Heels and heroes: Dublin's mania for wrestling
Skulduggery and athletic prowess make for a heady mix at this ‘pantomime for grown ups’
The Gymnasties enter the ring wearing light blue singlets and fluorescent multi-coloured leggings and instantly start exercising. “Squat, squat, squat!” chant the crowd as the Gymnasties do squats.
The Gymnasties are very popular. “They were bad guys,” Damien Corvin tells me. He’s one of the Kings of the North, who are fighting the Gymnasties. He has stars tattooed above his chest and is wearing what appear to be red underpants and knee pads.
So what happened? “They fought us,” says Damien’s tag-team partner Bonesaw. “That’s how to turn bad guys into good guys – have them fight us.”
The Kings of the North are very bad guys. In the parlance of professional wrestling they are “heels”. They come onto the ring preceded by a man beating a drum and flanked by four men in black T-shirts waving contentious flags such as the Union Jack. This does not go down well.
“Your flags are shit and so are you!” chant the crowd, who are also giving the Kings of the North the finger. Bonesaw wears a single red glove symbolising the red hand of Ulster. He waves and leers.
“Booooo!” say the crowd.
“Boos are like cheers to us,” Bonesaw tells me. “We’re the bad guys. If they hate us and they want the good guys to beat us up, then we’ve done our job.”
The match begins. They deliver flying kicks and fling each other around, stopping regularly to grimace or grin at fans. The vertically striped referee, Niall Fox, flinches dramatically whenever blows land and he always manages to be facing the wrong direction when the rules are nefariously broken. “The ref’s the real star of the show,” chuckles a fan called Noel Dunne, who regularly shouts. “Come on the ref!”
Eventually there are five people lying groaning on the ring, including Fox. The Gymnasties’ “manager” Justin Shape jumps in, drags a Gymnasty over, places him on top of a King of the North and then drags the prone ref over to deliver the count.
This is the world of independent wrestling, represented monthly at Dublin’s Tivoli Theatre by Over the Top Wrestling (OTT), an event organised by WWE alumnus Joe Cabray. Professional wrestling, as represented to most people by either the American World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) or the smokier UK version featuring Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, has always been a hybrid phenomenon – partly athletic, partly theatrical.
Irish wrestling is a relatively new phenomenon. There are three Irish stars currently riding high in America – Sheamus, Becky Lynch and Finn Balor – and there are several wrestling schools, including one in Belfast, one in Bray and one run by Cabray in Inchicore. The schools have led to a flow of local wrestlers which makes events such as OTT possible.
OTT features touring international wrestlers and home-grown favourites. You can watch the filmed bouts afterwards on Vimeo, for a fee, and the wrestlers keep the story going between bouts with scripted, trash-talk-filled YouTube films.
Wrestling isn’t really a sport as such. Back in the mid-20th century American promoters realised that they could add dramatic tension to wrestling with fixed fights and larger-than-life vaudeville characters. The veil was lifted once and for all in 1989, when Vince McMahon, the man behind WWF (now WWE), told the New Jersey Senate that wrestling was “entertainment” not “sport”, largely to avoid the more onerous regulation that being a sport would involve.
In the industry, the pretence that fiction is fact, is known as “kayfabe”. Match outcomes are predetermined, wrestling beefs are clearly fictional and prior to the show I can see sworn enemies all around the venue having pleasant chats, but when you ask a wrestler about the precise nature of what’s prearranged and what’s improvised, they get very coy.
One wrestler outlines the “basic psychology of a wrestling match”. “The ‘baby face’ wins a bit at the start to get the crowd cheering,” he says. “Then the bad guy will do a move to cut him off and beat the shit out of him for three or four minutes. Then the good guy will make a comeback and then we start doing the back and forth. I’ve nearly won. You’ve nearly won. And then the finish.”
