Ten years ago this week, VoicesofWrestling.com was born.
Originally designed to be a website and podcast series where people would discuss how they became wrestling fans and why they are fans today, the website eventually evolved into what you see today. This week, to celebrate our 10th anniversary, we invited VOW contributors past and present to re-create that original concept with a twist: why did you become a wrestling fan and how has your wrestling fandom changed in the last ten years.
We hope you enjoy the #VOW10 series and encourage you to share your memories of VoicesofWrestling.com, our columns, our reviews, our previews, our writers and our podcasts by using #VOW10 on Twitter or jumping into our special #VOW10 Discord channel.
Thank you for a great ten years. Enjoy.
My route into indie wrestling fandom is probably similar to a lot of people of my generation. Introduced to wrestling through the SmackDown Here Comes the Pain era of WWE video games, my interest in the big company dropped in the late 00s, but got replaced by exploration of alternatives. ROH, TNA, and then one lonely night in late 2013, with a big bowl of chocolate ice cream in my lap, I sat down to watch Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi from King of Pro Wrestling, and there was no looking back after that. My brain quickly filled up on all things New Japan. This was the time of those crazy entrances—the giant dinosaur, Prince is Dead, Shinsuke Nakamura and his army of strippers—who could resist the spectacle, let alone the brilliant matches? It was like everything I ever wanted wrestling to be, equal parts unbelievably dramatic and entirely logical. And at some point in early 2014, I found out that Nakamura would be wrestling in London. On the same bill too would be Prince Devitt and Kevin Steen, both rumored to be heading to WWE that summer. So Baby Oli, wide-eyed and innocent, on the day after his final A-Level exam, took the trip to Revolution Pro Wrestling Summer Sizzler. Navigating the big bad adult world was intrinsically linked to BritWres from day one.
Summer Sizzler 2014 was my very first indie show, and while much of the show was carried by the star power of the card and the thrill of seeing wrestlers like Nakamura up close and in the flesh, the match that truly stood out was the one without a star indie wrestler involved. Just four small, skinny guys that barely anyone knew. They tried a lot of crazy flippy-dos, and not all of them came off, but the energy of that match reached a height that none of the others that afternoon could. It was the Swords of Essex vs 2Unlimited, and after the show was over, I knew I had to see more Will Ospreay.
I’d also gotten well into Dragon Gate in 2014, so my next destination was Broxbourne, for what turned out to be the last ever Dragon Gate UK show. And while I was very excited to see YAMATO vs Susumu Yokosuka and Akira Tozawa vs Ricochet, the presence of Will Ospreay on the show was already a big draw. It really felt like you were seeing a star grow in front of you, even at that early stage.
That night did not produce Ospreay’s best match, as he was in a very sloppy four-way, but Tozawa and Ricochet were brilliant in the main event, I was very happy with my bright yellow Mad Blankey shirt which served me well on vodbull-fueled nights out later on, and I did eventually see Ospreay’s excellent match against Tozawa on night one of those last DG:UK shows.
My first two BritWres (with heavy assistance from Japan) shows could not have been better experiences, but there was a promotion buzzing about in summer 2014 that was already giving me FOMO. We would later learn, like any cult worth its salt, that this was their marketing strategy all along. Just Three Mates and Our Little Company, taking on the world of indie wrestling, and making it cool again. Selling out shows in minutes. Desperate refreshing of resale emails. I was not invited to the cool kids’ parties. My interests were niche and nerdy. But now that world was coming to me. Wrestling now took place in trendy Camden Town, and was wrapped up in a punk rock package. The fans had dangerous things like tattoos and dyed hair, and were all one big happy community. This was Progress, and Baby Oli had to be there.
January 2015, and Chapter 17 was my first live Progress show, as well as the first review I ever wrote for Voices of Wrestling! It’s not the most elegant thing I’ve ever written, but looking back, it is quite funny that even with all the energy of the Electric Ballroom and the real entrance music, even with every excuse on my side to be nothing but optimistic and over-awed, I still managed to criticise a fair bit of the show, particularly the inexcusably shit Faithless gimmick.
