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“It’s Pantomime, It’s Theatre” — Jimmy Havoc
“It’s Pantomime, It’s Theatre” — Jimmy Havoc

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“It’s Pantomime, It’s Theatre” — Jimmy Havoc

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BY Jennifer Lee O'Brien

Take an evening off to breathe in the sweet air of unreality, because you are suffocating. There are no smog warnings for the everyday, but: It! Is! Killing! You!

The mundane is inhumane; it’s all over the side of the packet but here we are, puffing away with our best friends and our doctors. Promising each other to quit together, sometime — soon. We can quit the everyday whenever we feel like it. Tomorrow, or maybe next week, or a week after that. We’re swimming through the cold waters of reality, and we’re doing fine, and then we are cold and now we are drowning.

Here’s a tip — a lifeboat — should you find yourself in need of one. Take an evening off and go watch some pro wrestling. Yes! Professional wrestling! Sound funny? Just laugh; it’s part of the prescription. Look at you, brushing ashy reality off your shoulders. It feels good, doesn’t it? Go to a pro wrestling match! Suspend! Your! Disbelief!

Pro wrestling is there to save you. Drink a beer, and get real close, and let unreality wash over you like warm, salty sea water. The everyday won’t get anywhere close to pro wrestling. Really, there’s nothing else like it.

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One afternoon we took a tube to Camden Town station. The air looked pink and glowy and smelled like burning incense. Across the road, on the corner, was the World’s End pub. Teenagers were lined up around the building, grouped together in twos and threes on the pavement. They were eating, smoking, texting and waiting for a sold out concert at the Underworld, the music venue next door. Two hours later, they would still be waiting. But then again, the air was pink and it felt like summer, even though it was February. It was a good day to be outdoors, waiting.

Inside the World’s End it was loud and the light felt green. It reminded us how we felt seeing images of the submerged Titanic, and we had the strange sensation of being under water. We climbed a spiral iron staircase to the second floor. This is where we met Jimmy Havoc, one of Britain’s best professional wrestlers.

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng
Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

At first glance, you might be tempted to call Jimmy Havoc a cliché and, in that moment, it might feel very true.

On the day we meet Jimmy, his nails are painted with chipped black varnish. The sides of his head are shaved, his hair, grown to hang over his face, is dyed black. He’s wearing colour contacts of a bright, plastic blue.

Thematically, his brand aesthetic is based on violence, insanity and horror. He’s often photographed covered in blood — sometimes it’s real. He enters the wrestling ring to I Hope You Suffer by AFI; also Prelude 12/21 by the same band, and Psychotic Euphoric by Silent Descent. He describes himself as an “angry goth” at school; he talks about trying to get a reaction out of the other kids. “I liked Marilyn Manson, and Marilyn Manson liked getting a reaction,” he says. He wears the hood of a black hoodie over his head indoors, and outdoors on sunny days.

And his name is Jimmy Havoc! It feels like one big cliché.

But then, as Jimmy says, unless you’re into wrestling you probably don’t know anything about it. And in wrestling, clichés aren’t just important; they’re career-defining.

Some of the most well-known pro wrestlers, like Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, The Undertaker and The Iron Sheik were so good at playing out their characters with clichés that it felt hard to imagine who they were without them. Pro wrestlers depend on things like catchphrases (“Rest In Peace!”), costumes, props, tropes — like good vs evil — and signature moves, to relay to the audience, as quickly as possible, who they are.  Pro wrestlers, like all good characters, need to have real motives behind their actions; you can’t just hit someone with a chair for no reason.

So if Jimmy Havoc feels a bit cliché, it’s just because he’s one of the best wrestlers in Britain. He’s got a character we all think we know without having to say a word.

“It’s me as a fifteen year-old, angry goth,” says Jimmy, about Jimmy Havoc. “It’s just me, turned up a little bit.

“Although,” he adds, “I think the best characters always are.”

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng
Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

Pro wrestling’s characters live out their storylines in worlds created by promotion companies. The Jimmy Havoc story has been told by International Pro Wrestling: United Kingdom, Insane Championship Wrestling, Southside Wrestling and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. His most popular tales have been told in PROGRESS Wrestling’s chapters.

