by Ben Corrigan

Yes, another two months had gone by, and another 700 people were queuing down Camden High Street in London for two hours on a Sunday afternoon, preparing themselves for another afternoon of the carnage, excitement, beer, and lost voices that go hand-in-hand with a PROGRESS Wrestling event. Chapter Nineteen, however, was by far Team PROGRESS’ most ambitious offering to date, including the entire 16-man, 4-round SPLX Super Strong Style 16 single-elimination tournament, grudge matches, tag matches, and more, spread over 2 exhausting days.

If, by the way, you’re wondering what the hell a ‘SPLX’ is, well, it’s the stylised brand name of the ‘Suplex’ pro-wrestling-themed clothing and merchandise line, who sponsored the event and had a gimmick stall at the show. The link also saw “Suplex Joel” (Joel Allen) joining Chris Roberts and Paz as referees. Roberts and Allen are easily the best we have in the UK in that job at the moment, with a natural ability to add something to a match with their expressions, reactions and comments without putting the attention on themselves.

The show got underway with Kris Travis popping out to say a quick “Hi”, following the recent successful completion of his chemotherapy after his battle with stomach cancer. Giving an update and thanking everyone for their support, he even went as far as saying that he might be back in the ring before the end of the year…

The opening tournament tilt was “Aerial Assassin” Will Ospreay taking on the “Mexican Sensation” El Ligero. This was perfectly placed as an opener; full of action and big moves. It also featured the continuation of the storyline where Ospreay is hesitant to use the top rope, after a bad landing on a small south-east show towards the end of 2014. This has been a gripping part of PROGRESS storylines, where Ospreay’s fear of utilising his aerials, once considered his greatest strength, has actually been costing him important matches. Once again the crowd was yelling encouragement at him, but Ospreay couldn’t bring himself to make the leap. Fighting off Ligero’s attempt at the C4L, Ospreay instead hit the Essex Destroyer to advance to the quarter-finals.

Meeting him in the next round was Mark Haskins, who beat debutant “Gentleman” Jack Gallagher via tapout to the stretch muffler. This was another good match, typified by smooth physical wrestling exchanges and flawless execution. Gallagher went down great with this audience as an instant hit; his Wigan catch-wrestling style so unique that he stands out with a distinct and inimitable identity. I’ve been fortunate to have been able to follow Gallagher’s entire career fairly closely, from t-shirted punk rocker Jack Toxic all the way through to the confident, slick grappler we have today, and I think it’s terrific that he’s starting to appear on these “bigger” shows in his home country. Haskins is now pretty much a straight-up good guy, simply by virtue of the fact the crowd just started cheering him.

The next two first round contests had an international flavour, as big home-crowd favourite Rampage Brown beat Austrian Big Daddy Walter with a piledriver, and Florida’s Roderick Strong bested Dutchman Tommy End thanks to an Orange Crush Backbreaker (that some internet reviewers have dubbed “All The Landslides Birds Will Ever See”…). The former was a decent heavyweight scrap, though I was left unconvinced by Walter. I can see what he brings, and why you might choose him as a one-off for a big showcase event like this, but just feel there are others already in this country that bring that same thing but better.

As for Roddy Strong, much like his appearances in this country last year, the British audience was only too keen to tease and heckle him over his choice of footwear. “Shitty Little Boots” indeed. It’s yet another one of those deals that started elsewhere (PWG in California, I believe), but taken to another level by the uniquely British audiences in Preston City Wrestling, and now PROGRESS, with their songs and chanting. His match with End was actually just alright at first, but ended up being really, really good by the end.

