About three and a half months ago I put my beloved Gi(s) to one side. The decision to walk away from something that meant everything to me and pretty much defined my existence had not been easy, but I felt an irresistible pull to pursue my childhood goal of becoming a pro-wrestler, if only for one match. At thirty-three, with a lot of grappling-based mileage, time was running out before my body completely fell to pieces. In the interests of honesty, I hadn’t gone completely cold turkey with jiu-jitsu, I was still training and teaching no-gi.
While learning the craft of pro-wrestling – I seemed to pick up the basics relatively quickly, my legit grappling background paid dividends. The concept of bumping was essentially just break-falling, something that came naturally after years of cats dumping me on my head. I have always been highly averse to pain, and often prone to hyperbole in regard to the extent I was actually suffering, especially when it came to accidents on the mats, so the idea of ‘selling’ being beaten up came quite naturally.
I had not been attempting to reinvent the wheel, sticking to what I knew, I immediately set about amending my jiu-jitsu to something that could be ‘worked’ within the confines of a pro-wrestling match, while, looking aesthetically pleasing for those watching. It has been a lot of fun and creatively satisfying applying my own skill-set to this medium, once you get over the fact that some of the stuff that looks awesome is in-fact completely redundant when working with an unwilling partner.
When it came to grappling, or life really, I had not been endowed with a modicum of athleticism, without that to bring to the table, I was immediately precluded from busting out any 450 splashes or top rope moonsaults. I endeavoured to avoid anything risky that was likely to cause, not only immediate pain, but lasting injury. Sadly, this idea was not foolproof. I took a DDT in a way that appeared I was craving a spinal injury. Rather than reacting the way I was taught, I instead decided on driving my neck directly into the mat. It made a pretty gross crunching sound that would have made Jake the Snake wince. I visualised my vertebrae being driven into each other at breakneck speed, fortunately there didn’t seem to be any serious damage, well, if you discount perpetual soreness.
I created a character, Francis Darwin. His genesis came from my Grandfather, a bodybuilder-cum-pro-wrestler who used the alias ‘Young Atlas’ while wrestling on shows during the late 1940s and 1950s. I wanted to pay homage to him, but, truth be told, I am neither young or indeed strong enough to hold up the sky, as the Greek myth of Atlas foretold, so I settled on Francis, his Christian name. ‘The evolution of submission wrestling’ had a nice ring to it, so Darwin it was. Of course, I decided upon this moniker prior to discovering that Charles Darwin himself had actually had a son named Francis, a respected botanist in his own right. In light of this information, Francis Darwin the wrestler won’t be climbing to the pinnacle of Google search any time soon.
Playing off my own experiences, well, if I was a complete bastard, Darwin would be an arrogant grappler with a style combining BJJ with a little traditional British chain wrestling and some Japanese strong style. The dude had no respect for the art of pro-wrestling. He had travelled the world training and competing with the best grapplers; to him pro-wrestling was completely inane and below his contempt.
Prior to my in-ring debut, I had been involved in a couple of shows for the promotion UK Wrestling. I was used as a plant in the crowd who went on to distract one of the wrestlers. I also interfered during the main event of the previous show, choking out my would-be opponent and setting up the angle for my match. This had been fun – I’d had no nerves whatsoever, being out in front of a crowd and attempting to choke dudes was something that I had experience with. The idea of someone letting me strangle them or at least simulate it with no resistance made for a refreshing change.
Nevertheless, there was a big difference between being comfortable competing BJJ in front of a crowd and pro-wrestling in front of them. Jiu-Jitsu contests were products of hours, weeks, months and years of time on the mats, drilling and rolling. When you have access to the flow state, it is as if your body automatically knows how to beat your opponent. And it really doesn’t matter how you win, as long as that is the eventual outcome. But, being out in front of a crowd and working a whole choreographed ten-minute contest, where you had to remember specific things, and you had to actively please a crowd, altering your actions based on their response, this was an altogether different matter.
With my debut fast approaching the fear had begun to kick in.