At a haunted hotel in Dudley, an old industrial town 10 miles west of Birmingham, members of the Pro Wrestling Subjective crew are busy setting up for a show. It’s in the same hall occasionally used for séances – a decaying sense of grandeur reflected in its sweeping red curtains, paisley carpet and budget chandeliers.
There’s an endearing, homespun innocence to the whole set-up that feels far removed from the glamour of the professional ranks. Anyone who’s reserved a ticket (£7 per person, £10 for a spot at the front) has their name taped to the red-and-gold chairs that have been set out by volunteers.
As organiser Steve Hannah finalises the music for each wrestler’s entrance, his mum decks out a stall with merchandise themed around his pirate alter-ego Steve Valentino – light-up swords, plastic hooks and t-shirts bearing the slogan, ‘Get your hooks up for the captain.’ At the other end of the hall are posters for the event’s sponsors: local businesses that include Mischief & Giggles Play Den and Grandpa’s Sweet Shop.
“Everyone at this level is doing it out of love,” says Steve. “We all bust our arses in the gym. You’re putting the hours in training. Once they’ve paid for their travel, most wrestlers will walk away today without having really made anything. We all band together and help each other out if we need to.”
Everybody has to start somewhere and shows on wrestling’s lower rungs are played out in understated venues like this – community halls, leisure centres and working men’s clubs around the country. Those taking part are under no illusions as to the distance between here and the big leagues in America, where top wrestlers earn seven-figure salaries and are cheered on in packed stadiums.
Although TV audiences have fallen since their 1999 peak, millions of viewers still regularly tune in to watch WWE shows. The Rock, who characterised the promotion’s most popular era and is regularly cited by Steve and others as an inspiration, has since become one of the world’s highest-paid actors. For a lucky few, it can be an incredibly lucrative business.
This event may be on an entirely different scale but those taking part throw everything into it regardless. The same commitment, physical bravery and stage presence are required. The canvas floor thuds just as loudly and injuries are still only one mistake away.
The Pro Wrestling Subjective roster is an eclectic mix of characters, builds, ages and experiences. Although all are clad in brightly coloured spandex, each one has a unique identity and a set of signature props to round it out. They include El Talon, Liam ‘Party Time’ Perrin, The Judge and ‘The Outlaw’ Jesse Jones. Some are relative newcomers, others are seasoned veterans of the local scene.
Pro Wrestling Subjective was launched earlier this year and its initial six-show run has been a steep learning curve for Steve, who has inadvertently ended up running the company.
It started out as the brainchild of Dan Barnes, who wrestles as Danny ‘The Metrosexual’ Devine, a close friend of Steve’s and his former tag-team partner. When a financial backer pulled out at the last moment, Steve and his mum Sue came on board to help. Dan continues to wrestle for the promotion but has stepped away from running the business. Steve, meanwhile, couldn’t imagine giving up.
“If I’m doing something, it’s going to happen – I’m going to make this fucking work,” says Steve with a roguish smile. “Weirdly enough, me and my mum are so similar. We’re the kind of people who others would call ‘strong-willed’. But really, we’re stubborn and annoying. Anyone who knows us would say that me and her working together was a terrible idea, but it’s brought us even closer together.”
They make for quite a double act. Steve takes care of the storylines and the mechanics of putting on a show, while Sue is in charge of finances and merchandise. She was never into wrestling, Steve adds, but given that he’s been heavily involved since the age of 16, the sense of community has grown on her.
“She’s a celebrity here. Everyone knows her as ‘Mommy Valentino’. Everyone has to know her because she’d talk their ear off,” he laughs. “She had a little bit of money that she just wanted to put somewhere and help someone’s dreams come true. She took the risk and rolled the dice and I’m just trying to make sure those dice come up good.”
There’s something captivating about Steve, who has fully embraced his pirate persona: complete with dark eyeliner, sculpted beard, skull-patterned bandana and long, curly hair. He loves to talk and it’s rare to find someone who speaks with such conviction about all his different projects. Although he works as a bar manager in central Birmingham, he’s a performer at heart.
The 28-year-old studied drama, TV and film at Manchester Metropolitan University and has explored various creative avenues ever since. Aside from wrestling, Steve’s also the lead singer in a band and an occasional stand-up comedian – all of which means he can spread himself a little too thinly sometimes. “Falling on my arse as many times as I have eliminates that fear of failing and makes you feel so much more comfortable when you’re out there,” he says.
Wrestling has been a fascination for Steve ever since seeing the American wrestler Sting on TV. A towering figure with bright blond hair and elaborate facepaint, he seemed to embody the sport’s endless possibilities.
“Everything was so big and so vibrant,” says Steve. “But as I got older, I started seeing it as more than just big guys beating each other up. You see it for the art it really is – as physical theatre; storytelling and emoting through physical form. That’s the beauty of wrestling. You can appreciate it on that level or just see it as big guys doing cool things.”
While Steve’s wrestling character has been through several incarnations, Charlene Blugher has stuck to her original creation: Athena Furie. Settling down with a can of Red Bull as she prepares for her third show of the weekend, Charlene is polite and engaging company – a sharp contrast to Athena’s brooding nature. She lives for the boos and taunts, flexing provocatively and often bending the rules to win matches.
Carrying a centurion’s helmet in one hand and a flame in another, Athena prowls around the edge of the ring, declaring herself a goddess while imploring unruly crowd members to bow down to her greatness.
Charlene, on the other hand, is a former football player who dabbled in mixed martial arts. She works as an account manager in an office and tries to keep her work and wrestling lives separate – her red hair and tattoos the only things they have in common.
