All photos by Ben Halls
If one of your friends said they wanted to learn how to play the guitar, maybe write some songs and play a few gigs, you wouldn't bat an eyelid. It would be the same if your workmate started jogging home as training for a marathon, or brought in cakes every week because they were thinking about applying for Bake Off. It's normal for people to challenge and express themselves.
How about if they wrestled?
What if they left work, took off their suit, put on trunks, and became a pro wrestler? It sits funny. To most, wrestling is a remnant of childhood: gaudy, Americana-doused superheroes dolling out body slams and chest-chops until good overcomes evil. It's just not something you expect Jeff in legal or Susan in accounting to do.
But wrestling is enjoying a comeback. Up and down the country, there are nightclubs, theatres and leisure centres packed out with fans wanting to see a new breed of British pro wrestling.
VICE Sports went to meet some of the new generation of wrestlers riding the sport's resurgent wave – and they are nothing like the old World of Sport stars your granddad used to watch. Gone are the overweight or steroid-abused bodies slowly bouncing around a ring; modern wrestlers are professional, driven, and ambitious.
You might even have one sat in your office. You just don't know it.
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The show's venue is the Casino Rooms in Rochester. It's your stereotypical local nightclub, and when I walk in the smell of the bleach used to clean up the previous night's revelries hangs thick in the air. The outside of the building is grade II listed – the shell of a nineteenth-century ballroom, close enough to Charles Dickens' trees that the roots are beginning to damage a wall – but inside is grey and wipe-clean. The ring is set up in the middle of the dancefloor and trainees are being put through their drills. Hanging from the low rafters, between banners offering drinks promotions and student deals, are posters of the big-name imports for the night's action at IPW:UK's SuperShow 7.
Among those warming up are the two wrestlers I've come to see. Cieran Donnelly and Danny Duggan make up DND, IPW:UK's tag team champions. The first thing that strikes you about them is that they're the image of young professionals: both are 25 with good jobs in central London and look suitably clean-cut. Cieran is a consultant at a healthcare recruitment firm; Duggan is on a graduate placement in the financial sector.
There's no hint of 'white-collar wrestler' about them, however: both are lifelong fanatics.
"I remember being about 13 or 14, going around a friend's house and them putting a tape in – Survivor Series 2001," says Cieran. "I was hooked. I watched from start to finish, I argued about every single thing they were talking about, and from that point on I had to watch it, I had to be into it. I couldn't not see it."
Duggan also caught the bug from one of his childhood friends.
"For me it started when I was nine or 10," he says. "My best friend at the time... brought around the WWF Smackdown game on PlayStation 1. We played that, and that tweaked my interest.
"Then he showed me it was real. [He] showed me some videos, and I think for my birthday I got one of those double VHS packs you'd get from WH Smiths with Wrestlemania and Summer Slam on it. I was just captivated at that point, I was hooked. Couldn't stop talking about it. I dropped all my other interests – I stopped playing football and stuff – and was just hooked on wrestling."
Both Cieran and Duggan grew up dreaming of being wrestlers, and their desire to turn dreams into reality brought them to their first training school: London Wrestling Training (LWT) in South Croydon. This was not a glamorous entry to the business.
"It wasn't a gym building, like a leisure centre hall, with changing rooms," explains Duggan. "It was literally a hut behind a load of shops."
"My dad's taken me there the first time," he says about tracking down LWT. "He's had to get up early on a Sunday morning just to help me benefit from my passion, and take me to a wrestling training school, which he was completely against. But he saw how much I wanted it. We get there, and there's a laundrette... I was like, there has to be a way, this has to be real."
It was. After poking around down an alley behind the laundrette, Duggan found what he'd been searching for: his first wrestling school. Cieran was already a pupil.
Both had initially gone to the school with childhood friends who'd introduced them to wrestling, but they soon found that the harsh reality of stepping inside the ring wasn't for everyone.
"Next day I couldn't walk," says Duggan of his first training session. "Every muscle ached, and even muscles I didn't know [I had] ached, which I know is a cliché but it's genuinely how I felt. But I was game, I was like, 'We've got to do this next week, so we'll go next week, boom.' My friend was like, 'No, no, I can't do it, I've got too many headaches, my body hurts too much, I'm not going to be a wrestler.'"
"I used to look forward to going. Nobody understood," adds Cieran. "[My friends would] have football practice and be like, 'Where are you going?' and literally, looking back at it now, it was a few mats on the floor and a boxing ring set up in the back.... it was dimly lit... it was great. We'd spend 12 till 6pm there on a Sunday, go there straight after school on a Wednesday. I think I lived there from [the age of] 12 to 15 – that was where I went."
