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Thursday 15 March 2012

Remembering 'Extreme World Warfare' Part I

It seems very strange now looking back on the relatively brief time I was co-promoter of an extreme professional wrestling outfit. My life now is so different, that although I can see me back there and feel the energy I had then it just seems like another life altogether. What seems even stranger still was the path that led me there. Tell anyone now who either knows me through my work as a self-protection/martial arts coach or even through my current connections to showbusiness, that I was once a Gothic sword wielding wrestling manager that had a penchant for wearing red contact lenses, getting cut up with razor blades and barbed wire, and spewing Kensington Gore all over the place they are likely to ask “Is this the same Jamie Clubb we are talking about”. It’s no secret. I appeared in Combat martial arts magazine on the front cover with an eight page feature, covered in corpse paint and did the best I could to court media attention. And yet, years later I find myself training in an MMA gym in Birmingham and one of the receptionist starts teasing me as if this part of my history was comparable to being closet transvestite. A friend of mine pretty much summed up the incredulity of those that have known me since my days running a pro wrestling promotion are over: “Why Jamie? Why?”

In July 1998 I was in my deepest self-esteem trough since my school days. Only 10 months before I had given my first performance of my martial arts act, "Dead Souls." It was my dream to make a piece of physical theatre that used martial arts and dance to tell a gothic tale about the spirits of purgatory. The act had been intended for the Edinburgh Festival and it was on the promise of a circus friend of mine – as we both attended the annual circus festival in Monte Carlo - to showcase it that had inspired me to make my dream a reality. I had returned home with a fire in me and I desire to create something unique. I financed, wrote and performed in this 25 minute production, but the reality of its first incarnation had fallen way short of providing me with the sense of satisfaction I had anticipated.

In spite of growing up in a long and established showbusiness family and in spite of being behind the scenes of virtually every form of entertainment enjoyed in the western world – circus, film, theatre, pantomime and more besides - my obvious lack of experience in the driving seat had ensured that I made just about every professional error one could imagine. I had lost performers and a fair amount of my savings account to bring this show to the stage. The Edinburgh Festival was soon out of the question and I tried hard to find another event to stage the performance. The first production was intended to be staged at the Cheltenham College of Higher Education. I was teaching a kickboxing class there, which had been successfully set up by one of the students. My career teaching kickboxing for an unscrupulous instructor is another story altogether. Suffice to say that I had money and I was sailing high in my own little world. However, a year or so of teaching kickboxing and living like a materialist had made me yearn for something else; something I had wanted to do since I first stepped into a martial arts class, something, according to legend, my family had done for 300 continuous years: create an act.

The original “Dead Souls” story went like this. Three spirits are confined to purgatory. One spirit is a type of St. Peter character who leads his two charges through endless mechanical routines, represented by the more stilted and robotic looking traditional martial arts forms. The opening scene had the three characters veiled in long ragged cloaks – a regular trademark of “Dead Souls” entrances for years to come. I got the idea from a production of “Macbeth” I once heard about, where the three witches appeared in the first scene as three rags on the ground. My three characters walked through dry ice holding lit candelabras, as the narration to the story was played over. After setting them down they did a synchronized routine of disciplined movements, inspired by the more regimental martial arts forms. Certain sequences were actually inspired by “Riverdance”, which captivated me at the time. The music played over this routine was the theme tune to the science fiction mini-series “V: The Final Battle”.   

Each character made his or her individual appearance by throwing off the uniformed hooded cloaks. This was inspired a little by the concept of artists throwing off sheets to reveal their unique works of art.   

The first reveal was The Gatekeeper. He had his cloak removed by the other two cloaked figures, and then performed a fast moving martial arts routine to a black metal piece that would become the “Dead Souls” anthem, “Malice through the Looking Glass” by Cradle of Filth.  The lights went down and everyone left the stage.

