Claire Warden

In the second part of our interview with Claire Warden, Claire gives us the in-depth story of how one of Britain’s most entertaining wrestling promotions, Wrestling Resurgence, came to be. She also talks about her work as a commentator for the promotion, in addition to discussing one of her “greatest ever wrestling moments” when she provided commentary for the 30 Minute Iron Woman match between Kanji and Charli Evans. Plus, Claire breaks down the matches that are most memorable to her as a wrestling fan, including an entertaining bonus story of her time at SummerSlam 2014. Enjoy.

You touched on Wrestling Resurgence earlier. You were a part of helping get the company started in 2017. Could you tell us the story of how the company came to be?

“Yeah, with pleasure. So Wrestling resurgence has been collaborative from the start, and it’s been one of the great joys of my academic career, and I’ve been delighted to just play a small part in it. Basically, we released the book [Performance and Professional Wrestling], and this was me, Broderick Chow, and Eero Laine, my two co-editors. So Broderick is at Brunel University, and Eero is at the University of Buffalo in upstate New York. We had met at conferences, and we approached Routledge and said we’d like to write a book about this and asked them how they felt about it, and they totally jumped at it and were amazing collaborators throughout the whole process. So we released this book, which had, I don’t know, about 16 chapters from scholars and practitioners who are interested in wrestling and wrote interestingly about wrestling.

We released that, and then after that, we all did our own little promotional stuff because we’re all in different places, of course. I did a number of little events, in and around, particularly the Leicester area where I was at at the time. Just kind of promoting the book really. People like talking about wrestling, and it attracts a more general audience than like Meyerhold, for example (laughs). So I did one of these talks, and at one of these talks, I was approached by two guys, Sam West and John Kirby, who were at that stage, and John still is, working at Attenborough Arts Centre at Leicester. They approached me and said that they were wrestling fans and that they also work in the arts, and we started to kind of get a little group of us who were interested in arts and theatre, and we kind of got together and said, “Wouldn’t it be brilliant if, on the back of this book, we could put on a little wrestling show to kind of celebrate academic scholarship and wrestling?”

None of us knew anything about doing a wrestling show, at all. Nothing. So we wrote off to the Being Human Humanities Festival. So Being Human is a yearly Humanities Festival, the biggest in the world, based in London, and the idea is to celebrate humanities research, but in a way that appeals to people outside of the academy. So we applied to them saying, “We’d like to put on a wrestling show if that’s alright?” Thinking we would never hear anything back, I’ll be totally honest with you, and they gave us the grant to put on a wrestling show. Then we freaked out a bit for a couple of weeks because we realised we actually had to put on a wrestling show, and then we did it. So the headliners on that card were Mark Haskins and Dave Mastiff, which was fantastic.

wrestling resurgence WM-8
Courtesy of Wrestling Resurgence

So we started to approach people that we would quite like to work with, and they all said yes, somewhat surprisingly, because we didn’t know what we were doing. And we put on this show at Attenborough Arts Centre at Leicester, which was the first time Attenborough had ever gone anywhere near wrestling. We talked a little bit at the start of this interview about what people thought about when I started thinking about wrestling. I think some of the arts centres that we worked with thought we were crazy when we came to them and said we’d like to put on a wrestling show at their centre. But then they realised, different types of people were coming through the door, and then they got quite excited about it.

So we put on that show, and it was a sell-out. We got 80 people in, and because we had a grant, we didn’t charge anybody anything, and it worked really well. We were quite surprised. Then on the back of that, we won two further grants, I was at De Montfort University at the time, and rather astoundingly to my mind, Resurgence won the Universities Impact and Innovation award that year, which was hilarious (laughs). But that also came with some money, so we put on a second show, and then I moved to Loughborough in 2018, and they gave us a small grant within three months of me being there. So we put on a third show, and by this stage, Resurgence was now a kind of bona fide company doing its own thing.

So then Sam and John said they’d like to set it up as an independent company and asked how I’d feel about it, and I said that would be amazing, and I would like to be a kind of friendly face in Resurgence. Just coming along and doing whatever and they could do the everyday stuff, and they’ve done a spectacular job of that. Sam is kind of an independent artist; he’s won two Arts Council grants, to put on two different shows and do a number of films along with that as well, one of which was Black History Month, where Resurgence had an all-person colour card. It was all very exciting.

