For Those About to Queue, We Salute You

The tube rolls into Camden Town, and I hop off, racing towards the escalators in order to beat the weekend horde that will soon mass at the bottom. I rush up the escalator, two steps at a time. At the top, I’m hit by the insane, phony hipster wonderland that is Camden; a mess of slightly shady tattoo parlours, the Mad Hatter having a tea party in the middle of the street, vast t-shirt stalls with every conceivable pop culture catchphrase printed and available, but most importantly on days like these, a big long line of nerdy-looking people outside the Electric Ballroom. Unlike the t-shirts reading ‘Mother of Dragons’ and the like that hang on the stalls opposite, these people’s t-shirts bear slogans unrecognisable to the layman’s eye. Apparently, these people really want Havoc to die, think Haskins is underrated, and that ‘This’ is most certainly Progress. With questions surrounding the line and the shirts flurrying through their heads, the laymen approach the nerds, one by one.

“Excuse me, what are you queuing for?”
“Er, it’s for wrestling”
“Oh really?”

Sometimes we forget just how much of a bubble we wrestling fans live in, and nothing reminds you more of the unpopularity of our hobby than the responses people give to finding out a bunch of people standing in the middle of Camden are about to watch some wrestling. But little do they know that what’s about to go on inside the Electric Ballroom is pushing the boundaries of its genre. The public perception of British wrestling may be Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks bumping their bellies together for 3 minutes, but this isn’t your dad’s wrestling. This isn’t even 1PW. This is PROGRESS.

Trust, Encouragement, Reward, Loyalty… Brixton

PROGRESS’ success since the very beginning has hung on its ability to create and reinforce its own identity as a promotion. Their goal is not only to put on quality wrestling to make people want to come back for the next show, it’s to get people to come back for every show because they’ve become hooked on the brand. That brand, summed up as ‘Punk Rock Pro Wrestling’, is pushed hard in everything they do, from t-shirts to entrance music choices, to the 14+ age limit for their shows that creates a nightclub atmosphere, and even to the characters on the show. It all feels cool, down to earth, in step with the setting of Camden and London in general and, crucially, it’s like nothing like anything any other promotion is doing. Anyone can parachute into a PROGRESS show and get a sense of what the promotion is about just from its production. This is why PROGRESS has created a breed of wrestling fan who are, primarily, PROGRESS fans. It’s due to the brand being so strong and people believing in it to deliver every time.

Now PROGRESS will head down the Victoria line to the O2 Academy in Brixton for their biggest show ever, in front of an audience of roughly 2,400, over triple their usual attendance. It’s a gamble that seems to have paid off, and with a few days to go they have almost sold out. It’s a strong showing and proven that the PROGRESS brand is a draw, since the majority of those tickets were sold with only one match announced.

Setting themselves apart has led PROGRESS towards being more storyline-oriented than just about any other indie promotion in Britain or around the world. PROGRESS uses a regular cast of wrestlers, and every match going into Brixton has had storyline development over several Chapter shows, some going all the way back to 2015. The promotion plans stories far in advance, and everything in 2016 has been building to Brixton; it has been presented as nothing short of their WrestleMania. Some may consider the card a little disappointing in comparison to a WrestleMania, and I would say this is a fair criticism as it feels more like a big Chapter show on paper rather than the ‘biggest show ever’, but if anything that just shows the strength of their brand.

The undercard is fairly weak and perhaps belies the strength of the top matches. Sebastian vs Pastor William Eaver, both graduates of PROGRESS’ training school (the ProJo) has had an undeniably poor build, with a confusing WWE-style story based on Sebastian having ‘a secret’ about the squeaky-clean Pastor. The audience not knowing what said secret is though makes it difficult to care about the feud, and Sebastian hasn’t done a good job on the mic of holding anyone’s attention. A 6-woman tag team match featuring babyfaces Pollyanna, Laura Di Matteo and Nixon Newell against heels Dahlia Black, Jinny and Alex Windsor is a Women’s Title Tournament preview if you’re feeling positive, or if you’re feeling negative a match throwing all the women into the match despite having separate rivalries that deserved blow off singles matches of their own here. And the last undercard match sees heel stable The Origin, who have taken a series of ever more farcical loses over the last few Chapters, under threat of disbanding if they lose against their long-time babyface foils; Mark Andrews, Eddie Dennis, Damon Moser and the departing Jack Gallagher. An ‘Origin disbands’ match should feel bigger than it does, but amongst the bigger matches on this show it seems somewhat lost in the shuffle.

While the undercard doesn’t feel ‘biggest show ever’ the other four matches on the show make up for it, and three title matches ensure that the show feels like it has serious stakes. First up is the crowning of the first Atlas Champion, as tournament finalists Rampage Brown and Joe Coffey have a rematch of their excellent time limit draw group stage match. The Atlas tournament has been a rocky ride, with injuries and uninteresting points scenarios torpedoing the group stages, but this is a proven great match-up and should end the tournament strongly.

