On my journey to watching all of the shows that Progress Wrestling in the UK has produced, I have hit a major turning point: I’ve just finished Chapter 20. If you HAVEN’T, stop reading now. Trust me – you want to experience this unspoiled.
After finishing the main event, and crying my eyes out (not an exaggeration – that was some serious emotional catharsis from a wrestling/storytelling perspective) I had pages upon pages of notes. My Facelock Feministas podcast co-host, Courtney, and I will talk about all of them, I’m sure, on the next episode. But there was one thing I’ve been turning over and over again in my head.
While a tremendous credit is owed to Jimmy Havoc for helming the storyline that played out from Chapter 2 to Chapter 20, as well as his opponent Will Ospreay (who remarkably ALSO debuted on Chapter 2) and Progress MC & co-owner Jim Smallman, there are a lot of supporting characters who played pivotal roles in the journey of the Progress title and, arguably, one of the best story arcs in independent wrestling. It featured some of the biggest names in wrestling today, like Marty Scurll and Zack Sabre Jr. It gave some of us foreigners a chance to fall in love with UK wrestlers we didn’t know as much about like Rampage Brown, Dave Mastiff, and Paul Robinson. It even gave me a window into guys I knew only a little about, like Noam Dar and Mark Andrews, and allowed me the chance to become a real fan of their work. But as someone who was guaranteed to develop an affinity for both Havoc and Ospreay as performers during this 18-chapter run, who thought she knew how she would feel when it was all “over”, it was The London Riots who stole my heart.
The London Riots ALSO debuted in Chapter 2, with a match against the Velocity Vipers (one of whom is a terribly young Will Ospreay). The Riots are two big guys with a powerful moveset and a mean streak a mile wide, something that doesn’t necessarily attract me as a fan when it comes to tag-team wrestling. (I am not, for example, terribly interested in The Authors of Pain or War Machine.) But two common threads that exists through all of the Progress roster – singles competitors and tag teams, both men and women alike – is their desire to put on a stellar, show-stealing performance and the stunning intelligence with which they approach wrestling. The London Riots are no exception to this rule, creating vicious, exciting matches that both infuriate fans and stimulate their imaginations. Their ability to wrestle any number of tag teams or singles competitors and routinely deliver some of the best tag matches I’ve ever had the privilege to watch is, therefore, not surprising in the least.
Rob Lynch and James Davis put their first-class abilities to good use during the story involving Jimmy Havoc and his run with the Progress title, though it’s entirely possible to push them from the forefront of your mind while you’re watching. This is not to say they are not incredible, or that they are unimportant, but rather that they seamlessly fold their gifts into the larger story. They enhance everything they touch without pulling focus, which is such a subtle nuance I struggle to find another instance of it in my wrestling lexicon that is remotely comparable. They start out as the Monster Heels of Progress, wrecking every tag team opponent the promotion throws at them. The fans boo them and turn their backs when they enter The Garage and Jim Smallman becomes increasingly more frustrated as he and his business partners search for a way to eliminate the Riots from their roster forever. Naturally, one way is to split them up, with Lynch losing a Last Man Standing match to Danny Garnell and James Davis being taken to his limit before eventually overcoming the still-babyface Jimmy Havoc. It is therefore all the more painful to see Havoc not only turn on the Progress team and its fanbase, but to align himself with these awful heels, whom the crowd thought were gone for good. When the London Riots lift Jimmy up onto their shoulders with the Progress title over his head, the temperature in the room seems to drop several degrees: a long, hard winter has set in at Progress.
Over the next five chapters, Havoc’s enforcers bring chaos wherever they go, including to the ENDVR shows, to rain suffering down on the likes of Eddie Dennis and the Bhangra Knights. Their enjoyment at assisting Havoc in causing chaos throughout Progress seems to abruptly halt when Jimmy brings a knife to a fist fight in order to torture Will Ospreay after the Riots beat Screw Indy Wrestling, Project Ego, and the Swords of Essex to become the number 1 contenders for the tag titles.