It’s like Progress was veiled by some mythical aura from the very start. Everyone in attendance was willing the show to be better than it was, to be part of something significant and history-making. It’s the same sort of ‘get in on the ground floor’ hype-marketing that you see from cryptocurrency companies/pyramid schemers. A charismatic leader with a microphone harnessing the sheer power of human belief to make things seem better than they really are, bypassing natural cynicism and triggering our fear of being left out of the herd. And that, of course, went along with the infamous “Don’t Be A Dick” policy, which on the face of it was a twee way of promoting inclusivity (and the array of t-shirts on offer bearing the phrase), but which very easily morphed into “Do Not Criticise Anything About Our Little Company.” This kind of thinking turned ugly events even worse later on, as the promotion that was more than happy to cash in on the fanbase refused to support them, or even listen to them, in the moment when it really mattered.
But that summer in 2015, Progress did produce a genuinely great story, all based around the guy I’d gone there to see more of in the first place. The rise of Will Ospreay, and BritWres as a whole, took place on two fronts, and Progress served up the storyline that brought a lot of attention to the scene. Will Ospreay vs Jimmy Havoc was an exciting story and delivered some heated atmospheres when filtered through all the Ballroom’s bells and whistles. The trio of shows from the Chapter 19 Super Strong Style 16 final, to Ospreay’s title win over Havoc at Chapter 20, and his first defense against Mark Haskins on Chapter 21, were the height of Progress’ storytelling and production, and they would never again put on shows that felt as essential as their run that summer.
At the same time, on the other front in RevPro, Ospreay wrestled several matches against import stars that pushed the level of match quality that we came to expect from the ‘BritWres Boom’ ever upwards. First came Ospreay vs AJ Styles, the first match that really made fans home and abroad sit up and take notice of this kid, and then Ospreay vs Matt Sydal, a two out of three falls match to end a mini-feud between them. This was the first genuine match of the year contender the Boom produced, and by this point, there was a definite feeling in the air at these shows that something big was happening, and we didn’t need a cult leader proselytizing to us to feel it. And it was after the 2015 Summer Sizzler, a year after his first BritWres show too, that Rob Reid knew that what we were all seeing had to be covered more extensively.
And so began the BritWres Roundtable.
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Originally, it was supposed to be Rob, Arnold Furious, and Fujiwara Armbar. But then Fujiwara left to become a real person with an important job and everything, so the guy doing the Progress reviews was enlisted instead. The first few shows were nerve-wracking, because even though it was recorded and I had done live radio before then, attempting to develop a rapport with two near-strangers and broadcasting the results to thousands of listeners is a strange experience indeed. But Rob, Arn and I got on well together pretty much from the off, and I feel our tastes and personalities meshed really well – enough common ground for us to build up each other’s excitement, but also enough disagreement to keep the conversations spicy. And the VOW platform gave us an audience straight away, which is an absolute godsend in the world of podcasting. It meant we could dive deep into the world of BritWres and give our unashamed real opinions, rather than chasing algorithmically hot topics or playing faux-nice with wrestlers/promoters to get them to tweet about us. Imagine if we had to talk about how great 5 Star Wrestling was just so we could get a few measly likes from their followers who only knew who Rey Mysterio was?
The first time all three of us met in person was at the RevPro/NJPW Global Wars UK show in Reading, and here’s a picture of us all looking happy and non-cynical at that show:
Not wanting to sound trite, but the real BritWres Boom was the friends we made along the way. COVID puts that very much into perspective. Between 2016 and 2018, wrestling became a social lubricant, to facilitate meeting up with loads of different people I never would have met otherwise, and bond with them over our shared passion/take the piss out of awful booking decisions and crap matches together. Ultimately, when it’s all said and done, I’m not going to remember a single thing about the wrestling matches, but I will remember the buzz of traveling to shows, and the experiences I shared with friends.
Many of these experiences took place in an industrial town in Germany called Oberhausen. Unless you wanted to go see a David Hasselhoff concert at the König Pilsener Arena, or you were a Legoland enthusiast who absolutely had to visit the Legoland Discovery Centre and tick it off some mad bucket list, there would be almost no earthly reason for someone to travel to Oberhausen for a holiday. Apart from attending a wXw wrestling festival.
In early 2017, my fellow Roundtablers and I received an invitation to attend the 16 Carat Gold tournament as press, getting access to interview wrestlers and wXw staff throughout the weekend, in return for coverage of the event on the podcast. This was a moment of vague legitimacy for us, and soon enough, right at the time when I should have been feverishly typing out my undergraduate dissertation, I was aboard a flight to Dusseldorf, off into the unknown.