The second reveal was the Spirit of Youthful energy, who I played. He would be a character I would develop into the wrestling manager, the Spirit of Instinct. Essentially he was the teenage rebel or the spirit of unchecked energy, often curbed and contained by strict religious doctrine. I had him throw off his cloak to Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” and his face glowed with energy thanks to a type of make-up that was invisible unless ultra violet light shone on it. It was unobtainable in the UK now, only a bad imitation that was still visible under normal light could be bought. But a production company that was originally going to sponsor us found some through a US contact. It was the same stuff that Robert Mansfield the famous American actor used to in the 19th century to change from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde on stage. It was a great effect and I topped it with contact lenses that also lit up under the UV.  His character was a culmination of many icons - real and fictional - that interested me. He was James Dean and Marlon Brando in his spirit of rebelliousness.  His look was part inspired by J O’Barr’s “The Crow”, although more Brandon Lee’s interpretation. That much was obvious, but my wonderful costumier, the fantastically resourceful and talented Ronnie Dorsey, followed my wishes in bringing aspects of the rock star Trent Reznor in. I liked Reznor’s fractured look and mood. I was also inspired by Puck from “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. I had performed a version of this play during my last year in the sixth form and loved this mischievous sprite. 

 After performing a solo form inspired by the free-flowing techniques of Chinese wu shu, using animal movements to emphasize the freedom and primal energy in the character, he froze like a statue. Next the cloaked figure of the Goddess of Original Innocence Lost entered the stage. She flung off her cloak alone to reveal a huge Burmese python wrapped around her. This character had something in common with Eve or even Lilith from Jewish mythology. She is the tarnished saint for all fallen women throughout history and therefore confined to a mystical prison until her sins were cleansed properly. Here she embraced the serpent and freely exhibited the feminine charms that typically Judeo-Christian religions have oppressed throughout the centuries. She performed to a piece that was suggested by the dance coordinator of the aforementioned production company, “Supernatural” by Army of Lovers. The snake dance climaxed with the Goddess breathing life back into the frozen form of the spirit. This was inspired by Greek mythology and the concept of breathing life into a clay form.

Both characters then competed with each other, the spirit exhibiting martial arts moves that were contrasted with the goddess’s dance equivalent. This was played out to Curve’s wonderful comment on the battle of the sexes, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”. The two characters eventually came together and performed a sexual adagio type routine. Their united energies resulted in the destruction of the set up candles and the whole ritualized setting.

Next The Gatekeeper appeared to discover the desecration left.  To the song “After the Flesh” by My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, he expressed his outrage in a solo weapon routine with the Kwondo – a type of Chinese halberd. This scene was followed by the appearance of the Goddess of Original Innocence Lost who exhibited her new sense of freedom in a solo dance routine to the very beautiful “A Warm Place” by Nine Inch Nails. The scene climaxed with the appearance of The Spirit with apples – a rather on-the-nose reference to the Abrahamic story of Eden. Lost danced with the apple, the Spirit juggled with three and then Lost put each of them on the end of the sword they had stolen. The Spirit struck each of the apples from the point of the sword with a different kick. They then saw the light, the chance of heaven. It seemed like they had succeeded in taking paradise on their own terms. “The Storm” from “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” soundtrack played out as they neared the light. Suddenly The Gatekeeper appeared and attacked them both. The Spirit fell and as The Gatekeeper made his finishing blow Lost jumped in at the lost moment. However, rather than dying she gave The Spirit her life-force and using it he was able to defeat The Gatekeeper and forced his/her self into the light. The final line of the production was “Death is sudden, but never final”.
Those were heady times. I was 20 years old when I started teaching at Cheltenham college and I had a lot of fun for a short period. After my kickboxing class we would all typically hit town and get completely smashed, and often end up talking about my plans to run a martial arts act. Alex, the student who set the classes up, was to be my manager and plans for how it would all work out would typically arise from drunken conversations in the early hours of the morning; often with barely vertical fellow students giving their unsolicited opinions or shouting their support.
Anyway, the booking at the college fell through in the end and I temporally fell out with my student contact. I upped and left to put it on at a nearby theatre, which ended being something of a charity project. It would have made a lovely story and in hindsight I probably wasn’t looking at the bigger picture. At the time all I could see was money and time running out, so I wasn’t interested in staging a show at a venue that wanted to do it for free if I gave them the profit. Next my circus contact leant me his tent with all the sound and lighting set up to hold a dress rehearsal. It was at this point that everything really seemed to go tits up. I lost both my first dancer and the strongman who was intended to play the role of the guy I fought in the piece. In a final attempt I booked in a college theatre room in Coventry to film the full dress production. The build-up to this costly venture had seen me audition and steadily lose all my prospective dancers for several reasons – mainly due to money constraints. My grandfather died the day before the rehearsal around the same time as the country was plunged into hysterical mourning for Princess Diana.

