Recently, while watching the excellent Netflix documentary Sunderland ‘til I Die, I felt a pang of sadness. A hollow kind of feeling. I live in Dublin and like most football fans here, support an English team. I was jealous of the sense of community that surrounded the Sunderland Football Club. The city breathes football. The most important aspect of life in Sunderland was their club. It meant so much to them, more than Manchester United ever would to me. And believe me, United are a huge part of my life. Ask anyone who has ever tried to make weekend plans with me. But it doesn’t engulf my day-to-day. There’s no buzz about the city before the big games. Why would there be? They take place in a completely different country. Yes, we do have our own league and I’ve gone to some games, but quality wise it’s several steps below and truthfully, it ’s too late to develop a natural affinity for another football club. United is my one and only. Sadly, it’s a long distance relationship.
Nearly three years ago to the day, I attended my first Over The Top Wrestling show. Completely on a whim. I had fallen out of love with independent wrestling for a number of years. I would tune in to WWE for WrestleMania season then drop out again. I was a casual fan. But by chance, I saw a poster for “Ah, Ted”, a wrestling show featuring three characters from Father Ted. It sounded like it could be a bit of craic and tickets were dirt cheap. Father Ted is still beloved in Ireland. What Only Fools and Horses is to the English, Father Ted is to us. No matter what shite Graham Linehan comes out with next. By the time the show came around, there was about ten of us going. Only two of us would be what you’d consider wrestling fans. Father Ted was the draw. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t even know the card or who wrestled for OTT. But my expectations weren’t high. In fact, my first impression of OTT came during the opener, Jordan Devlin vs. Wild Boar. When I first laid eyes on Boar, I thought he was a fake Rhyno from those American Wrestling tours in the 90s that would feature knock-offs of WWF wrestlers. An inauspicious start.
During the OTT Tag Team Title match between the Kings of the North and The Lads From The Flats, the Father Ted actors got involved, completely in character. My friends and I were in stitches. Father Stone, Father Damo and Eoin McLove all did their shtick and we were happy out. The wrestling wasn’t up to much but we’d gotten what we paid for. A bit of a laugh and some solid entertainment before moving on to whatever boozer we had planned to hit up after. Then the main event happened. Ryan Smile vs. Pete Dunne vs. Will Ospreay. Wait, Will Ospreay? This guy I’d heard of. Just a week prior he’d had a match with Marty Scurll that everyone was raving about. This could be good!
Take a second to imagine what it would be like if your first time experiencing Will Ospreay was seeing him live. They had to peel bits of my brain off the ceiling. The match was incredible. I was hooked.
Over the course of the year, I attended as many shows as I could. I followed OTT around the country; Dublin, Limerick, Wexford and Galway. I started watching other promotions. I was back in the bubble. My plans revolved around going to shows. I was a student, working part time. So my money had to be managed to fund my trips. Every payday, I would plan three things in my head; food & travel for the month and OTT. I followed them up and down the country. Home and away. That might sound corny, but the Tivoli Theatre did feel like OTT’s home ground. You felt a buzz when you walked through that door every month. Excitement and anticipation. Every single person who walked through that door felt it. It hung in the air. It’s what I always imagined approaching Old Trafford or Anfield must feel like.
The Tivoli wasn’t much to look at. Dark, dingy and cramped, but there was magic in that building. The atmosphere was off the charts, month in and month out. Cheap drink deals helped bring in casuals in the early days (and did the noise levels no harm). But even when the deals disappeared, the atmosphere didn’t falter. No matter who was in the ring. The crowd cared just as much for the locals as the imports. Sometimes more. And there were those, like Ryan Smile and Pete Dunne who we took in as our own.
Anyone who came to wrestle in the Tivoli came away raving about it. Pete Dunne named OTT as his favorite place to work and credits the promotion for giving him his first big chance. Chris Hero famously sat on the ring entrance during Marty Scurll vs. Ryan Smile II and watched in amazement as the crowd chanted back and forth for the entire match. The fact that this was going down in our hometown was crazy to me. Dublin’s best-kept secret. It felt underground. You felt underground. Part of something. And everyone there, talent and fans alike, were on board with you.
Pardon the homerism, but I do genuinely believe the OTT faithful are some of the best fans in the world. People from Will Ospreay to Marty Scurll and even Dave Meltzer (who has the National Stadium on his bucket list wrestling venues) have raved about the wild atmosphere created by OTT fans. But in my eyes, the real strength of the OTT crowd is how genuine they are. They buy in. Heels are heels, faces are faces and the most important thing is what’s happening in the ring. There’s no trying to “get themselves over” with ironic chants or naff banter. They respect the performers. The best illustration of this was Tyler Bate vs. Jordan Devlin back in June 2016. They wrestled a technical, World of Sport style match, which was solar systems away from what the crowd was used to seeing at the time. They could have turned on them, but they gave it a chance. And by the end, the people were going bananas. It’s still one of my favorite matches in the company’s history and one of the most important because it opened the eyes of the casual fans to a whole new world of professional wrestling.
The best way to demonstrate how genuine the fans are, is through Jordan Devlin. Now signed to WWE UK, Jordan represents us on an international stage as “The Irish Ace” but back home he is still “The Import Killer”. The man who took on every foreign invader to our shores. The angle originally started with Devlin as a heel, frustrated with his lack of opportunities within the company. As a result, he was given higher profile matches. Devlin rose to the occasion. So much so the crowd couldn’t boo him anymore. Every night he went out there and put on the performance of the night. He might not have had the match of the night every night (though he mostly did) but he always had the best performance. And the crowd saw that. And they appreciated it. The Import Killer was born. Whether it was coincidence, perfect timing or both, Devlin’s evolution as a wrestler has coincided with OTT’s rise from a fun night out to a European powerhouse with connections to both WWE and NJPW.
