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Monday 27 January 2014

Remembering "Extreme World Warfare" Part III

Stu and I stood in the middle of Madison Square Gardens, our sense of wonderment restrained only by the shared knowledge that we'd earned this moment. All the lonely cold nights in the morning loading up equipment with the remnants of grease paint on my face had been worth it. All the days walking through the miserable November showers from premises to premises only to be refused at every stop by people who wouldn't display our advertising posters had been worth it. All the let downs and false promises we had absorbed had been worth it. All the ridicule and insults we had taken from both the wrestling world and the wrestling sceptics alike had been justly endured. All the money my grandfather had left me in his will had been invested well because of this moment. This moment of glory… that never happened.

I didn't actually dream of our show performing at any famous venue. I don't think Stu did either. We had nightmares about arriving late for the show, forgetting essential equipment and wrestlers not turning up. Stu had one reoccurring dream about the whole show not getting caught on film. These were warranted concerns because on different occasions such things nearly and actually did happen. With the exception of our final show together our debut, "The Declaration", was perhaps the most nerve-wrecking experience in the history of our business partnership.

We began with the knowledge that we had a reputation to uphold after our Cheltenham show. Stu, Josh and I wanted to prove that we were the ones behind the production of Commonwealth Championship Wrestling's greatest moment and now with our independence we would also show them all that we could put on a spectacle that would make a real difference to the British wrestling scene. Besides the extreme angle we were coming from, we wanted our shows to have more substance than the standard affair in the UK, which was still limping along to the legacy of the outmoded model that had died a death in the 1980s.

The plot was that an extreme wrestling tournament was to be held to decide EWW's first ever champion. Unlike many other promotions, we wanted our champion to have earned his title and, in doing so, made allies and enemies. His main enemy would be the Dead Souls. This was the angle Stu and I had decided to develop out of my martial arts/dance routine. They would be headed my character, the Spirit of Instinct, and championed by Stu in his new guise, The Dominator.

The tournament concept provided a fertile base for growing interconnected sub-plots in as well. These minor storylines would be connected to the main story. This was all part of our plan to create an epic saga that was a dramatic shift away from the petty one-dimensional goodies and baddies formula that British independent shows presented. With the burgeoning internet and coming-of-age fanzines or “dirt sheets” out there we could see the “Age of the Geek” was about to begin, and audiences wanted something more from the physical theatre of professional wrestling. Furthermore, we weren’t content with just copying the ridiculous melodrama of the then World Wrestling Federation. We might take cues and inspiration from their presentation, and a lot from their “Attitude” era feel, but we wanted to redefine British wrestling.

 Jody Fleisch, the incredible 18 year old high flying sensation that had impressed us at "The Heat is on" and "Animal Instincts" would feature in these sub-plots. He was to have a new gimmick and be called "The Street Devil", a name he really hated. Many, including him, liked the title CCW had given him and our title never stuck outside our shows. However, it was important to us, at the time, to make a clear break from our previous promotion. We wanted everything to be fresh or uniquely ours in concept and design. Jody's new character was a street kid who had escaped the clutches of criminal gang led by Jorge Castano, who we dubbed "Wildchild." The gang infiltrated the tournament and paid a mercenary wrestler to take him down in the first bout. Scotty Rock played the role of the hired-gun. He was a stocky tough-looking lightweight high flyer who Jody had recommended to us. Scotty looked the part, but I don't really know whether he cared much for the storyline. Jody would beat him, but Rock wouldn't get his payment as something unforeseen would also happen to his employer.

