Back in the eighties, the best wrestling venue in the world wasn’t Arena Mexico, Madison Square Garden, or Korukean Hall. It was the Memorial Hall Cleethorpes. David Finlay, Marty Jones, Bret Hart, the Dynamite Kid, all of them made their presence felt. The hallowed venue’s current incumbent wrestling promotion is BWR. A local crew that is not just making the news in North East Lincs, they are fast becoming nationally recognised. They are organised far better than any one town promotion has been, they have a full library online streaming service, and they run shows that have attracted the biggest names on the UK scene, Pete Dunne, Session Moth Martina, Sugar Dunkerton, and Xia Brookside proudly adorn their alumni list. They have brought their scene up to national standards. With a forward-thinking management team that have clearly made the right decisions at the right time, they have also set the bar very high when it comes to safeguarding. They are trying to create a safe, positive work environment for all of its personnel and fans. Suddenly they have started pushing the national agenda. I spoke to James Hannah and Lucy Openshaw about the company, their immediate goals, and their long term aspirations. 

Grimsby and Cleethorpes always had a great wrestling base back in the day. First bell, 7 pm on Sunday, last bell no later than ten, so you could catch the bus home. However, in the dark ages of wrestling, things fell to the side until a new promotion and school popped up. “There was an Independent scene here, it started about 2005, and that’s when I got my start as a trainee. In about 2015/6, the promoter moved away and decided he had had enough of the business.”

However, the bond of working together on a project you love kept the crew together with constant public demand for a return. ”Towards the end of that year I got a phone call and come to this meeting, so I did, and from that, we thought if we are going to do this, we are going to do this properly, to be the most professional wrestling company in the UK was our ambition in terms of how we operate, how we produce our content and the quality of our shows, but while also maintaining that local community, grassroots feel. It was that fanbase that made us want to carry on and made us want to come back, and we didn’t want to lose that.”  

Image courtesy of @iwilburnArt

The results have been outstanding. With access to a talented production crew, an ambitious but wholly achievable business plan, they set about putting the players in the right positions. “We really do and try to look after the local fan base, and that approach has worked very, very well. We still have that, but now we have people who travel two or three hours each way to come to our shows regularly. That was sort of the ethic behind it. We all learned a lot in different jobs, we figured out who was interested and made sure the best person was in the best role. It is about realising that one person can’t do everything properly.” 

A website that looks better than some national companies, in fact, better than some international companies, showcases incredible photography from Tony Knox and some state of the art cinematography, which change the entire look of the local halls they produce shows into something much slicker and grander.  That professional attitude hasn’t just attracted wrestlers. Recently employed as Chief Brand Officer, Lucy Openshaw knew of BWR’s reputation. “BWR have always been a company who have stood out to me for having the right outlook and attitude towards work, for example, they have always had the correct medic team at shows, which is a huge part of safety and making sure workers feel confident in case of injuries. It’s a company where I have got to know the management team during the last few months and have wanted to help with their social media on show days and talking in-depth with the management team. I feel I would fit in and be able to work alongside BWR to help with their brand and reaching out.” 

When it comes to marshalling talent, BWR has impressive alumni and current roster. ”We get a lot of applications, we get a lot of people sending in their wrestling CVs,” says James when I ask him what makes a good roster pick. “We do look at them all, but we operate a lot on word of mouth, whenever one of us gets to go to other promotions to watch shows and to network, we will always have a notepad with us to see who catches our eyes.” The company also tries to put the right person in the right post. ”I like to see them in person and speak to them afterwards. If then the creative team, “right what can we do with this person, what role can they play on our show?” Some of the people asking to work for us are superb. They are amazing, and we’ve had people on our waiting list for years now, and we are going to use them, but we need to use them properly.” They have also used booking plans to help road test wrestlers for their audience. “What we have done before, and it was really successful, and it helped us find Ethan Allen. We do this thing called the Youth in Revolt Tournament, which is going to become a feature of our shows, whereby we scrapped our normal card and did an entire show with new talent. We took applications from wrestlers with the goal being that the winner would be granted a BWR performance contract. It was incredibly successful, we had a really good time, the show went over really well, it was a massive risk putting a show on for our regular crowd where there was no one that they knew. It was a whole brand new set of characters and personalities. Out of the twelve we used on that show, I think we are still using four. We were also introduced to Tu Byt, and it is he that recently beat Robbie X for the Cruiserweight belt.

The company does not just rely on bringing in established stars. The Evo Wrestling Academy has been part of the plan from the start, after all, training is what bonded the company together to start with. The school is incredibly diverse. “We’ve never turned anyone away. Our adult class is from your typical 14-year-old skinny trainee, all the way up to people in their 40s. We have quite a decent gender split, at the height, maybe a third were women, which is pretty good! I remember when I first started training, it was a boys club, and you might get the token girl. We’ve got students who have various ailments and learning disabilities and physical issues that we have to compensate for, but it’s still early doors. We’d only been going for six months, and then we got Corona’d.” 

Of course, the COVID-19 is perhaps the biggest issue facing wrestling today, and the company is using the time wisely to reload and redeploy its talents, and sensibly, they are not announcing things until the time is right, announcing a hiatus while they figure out exactly, what they want to do. “What we didn’t want to do is rush and come back and not deliver on the expectations of the fans. No one knows what is going to happen with this virus, I think the signs lead towards a second wave and possibly a third wave, and what we don’t want to do, and the reason why we announced the hiatus was we didn’t want to turn round and go “(effects carny promoter voice) Coming back soon guys! Coming back soon guys! Coming back soon guys! Oh no, we’re not.” It seems a sensible option considering how fast things have been moving in the business.