As the shows became more wrestling orientated, Jordan became more beloved. Every time he came through the curtain the reaction was louder. Somewhere along the way, it became real. There have been louder pops in company history, but on the Contenders show before Jordan left for the inaugural WWE UK Championship tournament and took the mic and vowed he’d win, that was the loudest, most visceral roar I’ve ever heard from an OTT crowd. The room was shaking. It sounds ludicrous recounting it but it felt like we were sending him off to war. It was raw emotion, it was real. Everyone in that room felt it. Think Lawler in Memphis or The Von Erichs in Texas. This was our guy going overseas to represent us. Like when Marcus Rashford steps out on the Old Trafford pitch or when Lebron James used to pull on the Cavs jersey. You can shove your Conor McGregor up your hole, we have Jordan Devlin.
The only downside of Devlin’s rise is the inevitability of his departure. An unfortunate circumstance of him being so damn good is that WWE will eventually take him full time, and while not a single one of his would begrudge him that, he will be sorely missed. Thankfully, there are an absurd amount of talented young wrestlers on the ascent. From Scotty Davis to More Than Hype to Raven Creed there is a plethora of guys and girls coming through the ranks of the various wrestling schools in Ireland. And they’re all freakishly good. I keep bringing it back to football but it’s reminiscent of the Class of ‘92 or Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. That’s currently happening here. In Ireland. I’ll never get over that. Our little island is producing some of the best young talent in the world at a rate you’d usually reserve for Japan.
Watching them grow in front of our eyes has been so rewarding. The crowd have been patient and understanding with them. There’s no “you fucked up!” chants or laughs when things go amiss. The crowd is genuinely encouraging because we want them to succeed. And you do feel a sense of pride when you see them getting bookings overseas and killing it. Like proud parents watching their children succeed. So while we could lose our brightest star, there are more than a handful getting ready to take his place.
That’s not to say the OTT audience, patient as they are, will just take whatever they’re served with a smile on their face. They’ve been known to make their voices heard on one or two occasions. The most famous example was when Bram, who was once arrested for domestic abuse (the charges were later dropped) was booked. Many people took exception to this and let OTT know, in no uncertain terms, that this was not acceptable. At the time, it was met with animosity from some of the wrestlers. The usual snowflake, SJW bollox, but I do genuinely feel the fans did want the best for the company. It was not to stir the pot or cause trouble for the sake of it. They did not want someone representing the brand that they did not feel deserved to. The owner, Joe Cabray asked why he should remove Bram as no charges were filed, and after a back and forth, and although he did not necessarily agree, he removed Bram from the show. It was not a perfect situation, and one I felt very uneasy about and voiced my opinion about at the time, but if one good thing did come of it, it showed that OTT did value the opinions of their audience and were willing to listen.
That’s what I love most about going to the shows now, there is a kinship. From the staff, to the wrestlers and the people in attendance, it is one big community. Everybody looks out for another. One fan baked a variety of cakes to raise money for charity and everybody put a hand in their pocket to raise well over €1000. Just last week a raffle was held in aid of former Women’s Champion, Katey Harvey, who broke both her elbows. Prizes from previous raffles were donated by fans as well as a Nintendo Switch and all proceeds went to her recovery fund.
I can honestly count on one hand the bad experiences I’ve had attending OTT. There are some matches, and some shows that just don’t click, some booking decisions that don’t go the way you think they should. That’s wrestling. But I have never left a show upset or in a bad humor, because there are always positives to take. I’ve made some friends for life and every month I count down the days to the next show. I buzz over seeing them just as much as I do the action in the ring.
This is the connection I’ve been missing all these years. The emotion, the drama, the euphoria, the camaraderie. It makes no sense. Wrestling isn’t real. But it matters. All of this matters so much to me. It’s become such a big part of my life. To my friends outside of the bubble, I’m the one who (still) likes wrestling. In work, I’m the guy who is using his days off to go to Phoenix in Cork, wXw in Oberhausen and Fight Club: Pro in Manchester. I didn’t realize it until very recently, but this is what I craved for so long.
OTT is the home team I’ve always hoped for.
Just this month, they ran a new venue, The National Basketball Arena, and packed it out with over 1500 people. And with another 2000 seater show just around the corner, the future looks pretty rosey. Unfortunately, in the real world, Dublin is in the midst of a property crisis, both for homes and venues with seemingly no solution on the horizon. OTT require a monthly venue for their less stacked shows. The bread and butter that keeps the company ticking over. With the heartbreaking destruction of the Tivoli, we need a new home ground.
Not to mention the skirmishes for unsigned talent between WWE, NJPW, AEW and ROH. Wrestlers are becoming harder to book. Talent are getting pulled more often. Admittedly, we have been blessed with the Devlin/Walter feud being allowed to play out to its assumed conclusion, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. British Strong Style have been pulled a few times in the past. The WWE UK talent had to be early on the card so that they could leave straight after. Will Ospreay has already been pulled from two shows this year. So with all this recent success comes an air of uncertainty.
But no matter what the future holds, whether it’s another two months, two years or ten after that, I will be there. Every month. Amongst a sea of like minded maniacs. Supporting our home team.