 It is a tradition in professional wrestling to start the event with the weakest matches. Both Stu and I thought this was a really bad idea, especially for the direction we were headed. Much of EWW's publicity was based on breaking rules and being outrageous, but a lot of the things we did served very practical purposes. It was high time that British wrestling stopped playing the sports entertainment genre and established itself as a legitimate form of physical theatre. In many respects professional wrestling is a form of variety performance and it has its roots as much in circuses, music halls (vaudeville in the US) and fairs (carnivals in the US), as it does in the combat sport of catch-as-catch-can wrestling. The old model was to have a series of “dark matches” at the beginning of the show’s card. These matches would consist of greenhorn workers and the weakest performances. It was based on the same way most combat sporting events are laid out, from amateur martial arts tournaments to professional boxing. However, the dynamic for professional wrestling had altered so much that this type of set up just looked like a parody and you could see why the mainstream shunned it in the UK. All good live shows started with a strong number to grab the audience’s attention and set the sense of drama on a high. For this reason we put Jody and Scotty on first.

 Next up on the bill we wanted to introduce the audience to our hero, "Fighting Spirit." He would go on to be our champion and was exactly the character we wanted to personify EWW. Stu and I were very conscious that our wrestlers weren't to be the very simple stereotype characters that had plagued the British scene for ages. We wanted tainted heroes and complex villains. This would help make inevitable “turns” on characters more believable. During the time I worked on EWW some very interesting developments were happening on the American scene. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was far from being a "drink your milk and say your prayers" style of face that was popular in the 1980s. Likewise "Degeneration X" was a heel faction that couldn't help but attract fan support. I wanted to expand on this in Britain. We didn't have the money so we had to make up for it in being original and inventive. Therefore our stunts had to be hard and our storylines more in depth.

Lee loved this concept and threw his heart into his new character, choosing his new name, which was tattooed in Japanese across his chest, and bringing a chain to the ring as his special weapon. Fighting Spirit was to be a wandering nomad who considered his fighting to be like a religion. I named his trademark weapon "The Chain O Burden" and said it represented the "sins of mankind", which Fighting Spirit felt he had to bear. He was to be no goody-goody, but the audience would like him because of the odds he would prevail against as he sought to achieve his goals. Fighting Spirit would confront another dedicated fighter played by Buster Reeves. Buster was a phenomenal Karateka who I first saw on the “Record Breakers” TV programme when he was very young and later as a finalist on the Gladiators game show. Buster would go onto be a very successful stunt man and appear in many Hollywood action blockbusters. He had become a student of Les Allen who ran a Mixed Martial Arts school up in northern England. Les had problems with CCW at Cheltenham and was amongst the first to jump ship with us. Buster had agreed to come along with him and be in our show. They both were very talented martial artists with a huge range of ability. The potential was obvious.

Les's gym was called "The Dragon's Gate" and he had gone under the title of "Dragonzen" in the CCW shows. We changed it to "Komodo Dragon", an old alias of Stu's, and decided to make the gimmick matter. Our dragons would use fire in their bouts and perform techniques from the Dragon style kung fu forms before entering the ring. Buster would play the part of Komodo's dedicated student "Dragonspawn" who would valiantly lose to Fighting Spirit in the tournament. Komodo would face another new character, "Adonis" played by Israel Robert McKenzie, in his match. Stu and I decided to give Israel a chance to show off his natural showmanship with a character called "Adonis" that was part Muhammad Ali, but had obvious leanings towards "The Narcissus" Lex Lugar, "The Model" and Shawn Michaels. It was a corny gimmick and not really very original, but I thought Israel could bring a lot to it. He had good academic qualifications in drama and always brought entertainment to his real fights in martial arts tournaments. The Gatekeeper of the Dead Souls routine was a rather drab and brooding character for Israel, and had little leeway for expansion.

By this time Israel had won Combat Magazine's annual martial arts tournament and caught the attention of the publication's feature writer, Malcolm Martin. They organised an interview at a venue of Israel's choosing. The place he picked was Neil Genge's Song Shan Shaolin martial arts academy in Bristol. I had found this place during my kickboxing days when I wanted to get a part in the "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation" film. What I found there was far more than acrobatics and flashy techniques. Neil was a well-rounded Chinese stylist with instructor qualifications in various styles of kung fu, which he learnt on his annual treks around China.

