RISE: England Underground Pro Wrestling - 'I'm Willing To Die For This'
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"It's a collective group of freaks, geeks, and misfits who have been brought together by their love of wrestling. It's their punk rock."
Earlier this month, millions of fans settled in with their PPV and popcorn to scream at their TVs as the superstars of WWE squared off in the Royal Rumble in Texas - one of the biggest sports events on the planet.
But more than 3,500 miles away, in a dark and sweaty nightclub in Leeds, a few hundred fans gather to get up close and personal with their own version of Monday Night Raw.
This is RISE. The underground UK wrestling night where spandex and glamour give way to something a little more... real.
Promising 'the most hardcore, dangerous, and exciting experience around', fans flock to see the next big bouts in this gritty version of their favourite sport.
Big F'n Joe is one of the promotion's biggest stars, and has the scars to prove it. Like most of those involved in RISE his love of wrestling goes back to childhood.
"I've loved it since I was a kid, it was my first memory," he says. "As an only child, I would have the wrestling figures and play up in my bedroom. I just never really grew up. Wrestling was the one."
A security guard by day, when I meet Big Joe he's about to perform in the main event of RISE's Spooky Slam Halloween special in Leeds.
Joe says: "I believe in living in the moment, and when I walk through that curtain I am in the f***ing moment. This is life, and that's why it's all worth it.
"It's the adrenaline rush, it's a drug, it's so addictive. That euphoria of going through the curtain and being someone you're not, for 20 minutes or half an hour, it just beats the mediocrity of life.
"It's a collective group of freaks, geeks, and misfits who have been brought together by their love of wrestling. It's their Dungeons And Dragons. It's their punk rock."
Above all, he says, it's about a group of people who don't want to be ordinary.
"So many people work s*** jobs they don't want to be in, but on weekends or weekdays I get to live this other life. It's pretty cool.
"I don't want to be like those other dads at school when they turn up to the school gate. They've got their brown dress shoes on and they work their s*** jobs, and get sniffed up at the weekends.
"I want to do something really cool that my kids can look back on and say 'Daddy was punk, that was sick'. Anyone can work in a bank and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's not for me."
For Joe, work is just a means to an end, something he has to do in order to live this alternate life.
"It's like a tent pole," he says, "If I go into work and I know I've got a week of mind-numbing s*** that I don't want to do and I think 'I've got this show at the end of the week', then I can block out work, fast forward that part of my life, get to the show, do the show, bask in the moment, and onto the next one."
He added; "I know it sounds corny - I'm willing to die for the cause. It's just that atmosphere, you can't top it, it's just in the air. It's f***ing brilliant."
And Joe's not alone. Kemi is another star on the RISE roster. A dental nurse in Norwich, by night she becomes a voodoo priestess.
She says she 'couldn't function' without it.
"This is the real me," she says. "I could never be this in front of my colleagues. And I really wish we lived in a society where I could just be myself, but this is my outlet and I love it.
"Wrestling is an escape from reality. And unfortunately, with all the stuff that's going on in the world, the moment I put on my face paint and my eyes go a different colour, I just feel like it's my escape route. It's my drug, almost.
"I wouldn't be able to function without it."
But unlike Joe, until very recently, Kemi had kept her wrestling career a secret from her family and even blocked them from social media to protect her double life.
She said: "I'm kept it quiet because of how this voodoo priestess came about, it was quite close to home for them. They're a strong Christian family, the two of them, I just felt it would end in chaos, so I decided to wait until I made it big, then show them and say 'look, I did it!'.
"I found it really hard to keep it a secret, every now and again my mum would call up and say 'oh, Kemi, I saw this girl and she looked just like you' and I was like: 'no, mum, I don't do that anymore'."
After the years of hiding, Kemi recently decided to come clean, and while her father was ill told her mum about her secret. Her hope was that she could, eventually, tell her dad once he had recovered.
Sadly, however, he didn't recover, and passed away without ever knowing what a star his daughter had become.
This band of misfits was brought together by the organisation's boss, Danny O'Doherty, a former wrestler who wanted to build a production that would be bigger, badder, and better than anything else out there.
He says: "We grew up watching wrestling in the 90s when it was Stone Cold and the Rock, all that crazy stuff, which was quite an adult product for kids to be watching back then. We are trying to bring that vibe into the modern day, that's what RISE underground pro wrestling is bringing, that crazy vibe.
"We do like to push the boundaries as far as we can take them, so we do get into a bit of trouble sometimes when it comes to licensing. But at the end of the day, the shows always go ahead, everyone's happy, and we have a great time."
RISE started out life in a disused theatre in Middlesbrough, with just a handful of people in the crowd.
At first it wasn't easy.
Danny says: "Personally for me, it's been a long road. I started in the wrestling business 10 years ago when I first started training. But ever since I can remember from school, while I was supposed to be playing football on the school team at break time, I would be in the corner with my mates trying to put on wrestling shows.
"It has only been this year that I've gone full time with it. It was a big gamble, because for the first few years I self funded it. Every single penny I had was going into this. I did every job under the sun - supermarkets, removals, different things, anything I could do to get a few quid in my pocket.
"At the start it was really hard to get it off the ground, but I always had faith in the product and the wrestlers I used. Being in the wrestling business myself I've met people along the way and formed relationships with them, and we've been on a similar wavelength. And this is how RISE began, from talking to the guys.
"People like Big Joe and Dr Leonardo, they have been here since the beginning. We've all started from the bottom and now we're getting to the level where we are starting to bring in the big crowds."
And its this family mentality that Danny says sets RISE apart from any other company out there.
He adds: "It seems as though this is almost the misfits of British wrestling. Because we're not that traditional wrestling show, we are so insane and crazy, we have sort of cultivated that atmosphere amongst the wrestlers themselves and also the fans."
This year marks the promotion's fifth anniversary, and it's a world away from those difficult beginnings. The handful of hardcore fans and friends has grown to sell-out shows across the north of England, with people packing into venues to see what kind of mayhem they have in store.
And according to Danny, the sky is the limit.
He goes on: "The reason it is called RISE is because we want it to be a constant rise, and so far so good, it's always getting bigger and better.
"We've got ideas forever, we never seem to run out, because we have such a good team there. We have got so many brains combined it just seems as though the ideas flow and the shows are getting better and better and the feedback from fans is getting better too."
But for Danny, it's really about reigniting the love of wrestling that often fades away as youth gives way to adulthood.
"When I look at the videos back and see all those smiling faces in the crowd, so present and in the moment and happy, that's the payment as far as I'm concerned.
"Just to do what I love and for people to enjoy it, that's good enough for me."
Featured Image Credit: Supplied/Tony Knox
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