FIGHT­ING FIT

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS -

A grow­ing UK fit­ness scene with a side of fem­i­nism? Yep, we’re talk­ing women’s wrestling

ook at these fuck­ing girls. Have you ever seen any­thing like this be­fore?’ asks a petite hazel-eyed woman with an un­der­cut. I shake my head. ‘These girls, in this build­ing… this will blow your mind.’ As if on cue, Black Sab­bath booms out of huge speak­ers manned by half a dozen tech­ni­cians and lit­eral sparks fly from the metal cage cur­rently be­ing as­sem­bled around a roped-off ring in the cen­tre of the room. Eight women are in­side it, their rock-hard glutes swathed in shiny shorts, look­ing like hu­man Qual­ity Street. They’re pick­ing each other up, mim­ing throw­ing punches and cir­cling each other in slow mo­tion, as if there’s a sticky piece of gum stuck to their box­ing boots. They com­mu­ni­cate with nods and ver­bal in­struc­tions I strug­gle to dis­cern over the din. I’ll later learn that among them are IT ad­min­is­tra­tors, char­ity work­ers and a teenager study­ing for her A lev­els. Each one looks like she could take me down with a flick of a fin­ger. I’ve got an ac­cess-all-ar­eas pass to Wres­tle Queen­dom at York Hall in East Lon­don – the big­gest women’s wrestling event in Euro­pean his­tory.

I’ve only been here for five min­utes and I al­ready feel like I’m wit­ness­ing some­thing seis­mic – across the UK, more and more women are throw­ing off the shack­les of the work­ing day, throw­ing on their gym kit and throw­ing down other women. They all at­test to the in­flu­ence of a cer­tain Net­flix show, back this sum­mer for a sec­ond sea­son. For the unini­ti­ated, GLOW fol­lows a group of strug­gling ac­tresses in 1980s Los An­ge­les who are brought to­gether to form a wrestling league (Gor­geous Ladies Of Wrestling). Its hype has spot­lighted the once niche-vergin­gon-no-go arena of women’s wrestling, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously de­liv­er­ing a back­combed tech­ni­colour blow to the no­tion that women are lit­tle more than a sexed-up sideshow in the wrestling world. This evening, in East Lon­don, life is im­i­tat­ing art, and then some.

‘No­body’s ever done any­thing like this be­fore; tonight, women aren’t part of the show – they are the show.’ Meet Emily

Read, co-founder of Pro-wrestling: EVE – the all-fe­male pro­fes­sional wrestling pro­mo­tion be­hind the event. Over Bour­bon bis­cuits grabbed from an open Tup­per­ware back­stage, she ex­plains that it’s set to be a big night – 22 women (in­clud­ing some big names flown in from Ja­pan) will com­pete in six matches, a mix of one-on-one and group com­bat, be­fore the fi­nal show­down de­cides EVE’S cham­pion. I use ‘com­pete’ loosely; the show is scripted, the sto­ry­lines de­vised – or, to use wres­tle-speak, ‘booked’ – by Emily’s hus­band and EVE co-founder Dann, who’s been pro­duc­ing wrestling shows for al­most two decades.

CHANGE THE GAME

If ‘women’s wrestling’ makes your mind jump to scenes straight out of Christina Aguil­era’s Dir­rty, well, fair enough – you can only go on what you’ve seen. And if your en­try point into women’s wrestling was watching WWE Raw in the mid-1990s, it was just ped­dled as a ve­hi­cle for women fight­ing in oil or ba­si­cally strip­ping, all the while be­ing re­ferred to as ‘di­vas’. ‘The state of women’s wrestling back then was in­sult­ing,’ Emily tells me. ‘Some of the par­tic­i­pants couldn’t even wres­tle – they were just mod­els. There were women out there who could wres­tle, but they weren’t deemed good-look­ing enough.’

Such was the lack of in­ter­est in women’s wrestling 10 years ago that when they did wres­tle in male-dom­i­nated shows, it

was known as the ‘piss break’. A short one at that; in a three-hour WWE Raw broad­cast in as late as 2015, the women’s match lasted just 30 sec­onds. This proved to be a tip­ping point. Thou­sands tweeted their out­rage us­ing #Give­di­vasachance and, within a year, WWE ex­ecs re­branded, pledg­ing to give women fairer billing, drop­ping the ‘di­vas’ moniker and re­mov­ing the pink but­ter­fly from the win­ner’s belt. This year, they signed for­mer Ul­ti­mate Fight­ing Cham­pi­onship star Ronda Rousey. (How­ever, of the nine matches on the WWE’S re­cent UK tour, only two in­volved women.)