Wrestling personae are, says Cabray, like “cartoons”. Tonight, for example, heavily tattooed Belfast man Dunkan Disorderly, aka Grant Davidson, is a “heel” who enters the ring wearing a skull-mask and a Northern Irish football flag draped around his shoulders. He plucked his name from a tabloid headline about a misbehaving footballer and in his last Dublin match he disrespectfully shaved the formerly luxuriant beard of Justin Shape.
That doesn’t sound like it’s in the rules, I say. Davidson laughs. “The fans were livid,” he says gleefully. “They really wanted me dead . . . We’ve a good thing going on here, me and the fans – they hate me and I hate them . . . If you can’t hack it physically you can’t get by, but if you can’t work a crowd you can’t get by either. There’s an art to it.”
All the wrestlers are proud of the performative aspects. Cabray talks about wrestlers being able to “sell the hit”. “Some guys over-react or under-react,” he says. “If you can’t sell the move you can’t have a wrestling match.”
One of the most popular wrestlers at OTT is Martina the Session Moth, a pyjama-clad party animal, whose real name is Karen Glennon. Glennon likens wrestling to “dance” or “interactive theatre”. She’s gutted that she’s not wrestling tonight. “As soon as I’m here I want to be in the ring,” she says.
Five years ago, she says, she was an unathletic, unsporty wrestling fan who dared to go to Cabray’s wrestling school. Now she tours the European circuit. “I’m a champion in Belgium, ” she says. “My characters are my strong points. I’m a very open, loud person and I can laugh and put on a show. I’m not the usual female wrestler. They’re so glossy and I’m playing a character so opposite to that. When it comes down to it, I square up to the lads and the girls and I end up killing them but the performance is what gets me. When I go out there and start wrestling as Martina, I’m a different person.”
Justin Shape, aka Peter Farrell, is up in the ring tightening the ropes with a big spanner. Thirteen years ago he and 15 WWE-obsessed friends from Kildare discovered that they could train as wrestlers at Finn Balor’s gym in Bray. “As kids we were wrestling in our back yards almost killing each other,” he says. “You know the disclaimers at the end of WWE? ‘These are trained professionals – do not do this at home.’ We were the reasons those things were on the TV.”
Wrestlers have to learn a lot of counterintuitive skills alien to other forms of fighting, he says. For example, wrestlers have to be able to take a blow they anticipate coming. “If you flinch or look like you’re expecting someone to hit you, you’ve lifted the curtain,” he says. “You have to be able to stand there and take it . . . You have to have a lot of trust in the people you work with.”
Joe Cabray gathers everyone at the side of the ring to talk through tonight’s show. He stresses the importance of sticking to match times, and says that if anyone plans to make a big intro or speech they need to fit it into the allotted time. There’s an in-joke about whether glittery heel Angel Cruz will be making a speech. Everyone laughs. Cruz likes speechifying, apparently.
The venue starts to fill with punters. They file in past a table where you can buy merchandise and pizza. Outside there are two queues, which is confusing. I approach a man dressed in top hat and tails. He is, in fact, queuing for Ms Burlesque Ireland, which is being held upstairs. The wrestling fans are more casually dressed though some are holding big cardboard signs declaring their love for specific fighters.
At least a third of the audience are women. Miriam NicCaba and Lindsey Doyle come every month. They discuss wrestling moves and the wrestlers who are “high fliers” (this means they climb on the ropes a lot) or are “good on the mic”.
“It’s such a buzz,” says NicCaba, who is wearing a Session Moth T-shirt. “We boo the bad guys and cheer the good guys. You get emotionally invested because there are storylines and people you root for. I call it a ‘pantomime for grown ups’.”
NicCaba is “broken-hearted” that Martina the Session Moth isn’t performing. “She’s kick-ass,” she says. “She beats the men.”
“One month she lifted one of the guys over her head and slammed him,” says Doyle. “And she’s not big, you know. She’s only like us.”
The backstage area is tiny and is packed with muscular men, chatting and stretching. They look like rows of action figures.
