Itâs a Sunday morning in about-to-be-winter Essex, east of London, and after a 40 minute each train and bus ride, followed by a 15 minute negotiation of winding suburban streets, I finally wander upon a secluded sports ground and club rooms. I walk into the smaller of the two club rooms and find myself standing in a judo gym that’s been converted for the weekend – the floor is covered in brightly-coloured mats and cushioning and around 25 people, ranging in age from about eight to 30-something – including a couple of girls – are grappling on the floor and throwing each other around. A huge muscle-bound man has a teenage girl in a headlock, a mother is taking photos of her son locked in battle with another child – one of the boys is wearing a ‘Goldberg’ T-shirt, the other a ‘Terry Funk’ T-shirt, both of whom are famous professional wrestlers.
This is Dropkixx, Britain’s largest and most respected wrestling academy.
Wrestling in the UK hasnât always had the best reputation â not because of its standard, but because of its appearance. In the 70s and 80s, terrestrial television programs featuring wrestling, such as âWorld of Sportâ, were hugely popular, but the far-from-fashionable or cool fat men in tight and skimpy leotards put many people off. Especially when the American âprofessionalâ wrestling leagues, dominated by the multi-million dollar World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly the World Wrestling Federation), had muscle-bound men doing back flips off the top ropes and whacking each other around the head and body with metal chairs and the like, the big lights and sounds production values, merchandise and action figures and pay-per-view events. But what a lot of wrestling fans â in the UK and around the world â donât realise, is that it is British wrestling traditions and techniques that are most respected in all walks of professional and amateur wrestling. For example, the WWEâs trainer is a former âWorld of Sportâ wrestler, as is the WWE junior academyâs trainer. And when asked what tip he had for budding professional wrestlers, English-born WWE superstar William Regal said âlearn the British way of wrestlingâ.
The first two hours at Dropkixx each week is dedicated to mat practice and socialising. Dropkixx is informal and relaxed, but its staff is the most experienced and highly-trained in this part of the world. While a couple of small groups of pre-teens are shown step-by-step techniques by the older wrestlers, others are practicing flips onto thick mattresses, others just chatting. Meanwhile, owner and head coach Jon Ritchie is setting up the 10-foot-by-10-foot professional wrestling ring.
Ritchie is a former British Champion wrestler, star of the television program ‘World of Sport’, as well as a professional boxer. Ritchie took over Dropkixx several years ago, after founders Frank Rimer and Tony Scarlo (both former UK champions in various sporting disciplines) recognised him at a holiday park where coincidentally the pair were putting on a wrestling event and were one man short. So popular was Ritchie at the event that Rimer and Scarlo invited him to teach a lesson at their training academy and soon offered him a free partnership in exchange for his expertise.
âItâs taken me about two years to really build it up to this level, but now weâve got our own mob of guys that just follows us,â Ritchie says. Dropkixx has around 60 regular trainees.
âWeâre the old school catch-as-catch-can, submission and shoot style amateur wrestling.â
Amateur wrestling is mat-based grappling, with the aim to force your opponent to submit (give up) or pin them to the floor. Catch-as-catch-can is the practice of alternating moves on your opponent, taking it in turns, if you will. Shoot wrestling is a kind of âanything goesâ style that can also involve striking, mixed with the amateur elements. On the other hand, professional wrestling, the kind you see on television, is driven by shock and awe moves that look harder and more serious than they uaually are, and planned story lines to sell pay-per-view programs, rather than technical skills.
âAt Dropkixx we teach our students the traditional elements and then put the flamboyance and stuff on top,â Ritchie says. âPeople come here to learn wrestling and we teach them wrestling. If you learn this style of wrestling you can do everything. If you just want to do WWE style, I can teach you that in a day.â
While Ritchie stresses the importance of learning the traditional basics of amateur wrestling to build the foundations of a successful (professional or not) wrestling career, he isnât about to dispute that the attitude and the embellished story-lines of the WWE donât also have a role to play.