If main­stream wrestling is lean­ing in to the idea that a woman’s role should be more pow­er­ful than pin-up, EVE has been smash­ing the old ideal with a bat­ter­ing ram. What be­gan in 2010 as an underground col­lec­tive, giv­ing women the chance to wres­tle in front of en­thu­si­as­tic (al­beit tiny) au­di­ences, has de­vel­oped into a global plat­form. Tonight, they’re set to fill a 1,200ca­pac­ity iconic wrestling venue – and ev­i­dence of Emily’s vision is ev­ery­where.

It’s in the di­ver­sity of bod­ies among the women com­pet­ing – a mix of pop­ping abs, pow­er­ful thighs and stom­achs that spill over waist­bands – and in the ban­ners dis­play­ing slo­gans such as ‘fight like a girl’.

PUT A RING ON IT

If the whole equal­ity thing chimes with some wrestlers, for others, fem­i­nism plays sec­ond fid­dle to the sport it­self. ‘I love the mes­sage, but I’m not an ac­tivist,’ says Paige Wood­ing, a 23-year-old wrestler from Southamp­ton. ‘I’m just like, “You do your thing, I’ll do the wrestling.”’ You wouldn’t guess, fac­ing the woman who will later slam her com­peti­tors’ bod­ies into a steel cage, but at school Paige was the shyest child in the class. Mak­ing friends didn’t come eas­ily, so her time was mostly spent alone. The high­light of her week was watching wrestling on Satur­day with her older broth­ers. ‘It res­onated with

‘WOMEN AREN’T PART OF THE SHOW – THEY ARE THE SHOW’

me – the phys­i­cal­ity, the psy­chol­ogy, the sto­ry­telling…’ But it wasn’t un­til Paige fin­ished col­lege at 19 years old – over­weight, lack­ing con­fi­dence and without a clue what to do next – that she googled ‘wrestling schools’ and gin­gerly stepped into a Portsmouth wrestling gym. It kick-started a per­sonal rev­o­lu­tion. ‘Cre­at­ing my char­ac­ter, Jamie Hayter [an anime-in­spired bad­die], en­abled me to find out who I re­ally am. I have ADHD, which usu­ally makes me feel all over the place, but when I’m wrestling, I can use all of this en­ergy and hyper­ac­tiv­ity. I didn’t know what to do with my life be­fore, but wrestling makes me feel com­plete.’

While all the women here are ‘pro’ – they wres­tle for a pro­fes­sional league – not all of them can af­ford to do it full-time. As with all pro­fes­sional sports­peo­ple, wrestlers are paid on a slid­ing scale (few boast Rousey’s re­ported $1.5 mil­lion salary), and there are bills to pay. Cash comes from show book­ings and hawk­ing mer­chan­dise to hard­core fans, but I’m sur­prised to learn that some of them have day jobs. Yas­min Lander, the 26-yearold hazel-eyed woman who amped up my ex­pec­ta­tions on ar­rival, is head­lin­ing tonight’s show as her char­ac­ter Char­lie Mor­gan. But Mon­day to Fri­day she works as a prison of­fi­cer in Cam­bridge.

FIGHT IT OUT

Right now, Yas­min is in the moment. Half­way through talk­ing to me about her wrestling jour­ney, she trails off mid­sen­tence, dis­tracted by ju­bi­lant fight­ers prac­tis­ing thrusts and head­bangs in the ring. Her face cracks into a smile. ‘They’re nut­ters. We see each other all the time... we travel and spend end­less nights to­gether. They are my fam­ily and it’s so spe­cial.’ It’s tes­ta­ment to the in­clu­sive, safe en­vi­ron­ment EVE fos­ters that, last year, Char­lie be­came the first wrestler ever to come out as gay at a live wrestling show. It could all seem a bit ‘af­ter-school spe­cial’ if their sen­ti­ments weren’t book­ended with zingers. Like when for­mer EVE cham­pion Rhia O’reilly pops over to give Yas­min a ‘you got this’ pep talk. Her part­ing words: ‘Just don’t be shit, yeah?’

Tak­ing a break from the clangs and hollers of the main arena, I de­scend rick­ety wooden steps to the green room where I find Mil­lie Mcken­zie, a 17-year-old wrestler with the com­plex­ion of a Face­tuned cherub and the con­fi­dence of a woman twice her age. Be­side her is Charli Evans, 21, who moved to the UK from Aus­tralia nine months ago. The two of them train to­gether at the same wrestling

I WANT TO LAUGH, BUT THE VIBE IS IN­TENSE

gym in Wolver­hamp­ton. They’re close. Fin­ish-each-other’s-sen­tences-and-share­dis­dain­ful-side-eyes close. ‘But when we wres­tle, we bat­ter each other,’ Charli laughs. ‘When you’re wrestling your friends, you can go a bit harder, but ob­vi­ously not to the ex­tent where you’re go­ing to knock some­one out…’ They laugh. They get it – I, a stranger in this world, don’t. ‘Sliced bread is my cue to come back in,’ a voice shouts across the green room. ‘I’m not go­ing to Ger­man you into the lad­der be­fore,’ says an­other. It’s a dif­fer­ent lan­guage al­to­gether. I want to laugh, but it’s less than an hour till doors open, and the vibe is in­tense.

