The week of April 3, 2016

Behind the renegade, DIY company bringing hardcore wrestling to the U.K.

By Chris Stokel-Walker

Mark Dallas, the 30-year-old owner and founder of Insane Championship Wrestling (ICW), is even tougher to pin down than the wrestlers he manages. His press officer, a model and wrestler who competes under the name Molly Spartan, messages initially to say he’ll be free at 6pm on a Friday evening. That becomes “when he’s done with the press” five minutes later, then changes to after the show he’s promoting that evening—an event at a bowling alley seating 600 inside the O2 arena, an all-purpose venue in London, England—starts.

The delays are understandable: Dallas is running a company that’s midway through a cross-country tour on a shoestring budget, corralling a troupe of bawdy, rowdy wrestlers who have become one of the biggest attractions in the country and have amassed a cult following online.

Professional wrestling is built on the backs of obsessive owners who live, eat, breathe and sleep their business: Vince McMahon, World Wrestling Entertainment’s 70-year-old owner, still reputedly works 18-hour days, while Paul Heyman’s abrasive attitude defined his era of Extreme Championship Wrestling. Mark Dallas is no different. He has the initials of his company etched in relief in deep black ink, forever stamped upon the inside of his right arm.

When Dallas, who could almost be mistaken for one of his burly wrestlers, with a shaven head and broad shoulders, finally does call, there’s another hitch: Bell time in London is fast approaching, and he still has a lot to sort out. ICW’s in final preparations for its second annual megashow, Barramania, April 3 at the Barrowlands, a 2,100-capacity ballroom in Glasgow, Scotland, built in the 1960s. The promoter and his team fully expect to sell out the venue, despite directly competing with the biggest event in all of sports entertainment that evening: WWE’s blockbuster pay-per-view, WrestleMania XXXII.

“We’re the last rebels of pro wrestling.”

It takes a further nine text messages and four phone calls over the course of a week, including three scheduled interview slots that never materialize, to finally speak to Dallas. He’s just come from a meeting with the BBC in its sleek Glasgow headquarters, discussing a potential series of comedy shorts for the BBC’s website in which he would star in with Grado, a 27-year-old wrestler.

Pacing down the banks of the River Clyde toward the office from which he runs ICW, Dallas struggles to explain how he’s got to where he is. “If I tried to take it all in, I’d have a stroke right now,” he says in a broad Glaswegian accent, with vowels that have shifted seven letters down the alphabet and stunted consonants. “It’s hard,” is what he eventually comes up with. “What a ride.”

What started as a small band of weirdos running wrestling shows at a community center in Glasgow has turned into a mini-multimedia empire, one that’s banging on the walls of popular culture with a barbed wire-covered baseball bat and threatening to break in any minute. ICW has its own magazine, a video game being developed for Xbox One and Playstation 4, a weekly show on Italy’s Nuvolari sports and entertainment TV channel, and a burgeoning on-demand streaming venture. It’s the the Internet’s own indie federation, the little deviant wrestling company that could.

“ICW is like a touring fucking rock band, you get me?” Dallas says, warming to his theme. “Aye, WWE travel about on a fucking sterile bus. We travel round on a rock bus.” (It’s rented, and even has a second story.) “We’ve got beds and a kitchen. We travel around like a band travels. We’re not in any fucking shite venues here… We’re in the O2 Academies, we’re in Koko, we’re in the SECC. We’re no fucking slouches. I’d equate it—we are this generation’s answer to rock and wrestling.”

ICW’s first show was held in Glasgow on Oct. 15, 2006, at the Maryhill Community Central Hall, an unprepossessing brownstone building where the white block writing appended above the main entrance occasionally loses a letter. Exactly 73 people turned up to watch 23 different wrestlers compete in the inaugural show, titled “Fear & Loathing.” There was no lighting apart from the house lights and the great centerpiece windows that streamed in late fall sun, and the show’s setup included only a small amplifier system and a couple of cameras. The top rope broke in the first match; a fluorescent light tube flew into the crowd in the third. “It was an abomination,” Dallas says.

The show was set up and run by Dallas in collaboration with Andrew Wesson, a 30-year-old Glaswegian who wrestles under the name of Red Lightning. The two, who were undergoing wrestling training on judo mats laid out in a post office staff room in East Kilbride at the time, hatched their plan on MSN Messenger, each cajoling the other into putting on a show.

“We had visions of running a wrestling company and being promoters,” says Wesson, on a late March afternoon on his way to pick up his young child from nursery school.

Despite the rough start, Dallas, who at that point had worked for his father and moonlighted as a lifeguard at a local swimming pool, continued putting on wrestling matches. The second show, held just before Christmas on the same day as the Old Firm soccer match (where Glasgow’s Celtic and Rangers teams play each other, shutting down the city), was held in front of 40 people and was “fucking awful”, Dallas recalls. The group held a handful of other shows; then Dallas, still only 20 and several thousand dollars in debt, closed up shop.