It is here you see a crack in the Riots’ facade – that Havoc is willing to go far past the kind of punishment the Riots are comfortable inflicting creates a separation between them, however subtle. It is therefore really no surprise when two chapters later we see Paul Robinson sacrifice James Davis in order to save Havoc and his title reign in a Career vs. Title match against Ospreay, Noam Dar, and team FSU. As the Riots stand over the Progress logo in the middle of the ring, that cold feeling suddenly dissipates and something shifts; they seem genuinely devastated to have to leave, and the crowd seems sorry to send them off. They may have been two of the biggest baddies in the promotion, but they still BELONG to the Progress crowd in a strange way. Davis and Lynch hesitate before heading up the steps to the exit and it’s hard not to feel that we’ve witnessed an important change.
Over the next three chapters, the tag titles move from FSU to The Faceless, and it seems clear that the Riots have left a sizable hole in the tag team division at Progress. Meanwhile, Havoc manages to retain his title against the likes of Rampage Brown, Dave Mastiff, Marty Scurll, Noam Dar, and even the chosen one of Progress, Will Ospreay. After winning a particularly nasty six-way match, Havoc by Morgan Webster that it’s always best to have an insurance policy.
Enter the London Riots.
This is one of the biggest pops I’ve ever heard from the Progress crowd while watching the shows on demand. The London Riots belong to this crowd. They have been with Progress since the beginning. They have bled and bumped and fought on to entertain these people, and now they truly are the Progress fans’ team. Jim Smallman welcomes them back with open arms, and announces that Havoc and his henchman Paul Robinson will face off against the Riots at the inaugural Super Strong Style 16 tournament.
The London Riots vs. Jimmy Havoc and Paul Robinson is my favorite match in Progress thus far, and might actually be my favorite match of all time. Seems a pretty lofty claim to make, but if you know anything regarding what I love most about wrestling, it doesn’t seem so strange at all. It’s one of the most brutal matches this side of hardcore that I’ve ever seen, which falls directly into my wheelhouse as a fan. In terms of storytelling and character work, though, it is completely brilliant. The London Riots might be the only comparable characters in Progress (up to this point) to Jimmy Havoc in terms of madness. Obviously, they draw a line far sooner than he does on what they think is fair play in terms of the sort of violence they inflict on others on the roster, but they are 100% willing to put their own bodies – their own well being – on the line in order to achieve their goal. Knowing that Jimmy has no limits is like being granted permission to forgo their own limits as well. They even take the time to work outside of their normal moveset, which feels like a nod at anyone who would ask “what have you two been doing the last three shows” because the answer is, of course, plotting revenge. When Rob Lynch uses an Acid Rainmaker on Havoc, it proves that they were paying attention when he was their leader, and that there is no one you want less as an enemy than someone who used to be your right hand man.
Five chapters earlier, Noam Dar showed us all that Jimmy Havoc was fallible. Even though he didn’t win the match, he got Havoc to tap out, and we all saw it. What the Riots proved was that somewhere deep down inside, the old Havoc – the one James Davis put away in a hardcore match back in Chapter 8 – still existed. He could be weakened, he could be surprised, and he could be defeated. It took two of them, their District Line finisher, and the cheers of 700 Progress fans but Havoc was pinned right there in the middle of the ring at the end of the match. The London Riots were heroes. They had widened the crack that had been created by Noam Dar and would eventually break Havoc in half thanks to Will Ospreay. When the Riots joined Ospreay at ringside for the main event of Chapter 20, you knew the end was near – Ospreay couldn’t beat Havoc alone, but he was flanked by the only two men who had managed the unthinkable since Havoc’s title reign began.
Heel turns are awesome. They can be a ton of fun to watch, and can create heroes out of mere men (i.e. Havoc & Ospreay). But if you want to see something truly amazing, take a heel that the crowd loves to hate, someone sick and twisted in their own rite, and find a way to turn them babyface. Watching a heel get his comeuppance is great fun. Watching a babyface finally receive the admiration from the crowd that they always deserved is even better.
Thank you, Riots, indeed.