PROGRESS: Watch Me Burn

So, I finally got to “That Part”.

Knowing that I had already expressed an appreciation for the character of Jimmy Havoc, many of the individuals who’d already experienced all of PROGRESS to date were eagerly anticipating my watching Chapters 9 and 10 over the past week. I don’t think they were disappointed by my live Twitter reactions in the moment as the major story that ends PROGRESS’s 2013 year unfolded before me. I was genuinely surprised, even though everyone had clearly provided me with signs that something big was coming.

Once Chapter 10 was closed, and the corresponding episode of Facelock Feministas was recorded, I had some time to digest what I had seen and how I really felt about it. Unpacking your feelings about wrestling never gets easier, no matter how long you’ve been watching it or how much of it you’ve seen. If anything, it gets more complicated as you become more honest with yourself. Perhaps that’s also a sign of age – a willingness to see even the ugly parts of yourself reflected back at you in your favorite art form, and forcing yourself to confront those things head on.

Before I go any further, I have two requests for you, dear reader. First, make sure you’ve actually WATCHED the first 10 chapters of PROGRESS, or I’m about to ruin the whole thing for you. Second, watch this video. It really helped to put some things in perspective for me, and I can tell you right now, it’s going to color the way I watch the rest of this story unfold in a major way.

Going into this experience of watching all of PROGRESS, I promised myself I would make a concerted effort to watch everything – all of the matches, all of the promos, any content PROGRESS provided via their On Demand service, I would consume. That meant seeing where my limit was when it came to Havoc’s hardcore matches. I was always fascinated by this kind of match, but assumed my own usual physical response to the sight of blood (light-headedness and fainting) meant it wouldn’t be possible to watch all the way through. And yet two hardcore matches have occurred so far, and I’ve watched them both completely. Perhaps a debt is owed to Lucha Underground for desensitizing me to blood, or at least for helping me to understand blood is a tool in the wrestling world, and if used properly it can enhance the telling of a story.

The story in question is not hard to follow. Havoc’s character is a weirdo, an outcast at the start. He’s a hardcore wrestler who wants to get involved at PROGRESS, so he has to prove that he can work the style of the promotion. Even though he doesn’t win his matches, each time he steps into the ring the crowd is fully behind him. Each match is a thing of beauty, each opponent elevated for having worked with him. When a real problem threatens PROGRESS, the existence of the London Riots and the mayhem they bring with them, Havoc is put into a hardcore match with one of their members to teach them a lesson. Let them step into the ring with someone who takes great enjoyment in causing them pain. In the end it’s Jimmy who takes a brunt of the force and ends up losing the match – yet again. So when he finally has had enough and unloads on Jim Smallman in Chapter 9, it’s really not that shocking. What is really amazing, though, is the promo he cuts on Smallman, and everyone in charge at PROGRESS. He goes on to make good on his threat of doing what he wants in Chapter 10, cashing in his contract for a match with an opponent and a stipulation of his choosing against then-champion Mark Andrews, and winning both his first match for the promotion and the PROGRESS title in the process.

While watching the YouTube video that summarizes this story and Havoc’s first two years at PROGRESS, it suddenly occurred to me why I don’t hate this heel version of Jimmy Havoc, but rather adore him. It’s so simple, I’m surprised it required any ‘unpacking’ at all, really: you can’t shame someone for being different and then try to capitalize on the thing that sets them apart from you and not expect to be burned for it.

Any marginalized group of people can tell you this story. There’s so many variations on it, the fact that it took this long to figure out what a wrestling version of it would be is the only thing shocking about it. I deal with it within our wrestling community every day, and I’m sure many other writers who are women, people of color, or LGBTQ can tell you the same thing. Day after day we get passed over or considered less-than because we aren’t white males with a specific perspective on wrestling. We’re mocked, we’re trolled, and then when publications find out they need a more diverse writing team, we’re absolutely bombarded with requests for work. Unpaid of course, but it’ll be good for exposure. The same thing happens from the outside looking into the wrestling world, too. Reputable publications never want to be pitched for pieces even in the vicinity of the professional wrestling world, but the second something “newsworthy” happens involving someone with the last name of McMahon, my inbox is full of requests (again, unpaid) because they know my turnover is quick and I know what I’m talking about.

“Fix our problem, but know that we think your art form is still illegitimate.”

Pink chair shots all around, absolutely.

So it turns out that it’s not Jimmy Havoc’s dark eyeliner or his Doc Martens or his love of AFI that makes me his fan. It’s the story. It’s him taking back control not only of his career in PROGRESS, but who validates him as a performer – who gives what he does meaning. He becomes powerful simply by being undeniable and being true to himself. He reclaims his mean streak and, as a result, takes his rightful place at the top of PROGRESS. Sure, in the world of pro wrestling storytelling, Jimmy Havoc is a bad guy – a heel. He beat up one of the promoters, someone who wasn’t prepared (nor should have to be) to defend himself. He poured lighter fluid on a wrestler who’d just wrestled two matches and won his first championship. But he’s also probably one of the most honest characters you’ll see in the wrestling world’s modern age.

