matter of the Saturday afternoon warm up event.
Held in the far more modest surroundings of ‘a basement in london’ to quote company co-owner and MC Jim Smallman, at The Phoenix on Cavendish Square, the event comprised three shows based around wrestling and comedy (not too surprising given Smallman and other co-owner Jon Briley’s past occupations).
The first part, Never Mind The Wristlocks, borrowed more than a similar name from a BBC Two panel show as two teams of PROGRESS related wrestlers squared off in a quiz show.
With teams consisting of Danny Garnell (now a stand up comic in his own right), Jack Sexsmith & Pastor William Eaver against TK Cooper, The O.J.M.O and Rocky Mac along with host Kieron Liley things looked good from the off and what we got was a hilarious ramshackle game show much like it’s music based spiritual forebear but with a slightly more friendly spirit to it.
While all were good I’d have to pick out Sexsmith as a highlight, mostly for his asides and heckles, though he got as good as he gave.
The second show was a live edition of Smallman’s Tuesday Night Jaw podcast exploring comedy in wrestling as the host was joined by regular guest Chris Brooker (also a wrestling promoter and stand up comedian) and Danny Garnell again.
With a huge amount of audience interaction the trio discussed quite how and why comedy works in pro-wrestling with plenty of laughs thrown in and it left me with a long list of matches to seek out.
The third show was basically a stand up show from Smallman but with the focus being his new book, I’m Sorry I Love You: A History Of Professional Wrestling.
Despite having recently read the book he added enough new stuff, and plenty of jokes, to make it something new and hilarious, though I did wonder what the person who admitted to not being a wrestling fan and just being there with their partner made of it all – especially ‘The Muta Scale’…
All in all then a great way to spend an afternoon and basically feel free to be a massive wrestling nerd, laughing all the while, and I really hope Never Mind The Wristlocks continues and is watchable online somewhere!
Chapter 76: Hello Wembley – SSE Wembley Arena – 30/09/18
So we come to the big show. Walking around the area before the show (and meeting friends in a nearby pub) was a great intro to the day with the highest concentration of wrestling fans I think I’ve ever seen in one place (even when compared to going to WWE Raw at the O2) so the atmosphere was already high as we made our way into the arena in time for the…
Pre-Show Battle Royal
Designed to get the crowd warmed up and give as many people a chance to appear in some capacity as possible this match, featuring around 20 grapplers, was perfect for the job.
Starting out with some surprise entires, including RJ Singh and Mad Man Manson who I think got the biggest reaction on his entrance we then got some fun in the ring and everyone had their little moments.
Of course once the ring cleared things got a little more serious and we got down to Chris Ridgeway, TK Cooper, Spike Trivet and Chuck Mambo who all looked great.
In a sort of reenactment of WWF’s 1995 Royal Rumble, just when Trivet thought he’d got the win Mambo ‘skinned the cat’ to get back in the ring and eliminated the Tory we love to hate to pick up another big win in what has been a landmark year for the fun-loving, surfing wrestler.
Before the show began in earnest we were treated to a performance by Wars, adding another element to the ‘British Wrestlemania’ feeling, who won a competition held by Metal Hammer and PROGRESS to play at the show, accompanied by the new hype video usually soundtracked by Drake’s Started From The Bottom, before Jim’s usual introduction.
Mark Haskins w/ Vicky Haskins vs ‘The King Of Bros’ Matt Riddle
With all the hype around this match having centred on it being Riddle’s last independent match before heading to WWE’s NXT it was understandable that former PROGRESS champion Haskins felt somewhat put out.
That quickly became the story of the contest as the two grappled and traded strikes and holds in a fashion that had the audience divided but loving it from the off.
It looked like Riddle would be ‘going out on a high’ as he hit several of his signature moves but Haskins survived them all, even reversing the Bro 2 Sleep knee strike to get the much deserved win.