So, yeah, then it kind of transpired that it became an independent company with its own business model, and now here we are. Still running shows every month, until we reached COVID time, in Attenborough, but also Martin Hall in Loughborough, and our biggest venue is Nottingham Contemporary Art Gallery, which is really quite a sizeable venue. So now it’s its own thing, and I have the great joy of collaborating and giving some commentary, which I enjoy very much.”

That’s actually my next question, what’s it like being a commentator? Of course, when you write, you have a long time to process your thoughts, but commentary is very fast-paced.

“Yeah, it is a different challenge, I think. I think I’ve learned a lot over the years from teaching in Universities. Where it’s kind of like providing commentary, I have to say. So all my training has been standing in front of people giving lectures, and that’s been very good training for wrestling commentary, I have to say. I really enjoy it. So, I co-commentate with Joe Kenard, who does a tremendous job of doing the leading stuff and calling the moves, and I just kind of go, “Wow, amazing” most of the time. It’s kind of a wonderful vantage point to watching wrestling practise because I kind of get to be involved in the narrative, which has always been the thing that I’ve been most interested in about wrestling, is the narrative, the story. That’s kind of a great joy, really.

I like the excitement of it, and again, it comes back to this idea of risk. In my day to day world, I’m a relatively serious academic and have positions of responsibility at a university and things like that. Then come a Saturday night, I go and do commentary, and I suppose it is a bit risky really. You don’t know how that’s going to come across and whether you’re going to be taken seriously, especially as a woman. But I really, really enjoy it, and I have found it to be a challenge, and I don’t think I’ve nailed what it is to be a commentator yet, and honestly, the people who do it well make it look so easy, and it really is not so easy at all. Trying to get the cadence of matches and trying to get the tone of your voice correct as you’re watching it, so you have somewhere to go later on in the match. Don’t start really excited. How much narrative do you provide? There is just so much going on, and it’s been a great joy and great challenge.”

I will say I’ve enjoyed your work. I couldn’t compare you to Jim Ross (laughs)…

“Yeah, don’t do that. Man, that would be the height of my career. There would be nowhere to go if anyone ever did that.”

Claire Warden Website Photo

No, you’ve done a good job, and that’s an interesting point you mentioned by learning from teaching. I can relate to that moment when students put you on the spot because that’s a challenge.

“It is a challenge, and the more I kind of mull it over, the more I realise a lot of how I approach commentary is the same way as I would approach a seminar and feel quite similar. So I have some preparation stuff, but I don’t know where it is going to go because there is so many other things that could break in and change what I’m doing, and I really enjoy that. Especially kind of coming back to how you entered this question, I especially enjoy it because it’s really different to my written work, where I go over each line and revise, edit, and all that sort of stuff. There is no time to do any of that in commentary at all. You call what you see, and you hope it comes over well. So it’s exciting to have those two different sides of work.”

One of the matches you commentated was the 30 minute Iron Woman match between kanji and Charli Evans. I know you love that match, but how and why is that match so special to you?

“It still ranks as one of my greatest ever wrestling moments, not just Resurgence moments, but one of the most wonderful wrestling moments. I think everything just came together. The lead up to it was so exciting and had built from practically nothing, where Kanji and Charli had this first match with no expectations at all. Second match they absolutely ripped the place apart, it was a brilliant two out of three falls. It was fantastic. So I think the storytelling had been fantastic and organised really well by Sam and John, and that had been done so perfectly. I think it was a very exciting night because it was that night, in August of last year, where it felt like everyone had arrived in Britain to do wrestling (laughs).”

Oh, yes, I was at New Japan that day (laughs).

“Aaah there you go, and New Japan was here. We had announced that night quite a while before WWE, and New Japan announced it. So we were like, “Oh, man, this is going to be rough. We are going to get no one at our show,” and then suddenly, we had people tweeting us saying that they’re going to the Iron Woman match. So it had a lot of excitement behind it, and I think for me, there are a few things about that match that will always stay with me. I think that was the match where, for me, women’s wrestling became not just women’s wrestling but wrestling. I found that a tremendously moving moment where I was not looking at two women wrestling.