Surprisingly for a pair of best friends who now travel Europe wrestling together, they didn't get along at first. Today they revel in giving each other shit about their first meeting. As Duggan is quick to point out: "This guy walks in [wearing a] vest t-shirt, 3/4 length trousers, sunglasses indoors," and then proceeded to correct something Duggan was doing.
It didn't stay that way. After bonding over late-train beers a few years later, the two formed the bond that lasted through university and into their current wrestling careers.
The school closed when the pair were 17 and, despite working a few small matches, their aspirations largely went back on the shelf during university. The passion didn't die though; the two would still talk wrestling non-stop, and when the drinks flowed so did the old moves.
"Our landlords didn't like the fact that we were wrestlers," Cieran admits sheepishly. "We'd obviously have a few drinks, then it'd be time to show off some moves. And the walls... the walls suffered a bit."
After graduating university, the pair went back to wrestling school to start what they call their "second run". Older and more mature, they now treat wrestling with real professionalism. No longer content to just be in the ring, they thrive on mixing it with the best. It's what led them to their match at IPW:UK Super Show 7 to defend their beloved tag team titles.
It's their second reign as champions – the first lasted over 500 days, the third longest in IPW:UK history – having won back the belts in January. While discussing it I call their championships "straps" a few times. This does not go down well.
"I'd like to call it a championship. Strap is very colloquial. I'm not taking the piss, it's just very colloquial," says Duggan without malice, but looking to make sure that something he loves is treated with the same respect that he gives it.
"There are only a certain amount of champions in the show," he explains, "and if you're chosen to be a champion it's because you're a brand ambassador for that company, and you should treat that with respect. Because people will see [if] you treat that belt with respect, and that championship with respect, then it means something to them, so it raises the level of the belt and it raises the level of you."
The way he describes treating a title belt encapsulates how DND approach wrestling. With the possible exception of the industry's youngest fans, everyone now knows that wrestling results are predetermined. Hearing what being awarded a title run meant to the pair, though, made it feel more than real. They'd entered IPW as trainees a year before their first title win, going up against their mentors the London Riots. Both admit that at the time the fans expected DND to be eaten alive – and they duly were. A year later, when they won the belts from the Riots, it had all changed.
"The crowd went from believing [we were] going to get absolutely dominated and beaten," says Cieran. "And I will always remember –always remember – that, 'one, two, three'. The fans had gone, 'We believe in you as champions now. We were ready for you to become champions, and you deserve it.'... it showed that all my hard work and all those times when I'd missed Mother's Day, I'd missed birthdays, I'd missed my own birthday [were worth it]. We missed our 25th together because we were here in the show. We're not complaining, but that was the pinnacle of 'we respect you'."
"The physical championship itself isn't what I work for, it isn't what makes me happy, it isn't what fulfills me," adds Duggan. "Being a champion can just be a title sometimes, just be a name, but it's being accepted as a champion, seen as a champion, respected as a champion. People understand that you treat yourself as a champion. That's probably when it solidified."
While climbing to the top of the tag team mountain, the pair had another challenge: starting ordinary careers to support their wrestling ones – for the time being, at least. Like any creative pursuit, wrestling has no guarantee of paying rent or funding a pension.
There's no doubt that finding the right work-wrestling balance is a strain. Duggan outlines his gruelling schedule, having to fit in a strict diet, wrestling training, watching matches, and extensive gym sessions around his commute and long office days. Both use most of their annual leave to either go wrestling – Duggan proudly tells of taking his summer holiday on the All Star Wrestling holiday camp circuit – or as days off to recover from tough matches.
"Monday mornings are always hard after a big show," says Cieran with a laugh, "and people always comment on why you're walking weirdly or why it's taken you a couple of minutes to sit down."
Whereas Duggan was relatively open with his workmates about his passion – and why he'd been walking gingerly a few days a week – Cieran took the opposite approach and did his best to keep it under wraps. It worked – for a while.
"Someone [was] looking in my bag one day, and I had my shorts in there, and they pulled me aside when we were drinking once and asked if I was a stripper, because the gear had my name on it," Cieran says.
"One time I had a match and, unluckily, I got concussed. And I came in [to work]; my eyes were quite dilated, so I didn't know what was going on, people were saying things to me and I wasn't registering it whatsoever. And they turned to me and went, 'Oh, I didn't know you could really get injured as a stripper,' and that was the moment that I had to tell them that I was a wrestler."
Both find a surprising amount of support from their colleagues, mostly in the form of questions. Everyone has a wrestling memory, they say, and usually people look to engage with them. Duggan even found himself being emailed by a colleague from a different site who'd recognised his name from seeing him at local indie shows. So long as they're not doing wrestling business on company time – such as managing bookings, promoting matches, or selling merchandise – they tend to find support.
