The Rise of the Fighting Irish

 
 

Image credit: Over the Top Wrestling (via Facebook)

The Irish wrestling scene has exploded in popularity the last few years. David Kent speaks to some of the figures behind the massively popular Over the Top Wrestling.

THERE’s something about Irish people and combat sports. Maybe it’s playing into the stereotype. Maybe we just really love to punch each other in the face. Maybe it’s how we’re inspired by the men who have gone before us. Regardless, we’re really good at it.

Over the Top Wrestling (OTT) is the case in point. This time last year, they were celebrating selling 650 tickets to their ‘Ah Ted’ event in the Tivoli Theatre. The Francis Street venue has seen many occasions during it’s time, but up until last month it was the permanent home of Over the Top.

But with popularity comes demand. On March 4th, they packed out the theatre again. But what follows now in a couple of weeks time is the biggest show in the promotion’s, and Irish wrestling’s, history. The National Stadium will play host to worldwide stars Kenny Omega, Matt and Nick Jackson, and Ricochet. Two thousand people have sold out the venue. At one stage, tickets were going at a rate of one per second for ‘Scrappermania 3’.

At one stage, tickets were going at a rate of one per second for ‘Scrappermania 3’

The promotion’s first show took place in October 2014 and there’s strong rumours that their shows could soon be broadcast or backlogged on the WWE Network – the American wrestling titan’s streaming service, which boasts over a million and half subscribers. To put that into a little bit of context, OTT’s current streaming channel on Vimeo has 202 followers. This highlights the absolute explosion in popularity for OTT in the last six months or so.

Damien Corvin and Justin Shape have both been there from the start. Corvin — real name Colin Samson — is a qualified personal trainer from Belfast and spoke to the Observer about how proud he is to have been a part of the rise:

“I’m very excited to be a part of the Scrappermania show, a lot of work has gone into getting Irish wrestling this far and I’m humbled and proud to be one of the guys that helped get it here. There’s going to be some massive matches and MOTY (Match of the Year) contenders.’’

Joe Cabray is the man behind the success. He spent some time in WWE’s developmental system as Luther Ward, but ultimately returned to Ireland and helped found the promotion. Corvin is quick to praise Cabray:

“Joe had a clear direction of where he wanted OTT, and still does. He’s very hands on with everything and always available to talk to about feedback, ideas and more. He has selected the best talent from the UK and Ireland and created a fantastic working environment as well as bringing in some of the best overseas talent. The success of OTT is a testament to his hard work and dedication to the promotion.”

The viewpoint is shared by Shape (Peter Farrell). Cabray is ‘the driving force’ behind the whole Irish scene according to the former tag team champ. But it’s Darragh Moran (Angel Cruz) who speaks best of Cabray:

‘A lot of promoters in Ireland had even tried to run ‘over-18’s’ shows too, but they never really resonated’

“It’s interesting to look at the wrestling scene in Ireland before, and after, Joe came back from NXT in 2014. The difference is night and day. Wrestling was primarily aimed at children, and took place in GAA halls. A lot of promoters in Ireland had even tried to run ‘over-18’s’ shows too, but they never really resonated.”

Now three years later, an Irish wrestling promotion is selling out the National Stadium. I think that says a lot about Joe.”
It’s not just behind the scenes where the owner is loved. His alter ego Ward hadn’t been seen in a Dublin ring since dropping the promotions’ main championship at the Fringe Festival last September. A dedicated group of fans of Ward, entitled the Ward Section, had been among the hundreds inside the Tivoli at the start of March.

The Social Elite (the biggest ‘bad guys’ or heels in the promotion) were in the ring and had a live microphone, challenging anyone to come out and stop them. A familiar flute sound rang through the venue, followed by an explosion of noise. If you didn’t know, you’d probably have guessed a celebrity had walked through the door.

The list of overseas talent is not to be sniffed at. To add to the Young Bucks, Omega and Ricochet you’ve got the likes of Ring of Honor’s Marty Scurll and Zack Sabre Jr. The trio which are collectively known as British Strong Style – Pete Dunne, Tyler Bate and Trent Seven – have all appeared in the Tivoli in the last year. Bate is a current champion in WWE (who boasts one of the greatest moustaches on the planet according to Moran) with Dunne and Seven making weekly TV appearances on WWE’s development brand NXT.