“They call themselves punk rock pro wrestling because they started from nothing,” says Jimmy. “They built everything for themselves.”

In August 2011, a standup comedian, writer and voiceover artist named Jim Smallman, and his friend and comedy promoter Jon Briley, came up with the idea for PROGRESS; a promotion for British talent with a punk rock aesthetic. Seven months later, they hosted their first show at at The Garage in Islington; an indie-rock venue that has hosted bands like Muse, Oasis, Green Day and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

The success of that first show inspired Glenn Joseph, the actor who plays Buddy in the The Buddy Holly Story, to join as co-owner. Three months later, in June, PROGRESS put on their second event, called Chapter Two: The March of Progress. This is where Jimmy Havoc’s PROGRESS story, months in the making, became an on-stage reality.

“I’d been wrestling for almost a decade before the PROGRESS thing happened, and from then on, I sort of made a name for myself,” says Jimmy. “So that’s ten years of hard work that no one is ever going to really know about.”

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng
Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

Jimmy Havoc was born in Cambridge. For most of his life, he’s lived just outside of London, loving wrestling. Jimmy watched his first wrestling match when he was six years old; it was Ultimate Warrior vs. Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VI. He loved Ultimate Warrior; in an interview with BBC Radio 5, he said, “To me he looked liked a superhero. He looked like something that came alive from one of my comics.”

Jimmy began wrestling in his late teens in a backyard league with friends. “Most wrestlers start off doing that,” he says. “Your parents go away, you get the mattresses down from the bedroom and put them down in the garden.

“We used to film it and watch it back. I didn’t think I was too bad.”

Jimmy, aged twenty, was scrolling through an internet forum one day when he saw an ad for the NWA UK Hammerlock training school in Kent.

“I had a Sunday off work and I thought, oh, I’ll give it a go,” he says. He was joined by friend Lucas Eatwell, better known as British pro wrestler Zack Sabre Jr, and trained by British pro wrestlers Andre Baker and Jon Ryan.

“It was really scary when I first went,” he says. “I got the shit kicked out of me; but I kept coming back.”

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng
Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

In 2004, Jimmy made his wrestling debut for Hammerlock promotions. Two years later he began appearing at Triple X events, wrestling in deathmatches.

Deathmatches are a subset of hardcore wrestling, the edgy, gore-loving little sister of pro wrestling that doesn’t care too much for the rules or technique as long as there’s stunts, blood and weapons involved. Weapons like glass, barbed wire, tables, light tubes, thumbtacks, wood, staple guns, brass knuckles, fire. Jimmy has been slammed into thumbtacks, had glass lights broken over his back, and was once set on fire and thrown through a table.

“The only thing I don’t really like is barbed wire, because if it goes in, it tears,” he says.

Watching a deathmatch is uncomfortable. There’s something about seeing blood pouring from someone’s forehead that feels just a little bit too real, like maybe someone should call 999 and what are they DOING with that lemon juice? That’s gotta burn. Oh, what the —

“It’s art,” says Jimmy. “You’re not actually trying to hurt each other. It’s pantomime, it’s theatre.

“The whole point of what we do is to put on a show and make it look like we’re trying to kill each other when, actually, we’re protecting each other as well.”

But the pain? Well, a lot of that is real. The blood is real! That sort-of-realness is what people love to watch; it makes the whole unrealness of the thing that much more believable.

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng
Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

Jimmy has been quoted as saying he enjoys the pain; and of course, a masochistic, deranged heel like Jimmy Havoc’s character probably would.

So we ask him if it’s true.  

“It’s maybe, not liking the pain, but the thought of, I’ve done this and I’m not dead. It’s not as bad as I thought,” he says. “And it’s like, the sound of the crowd when you get thrown through a table or you get hit in the head with a chair. That oooh, fuck.”

He laughs. “I like hearing that sound.”

••

We left the World’s End a pint of lager deep. The sun was shining for the teenagers, who were still grouped together in twos and threes, still waiting.

“I wonder who’s playing tonight,” says Jimmy, putting his hood over his head. We’re going to take a walk through Camden.