“Scottish wrestling was in its infancy at that point,” he explains. “There was no one showing us the way.”

It took a phone call, a muscle-bound pro wrestler, and a dominatrix to bring ICW back from the dead.

Jack Jester, a 6-foot-1 colossus with a penchant for the macabre, called Dallas out of the blue. It was 2009. Jester had an idea for a gimmick—wrestling parlance for a character—with a friend who was a dominatrix. He’d be a dark warrior, dragging opponents around the ring in a noose. She’d be his valet, doing depraved things like vomiting in her hand and mashing it into their faces. “I’ve been into the fetish scene for ages,” says Jester, who wrestled for family-friendly companies in the country’s south. “He took a leap of faith on me.”

“ICW is like a touring fucking rock band, you get me?”

“There were no other over-18 companies in the U.K. at that time,” Dallas recalls. “He thought I was the only one who would do it.”

Dallas wasn’t promoting shows at that point, but he decided to get back into the business. He ran a show in late 2009 that only drew around 60 people, but he enjoyed it and was happy with the end result.  “I thought, ‘Fuck it: I’ll run five more in 2010.’ I recorded them, then put them on YouTube.”

It was this decision that supercharged ICW’s growth, and the main thing that changed between the first incarnation of ICW and its present-day version. (Dallas claims that the only thing different between ICW version 1.0 and ICW version 2.0 is that “everyone was young, and we’ve grown up since then,” but that seems to overlook the fundamental leap forward in streaming video in the intervening years.)

“People make comparisons with ECW and the [WWF] Attitude Era [from the late 1990s],” says Dallas. “We’re filling that void. You can go and get drunk, spend some money on a night out, and watch this mad crazy wrestling show.”

Unless you’ve attended an ICW show, or seen its performers on the Internet, it’s difficult to describe. Rabid fans pack into standing room-only nightclubs across the country to watch blood be spilled and stories told through extreme moments of violence. The characters are simultaneously larger than life and yet ring true. One of ICW’s most popular acts in its formative years was the Bucky Boys, a pair of drugged-up scallywags in plastic tracksuits who swigged from a bottle of Buckfast, a tonic wine popular in Scotland. Their mannerisms and attitude echoed those of neds (better known as chavs) in downtown Glasgow.

Posting the videos of ICW’s early shows after its relaunch on YouTube worked. Before the fifth show, a local nightclub got in touch with Dallas to see if the company wanted to host shows at its venue going forward.

“Once we had the element of the nightclub—the sound system, the lighting, the grungy exterior—we got a following,” says Dallas. “There are hundreds of wrestling shows around the U.K. now, but at the time there wasn’t. We were the shit.”

There’s a fundamental difference between ICW and the standard British wrestling companies of the late 2000s, which would run shows months apart in different cities across the length of the country.

“The way wrestling worked was, someone put on a show in Cumbernauld or something, and there’d be two guys talking about a story that happened in Sheffield last night,” Dallas begins. His voice rises. “How the fuck does this family in Cumbernauld know what happened in a show in Sheffield last night? Who cares?”

Dallas’s style of wrestling does indeed owe a debt to ECW—the Philadelphia-born independent company that grew a rabid fanbase in the 1990s due to the same mix of compelling storylines, complex characters, and bloody violence—and he copied its format for successful wrestling: regular TV. Only ICW did it online, first via YouTube, and now via ICW on Demand, its own online streaming service.

It might seem sensible now, but at the time, it was revolutionary. “If there’s a rule that says this is how things work,” says Jester, “Dallas will go against it.”

The Internet has allowed ICW to foster and grow a devoted audience, turning up to its shows wherever they appear. “You can still follow us and keep up to date with all the storylines” thanks to the Internet, explains Dallas. “Whether it’s in Madrid or Maryhill… fucking wherever. The world’s a much smaller place now.”

“If there’s a rule that says this is how things work, Dallas will go against it.”

It was a topic of conversation that came up among the ICW wrestlers and organizers at an event in a London bowling alley a week before Barramania. “We were saying that [we] started at a community center, and on Saturday night we wrestled in the old Millennium Dome, sold out with 600 people, and thought: ‘That’s something.’”

Dallas clarifies: “That’s not 600 people in the same city. It’s 600 people at the other end of the fucking country. It’s really cool to see things like that. We’ve got a TV show in Milan. From Maryhill! It’s quite funny.”

ICW has been at the forefront of a British wrestling resurgence. ICW’s show at the SECC, in its hometown in November 2015 with 4,000 fans, drew the biggest crowd for a professional wrestling show in Britain since 1981.

“They’re almost mainstream in Glasgow, and pretty big in the niche wrestling world elsewhere,” explains John Lister, a pro wrestling fan, journalist, and historian. “And they’re doing it with almost an entirely homegrown British roster.”