“What we would rather do is assume a return date of early 2021, and in the time between now and then, we’ve been checking out our corporate structure, we’ve been writing, we’ve been planning, and then a big part of that has been, well you know, two weeks ago, British Wrestling changed forever?”

Image courtesy of @iwilburnArt

The #SpeakingOut movement in wrestling has been a day of reckoning for old school thinking. BWR have been clinically honest about it and have enthusiastically embraced change, setting them ahead of many companies in the same boat. “I remember that weekend. It was heartbreaking. So we are making sure we are ahead of the pack when it comes to making sure that wrestling doesn’t degrade and go back. The Speaking Out movement is an amazing display of bravery from everybody who did speak out, but that sacrifice they made doesn’t mean anything unless it leads to permanent change.” Words echoed by Lucy. “The stories coming out are absolutely horrific, and unfortunately, it’s been normality for things like this to happen and be overlooked, however now, moving forward, we as a community of fans, workers and wrestlers – can do our best to change the attitude and eradicate this behaviour with education and guidelines.”

With a lot of education and social care professionals on hand, the change has been based around policy reinforcement and developing a strong safeguarding culture. “We’ve always been pretty hot on that anyway. My professional background has been for the last 18 years of mental health in education. So I’ve done a lot of safeguarding and safeguarding training and dealt with safeguarding issues and stuff on a professional level. We are looking at the idea of almost like a mixture of a DBS check, that has to be on file and up to date, mixed with professional recommendations from peers. We already have appointed two designated safeguarding officers as my role as a backstage agent I would have done if I had to have done it. I’ve been put forward as one of the safeguarding officers along with Lucy. It is important to have all genders covered in regards to the safeguarding disclosures. We are also working with a qualified senior social worker. She is helping us draft our safeguarding policy because we want it to be ironclad.”   

Building a safeguarding culture is the key to the future for the entire industry. With the government looking seriously at pro wrestling as a business for the first time since the Mountevan Rules were adopted in the late forties, and a Select Committee forming to review its work, it is something every company should be looking to build. “There need to be certain things put in place in regards to safeguarding amongst a number of other things. Moving forward, there will be places for people to turn to with issues and have the confidence that correct procedures and protocols are followed to make sure wrestling is a safer industry for everyone to be a part of,” says Lucy. 

Whilst the company is on break, you can catch up on their stories so far through their subscription service. It was another example of the company thinking in a forward direction as a modern company should. James Hannah explains: “That was the part of the plan from almost the first time we met regarding BWR. But we had to sit on it, and we had to wait because no one wants an on-demand service with no content. So we squirrelled away edits of our shows for a couple of years really. But as we haven’t had any shows, we are currently in discussions. We are looking at the possibility of releasing not necessarily match related BWR content to go on the on-demand service. We have some very good talent who are really good at the non-match side of pro wrestling, who are brimming with ideas. So that may crop up hopefully soon.”

I asked James and Lucy what their plans and hopes for the future were. Lucy replied, “The team both front and back of the house are devoted to making sure that procedures are put into place regards shows, training, and everything in between. I’m excited to see the developmental side of the training school, and I’m really looking forward to going to shows and being confident that everything is in place to make sure the company staff, the wrestlers, the fans – are all safe and looked after under BWR.” For James the future is about secure growth; “If someone came to us tomorrow and said to us, here is a small contract to do one of the holiday parks, absolutely, we’d bite their hand off, of course, we would. We’d make the adjustments and deal with the logistics accordingly. Companies are much better now at playing nice with each other than they used to be, we have really good ties with NGW. There are no other major promotions around here. Unless we had a really good reason, I wouldn’t try and run a show in Hull. I am not going to try and compete with NGW in their home city. It doesn’t make any sense. Would we collaborate with NGW in Hull? Absolutely. Our aim is to break into new markets such as the holiday camps and new locations around the North of England. We are also promoting our largest show to date at the 1000 capacity Grimsby Auditorium in late 2021. The impression of Grimsby is that it is a run-down fishing town and is exactly like the film starring Sacha Baron Cohen. We believe that Grimsby has a wrestling promotion that not only puts the area on the map but deserves attention on a wider scale. We will return, bigger and better into a scene that is working extremely hard to improve on the lessons of the past.”   

Finally, I asked James what his philosophy was as a creative worker in the industry. “I’ve always been a fan of wrestling being a medium for storytelling. I like long feuds and storylines. If someone goes out and burns fifteen minutes on a promo, and it was good, and it got the right reaction, and it made sense, I’d be fine. Fans love characters, and they invest in those people, and that’s what keeps people coming back.

I have a tendency to go into the crowd before shows start and take a little wonder while the crowd has come in at the bar or the merchandise stand and just kind of mooch and listen and when you hear people say, “I can’t wait to know what happens with Robbie X or Tyler Devlin,” and the genuine emotion and attachment they have to those wrestlers, that excites me, and we are doing this properly. Then at the end of the show, I go around, and I listen, and I go, “Okay, did the end of the show come across as we wanted it too, have we made our point in regards to the stories that we are telling?” Sometimes we do, and sometimes things change drastically, but it has done something else. There is an organic part of it, and I love that stuff. That is the big creative satisfaction I get as part of my job at BWR.”  That’s the pop you want, isn’t it? I ask him. “Oh yeah,” he responds with a satisfied smile.  

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Video courtesy of BWR, pictures courtesy of BWR and Simon Wilburn (@iwilburnArt)