Inside EVE Wrestling, the punk wrestling company putting women in the ring
© Dan Wilton
Saturday afternoon at the Resistance Gallery in Bethnal Green, East London. Two women, known as Kay Lee Ray and Viper, sit in the middle of a wrestling ring, playing Connect 4. Beside them, swamped in pink tinsel, is a pug named Bubba, who is being Instagrammed by several women in hysterics. Behind them, others make use of the impromptu hair-curling station that has materialised on the staircase.
Fast-forward five hours and the same space is packed with almost 200 punters screaming at Kay Lee Ray and Viper, who are once again in the ring, only this time leaping from corner posts, bouncing off the ropes and hurling each other to the ground (now scattered with those same Connect 4 pieces, making every slam more painful). At one point, a kick from Ray knocks off Viper’s false eyelashes. And these two are supposed to be best friends.
This is fight night at EVE, billed by its founder Emily Read as “the wrestling company that the wrestling world doesn’t want”. Tickets for shows starring this self-proclaimed ‘feminist, punk-rock’ gang of all-female pro-wrestlers sell out almost every month, with competitors clamouring for a spot in the ring, and punters flocking from across the UK and beyond to see them smashed, slammed and thrown about.
It’s a long way from the bikini-clad sideshow that women’s wrestling – thanks to it being largely ignored by the rest of the industry – has become synonymous with. When Read struts onto the stage stroking her giant neon-pink mohawk and announces, “The first rule of the secret girl gang... is that you must tell everyone about the secret girl gang!”, then follows it with a stern warning about zero tolerance for hate speech, it’s clear that EVE isn’t only trying to change the face of wrestling, but to make a political point, too. This is a safe space – unless you’re in the ring, that is. There may be two (or three, or four) women beating the living daylights out of each other to a baying crowd, but they’re doing it with a clear message of empowerment, inclusivity and mutual appreciation; when the fans are really loving a match, they chant, “Both! These! Women! Both! These! Women!”
But this positive ethos doesn’t make the wrestling any less dirty a spectacle than a traditional men’s show. Rhia O’Reilly and Sierra Loxton’s opening match ends with them grappling on the floor after flipping over the ropes and into the audience. And the climactic match of the night – reigning EVE champion Charlie Morgan versus Kasey Owens – ends with the entire audience rushing outside to watch as the fighting continues next to the bins. According to Owens’ identical twin Leah, this is normal: “The word is shenanigans. She-nani-i-gans. Be prepared to move, be prepared to get out of the way. There will be dives, craziness, sadness, happiness, every emotion you can think of. It’s basically this theatre that we do; you have to come to see it to actually understand.”
She’s right: the EVE experience is like watching a high-drag pantomime with added punching – the camp and characterisation are crucial to the show. Jetta, the self-styled “Princess Diana of British wrestling”, enters the ring to Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better, conducting the crowd in a sing-along. Zoe Lucas is an uptight 'high-school bitch' who arrives flanked by two goons in T-shirts that read “Is Wrestling A Carb?”. And Charli Evans takes her loss to Addy Starr (a secondary-school English teacher by day) so badly that she ignores the referee and has another go at the victor, who ends up being carried backstage. Most of the women on this card have loved wrestling from an early age and stumbled across training schools either through curiosity or tagging along with a friend. They have gone from tentatively being the only girl at training camps full of men to travelling the world, but they keep coming back to EVE because here they can just show up and fight without having to justify themselves.
As my confidence has grown in wrestling, it’s grown in life, too... It’s pushed me as a person in all kinds of ways.
“This is a form of art, really,” says Evans, 24, a full-time wrestler from Central Coast, near Sydney, Australia. “And it’s like no other. To be able to tell a story and make people laugh or cry and feel something genuine... To enable them to escape [normal life] is the coolest thing in the world.” And the effects on the wrestlers themselves can be profound. “I’ve completely grown as a performer and a person over the last eight years,” says Belfast native Rhia O’Reilly, 33, who works for The Big Issue Foundation when not in the ring. “I used to be nervous and shy, but I’ve learnt how to work a crowd. As my confidence has grown in wrestling, it’s grown in life, too. Even looking at how my body has developed – I now take risks I would never have considered. It’s pushed me as a person in all kinds of ways.”
