Once a month, The Cockpit theatre dispenses with its usual cerebral dramas and instead embraces the loud, kinetic thrills of professional wrestling. The Journal pays a visit
Words: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Images: Orlando Gili
Wrestlers are hard to predict. This one is stripped to the waist, revealing a chest made of independently moving muscles—even his red mohican looks buff. I stand eyeball to eyeball with ‘The Anarchist’ James Castle and am bloody terrified. He offers his hand—yes, that old trick—which foolishly, I accept. This is it. I’m about to be tossed skywards and then slammed down onto my back. Great!
The Anarchist leans in, smiles and shakes my hand. What I have since learnt is that the only thing you can be sure of with wrestlers is that outside the ring, they are extremely polite.
On most nights, if you wander backstage at The Cockpit theatre on Gateforth Street, you will enter a world of set lights, dusty props and Broadway dreams. But tonight, the labyrinth of corridors is heaving with wrestlers, in all shapes, sizes and states of undress. On the first Sunday of the month, Revolution Pro Wrestling takes over this theatre, and these gentlemen (and two ladies) are about to batter one another senseless in the name of family entertainment.
Leaving our modern-day gladiators to psyche themselves up for battle, I poke my nose through a red curtain and follow it out into the theatre. In the centre stands a ring surrounded by rows of seats. I perch myself right up at the back to keep as far from danger as possible. The other punters include a smattering of young families plus a handful of more seasoned veterans, but the majority are in their twenties and thirties, with perhaps a third being female. And going by their t-shirts, this audience also loves rock bands, real ale festivals and Star Wars. We’re going to get along just famously.
Booed out of existence
The house lights go out and the crowd falls silent. Heavy rock music comes thundering through the speakers and a spotlight fires a beam down onto the ring. A sharp-suited man climbs through the ropes, puts a microphone to his lips and cries: “Welcome to Revolution Pro Wrestling—Cockpit 34.” He then introduces match referee, Chris Roberts, who is booed out of existence. The crowd settles back for the first of eight bouts.
It will be, I learn, “a four-way mash-up”. Thanks to the deafening music I fail to catch the names of the four wrestlers involved, but they all look pretty damn handy—even the fellow in pink leggings. The last of them mounts the top rope, stares out at the crowd and neatly backflips into the ring. Now that’s some entrance.
The wrestlers eyeball one another as they carefully ignore the instructions of the referee. The bell rings and carnage ensues. To the untrained eye, a four-way is a formal invitation for indiscriminate violence—referee Roberts might as well nip off for a pint. I was expecting staged pantomime slaps and air punches, but the wrestlers are getting stuck in. While one is being stomped on, another is hurled out of the ring like an unwanted teddy chucked from a pram, causing the punters on the front row to wish they’d sat further back.
This turns out to be mere foreplay. Open-mouthed, we witness the acrobatic wrestler in the pink leggings walk heel-to-toe along the top rope and then divebomb two opponents. Every now and again a wrestler pins an opponent to the mat, only for him to escape the hold just before the third and final count. But then one of them produces a hold from which there’s no escape—we have a winner. “Chris Brookes, Chris Brookes,” chants the noisy crowd, helpfully revealing his name.
Wary of handshakes
The second match is between Zan Phoenix and Revolution Pro Wrestling’s reigning undisputed British women’s champion, Jamie Hayter. Forget any Victorian notions of a gentler sex—if anything, the women are even more bloodthirsty. The bell goes. Phoenix feigns to shake Hayter’s hand, grabs hold, swings her opponent around and slams her into the red corner—clearly, I’d been right to be wary of handshakes. This only makes the British women’s champion mad, and she retaliates by kicking Phoenix in the face before smashing it down onto the corner post. And that’s the opening pleasantries exchanged. Backs, necks and shoulders are crashed down onto the mat and joints are stretched to their limit. The crowd don’t know whether to cheer or grimace—some manage to do both simultaneously.
After Hayter eventually pins Phoenix to the mat for the full three second count, Chris Roberts raises her right hand to the skies while her left clutches her title belt. The victor makes a grab for the microphone, but this is no time for a song. Instead she launches into a tirade against arch-rival Zoe Lucas, who was supposed to wrestle her tonight but is injured—though not according to Hayter, who bandies about the phrase “scaredy cat”. What’s this? A woman has snaked through the crowd and is now crawling into the ring. A certain Zoe Lucas tiptoes up behind the champion. The crowd shrieks a warning in the best panto tradition, but too late. Lucas floors Hayter from behind, picks up the belt and exits corner red. Well if the referee isn’t going to stop her then neither am I.