With Strong retreating to the back to hide from the, ahem, sole-destroying insults, End was left in the ring to be jumped by two members of masked heel gang The Faceless. After stomping the Dutchman into the mat, the big reveal came as the pair unmasked as Danny Garnell and Damon Moser, soon to be joined by El Ligero carrying the third Faceless mask. BOOOO! El Culero, more like, though I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the regular PROGRESS punters had already worked out Ligero and Garnell (and by connection, Damon Moser). Further to this, a mystery FOURTH Faceless dude that looked just like Nathan Cruz turned up and unmasked… as Nathan Cruz. He talked for aaaaaages and lost the audience, but basically explained that he was the first PROGRESS Champion, Ligero had been the second PROGRESS Champion and Garnell was, erm, there on the early shows too but they had since all been cast aside and forgotten in favour of others. Cruz also ripped his suit arm from being So Fucking Hench. There was yet another twist here as part of this same angle as Cruz and Ligero then turned on Garnell, beat him up and kicked him out of the group. Welcome to TNA. Garnell, as Cruz explained, had just been a foot-soldier to help them get this far and was no longer required. Moser looked conflicted & confused, but then joined in with giving his mentor a kicking. Cruz wrapped by seemingly renaming The Faceless as The Origin, and he and Ligero claimed the PROGRESS Tag Team Championship that Ligero and Garnell had won 2 shows back. As I noted in my report from Chapter 18, after a great start the Faceless angle really had lost a lot of steam and simply wasn’t connecting – they rushed through a lot of stuff here but we’ll see if this gives it a kick of life or whether The Origin will end up being just another heel tag team…

After an interval to allow everything to settle, the second half started with Tommy End marching straight back out, saying he’s made a ‘phonecall and someone’s on their way for a tag title match tomorrow. Remember, End and his Sumerian Death Squad partner Michael Dante became the number one contenders to the Faceless’ tag championship with a one-sided drubbing of Pastor William Eaver and Chuck Mambo at the last Chapter, so this didn’t need any explanation for the audience to know what he was on about and start getting excited for the next day.

The tournament continued with Marty Scurll making Eddie Dennis tap-out to the chickenwing in a supremely entertaining effort. Scurll is effectively a fan favourite here, but one working a pro-wrestling villain gimmick. It sounds crap, but it really does work, as he gets to use all these heel spots as babyface comebacks in a really fun way. He’s really on top form at the moment, and can’t remember the last time I saw him anywhere in anything resembling a bad match. Dennis is always good value and was proudly displaying his new ring gear (though he’s either lost weight it bought the next size up – don’t worry Eddie, you’ll grow into it!).

Following this, Dave Mastiff met Noam Dar in the tourney, which also served as a grudge match after Mastiff’s angry attack on Dar during the superb Chapter 18 main event. A weird one this. Dar was knocked silly off one of The Bastard’s elbow strikes and bravely tried to fight on, but Mastiff gave him a merciless pounding until the referee stepped in for the stoppage. Then, two more nations were represented as Italian-American Tommaso Ciampa beat “Beast of Belfast” Big Damo O’Connor with what you could call a version of his Project Ciampa finisher out of the corner. I like both these guys and this wasn’t bad, but the pairing didn’t allow either man to do what they do best so fell below what you expect from them against other opponents.

The quarter-final line-up was completed in the Battle of the Zacks, as Zack Sabre Jr defeated Zack Gibson by submission. Gibson whipped the crowd up into a frenzy by trying to make Sabre Jr promise to “stay away from my broken fingers” as the delusional-Scouser-who-always-has-an-excuse has become the guy PROGRESS fans love to hate (and Liverpool losing 6-1 earlier in the afternoon on the last day of the season added more fuel to the fire). What is slightly amusing is that there is a group of Liverpool fans that are regulars at the shows who have started supporting their representative. Some of their pro-Liverpool football songs made for good fun; the ill-judged “Justice for the 96” (which was actually booed down) less so… Anyway, as you would expect this was a compelling mat battle and the pair worked for their holds and to sustain an advantage. Sabre Jr was working towards the armbar; Gibson the Shankly Gate. Sabre Jr finally did get his hold, with Gibson holding out for as long as he could but then Sabre Jr additionally grabbing the fingers to cause the tap-out.

