There is something really odd about the person who takes pleasure in dumping on pro wrestling. "You know that's fake," they'll exclaim with glee when they get wind that someone in their vicinity is a fan, you can take for granted that 99.9% of pro wrestling fans understand that the shows are scripted and the outcomes are determined in advance. It doesn't dampen the enjoyment they get from the show or the infectious enthusiasm that permeates a crusty old venue like the Tivoli when Over The Top Wrestling run shows there.
For me the genius who takes it upon himself to educate the world on the veracity of pro wrestling is no different to some loon waiting outside Cineworld on a Friday night gleefully telling those who've just watched the new Star Wars film, that 'it's not real, you know that's scripted and they're all just actors'.
It’s Saturday night. The Tivoli Theatre on Dublin’s Francis Street is standing room only; fans continue to file in and pack the place to capacity. A group of about a dozen have been waiting outside for more than three hours before doors officially opened. They now have the best seats in the place, prime real estate in the first few rows, they’re ringside although throughout the night they’ll be forced to their feet.
Seaworld call this area 'the splash zone', sit here at your own risk because you are as likely to enjoy the show as you are to become a part of it, or at least get doused with 100's pf gallons of ice cold water. The pro wrestling version is a little different.
The front row at OTT runs the same risks apply but on a different scale, their splash zone is likely to be the landing pad for some of their wrestlers. Much of what I’ll see tonight is predetermined and undoubtedly planned and practiced, the wrestlers are real, the floor is real, and the prospects of a 200lbs man landing in your lap after an 8 foot dive over the top rope are real, the risks are very real.
The Tivoli Theatre has stood on Francis Street for almost 85 years. The Cranberries, Oasis, and Blur have graced the stage there. It’s 2018 and naturally the venue’s days are numbered, social capital in Dublin always tends to play second string to progress. It’ll soon be demolished and replaced with a hotel, another Starbucks, probably a couple of donut shops.
What the venue lacks for in modern comforts it makes up for in character. There is a tangible sense of excitement in the air; it holds the lingering smell of a nightclub at noon the day after the night before. With an 18x18 ring in the middle of what is usually the dance floor, the place is punctured by a sense of anticipation. This is OTT.
The traditional wrestling formula is followed, good guys v bad guys. Piercing rock music provides the soundtrack to energetic entrance routines. From the first bell fans are captivated and they too are putting on a performance, they don’t have the Adonis physiques or the athletic ability but their contribution to the event is just as important as anyone wearing tights, on cue they cheer the good guys, before contorting their faces to express their disdain for the 'heels' by pursing their lips to boo them. Heels is wrestling speak for bad guys.
There is an Irish slant to proceedings, the English combatant is jeered mercilessly and chants of ‘shut the f*** up’ break out as he takes possession of a microphone. These guttural screams make it impossible to make out what Zack Gibson is saying, undeterred he continues to mock the Irish wrestlers on the card. He notes that wrestlers need to be flown in from the UK to pad the show out because the Irish talent is not good enough. The ‘shut the f*** up’ chant evolves to a ‘the Queen’s a c*** and so are you... the Queen’s a c*** and so are you’.
It can be a surreal scene at times, but the anger is not real. You don't really hate the heel just because he was born on the other side of the English channel. Wrestling is not real life, and the fans go their knowing that not in spite of it. I get a giggle out of a friend of mine, an unashamed but mild mannered wrestling fan who joins in on the most inappropriate and offensive of chants, he is known by friends and colleagues for using the word ‘fudge’ to express his frustration. He is the last person I would expect to be screaming about the Wueen being a c*** with gusto. I don’t think I’d heard him use a swear word before OTT, but this isn’t him. He is playing the character of ‘irate wrestling fan’ perfectly.
700 rabid Irish wrestling fans that pack out this venue monthly to share the OTT experience. Wrestlers like Walter, Peter Dunne, Keith Lee, Will Ospreay, Matt Riddle and David Starr come from all over the world to share the stage with the Irish talent. Those inside the industry have described it as a golden age for Irish wrestling. OTT's biggest challenge, outside finding a venue that isn't slated to be demolished to make way for some apart-hotel, it talent retention.
The first OTT show I attended was in August of 2017, nine of the wrestlers that worked that show have since been signed by WWE and are currently working in the development system in the biggest wrestling company in the World. The Irish talent on show are just as impressive, Jordan Devlin is putting on some of the most gripping and athletically sound matches in Europe at the moment. Young stars like LJ Cleary, Scotty Davis and Darren Kearney are seizing opportunities to dazzle crowds and showing massive improvements in every match.
The progress of OTT is remarkable, founded in 2014 by Dubliner Joe Cabray the first show he ran sold less than 14 tickets in advance of the event. They got 150 people on the night. In April they had 2,200 pack the National Stadium in Dublin for Scappermania. That was their fourth sell-out show at the venue and they are planning to comeback in October.
Therein is the secret to OTT’s success, unlike their mainstream competitor WWE, which is a family friendly product, OTT is a show primarily marketed at adults with the exception of their all ages bi-monthly Contenders shows that run in the Ringside club in Dublin. A generation of Irish people grew up watching wrestling on Sky One on a Saturday morning in the late 90's and early 00's. The edgy attitude era was followed by a switch to the PG product which saw WWE shed a generation of disenfranchised fans. Wrestling requires the suspension of disbelief, but not many grown men were ready to do that for another grown man in jean shorts and a neon green t-shirt. Sorry John Cena.
