From a distance, an Irish viewer’s familiarity with pro-wrestling may well begin and end with Vincent McMahon’s WWE, the American titan that has fashioned pay-per-view events out of every imaginable pun (Royal Rumble, SummerSlam, etc). Up close, bodies hit the mat with greater velocity. The sport has also become more familiar thanks to Over The Top Wrestling, an Irish outfit building a native industry since 2014. A festival-opening slot at the Tiger Dublin Fringe comes with the setting to match. If the rise of the Spiegeltents in the 18th century overlapped with wrestling’s golden age, then this makes a discreet and thrilling homecoming.
The title of the night strikes a serious tone for a form endlessly dismissed as fake and predetermined, as if those are its weak points. The makers have no qualms about the manipulations at play; wrestling is art.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. The neat mix of dropkicks, suplexes and clotheslines land with a smack. Even the audience are instructed to be vigilant by Aonghus Og McAnally, a commentator with the gusto of a circus ringmaster. When a wrestler torpedoes through the ropes onto their opponent, spectators wisely flee their seats.
Some competitions dig up rivalries of old. 300-plus pounder Damian O’Connor is the veritable Goliath to Jordan Devlin’s David. English fighter Charlie Garrett approaches the stage decorated with a union jack, flexing pompously to the crowd. His opponent Rocky Mac arrives hurly in hand to the strains of the Horslip’s Dearg Doom. It’s easy to sort villain from hero here.
Other antagonists include a rugby-playing narcissist from upper class Dublin (Logan Bryce) and Kings of the North, a trio of Belfast brutes (Alan Cunningham, Damien Corvin and Grant Davidson) who hold up a gloved hand gesturing the iconic red hand of Ulster. Fewer strategies testing Irish identity politics have been as brazen.
Pro-wrestling actually bears the irreverence of other performance forms. Ringside smack talk, for example, is stand-up comedy: “Shut your fucking mouths!” yells Charlie Garrett to an audience mockingly chanting “Brexit!”. On the opposing side, Martina the Session Moth (Karen Glennon), a grotesque party animal whose finishing move involves a used condom, chooses a different approach: “He’s a bit of alright, isn’t he?”
There’s then a gag involving Martina pulling down Charlie’s trunks, revealing a thong underneath. Afterwards, the fan favourite Rocky Mac strips his own sweatpants to reveal more manly shorts underneath. Suggestively, this performance owes less to boxing than it does to burlesque.
Solemnity sets in for the main event, an anticipated championship match between Pete Dunne and Luther Ward (the company’s founder Joe Cabray, playing a bald-headed lunatic). They slam each other daredevil-like from the top rope, rousing shock from the room.
In fact, the audience don’t think twice about voicing their own commentary throughout, with chants ranging from general praise (“This is awesome!”) to the confounded (“Holy shit!”). That measures the success of Over The Top Wrestling in generating an Irish audience, and suggests not just an enthusiasm for wrestling but a mania.