Category Archives: Pro-Wrestling

From Super League to Superstar

“He looks exceptional, you couldn’t draw this guy.”

William Regal

Luke Menzies is a dude that is easy to hate. With under a year of training he was signed to a developmental contract with the WWE, a goal that some strive for a lifetime to never attain. Trained by pioneer of British wrestling, Marty Jones, the former Super League prop was handpicked by chief talent scout and legendary competitor, William Regal, without ever having an official match. Appearing to be carved out of granite and a good looking cat to boot, there certainly is a lot to hate.

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Predictably, looks can be deceiving, this isn’t a story of overnight success. This is a chapter in a twenty-one-year grind to achieve success. A journey that began at age eight on the rugby fields that are so ubiquitous in his hometown of Liversedge, West Yorkshire.

Menzies isn’t the typical professional athlete that, retiring from their chosen field, sees pro-wrestling as a way to squeeze out an extra few years and make some good money while their body holds up. No. This is a lifelong fan of the genre that, having just been offered a contract to play for Canadian rugby league team, Toronto Wolfpack, took an incredible leap of faith to jump into the world of professional wrestling.

Reflecting on his life-long passion for pro-wrestling, he fondly recalls, at the age of 10, constructing a makeshift ring outside an old-peoples home, using smelly old mattresses, tarpaulin and sets of drawers as turnbuckles.

Growing up in a family where playing rugby was fait accompli, wrestling became a guilty pleasure. “Being from a working class town you are either a tradesman or some kind of sportsman, either rugby or football, that’s pretty much it,” he describes, “so if you go outside of the box it becomes kind of taboo and you get stick for it, so I never really pursued it.”

He courted success from an early age, signing for Super League Salford at age sixteen. Although he would have to wait until nineteen to formally make his Super League debut with Hull Kingston Rovers.

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Unfortunately, an ascendency to the game’s elite did not come. Now twenty-eight with a career that has lasted over a decade across a plethora of clubs, he admits to feeling short-changed; messed around by backroom politics. He feels his progress was curtailed by clubs who took advantage when he wasn’t mature enough to understand. This is in addition to a career on the field which was blighted by numerous injuries.

One year ago, while honeymooning in Mexico, a single tweet was to change the course of his life. The aforementioned William Regal in under 140 characters informed prospective grapplers that they should seek out the services of legendary veteran of World of Sport, Marty Jones. “It just transpired being disillusioned with rugby and thinking I’ve got nothing, what have I got to lose,” he explains. “I’m going to give it a go.” After emailing Jones from Mexico, he flew back on the Friday and was in the ring the following day.

He remembers this session vividly, taking a flat-back bump for the first time. A true student of the game, he’d always appreciated watching Stone Cold Steve Austin and Triple H, noticing how they were “snappy bumpers”. Jones told him to bump, and he mimicked this style. Jones then called over another experienced wrestler to watch and told him to do it again. Answering in the negative when questioned if he’d ever been in the ring before, he was met with disbelief.

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He explains that Jones has been adamant on teaching him the fundamentals, the psychology that is distinctive to British wrestling; a focus on in-ring storytelling. Between training twice a week at Jones’ academy in Oldham, Squared Circle, he was studiously researching U.K. legends such as Rollerball Rocco, Tony St Claire and Johnny Saint, analysing the way in which they used the old British round system to tell a unique story in each five-minute period.

His learning curve has been quick. Some of this can be attributed directly to his career as a competitive athlete. In rugby league, a contact sport where eighteen stone giants collide with one another at speeds of 20 miles per hour, players are conditioned to ignore pain, persevere through difficulty and not show weakness. These are not ordinary cats. The level of physicality that is a prerequisite for playing rugby at the highest level is something that already sets him apart from fellow wrestlers.

There is nothing in pro-wrestling training that he hasn’t seen during pre-season training, although he likens running the ropes to trying to run in quick sand. While recognising the importance of fitness and the coordination gained from rugby, he explains: “If I wasn’t a fan I wouldn’t have come on as quick – because I enjoy it, I wanted to learn.” Considering the importance of an athletic background, he acknowledges that it is beneficial, but an aptitude for storytelling trumps it. “Marty (Jones) would say ‘why are you doing that?’ you have to give everything a meaning”.

When pondering whether he had carried over any bad habits, “Rugby is very instinctive, your body takes over,” he explains, “in wrestling you have to think more and slow down.” He has been drilled with old-school principles such as: “think you’re going too slow, slow down” and “the more you do the less it means”.

He describes an anecdote, when after three months of training he accompanied Jones to a speaking event that William Regal was delivering in Manchester. After making the introductions, Jones informed Regal that his student was better than the all-time great Dynamite Kid was, after three months. While such high praise certainly does not come easy from someone with an old-school ethos like Jones, Menzies was under no pretences that this is the truth, but explains what an incredible compliment it is.