Women’s wrestling, as we know, has had a very fraught and difficult history, and I was no longer going, “This is a great women’s wrestling match.” I wasn’t saying that anymore. I was just saying, “This is incredible.” I found that very moving, exciting and energising, and it confirmed for me a shift and a change, which I embraced and thought was incredible. I think that night on commentary was one of the best nights that Joe and I had together. We were both really excited, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. So we purposefully said to Sam and John, “Don’t tell us what’s happening. We don’t wanna know.” We just wanted to go and call it like fans because that’s how we felt that night. We felt like “marks” in a really good way, not in a weird way (laughs).

The whole tone of the match was perfect. The way they had the clock in the background, they nailed every spot, every single spot was perfect. And then the end of that match is something that will stay with me forever, and I don’t say that lightly. The end of that match happened, and we realised Charli Evans won, but only just. You know, 7 seconds to go, and Kanji was so close, and the whole place stood up. Sort of getting back to your question about liveness, and the importance of liveness in wrestling. Everyone stood up as kind of one body, and I’ve never experienced this, even in theatre. I’ve experienced standing ovations before, and some worthy standing ovations, but I’ve never experienced, ever, where everyone just stood up as one body to celebrate this moment that they had been a part of. It was just beautiful.

wrestling-resurgence-Iron-Woman
Photo taken by Rob Brazier, courtesy of Wrestling Resurgence

So it’s a really special moment for me, and I felt proud that Resurgence had been able to put on this show, and been able to facilitate that happening. Even if you told me like four or five years ago that we would have an Iron Woman match for 30 minutes on a British wrestling show, I think I would have been like, “I’m not sure actually.” I just couldn’t have foreseen it. So it was very exciting. All those things came together that night. It was perfect. For me, it really ranks up there in my top three wrestling moments ever.”

I also set you a homework task a few days ago, asking if you could watch the 2008 RAW segment, where Chris Jericho and Shawn Michaels sign the contract for their Unsanctioned Match. I think that segment really encapsulates so much of your work in relation to wrestling, whether it’s the power of silence, blurring fact with fiction, and I wanted to get your thoughts on that?

“Yeah, I really enjoyed watching it, so thanks for setting me homework, I always enjoy that. I think the power of silence in wrestling is something that I’d like to write a little bit more about at some point because it’s kind of surprising. I think people imagine wrestling as kind of crash, bang, wallop, and noise and loud music, and of course, in lots of ways it is. But it’s the subtleties of wrestling that I find particularly fascinating, and that segment is a prime example. It’s actually quite funny because you had this signing of the contracts, and that happens quite quickly. It’s done almost in silence, and Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler is kind of like “Oh, right” (laughs) because it’s such an unusual moment. They do it almost without any sound at all.

For me, silence in wrestling is a powerful thing, and it kind of builds something up. It can make you feel quite frightened, and I think that’s what happens in that segment because it’s so quiet, and they’re so silent, but there are these looks like Jericho looking away and not catching Shawn’s eye. There is this feeling that something is going to happen. It brings a greater sense of power to a moment. There is a threat, which is probably the best way of describing it. There is a threat to it. I think silences in wrestling are often about threat. So going back to The Undertaker, his silence is about threat. You’re frightened by him because he doesn’t speak, not because he does speak.

The bit I write about in chapter 2 of Performance and Wrestling, where Nexus comes and smashes the space up. It’s very unusual for having a lack of commentary. It’s silent. The silence is deeply threatening because everything is forced into silence, and I think that’s why it is threatening in that segment between Shawn and Jericho. There is the sense that, yeah, they could go and throw a punch, but actually that’s not good enough. That’s not violent enough. There is more violence in the threatening silence that kind of pervades them.

So, yeah, I found it fascinating to read in that way. It’s a visceral feeling actually, and I often feel this with wrestling. I feel that not only are their bodies doing something. I feel it in my body too. I feel a sense of excitement or fear, but of course, it’s all a safe fear because I’m watching it thinking, “This is a story.” It’s like a horror film. It’s a safe fear, and you feel a safe fear with that moment between Jericho and Shawn Michaels. You spend all that segment thinking, “Any minute now it’s going to explode. Any minute now. Any minute now.” I thought it was really fascinating.”

Chris jericho and Shawn Michaels
Courtesy of wwe.com

Also, their words are violent too because it’s all leading to them kind of saying I’m going to destroy you.