The next bout is played for laughs, but no less violently. Sha Samuels, who, we are told, hails from “the east, east, east end of London”, enters the ring sporting trademark flat cap and trunks held up with braces. He isn’t here on any diplomatic mission, first referring to the theatre as “a dump” and then calling the crowd “a bunch of mugs”. But we don’t take this lying down and give him plenty of verbal from the safety of our seats.
Samuels might think he’s big and clever, but he’s a twig compared to his Australian opponent Gino ‘Mr Juicy’ Gambino, who’s a whopping 24 stone, plus the weight of his genuine fake fur coat. Mr Juicy soon has Samuels in a tight headlock. The cockney’s face turns an alarming shade of Poplar purple even before he receives a knee drop to his solar plexus. Gino drops his trunks and moons his startled opponent—you could honestly park a bike in there—but this being a family show the referee bravely jumps in and pulls up Gambino’s keks to spare our blushes further. “Thank you, Roberts,” shouts a grateful crowd. A game of cat and mouse ensues, until eventually Samuels stands like Atlas, holding aloft the massive Australian before crashing him down onto the canvas, registering 4.8 on the Richter scale. Samuels wins, but Gambino proves a very popular loser.
A lethal weapon
The last match before the interval is a tag team affair. First into the ring come HxC, comprising Dan Hammerhead and ‘The Anarchist’ James Castle, whose red mohican is itself a lethal weapon. Hot on their tails follow more Australians, known as Aussie Open, namely Kyle Fletcher and Mark Davis, whose tight green trunks certainly draw attention Down Under.
Within seconds of the bell, Fletcher has the better of Hammerhead, who soaks up an awful lot of punishment before crawling to the ropes to tag his teammate. The Anarchist immediately regrets coming to the rescue when he has his right hand and fingers bent back at a horrible angle. A whiff of cheating hangs in the air—why are both of Aussie Open allowed to wrestle The Anarchist at the same time? “Do your job, Roberts,” shouts the crowd, but the referee is struggling to keep control of this grudge match and the Brit is taking a hammering.
Once order is restored, HxC’s fortunes improve, but one forearm smash and a three-second hold later, and Aussie Open emerge victorious. “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie,” cheer their fans as they rush upstairs to the bar, finding their compatriot Gino ‘Mr Juicy’ Gambino already there enjoying a cold one. Despite having lost his bout, Gambino has regained his winning smile—though not much in the way of clothing.
This is physical theatre at its most extreme and the wrestlers are a wonderful cast of characters. One moment you witness a chap in a Jane Fonda-style leopard skin leotard flipping an opponent and the next you see a jodhpur-wearing gent with a fancy walking stick being felled with a forearm smash. The world needs its heroes and villains and as one wrestler gets soundly booed, another will be cheered to the rafters. It’s like panto for grown-ups and it’s highly addictive.
A beast of a man
One of tonight’s most popular heroes is “the best of the best... the king of taunts... the reigning undisputed British cruiserweight champion, David Starr”, who does battle with the American Shane Taylor, an absolute beast of a man. Taylor won’t make many friends if he continues to refer to us as “bell-ends”. And that’s as charming as he gets. Much to the crowd’s delight, it’s Starr who finally pins Taylor to the canvas, the American’s legs bent back to his chest. The victor basks in the chants of “ooh ah, David Starr”.
Wrestlers do sometimes get injured. In the penultimate bout, a tag team match, one of the Hunter Brothers sustains an injury to his right elbow just before the end. Though ultimately victorious, he is obviously in considerable pain—though trying not to show it—as he exits the ring.
The final match features ‘Speedball’ Mike Bailey and crowd favourite Chris Ridgeway. These boys know their martial arts and each delivers a sustained series of lightning-fast kicks to their opponent’s ribs. Having thrown Ridgeway out of the ring, Speedball climbs onto the top rope, stands motionless and then backflips down onto Ridgeway. The two continue their tussle down among the crowd. I can see why these guys have top billing. Eventually Ridgeway wins the bout.
And it’s over. An ecstatic crowd files out of the theatre and heads upstairs to the bar to meet their wrestling heroes and to buy merchandise. Once the bar empties, the only life to be found is backstage where the wrestlers are getting changed. Theatrical, giant-sized egos are neatly folded and put away, as arch-rivals stand chatting and joking before they dismantle and carry away all the wrestling equipment.
Everybody mucks in. ‘The Anarchist’ James Castle walks towards me along the corridor carrying a heavy box of cables. As I breathe in to allow him to pass, he flashes a wide, friendly grin. I keep my guard up nonetheless. James might now be dressed in his civvies, but he still looks bloody terrifying.