Pro wrestling has had a bit of resurgence of late. With Notts lad Gabriel Kidd appearing on ITV’s World of Sport, and Nottingham Contemporary hosting a sold-out Spandex Ballet back in September, it’s fair to say there’s something stirring in our city when it comes to the sport. Here, we delve into the history of wrestling in Nottingham, and take a look at who’s flying the flag these days...
Insanely violent melodrama, scuffling choreographed stuntmen or “The One True Sport”. Whatever your opinion of pro wrestling, it’s safe to say that Notts isn’t a town considered synonymous with the noble art. However, we do have some historical pedigree for shoot1 wrestling thanks to Sir Thomas Parkyn, the wonderfully named “Wrestling Baronet of Bunny”. Parkyn was an affluent landowner who built swathes of Nottingham’s suburbs while promoting his beloved “Cornish Hugg” wrestling, even training soldiers in this catch style2 for self-defence.
Sir Thomas was the biz. He had a pro-wrestling-style alter-ego named Lucator, and literally wrote the book on wrestling, publishing the first textbook on the subject in 1727. Best of all, he organised an annual slobberknocker3 in the grounds of his mansion, the winner receiving an outlandish golden hat. Sadly, Parkyn died in 1742, but if I could hop in a time machine and book a match, I’d organise for Sir Thomas to fight Bendigo, Notts’ other notable historic pugilist. It’d be right up there with Ric Flair vs Dusty Rhodes4.
Pro wrestling was born in nineteenth-century carnivals, as gullible punters drunkenly wagered their dosh before predictably getting pummelled by a legitimate bruiser. Goose Fair had a wrestling booth of this ilk, courtesy of stalwart Ron Taylor, where you could apparently watch the terrifying “Big Mama” batter everyone; presumably, this was a work5. Ron shut up shop in 2001, but I still speculate wistfully about this presumably superb spectacle. An honourable mention also goes to Kundan “The Beast from Basford” Singh, a prominent shoot wrestler, hard nut and winner of the British Heavyweight Championship in 1977. He is now the city’s most entertaining taxi driver by a country mile.
Notts’ historical influence on legit submission wrestling is significant to the ongoing evolution of pro wrestling, which is experiencing a boom in the UK. British catch wrestling is also undergoing a global renaissance, surging in popularity both in America and Japan, courtesy of successful British exports like Zack Sabre Jr.
The spiritual home of wrestling in Notts is House of Pain. The organisation promotes entertaining and polished shows around the city, some child friendly, with an authentic quality all their own. They kept the torch lit in Notts when UK wrestling was in danger of sputtering out entirely. Recently entrenched in a cool training facility deep in the Radford Badlands, HOP is equally notable for their contribution to training wrestlers and mentoring the region’s next generation.
House of Pain alumni Joseph Conners now performs with WWE, and Gabriel Kidd had a good run on ITV’s World of Sport. Both will surely be big stars. HOP is run by Paul Stixx, who’s proud of how much the scene has grown locally: “We are now putting on seven or eight shows a month and the crowds keep getting bigger,” he says. “Our training school’s roster is always expanding and we have more great talent on the way, like Kanji and Visage. We are proud to have flown the flag for wrestling in Nottingham when the scene was so much weaker than it is now.”
Every city deserves a varied local scene, and Nottingham now boasts options for fans of all proclivities: Paradox cater to the adult end of the spectrum with raucous, hard-hitting monthly shows at Riley’s Sports Bar, and Wrestling Resurgence deliver stylish performances at Nottingham Contemporary with a hilariously self-aware tone. The two promotions are wildly different, but both can claim excellent workers, clear vision of their audience’s expectations and most importantly, great matches.
Notts has another exciting promotion on the horizon: Wrestle Gate Pro. Debuting at Rushcliffe Arena on Saturday 26 January with an exciting lineup of international and local talent, promoter Gary Ward reckons the Midlands is finally ready for this unique, hard-hitting style of wrestling. “We’re extremely influenced by Japanese wrestling, and bringing this show to Nottingham fills a gap in the UK wrestling scene,” says Gary. “Bringing wrestling back to this great venue is a wonderful thing.”
The joy many fans experience when their favourite wrestler wins isn’t usually because they believe it’s a genuine competition, it’s a feeling of catharsis that the promoter has faith in their wrestler.
While WWE does sporadically parachute into Notts, it’s important to have a local promotion here to follow. Here, fans have a chance to develop authentic affection or hatred for the performers over a period of time, and get to meet the stars of the show in person. Promoters, referees and even purveyors of merchandise can become characters in this wonderfully fluid world, where the whim of fans not only sets the mood, but often directly impacts storylines.
Good, indie wrestling combines the best bits of theatre, MMA, stand-up, gymnastics and pantomime into a heady, ridiculous cocktail which has to be seen to be appreciated. The result may be predetermined, but the action is mind-bogglingly dangerous, incredibly skilful and very painful for the people in the ring. For fans, it’s just very exciting.
Some may struggle to appreciate the drama in a bout where both participants know the result. Annoyingly clued-up fans don’t tend to take wrestling at face-value – to the frustration of many performers – yet still experience genuine tension in the space between the expectation of what they think “should” happen, and the promoter’s storyline decisions.
WWE in particular manage to inflame their audiences by refusing to give fan favourites a push, occasionally subverting this with an unexpected switcheroo. The joy many fans experience when their favourite wrestler wins isn’t usually because they believe it’s a genuine competition, it’s a feeling of catharsis that the promoter has faith in their wrestler.
So, how do you become a mark6? Like many children of the eighties, I was glued to Mr Hogan and co, but random indie shows in the mid noughties really got me hooked on the hard stuff. This was generally considered a dark time for UK wrestling, but I was happy with shows for a tenner, fascinated with the enjoyably ramshackle environment, and astounded to meet legends like A.J. Styles and Brett Hart flogging merchandise at half-time.
It’s the weird stuff that really makes it, like the particularly bloody retirement match of a northern, hardcore hero, during which he caught fire and plummeted down a set of stairs. I thought he was dead at one point. Fifteen minutes later, he was sitting right behind us, hardly a mark on him, enjoying some meat-paste sandwiches and discussing tomorrow’s school run with his lovely wife. Unbelievable.
Then there was the hysterical crowd reaction as a now-globally-famous muscle-bound adonis was pursued around the arena by an enraged mother, having accidently splattered her child with hot dog mustard. There’s so much joy in seeing a long-forgotten childhood hero return to show they’ve “still got it,” and a morbid fascination in realising that they have, in fact, definitely lost it. It’s all stuff you can only find in the wrestling world.
These eccentric and lovable experiences keep us coming. Should Nottingham wrestling’s renaissance continue, perhaps our wrestling community will reinstate Sir Thomas Parkyn’s annual tournament to honour our original in-ring innovator, whose outlandish approach would fit in remarkably well today. Plus, there isn’t a pro wrestler alive whose look wouldn’t be enhanced by a massive golden hat.
1 Shoot – a legit scrap
2 Catch style – submission-based wrestling
3 Slobberknocker – a scrap, brawl or pagga
4 Flair vs Rhodes – a legendary, old-time feud
5 A work – a ficticious angle
6 A mark – a fan or customer, a sucker or rube