There was an amazing camaraderie between us Media Centre originals. On that first night in the wXw Academy, essentially a big garage in the middle of a quiet, suburban residential area of Essen, we became The Inner Circle, a joke riffing on the name of that ‘members club only’ show which was a rite of passage at the start of every Oberhausen weekender. None of us quite knew how the weekend was going to go, what our relationship with wXw head honchos would be like, but we were treated remarkably professionally, and the access we were granted lifted the whole experience to something beyond what I thought was possible out of wrestling. Discussing the Ringkampf gimmick with Christian Michael Jakobi, then the boss of wXw, was close to a transcendent experience. CMJ spoke about the group’s art deco logo and insignia, and how with the aesthetic the Nazi party had once used to destroy art, they were now reclaiming and using the art deco to tell a truly meaningful story. That’s how deep the Ringkampf story ran, and how much CMJ cared about wXw’s artistic vision. There was something beautiful brewing in the Turbinenhalle, and we only had to wait until the final of the 16 Carat tournament to see it.
WALTER vs Ilja Dragunov was the greatest match of the era of European wrestling we just witnessed. It had everything that all the greatest 90s All Japan matches had – realistic violence, genuine struggle, seismic emotional shifts. It will be impossible to ever forget the welts on Dragunov’s chest, forged by WALTER’s titanic chops. It’s a match that made Arn Furious cry. It was just a beautiful ending to a weekend that revealed more to me about what makes wrestling great than I’d ever known before. At around the same time, that era of New Japan was at its absolute peak, with Okada vs Katsuyori Shibata coming just a month afterward, a match similarly romantic, beautiful, and devastating.
This was the peak of my wrestling fandom.
After that, the tone around BritWres began to change, in relatively subtle but significant ways. It was around then that the original intrigue around the WWE UK project began turning to abject fear that it would destroy the scene. Battle lines were drawn when non-compliant promotions had booked talent taken away from them so that Uncle Paul could host those ghastly shows in Norwich, with the infamous plastic garden chair seating arrangements. Sitting in their ringside garden chairs were the Three Mates, still smiling, still waving, still your friend. You had to be happy for the Boys. It was all just Mates working with Mates to make our scene better.
The last Progress show I attended was the 2017 Super Strong Style 16 final. It was clear from that show that the WWE side of the BritWres Cold War would not be for me. It was like that veil that had been draped over Progress from my very first show had finally fallen away, and I saw it for what it really was. Just the way the WWE UK title was seemingly held in higher regard than the Progress belt itself would have been enough for me. The blatant theft of Fight Club Pro’s booking from six months prior, with Travis Banks emulating his Infinity tournament run almost blow-for-blow at SSS16, that would have been enough on its own. Some of the behavior I witnessed that weekend, including a herd of men chasing after a female wrestler to be first in line at her merch table, and certain male wrestlers’ “over-friendly” treatment of female fans, was definitely enough to put me off Progress forever. But all of that rolled into one made me see the ghoulish environment that had been cultivated in the Electric Ballroom, left to fester, then celebrated as a “community” by the people who stood to financially benefit from it all. Seeing the rapturous celebrations for Banks winning the tournament, and me feeling nothing at all for it, left a quite bitter final memory of the place I had once been so excited just to stand-in.
On the other side, RevPro put on a show which I’ll always remember fondly in the British J Cup, where Jushin Thunder Liger got to star in a heroic tournament victory. I also met my second set of co-podcasters in real life, Martin Bushby and Benno, with whom I hosted the BritWres Experience on Post Wrestling. Without that show, I probably would have fallen off of the scene long before I actually did, and I’m glad I did stick around for longer, because there were plenty more memories to make. They just wouldn’t occur on the WWE side of the schism.
That J Cup show, with Liger getting something of a pre-retirement send-off, was part of a recurring theme at the big RevPro shows, where underutilized New Japan wrestlers could stand out on a main event level as champions who were recognized in NJPW canon. This started with a tremendous run of matches for Shibata, before the title changed hands between Ishii and Suzuki, which takes us up to the 2018 Strong Style Evolved UK weekend.