“Yeah, totally, and again, it’s something I want to think more about is the way that words don’t just describe violence in wrestling, they are violent. The way things are spoken, the tone of voice, and you can see it in that segment, in particular, Shawn almost changes his voice towards the end of that segment. There is such a kind of powerful gruffness to his voice, and in that, it’s not just the words are violent, which they are, the content is violent. But the actual words are violent words, and for me, that’s very interesting because that connects again with something I’ve already spoken about quite a lot in this interview, which is the body, and the body as this performed violent subject and the words are very much part of that.”

In the book, it’s fascinating how you compare different segments of silence. For me, the best example of silence is Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker at WrestleMania 30, and I’m not sure if you’ve ever covered that in your work?

“I haven’t, and I would like to. There is a kind of paper sitting on my computer, which one day I’ll turn into something. I gave it as a conference paper a couple of times, which actually talks about that match. So eventually, I would like to come to that and think more about the silence and what the silence does, and particularly around some really interesting philosophical stuff around silence being something that sounds, which is a weird oxymoron. But you hear silence, even though you don’t, but you hear the lack of noise, and that’s the silence. That silence can often be a violent thing, and can often be a kind of cutting down of language, so there is something more to be said about that, definitely. In the long run, one day, when I get time (laughs).”

I’ll keep an eye out for it. My final question is a spin on what you do on the Grappling Arts podcast, so I wanted to ask you what’s the one match that captures everything you love about wrestling?

“That’s a very good question, and I think I would have to think about it a little more. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about women’s wrestling a lot, as you might imagine, and Trish Stratus and Lita and that 2004 RAW match for the championship. Sorry, I have many answers to this question, but that would be one. I think that was confirming of what women’s wrestling could be, and so that stands out for me as one. And then when I think about Kanji vs. Charli Evans, which is a really different match, but when I think about that Iron Woman match, in conjunction with that, I think, “Wow, there’s been some really amazing women’s matches.” So certainly that match, for me, will stand as one of the many high points of women’s wrestling and prove what women’s wrestling could be. So I think I would answer with that.

I would also probably answer with, I was at SummerSlam 2014 where Brock Lesnar suplexed John Cena like thirty-six times, and this is going to be on no one’s top matches at all, and I know that. But for me, it stands out because I was wandering around the venue in Los Angeles afterwards, and it had been a brilliant SummerSlam, and we had a really good time. But afterwards, I saw a bunch of children, and they were in floods of tears because John Cena had lost, and I sort of went up to them and was like, “He’ll be back. He’s a hero. He’ll be back.” My husband was like, “Oh my god, you’re the biggest mark.”

So one of the reasons why this match sticks out in my memory is not just because I was there, but for me, it was a confirming moment of what wrestling can mean to people, and it was a confirmation of how far I had come as a wrestling fan. I think at that moment, I realised wrestling meant a lot to people and was really precious. Not just for kids, but to lots of people. There is a very precious thing, actually, and it could be a very beautiful thing. It could raise emotions in people that they would never expect, and so that match stands out in my memory as being kind of a wonderful moment, which confirmed to me what wrestling could do. So, yeah, no one’s favourite match, but it’s a standout for me because of that story. I think if I had to choose one match, it would probably be the Trish Stratus/Lita match.”

To be fair, that story is great and will likely get a chuckle out of a lot of readers (laughs).

“I know, I know. It’s just something about how wrestling makes us feel, and I think with everything going on in the world of wrestling, which obviously we haven’t talked about today, but with everything going on, I think it’s very easy to lose sight of that. To be like, “Oh, this is just the worst,” and to feel like you have been naive or to feel like you have been duped by something or that you can never love wrestling again. I’m sure a lot of people have come through that process over the past few weeks.

There are moments that just take me back and make me think, “Oh, this was just amazing. This was a beautiful moment,” and I think those are the moments we need to cling on to.”

And not going in-depth in what you’re referring to, but I guess there is the good and bad in everything isn’t there?

“There really is, and going back to theatre, theatre had this reckoning a few years ago, and now wrestling is having that reckoning as well. It’s painful, and it’s necessary.”

Absolutely, and thank you so much for your time, Claire.

 

For part 1 of our interview with Claire Warden, click here

For more information on Claire Warden’s work, head on over to her site, and you can also order a copy of Performance and Professional Wrestling here.

For all the latest on Wrestling Resurgence follow them on Twitter (@W_Resurgence) and subscribe to their YouTube channel here.