Eight years ago today, BritWres juggernaut PROGRESS Wrestling held its debut show at The Garage in Islington.
In March 2012, London was in need of a ‘proper’ wrestling promotion. In a time where British wrestling scene largely consisted of family-friendly camp shows, the demand for a ‘cool’ wrestling promotion in the UK grew greater than ever.
Chapter 1: ‘In The Beginning…’ saw the launch of what would become the UK’s most successful independent wrestling promotion as stand-up comedian Jim Smallman and then-agent Jon Briley did what many of us fantasise about – start their own wrestling promotion. Let’s take a closer look at PROGRESS Wrestling’s debut show.
The Garage in Islington is a good looking venue, even by today’s standards. Its dome-style ceiling did a great job at containing the atmosphere generated by the 350 people in attendance. This was clear from the moment that a pacing Jim Smallman announced Noam Dar and El Ligero in the most NXT UK match I could possibly think of. The difference between Smallman’s ring-announcing here and at his departure at Chapter 100 is night and day. Pacing back-and-forth and keeping his head down, this was clearly very new to him. What is equally clear, however, is his natural connection with the crowd and his quick wit – something that would become instrumental in the company’s image going forward.
In the first match of the PROGRESS Championship Tournament, Noam Dar and El Ligero did a cracking job at riling up the crowd. With Dar wasting time at the start, the Londoners were quick to show their… disapproval of the Scottish, perhaps going a bit too far at times. We were very quickly reminded that the promotion was in its infancy, as someone’s mobile phone rang in the crowd, causing quite a distraction. My favourite thing about this match is the huge contrast between the fast-paced in-ring action and Jimmy Barnett’s calm commentary. As much as Jim Smallman has admitted that he wasn’t a great commentator, I must admit that I rather enjoyed his work here. We live in a world where Jim Ross and Mauro Ranallo exist, so a calm voice is nice to hear every once in a while.
After a solid match that established Dar as the mouthy heel, Ligero hit the C4L off the ropes and cemented his place in the tournament final. This was a fun way to open the show. Both men looked good, especially Ligero who acted as the experienced veteran throughout the match. Is it me, or has Ligero always been a veteran? I feel like he’s been wrestling since the beginning of time.
We then got a match between Nathan Cruz and Colossus Kennedy, and the less said about that the better. Kennedy isn’t that great, and Cruz did what he can. Cruz picked up the win with a dropkick.
The third semi-final saw Mike Mason beat independent wrestling superstar Colt Cabana. This was a great, fun little match. Mason’s gimmick is that he’s a dog so we got a fair bit of tennis ball related banter. He then changed into a wrestling machine, which was a bit jarring but the two did well. Mason, who was a last minute fill-in for RJ Singh, won via a dog leash attack thanks to his valet Becky James.
The last of the semi-finals saw ‘Party’ Marty Scurll take on Zack Sabre Jr. Scurll, fresh from his appearance on ITV’s dating show ‘Take Me Out’, was so different to the Villain we all know today. A promo of his was laid over the screen, where he promised to “have an amazing wicked time” after he wins. It was like watching your dad trying to impress Session Moth Martina. Sabre’s promo, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as hard to watch. He simply promised to win the PROGRESS Championship because he “chuffin’ loves arm-bars”.
When it came down to it in the ring, this was still very much a Sabre vs. Scurll match. Things took to the mat very early on, pitching Sabre’s technical prowess against Scurll’s power advantage. Despite the questionable pre-match promos and the crowd’s constant heckling, this was the most sports-based match of the evening, and that was an important element to have in order to progress the scene.
As both men were in a tag team together called the Leaders of the New School, they had an answer for everything they threw at each other and no-one, in particular, took control of the match. I liked that – they were different but equal. So much so, that the finish came as the pair exchanged sunset flips, it just so happened that Scurll got the three-count on this occasion. This was an excellent match and it genuinely still stands up today. The crowd gave a round of applause before breaking out into a “This is PROGRESS” chant.
After Xander Cooper retained his BWC Scarlo Scholarship title in a three-way match against Zack Gibson and Darrell Allen, it was time for the company’s first ever main event to crown the first ever PROGRESS Champion – a four-way elimination match between El Ligero, Nathan Cruz, Mike Mason and Marty Scurll, all of whom earned their spot through the qualifying matches earlier in the night.
Smallman revealed that the PROGRESS Championship was not in fact a traditional championship belt, but was instead a “massive, evil staff”. As strange as this appeared, it was another detail that differentiated PROGRESS from any other wrestling company at the time. The crowd seemed to like it, too. We’ll ignore the “Nazi staff” chants on this occasion.
The match got underway and Nathan Cruz and Marty Scurll quickly found themselves fighting it out all over The Garage. The intimacy that PROGRESS were going for was clear from this point. Stood on the stage, Ligero and Cruz were taking it in turns to chop Scurll, then a fan was brought in to hold Scurll still whilst he received a double-chop from Cruz and Ligero. Brawling in the crowd has become a common occurrence in PROGRESS shows, but it seems like it’s been that way since the start. The finish came as Cruz hit Scurll with a punt kick on his second attempt and pinned him to become the inaugural PROGRESS Champion. The match was a lot of fun and included enough twists and turns to make me ignore the shoddy camera quality.
All-in-all, Chapter 1 was a fun re-watch. Sure, the eight-year-old production leaves a little bit to be desired, but the wrestling itself isn’t dated at all. Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Marty Scurll was very much what you would expect, just with questionable haircuts. What really struck me throughout the show, however, was the fans’ energy. They seemed willing to watch wrestling all night, something that rarely happens today. That said, I could have done without the constant heckling – that part can stay in the past. Nonetheless, the show followed a simple structure and made for some nice, light viewing on a Tuesday afternoon.