“I’m going to do what I want to do,” he says over Smallman’s beaten form, splayed out on the canvas.

I hope you do, Jimmy. I hope we all do.

The Lady J Says

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PROGRESS: To Begin With

Last night, I was staring at my computer screen and the words just wouldn’t come. Nothing is more frustrating as a writer than when you have a topic you are passionate about, something you’ve talked a great length about before, but when it comes time to sit down and write about it, the words wouldn’t come. So this morning, I got up and made breakfast, and sat down to think about something else – anything else. What popped into my mind was the movie Almost Famous.

Sometimes I feel like that movie’s protagonist, William Miller. Not because I’m two years younger than my mother told me I was, or because I’ve traveled the country with my favorite band. I just keep finding myself in these wonderful, interesting situations that you don’t realize, until you step back and get a little perspective on them, make up a life. In my case they are not music related (or, I should say, they are not usually music-related) but more often than not have to do with wrestling.

For several months now, people have been telling me to give the UK promotion PROGRESS a shot. The thought of paying for one more wrestling streaming service kept me from listening to them. In November, I wrote a blog post about an incredible promo cut by Pete Dunne, Trent Seven, and Tyler Bate (who are currently the holders of PROGRESS’s Championship and Tag Team titles, respectively.) I enjoyed it so much, I promised myself that when I was in a financial position to do so, the next thing I would do was sit down and watch everything PROGRESS had to offer me. That time came this past Wednesday.

Since then, I have started the process of watching all of PROGRESS in order, starting (as one does) with Chapter 1. Naturally, when I began I had a great deal of questions. Was there a context I was missing? Not only was I concerned about things I might miss because these early shows are five years old and what happens between them might be lost on me (for example, Jimmy Havoc had a twitter campaign to get himself on PROGRESS’s second show that they called #BookHavoc) but I was also concerned about the cultural context of my not being from the UK. Surely there would be jokes made by the audience (and trust me, they LOVE jokes in the audience at PROGRESS) that just went entirely over my head. That’s where Twitter came in:

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Every possible question I had, though, was answered by someone on Twitter. I was even provided with a link to a thread on the Voices of Wrestling forum that provides a breakdown of each chapter and Youtube videos for anyone who might be looking for those aforementioned in-between moments & storylines.

As if having a helpful cacophony of PROGRESS fans answering my questions wasn’t enough, the second thing that happened was the response to my general thoughts on what I was seeing, from the matches to the commentary and everything in between. In wrestling, as with everything, there are often fans who feel they have ownership over their favorite promotions and wrestlers. These are the people who are quick to say things like “well, I’ve loved them since 2003, when they were still running out of a barn” or other such nonsense. That’s not PROGRESS fans, at least none of the ones I’ve encountered. Not only are they helpful, they seem genuinely excited to see a new person (just one! I’m only one person!) get into this promotion that they so adore. They get more excited as I experience moments of foreshadowing, and some of them are taking great joy in messaging me things like “I’m so glad you liked that, but JUST WAIT!” Conversely, they reassure me when there are missteps along the way, as the chapters I’m working through are still the first shows of a fledgling promotion.

In chapters 1 through 4, everyone is making it up as they go along. The promoters, the wrestlers, the audience – all of the players involved are working out what PROGRESS is, and what they want it to be. Having already experienced Chapter 41 (December, 2016) I know they eventually start booking women (noticeably absent from the early chapters) and they generally accept a more welcoming and inclusive attitude. Not that there is anything in the first four chapters that I think is so offensive I would turn it off, but there is definitely some language use that would turn people off. The benefit here is in hindsight, and I know it gets better, in large part because people keep telling me it does.

During Chapter 1, I decided to take notes. This is typical behavior for me when I’m going to podcast about something (i.e. Lucha Underground) and I think at some point my wonderful friend Courtney and I will be doing that. In looking over the eighteen pages of notes I have for the first four chapters, I notice one thing that is new for me: notes of moves and maneuvers. Not that I normally overlook such things, as naturally they are incredibly important, but there is something about PROGRESS that just makes the wrestling itself stand out. There are excellent storylines in PROGRESS, and everyone knows how much I love a good story. I expect as we move into the chapters from 2013, their storytelling abilities will only improve. But the individuals in the ring provide such clear opportunities to experience and appreciate quality wrestling. While I’m sure many people would argue over the exact definition of what British Strong Style wrestling is, I would say that a huge part of it is thoughtful wrestling. This is not to say it is, by any means, slow wrestling, or boring. But there is an intellect to what is done; you can see the thought process of each wrestler demonstrated in what their bodies do. This is an incredible feat, when you really think about it: the motion of your body is an expression of how you think as a human.