As a match to start the show we couldn’t have asked for much better with a level of investment that only grown in recent days thanks to a few posts from Haskins on social media and while, I hope to see Riddle go on to great things in WWE, I also hope this marks the start of a new elevated run for ‘the couple that slays together, stays together’ (to paraphrase their new t-shirt).
PROGRESS Women’s Championship Match
Jinny (c) w/ The House Of Couture vs Millie McKenzie vs Toni Storm
I’ll admit I was surprised to see this match so early on in the show and, with the energy surrounding the previous match, for a few reasons things dipped a little here.
Mostly I think this is down to the fact that, while all three competitors can do great things (and did here) the lead up has been a little confused with it ending up as a triple threat match after the original announcement of Jinny going head-to-head with McKenzie.
That said the first part of the match saw all three giving their all with everything you’d expect including Storm’s strong style attacks McKenzie’s suplexes (including a nice double German suplex on both her opponents at once), and Jinny’s nefarious tactics.
As it went on though, and the three members of Jinny’s ‘House of Couture’ team got involved, as did Toni and Millie’s allies Candy Floss and Laura Di Matteo, things got a bit muddled before Di Matteo turned on her team mates to side with Jinny allowing her to retain the championship.
After the match the first big surprise of the show happened as American wrestler Jordynne Grace appeared to make the save for Toni, Millie and Candy Floss, with the powerhouse single-handedly disposing of The House of Couture while Jinny and Laura made their escape.
While you could argue this one was a little ‘overbooked’ it was still entertaining and had some nice moments, while the appearance of Grace added a new something to the PROGRESS women’s division that I can’t wait to see unfold.
PROGRESS Atlas Championship
‘The Ambasador’ Doug Williams (c) vs Trent Seven
While the Atlas Championship may have been on the line, for Doug Williams there was even more at stake as the British wrestling legend had stated that when he lost the belt he would retire and a lot of signs were pointing at tonight being the night.
After a gentlemanly handshake the two ‘big lads’ put on a match that saw Seven tone down his comedic side (though there were still a few moments) while Williams gave his all in search of his ‘Chaos Theory’ rolling German suplex.
Even surviving a Burning Hammer from Seven it looked like Williams would defy the odds but it was Seven’s often attempted, but never connected, running crossbody block that finally did connect giving the midlands grappler the win and the championship.
Of course after the match it was time for respect to be paid to Williams and it was, first by Seven in the ring and then on the stage by a ‘guard of honour’ of the PROGRESS roster signalling the end (just about) of a storied career that helped keep the flame of British wrestling burning during some truly darker times.
No Disqualification Grudge Match
Jimmy Havoc vs Paul Robinson
When I posted my blog about Super Strong Style 16 back in May all signs pointed to Jimmy Havoc clashing with longtime rival Will Ospreay once Wembley rolled round but for a couple of reasons, mostly Ospreay’s contracted dates with New Japan Pro Wrestling, that plan changed and the two all but destroyed each their in a 40 minute war at the end of August at the Electric Ballroom.
So, we came to this which was set up in that match and looked set to be, while not actually billed as such, a deathmatch of the most brutal order… and it didn’t disappoint.
With Havoc head to toe in white, including white body paint he made a statement before the bell rang, dropping his trademark axe in the middle of the ring and the two were off from there.
Robinson had the upper hand for the most part with a staple gun, drawing pins and a barbed wire wrapped baseball bat helping him along.
Havoc got his moves in though driving Robinson though a wooden door and I’m not sure how but causing the Essex fighter to bleed from the face like I’ve rarely seen.
It looked like the end would come as Robinson stomped Havoc’s head into drawing pins but ‘The King Of The Goths’ survived to deliver a curb stomp of his own to Robinson though four bound together fluorescent light tubes to get the win and it seems suitable revenge.
Along with the in-ring brutality this was one of the only matches where it was clear where the audience’s allegiance lay. With Havoc having become the promotions anti-hero, Robinson was barraged with abuse throughout and played up to it brilliantly, particularly with his final gesture before leaving.
This closed the first half of the show on a vicious high that really was a landmark moment previously unseen in a venue of this size on these shores to my knowledge.