It was by no means the best in-ring show I had attended during the Boom. In fact, it was probably close to the worst. But SSE Night 1 in Planet Ice Arena Milton Keynes was my single favorite show, for the very simple reason that, unsatisfied with our seating allocation, myself, Rob, and Mike Kilby watched the show from an out-of-the-way balcony which felt like something of a private skybox, and essentially chatted shit over the entire thing. We also got a gigantic pizza from a place within the arena, and ate like kings as we watched authentic New Japan house show matches that could have been taking place in a half-empty gymnasium in Gifu for all the wrestlers cared, and this somehow made the show so much more fun than if they were actually trying. We also witnessed the debut of ‘Dominator’ Great O-Kharn, whose shambling to the ring under his little question mark towel was one of the funniest things I’d seen on my whole BritWres adventure, just for the sheer unexpected wackiness of it all.
BritWres became really sour in the latter half of 2018. I remember seeing red after getting into a Twitter argument with a semi-celebrity and noted Progress fan about some NXT UK bullshit that wasn’t worth a second thought. Social media had been the gateway to meeting loads of interesting people, but by this point, the negativity permeating through it had become extremely detrimental to me, and I was ready to log off for a good long time. All I needed was a catalyst.
So at this juncture, we need to talk Tokyo. My trip to Japan for Wrestle Kingdom 13 was ultimately what changed everything. There are a few people that vaguely know what happened there, but I’ll try and explain it more thoroughly than I ever have before.
My first full day in Japan, I attended the DDT Grand Prix Final show with the wonderful Brother Mort. It was my first time in Korakuen Hall, a huge moment in any Japanese wrestling fan’s life. But it would end up a horrible experience due to the injury scare Naomi Yoshimura suffered, in a scene very similar to the Christian Eriksen incident at the Euros. My first time at Korakuen, all I can do is sit and watch a man lying unmoving in the ring for over forty minutes receiving medical care, his friends and co-workers completely unable to help him. This should be a celebration at wrestling Mecca, and all I can do is wonder why we’re even doing this, when this is what can and does happen.
That got my trip off to a bad start, and it didn’t really much improve before January 4 rolled around. But, despite my misgivings about the booking leading into the show, and how terrible the Kenny Omega title reign had been, I was hyped up for the show. I was buzzing as the crowd built up in Tokyo Dome City. I shook hands with Harold Meij. I was in my element, and ready to enjoy myself.
The first match, they do a stretcher angle for Kota Ibushi. (I know there were conflicting reports about whether it was legitimate or not, but Dave Meltzer reported it as a work and watching live it looked like a work, so I’m pretty convinced.)
I watched a man almost break his neck and get stretchered out of Korakuen Hall not a week before, and Wrestle Kingdom starts off with New Japan faking the same scene. It’s not the first time I’d been frustrated by a promotion working a stretcher angle after a real scare, because Progress did it with Rob Lynch after he had legitimately needed it for a shoulder injury previously, and I wrote about my disdain for that in a VOW review. But this was on another level, because it was a neck injury that Yoshimura suffered, and this was Wrestle Kingdom, and I needed it to not be shit to save my ‘dream holiday’. It showed how divorced New Japan had become from the rest of the Japanese scene, that a worker nearly dies in Korakuen five days before, then they run the same event as an angle in the building next door. It put a really bad taste in my mouth.
This bad taste was exacerbated by the drinking. I don’t drink now and the Dome was one of the many reasons for choosing to do so, because in the Tokyo Dome, they have these girls with keg backpacks who just go up and down the aisles pouring out drinks, making it very easy to get very drunk. The drink our girl poured out was something like vodka and lemonade. I don’t remember how vodka lemonade came out of a backpack keg, but that’s how it ended up in my cup. And I don’t remember how many I drank, but it was a big cup and the show playing out in front of me encouraged me to drown in it, because Wrestle Kingdom 13 was like a slow dirge at a funeral. The Ibushi stretcher angle, very poor taste. The tag matches, pointless. Cody and Juice played to silence. Knowing it would be his final appearance made the KUSHIDA match so miserable, and I was sinking into quicksand watching that. The semi-main events did perk me up, so I was surprised when later on I learned that they hadn’t been that well-received in comparison to the main event.
