by Ben Corrigan
A passer-by or tourist could easily be excused if they are a little perplexed by the sight of 700 people queuing down Camden high street in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. Judging by their baffled expressions, ‘perplexed’ is probably putting it mildly. They stop, stare, look the queuers up-and-down, try to read posters, take photographs and then finally resort to asking questions in their desperate desire to find out what the hell is going on. In all truth, when they get the answer of “the wrestling” it likely confuses them even more. Wrestling? Creating this much of a buzz? Really? Yes, really. To buy into the tag-line, This Is PROGRESS…
PROGRESS is very much the hot ticket in London-based bone-bending, with 19 sell-out attendances from 19 ‘main’ shows and more on their ‘ENDVR’ trainee events. Starting in Islington, consistent sell-outs over the first two years of the promotion’s operation led them to move to the more spacious surroundings of the Electric Ballroom in Camden Town, with the string of capacity crowds continuing. These days the 700 tickets will typically disappear in around half-an-hour of being put on sale, such is the attraction of the product and the demand to be involved. It is a brand that is cool, with a ‘must see’ factor that people feel they have to be a part of. As well as the typical wrestling fans for whom it is a ‘can’t miss’ on their calendar, I also get the impression from crowd reactions and such that PROGRESS also attracts punters that would otherwise have little or no interest in the genre, but come along to this particular show because PROGRESS has become a very hip form of niche entertainment.
To get an idea of the connection people have with the brand you have to look no further than the portion of the audience wearing PROGRESS merchandise. A conservative estimate would be at least 85-90% of attendees wearing some form of branded attire. Shirts, hoodies, hats, wristbands, even HIPSTER VESTS. New merchandise and shirt designs fly off the gimmick tables as soon as they are unveiled – the loyalty, passion and enthusiasm folk have for all things PROGRESS really is something special. Whether you’re a seasoned wrestling show attendee or a complete newbie, it’s easy to get swept up in the raucous atmosphere and enthusiastic enjoyment of the whole thing.
Last Sunday’s ‘Chapter 18 – (The Show We Can’t Call) ProgresstleMania’ was the ninth ‘main’ PROGRESS show I have attended live, but due to competing wrestling events was also my first since September. Queuing outside for more than 2 hours, then facing another 2-hour wait between doors opening and the show actually starting can be a bit of a drag, but I have to say one thing that you really get a sense of here is the atmosphere and excitement building and building as the room fills, the music playlist kicks in and it draws closer to show time. This palpable collective anticipation all builds to the perfect peak when the last few recognisable tunes play, the lights come up and Jim Smallman, a stand-up comic by trade and one of 3 PROGRESS co-owners, enters the ring to welcome everyone in his own laidback, inimitable style. I’ve seen at least one other UK promotion start trying to lift Smallman’s style of show intro recently and it’s fair to say they don’t do it anywhere near as good. Here, the whole ‘countdown’ is great, and has everyone buzzing and ready to rumble on cue come bell-time.
This show, which also served as their Third Anniversary event, started with a bloke coming down to the ring in a giant pink dog costume, who Smallman told us was the ‘Download Dog’. I kid you not. Speaking through Jim, the Download Dog confirmed PROGRESS would be running matches on all 5 nights of this year’s ‘Download’ rock music festival, which is a pretty big deal. Apparently some 90,000 people attend ‘Download’ each year, so even if the majority take a look and say “Fuck that” to the silly gay little wrestling bollocks, there is still massive potential for thousands to stop by for a while, get caught up in what they see and become future PROGRESS customers. They did similar at the ‘Sonsiphere’ festival last year, where they reportedly went down very well as the late-night entertainment. PROGRESS try to market themselves as ‘Punk Rock Pro Wrestling’, so you can see the cross-over demographic they are after. To a big reaction, ‘Download Dog’ added that evil PROGRESS Champion Jimmy Havoc was not going to be invited. This immediately brought Havoc and his Regression cronies Paul Robinson and ‘The Omega’ Isaac Zercher out, looking to deal out some woof justice. ‘Download Dog’ took a bit of a kicking before security was able to intervene and save PROGRESS from the biggest case of animal cruelty since Jake Roberts was last seen on these shores. Smallman ordered Havoc and Robinson to the back until their match later on, and had Zercher kicked out of building; the significance of this being that he wouldn’t be around to provide his usual interference in the main event later.