Now I was stuck in a bad relationship that was sapping me of all my energies. The girl in question had been the first dancer I had chosen for "Dead Souls" who had eventually walked out on the production, but not left me. The pressure of the act was too much for her and when things didn’t run smoothly on the lead up to the dress rehearsal in the circus tent, she pulled out unceremoniously.  With the inexplicable naivety that keeps ill-matched romances going long past their expiration date we had kept together. She “auditioned” new dancers with me, but I don’t think she was ever happy with the idea of a replacement. In the end, I had to pay quite a bit for a professional dancer at the eleventh hour for the dress rehearsal.

That entire episode, which included me having to do my best to keep my kickboxing coach from trying to hit on the dancer every five minutes, was exhausting both mentally and physically. I had found the enigmatic Israel Robert McKenzie to play the role as the act’s bad guy. He was someone who I was happy to call a friend when all had been said and done, but he was one hell of a character and needed to be to get through those two days.  I recall driving home on the second day with blurred vision from the many times I had put in the green glowing contact lenses. At that time coloured and theatrical contact lenses were still pretty thick and got very painful after extended periods of use. After all the major disruptions, cast changes and emotional problems back home, the resulting two complete dress rehearsals that were filmed were far from polished. However, running it all single handedly and with little support coming from elsewhere along with dwindling finances I was something of an emotional wreck by the end. After hearing my girlfriend’s savage dissection of the act, I paid those who had stood by me to the end, surrendered back to normality and shelved the whole recorded experience.

My confidence had been eroded and my dreams now seemed unobtainable. However, I still kept up my training, although I lacked direction, and regularly attended the local gym. One day I was approached by one of the gym instructors. They asked whether I was still working on a martial arts act, as there was someone looking for a demonstration as part of his professional wrestling show. The gym instructor described the guy as a big tattooed individual who worked out in the evenings. I didn't give the matter much thought, but told them that he could call me about it if he wanted.
The phone call came within days. With a calm politeness that has never really matched his presence, the man introduced himself as Stu Allen and explained that he was helping to organise a professional wrestling show for the Blue Cross charity for a new promotion called Commonwealth Championship Wrestling. He already had one martial arts demonstration organised by his brother-in-law and wanted another one to help give the show a little variety. I suggested that he contact Israel. Israel was an excellent martial artist who competed internationally all the time. Against his protests, I explained to Stu that my ability was less than Israel's worst student and he eventually relented - but not for long.
He called me again explaining that Israel would be very happy to do the demonstration, but insisted he do it with me adding, "He is my best student. "My next phone call was to Israel, who I felt I had let down when the act ceased to be, and tried to talk him out of doing the demonstration with me. My argument was flimsy, mainly because I didn't believe in it. In reality I wanted to get out in front of an audience and prove something to myself. There was some unfinished business to attend to in my head.

