On tour with the UK’s biggest wrestling show in 35 years
‘One of the wrestlers will set fire to somebody’s T-shirt’
North Greenwich station is very sterile: polished stone floors, glass and metal. Walk through the doors toward the O2 arena and you’re outside, but it doesn’t feel it. There are a few sad trees, not yet green. Ellie Goulding is playing tonight.
The Brooklyn Bowl is a bowling alley appended to the O2’s 20,000 capacity arena. While Ellie croons her bland pop, the Bowl judders in loud competition. Inside, four huge men are beating the piss out of each other. They’re not arguing over splits and strikes though, or whatever it is bowlers argue over, they’re Insane Championship Wrestling’s main event. The prodigal son Drew Galloway has returned to his home promotion and is fighting in a four way match against champion Damo, fan favourite Grado, and Jack Jester, one of Drew’s pals.
Drew’s a Scot – from Ayr – and he has wanted to be a wrestler for as long as he can remember. He’s the first ever Scottish champion. “Well, it was that or play for Glasgow Rangers,” he quips. At 15 he travelled most weeks for 12 hours to train at the UK’s only wrestling school, in Kent. He has the physique of a Highland warrior, closer to seven foot than six, with legs like tree trunks. He is soft-spoken and intelligent but tired – he’s just flown in from America, where he lives with his fiancé.
“I’m the world champion at TNA [Total Nonstop Action Wrestling] now, won that on Tuesday,” he says. “Filmed five days of TV, which are 12-hour days and on Sunday I flew to New York for WWE. Then Monday and Tuesday I tried to spend some time with my fiancé. She’s patient. I’m the hardest working wrestler in the world.”
“Do you reckon?”
“I don’t reckon, I know. I used to be in the WWE, and my schedule now makes that one look laughable.
“It’s a great time for wrestling right now, the UK scene is absolutely on fire. The London the fans are great.”
ICW is an 18+ event, the first of its kind in the UK, and as a result has developed its own devoted audience. They’re not necessarily wrestling fans, but enjoy the spectacle for its arrogance and brutality. And it is brutal. One of the promotion’s first ever shows opened with a wrestler being dragged around the room by a noose. When he vomited, the hangman rubbed it into his face.
At the time a few people left, though now it’s exactly what ICW’s fans want to see. They chant abuse and interact with the wrestlers. Drew explains: “It’s like football culture. If you’re at a football match in the UK and you’re not standing up shouting something you’re probably going to get bottled. It’s an adult product: there are exciting storylines and it’s very interactive.”
The dynamic between the wrestlers and their fans is extraordinary. They hurl abuse at each other. As a contestant enters the ring, a crop of middle fingers flip up all along the walkway. Others have their own hand signs, like the gangs of LA, except they’re in London, and wearing speedos. Make no mistake, though, the outfit choice belies the toughness of the men in the ring.
Drew doesn’t deny elements of the show are predetermined, like the outcomes of all the matches, but what happens during them generally isn’t. “You can’t really plan things, it’s organic. People used to treat us like idiots – in the past it was so cartoon. Now people watch MMA and they know what works.
“You don’t have off seasons. We work every weekend of the year and your body takes an absolute beating. It’s very real to us physically and mentally, because it’s a lifetime of work.” Drew stretches his arms and knocks the lampshade to his side over with an elbow. He doesn’t appear to notice.
The atmosphere inside the Brooklyn Bowl is visceral, primal. It’s a 600-person colosseum and there’s a real feeling that anything could happen. Which it does: during one of the matches someone is thrown down a bowling alley before his opponent starts launching bowling bowls towards him. Others are thrown through tables and beaten around the head with metal chairs.
Mark Dallas, ICW’s founder and Managing Director, saw the Bowl’s bar staff putting candles around the venue before the show started. He went over and asked them not to. Why? “One of the wrestlers will see there are candles and set fire to somebody’s T-shirt.”