This view certainly held sway with Regal who invited him to a try-out camp. After only six months, he found himself among some of the U.K.’s elite including, Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate as the WWE scouted for wrestlers who would feature in their inaugural U.K. championships. The camp which took place over three days gave him chance to impress, facing physical trials, a promo test and also evaluation from WWE officials on “if you’re a good human being, that has something about you”.

His first sign that the WWE might have an interest came one afternoon during the camp. After returning to get coffee, Jones informed him that Regal was talking to Triple H about him. Without a chance to take that in or think, “wow, that’s cool”, Triple H walked past, stopping and sticking out his hand, asking “what’s your name kid?”.

Amazingly, without actually having an official match he was offered a developmental deal. Going over to train at the WWE’s Performance Centre in Florida —the state of the art facility where the company’s stars of tomorrow, learn and hone their craft— and spending a week there. As far as he was concerned it was a done deal, the contract was signed and the sizes were taken for his NXT tracksuit.

But, what should have been a fitting end to this chapter of his story was not to be.

His official start date was in May. After putting his house on the market —it was sold within a week all of his possessions were packed away into storage, he and his pregnant wife were ready to start this great adventure together. Then, his visa application was sent back twice before finally being rejected, after new legislation from the American government. The reason given: He hadn’t enough experience as a professional wrestler to justify it. A lifetime’s worth of athletic experience as a professional rugby player apparently held no weight. The WWE said that this was the first time this had ever happened to one of their overseas signees.

However, all was not lost, he was told by the WWE to get out across the U.K. and make a name for himself. Working on independent shows to gain as much experience as possible.

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Ruminating on the situation, he freely admits that it has been “a bit tough”. For someone who has already taken an incredible risk walking away from a sport he has spent his life involved in, and with a baby on the way, that is a fair assessment. But, he hasn’t become disillusioned, seeing it as just another roadblock. There are positives to it, he explains: “I’ve been learning how to wrestle, now I’m going to get out there and learn how to work.” Noting that, right now, he is a blank canvas, an open book. In the next few months he aims to learn his craft by being out there centre-stage, “adding new layers and having good matches with everyone.”

“There has been no British wrestler like me,” he says, “as a prop on the rugby field I used to rattle teeth and go ballistic, and that’s the intensity I am bringing to the ring. I want to tell stories and be aggressive.” Now is definitely the time to check this chapter of the story, as it’s only going to be brief, the next is waiting to be written.

Beating up Kids

Is it ever ok to beat up children? As a high school teacher my job is dependent on avoiding that impulse. The law unequivocally sets in stone its unacceptability, even if the child in question is the fruit of your own loins. On the mats preying on the young is something that is most definitely frowned upon too. Although, jiu-jitsu offers ample opportunity for the opposite, I have spent an inordinate amount of time being beaten down and humbled by ‘mere children’; last year, I spent eight weeks on the shelf after having my ribs broken by a fourteen-year-old. In pro-wrestling, at last, I found a medium where it is perfectly acceptable to kick the shit out of kids, or at the very least simulate doing so.

Beginning my pro-wrestling training, I discovered very quickly that it’s something, which, on the whole appeals to young dudes. In comparison with BJJ which attracts both those who fear the mirror’s reflection and its daily promise of more wrinkles and grey hair as well as spritely young cats to whom immortality seems certain. Professional wrestling is the proverbial young-man’s game; training with young teens and being questioned on whether I own a ‘fidget spinner’ could not make me feel more old.

West Yorkshire based promotion UKW provides an excellent service in training young grapplers and getting them ready for the ring. Each month they put on their own junior show pairing young students with opponents of a similar experience level. This gives them an opportunity to hone their skills by performing in front of a small audience made up of family and friends. While definitely not a junior, I was looking for as much ring experience as possible and thus jumped at the invitation to perform on one such show when asked by my instructor.

I was to have a match with a trainee named Zenith, who at only fourteen-years-old already had two years of experience. An initial issue arose while planning the match, by virtue of the fact we were both heels – he was a ‘chicken-shit heel’ that relied upon nefarious antics to win, while, I played a badass heel that choked cats out. We essentially planned a glorified squash match – whereby I would handily beat him using my grappling-based move-set. He would use his underhanded tactics to get a couple of ‘hope’ spots in before I relieved him of his consciousness. I thought it was a concise little match that effectively told a story. Unfortunately, it was a story that nobody wanted to hear.

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Fourteen-year old Zenith doing his thing.

We were put in the main event of the show – which, as it turned out was a death kiss. The problem being, the penultimate contest had seen two talented high flying teens, who were going all out in an athletic back and forth contest, with acrobatics galore, and a clear hero and villain. The crowd ate up what was a really fun match. Watching in the back and knowing I was expected to follow that, I was consumed with impending dread.

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A difficult act to follow high-flyer Leon Blade.

