January 27th 2013 may be prove to be a landmark day in the short history of Progress Wrestling.
After four sell-out and rapturously received shows, Progress deserves every bit of the positive buzz,
plaudits and excitement that their product is attracting. Without doubt, this is a promotion that
has managed to create an identity and a passionately loyal fan-base in an incredibly short amount
of time. Through a combination of co-owner Jim Smallman’s welcoming and infectiously joyful
personality, engaging social-media promotion and a consistently entertaining in-ring product, this is
a promotion that is onto something.
Having attended every show so far, I’ve happily shouted from the rooftops to anyone who will listen
about the fact that this is something special on the BritWres scene. I even took the terrifying step
of introducing my non-wrestling fan girlfriend to the live wrestling experience at Chapter 3, and she
actually enjoyed it. And yet, reflecting on December’s “Chapter 4: The Ballad Of El Ligero,” I can’t
help but worry that cracks are showing. This is not a column designed to question every booking
decision or engage in “armchair booking”; wrestling fans are currently using up 23% of the bit of
the internet not reserved for boobs*. With that said, these are a few of the concerns that have me
nervous about the bloom coming off the rose in 2013:
1. Storyline Inconsistencies:
There were just a few elements of the way storylines were presented at Chapter 4 that made it
hard to take them seriously. To be clear: Jim Smallman is one of the biggest reasons that Progress
works. As an emcee/ring announcer, he can take credit for making the audience feel a part of the
promotion already. He is, however, not an actor. Any physical interaction between the London Riots
and the Progress owner comes off as forced and contrived. The Riots are one of the hottest acts
on the card, with an aura of genuine danger surrounding them. These segments are in danger of
shattering that illusion. Smallman is more of an asset to the shows when he isn’t made a character.
Of greater concern is the main event storylines. New Progress Champion El Ligero has shown signs of
developing an interesting and believable character, moving him beyond his comedy opener image.
His email-promos as promoted via social media show a man newly-focussed on championship glory
and unconcerned with pandering to fans. Why then, when it came to his title match main event,
was he back to the perma-clapping Rey Mysterio-esque babyface performing for the audience’s
approval? Was this whole storyline just building to him switching to a black mask?
Most bizarre of all was the semi-main event. Why was Marty Scurll channelling Scott Hall/Jake
Roberts with a drunk gimmick for around half of the time he was out there? Why did then-champion
Nathan Cruz want to take Scurll out of the match when that would have theoretically left him forced
to defend against one of the two monsters it left? Why, around 8 seconds after Scurll and Cruz
brawled through the door to the back, did Jim Smallman walk out of the same door looking entirely
unconcerned? Are we to believe he didn’t notice two of his top stars trying to decapitate each other
in the middle of the dressing room? Perhaps he wasn’t bothered? Turned out I was more concerned
than I should have been as, minutes later, Cruz emerged from the back having found time to change
into his full entrance gear for his match. I assume the fight was settled amicably...or perhaps Scurll
was lying dead in a skip somewhere near the Boston Dome? Nobody seemed especially worried
Wrestling fans are used to weird plot holes. Making sense of an episode of RAW is a futile task more
often than not. But at least WWE’s writers have the excuse of having to produce 52 hours* of fresh
programming every week. Progress runs a show every couple of months or so, with a relatively small
roster of characters. If the product is going to live up to its potential in the long term, I don’t think
it’s unreasonable to hope for tighter storylines.
One of the defining successes of Progress Wrestling so far is in its use of comedy. This is no accident,
with Smallman’s day-job is that of a very good stand-up comedian (could this be the first recorded
use of the term “day-job” to refer to stand-up?). When the one and only foreign import brought
in to date is Colt Cabana, and he spent his appearance playing fetch with a man who is a dog/
Don’t Tell The Bride contestant (are they called contestants? If so, he definitely won), you can be
pretty confident that the promotion is going to have a strong comedy element. From the strongly-
encouraged crowd chanting (it’s a joy watching heels trying not to laugh at some of the heckling), to
Jimmy Havoc’s spooning, to absolutely everything RJ Singh’s entourage does, I have never laughed
so much at wrestling shows in my life.
Looking again at Chapter 4, I think there may be a danger that the comedy has become such a major
part of the shows that nothing is going to be taken seriously. The crowd interaction is awesome, but
how many people are still going to pay to shout “deep-fried Mars bars” or “London Diets” in a year’s
time? I already found by Chapter 4 that much of the heckling was getting a bit tired and predictable,
though it was obvious people were still enjoying themselves.
Wrestling, at its core, is about making an audience believe enough to become emotionally invested
in the fortunes of the characters. I read a comment on Facebook proclaiming the brilliance of the
Mark Andrews vs William Ospreay match. It was certainly a fun and impressive athletic spectacle,
but the comment in question claimed that the crowd was “red-hot”. No they were not. Not even
remotely. Certainly there were pops for the multitude of cool spots, and certainly everyone was
having fun, but the audience spent most of the match thinking of Harry Potter references to shout
out. Even the wrestlers themselves seemed more pre-occupied with inter-house posturing than
progressing in the tournament. A “red-hot” crowd loses themselves in the plight of the babyface, or
their hatred of the heel, or just the desperate desire to see their favourite triumph. This crowd sang
theme tunes and made up names of spells. I can confidently say that not one person in the room
gave a Hufflepuff who won the match.
And that is my fear. The comedy is great, it’s part of the fun. But if it’s not handled carefully,
Progress will never be able to capitalise on the great roster they have and make anything actually
matter. If they can redress this balance, and actually build some real heat in some stories, the
product will soar.
3. Main events:
Finally a very simple note – It is possible to have a main event match without spending 10 minutes
having a convoluted brawl in the crowd. I’m willing to be corrected here, but I believe the main
event of all four shows thus far have started this way. Now I understand that this tends to get a pop,
and if you’ve never been at a live show that’s spilled out into the crowd and had a wrestler destroy
the section of chairs you’re in there’s definitely a novelty value to it. But EVERY MAIN EVENT?
Really? The main event should be telling the story that sells the tickets, ideally, and a portion of the
story in Progress main events are happening where half the crowd can’t even see it happening! It’s
the physical equivalent of the cheap pops that Mick Foley parodied: People will react, but there is
absolutely no emotional attachment to it. Nobody’s thinking “wow Nathan Cruz is in trouble here,
Ligero’s killing him”, they’re thinking “cool he nearly landed on me!”.
Progress has some great workers, I hope 2013 sees them trusted to craft main events that people
believe in without relying on the same crutch.
I’ll be buying a ticket for my fifth show in a row at Chapter 5. This is the first time in my 23 years
as a wrestling fan that I’ve cared about a promotion enough to attend every show. I still sing the
praises of Progress to anyone who will listen. 2012 was the most extraordinary debut year for this
wonderful promotion. But honeymoon periods are dangerous; they breed complacency. If 2013 is
going to be an even better year, Smallman and Co. need to keep their eyes on the ball and live up to
the name on the posters. The standing-room only, January 27th 2013, “Chapter 5: For Those About
To Fight, We Salute You” at The Garage in Islington will set the tone for the year ahead.
I already know I’ll have fun. But if I’m going to be just as excited for Chapter 10, it’s time to make me
*Figures may not be entirely accurate