“I much prefer being the bad guy,” says Charlene, laughing. “I just love going out there. Rather than being hyped up by the adrenaline, I feel a lot slower and more in control. It’s easy to make people not like you. Very easy. Every time I go out, if I ever hear a cheer, I’ll make sure they’re not cheering by the end of it.”
Her arch-nemesis in the Pro Wrestling Subjective world is the bright and sparky Barbie Rogue. Emerging to the sound of Aqua’s ‘Barbie Girl’, she is irrepressibly cheery and effortlessly finds favour with young girls in the crowd. The role is embodied by Aimee-Louise Crossley, a 24-year-old from Leicester. Like most wrestlers, she has thought about her character in great depth, exaggerating and distorting elements of herself in order to engage audiences.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t have Barbies,” she says. “I had a lot of boys’ toys – Action Men, X-Men and Mighty Max – because I didn’t like how Barbie was such a girl, with her little convertible and her shopping bags. I wasn’t like that. But then I did have the bleach-blonde hair and always wore loads of makeup, even though I was a tomboy. So when I started wrestling, I wanted to be the Barbie that didn’t exist when I was growing up.”
Aimee-Louise is naturally outgoing and excitable. She runs her own piercing studio and is heavily tattooed, often bringing up issues of image and gender expectations in what she has to say. It all ties back to the fact that when she first tried wrestling, many assumed she couldn’t do it.
“I’m a cheerleader, I dance and I used to be a model. So when I decided to be a wrestler all of a sudden, everyone just kind of laughed at me. It wasn’t until I did shows and people saw videos that they were like, ‘Yeah, you’re actually pretty kick-ass’. It wasn’t until people actually had footage that they believed I did it.”
Aimee-Louise and Charlene are often the only two women on the card at events and although wrestling remains male-dominated, that is changing. Both have heard stories from other female wrestlers of being made to feel unwelcome or out of place, but they’ve received plenty of support and encouragement.
Despite competing for roles and ring-time among different promotions, wrestlers inevitably bond over a shared sense of investment. Having offbeat passions and interests isn’t unusual, but this is something different. There’s no place to hide in the wrestling ring. Regardless of the crowd’s size, each show must be treated as if it’s the biggest and most important. Any hint of reluctance becomes painfully obvious. Intensity and belief, in both your character and storyline, are essential.
“I was behind the curtain thinking, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do this. What the fuck am I doing?’” says Joey Ozbourne, remembering his debut at the Baggeridge Social Welfare Centre over a decade ago. “Then my music hit and it was like, ‘Okay, no way back now. Let’s do it.’ Going from one side of the curtain to another, it’s a completely different feeling.”
With slicked-back hair, a full beard and a hulking physique, the 30-year-old makes it clear that his ambitions extend far beyond performing in front of a crowd of 50 in a Dudley hotel. He has wrestled in France and Poland but recently took things up a level after exploring opportunities in Florida.
Joey’s English accent proved a novelty that promoters were keen to tap into, earning him the tagline of ‘the international superstar’. The experience also ignited a clear sense of purpose: ascending to the pinnacle of world wrestling, WWE. That may be still a way off, but Joey believes he’s on the right path. He recently featured as an extra at NXT, a Florida-based division of WWE, and briefly found himself in the company of legends.
Tonight’s event is essentially part of a farewell tour for Joey. He’s met the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with and has decided to move to Florida within a month. He’s been offered a job as a personal trainer there, his visa is sorted and he has a few contacts within the local wrestling scene to call upon.
British wrestling is far bigger and more diverse than most would imagine, scaling from small indie shows like this to sell-out events at medium-sized venues in big cities. Insane Championship Wrestling and Progress Wrestling are two of the biggest promotions, having developed loyal followings. But for those determined to make it, America is the only place to be.
“Without sounding big-headed, I can do anything a promoter asks me to in the ring,” says Joey, sitting at the hotel bar with his thick biceps practically straining out of his hoodie. “I’m kind of limited when it comes to doing flips off the top but I can dive through the ropes from the inside of the ring to the outside. I can do technical wrestling. I can do comedic wrestling. I can talk. A lot of the guys nowadays look a little bit like a wrestler but I like to think that I am like the definition of a professional wrestler.”
After two wrestlers pulled out on the day of the show, Joey and another were drafted in at the last moment. Their inclusions required several frantic rewrites by Steve as three different segments needed changing. But with so many moving parts interlinked, and often steered by the crowd’s reaction, he knows that an entire narrative arc can alter on a whim.
Despite the stress and uncertainty, Steve has already pencilled in dates for next year’s shows. The satisfaction of delivering a good performance is enough to keep him going. It’s the same for everyone involved. This group of hobbyists, outsiders and extroverts all have different goals and trajectories, but for now an evening’s entertainment will suffice.
In the bar afterwards, they’re all on hand to meet fans, sign autographs and pose for pictures. The show caters for children and many want to see their favourite performers up close. For Aimee-Louise, Charlene, Joey and Steve, inspiring that wide-eyed enthusiasm is one of the most rewarding parts of being a wrestler. That there’s a cartoonish absurdity to the world they inhabit doesn’t make it any less meaningful.
“There can be a negative perception of wrestling,” says Steve of the sneers and dismissive attitudes. “I think it gets misunderstood. People aren’t watching it because they think it’s real. They’re watching it because they enjoy the stories and the athleticism. You can laugh, and you can not understand something, but if you see that someone’s passionate, if you can see that someone’s giving their all and building something based on how much they care, then you can’t really deny that.”
Find out more about Pro Wrestling Subjective.