OTT caters for these people with a mix of top class athleticism from some of the biggest names in independent wrestling, colourful characters with uniquely Irish identities and a crowd atmosphere that radiates infectious enthusiasm. Like many of the marquee sporting events in the country, the fans play a pivotal role.
Midway through the show we’re introduced to the Session Moth Martina, she is a Dublin woman sporting leopard print pajamas who enters the arena to Mark McCabe’s 'Maniac 2000', a hugely popular figure in the promotion, the front row is made up of fans wearing her t-shirt, emblazoned with the slogan ‘Big bag of cans with the Session Moth’. Martina is the stage name of Dublin native Karen Glennon, her popularity is not confined to OTT.
Glennon was signed by one of Japan’s biggest wrestling promotions. Her character is a quintessentially Dublin in-joke that is resonating with audiences all around the world.
It’s no mean feat that Glennon has managed to take a character that is so steeped in Dublin stereotypes and make it popular in Japan, when she started in the business Irish wrestling was practically dead. Her first show saw her wrestle in front of a crowd of eight people, it was so bleak the promoter cancelled half the card. The only reason he allowed Glennon to wrestle was because she had traveled four hours to make the show.
Glennon is not the only home grown success story, Fergal Devitt, Rebecca Quinn and Stephen Farrelly are all regulars on WWE television and are better known to grapple fans as Finn Balor, Becky Lynch and Sheamus. Sheamus has headlined WWE's biggest shows and has held the World Heavyweight championship on four occasions. Lynch recently won the WWE Women's Championship while Bray native Balor was the first man to win the WWE Universal Championship, a title seen in the industry as being as pretigious as the World championship. The next Irish wrestler likely to get a call up the big leagues is Bray native Jordan Devlin.
He’s already been signed to a development deal with the WWE, and was the first man to hold the OTT World Championship. Devlin’s interest in wrestling stems from the experience shared by many Irish kids who grew up in the 1990s. He would watch the then WWF on Sky One, the first time he switched it on, he gazed in disbelief as Stone Cold Steve Austin destroyed a car owned by his boss Vince McMahon by filling it with cement.
Devlin was hooked. His interest expended beyond that of a spectator. He signed up to one of the first wrestling schools established in Ireland when he was 12-years-old and began training in Bray under the owner Fergal Devitt, who now wrestles in WWE under the name Finn Balor.
“I started in September 2002 when I was 12-years-old, Fergal Devitt who’s now known worldwide as Finn Balor and Paul Treacy came back from NWA UK Hammer-Lock in Kent and opened up a wrestling school about 10 minutes away from my front door, I was exceptionally lucky to have two of the best coaches in European wrestling on my doorstep.
“My mum went down to the shop one day and she saw a flier for a wrestling school and she probably didn’t know at the time she had introduced me to something that would probably take over my life, we called the number and it belonged to Fergal Devitt and I haven’t looked back since.”
Devlin and Glennon have both packed in their full time jobs to pursue the wrestling dream, both are currently earning a living from their matches and are happy to be able to dedicate their full time and commitment to their craft.
In a business where titles are given and not won, the question is what constitutes success, is it money, belts, being able to do this as a job – how do the pair measure it?
“When you get a title it’s a huge vote of confidence from the promotion that gives it to you,” Glennon says.
“They feel you can hold this spot and carry their company forward which is a huge wedge of success in itself, for me getting Japan I never thought I could even happen.
“When I started doing really well as Martina, it was a dream of getting to see this part of the world and going there to wrestle, but I put it out of my head and thought this isn’t possible they won’t like my gimmick , this won’t suit.
“As I started getting successful in the UK I thought Japan would never be an option for me until one day I got a message, I’ll never forget it I was in the car on the way to a show in Belfast and I just started screaming Japan, Japan, Japan!
“I couldn’t believe it, to me that’s a huge bit of success but I think the main thing for success is if I go and have a good weekend and I’m proud of myself after it, that for me is enough, the feeling that you did well or gave it your all, nothing tops that.”
Devlin has already been signed to a development deal with WWE that has allowed him to get exposure to the American audience through matches on the WWE Network and their special UK Championship show, while he’s also wrestled at the Three Arena in Dublin on a WWE card. He admits his goals are constantly changing:
“I think I will measure my success when I wrap up wrestling, when I started when I was 12 my goal was to headline Wolfe Tone community centre in Bray, Co Wicklow and if I could do that I would’ve been really happy, I can tell you now I haven’t done that, maybe one day I’ll come back from a couple of Wrestlemanias and I’ll put on a show there myself so I can main event it and I’ll wrap it up there.
“It sounds very selfish but when I hit all these milestones in my career it never feels like enough, I always want more. That makes a good athlete a great athlete, you always want to push and push and get as far as you can.
“So as long as I can make a nice decent living out of wrestling and I have my friends and family around me and they’re all happy and healthy I’ll think I’ve had a pretty successful career.”
You can watch OTB AM from 7:45 every weekday morning on our Facebook, YouTube and Periscope channels.
If you would like to see more sporting videos, like and subscribe to our YouTube channel or log onto offtheball.com.
Editor's note: This story was first published on OffTheBall.com on April 18th 2018.
All photos courtesy and copyright of John Morrissey: JohnMorrisseyPhotographyDesign.com www.facebook.com/JohnMorrisseyPhotographyDesign