Dallas admits he owes a debt to Facebook and Twitter, without which he’d have struggled to attract a dedicated audience to his early shows after the regeneration of ICW. “Before they went off the end with sponsored adverts and that shite, I used to be able to use Facebook and Twitter to sell 500, 600 tickets a show. But the cunts got greedy. Piece by piece they slowly altered it so it wasn’t as powerful unless you paid money.”

The intricacies of Facebook’s sponsored ad algorithms don’t matter as much at this point. ICW is big. Now, after finally attracting paying subscribers to ICW’s own online on-demand service and selling out arenas across the country in a way no British wrestling promotion has for decades, Dallas is able to look back to one defining moment with magnanimity and an eye toward branding.

Ofcom, Britain’s broadcasting regulator, was asked to investigate a complaint made against ICW’s first TV show in the U.K., broadcast in 2012 on a small network called My Channel. Lines from commentators on that particular program—which aired, due to human error at My Channel, not at 3am, but two hours later than planned—included, “If you have never seen his opponent, you are in for a mindfuck.” Ofcom booted ICW off the air for breaching broadcasting regulations.

“We’ve been thrown off My Channel on Sky TV,” Dallas says now with obvious pride. “We’re the last rebels of pro wrestling.”

Certainly, ICW is no normal wrestling promotion. In a world of deviants and obsessives, where fans will cross borders to see their favorite fake idols, and where the heroes and villains willingly risk injury for the applause of their fans, ICW is far more of a niche operation than its competitors. But by furrowing and establishing the brand online, ICW has managed to do what no other indie promotion has before it.

“We’ve had humble beginnings,” says Andrew “Red Lightning” Wesson. “It sounds crazy, but we’re fortunate to have gone through that. It allows us to appreciate what we have now.” There were naysayers, he explains: “We wanted what the U.S. has, and we were told we couldn’t have that; that the U.K. was too sparsely populated to support a wrestling company like us.”

“They’re not just appealing to hardcore wrestling fans,” says John Lister. “There’s a lot of people who are either not necessarily wrestling fans but see it not as wrestling, but as a social event, and they’ve got genuine mainstream celebrity in Scottish culture.”

This notion—expanding beyond the limited but dedicated group of wrestling fans, toward a mainstream audience—is something that few British wrestling companies have ever done. For years, small independent wrestling companies in the U.K. have targeted a small group of fans, and sought to appeal to them alone. Independent companies have been labors of love, rather than slick brands and businesses. Lister draws out one specific example: When he attended ICW’s record-breaking show last year, he went to their merchandise stand in the interval. “Most shows, it’s just two guys behind a table,” he explains. Not at ICW. “They had T-shirts up on display on a stand, the kind of thing you see when you go to a WWE show.”

ICW’s the the Internet’s own indie federation, the little deviant wrestling company that could.

Thomas Kearins, who works as both a referee on the ICW shows and as the company’s social media manager, signed up to the madhouse in 2013. “When I started working there, the largest venue we had sold out was Glasgow’s O2 ABC, which holds just over 1,000 people. Fast-forward three years, and we’ve gone from ABC to selling out the world-famous Barrowland Ballroom three times, as well as the SECC, which holds 4,000 people.”

Yet ICW isn’t content with 4,000-person sellouts. A 30-second walk from the SECC, a 1980s convention center on the banks of the River Clyde, just across the river from the BBC’s Glasgow studios, is the SSE Hydro, a 13,000-seat mega arena. ICW hopes to fill it in late November for its ninth iteration of Fear and Loathing, following in the footsteps of their much bigger competitors, WWE and TNA Wrestling. Less than a  month before the likes of Grado, Jester, and former WWE wrestler Drew Galloway batter themselves from pillar to post in front of a bloodthirsty and appreciative audience, Justin Bieber will be playing in the same place three nights running.

“In my opinion, once we sell out the SSE Hydro this November, that’s when we solidify ourselves as top players,” Kearins says. “There’s a lot riding on that event. The roster is excited and so are the fans, we’re going to make history by having the largest independent wrestling draw in recent history.”

Days before Barramania II, Mark Dallas is sanguine about where the company has come from—and optimistic about its future.

“It’s hard to explain,” he says, struggling to find the words. “It’s weird. It’s weird. At no point does it ever get boring, and I try not to focus on how big it is, because I only envisage it getting bigger as time goes on.”

He asks a question: “How big’s the U.K.? 65, 70 million people? If something’s done right, there’s an audience for it.”

So Dallas is going to continue on the madcap adventure he’s found himself on—the one that has taken him from lifeguard to tycoon, from Maryhill Community Central Hall to the Barrowlands and soon, the 13,000-seat SSE Hydro. And he’s not scared—at least, not too much.

“You just go for it,” he explains. “You just book a tour. You book a van; book the hotel; book a venue, and go for it. You don’t think about it too much. It seems to have worked so far.”

GIF via Bruno Moraes