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