After a brief paws to restore order, the opening encounter was ‘Liverpool’s Number One’ Zack Gibson beat Big Damo O’Connor. This was everything you would want from an opener and, in Damo’s case, everything you could want from a debut. Except the win, of course. I first came across Damian O’Connor years back in 3CW and Triple-X Wrestling when he was in ‘BMW – Britain’s Most Wanted’ with Scott Renwick. I do sometimes wonder if Renwick ever got his arm tattoo finished. The long-term ‘work in progress’ (no pun intended, believe it or not) status of that tat was a source of amusement for wrestling fans for years. They were certainly a good tag team act in those days, but I never thought they would have much to offer as individuals. After a few years, I then saw the current version of O’Connor in Triple-X and TIDAL, and it’s fair to say he’s a BEAST. The ‘Beast of Belfast’, no less. I knew he would go down great with the PROGRESS audience, and that’s precisely what happened, making a fantastic first impression. I’ve been fortunate to have been able to follow Zack Gibson’s career nearly the entire way, and I’m thrilled he’s getting so much recognition and reaction in PROGRESS as such a despicable twat. A supremely talented individual, there’s no limit to what he can achieve. This was a fast, super-intense, hard-hitting fight, with the Northern Irishman not shy in giving away that his strategy here was simply to kick plentiful amounts of arse. Quick-witted audience members were keen to point out that Big Damo had “a hairy chest on his chest”, “a hairy back on his back”, “a hairy beard on his beard” and “hairy legs on his legs”. After coming off second best in terms of power and strength, devious Gibson tried to use a FORK on his opponent. The referee spotted it and stopped him, but while he was disposing of the implement the scouser used a second fork to Damo’s head for the win. That’s how you start a show (***1/4).
Both of the next matches featured rookies against more experienced opposition. One of the themes of PROGRESS shows is how they gradually introduce new names from their own ‘ProJo’ training system onto the main shows and integrate them with the established stars. With many of the hardcore PROGRESS fans already loyally attending the additional regular ‘ENDVR’ trainee shows, the guys that get called-up usually already have at least some recognition with a portion of the audience. What I do really like, though, is how the entire PROGRESS audience will always give these rookies huge, enthusiastic support and encouragement when they make their big show debuts. It’s fair to say that some of the guys aren’t very good, but the fans will give them every chance, play along and are not the type that will turn on a match, disrespect them or start heckling. What also helps is that the new dudes are given more outlandish, over-the-top colourful cartoon gimmicks than many of the core roster, instantly giving them a recognisable identity and something for people to react to. For example, Pastor William Eaver (geddit?) is a Jesus-looking bible-basher, Chuck Mambo is a party-loving surfer dude and Ali Armstrong is one of those “Can believe how outrageously WACKY I am?” characters. It’s the same tactic I’ve seen used with trainees in FutureShock and GPW and instantly makes the rookies more interesting than just sending them out as generic ‘New Guy’.
First, Sha Samuels issued an open challenge to any ProJo guy, since his announced opponent Armstrong was not fit. This was answered by the debuting Kyle Ashmore, a muscular-looking guy with a bald head, big bushy beard and Muay Thai shorts. This was pretty rough, but, as mentioned, this is a crowd that is patient in letting people have their opportunity. Character-wise Sha is doing some of the best work of his career at the moment, and the calls of “OOOOO AAAAAHH, FAT CANTONA” that started in PCW now accompany him around the entire country. The ‘East End Butcher’ won with a dodgy-looking piledriver. Following this was ProJo duo of Mambo & Eaver (“Sweet Jesus”) taking on Dutch destroyers the Sumerian Death Squad. Tommy End is well-known to PROGRESS fans for his solo efforts over the last 2 years, but this was a first appearance for his regular WXW partner Michael Dante and therefore a PROGRESS debut as a tandem. Mambo was the weakest link in this contest, but in all fairness this was set out to be nothing short of a MAULING. The Netherlands pair won with a series of moves I can only describe as DOUBLE TEAM DEATH. As a result, Sumerian Death Squad are now top contenders to the PROGRESS Tag Team Championship. I am all in favour of the Death Squad coming in to give a well-needed shot in the arm to this promotion’s tag division. Tommy, too, has looked pretty special in his performances here to date, so hopefully this re-debut provides the focus and direction that his sporadic PROGRESS run has so far been missing.