âWe use the amateur and submission elements of wrestling, the 30s style wrestling, mixed with bits of WWE elements, and it seems to be working,â Ritchie says.
Dropkixx is currently in the process of up-grading to its own gym, which will feature all the mats and rings a wrestler could want, as well as a television and video camera so wrestlers can practice their attitude and their interviews and the development of their wrestling characters.
âMost of the people on the UK (professional) wrestling circuit in the last two years have come from (Dropkixx),â Ritchie says.
âWe ask them to carry on the techniques that weâve taught them and weâve got a good name because of that. At Dropkixx they learn it the proper way and thatâs why our wrestlers are working six or seven nights a week.
âWhen you come here you can forget what youâve been taught before, or what youâve seen on television, Iâm gonna take you back to the basics and show you how to do it properly,â Ritchie says.
Having taken the time and care to build at Dropkixx what several wrestlers describe to me today as a âfamilyâ, Jon eventually felt it was time to create a public platform on which to show off his âkidsâ. He came up with the idea of a series of âtrainingâ events, designed solely as a place for his wrestlers to get a taste of public performing, but in an atmosphere and amongst people they were familiar with. But while these public Dropkixx shows Jon puts on â held in Essex and Londonâs Tottenham â are billed as training events, they have quickly become much more than that. The events are now drawing non-Dropkixx wrestlers and wrestling fans and have developed all the attitude of the WWE, without any of the bullshit.
âWe play it like a little chase game,â Jon explains. âIf I take a move from you then Iâve got to get out of it, then I put a move on you, and so on. In professional wrestling they train for days before the event, rehearsing every move, every step is practiced. We donât have to do that. You just have to know what each otherâs good moves are.
âThe shows started out because my boys needed shows but I couldnât find promoters to put them on because they were wrestling âproperlyâ, so we started putting on the shows for ourselves. We put the details on the internet and people started coming.â
Dropkixx currently holds a public event every month and has fans that travel half way across the country to attend the shows, because there are no others like it in the country.
âItâs becoming quite a big show,â Jon happily admits. He also admits that getting his wrestlers into the public eye has boosted their confidence and ego and in turn is creating even better wrestlers.
âOne of our guys, heâs only about 11, when he gets in the ring in front of people, heâs just a different person,â Jon says, âHe gives it all to the crowd â he kisses his biceps and winks at the women â thatâs the kind of attitude you need (to be a good wrestler).
âOne of the girls weâve got here â now, sheâs a pretty shy girl – she got in the ring the other day for the first time at a public event and she came out all red faced and excited, she loved it.â
Dropkixx currently has about half a dozen regular female wrestlers. Jon says: âmost of the girls when they first come here want to do the WWE thing and they donât like it when I say they have to train like the boys.â
âWe have a lot of girls come down and theyâre always shy to come in, so I tell them to sit and watch and see what they think and they tend to like what they see and feel comfortable enough to get involved,â he says.
Vicky, one of Dropkixx regular female wrestlers, is in her teens and first heard about Dropkixx through an advertisement in a wrestling magazine.
âAt first I was a bit nervous and shy, but once I got to know everyone and see what it was like, it was fine.
âOutside the ring I get butterflies and stuff, but once I get in the ring I love it â all the adrenaline and stuff, itâs great.â And while Vicky is a fan of the WWE females (who typically wear too-shirt-skirts and too-high-heels to wrestle in), in particular Trish Stratus, sheâs not afraid of getting in the ring with the boys and taking the bumps.
âIâm not scared of getting hurt, I think people are more scared of hurting me,â she says.
‘Beautiful’ Danny Beckwith is 23. Heâs one half of the two-time tag team champions Team Beautiful, along with Danny ‘Barbell’ Bateman.
Beautiful Danny has been wrestling for seven years. In that time heâs made a television appearance, had a try-out with the WWE (although it took place on the same day as wrestling hero Eddie Guerreroâs funeral, so no one was really in the mood for work) and has starred in a music video for UK rockers, The Automatic.
âWhen I was young I used to watch wrestling on the television all the time, but as I got older I realised I was getting a bit too old to just be a fan. I figured, I was a big guy, I should give it a try,â Danny says.
