THIS.IS.PROGRESS

It’s late here in Arlington, Virginia – nearly 10pm on a rainy Tuesday. I’ve been thinking about Dale Beaumont-Brown’s new feature-length documentary ‘THIS.IS.PROGRESS”, and just about Progress in general. You see, Wrestlemania weekend is quickly approaching and I’m having a weird combination of nostalgia for last year’s event, and a decided lack of enthusiasm for this one. There are any number of elements that could be contributing to this – I’m not feeling much myself lately, some of my friends who I’d hoped to see at Mania won’t be able to make it, I haven’t watched very much wrestling in the last four months, etc. But then I think about the night before I flew to Orlando, how I was watching Progress’ “Chapter 36: We’re Going to Need a Bigger Room…Again” and how I screamed when Jimmy Havoc appeared during the main event. I think about what it was like speaking to Jim for the first time, and Jon. How I met a guy called Harry that everyone was referring to as “American Dale” who interviewed Courtney and I – for what, I wasn’t really sure.

And then I watched the documentary.

It is fascinating to me how Dale has captured Progress – all of Progress – in just over 90 minutes. It would be easy to trace a journey in a literal sense, or to contrast a big event to their meager beginnings. He could have traced the personal histories of all three owners, or followed a wrestler around for a while. But then, that wouldn’t be a documentary about Progress.

The thing is, everyone has a Progress story. Glen’s story starts in the audience at Chapter 1. Jimmy’s story began at Chapter 2. Ally’s at 19. Mine and Courtney’s at 41. Progress is a culmination of lots of stories: the linear stories of the wrestling characters, the histories of the performers themselves, the rise of a small “punk rock” company to this international sensation. Hundreds, even thousands, of fans whose lives have been changed or made better through their fandom tell their stories on blogs and podcasts and social media, and the word spreads until everyone has a Progress Story.

So kudos are due to Dale – because he told them all. He spun the angle on Progress to get every perspective you could imagine: promotion, story telling, women’s wrestling, inclusivity, mental health, physical health, family, endings, beginnings – it’s all there. And he doesn’t paint over the ugly parts. Those who have struggled or are struggling now are open about it. The moments when things are falling apart aren’t erased or watered down. Those people we wish to cut out from our history are kept in. Yes, Progress is welcoming and yes, it is a place to feel a part of something. But Jim, Jon, and Glen are not infallible. Progress is not perfect. Wrestling is not perfect. Sometimes the bad stuff gets in, and sometimes it looks fuzzy in the background of a shot, like something from a memory that’s gone all faded. The honesty in “THIS.IS.PROGRESS” is in not giving power to the moments in Progress’ history that have hurt or betrayed any of us who make up this family, but to quietly acknowledge them and move forward.

There are many moments in the film in which what we call “kayfabe” is broken, in a variety of ways. I’m rather partial to a scene in which Mark Haskins is preparing in a hallway before the Brixton show with his headphones on, but the camera has picked up the audio of Jack Gallagher who is a little ways down from him and working out the 8-man tag match that will happen just before the main event. The subtle ways in which Dale “exposes” Progress as the relatively small operation it truly is blew my mind. Watching Jon editing Chapter 46 on a laptop in a hotel room in Orlando, or Jim changing his son’s diaper. I remember how I felt meeting them in Orlando – Progress meant everything to me and words seemed to fail when the time came to express myself. I remember speaking to Jon about Super Strong Style 16 – which was the first event the PWGrrrlGang EVER purchased tickets for. “They’re just people,” someone once told me. And so they are – very real and wonderfully ordinary at times.

There is so much more nuance than I could ever list in a blog post in this documentary. The film’s relationship with light I could wax poetic about for hours, but I also didn’t study film in school and really have no idea what I’m talking about other than it makes you feel a certain way, through the whole thing. What I think my own major takeaway from it will be is that Progress is always going to be home, for so many of us in all aspects of wrestling. As someone who has been looking for a home for a long time, this means so much to me. You can never really be lost if you know where your home is.

I’ll see you in New Orleans.

The Lady J Says

P.S. You can find out more about ‘THIS.IS.PROGRESS’ on their website, or by checking them out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

 

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Boo That Man

There’s a terribly embarrassing story out there about me screaming at the top of my lungs in a ridiculously hot rec center in Queens, NY last year because of the utterance of a single word:

“Aye!”