They seem pretty relaxed. “Another day at the office,” says American WWE veteran Bull Dempsey shortly before things kick off. Outside Karen Glennon (the Session Moth) comes up to me. “I’m in the show,” she whispers. She’s wrangled a cameo appearance and now has to improvise a costume because she didn’t bring one with her.
Standing at the door of the dressing room, looking out at an already chanting audience, is Kevin Dunphy, aka rugby-ball carrying posho Logan Bryce. “I’ve played rugby all my life,” says Dunphy. “The best characters are you with the volume up, tweaked a little bit to be hated. I know the rugby stereotypes so use them to my advantage.”
He started wrestling after giving some stick to the Ballymun Bruiser at an event in 2006. “He said ‘if you think it’s so easy come down to the gym and try it out.’” He invented Logan Bryce about a year ago. Do some fans have problems discerning fact from fiction?
He laughs. “I’ve gotten hate mail,” he says. “A guy threw his drink over me. But that’s our job. My goal is to be such an antagonist that they enjoy hating me and that makes the experience of the good guy hitting me more enjoyable for them.”
The national anthem plays. The show is about to begin and the atmosphere amps up. Matches are often preceded by promo-videos, some of which fill the audience in on backstory and act like the “previously on . . .” intros to television dramas.
During matches the audience “boo” and “hiss” and say “oooh” and “aaaah” in unison. When a wrestler is disliked a whole room of fans give them the finger. A couple of times I hear people shouting the very panto-like warning, “He’s behind you!”
Bull Dempsey tells me that wrestling is all about creating memorable set-pieces. “Wrestling fans don’t remember the whole match,” he says. “They only remember moments.” And true enough, my memory of the evening is of specific instances, like watching Dunkan Disorderly snipping off a piece of Danny ‘the Beast’ Butler’s beard (Beard vandalism is becoming Dunkan’s thing. He really is a rotter) or Justin Shape assisting the Beast whilst waving a cricket bat.
When the flamboyant Angel Cruz and the heroic Fabulous Nicky fight the more prosaic Ballymun Bruiser and Terry Thatcher, Miriam NicCaba informs me that Angel Cruz is actually a baddie.
This explains why Angel Cruz occasionally tries to sabotage Nicky while delivering knowing glances at the audience. Nicky is very popular. “F**k him up, Nicky! F**k him up!” chant the audience.
Later, fur coat and umbrella-wielding baddie Marty Scurll takes on a popular young black British wrestler called Ryan Smile who comes out daubed in the colours of the Irish flag and whose catchphrase is “yes we can.” The Irish fans have adopted Smile as Irish. “One of us!” they chant.
Then there’s the aforementioned fight between the Kings of the North and the Gymnasties which ends with a surprise cameo from a tracksuit wearing, can-drinking wrestler called Workie, who announces that next month he’ll be teaming up with Colt Cabana. Colt Cabana is such a big wrestling star that even I’ve heard of him.
There’s an interval at this point. In the front row, Al Byrne has little bows tied into his beard and is wearing a bright Gymnasties t-shirt. He, like Miriam NicCaba, refers to OTT as “panto for grown-ups”.
His friend Angus McAnally (not the RTÉ presenter) explains the appeal. “I know Tom Cruise isn’t going to get blown up for real when he’s in an action movie,” he says. “We boo the bad guys and cheer the good guys. We embrace the action story. Are the results predetermined? Yes, they are. But are the bumps those guys take out there real? Absolutely they are.
“Justin Shape broke his neck about 12 years ago [later I discover that Farrell has a steel rod in his neck]. It doesn’t get much realer than being on a hospital bed wondering if you’ll walk again.”
This is worth elaborating on. The acrobatics on stage tonight seem, at times, genuinely death-defying. Wrestlers dropkick one another and land on each other from a height. They fling each other into the audience and battle it out on the side-lines, all the while turning to triumphantly acknowledge or taunt the baying crowd.