While the tournament first round was done, there was still business to be taken care of before the curtain could come down on Day One as PROGRESS Champion Jimmy Havoc and his evil Regression understudy Paul Robinson took on their former stablemates the London Riots (James Davis & Rob Lynch) in a huge tag-team grudge main event. The Riots had lost their jobs last September when leader Havoc sacrificed them during a stipulation bout, but PROGRESS brought them back on the show just gone as the promotion’s new enforcers to a ground-shaking reaction. So, as well as doing a job for PROGRESS, this was also the Riots’ chance for revenge and was every bit the wild, crazy brawl you would expect. The rabid audience was lapping up everything, making for an edgy, white-hot atmosphere. Chairs were being destroyed, people were being wiped out and big shots were being laid in. Despite being in prime position to be landed on in the front row, I had miraculously somehow managed to avoid getting caught in the carnage… until the closing moments when Robinson was booted backwards into me, resulting in beer being spilt all over myself and everyone around me. The Riots managed to survive Havoc’s Acid-Rainmaker efforts, then managed to get the ultra-satisfying pinfall victory over the Champion with their pop-up spear to send everyone home happy. Well, I say home, but since this was a weekender most people went off in search of evening entertainment to keep them occupied ahead of doing it all again the next day…

 

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So, if Day One was a perfectly good show, Day Two was one of the best one-day wrestling shows I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing live. With the tournament brackets turning out the way they did after the Day One results, the smart money and pre-show discussion was now well and truly on an Will Ospreay-Zack Sabre Jr final, which is exactly what we ended up with. That’s no bad thing – just because something is predictable doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing if it makes the most sense and is the story people are bought into and actually want to see. No point doing shocks and unpredictability for the sake of it. To get to that point, though, there was tonnes of simply fantastic action. One of the best things about Day One was that it had purposefully set out to establish each competitor’s character, skills, key moves and trademark holds to the audience; recognition they then played on throughout their Day Two matches to really ramp-up the story-telling in the bouts themselves.

First, Ospreay beat Mark Haskins in a tremendous opener, repeating the fast-action and excitement from Ospreay’s curtain-raiser the previous day. The way Ospreay draws the audience into the bout with his facial expressions, puffing out his mouth-guard and making eye contact with ringside punters is an absolute masterclass of blue-eye pro wrestling. The match was well-paced and told a great story, with Ospreay’s reluctance to play to his strengths and take risks from the ropes again looking like it would cost him. So, when Haskins sat-in on his stretch-muffler finish and it looked like it was all over, Ospreay turned the hold into a sunset-flip-like cradle for the win.

In what you could deem an upset, Roderick Strong’s Shitty Little Boots overcame Rampage Brown when a Rampage piledriver attempt was reversed into a pinning combination. This was another really strong (no pun intended, this time at least) quarter final, Strong reacting to all the boots stuff and Rampage having loads of fun playing along with it. Someone in crowd even offered Strong his own shoes, in reply to which he snatched one of his trainers and lobbed it across the room. Despite all these antics, the action itself was very good indeed. Rampage is almost worshipped here and had been favoured to go far in the tournament, so the big deflated reaction when he was eliminated really did put a lot of heat on Strong.

The superior stuff kept coming as Marty Scurll beat Dave Mastiff in another good one, the finish coming when Noam Dar came out to confront The Bastard, and the distraction allowed Scurll to use his umbrella then lock-in the chickenwing for victory. Afterwards, Dar proclaimed that this made him and Mastiff even, and he doesn’t want them to drag this out over months. Mastiff did not agree with that assessment and made it clear it wasn’t over…

The last quarter-final was probably the best tournament match so far, as Zack Sabre Jr and Tommaso Ciampa had an awesome outing. After waging thrilling war with each other, Sabre Jr locked all of Tommaso’s limbs up for INESCAPABLE SUBMISSION DEATH to set-up a semi-final encounter with tag-team partner Scurll. Sabre Jr’s style and selling is so different to what anyone else in the UK (and probably beyond) is doing it makes him so, so interesting to watch. It makes you really get into the detail of what he’s doing and thus makes his matches so enthralling. It was fair to say by this point that Day Two was delivering big time.