“I’ve caught them hanging of balconies going, ‘Dallas, can I go off this balcony, man?'” he says. “Or, ‘mate, is it alright if I use fire? Can I set this chain on fire?’ I’m like how is that even a fucking sentence?” He said yes, though, expecting ICW’s fledgling pyromaniac to douse his chain with kerosene for a flash of showmanship. “But he put tape around it so when he hit the guy with it the tape went flying off and into the crowd. Luckily it went out, but I saw my whole life flashing before my eyes.
“Eight of them were arguing earlier about who is getting thrown down the bowling alley. And I had to go and say to the guy: ‘Someone needs to get thrown down the bowling alley, is your manager here? If we don’t do it the fans will feel cheated.’ Then we had to go and look at the way the mechanism collects the pins so we’re sure nobody will get crushed. It’s a weird job.”
Weird is one word for it. Mark has gone from hosting weekly raves in his Glasgow student house to selling out 2,000 capacity venues. And, if all goes to plan, he’ll sell 14,000 tickets for the tour’s culmination, a showpiece event at Glasgow’s Hydro arena.
He’s come a long way. When he wanted to get into wrestling he had to go to training with Drew. Without the internet, the only way to make contacts in the industry was to wrestle yourself. Mark is small, and it can’t have been fun. The two have been friends for a long time. As have Mark and Grado, one of the guys fighting for the belt that night.
Mark explains, “Grado is one of our biggest names. He was meant to be an undercard comedy guy and the crowd just went fucking mental for him, so we just went with this and he won the title at the SSE. I slid in and counted to three, it was amazing – probably one of the most surreal moments of my life, running out there when my pal Grado has pinned somebody. When we went to training, wrestling was nothing. I think we’ve played a big part in the resurgence of British wrestling and the sport as a whole.”
Before Grado makes his entrance his walk-in music starts to play. It’s Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’, which is probably a song about blow jobs. Until now, the mood of the evening has been a boozy, violent one. All of a sudden 500 blokes are singing, “I’m down on my knees, I want to take you there.” The fun is contagious. Then Drew comes in. He is now barely recognisable. His long hair is no longer tied up, it looks straggled. He’s not wearing very many clothes. It’s intimidating.
The championship bout is entertaining, intense and vicious, and reaches its crescendo with Damo, a Northern Irish behemoth with enough back hair to make a decent Persian rug, who pins Jack Jester and retains his belt. Then the real drama starts. Drew takes the mic and his performance is enthralling. He states his intentions to change things up, that he will unify the TNA belt which he currently holds with ICW’s.
At this point someone throws a full pint into the ring. Jack Jester and his motley crew charge into the audience. Drew stands centre-stage and stares. There’s a palpable sense of anger. Then you think, was that staged? It might have been. But soon more and more pints are being thrown at Drew and the show’s backstage crew are screaming at the crowd. They get middle fingers. You realise the audience are just as much a part of the ICW fanfare as the wrestlers themselves. Once everything calms down, Drew gets a new microphone. He instructs the now pint-less crowd to suck his dick and drops the mic.
It’s an accomplished performance and illustrates well Mark’s belief that the show sells more ticket with storylines than matches. “ICW is like Eastenders for men. Imagine if they built up that Phil Mitchell was going to fight somebody for weeks and weeks and then he finally punched the cunt. The ratings for that episode would be through the roof. We have all the elements of a soap, but at the end of everything is a fight. It’s a winning combination.
In Glasgow, ICW is notorious. When wrestlers are injured and arrive at one of the city’s hospitals, staff are tempted to call the police: they assume the 15-stone man covered in blood has been doing something nefarious. But upon hearing their patient’s story, the tone changes. Everyone smiles. Mark has created a spectacle that permeates his city.
The show finishes. As we leave, the crowd stumbles past us, some so drunk they can’t support their own body weight. We round a corner and merge with the Ellie Goulding fans who are mortified and confused in equal measure, and descend onto North Greenwich like ants returning to the nest. Chants of “G-R-A-D-O”, to the tune of Ottawan’s Disco, reverberate off the glass and concrete.
ICW’s UK tour continues in July. You can catch up on the action using their On Demand service.