Progress: The Art of the Babyface Turn

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.

– The Lady J Says

 

 

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

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:

screen-shot-2017-01-15-at-10-06-25-am

screen-shot-2017-01-15-at-10-07-38-am

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