The Tag Team Championships will be defended by the London Riots, whose stock rose greatly after their great tornado tag match against War Machine. Their challengers are the British Strong Style team of Trent Seven and Pete Dunne. As we’ve established, PROGRESS do things differently to other promotions for better or worse, and their breaking up of two established teams in Moustache Mountain and the Dunnes to form British Strong Style was a controversial move that I originally panned. I’m into it now though; British Strong Style has a brilliant identity as West Midlanders fed up with PROGRESS’ supposed trivialisation of ‘Strong Style’, initiating a territory war-esque feud with the Riots over the rightful lineage of Strong Style in Britain. Unlike Sebastian/Eaver, this is a compelling story that leans on real life, as Seven’s Fight Club Pro promotion really did use the Strong Style moniker before PROGRESS did. It feels like a personal issue has arisen that can only be resolved in the ring, and that’s when wrestling is at its best.

The main event of the show is a triple threat for the PROGRESS Championship, with Marty Scurll defending against Mark Haskins and Tommy End. The main event booking of PROGRESS in 2016 has been, for lack of a better word, weird. Scurll has been booked as a dominant champion half the time, beating Chris Hero, Will Ospreay and Mark Haskins clean and decisively too, but he’s been a complete chickenshit the rest of the time, failing to beat Tommy End in three separate matches, and briefly losing his title to Pastor William Eaver, only to win it back via fluke. Scurll hasn’t acclimatised to his role as top heel, and feels far more at home as a tweener character in RevPro, EVOLVE and PWG. Fans watching PROGRESS for the first time hoping to see that Scurll just don’t quite get him. Tommy End’s presence in this match also feels weird; his feud with Scurll ended months ago and the story moved things on to Haskins. And yet here is End, in his final match before moving on from the indies, getting in the way of Haskins’ big moment, finally winning the PROGRESS Championship after coming up short so many times. End’s presence in the match does make things less predictable (could a ‘Summer of Punk’ type scenario is on the cards perhaps?) but it also hurts Haskins and makes that story messier than it needs to be. A straight up singles match is also a lot more appealing than a triple threat from a nerdy fan perspective. It is what it is, and I’m sure the guys will make it work, but I was hoping for something different from the main event when the show was announced half a year ago.

That ‘something different’ may be catered for by the biggest match on the show though. Zack Sabre Jr. and Tommaso Ciampa first met in 2015’ Super Strong Style 16 tournament, with Sabre picking up the win. Back then, Ciampa had only just left ROH and didn’t have the same super-indie cred he has now. Part of that cred was earned in PROGRESS that year though, as he became a semi-regular and had a series of very good matches throughout 2015, including a fantastic rematch against Sabre where Ciampa came out victorious. They challenged for the Tag Team Championships, but miscommunication sank them and Ciampa turned on Zack, challenging him to a final showdown at Brixton. Since then, Ciampa has become recognised as one of the absolute best and Sabre cemented his international reputation with a great showing in the CWC. This is Ciampa’s very last match before signing with NXT full time, so on top of having all the potential to be even better than their first two matches, it’s going to be brimming with emotion. PROGRESS emphasise storylines and are not an exhibition/supershow promotion, but sometimes this means they overbook matches in order to ‘tell stories’. Ciampa himself has had some very good matches in PROGRESS hurt by having to shove expositional elements into them in order to further a story. None of that will be an issue here. A good story has been built, and now two of the best in the world will go out and finish it in the ring. Oh, and it’s Two-out-of-Three-Falls, just to spice things up even more. It’s fair to say that I’m hyped for this match, and I can’t wait to see what happens.

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Country

Brixton is just the start of a very important stretch for PROGRESS. Their inclusion as part of WWN’s WrestleMania weekend program next year is proof of BritWres’ new status at the top of indie wrestling. So many new eyes will be on the promotion in Orlando, and they will need to knock that show out of the park. Preparation begins as soon as Brixton ends. As established, PROGRESS is a storyline promotion, and their best chance of putting on a great show is getting people invested in the promotion before they even arrive in Orlando. A fair amount of the build to Brixton did not land as intended, but PROGRESS got a pass on a lot of it due to residual goodwill and the belief among the fanbase that Brixton would be worth it regardless of the build. They won’t get the same opportunities in Orlando. When I say they need to knock it out of the park, they need to. Perception is everything, and if they come in with a confusingly haphazard show, they will not endear themselves to a mostly unfamiliar audience.

BritWres is in a strange place right now, in that while it is receiving acclaim from North American fans, many of those fans don’t follow the actual British shows, only seeing the top wrestlers when they fly over. This is PROGRESS’ chance to deliver an authentic Chapter show on a worldwide stage. They need to be prepared to not only get the top stars over, but also to present Moser, Eaver et al in the same light. If they can deliver a great and authentically British show, then the BritWres conquest of the indies will be seen as not just being about individual guys or a novelty factor, it will be about wrestling fans gravitating towards the best wrestling promotions that happen to be in Britain. PROGRESS can conquer the world in Orlando, but it’s not going to be easy.