Oh, but it didn’t stop there. Having feuded on the ENDVR trainee/secondary shows, Pollyanna took on Jinny in a non-tournament No-DQ match. This marked the first female match to feature on a main PROGRESS show after more than two years in operation, and I believe they were absolutely right to wait until they had both the right performers and the right storyline before bridging that gap. Indeed, by building up a feud they were able to present this as something a lot more intense, tangible and meaningful than if they’d have just been doing women’s exhibition bouts of lesser stature that might not have been up to the usual level the PROGRESS audience is used to. Instead, we had the perfect rivalry between the posing, arrogant and conceited Chelsea it-girl Jinny (and her personal assistant Elizabeth) and down-to-earth Pollyanna, who came out to a remix of the Game of Thrones theme dressed like a character from the Mortal Kombat video game. She has the whole fantasy/comic/cosplay culture thing going on, which makes her an easy crowd favourite to a pro-wrestling audience. So, they put together a heated, gripping and often violent streetfight, but not one that gave you violence at the expense of character and personality. They were given all the time they needed to tell their story and get their match over and it all just worked. It was Pollyanna that scored the win by blasting Jinny through a rock-hard-looking table with a powerbomb. This was a fine debut showing for the women and Pollyanna was visibly emotional at the reaction it got.

The SSSS16 semi-finals, where Will Ospreay defeated Roderick Strong’s Shitty Little Boots and Zack Sabre Jr downed Marty Scurll, were both superb in different ways, and both stood out as being completely different to anything else in the tournament. The former was an awesome, frantic, big-intensity, big-action corker that was kick-started into top gear when Strong jumped Ospreay at the start and the pace never let up from there. The first few minutes were just Strong beating the holy crap out of Ospreay and smacking him all around ringside, taking out fans and their chairs, sometimes at the same time. From there, it was Ospreay bravely fighting to get back into the fight, usually in spectacular fashion, though frustratingly still not able to bring himself to perform any of his dazzling top rope maneuvers. Ospreay’s reaction at scoring the unbelievable big win was just brilliant, and Strong and the PROGRESS audience did share a moment of acknowledgement on his way out after all the merciless teasing.

The other semi-, matching up LDRS partners, took things in the opposite direction, slowing things down, keeping things simple and working a wonderful bout. This was brilliantly British, blending action, technique, personality and a sense of humour. It was World of Sport for the new age, with all the holds, escapes, testing each other, funnies, and little comments seamlessly mixed with Sabre Jr’s faux-MMA strikes & submissions and Scurll’s own modern style. It turned into a battle of the armbar versus the chickenwing, which had brought each man to the match, ending with Sabre Jr winning that particular battle and coming out on top. In all the craziness and intensity the weekend brought, I loved this match so much. Promotions often book a women’s match, battle royal or interview between what they think will be hot bouts in order to bring the crowd down, but this was a perfect example of doing just that, providing a comedown from the breathless insanity, but still having absolutely everyone in the building one-hundred percent into what they were doing.

So, after that it was back to the madness as the Sumerian Death Squad (Tommy End & Michael Dante) took on The Origin (Nathan Cruz & El Culero) in an absolute batshit crazy fight. The bell rang to start the match, but then all 5 men (including Damon Moser) just went on this massive tear around the building in an uncontrollable scrap. They wiped out around 200 chairs, some beyond repair (RIP chairs), as innocent and not-so-innocent punters scrambled and dived to get out of the way. My own chair got destroyed, so people passed a spare replacement forward for me, only for that one to meet an untimely end just a few minutes later. They fought all through the crowd, some bits you could see, others you couldn’t (earning a chant of “Buy the DVD!”), then they ended up back in the ring where the bell rang again to restart the match. SDS are brilliant as the no-nonsense, hard-as-nails arse-kickers, and absolutely everyone immediately and legitimately buys them in that role. I’d seen Ligero try to play the bad guy before but had never really bought him, but this time it seems different. Instead of playing a dark, reclusive, shadowy figure of mystery, as in the past, he’s going all out getting in people’s faces – giving people the finger, making gestures and generally causing a storm. As for Cruz, I honestly used to think he was a bit crap, like he was just playing the role of what he thought a wrestler should be. He became fairly decent, but over the last year of live shows and TV matches I can honestly say I now consider him to be one of the very best we have, to the point I wouldn’t hesitate in putting him in the top ten in the country right now. He’s really, really good. If you need any convincing, check out his TV matches from the Davey Boy Smith Cup (from the British Wrestling Weekly show on the “Made In…” local TV stations) against Marty Scurll, Zack Gibson or Bubblegum, the latter of which is easily one of my favourite British matches of 2015 so far. The finish came when The Origin ordered Moser to hit one of SDS with half of the polystyrene shield (!) that represents the PROGRESS Tag-Team Championship, the move backfired and the team from the Netherlands won the titles. Wow, that was quick! Cruz & Ligero took out their frustration on their ‘youngboy’ Moser afterwards, seemingly kicking him out of the group too. I’m still not convinced The Origin are going to be anything more than just another heel team, but this was loads and loads of fun.