Topping the first half of the show was the No-DQ grudge match between former ‘Screw Indy Wrestling’ teammates Rampage Brown and Mark Haskins. From the moment they locked eyes on each other to the moment Rampage had his hand raised in victory this was ONE HELL OF A FIGHT. For virtually his entire career, Rampage was always presented as a bad guy. Over the last year or so, however, I’ve had my eyes opened to his potential as a top-line hero in various places, not least right here in PROGRESS where fans were desperate to cheer him. These days I’m thoroughly of the opinion he’s the best babyface a**e-kicker in the entire country. As soon as his RA-RA-RA shouty-shouty music hits, people are 100% into his direct, no-nonsense, smash-mouth style and, to his credit, he feeds off them tremendously and whips them up into a storm. Haskins too has been a superior performer for years, and they went ahead and had a terrific brawl, the intensity of which didn’t let up for a second. They were throwing each other into chairs on the floor, smashing up a REALLY thick wooden table (that still had the supports on the side and didn’t look for a moment like it would break… how wrong I was…) and just throwing everything they had at each other. Haskins pulled out a wire coathanger and used it to fishhook Rampers, then literally rubbed SALT into the fresh wound. Despite this, the madness came to an end when Brown’s win came by way of piledriver onto a chair. Fantastic (***1/2).
The promised big announcement coming back from the interval was the reveal of ‘DEMAND PROGRESS’, a £4.99-a-month service offering streaming access to every main and ENDVR show in PROGRESS history, including quick availability to new shows which are intended to be turned-around within a week of taking place. There is also an option to download individual shows for keeps for about £8 each. I’m a fan of this approach. It’s very much the way that access to media is moving at the moment, with subscription services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Now TV, WWE Network, UFC Fight Pass, NJPW World, MLB Network, Matchroom Fight Pass and others offering access to an entire library of on-demand content for a flat monthly fee rather than purchase of individual titles. In this country, Insane Championship Wrestling has already launched their own On Demand service and, with strong branding, active social media presence and a fiercely loyal fanbase made up of young adults (typically already used to accessing content through such methods) PROGRESS is tailor-made to follow suit. Whether PROGRESS will be able to provide enough new content to make a recurring subscription worthwhile will have to wait to be seen (they tend to run about one show a month, alternating a main ‘Chapter’ and an ENDVR), but for those that aren’t able to attend to see the shows live it is a complete no-brainer. At the time of writing it is already up and running, though this show hasn’t landed yet.
Up next, The Faceless beat Eddie Dennis & Wild Boar to retain tag title. There wasn’t much to get excited about with this match. The Faceless started as a really cool angle, with mysterious posters and masks placed around the venue for fans to discover, online ‘hacks’ of the PROGRESS website, threatening Twitter exchanges and technical interruptions during the course of the shows. Now, after they have finally arrived and even won the PROGRESS Tag Team Championship last time out, they have just become Generic Wrestling Villains Nos. 57, 58 and 59 (and no, before you start, that does not make them distant relatives of Los Villanos III, IV and V…). The initial menace and legitimate ‘threat’ that they seemed to promise has evaporated and they are now just like any other ‘heel’ on the shows, except with a lot less personality on display that would make them interesting. They perform in black full-body suits and identical masks, with any hint of individuality in their performance purposefully stripped away so as to conceal their identities. With that said, now having my first chance to see them actually in front of me, I’m 98% certain I’ve got one of them sussed, 75% on another and… zero clues on the third. There was nothing outwardly bad about the bout, it was just very flat and not very interesting.
