LIVE! PROGRESS, Chapter 17, Harder Better Faster Stronger (London, 25/01/15)

Promoter Jim Smallman paces around the outside of the ring, his speed quickening as bell-time nears. It may be nerves or it may be to focus his mind, but it’s surely not because he’s at all concerned at how tonight’s show will turn out. That’s because, with the huge strides that they’ve made with every show they’ve run over the last three years, Progress Wrestling is the most aptly-named promotion since Two Men Grappling In A Ring Championship Wrestling, which I just made up.

Smallman’s day job is as stand-up comedian, and he brings the skills that pay the bills into this arena as host and ring announcer. His fellow co-promoters – musical theatre actor Glen Joseph and events promoter Jon Briley – busy themselves with other tasks that need to be done to ensure the show runs without a hitch.

Progress was formed in March 2012, out of a wish to bring the Japanese strong-style wrestling to London, and a desire to run wrestling cards as if they were punk rock shows. They settled on The Garage, in Highbury Corner, as their first home, where they ran for two years before upscaling to Camden’s Electric Ballroom, which sold out for their next show in under thirty minutes.

In such a short period of time, Progress has become the place, to both work and watch, and while other promotions sell more tickets in larger venues, or run more shows, few can depend on the loyal and rabid army of support that this small company attracts. The talent they employ is the best of British, and you can count the amount of US imports they’ve flown over – a staple for the larger companies – on one hand. This is a company built on very British foundations.

Smallman introduces this – and every – show as if he is talking to friends, with a comfortable patter developed on the comedy circuit. He points out regulars and welcomes newcomers – the number of the latter, he says, is shrinking with every show. Repeat business is their business. He says there is just one rule when you attend a Progress show – “Don’t Be A Dick” – which is steadfastly adhered to by all but the most determined, who express their dickishness by chanting nonsense in a poor attempt to make friends and influence people. That’s not to say all chants are unfunny or out of place – most hit the spot and are the right side of respectful and smart – but when the wrestlers in the ring are trying to tell a serious story, a moron can too easily take you out of that world. Largely, though, this is a strange mixture of a rock show and football crowd, which works surprisingly well.

The in-ring action, a mixture of hard-hitting exhibition bouts and involved storyline matches, skips along, and the near four-hour show passes in no time at all. The first match, a farewell match for one half of the tag-team champions (and with a split shield rather than two belts marking out the champs, it really is one half), Mark Andrews. Andrews is off to the bright lights, big city of Impact Wrestling in the US, and he’s facing his tag-team partner in FSU, Eddie Dennis, tonight, with the winner earning the rights to the titles.

Before they can fight, they are attacked by The Faceless, an Anonymous gang terrorising Progress of late, and an impromptu match sees the masked men carry off the titles, to the annoyance of Smallman and the fans, playing along with the delicately-crafted plot.

The next three bouts are non-storyline, which allows the wrestlers competing to let fly with their best working shoes on. The results are mixed but very much on the positive side, none more so than a FOUR-MINUTE match between Dave “The Bastard” Mastiff and Amsterdammer Tommy End that receives a standing ovation for both men.

Action from a previous Progress show at the Electric Ballroom
Action from a previous Progress show at the Electric Ballroom

The last match before the interval sees Noam Dar, who is chasing after Progress champion Jimmy Havoc, have to face Havoc’s “bitch”, Paul Robinson, first. Robinson, small and rattine and perfect for his role, would finish the match with a bloody and broken nose courtesy of a chop from Dar, submitting to hand the Scotsman the victory.

During the break, fans mill around and talk about what they’d seen. The excitement on their faces is infectious, and they’d looked much the same before the show started, with most of them in the building a full two hours before bell-time. Progress seems as much a social occasion as a wrestling card, a far cry from the shuffling gathering of lonely misfits that has so often categorised professional wrestling shows in the mind of the general public. Don’t get me wrong, many of these people are misfits, but they’ve found somewhere to belong.

When Smallman resumes the show – by inviting the fans to name their next-but-one show, a two-dayer in May – the fans are finally treated to that match from Andrews and Dennis, who put aside their friendship for ten minutes to batter the hell out of each other for the fans’ pleasure. As is customary when leaving the territory, Andrews loses but his friend takes the mic’ to eulogise him, and the fans give him a send-off I’m sure he’ll always remember.

The semi-main event is the final of the Natural Progression series, a tournament established in 2013 to bring new talent through to the top of the card. This year’s final is between Zack Gibson and “Flash” Morgan Webster, who wears a natty pair of pinstripe wrestling tights to emphasise his Mod credentials, and Webster carries off the trophy, which brings with it a shot at the Progress title.

Webster decides to cash-in his title shot immediately but before this can take place he is attacked by Progress champion Jimmy Havoc and his henchman, “The Omega” Isaac Zercher. Zercher brutalises Webster, and Havoc threatens to kill him, which brings out Havoc’s main event opponent for tonight, Will Ospreay. I’d earlier watched a video on YouTube, where Havoc told Ospreay that there was nothing he would not do to himself or Ospreay to keep the title, and illustrated it by stabbing a struggling, restrained man with a kitchen knife.

Despite this, Ospreay launches into an attack but is cut off by Zercher, before Smallman orders the henchman to the back under threat of stripping Havoc of the title. Havoc and Ospreay then fight – and it is a fight – with Havoc finally brutalising his opponent badly enough to earn the pinfall victory. Along the way, Havoc has bitten into Ospreay’s ear and throat, and both men have been dropped on their heads in an alarming array of sleep-disturbing manners.

Havoc’s victory is not a popular one with the fans, or with Smallman, who wonders just how they can get the title off the maniac…

At this stage in their evolution, Progress do not need positive press, although I’m sure they won’t not mind it too much. Their shows sell out in double-quick time, and even their smaller ENDVR shows, which are used to showcase new talent, predominantly from their ProJo training school in Camberwell, are beginning to become sold out affairs.

I can’t pretend that everything I saw was flawless – there were certainly a few botched or over-ambitious moves peppered throughout the card – but it would be hard to give anything but a positive review to what I saw, even if I could have done without some of the self-proclaimed comedians stood behind me. Everything about the show was professional and compelling. I’ll be back, I’m sure of it.

Tickets for their next show go on sale on March 2nd, and if you want in on this you’ll have to be quick off the mark. Get front row or Gold tickets if you want a good view of the action, or else buy standing tickets and arrive early to queue – they really pack them in at the Ballroom. Details can be found at progresswrestling.com.

Next month I’ll leave provincial suburbia to head down to London once again, this time to sample the delights of Lucha Britannia and their star, Freddie Mercurio…