Before the final, there was time for a multi-way, one-fall contest featuring everyone eliminated the previous day who was not already in another match (so, everyone except El Ligero and Tommy End). With Noam Dar not cleared to compete, Eddie Dennis won what was now a five-way over Jack Gallagher, Damo O’Connor, Zack Gibson and Big Daddy Walter, pinning Big Damo with an impressive driver. This was quick, easy fun, with big moves, dives and a lot of fun at Zack Gibson’s expense as everyone kept teaming up on him and he would bail out (and as well as telling everyone to “stay away from the broken fingers”, he today needed everyone to “stay away from my bad shoulder”).

And with that, it was time to bring the weekend to a close with the focal point of the entire thing, the (deep breath again) SPLX Super Strong Style 16 Tournament final: crowd favourite and courageous underdog Will Ospreay, who overcame the odds in every round to get here, against international standard bearer and PROGRESS benchmark Zack Sabre Jr. A showcase final if ever there was one, and one that didn’t disappoint. A fine, fine match and a worthy culmination of everything that got us here. Sabre Jr was then one dominating proceedings, stretching, twisting and kicking Ospreay all over the place, while Ospreay was zooming around trying to fight back and gain some kind of foothold. The final few minutes, with the PROGRESS faithful still completely engrossed in what they were seeing after a long, draining weekend, were pretty damn great. As had been building across the tourney (and before that), Ospreay found himself with another chance to leap from the top and seemingly get the win, and again hesitated… but this time shook it off, went with his natural instincts and launched off with a Red Arrow (corkscrew shooting star press) onto his opponent for the roof-raising win! Great performances from both, not just here but over the two days.

The tournament win grants Ospreay another shot at PROGRESS Champion Jimmy Havoc at Chapter 20 in July, and just as that realisation set in, out came Jimmy himself with henchmen Paul Robinson and Isaac Zercher. They put a beating on Ospreay, put him on the ropes and threatened to give him The Business. Really. Havoc also took the time to personally insult individual members of the crowd, while his pals also beat on Sabre Jr to stop him making any kind of save. Then things got a bit silly as Havoc produced AN AXE and threatened to chop Ospreay’s head off unless PROGRESS co-owner Jim Smallman relented and met his demands for Download festival show bookings, a pay rise and a No-DQ stipulation for their title bout at Chapter 20. This actually turned the situation from one that was legitimately menacing and concerning into one of wacky cartoon wrestling bullshit when the axe came out, but the deal was done and it is indeed No DQ next time out, as Will Ospreay challenges Jimmy Havoc for the title, with both Regression and the London Riots on hand to make things interesting.

That one, Chapter 20: Thunderbastard – Beyond Thunderbastard, comes at the end of July and is already sold out. That’s right – just over twenty-four hours after the end of this show, seven hundred tickets to the next event went on sale and completely went in twenty-one minutes. The entire first five rows of seating went in a single minute. That’s mental, but just demonstrates the brand loyalty, buzz and excitement that PROGRESS is generating these days. You can’t blame anyone for trying to get these tickets – as I noted above this weekend was fantastic, with Day Two in particular being exceptional. Sure, there were little bits that didn’t grab me, but there was absolutely a lot more that did, with the stories being told over the course of the tournament itself being the main highlight for me. PROGRESS noted that they would like this to become an annual tradition in the same way as the Pro-Wrestling Guerilla Battle of Los Angeles, the Westside Xtreme Wrestling 16 Carat, International Wrestling Association-Mid South Ted Petty Invitational and PCW Road to Glory. After this start, I think we may have a new highlight for the European wrestling calendar…

(Details of PROGRESS’s upcoming shows can be found on their website. Ben Corrigan will return with other reports from his travels around the British scene. He can be found on Twitter)