The threat of injury is constant. Joe Coffey was out of wrestling for six months due to a snapped Achilles tendon. Joe Cabray had his WWE development deal end shortly after he suffered post-concussion syndrome (there were other factors). “Sometimes you don’t realise you’re injured until the next day,” say Grant Davidson. “Sometimes only by the time I drive to Belfast do I go ‘Oh my back.’”
There are only so many bumps a wrestler can take, says Joe Cabray. “You have a ‘bump card’ and once it’s punched you’re over. The doctor goes ‘You’re done.’”
After the interval, Joe Coffey fights Pete Dunn. Some of the matches are more serious acrobatic feats and they usually end with a bit of a speech about how much the victor respects their worthy opponent. I prefer the more straight-up comedy performances, like the penultimate fight in which a furry-waistcoated Bull Dempsey battles a rugby-ball carrying Logan Bryce. “Rugby wanker!” chant the crowd.
“I’ve heard rumours,” says American Bull Dempsey into the microphone, “that you, my friend, are a ‘rugby wanker’.”
Logan Bryce looks suitably affronted and they end up taking the fight out of the ring and all the way out to the rear car park. At one point rave-music plays and suddenly Martina the Session Moth is in the ring, twirling herself around Logan Bryce’s neck in order to flick him onto the ground. Then she gives Bull Dempsey a beer. Bull Dempsey shrugs in a cartoonish ‘when in Rome’ fashion and they start to dance.
The final act is Joe Cabray himself, aka Luther Ward, against the Dutch biker-jacket-wearing anti-hero Tommy End. End is a “tweener” which means he sometimes plays the heel and sometimes the baby-face. Tonight he’s a heel. “Holland wanker!” shouts an audience member.
Luther Ward is very popular. The character is also, it has to be said, politically problematic and potentially offensive. He’s based on the Traveller character played by Brad Pitt in Snatch. This makes me uncomfortable (as do working class stereotypes “the Lads from the Flats”). If wrestling is influenced by vaudeville, it’s also brought with it some of vaudeville’s dubious identity politics.
Cabray doesn’t see what the problem is. Later he tells me his character was created for the WWE’s American audience and was more about mimicking Brad Pitt’s Snatch character than Traveller culture, and that the guys who play the “Lads from the Flats” are genuinely “lads from the flats . . . they lived up in Inchicore flats, that’s where they were raised”. Wrestling, he says, has always depended to some degree on cartoonish characters people recognise because “people can relate to them” but “we’d never use a racial slur . . . or slag someone’s sexuality.”
Luther Ward comes out to the strains of The Rocky Road to Dublin sung by The Dropkick Murphys. He’s on another man’s shoulders, carrying a hurley and wearing a long coat and a hat. He uses the corner of the ring like it’s a hat stand and then proceeds to fight the most acrobatically ambitious match of the night. Luther and Tommy fly at each other from the ropes and end up launching each other from the ring out into the surrounding audience chairs.
Earlier Cabray told me that when he started wrestling he couldn’t believe how painful it was just to hit the ropes. “I thought when you signed up they’d show you the secret,” he says. “There’s no secret. When you hit the ropes it hurts . . . Your body just adapts to it.”
This fight looks like it really hurts. The audience are beside themselves screaming and cheering (Luther Ward wins, though this seems almost beside the point). Afterwards fans queue at the merchandising stand where a sweaty Bull Dempsey is signing autographs.
Outside, watched with amusement by a smoking drag-queen from the burlesque show upstairs, fans deliver blow-by-blow post-mortems of the match. Al Byrne tells me he gets so carried away he usually can’t remember any details the next day.
“So what we usually do,” says Byrne, “is get together a few weeks later and watch the matches again on Vimeo.”
He laughs. “We’ll happily watch it all over again.” nOver the Top wrestling returns to the Tivoli Theatre tonight; ottwrestling.com