That was it. I had gotten everything I’d hoped for in that one moment. That sound meant Zack Gibson was going to come out and wrestle his real-life mate Jack Gallagher, one-on-one for the first time in over a year. The match was a surprise, as Jack was meant to wrestle WWE UK Champion Pete Dunne with the title on the line, but Pete had been injured the night before, so Jack was in need of an opponent. Nothing about this experience disappointed; the match was all I could have asked for. But what truly elated me was the promo beforehand and the reaction from the crowd: over a thousand people in a New York borough were booing Zack Gibson at such a deafening volume, you’d think they all had some sort of personal history with him or Liverpool. But this behavior was something we’d all learned from watching Progress On Demand – Gibson is a heel not just because of how he behaves, but because of where he comes from. If you asked anyone in the Elmcor center that day, I doubt any one of them could tell you what there is to hate about someone from Liverpool (having been there myself twice now, I’m still not sure) but they know that when Zack Gibson opens his mouth, we boo that man.

“Gibbo” as he is more affectionately called (though by whom and with what affection remains to be seen) has been around in Progress since Chapter 1. He’s wrestled 44 matches over 39 chapters (and 2 US shows) for the company. He’s one of only 2 men to appear in all three Super Strong Style 16 tournaments (along with Mark Haskins). He’s won the Natural Progress Series Trophy (sort of), held the Tag Titles twice (sort of), and has remained a major part of Progress’ roster since Chapter 12. And yet all throughout these nearly four years now, Zack Gibson has managed to do something most of the other major players for Progress have not: he’s never turned.

Zack’s been a lot of things over the history of Progress Wrestling. He was Flash Morgan Webster’s original foil. He became affiliated with Nathan Cruz’s return as part of The Origin. He was the measuring stick for Jack Sexsmith proving himself. He effortlessly turned the Progress Ultras’ loathing of James Drake into a powerhouse of a tag team. Zack Gibson has been the constant baddie throughout Progress, no matter what else was going on. Perhaps he’s never been the “Big Bad”, like Jimmy Havoc at the helm of Regression, or Pete Dunne and British Strong Style. Instead, Gibson has presented the Progress faithful with someone they can count on as consistently antagonistic, whatever his storyline may be.

Currently, that storyline involves him and his tag team partner, James Drake, (otherwise known as the Grizzled Young Veterans) vying for a rematch against Mark Haskins and Jimmy Havoc in order to recapture the tag titles they lost at Chapter 63. A promo courtesy of the Grizzled Young Veterans went up on Progress’ Youtube channel today, and it was a fucking doozy.

It starts off like any other promo from Progress’ number one, the weeeeeerld’s number one…but then, something happens. About 29 seconds into the video, while Gibson is looking up at the camera and repeating the name of their tag team, there is suddenly a shift on his face. With JD scowling beside him, it’s as though the word “grizzled” has suddenly struck Zack Gibson as perhaps too on the nose for a descriptor. Suddenly, the past six years and sixty-something chapters seem to be written all over his face. He looks exhausted, as though he no longer has the energy to even muster the quick-witted banter we’ve come to expect from him. He takes a breath to steady himself and then launches into a more pointed version of his usual claims, culminating in an accusation that they were robbed of their titles. There’s another moment here, with Drake looking directly into the camera and Gibson’s focus elsewhere that we see it happen again, his history flashing for a moment all over his face. Zack Gibson has never won a singles title in Progress. He beat Flash Morgan Webster for the Natural Progression Series trophy, but not until after the tournament was over. In fact, the ONLY title he’s ever held in Progress was his 77 day run alongside Mr. Mayhem.

The way he spits out Haskins and Havoc’s names like they were curses, and points to Progress management for allowing such underhanded methods to cause a title change, he appears to be smoldering just below the surface. Haskins and Havoc have had every opportunity – literally every one. Both of them have been Progress Champion, both of them have been loved and hated by the Progress audience over time. They ARE Progress at this point, so synonymous with the company that the thought of at least one of them not being on a show is bizarre, almost absurd. Comparatively, too, Gibson has never been quite as obnoxious or dangerous as Haskins or Havoc were in their earlier days, so it’s not hard to see from where his anger stems. He also points out the injustice of Vicky Haskins being allowed not only to hang out at ringside during the match, but to do so with her propensity for barbed wire wrapped accessories. Surely, if Zack brought his own Missus to Progress, she’d kindly be asked to keep her seat. He then demands a rematch, no matter what they have to do to get it. There’s a moment of brevity as Gibson leans back on the wall behind him and James Drake steps forward, but Zack interrupts him with a rant about Flash before he can speak, a la Brookes and Lykos, and then they wander off to regroup.