The same could definitely not be said about the next match, however, where ‘Natural Progression Series’ tournament winner Flash Morgan Webster took on debuting Manchester deviant Bubblegum. Since the death of SAS Wrestling and his own brief hiatus from the ring a few years back, Bubblegum hasn’t featured for the new crop of south-east wrestling organisations that have sprung up, so many here were seeing him for the first time. Reputation does proceed him, though, so people were already singing the PCW fans’ amended “Rent Boy” version of his Dizzee Rascal theme music as soon as it played. With his heat-seeking Man City shirt, raspberry blowing, V-flipping, stalling and ball-scratching, Bubblegum really does excel at being a thoroughly detestable little shit. That character usually comes off best against big bruisers like Dave Mastiff rather than the diminutive likes of Morgan Webster, but the pairing worked really well here and this was a splendid encounter. Ironically, it is through his own convincing performances in a similar annoying prick role elsewhere that I am most familiar with Webster, but through his last few appearances in PROGRESS I’ve come to appreciate him equally as the exciting high-flying good guy. Well… almost equally (and as the man himself said to me on the way out after the show, “I’ll get you to cheer me one day!”). He’s a talented lad. So, after the characters were well and truly established and the fans were very much into the notion of winding ‘Gum up, they gradually picked up the pace, working towards bigger moves and fast, exciting exchanges. After several minutes of advanced action, it was Morgan that secured the victory with a 450 splash. I thought this was fabulous (***1/2) and, while I get to see plenty of Bubblegum elsewhere around the country, I’d love to see him back in this environment as there’s a boat-load of possible things they can do with him.
Even better than that match was our main event, in which evil PROGRESS Champion Jimmy Havoc defended his belt in a 6-way elimination match against 4 men who had reason to feel cheated by him (Dave Mastiff, Will Ospreay, Marty Scurll and Noam Dar) as well as a wildcard in his own Regression underling Paul Robinson. The idea is that Jimmy is staunchly anti-PROGRESS and at war with management, PROGRESS keep trying to stack the deck against him, punish him and get the belt off him, but somehow he always finds some foul means of defying the odds and sneaking a way through. This was his toughest challenge yet, facing a gaggle of angry former opponents as well as testing the personal ambition of his stablemate Robinson. If there’s one single thing that PROGRESS excels at, it’s these emotionally-charged, high-stakes, story-driven matches that are backed-up with tremendously exciting action and a rabid audience going bonkers for what they see. The promotion has done such a good job of getting the core fan base bought into the storyline and characters that they can add so much depth to everything they do. There was so much happening during the match, but they were able to present it in that way because they have confidence in the crowd knowing and picking-up on every little twist and detail. This was an audience that knew all 6 characters inside out’, knew what they were all about, knew their motivations and knew their history, making it so they were able to pick up on every little glance, expression and detail these guys threw at them. At any one time, everyone watching knew what the characters were thinking, why they were thinking it and what it all meant, as well as understanding the ramifications of what was going on. If that all sounds difficult and inaccessible to newcomers, then it isn’t. True, you get the most out of these PROGRESS main events if you know the background, but the rapid, fast-paced action and infectious enthusiasm, energy and atmosphere are enough to sweep up anyone and carry them along. True to form, this was an AWESOME match.
Mastiff looked dominant, but the Regression numbers caused him to miss a Bastard Bomb in the corner and allowed Noam Dar to eliminate him with a bicycle kick. Dar himself was next out, though, when an angered Mastiff came back to attack him in retribution, giving the sneaky Havoc an easy pinfall. BOOOOO. It then looked as though it was going to be a bit of a tag match, with Ospreay and Scurll teaming up against Regression. When Havoc and Robinson ended up on the floor, Will and Marty then turned their attention to each other, leading to Ospreay pinning Scurll to get him outta there. This of course left Ospreay against the two dark teammates, with the crowd PASSIONATELY behind him, believing that he could do it. There is no way that Ospreay is not going to be a massive worldwide star. He has incredible charisma and likeability, with his facial expressions completely drawing you in to what he’s doing. I don’t know if he has a gymnastics background, but he has a grace and a poise in his movement and execution that is almost flawless. For a high-flyer, he isn’t a short bloke and has the type of frame which could easily pack on mass if wanted.