At this point Jim announced the attendance as well as the dates and venue for next year’s Super Strong Style 16 events, once again returning to Alexandra Palace.
During this he was interrupted by former World Champion Travis Banks, currently out with an injury, who continued his previous arrogant heel ways and announced himself as the first entrant for Super Strong Style
PROGRESS Tag Team Championship
Flamita & Bandido (c) vs Sexy Starr vs Mills & Mayhew vs Aussie Open vs Anti-Fun Police vs Grizzled Young Veterans vs Calamari Thatch Kings vs The 198
With the build to this having taken the form of a summer long league things looked pretty different from where they started with the team of Mark Haskins & Flash Morgan Webster forcibly replaced by Webster and ‘Wild Boar’ Mike Hitchman (The 198) part way through, CCK morphing (through various forms) into Chris Brookes and Timothy Thatcher (aka The Calamari Thatch Kings) due to an injury to Kid Lykos and champions Flamita & Bandido not even being part of things until they won the titles during the Coast To Coast US tour.
The match began with some fun stuff between the champions and Sexy Starr (Jack Sexsmith & David Starr) before getting all the more chaotic as more teams entered – the concept of the match is a bit like a Royal Rumble with new entrants ever two minutes.
The main chunk of the match saw everyone getting their notable spots, or variations on them, from Los Federales Santos Jr’s ‘no fun guns’ to CTK’s duelling submissions, Mark Davis’ tremendous pull-up piledriver (aka ‘Close Your Eyes And Count To Fuck’) and a series of high-flying moves to the outside of the ring from pretty much everyone topped off by a huge and fairly terrifying looking flipping fallaway slam from Bandido to Chief Deputy Dunne onto everyone else.
The end of the match saw Aussie Open squaring off against former champions Grizzled Young Veterans and hitting their ‘Fidget Spinner’ double spinning powerbomb to get the win and their first championship since relocating to the UK, though it seemed Mark Davis may have picked up an arm injury at some point.
The match itself was fairly hard to follow with all the moving parts but not as much of a challenge as I thought it might be and had enough well put together moments to keep it moving and entertaining and Aussie Open winning was the perfect feel good ending for the series.
‘Brusierweight’ Pete Dunne vs ‘The Czar’, UNBESIEGBAR, Ilja Dragunov w/ Christian Michael Jakobi
Billed as clash between the two biggest forces in European wrestling the match began with wXw’s Jakobi once again delivering a promo to hype his man, former wXw champion, Dragunov.
While not hugely familiar with the Russian/German fighter what I had seen had impressed me (including his appearance at wXw London earlier in the year) and the build to this match, for me, worked very well though I can understand the frustration of those who’d previously had no experience of the man dubbed ‘The Czar’ for this evening.
With an intense rivalry having built things were hard-hitting from the off showcasing the strong style approach of both men, with Jakobi acting something like a European Paul Heyman on the outside.
Highlights of the match came when the two were trading holds and strikes, at one point sitting mid-ring, face-to-face, slapping the living daylights out of one another.
As the match neared its climax Dragunov first failed to connect with his ‘Torpedo Moscow’ charging headbutt before Dunne hit the ‘Bitter End’ only to garner a two count.
Dragunov then hit his signature move only for Dunne to survive before himself kicking out following Dunne’s ‘Better End’ pumphandle Tombstone.
The end came then when the Bruiserweight locked in a modified triangle style armbar which, with added joint manipulation of the fingers, forced the submission from Dragunov.
After the match the two shared a wary handshake with Dunne laying his WWE U.K. Championship between them so I’m hoping this won’t be the end we see of this rivalry.
Tables, Ladders And Chair Match for a PROGRESS World Championship opportunity
‘White Lightning’ Mark Andrews vs ‘The Pride Of Wales’ Eddie Dennis
Up until a year ago Andrews and Dennis had spent the entire run of PROGRESS, since 2012, as partners in the tag team FSU, but at Alexandra Palace things changed when a bitter and jealous (depending on your point of view) Dennis attacked Andrews from behind following their match.