There's more to the DND story – we talk for a few hours about their journey from wrestling-mad teenagers to twenty-something young professionals juggling work and their passion – but it hits 4pm and that's my cue to leave the dressing room. I'd spoken to the promoter about being a fly on the wall there, but received a firm 'no' in response. Wrestling locker rooms are notoriously close knit groups, and I was informed that my hanging around would "get people's backs up."
I've never been gladder to be told 'no,' however, as it sent me out front for the show.
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The trainees have completed their session and, as a part of their dues, also finished setting up the ring. When the doors open, a few fans make a beeline to seats by the entrance ramp to get high fives as their favourites walk down to the ring. Most mill around the bars, which are open and serving, while some get in line to pay a tenner for a photo with one of the headline wrestlers.
The most obvious difference from the IPW:UK crowd to that of the WWE ones I've experienced is that there are a lot more women present. Not just girlfriends of the blokes in attendance, either: in the VIP section there is a group that seems to include three or four generations of women, all rabid fans. Sat in front of me is a girl, no older than 10, in full Jimmy Havoc garb and giving the wrestlers she doesn't like hell. This crowd is a proper community.
When the show starts, it's nothing like watching WWE-style arena wrestling, either. It's a world better.
You can hear every slap and kick land, and feel the tension rise and fall as the wrestlers take risks. When there is a big slam, the crack on the ring is loud enough to make you wince. In one match, a giant of a wrestler called Big Grizzly throws his opponent into the corner so hard that the ring slides a few inches across the dancefloor.
It's a very naked experience. Every slight error is obvious, every hard hit even more so. Cieran had described the experience of wrestling as vulnerable, and I could see what he meant.
DND are second up, after an intermission that sees the crowd stock up on beers or pop outside for a cigarette. I go backstage to check in with them; they're quiet, getting into the zone. They seem almost solemn, about to go through a ritual they revere.
As soon as they come through the curtain they're different people. The energy hits, and they're nothing like before. There isn't a trace of the quiet preparation, nor the young-professional demeanour they'd displayed earlier. They're pure energy, once again the eager teenagers who just wanted to wrestle without a care for who or where.
They're up against Irish tag team Kings of the North and it's a classic back and forth match. Their opponents are older and bigger, tough heels to DND's exuberant faces. Eventually, DND hit their finisher – Duggan lifts his opponent up to suplex them, and Cieran superkicks them as they crash down – to retain their championships.
Out back afterwards, both teams are spent. Cieran does a quick debrief with the Kings of the North; it's the first time they have wrestled each other, and they talk through a few spots that didn't come off in an effort to understand why. Duggan checks his phone, before watching the next match on closed circuit TV. Neither wants to talk; they've both given everything in the ring.
I'd asked them earlier if the discipline that they'd learned from wrestling had helped them in their day jobs, and both had gave an unequivocal yes. They'd used all the words from PR bingo – ambitious, passionate, competitive – when talking about how they approach both wrestling and their careers. But their post-match state was proof that this is what they really are, not just what they thought sounded good. It wasn't that they were physically exhausted – although they were certainly beaten up – more that they'd truly given everything they had in their performance for the fans.
We all love to romanticise the discipline that sports can instil in people. We don't usually count wrestling among them, although perhaps in this case we should do. It certainly drives DND.
"What do you live for if you don't have dreams?" Duggan said earlier, when asked if he'd quit wrestling for a big promotion at his nine-to-five that would limit his freedom to perform. "We've all had dreams at different stages of our life about what we want to be. People ask me why I wrestle. And I go, 'Well, when you were a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you were older?' And people will go, 'Oh, a policeman, a doctor'. Are you that? And they'll go, 'no'. I say that I wanted to be a wrestler; and I am a wrestler.
"Wrestling is free form; it's art; it's an expression of what you do through physicality... it's what I get up for in the morning, what I go to the gym for when I'm tired, what I train for when I don't want to. All I want to do is be a wrestler and it's all I've ever wanted to do."
We all crave the ability to get going when we least feel up to it. For DND, wrestling gives them just that. It feels like the Fight Club sentiment: 'Fight Club became the reason to cut your hair short or trim your fingernails.' Wrestling has given them the belief to follow their passion, despite a lot of people not fully understanding it, and it's taught them to push beyond and to achieve. As DND say themselves, wrestling isn't WWE-or-bust anymore; nor is it poorly produced matches in empty leisure centres. It's a proper business, run by promoters like Daniel at IPW:UK who love it, with cards of passionate wrestlers like DND, and a real community of fans.
Wrestling is more than just wrestling, too. Looking around the current state of the British pro scene, it teaches more than how to take a big hit or captivate a room. As DND prove, wrestling teaches success.