The idea to turn the performance into "Dead Souls" again was not my idea nor was it poor Israel's, who was looking forward to displaying his martial arts skills in a more straightforward performance. The idea to do "Dead Souls" came from Stu who I met up with not longer after Israel convinced me to work with him. Stu was currently using a gangster gimmick the wrestling promotion had given him called "The Hu$tler", which he didn't feel suited him. We got onto the subject of gothic imagery. He wanted to be a painted wrestler like his childhood hero "The Ultimate Warrior", but a darker heel-version. I told him about the "Dead Souls" act, which attracted his attention straight away. As the conversation flowed I began to feel the ambition rise in me as it had once before. He convinced me to lend him the tape of my last performance. I brought the video in the next time I saw him and gave to him, fearing what would happen. The barbed comments of my girlfriend rang in my head and in my emotionally and physically drained state I had come to accept her words as the absolute truth. It was against my nature to give up on my dream, but I still had my kickboxing classes; classes that kept her fit, but made feel uncomfortable due to the dubious morals and precarious business principles it rested on. It was easier to settle in her ready-made family and the routine of the mundane. Extended weekends in the park and Saturday afternoons watching Blind Date and Gladiators on the TV filled up my social life, as I struggled to get on with a writing course I had no especial interest in, as I kidded myself I was happy.

On leaving the gym, Stu announced in typical cheerful melodrama "perhaps we can resurrect the 'Dead Souls.'" I smiled, thinking to myself "or perhaps they're better off dead."
It was August 29th 1998 and in just under two months my whole world had changed. After a little persuasion Israel had agreed to do the Dead Souls act and we had practiced hard on our new five-minute routine. I had helped Stu with putting the wrestling show together. It was supposed to be CCW's event, but the two Internet addicts who called the shots had done little in terms of running the operation. Designing the programme and organising the match-ups was really where their influence stopped. Blue Cross was Stu's unlikely workplace and the even more unlikely sponsors of the event, which was being called "Animal Instincts." The organisation of the show had all been down to Stu who was pushing for a theatrical light display and sound system to enhance the production.
Stu visited my place a few times before we got the publicity machine rolling. He and his fiancée, Niki Bradshaw, who was also his valet going under the name "Miss Fortune", would sit in my parents' old disused circus wagon and discuss what was intended for the show. He brought in work colleague, Josh Perry who had experience with theatre lighting and also mixed and arranged the show's music. I applied my knowledge of theatrical scripting to help build a professional plan and Stu explained to us what he envisioned for the event. Together with Niki and a friend of Stu's called "Big Jay", who was playing the part of The Hu$tler's bodyguard in the show, we made up the backbone of the show.

By the time the day of "Animal Instincts" arrived several events had happened. I had already been in my first wrestling event. This was CCW's warm-up show a week before, hosted by a small promotion in Trowbridge. The venue was a community centre with an audience of around one hundred. Those watching were wrestling regulars, diehards from the days when British wrestling was still on television. Most were there to see their local boy take on the Shadowarrior, a disgruntled but ambitious wrestler who was intended to work with Stu in his match at "Animal Instincts." Stu, himself, was paired with a newcomer, eighteen-year-old called Jodie Fleisch.

I appeared as a bodyguard to Stu, noticeably overshadowed in every sense of the word by his other bodyguard, "Big Jay." It didn't bother me. That night may have been a far cry from the shows we would run or be involved with, but the potential was clear to me. Stu was a natural heel and in spite of being virtually unknown and out of the wrestling business for a while he gave an aura of eminence on the show. The humble easy-going character of Jodie Fleisch turned into a dramatic and acrobatic high flyer when he entered the ring. The combination of Stu's unrelenting aggression to his "opponent" and all those watching and Jodie's heroic tenacity, made it clear to the audience when to cheer and when to boo. As if to add to my first live British wrestling experience, I even encountered the wrath of the notorious handbag wielding grannies in the front row and found myself briefly under fire as I aided The Hu$tler in his match.

If this bout gave me a taste of the US-style glamour possible in a British show, the next would provide a prototype for the punk flavour Stu and I would inject into the wrestling scene. "The Shadowarrior" was Lee Edwards whose aspirations were clearly outside of Trowbridge. He took his match with the local hero outside of the ring onto some tables and began to make use of whatever he could get his hands on, whether or not it was a real prop. Much to the promoter's dismay and genuine attempts to intervene, the tables ended up as firewood. Lee Edwards brought anarchy to an audience fed on the past. His match against their local hero was representative of the battle between old school wrestling and new British wrestling we would soon be in the midst of. He left the shocked crowd with his forehead dripping blood and a satisfied grin across his mouth. The ironic thing was he had been marked down as the face!