There is a staggering amount of vulnerability that Zack Gibson offers up during this promo. The ebb and flow as some of it attempts to reach the surface before he stuffs it back down, the cadence to how he speaks as his words cover up years worth of successes and failures. His record in singles competition in Progress isn’t great. But his matches are consistent. His work ethic is consistent. His level of engagement with the fans – who absolutely LOVE to hate him – is consistent. To be held back AGAIN by the three problem children of Progress, whose transgressions and fuck-ups fans seem to forgive and forget time and again, must be infuriating. To be partnered with someone, as Trent Seven so loves to mention, who’s “other job” is working for WWE must also be infuriating. At this point, the fact that Zack Gibson hasn’t yet become Progress’ Big Bad is completely shocking to me. Surely he’ll crack at any moment under that amount of pressure, with all that rage seething inside him.

Now. Go back and watch the promo just one more time. All the way through, just enjoy it this time, because Gibson is a BRILLIANT promo, arguably the best in the business. He’s good, ain’t he? Hard to hate a man that good at what he does. He’s so good, I bet you didn’t even notice where he was standing, did you? With the light just above him and to his left.

So James Drake is standing in his shadow.

– The Lady J Says

Be Happy, Be Happy

Technically, it’s Monday, May 29th, 2017. Today is the final day of Progress Wrestling’s Super Strong Style 16 tournament weekender. I fly back to America in 36 hours, and, to be honest, I really don’t want to go.

The past five months of my life have revolved almost entirely around Progress. Every day has involved watching Progress’s shows, working on this blog or the podcast, and talking to the British wrestling community on Twitter. Now I am finally here in the middle of it all, meeting people who were only a handle and an avatar for a long time, getting to watch wrestlers I’ve fallen in love with since January finally wrestle right before my very eyes. It’s overwhelming. It’s everything I wanted it to be and more. And it’s going to be over very soon.

Even though Courtney and I got to see Progress in Orlando back in March, nothing can compare to the feeling of the Electric Ballroom in Camden. I don’t know that any space will ever feel as this place does. It has its own pulse. It truly is a living part of Progress itself – another character in the promotion’s storyline. To attend Progress in the Ballroom is to see Shakespeare done as it was meant to be done. To queue for hours and wander up and down the line talking to friends is Progress. The sticky floors and the spilled beer are Progress. The vibrations of the music and the dim lights are Progress.

The way the wrestlers interact with the fans in the Ballroom is unique as well. Even when they’re behind merch tables, they never feel unapproachable. Everyone is happy to spend time chatting and catching up, even if you can’t afford to buy anything. The wrestlers recognize people that come back show after show and remember details about their lives. It feels like family in the Ballroom; the fans, the wrestlers, the crew – all of them are Progress.

You think you know what something’s going to be like when you watch the videos of it. Even if you watch every last second of Progress On Demand, none of it quite measures up to the Ballroom experience. You don’t know what it’s like to point up to one of your dearest friends on the balcony and sing Mark Andrews’ music at the top of your fucking lungs. You don’t know what it’s like to see Matt Riddle kick out of what you (and all 699 other people) were SURE was the finish to the match. Jimmy Havoc is more intimidating in the Ballroom. Flash Morgan Webster flies higher in the ballroom. Mark Haskins kicks harder in the Ballroom.

In the first two days of Super Strong Style 16, I have seen amazing things. I saw someone who would have been on the periphery of the industry five or ten years ago stand in the middle of a sea of pride flags. I saw that man’s opponent find a way to tell a deeply compelling story that didn’t involve resorting to homophobia to get them both there. I saw someone with powerful convictions wear his political affiliations on his chest like armor. I saw religion interwoven between characters without disrespecting people’s personal faith.

I saw three incredible women in the main event and a new champion crowned.

Progress is all of my favorite things about wrestling: storytelling, catharsis, competition, aggression, compassion, inclusion, and love. There is so much love in Progress, and not just from the people in the folding chairs, though they are all incredible. The fans have embraced us – embraced me – and made me feel as though I’d always been a part of this thing that they helped to create. The people who run Progress love it and love their fans, and the fans love them back and love one another. I heard people talking about mental health in the queue. I heard people talking about substance abuse and poverty in the ladies room. I talked about American and British politics while standing beside the ring. This is an actual community that they’ve built, a safe haven where nothing is off the table or too taboo to mention. No one is unwelcome.

I have to go home on Tuesday. Tomorrow. I have to go back to America and my day job. But I am going back with something I didn’t have when I came here. I don’t know what I was looking for when I booked a flight and bought a Progress ticket back in February. I’d only watched about 20 Chapters – I still didn’t have the whole picture. But I’ve been in the Ballroom. I cried tears of joy and pride. I hugged my friends. I laughed harder than I ever have before. I got caught up in the chants and the people and the feeling.

I don’t live in the UK and I probably never will. But this place is the perfect intersection of my ethics, my artform, my people. This is where I will always be happy.

This is home. This is Progress.

The Lady J