Sunday January 15th was a momentous day for British wrestling, with WWE crowning their first ever WWE UK Champion, Tyler Bate, at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool. However, 128 miles away, deep in the heart of Birmingham (and featuring, in some cases, the exact same players) another, no less important, event was taking place for the promotion who spawned many of the 16 WWEUKCT competitors. While their tag team champions and world champion tore the house down in Blackpool, Progress Wrestling debuted in Birmingham at the O2 Academy in front of a sell-out crowd of 700 for Chapter 42: Life, The Universe and Wrestling. I, a Progress fan and a Brummie, decided to go.
I arrived at the O2 about 3pm. The ticket said doors were at two, for a four o’clock bell-time, and I was intrigued to see if anything of note would happen during that two hour window before the show. That answer was, no…but yes. Essentially this is time to get yourself comfortable; buy a few drinks, get to know your neighbours, and check out the merch. You can also hang out with some of the competitors for that night’s show. As I bought myself a Progress beanie and shirt, Dave Mastiff, the “Archbishop of Banter-bury” was on hand to sell his wares and provide DNA samples for those seeking a paternity test. Meanwhile, Progress owner, Jim Smallman, wondered around checking in with his crew and looking over the new venue. There was a great feeling in the building, even this early in the afternoon, and with a playlist that included Bad Religion and PUP pounding out across the room, I was happy just hanging out and watching the world go by as the venue filled and four o’clock drew near.
Finally, it was time. “The Imperial March” from Star Wars followed by Drake’s “Started From The Bottom” got the crowd – and Jim Smallman – pumped up, so by the time the familiar clang of Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” rang out across the hall, we were already chanting “This Is Progress” as Jim took to the ring.
Traditionally, a Progress show begins with Jim doing a mixture of admin and comedy, but tonight – for reasons which soon became clear – he seemed a little rushed. Getting the niceties out of the way (“it’s your round”/ “don’t be a dick”, etc.) he turned his attention toward the WWE show in Blackpool. He’d got a lot of stick the night before on Twitter for appearing on WWE TV in a formal suit instead of his trademark baseball hat and t-shirt, but after addressing “suit-gate” he began to allude to some of the friendly competition going on between independent UK promotions as a result of the WWE tournament. Obviously the prestige of winning a single elimination tournament means each promotion vying for one of their guys to win the belt. However, Jim pointed out that such competition was pointless because Progress had already won, having some very good friends in WWE already.
At that point 700 people lost their minds as Finn Balor’s music hit and, to the surprise of all, the WWE’s first ever Universal Champion appeared with us right there in Birmingham.
Balor explained that he had got chatting to Jim and Progress co-founder Jon the previous night in Blackpool and it made him realise how much he missed not only competing in Progress back in the day, but competing in general since his injury. While he may still be injured, he said, and couldn’t wrestle, he could still compete. And with that, Finn Balor challenged four members of the Progress audience to a game of musical chairs.
Certainly if you had asked me that Sunday afternoon as I left my house what I might expect to see as the first match in the Progress ring that evening, Finn Balor playing musical chairs to Shawn Michael’s “Sexy Boy” theme tune with four random guys from Birmingham would not have been up there – but that’s exactly what we saw. And it was tremendous. It was great to see Balor having such fun, and unlike WWE when they attempt such moments of mirth, the crowd were 100% on board the whole time, chanting “match of the year” and “this is wrestling” in good-spirited irony as the contenders battled for the last seat, and the glory of being crowned first, and only, Finn Balor Musical Chairs Champion.
Once the Balor shenanigans were done with, it was time to get on with the card. London Riots and Ringkampf had the unenviable task of following the WWE superstar to ignite the already popped crowd, and did an exceptional job of both calming the crowd down and then bringing them back up again. Hard-hitting and brutal, these two teams smashed into each other with impact unlike anything I have ever seen, and yet also wowed with technical and highflying flourishes. Although hard to root against The Riots and so easy to dislike the snarling Germans, Ringkampf were so impressive that you couldn’t help but warm to their stoic fury. By the time it was over, I would have been happy with either team taking the victory and the crowd were buzzing for more.
And more we got, in the form of a long-awaited grudge match between the vile Sebastian and the “sexually frivolous, morally ambiguous”, Jack Sexsmith. Sexsmith’s sense of fun is infectious, and paired with a heat-magnet like Sebastian (who somehow manages to make even the act of breathing seem cuntish) the chemistry was perfect. Although I am personally getting bored of the Pastor William Eaver aspect of this storyline (it just seems to diminish him, making him look like a chump) I know that when the day inevitably comes that he slaps Sebastian back, it will be a moment to remember. At Chapter 42, although that moment did not come, Eaver’s involvement was minimal, allowing us to focus fully on Sebastian getting at least a little of his comeuppance from Sexsmith and his friend, Mr. Cocko.
Next up, Jimmy Havoc came out to complain about British Strong Style running off to Blackpool to fight for WWE instead of Pete Dunne defending his Progress world title against Havoc, and to note that Paul Robinson was avoiding him after the beatdown Robinson and Will Ospreay had given him at Unboxing Day Live back in December. That Havoc would be there, we knew. It was heavily promoted. What we didn’t know, was that there was someone in the back Havoc wanted to wrestle. He said he hadn’t wrestled this person before and that if he had his trunks with him, and there was a willing referee, they should fight.
The crowd went nuts for the second surprise of the night – the return of Tommy End to Progress, despite Mr. End now being a member of the NXT roster!