After the dust settled, you couldn't help notice the lack of input from our CCW bosses. They were clearly out of their depth and their humbling of the entire event was summed up their frequently repeated comment: "It's real now!" In a radio interview given a few days before the show, one of CCW's co-owners declared "CCW is going to breathe new life in British wrestling." Yet in reality they were after family-friendly bouts, they were against the whole "Dead Souls" idea and in spite of their claims that they wanted CCW to be the top hard-core promotion in Europe, Stu was being told to drop just about every prop he intended use in his match at "Animal Instincts." The final straw came when I was told that I couldn't spit any fake blood as part of the "Dead Souls" act. After that Stu and I made a decision to start up on our own once the show was finished.

Putting such differences aside we worked "with" the promoters that night, well the one that turned up anyway, at Cheltenham town hall. This fantastic venue was close to full and contained a bizarre mixture of people. Amongst which were the staff from Blue Cross, supporters for the various wrestlers, some of the crowd from Trowbridge as well as residents from Cheltenham wondering what had hit them.

More significantly, under that roof there were also a number of key players in what would become the New British Wrestling movement. Sitting amongst the wrestling "dirtsheet" press was a teenager who would go on to host one of the movement's first large scale events. His name was John Feltham and tonight he watched his poor sister, who was clearly not ready for the job that had been thrust upon her, announce the opening of the show before handing over the MC responsibility to a heel valet for the rest of the night.

Wrestling first on the show was a guy going by the name of "The Specialist" Mark Sloan who would found the Frontier Wrestling Alliance. Mark has remained an underrated technician on the British scene to this day, discovering his real forte in teaching. That night his match with a one "Paul Glory" had great intentions behind it even if the result was a little overlong and lacking character. My apologies to these two workers for pointing this out, but I feel Britain's greenness to the new era of higher production values was demonstrated with these entrances. On the video you can see poor old Paul Glory being wrongly cued and almost pushed through the curtains before a pyrotechnic goes off and almost scares him to death. Mark's entrance is more confident, a little too confident perhaps, as he appears to be scratching his groin on the way to the ring. In contrast FWA's first show would also boast high production values the following year. Mark would improve as an all-round wrestler although I've always been frustrated with the idea that if he was managed well he could garner more of the respect he deserves. He would also become a first class instructor and promoter.

Backstage Phil Lowe, who would go on to run the controversial British Wrestling Alliance's first and only show, was CCW's runner. To be fair he did a good job at our show. Also backstage a shoot-fighter, who was making the very temporary transition to professional wrestling, had our promoter hung upside down. This was over a disagreement about an angle in the show. Needless to say CCW didn't win the argument. Lee Edwards was already voicing his opinions on the promotion to Stu and he liked what he heard about our intentions afterwards. The mutiny had well and truly begun.

After Stu's interview in the ring the time for Dead Souls to make their public debut had arrived. Bar getting my black belt at sixteen years old this was the first time a genuine dream had come true. Before then I envisioned the act to appear in the circus, at the Edinburgh Festival and at a student theatre, but its appearance at a professional wrestling event was as much a surprise to me as it was those who gathered that night.

The performance began with a gothic clad vamp, carrying a lit candle in candelabra, leading a cloaked, hooded Israel to the ring. His entrance music was "Once Upon an Atrocity", the first track on Cradle of Filth's concept album about the legend of Countess Elizabeth Bathory ("The Bloody Countess"), "Cruelty and the Beast". While this was going on I was stood backstage with a sixteen foot Burmese python wrapped round me, losing my temper with Josh because even though the suitably gloomy music was being played for the "Gatekeeper's" entrance, revolving disco lights were flashing through the curtains. Josh was safe from my wroth up in the light control box on the balcony, but it really wasn't his fault. Some idiot, who shall remain nameless, had failed to unplug this lighting effect intended for someone else's entrance.

