Professional wrestling is becoming increasingly popular in Leeds. Jon Cronshaw spoke to the wrestlers and their fans to understand what wrestling means today.
Many people over the age of 35 have fond memories of watching Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks perform on Saturday afternoons.
Fans knew that the matches were fixed, but they loved the larger-than-life characters and wacky storylines.
Today, some of the UK’s brightest and strangest young wrestlers are based here in Leeds.
And with the world’s largest wrestling company WWE heading to Leeds for the first time next month, it’s predicted that Leeds will become a popular destination for wrestling fans.
Hoping to capitalise on this growth is professional wrestler Sebastian Carter who wrestles under the name Seb Strife.
The 30-year-old grew up watching American wrestling, and although professional wrestling is dismissed by many as being a fake sport, Seb believes that the word ‘fake’ is an unfair one.
“It’s not fake in the sense that you can’t get hurt – it does hurt, we do punch each other,” says Seb. “It’s predetermined – that’s how I prefer to see it.”
“I’ve had three knee surgeries and about six concussions – that’s not fake to me,” he adds.
Seb is currently working to set up his own wrestling company in Leeds called A.C. Promotions.
“I’m currently in negotiations with a couple of venues in the city centre at the moment, but I’m hoping to pull in around 400 people for the first show,” says Seb.
“You can go for the first time to a wrestling show, especially one of the smaller British shows, and have the time of your life. They have a couple of drinks and they absolutely love it.”
One of the elements that draws people to professional wrestling is the larger-than-life characters, but few turn heads as much as Priscilla, Queen of the Ring.
Priscilla is the drag queen alter-ego of 25-year-old Leeds University Classics graduate, Ollie Burns.
“I wear women’s clothes, that’s the long and short of it,” says Ollie.
“I love that moment when I step through the curtains, and it all goes silent.
“Then either everyone cheers and starts laughing, or everyone boos,” he says.
Ollie has wrestled throughout England for over a decade, and for him the criticism of wrestling being fake misses the point entirely.
“I personally see wrestling as a sport with a pantomime twist,” he says.
“People aren’t stupid – I don’t think you can promote it as a real sport anymore.”
The risk of injury in professional wrestling is very real, but Ollie didn’t bank on being attacked by a riotous crowd at an event in Leeds last December.
“We were in a room of people who really weren’t happy that I was there, and some kids who really didn’t understand what was going on,” says Ollie.
“The kids had bought a load of inflatable hammers, and when I went out of the ring they set on me. There were fists and feet flying at me – I never knew that an inflatable hammer could be so painful.
“I was knocked on the back of my head, which made me woozy – it was a genuinely scary moment,” he says.
Simon Sandison, 28, is a PhD student who teaches English Literature at Leeds University, and regularly wrestles under the name Simon Valour.
For Simon, the most important element of professional wrestling is the ability to tell compelling stories.
“I’ve never been in the same shape as some of the other pro wrestlers, so I wanted to make my character a rough and ready kind of everyman,” says Simon.
“One of the beautiful things about pro wrestling, one of the reasons why I love it so much, is that it can accommodate so many different characters and stories.
“Wrestling rewards difference – it’s the variety that makes it so interesting.”
Although based in Leeds, Simon regularly wrestles for companies based in Stockport and Wigan, and believes that Leeds will play a part in the growth of British wrestling.
“The wrestling scene in Leeds has been dormant for a long time, but that seems to be changing,” says Simon.
“You’ve got the WWE heading here for the first time, there’s a new promotion bringing some big names to the Cockpit – so things are looking up.”
Appearing on the bill at next month’s Tidal Championship Wrestling show at the Cockpit is the top star in British wrestling, El Ligero.
The 28-year-old masked wrestler is one of a handful of full-time wrestlers working in the UK, and lives in Roundhay.
El Ligero wrestles regularly across the UK and Europe, and he takes wrestling incredibly seriously.
“Even though we know the results of the match, and even though it’s usually safe, if you’re going to be any good you have to train like you’re a professional athlete,” says El Ligero. “I train in the gym four days a week, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and my diet’s probably what most people would see as quite boring.
“If people are paying money to see a show, the last thing they want is to see some out of shape guy in a T-shirt and combat trousers trying to wrestle – it looks bad,” he says.
“My gear is always good, I’ve got my own music, and whether I’m performing in front of 50 people or a few thousand, I always try and do something exciting.”
FANS EXPLAIN WHY WRESTLING’S GOT THEM GRIPPED
Sarah Canfield and Craig Stevenson are a couple who love to watch wrestling.
The world’s largest wrestling company WWE puts on 12 major shows a year on pay-per-view, including their annual wrestling extravaganza, Wrestlemania.
As the shows are aired live from America, the couple book the next day off work to watch the events live.
“We do that with every pay-per-view,” says Sarah, 33. “Elimination Chamber tends to fall around our anniversary – so that’s what we do for our anniversary,”
“My work just thinks it’s hysterical – they just think I’m cute and weird,” she adds.
Craig, 39, grew up watching wrestling, and has fond memories watching British wrestling as a child.
“I remember when I was younger watching World of Sport on a Saturday with Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus and Dickie Davies.
“I’d also watch the WWE stuff – or WWF as it was back then – but then fell out of watching it until about five years ago.” Craig and Sarah both love wrestling as a form of entertainment and don’t care that it is predetermined.
“You are aware that Eastenders isn’t really a gritty documentary?”says Sarah.
“It hasn’t presented itself as a real sport for a long time now,” says Craig. “It’s athletic rather than sporting, and there are plenty of forms of athletic entertainment that aren’t sport.
“There’s a mixture of athleticism and artistry with wrestling, and that’s what I like about it,” he adds.
Sarah wasn’t a fan growing up, and only became a fan of wrestling in the last four years, but believes that she is probably the biggest wrestling fan in Leeds.
Colin Cox, 33, has been a big wrestling fan since childhood, and as well as watching all of the main WWE events, he is also regularly attends British wrestling shows across the north of England.
“One of the things that draws me to the British wrestling scene is that the only way you get to see it is live and in person,” says Colin.
“It’s a lot a fun – you can really let your hair down, have a few drinks and make up stupid chants with your mates.”
For Colin, there’s a lot more charm in British wrestling than the American imports.
“You don’t get a raffle or El Ligero in WWE,” he says.
“A lot of British shows have a lot of humour and a very tongue-in-cheek. There’s a pantomime element that creeps in – it’s great.”
LEEDS WRESTLING CALENDAR
On October 23, American independent wrestler and comedian Colt Cobana will be bringing his critically acclaimed comedy show, where he commentates over badly performed wrestling matches, to the Original Oak, Headingley. ●On October 28, Fab Cafe in Leeds city centre will be screening WWE’s latest major pay-per-view event Hell in a Cell.
WWE will be making its Leeds debut on November 14 at the First Direct Arena.
On November 26, the Cockpit will host an event by Tidal Championship Wrestling featuring top talent from British and American wrestling.