Israel and I attended the school to help choreograph the fight scenes in my Dead Souls routine. However, after this we would meet up every week there to learn more from Neil and his incredible students. Israel introduced me to Malcolm when he came to watch the lesson and conduct the interview. I was fast to push the show and to my delight got an eager response. He wanted to interview me and run an article on the event. The interview was conducted back at my parents' zoo, which, along with my circus background, provided Malcolm with loads of unusual material for the piece. Malcolm remains a friend to this day. Later he did an in-character interview with Stu and took pictures of all of us in full costume and corpse paint, armed with swords. Later Josh took some additional photographs and had them printed on slides, which was the way Combat Magazine's editor, Paul Clifton, had requested. Unfortunately for Josh he never got the credit he deserved for these atmospheric pictures taken in our woods.

My wonderful and resourceful costumier, Ronnie Dorsey, was back on-board for the show. She made new costume pieces for Stu and a beautiful feathered mask for Niki. She also made Israel's new costume and was going to make the dragons theirs, when we were hit with our first setback. Les phoned me to say that he and Buster were to be training for some mixed martial arts bouts in America and wouldn't be able to do the show. We decided to remedy the problem by matching Israel with Lee. It didn't drastically change the scheme of things, but removed a sub-plot I was really looking forward to pursue. Komodo Dragon was intended to defeat Adonis and then come up against The Dominator. Komodo's fireball would be answered by The Dominator's who, taking advantage of this surprise tactic, would subdue his opponent and gather him up into the Dead Souls fold. In the subsequent shows Dragonspawn would face the emotional challenge of trying to win his old teacher back from the Spirit of Instinct's clutches. Sadly this would be the first of many EWW angles that would not materialise.

We hired our ring from the same company who we had worked with at the Cheltenham show. It was a boxing ring and the owner only allowed us to take it if we agreed to buy the ring posts. He said that the wrestlers bent them when they hit the ropes. We put this unnecessary expense down to being an investment for when we constructed our own ring. This would never happen during the time Stu and I ran EWW. Our press releases, despite advertising the extreme nature of our show and a steel cage for the tournament finale, fell on deaf ears. Lee had come up with an eye-catching design for our logo with the letters set alight and wrapped in barbed wire. We kept it throughout my time with the promotion.

Stu and my idea of advance publicity was, at best, naïve. The CCW show had been at a better venue and location, so although our bill-posting and leafleting had taken up a lot of time, we'd had it comparatively easy. I should have known better having a circus background and, looking back, my actions were like that of a rank amateur. We first began putting the posters up with blue tack, which proved very costly and pointless over the many fly posters. After this we tried paper glue, which wasn't much better. As for fly posting, we plain didn't have a clue and it would take advice from a local policeman to teach us not to put them up during the day. We had decided that the way to put these many bills up efficiently was with a bucket, brush and wallpaper paste.

Taking the day off work EWW's two clowns marched down the high street with these larger than life utensils in plain sight, oblivious to the sheer stupidity of their actions. Eventually our ill-deserved luck ran out. Just as we were about to put a poster up over an old bill on the side of a shop a police car pulled up beside us. I don't think the officer could believe his eyes. Stu and I stood there, caught red-handed, looking like two reprimanded schoolboys as our names were taken down. Our pathetic pleading of “Those posters cost us a lot of money to print. Can’t you just take the glue and brush” was to no avail. The police officer even felt he needed to tell how university students would fly-post by night using spray. Not taking the hint, we fired back with “But that doesn’t make it any better”. Our timing has not always been impeccable and now wasn’t the time to discuss morality. Our posters were confiscated and the pair of us trudged back down the high street feeling very little like the anarchic trailblazing leaders of British extreme professional wrestling.

This piece will feature as part of my published collected memoirs on my time co-running an extreme professional wrestling promotion. Watch this space for future news on this publication. 

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