Israel having done a circuit of the ring with his herald climbed the steps and in one graceful movement leapt into the ring. A premature round of applause demonstrated their gratitude, but was quickly hushed. My music, "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" by the Smashing Pumpkins, kicked in and my character, "The Spirit of Instinct", made his entrance. The opening line of that track was perfect for setting the scene. The snake made the impact I had intended and I began to circle the ring. Front row members of the audience shuffled away from my approach and one kid tried to kick the snake, which concerned me, but I made it to my assistant to offload the well-behaved reptile and make my own ring entrance.

The act did not resemble a wrestling bout in any respect. The whole "duel" between Israel and I was a tightly choreographed fight scene co-ordinated to pieces of music and lighting. We used pretty much the whole arsenal of lighting effects at our disposal. Finally the blackout came and Israel and I waited in what seemed like eternal darkness for the audience's verdict. I was soaked in sweat and a wound was open on my face from a blow Israel had mistimed with his halberd. The spotlight fell and the slow clapping began, then it built, filling the auditorium and finally the whistling began. Wrestling or not, Dead Souls had been accepted. I could have cried. Ten months before I said goodbye to the act, I had since split from my damaging relationship and was on a threshold of a new optimistic time. All that heartache, money and seemingly fruitless hard work had finally been appreciated.

As I went back through the curtains I turned to Israel to hug him. Checking no one else was around he suddenly doubled up and gripped his hand declaring, "you chopped my fucking finger!" While he had hit me in the face by accident, my timing hadn't been perfect either and my sword, once blunt, but now jagged from the constant practice had sliced into his index finger. Like a true professional he had saved the moment to express his pain until he was backstage. The wound was superficial, but he was bleeding rapidly. We got it bandaged straight away and joked about becoming official "blood brothers", and then laughed again at the irony of the "fake blood ban."

The second half of the show provided the audience with a taste of what wrestling's new generation had to offer. The shadow of the "World of Sport" days, which would dog us and other New British Wrestling promotions for years to come, first showed signs of being lifted when the last two matches of "Animal Instincts" played. First up, Jody Fleisch was paired against another great new up-and-comer, Jorge Castano. The match was a spot-laden affair, where Jody was given full reign to display his ever-developing high flying skills against Jorge, a great heel, who played as a catch wrestler.

The main event featured Stu going at against Lee Edwards. In spite of CCW's protests, there were plenty of hard-core props used during the bout, which saw The Hu$tler win over another good guy. To this day Stu has always spoken favourably over his matches against Lee. They both love mixing hard-core with technical wrestling. Stu was very much into "spot-wrestling" at the time and was more reserved, technique-wise, in his approach to what I would see in future bouts, deciding to play ground defence, but his approach to wrestling psychology was already ahead of its time. In fact he and Lee have are notable by the way they arouse an ambiguity in their audience.

Stu has always enjoyed playing an aggressive heel, spitting at and assaulting his audiences, either with a tirade of politically incorrect taunts and profanities or even physically unseating his critics during a show. Yet for all those who see him as the villain, there are plenty who chant his name and cheer when he wins. Lee has never been happy playing a textbook British blue eye or face and his uncomfortably with this style could be seen at Trowbridge. He has often played the hero, but an anti-hero who puts his character's integrity above simply playing the crowd.

"Animal Instincts" was a blueprint for EWW. Stu, Josh and I left Cheltenham happy with the results of our work, but with ambition in our hearts knowing what could have been had we controlled the show completely. Already we began discussing the fusing of Dead Souls the act with a wrestling angle. I saw Niki and Jay standing either side of Stu like two perverse halves of a personality named "Pleasure" and "Pain." I would lead the heel outfit as the "Spirit of Instinct." As for Stu he had already chosen a name, one that would soon be buzzed around the wrestling community: "The Dominator."

Such feelings are hard to convey in written form. It captures your imagination and makes you feel bonded to the idea of an exciting future. Like other very few other things and people in my life I would experience, it captured my head and then my heart. 

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