âWhen I was about 16 or 17 I came across Dropkixx. Initially you think wrestling is all like the American stuff youâve seen on television and at first I hated it here because it wasnât what Iâd seen on television, but you soon realise that the American way is not what itâs all about.
âI soon realised its all lights and music in television wrestling, more than the actual wrestling.â
Each week after mat practice, followed by falling and bump training and a coffee break, next up at Dropkixx is technical sequential wrestling, some aerial techniques, and image and ring presence.
Danny, in his role as a bad boy in Team Beautiful, realises that image and ring presence will add to the entertainment he can provide from his wrestling alone.
âYou have to take from everywhere,â he says. âYou have to be an entertainer, so Iâm always thinking about how I can use things in my wrestling, like from movies and comedy. I think thatâs where people go wrong, they think they have to do the big moves but they donât ask why the crowds love the big moves, and why theyâre cheering at the things theyâre cheering at.
âWeâre bad guys so we have to figure out what the crowd is going to hate about us. The badder we are, the more they love us. They boo us because they know theyâre supposed to boo us because weâre bad. But they also cheer us because they know theyâre gonna see something good. Weâre proud of that.
âWhen people come up to us after a show and tell us itâs the best night out theyâve ever had – that makes us proud.â
Jon agrees that wrestling can and must take elements from all walks of life.
âYou train and learn the basic ropes of wrestling, but you never stop learning altogether. Iâve been wrestling for 28 years and Iâm still learning. Anything I can take from, I take from, from comedians, from boxing, but not the good matches, the ones where theyâre really getting beaten up…â
Speaking of getting beaten up, thereâs no escaping the fact that in a full-contact, body-blow sport such as wrestling, that injuries will inevitably occur. Today, in fact, I see a wrestler suffer a black eye from a miss-timed blow. But while itâs easy to imagine that the professional, staged and planned wrestling is better able to prevent bad injuries, Jon and his students will tell you thatâs wrong. Knowledge and practice is the best defence against injury.
Brothers Stephen and Gary Docherty are regulars at Dropkixx, after a long-time childhood fascination with professional wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan and Rick Flair, the pair began wrestling here about four years ago. Stephenâs worst injury took place not in a wrestling ring, but âmucking around in the backyard with friendsâ.
âI dislocated a collar bone because none of us knew what we were really doing. But once you know what youâre doing, you donât really get hurt. Iâve never had anything anywhere near that bad since.â
Beautiful Danny, currently nursing an injured knee, has a similar tale to tell: âIt was just a stupid mistake. Iâve worked with these guys here for so long and you get to know each other, but this time I just wasnât thinking and I was wrestling with someone else who didnât know as much as us… I should have known better but I just wasnât thinking.â
Danny has been out of action for a month already and has about another month to go until he can return to the ring, a long and hard wait for someone to whom wrestling is their life.
âI just canât wait to get back out there,â he says.
And itâs easy to see why Danny and his Dropkixx brothers and sisters have embraced wrestling in such a way. In his short time in charge of the academy, Jon Ritchie has managed to build a genuine league of young men and women willing and eager to carry on the traditions that he himself helped build in the 70s and 80s. Dropkixx is a supportive family atmosphere â wrestlers’ mums work in the canteen and collect the subs each week, one of the female wrestlers is expecting a baby with one of the male wrestlers, while the older and more experienced wrestlers take obvious pleasure, rather than find it a chore, to take time out of their training time to teach the younger and less experienced students. As the wrestlers themselves say, thereâs no better place in the UK than Dropkixx.
âIf you want to start off and learn how to wrestle properly, if youâre a beginner or whatever, this is a good place to learn everything you need to know and really hone your skills. Once Jon has taught you the basics you can go anywhere,â Stephen Docherty says.
âIf you want to go pro and get big, this is the place to start. A lot of people are scared of the wrestlers that come out of Dropkixx because they know weâve got such a good set-up here,â brother Gary adds.
Pictures by Amy Freeborn