I’d heard from a number of different sources, it was more difficult wrestling in front of a small audience – to me this seemed oxymoronic – less people should in theory mean less pressure. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I could viscerally feel the mood of the sparse crowd, and it was not positive. When people would comment on a crowd being ‘flat’, I had no real understanding of what this really meant – I certainly found out that night. The crowd of about twenty-five parents treated me with complete apathy. In an art form where success is predicated upon eliciting a reaction (positive or negative), it really doesn’t get any worse than that.

In hindsight, two bad guys wrestling, left no-one for the crowd to become invested in, they had just seen kids doing back-flips; watching a dude slowly contort another’s limbs failed to compel them in any meaningful way. Perhaps more importantly they had no interest in seeing a grown man aggressively beating up a helpless teenager!

Famed wrestling journalist / historian Dave Meltzer often refers to Terry Funk and his innate gift for sensing the mood of an audience. Funk was able to switch up matches on the fly, when he felt they weren’t resonating with those in attendance. He would ‘call an audible’ to his opponent and they would pursue another avenue to engage the crowd. That is all very well and good for the ole Funker, who has over fifty years of in-ring experience – I was in my second ever match and I was yet to acquire this skill. It didn’t take a wrestling savant like Funk to ascertain that my match was dying a death, but I just carried on and suffered through the entire thing conscious of the fact, yet unable to do anything about it.

Rather than acting magnanimously upon my ‘hard-fought’ victory, I cut a promo deriding my opponent and the crowd, who by this point I honestly despised. They still didn’t give a shit, in fact half of them left while I was in the middle of it. My self-esteem was literally in the toilet.

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Props to Darren Potts Wrestling Photography for the shots.

The biggest highlight of the night for me came when one of the young grapplers told his adversary to “smell my victory”. Unless his opponent was suffering from an acute form of Synaesthesia such a request would be physically impossible, but, nevertheless, it was a hilarious way to tell someone they’re a loser!

That night was definitely a learning curve, a resounding failure, no doubt the first of many in my foray into the world of professional wrestling. I certainly discovered that beating up kids is not as satisfying as one would imagine.

Check it out below in all its glory:

BJJ + Pro-Wrestling = Inner Turmoil

Taking up professional wrestling at the advanced age of thirty-three, I certainly had no aspirations to reach the lofty heights of other renowned grapplers who didn’t start until they were in their thirties like Bad News Allen, George ‘the Animal’ Steele and most famously Diamond Dallas Page. As previously noted, this whole endeavour was the culmination of a childhood goal, after which, I would be back in my kimono and the business of competitive grappling.

My original intention was just the one match, but, that quickly changed as I discovered how awesome it was performing in front of an audience and the creative freedom I was afforded within the medium. My goal expanded, I wanted to do as many shows as I could, and in the quickest possible time, before my already battle-weary body was completely decimated from the constant ‘bumps’ that were required. With that in mind, I vowed to wrestle whenever and wherever possible.

I had found a home at UKW where I was gaining much need experience (eight matches up to this point), but had no idea how to get booked on other shows. I sought advice from my fellow ‘workers’ on how one might get noticed by different promoters. I was given a number of tips. The most resounding of which was, you have to promote yourself; I needed to establish a social media presence – that of Francis Darwin. My first port of call was setting up a Facebook page – this is where I ran into trouble.

Sat in front of my Mac, about half-way through the creation of said page, my cauliflower ears began to burn, lit up by an unmistakeable sensation of ignominy. Why was I being punished with such an acute sense of shame? Its origin, I discovered after some thought lay at the feet of my gimmick, or at least its implications; Francis Darwin was essentially me, albeit an ego-maniacal version. In creating this page to promote a character that was primary a jiu-jitsu athlete, I felt like I was denigrating something that I love. I didn’t want to feel like I was becoming a parody of myself or disrespecting the art form which had completely changed my life, making a mockery of it as a vehicle to ‘get over’. I didn’t want to be thought lesser of by the wider jiu-jitsu community.

This inner struggle promptly inspired me to immediately stop what I was doing and sketch out this blog post in the hope that it would be cathartic. It wasn’t.

Now, it is worth noting, that my attitude towards pro-wrestling, its norms and time honoured traditions is hardly one of irreverence, I love wrestling’s little idiosyncrasies (and there are many!), but I had come from a very different world. One where, if you put yourself out there online, extolling to all what an incredibly bad dude you are, it wouldn’t take long before most people thought you were a complete penis-hole. In jiu-jitsu your ego is put in check from the moment you first step on the mats and continues to be regulated every single day by cats of all shapes and sizes choking you into submission. Conversely, a healthy sized ego seems like a prerequisite to achieving success in pro-wrestling. This fascinating dichotomy between pro-wrestling and fighting, and my uneasy relationship to it is something that I intend to explore further.

I realise that I am probably being completely pedantic about all of this, but, we all know how this ends, first Facebook and the next thing I know I will be introducing myself as Francis.

Anyway I did it – I created the page – if you would all be so kind as to ‘Like’ it, it will hopefully go some way in helping me progress in my pro-wrestling mission or at the very least it will do wonders in satiating Mr Darwin’s ever-growing ego.