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 on more than a few occasions.
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 gallons of ice cold water. The pro wrestling version is a little different.
The front row at OTT runs the same risks 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 to perfection, the wrestlers are real, the floor is real, and the prospects of a 15 stone 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 parlours (shops?) I’m not sure what we’re supposed to call those places.
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 usally 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.
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 chants 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’.
I get a giggle out of a friend of mine, an unashamed but mild mannered wrestling fan who joins in on this chant, 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 give this chant 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.
The Englishman is interrupted and is thought a lesson in manners by an up and coming Irish wrestler by the name of Michael May, much to the delight of the 700 rabid Irish wrestling fans that pack out this venue monthly.
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. Next month they expect a sell-out of 2,200 people to pack the National Stadium for Scappermania. This will be their fourth sell-out show at the venue.
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 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 90s and early 00s. 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 many were not ready to do that for a 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, this marker her final appearance at an OTT event for a number of months, but before setting off for the land of the rising sun she had become a regular on shows run in England and Europe too. Her character is a quintessentially Dublin in-joke that is resonating with audiences all around the world.
It’s no mean feat for Glennon, who notes that when she started in the business Irish wrestling was practically dead. Her first show saw her wrestle in front of a crowd of 8 people, it was so bleak the promoter cancelled half the card. The only reason he allowed her 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. 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 currently is the OTT World Champion. 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 listen to the full podcast with Jordan Devlin and Karen Glennon below:
On May 12th Over The Top Wrestling presents ScrapperMania 4 at the National Boxing Stadium in Dublin. Tickets are available here: ScrapperMania 4 tickets
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