PROGRESS is fun, and it’s funny. A great deal of this is owed to the audience, and the wrestler’s relationship with them. If you are a wrestler who shows up at PROGRESS with no intention of interacting with the crowd, be warned: they will MAKE YOU. It appears that the wrestlers who “get over” with the crowd (as either a face or a heel, it doesn’t really matter) are the ones who shout back at them, or give in to their ridiculous chants – Jimmy Havoc spooning his opponents, Noam Dar throwing shortbread at the crowd, Will Ospreay starting his own Hufflepuff chant against Mark Andrews. The PROGRESS crowd loves their performers, even the bad guys, and it seems clear that the wrestlers love them back.

I don’t really know how we get from the storylines of Chapter 4: The Battle of El Ligero to Chapter 41: Unboxing Live. I imagine there will be great moments and missteps along the way, things will certainly morph and change, but I have never in my life been so excited to see all of it. If you’re interested in following along with me, or wish to start your own journey into PROGRESS’s history, check out their On Demand service. I hope to work through the whole thing in the next four months, as I have a trip to the UK planned for the end of May and would love to get to see a PROGRESS show live. In the meantime, you can follow along with me on Twitter, and hopefully there will be more blog posts and a few podcast episodes along the way. PROGRESS chapters are meaty and dense (there is a joke somewhere in there about their wrestlers) and so it will take some time for me to break down every thought I have. I imagine the more of it I’ve seen, the more clear the larger picture will become.

In the meantime, I leave you with the first thought I have on the promotion right now, a paraphrase of the final scene of Almost Famous.

“What do you love about PROGRESS?”

“To begin with? Everything.”

The Lady J Says

Imposter Syndrome

A few days ago, my roommate (who works for NASA) was discussing a concept known as Imposter Syndrome as it relates to the science world.

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In this case, she was discussing how women feel, even with post-doctorate degrees and fully-funded research projects, that they will eventually be discovered to be imposters in the science community. It’s something many of the women she works with are constantly struggling to overcome.

As I was listening to her speak, I realized that I struggle with my own Imposter Syndrome in the pro-wrestling world as a writer. I’m sure there are plenty of writers (particularly non-male-identifying) who suffer the same thoughts: that what we do is somehow less than, or that suddenly the community will wake up and realize our opinions are invalid.

I always try to qualify my writing with my own experiences or with my “place” in the wrestling community. How many of my posts have included the phrase “Now, I’m not a wrestler/promoter/referee/etc”? Plenty, though I’ve never counted. I make an attempt when creating these pieces to be forthcoming about how much information or experience I possess, and whether or not my opinion can truly be subjective.

Recently, Tommy End made some waves on Twitter with the following statement:

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I’m going to step right over the use of the phrase “valid opinion” in order to make a slightly different point here about objectivity. I believe Tommy’s argument here was actually about the fact that people who comment on wrestling can only give an outsider’s opinion, which lacks a certain insight having never wrestled a match/booked a show before. That is fair, as you are looking in from the outside instead of the other way around. But what I see as a fan and a writer is that Tommy is also forgetting that as a someone who is a wrestler, often times his own opinion (and not his specifically, but anyone inside the business) can be equally as subjective because their own preferences/experiences color their opinions, just as a fan’s does. The only difference is that his opinion is colored by his physical experience instead of his voyeur-based preference.

As a fan and writer, this argument is not entirely unlike the one I run into often regarding my role as a “feminist writer” with an “agenda” (oooh, scary!) I’ve been told many, many times that I am attempting to view wrestling through a lens that it was never intended for. Naturally my counter to that is that none of human history was ever intended to be viewed through the lens of strong female empowerment, so get over it. But the implication there is that the male perspective on wrestling is more valid than the female because they are the “target audience”. And how often has we, as readers of articles and consumers of content, found that men are more likely to rush into half-baked articles, unafraid of their lack of research or proper sources before hitting “publish”? That’s not to say there aren’t women who are also guilty of it, but in an environment where the validity of a woman’s opinion is already in question, many of us feel a need to double down on the “science” side of our work, the quotes, the research, etc., before allowing the general public in.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not advocating for anyone who is so inclined to suddenly stop checking themselves. I AM however advocating for everyone else to stop wrecking themselves by giving in to a furious desire to be “first”. (This was recently discussed on the Talking Sheet Podcast rather eloquently by hosts Les Moore, Hugh Little, and Sealia Bloom.) But I am also advocating for women, for anyone who is not a cis-gendered white dude, to find their validity. Take a deep breath and silence that voice inside you that says someone is going to “find you out”. You are a wrestling fan, and a talented content-creator. You’re not an imposter; you’re the real deal.

The Lady J Says