A key point in the match came when Ospreay was outside the ring and Robinson spotted his leader Jimmy down and out in the middle of the ring. You could see him considering his options as the audience begged him “DO IT!!” and “PIN HIM!”. After going back-and-forth with himself, he decided HE WAS GOING TO PIN HAVOC, only for Jimmy to immediately kick out. The entire room let out a collective “UH OHHH!”, knowing what this meant. “You Fucked Up! You Fucked Up!” The look on Robinson’s face was superb, as he realised he’d been caught with his fingers in the till. Havoc got up in his face, wanting to know what the fuck he was playing at, but before anything could happen between the pair, Ospreay came back to hit a flipping-DDT (that Twitter reliable informs me is called the ‘Essex Driver’) to eliminate Robinson. This left Havoc vs. Ospreay, a rematch of the last show’s main event and the biggest villain against the PROGRESS crowd’s favourite. The entire room were just about on their feet for everything they did, desperately willing, erm, Will onto victory. Havoc fell into the perfect spot for Ospreay to hit his 630 senton, but Will hesitated, anxiously wrestling with himself whether to go for it or not. You see, he landed badly on the move about 6 months ago on a non-PROGRESS small hall show, and PROGRESS and Will have played it into the story really well. The fans absolutely KNEW if he would hit the move it would be the moment he would finally topple the evil champ, offering frantic, desperate encouragement, but Ospreay couldn’t bring himself to do it. This gave Havoc the opportunity he needed to hit the Acid-Rainmaker for the super-deflating title-retaining 3-count. Fans stood all around, worn out from the breathless drama and action they had just seen. That was SUPERB (****1/2), easily my favourite UK match of 2015 so far, and if anything beats it we will have been treated to something special…
… BUT WAIT!! Just as Havoc was getting over that, Flash Morgan Webster re-emerged with his Natural Progression Series trophy, so the PROGRESS Universe immediately sprung from crushing disappointment into excitement again, believing him to be ‘cashing-in’ his guaranteed title shot. No, Morgan explained, that would have to wait. He was here instead to reveal PROGRESS’ new ‘insurance policy’ against Regression’s underhand tactics and numbers advantage, at which point THE LONDON RIOTS hit the ring and everyone lost their shit. The Riots, comprising James Davis and Rob Lynch were Havoc’s henchmen in Regression and former long-time PROGRESS antagonists, until Havoc chose to sacrifice their jobs to save his title last September in an epic Titles vs. Careers, Progress vs. Regression 8-man tag. So they’ve been gone, and obviously have beef with Jimmy. The Riots lit into Havoc and Robinson to a frankly huge babyface reaction. JD especially had this massive shit-eating grin on his face like he was loving every second of it. Jim Smallman closed the show by introducing the Riots as his “new best friends” and announced Riots vs. Regression as the main event tag for ‘Night One’ of the ‘Chapter 19’ weekender in May. I adore the way that when the bad guy always wins at PROGRESS, they always have the next good guy there ready to fight them next time out, leaving you convinced that their time is up, their time is now, and they will finally fall.
Well then. After a quick post-show pint in noted Camden booze-hole ‘The World’s End’, I spent the long train journey back north reflecting on what I had just seen. The ‘weaker’ matches were below the usual average you get from a PROGRESS show but, on the other hand, the Gibson vs. Damo, Rampage vs. Haskins and Webster vs. Bubblegum matches were all great, and the 6-man main event was Match-of-the-Year calibre. For those reasons, this was a more-than worthwhile show and would thoroughly recommend that people check it out (on DEMAND PROGRESS, no less. Four-ninety-nine).
Aside from an ENDVR show in April the next show, as mentioned, is ‘Chapter Nineteen’ on May Bank Holiday weekend, which also serves as PROGRESS’ first 2-dayer. As well as the tag match, the focus is a 16-man, 2-day tournament to determine a new top contender to the PROGRESS title. At the time of writing a handful of standing-room tickets are still available, but they won’t be for much longer – as I opened by saying, this is the hot ticket right now. This Is PROGRESS and, for the time being at least, people just can’t get enough of it.