Then you bring in the home grown talent. The Gymnasties, Rocky Mac and Session Moth Martina all travel Europe nowadays fighting but they’re bred in the Tivoli

Corvin himself is a coach in Belfast with new promotion, Uprising Wrestling. But does he see a new Finn Balor or Sheamus within the Uprising ranks?

“The future is very bright. We have a lot of talented lads who are just starting to make their marks. Keep an eye out for all of them. You can see them at Uprising shows if you want to see them for yourself.”

The show in March took place on the same weekend as Uprising’s debut in Belfast. Two of the Uprising trainees were given spots on the OTT show the night before and impressed massively with both getting racous reactions from the crowd.
But what about the ‘F’ word?

‘’I used to get frustrated when people describe wrestling as fake,’’ said Farrell. ‘I’ve had serious injuries from wrestling but these days I honestly don’t mind. Wrestling has some of the most dedicated and loyal fans in any form of entertainment so I focus on what they think rather than the begrudgers.”

It’s also interesting to take a look at a picture of Farrell’s chest after his match at the last OTT show, when he took over 60 slaps and chops to his chest. Ever take a slap to bare skin? Remember how red it was? Multiply that by infinity and you’ve the idea of what his chest looked like following Eddie Kingston’s attacks.

After the immediate success ahead of the Scrappermania sales, the sky appears to be the limit for OTT. But with the April show being marketed as all-ages, and OTT having made two appearances at the family-friendly Tiger Fringe Festival at the Spiegeltent, is there a shift in focus towards a more family-friendly environment? Characters such as the Session Moth and the Lads from De Flats may have to be toned down.

Farrell, who also made an appearance at the first show in October 2014, doesn’t believe that to be the case though.

“I personally enjoy the art and comedy festival appearances and am looking forward to the differences an all ages show will bring. In saying that, for the most part though, I can see OTT staying true to it’s edgier, adult orientated style.”

Moran calls the atmosphere that OTT generates “infectious”. “The people will be pleasantly surprised about how little will have to change should it become all ages.”

Samson believes that the focus has “always been on wrestling and entertainment” (which Moran backs up) and that the April sell-out shows that OTT can continue to grow.

The rise of OTT is down to a mixture of the talent in and outside the ring. The behind the scenes work is clear to see from designers, to cameramen for it’s streaming service, to the people that set up the ring at the beginning of the show. Their poster designer has featured on WWE Raw, their photographers have been nominated for awards and that’s before you get to the wrestlers themselves.

Key to any streamed sports show is commentary, and OTT is no different. During 2016, they introduced commentary onto their Vimeo service for the first time. Aonghus Óg McNally provides the play-by-play, while Domhnall Marnell gives analysis.

Both have extremely impressive CVs. McNally is a graduate of both the Samuel Beckett Centre and Trinity College and regularly appears on stage across Ireland, while Marnell is an award winning Guinness Ambassador – which doesn’t seem to have much to do with commentary, but he also holds a BA in Media Arts from DIT and has worked for years at a number of radio stations in Dublin. Commentary is an underrated discipline. It’s a lot harder than it sounds (pun intended) but the pair make it seem effortless.

There is however, a potential sticking point for OTT. The Tivoli’s owner stated in January that he wanted to transform the venue into an aparthotel. Where this will leave the promotion is uncertain at this point. Having held successful shows in Belfast and Galway, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a further branching out of OTT in 2017.

It wouldn’t be far fetched to suggest that Over the Top could do the same (head to America) in five years time.

Similar companies like Insane Championship Wrestling in Scotland and Revolution Pro in England started out small and rapidly grew. ICW recently completed their first tour of Ireland, while RevPro are heading to America on the biggest weekend in the wrestling calendar: WrestleMania. It wouldn’t be far fetched to suggest that Over the Top could do the same in five years time.

They’ve conquered the Irish scene so far. A new permanent home is next up on the list, and then perhaps taking it’s talent continental.

When asked to sum up the promotions incredible growth, Farrell and Moran give the same answer – strength to strength. Samson goes for the absolute best. It’s hard to argue with the latter, as the fighting Irish continue to rise.

 

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