It feels timely, in this age of #MeToo, to see women showing off extraordinary athletic talents in such a male-dominated sphere with no fear of being treated differently. EVE has already had a global impact – tonight’s line-up includes Australian and Canadian wrestlers. And it regularly hosts competitors from New Zealand, Germany, America and Japan, which has a huge women’s wrestling scene where many of EVE’s home-grown fighters have spent time. As tides change in many industries, Read’s approach is no more ‘softly softly’ than that of the women in the ring. She doesn’t think patience is necessary: “People say it takes time to do this or that. But it doesn’t. You just do it. It didn’t take time to have good women’s wrestling. We just took good wrestlers and put them in a wrestling show.”
The first time Read – a long-time fan of wrestling, and a one-time trainee – did this was with her husband Dann back in 2009. EVE started small, as a family-friendly show in Sudbury, Suffolk, with the aim of creating “a company for women to better themselves, for women to prove a point and show how great they were. A place for people to see women being celebrated as strong heroes.” In mainstream wrestling, Addy Starr explains, women’s bouts used to be a novelty: “You’d have the main event, your normal matches, then you might have a gimmicky one like a death match or a comedy match, or a women’s match,” she says. These generally featured skimpy costumes, lasted three or four minutes, and were considered a “piss break” for those waiting to see the big names (ie, the men). But things are changing: WWE has announced its first all-female pay-per-view event, which airs this month. And EVE is at the forefront of the movement to put women’s wrestling front and centre.
EVE gave London its first-ever all-women show in 2016 and has been on a roll over since, with a helping hand from Netflix’s hit wrestling drama GLOW. Kate Nash – who plays Britannica in the series – is a regular at matches, and among the hardcore EVE devotees are first-timers such as Kyle and his friends, from Denver, USA. “This promotion was just so well spoken of and there were so many great performers coming through that we were like, ‘We have to go and see this,’” he says. “To see a show where it’s all women – and really empowered women – is so cool. Every match has been a banger!” Newbie Laura from London is squashed onto the staircase, craning to see the ring. “I’ve been watching GLOW and it just inspired me,” she shouts over the crowd. “I was like, ‘I want to try out wrestling.’ But maybe not now I’ve actually seen the quality and strength of these women. I think I’d need to work on my muscles.”
If Laura does decide to give it a try, her first port of call will be the EVE Academy, run by Rhia O’Reilly, who wrestled at the very first EVE show and is now a regular on the bill. On Sunday mornings, the Resistance Gallery is transformed once again: the fairy lights are on, the music is turned up to 11, and roughly 20 women are taking turns practising forward and shoulder rolls on the mats as Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’ thumps through the space. Every few minutes, O’Reilly or her co-trainer, former wrestling pro and stunt man Greg Burridge, yells, “What day is it?” and everyone throws up their hands to shout back, “EVE Sunday!” There may only be a tenth of the people who attended last night’s show, but it’s already just as sweaty.
Training is open to anyone who self-identifies as a woman, and generally attendees are aged 18-35. There’s a mix of beginners and more established amateur wrestlers, but everyone gets involved, no matter what level of fitness or experience, and evidently it’s pretty addictive. “A whole bunch of people who watched GLOW went, ‘I want to do wrestling!’ without knowing what they were getting themselves into,” O’Reilly explains. “But, to their credit, they’re still here six months later.”
Above all, O’Reilly aims to carry the EVE philosophy of solidarity, support and celebration from the show to training. “We’ve created a really special and unique atmosphere unlike any other wrestling school I’ve been to. It’s so positive and supportive. Yes, I wanted to create a training school, but really I just wanted a space where women could feel safe, make noise and do something that maybe sometimes they feel they shouldn’t.”