A “both these guys” chant went up around the Academy until we simply settled on chanting an endless loops of “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy fucking Havoc. Tommy, Tommy, Tommy fucking End…” to show our mutual support for both men, and by the time the match – and first half of the show – was over, we already felt we had got more than our money’s worth and there were still four more matches to come!
At this point, those of us in the audience spent the fifteen minute interval getting a drink and chatting to people around us (or to wrestlers like The Riots, who came out to press the flesh and meet the masses around the ring), while, I guess, Finn Balor and Tommy End legged it back to Blackpool to make their second curtain call of the night. All I know is that, before the WWE show ended later that same evening, 128 miles away, Balor had cut a promo in the ring about British Wrestling and End had lost to Neville. In both cases, I think we had the superior booking at the Progress show – the WWE Network may offer a lot, but it doesn’t offer Finn Balor losing a game of musical chairs to a random bloke named Tom.
The second half of the show began with a first round match in the ongoing Women’s Championship Natural Progress Tournament. Compared to the quality of competition in some of the other matches in this tournament thus far, I wasn’t overly blown away by this encounter. Livvii Grace seemed nervous, and seemed to botch a few key moves, but Alex Windsor kept things together and heeled it up enough to keep things interesting. She certainly had me fooled and scrambling out of the way as she did the classic “move!” spot, pretending she was about to send Grace sprawling into the crowd, only to turn around and throw her back into the ring. It was fun enough, and the crowd were supportive – but the whole time I felt we were pulling for Grace because, symbolically, she was the babyface, rather than actually because we wanted her to win.
In contrast, there was no doubt about who the crowd favourites were in the next match – or who we despised – as The Origin: Banter Edition (El Ligero and Dave Mastiff) took on The South Pacific Power Trip (TK Cooper and Travis Banks). SPPT are instantly dislikeable, especially as TK Cooper and Dahlia Black go tongue-to-tongue in the centre of the ring. Meanwhile there is no way not to enjoy the antics of El Ligero and Mastiff. Tonight that included Ligero presenting Mastiff with a lucha mask of his own and getting to watch the 300+ pounder flip and fly around the ring, and also possibly my favourite comedy tag spot of all time: somehow convincingly making Cooper accidently piledrive his own partner through a series of thumbs to the eye and heel trips! This match was a blast. A textbook example of when and how to use comedy in wrestling whilst still maintaining the reality and seriousness of a match and its stakes.
There was no comedy in the penultimate match of the night, however, as returning hometown hero, Spud, made his Progress debut against “Sword of Essex” Paul Robinson, who had used Twitter in December to ask Santa if he could “beat up sum Brummie mug in his home town”. Sure enough, Progress found a willing Brummie, and the ultimate underdog spent much of the match on the mat writing around in various states of agony until he eventually “Spudded Up” and became impervious to Robinson’s blows. Post-match, the beat down continued until Jimmy Havoc made the save and the cowardly Robinson retreated, allowing Spud a final moment of hometown glory as he returned up the aisle, dancing along to 700 ecstatic fans singing along to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”.
Main event time followed and expectations were high. Atlas Champion, Rampage Brown, has been defending the new title in open challenges ever since he won the belt, but this was the first time the title would be contested in a main event. Progress’ social media had been buzzing all day with possibilities of who the mystery contender might be and when the “King of the Bros”, Matt Riddle’s music hit, the crowd once again lost its shit.
This was another “both these guys” situations in our hearts. Brown has put the Atlas title on the map, but Riddle is magnetic in the ring. Although the Atlas title is about “big lads wrestling” there was nothing slow and ponderous here, only hard-hitting strong-style action from bell to bell and an already unforgettable night ended with yet another history-making moment as Riddle stomped his way to victory, becoming the second ever Progress Wrestling (or is that Bro-gress?) Atlas Champion.
You know that feeling when you finally fall in love for the first time and realise that the thing you used to think was love before paled in comparison to what real love actually feels like? Well last night I, a twenty-plus year veteran of watching wrestling live, stood for over four hours amongst the other 699 rowdy fans lucky enough to be in attendance for Progress Wrestling’s debut event in Britain’s second city, and realised that nothing I had seen before in the squared circle came anywhere close to Chapter 42. Not Randy Savage dropping an elbow at the Royal Albert Hall in ’94, not Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin at Survivor Series ’96, not the unmasking of Kane in the middle of Madison Square Garden in 2003, not CM Punk taking Undertaker to his limits at Wrestlemania 29 or Dolph Ziggler cashing in his Money In The Bank contract the following night. All of that seemed trivial now in comparison to the sheer euphoria of a Progress show.
Sunday January 15th was a momentous day for British wrestling, but it was only because the WWE was finally choosing to shine a very small spotlight on the hard work promotions like Progress have being doing for years, and continue to do week after week, month after month, at venues around the UK long after the WWE cameras have gone home. If you’re not already on board the Progress train I recommend you run, not walk, to https://demandprogress.pivotshare.com and sign up for their On Demand service. Here you can watch all of the previous Progress Chapter shows, as well as shows/matches from Smash Wrestling and Highspots Network. The show reviewed above (Chapter 42) will turn up there in the next week or so, so you can see the full thing for yourself, but I recommend watching a few of the previous Chapters first to get to know the characters and storylines in play (Chapter 36 is not a bad place to start). As someone who has been watching Progress On Demand and on Youtube myself though, I can now testify that, as good as it is on tape, there is nothing quite like seeing it live. I’ve already booked my tickets for Progress’ return to Birmingham on July 9th for Chapter 51, and recommend that you find out when the promotion is coming to a venue near you and grab yourself a ticket too. Dan McKee