Since then, even through a severe shoulder injury, ‘The Pride Of Wales’ has continued to jab at his former partner with things reaching a flare point on PROGRESS’ return to Ally Pally starting the road to Wembley.
With the stakes raised by a world championship match being on the line and Dennis choosing the stipulation of a TLC match this was always going to be more a fight than a wrestling match and on that level it didn’t disappoint with the two delivering some terrifying moments from power bombs into tables to a Jeff Hardy like senton bomb from the top of a ladder.
The most spectacular, and painful, looking moments came when Andrews took a fall from the top of one ladder into another and a final ‘Neck Stop Driver’ from the top of a ladder through a table allowing Dennis to get the win and, seemingly, in his mind, some measure of revenge.
While the action and the work of both men was incredible the match as a whole was hampered somewhat by the tables.
Part of the conventions of a tables match is the tables breaking on impact but the ones being used here seemed determined not to, in a sense this actually makes the moves look (and I’d imagine feel) even more painful, but the crowd response was more to laugh, eventually even chanting for the tables.
Unfortunately this took me, and many others, out of the match and, while I’ll admit to joining in some of the chants, was, in hindsight, disrespectful to both men in the ring meaning what should have been a classic, intense and brutal content lost a fair amount of its edge, no fault of the men in the ring.
That said I look forward to seeing Eddie Dennis elevated to challenge for the world championship somewhere down the line as he has grown into a great heel over recent months.
PROGRESS World Championship
‘Der Ring General’ WALTER (c) w/ Timothy Thatcher vs ‘Big Strong Boi’ Tyler Bate w/ Pete Dunne & Trent Seven
Originally billed to be the champion being challenged by Super Strong Style 16 winner Zack Sabre Jr this was the second match effected by New Japan contracts so, after WALTER defeated Travis Banks for the belt back at Mid Week Matters a new challenger was decided with a series of matches dubbed 3-and-In over the summer that saw British Strong Style member, former WWE U.K. Champion and ‘Big Strong Boi’, Tyler Bate, earn the chance.
Playing off the size difference between the two men, the comparison to Andre The Giant vs Hulk Hogan was played up nicely, with Tyler in gold and WALTER in black but, thankfully, the match was far more dynamic.
The early part of the match saw ‘Der Ring General’ getting the upper hand due to his size with Bate’s attempts at offence being cut off, but as it went on Tyler began to change the tide.
Of course we were treated to a number of WALTER’s terrifying chops and some amazing feats of strength from Tyler including a pair of ‘airplane spins’, and a number of suplexes.
As the match went on it looked like Bate had things going his way as he hit a string of power moves on the big Austrian culminating in his ‘Tyler Driver 97’, but WALTER survived.
The champion meanwhile focussed on applying his sleeper hold and, eventually, Bate succumbed after a piledriver to round off a genuinely classic championship match that left both men exhausted but looking the best they possibly could and closing an already very good show on a real high point that had the genuine emotional connection with the audience that the best pro-wrestling should have.
While there was some frustration following the event, understandably, at it running nearly an hour longer than billed, for me it matched the heights of this year’s Super Strong Style 16 weekend with a range of action providing something for everyone and feeling something like PROGRESS’ answer to Wrestlemania as some feuds reached their conclusion while other stories were kick started.
It may not have become the biggest show in the U.K. as was maybe hoped but there’s no denying that independent, British, wrestling being back at Wembley was a historical landmark moment backed up by the action presented in the ring.
What happens next remains to be seen, there has been talk of Wembley again or something a little more modest or located elsewhere in the country or the world.
There’s no doubt though that PROGRESS have staked their claim as one of the most important independent promotions in the world and shone a light on the wider British and European wrestling scenes in the process, proving once and for all that British wrestling has moved far beyond those dark days of the late 90s and early 2000s to become something truly special and unique, with its own identity just as strong as wrestling has in Japan or America.