It’s a great place for women to get together, wrestle and feel confident, no matter their size, their experience, how they look or how they dress.
This attitude has helped make the EVE Academy the world’s biggest women’s wrestling training school, and not one attendee can speak highly enough of it. Becki Ashton and Winona Makanji have travelled down from Nottingham just to train here for the morning. “It’s a great place for women to get together, wrestle and feel confident, no matter their size, their experience, how they look or how they dress,” says Ashton. Makanji was making plans for her debut on the card at EVE just a day after her first training session last December: “It was amazing, the best day of my life,” she says.
One trainee who has already graduated to the ring as part of EVE’s step-up shows – SHEVOLUTION – is Cydoni Trusste, who fights as ‘psycho dyke’ Rebel Kinney. Trusste has been wrestling for around 10 years, but found her home at EVE because it “sees us as wrestlers rather than just women who are there for sex appeal and nothing more”. She views it as a progressive force leading the way for women wrestlers: “We have a lesbian champion. And we have me, who could not be queerer.” Trusste pulls down her T-shirt to reveal a huge chest tattoo reading ‘QUEER’, before showing off ‘LESBIAN’ inked across her knuckles. “Literally, I could not be queerer.”
EVE just struck me as this bold company who stood up for what people don’t usually stand up for, especially in the wrestling business.
The lesbian champion she’s referring to is Charlie Morgan, EVE’s breakout star, who has just fulfilled her “childhood dream” by signing to work with the British branch of WWE. The Norwich-based 26-year-old – whose motto is ‘Be#brave. Be#you. Be#fearless’ – has been wrestling for around eight years. In July, Morgan came out as gay in the EVE ring, which she describes as “probably one of the best moments of my career”. She knows that few wrestling companies would provide such a supportive platform. “I feel like this world is far too wrapped up in what everyone else thinks, and EVE just struck me as this bold company who stood up for what people don’t usually stand up for, especially in the wrestling business,” Morgan says.
If you go to an EVE event, don’t expect your average night out. As an audience member, you might need to be prepared for a kick in the head from a wrestler flying over the ropes (as evidenced by one die-hard fan cheerfully recounting the concussion she received here last year), but you’re also treated to biscuits if you’re dedicated enough to be at the front of the queue. That’s EVE: putting you a headlock with one arm, but giving you a hug with the other.
Tips from the ring
When writer Rachael Sigee arrived at the EVE Academy, she had no idea she’d end up being put through her paces. Here’s what she learnt…
1. Pick an experienced wrestling partner
The whole point of wrestling is to work together, and the job of the more advanced partner is always to make the newbie look good. It’s the fastest way to learn the coolest-looking moves.
2. Don’t be intimidated
These may be the toughest women in London, all of them happy to hurl you to the mat, but they’ll be cheering for every new girl who walks through the door. Everyone wants you to get good enough that they can justifiably put you in a Boston Crab [a pro wrestling hold].
3. It’s all about the sell
Most wrestlers would refer to what they do as an art rather than a sport (although that doesn’t mean it’s not a serious workout). Convincing the crowd that you’re in agony – when you’re actually in total control – is key to making it look realistic.
4. Get your head in the game
Wrestling is almost as much of a mental workout as a physical one, and there’s a lot to think about. Executing the moves correctly and safely is one thing, but how about making sure the crowd can see your face at the same time? In terms of learning choreography, teamwork and show(wo)manship, it’s like taking a super-challenging dance class, albeit with a few headlocks thrown in.
5. You bruise, you lose
Storylines may be pre-planned and sequences practised, but wrestling moves are very real. The next day, I ached in places I didn’t know existed, and I had bruises developing before I’d even finished cooling down. But if anyone asks how I got them, I can legitimately say, “You should see the other girl.”