Oh boy, the main event. It started with that Kenny Omega entrance, which immediately signaled that this would be his final match in New Japan. You don’t get special music and carry yourself like that if you’re not on your way out. There was a weird quirk with the Undertale-inspired entrance video too, as it cut off at the moment the 8-bit Kenny loses his match with Tanahashi, before his friends inspire him to make the big comeback. This actually sent out a ripple of laughter around the Tokyo Dome from those who had caught it, meaning the big match started off with exactly the wrong tone. Things felt weird. The alcohol had poisoned me into a state of numbness. The show had been a downer, filled with wrestlers taking their final bows or just not bothering at all. And I was in exactly the wrong mood to put up with any Kenny Omega bullshit, let alone forty minutes of it.
So it was sitting in the Tokyo Dome, watching the match I had built my entire wrestling fandom, and I suppose in a way, my adult life, up to watching, and hating every single overblown moment of it, that I had my epiphany. And it’s something that took about another year to percolate inside of me, but I eventually came to know that I had to strip away the elements of myself that had created a person that I was fundamentally unhappy being, discard the Baby Oli that had taken me up to that point, and build myself up in a way that wouldn’t set me up for such crushing disappointment courtesy of outside, and ultimately meaningless, forces. I left a part of myself in the Tokyo Dome, and when I stepped outside there was a big empty void inside of me, but a void which could be filled by anything in the world, and it was up to me to fill it with something positive.
I did return to live wrestling six months later, in the Kilby Corner of the Cockpit, where RevPro run small-scale monthly shows. It was purely just to chat to my mates and have a day out, though the PAC vs Michael Oku main event was genuinely brilliant, and at least encouraged me to keep abreast of BritWres through 2019. I did a few more Roundtables, went to a few more Cockpits, and went to Oberhausen for what I then already saw as ‘one last time’, but it was all with a feeling of ennui. NXT UK, as it was now known, had ripped the heart out of the scene, and there was no show that was left unaffected. The excitement, the belief that we were seeing something special unfold before our eyes, had all dissipated.
March 2020, and the core group of Cockpitters hugged goodbye in Baker Street Station. There was a general feeling that this would be the last time we would be doing that. Most of the others went to 16 Carat on the weekend that COVID got very very real, but I wasn’t going anyway, and then, that was that.
But that’s not the end of the story. It was then all revealed that the people I had been gushing about on podcasts for several years, as well as supporting financially, were all gigantic pieces of shit. There is a very bare minimum of morality I require from other people, but over the course of a horrifying but incredibly necessary few weeks, we found out that these bastards couldn’t even clear that ridiculously low bar. The stories that fans and wrestlers shared about these abusers taking advantage of them in some truly horrible ways were very difficult to take. I felt complicit, having talked up the scene so much in a way that, even if I wasn’t the owner of one of these companies looking the other way or even actively encouraging an abusive environment, I had seen elements of this behavior first-hand and believed that it was just the way things were in Our Little Community, and never discussed these elements of the BritWres culture on the podcast in an effort to highlight it and get that culture changed. And these people who I had idolized, invited into my life, and grown up with, pretty much to a man being some level of abuser or creator of a negative, bullying environment, it was tough to come to terms with. The only thing that made it easier was that I had effectively disowned that world already.
It was an unregulated wild west that attracted some truly vile people, as it was a place where they could use certain inequalities and peer pressures in society to big themselves up and feel like Real Men, while damaging the lives of vulnerable people around them, and generally treating perfectly normal people who had come to watch them perform like the scum on the bottom of their shoes. Some of these people dressed their bullying or abuse up better than others. Some of them told you that you were part of a Little Family and that we were all Mates. Some of them got away with it completely, and now take easy paychecks from the Saudi royal family, whatever value their work generates to be funneled into funding the campaign of the next fascist lunatic who runs for the American Presidency.
But there was another side to it all. It was a journey of camaraderie, forged through the simple bond of enjoying something really offbeat that no one in our real lives would ever be able to understand. My first BritWres show I attended as an eighteen-year-old, literally just out of sixth form, not really knowing anything about the world beyond what the difference between the House of Commons and the House of Lords is. Over the course of several years, I saw and experienced hidden chunks of the world, and developed a sort of secret life which comforted me during very dark times in my ‘real’ one. Through meeting so many different people from all over Britain and the world, indulging in our stupid hobby together, and traveling to all sorts of off-piste places, I developed an emotional maturity that should stand me in good stead for whatever comes next. Fuck, this sounds like a job application now, and my record shows I’m really bad at those. But it’s true.
What you remember at the end is the people you met and shared your journey with, and I’m happy to have met some good people on one strange, strange journey.