GYM IT TO WIN IT

Show­time. Lad­ders smash; bod­ies slam; fights start – in the ring and out. One by one, women I’ve met back­stage stride into the spot­light and crush it. Within min­utes, I be­gin to un­der­stand what peo­ple have been say­ing to me all day: wrestling is the­atre. And, like the­atre, just be­cause the play­ers know the script, watching the drama play out is no less thrilling for it. Rhia scales the metal cage and throws her­self off into the ring. Mil­lie clam­bers on to the ropes and flips her­self off them. These are crowd­pleas­ing moves aligned with their good-guy per­sonas. The bad­dies gurn, trap op­po­nents’ heads be­tween their thighs and at­tempt chokes when the ref isn’t look­ing. The au­di­ence re­sponds like a du­ti­ful pan­tomime crowd. Watching them bat­ter each other, I re­alise how rare it is to see fe­male ag­gres­sion cel­e­brated; to see fem­i­nin­ity and force, flesh and fury not ‘on dis­play’, but in ac­tion. ‘It’s so re­ward­ing to see a woman own a ring when I know that, six months ago, she was scared to get near it.’ This is wrestler­turned-coach Greg Bur­ridge, who trains a num­ber of the women wrestling tonight. To get ring-ready, they com­bine sport­spe­cific train­ing with more fa­mil­iar car­dio and strength ex­er­cise ses­sions. Paige is in her lo­cal gym four times a week – sprint­ing on the tread­mill, jump­ing off plyo boxes and bang­ing out dead­lifts.

Their ath­leti­cism is cap­ti­vat­ing, but it’s the mental agility I’m in awe of as Yas­min (well, Char­lie) pre­pares to take to the ring for the main event. Back­stage hours ear­lier, she was quiet. I de­tected a hint of im­poster syn­drome. Now, be­hind the cur­tain, she’s ner­vous – mut­ter­ing ‘fuck this’ to her­self and bounc­ing from foot to foot. The crowd are chant­ing her name, and they’re get­ting louder. But as she steps out, met by a roar, it’s clear those nerves have mor­phed into some­thing else en­tirely.

PULLING NO PUNCHES

The match it­self is a bru­tal brawl. Char­lie is the hero – a fear­less un­der­dog who uses her plat­form to cham­pion LGBTQ+ rights. Her op­po­nent, cur­rent cham­pion Sam­mii Jayne, fo­cuses on force­ful holds be­fit­ting her bad­die sta­tus. I wince as she forces Char­lie, belly-down on the floor, into a po­si­tion I later learn is known as the Fu­ji­wara arm­bar – hook­ing Char­lie’s arm and pulling it back into her body. The at­mos­phere is electric. It peaks when Char­lie climbs a lad­der to the up­per bal­cony. The vol­ume builds; some­one screams; pints spill as fans run round the ring to see if she is ac­tu­ally go­ing to hurl her­self off the bal­cony. She does – flip­ping to land back-first on her ri­val (AKA det­o­nat­ing a ‘swan­ton bomb’) – and peo­ple lose their shit. ‘Oh my days!’ shout the se­cu­rity guards. ‘We’ve never seen any­one do that be­fore.’ It’s not over – Sam­mii pulls a lad­der into the ring and they ex­change blows atop it. Char­lie seizes vic­tory when she forces Sam­mii down from the lad­der on to her head. The ref­eree thumps his fist on the floor – once, twice, three times. Char­lie’s a cham­pion. It isn’t shock or tri­umph writ­ten all over her face, but pure ec­stasy. She did warn me. ‘It’s a bet­ter adrenaline rush than any sub­stance or night out could ever give you. It’s like no other feel­ing... no other feel­ing in the world.’

As Char­lie, cry­ing now, lifts the golden belt above her head, two girls soak­ing up the at­mos­phere from the sec­ond row catch my eye. They can’t be older than six. One is perched on her dad’s shoul­ders in a pink tulle skirt, the other is don­ning a Char­lie Mor­gan tee. Both are punch­ing the air with de­light. If full-scale rev­o­lu­tion didn’t go down in East Lon­don tonight, steps were made in row two.

Above: Lad­der match stars get in the zone Be­low: Kris Wolf tri­als her fin­ish­ing move

Top: Rhia O’reilly dives of f the steel cage Mid­dle: Char­lie Mor­gan talks to Women’s Health

Above lef t: Nina Sa­muels drop­kicks a lad­der into Kasey Owens Be­low: Sell­ing merch

Lef t: That’s called ‘hit­ting a clothes­line’ Right and be­low: Char­lie Mor­gan wins the EVE ti­tle

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