Jimmy first came to Camden as a teenager to watch gigs. “One of the reasons I love PROGRESS is that they often have matches at the Electric Ballroom,” he says. “That’s where I used to watch punk bands, growing up.”

Ten years after his training at Hammerlock, Jimmy met Jim Smallman as a guest on Jim’s online TV show. Jim was about to launch PROGRESS and he wanted Jimmy involved. Together, they came up with a story.

“It began with Jim Smallman saying to me that he’s always wanted to be hit with a chair,” says Jimmy. “I said, ‘oh, I’ll hit ya.’”

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng
Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

The idea was simple; Jimmy would try and get booked for a PROGRESS match and Jim, knowing Jimmy’s brutal reputation as a deathmatch wrestler, wouldn’t be convinced Jimmy was the right fit for his promotion. Of course, Jimmy was a good technical wrestler from his years at Hammerlock. And of course, Jim Smallman knew that. But pro wrestling doesn’t need that kind of reality, ruining the fun, and its fans don’t want it. What they want is a story, and the story of a bloody deathmatch wrestler looking to get legit was one they could believe in.

The #BookHavoc hashtag first appeared on Twitter in April 2012, a month after the first PROGRESS event. Shortly after that, Jimmy posted a YouTube video featuring two of his mates, and his mum, trying to make a case for his appearance at the next event. The video was funny and a bit silly; and it was meant to be.

“Jim, you and me are mates!” says Jimmy near the end. “The whole idea of being friends with a promoter is to get him to book you. You say that all I do is deathmatches. I say, give me a chance to prove that I’m more than that.”

Two days later, Jim Smallman responded to Jimmy and the #BookHavoc campaign with his own video.

“We love Jimmy,” he says. “We really, really do. But essentially, it’s not what we’re about. We don’t really want a man covered in blood, rolling around in broken glass and thumbtacks in the middle of our ring, when we’re so proud of putting on the best technical wrestling that Britain has to offer.”

For an outsider to wrestling, the videos were unconvincing. Mostly, they were comedic, if not a bit overacted. But remember, wrestling doesn’t belong in reality. If the #BookHavoc campaign seemed constructed, that’s because it was. The fans already knew it! Leaving them to go ahead and laugh, suspend their disbelief and believe in it.

More videos appeared; an audition tape of Jimmy trying to learn technical wrestling, struggling not to return to his deathmatch ways; Jim Smallman weighing up the pros and cons of booking Jimmy.

The fans became more and more invested in the story. They wanted PROGRESS to book Havoc; they wanted him to have the chance to succeed. He was a deathmatch wrestler, but inside, they knew he was a good guy; a babyface. By the time PROGRESS agreed to book Jimmy he had a loyal following. He made his debut at Chapter Two in the Garage; and he lost.

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng
Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

Jimmy Havoc would wrestle and lose six more consecutive matches at PROGRESS. The more he lost, the more the fans loved him; the more they wanted to see him win. Who doesn’t love a babyface underdog? The one getting beaten, over and over again.

As the story progressed, PROGRESS turned on Jimmy. A video posted on YouTube showed Jimmy confronting Jim after he discovered that PROGRESS had booked him in a deathmatch match: the very thing he was trying to escape.

By Chapter 9, Jimmy was pushed to his limit by his treatment by PROGRESS. In a moment that changed everything, Jimmy beat Jim Smallman from behind with a chair. He had turned heel — exactly as they had planned. The audience loved it.

“I didn’t know if it was going to work, because we had such a good thing going on with the babyfaced thing,” he says “As soon as I hit Jim with the chair and the audience responded the way they did, it was like, oh God, it’s worked!”

Jimmy’s new job was to be a villain, and to make the audience believe that the Jimmy Havoc they had supported for so long was gone.

We asked Jimmy what it was like to become the bad guy.

“A lot easier than I thought it was going to be,” he says, laughing. “Apparently I’m really good at being an asshole. Ask any of my ex-girlfriends.

“The first few shows I did it there were two or three people in the audience that cheered me, and it annoyed the shit out of me. It meant I wasn’t doing my job right.”

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng
Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

After Jimmy turned heel, he used an open contract he had previously signed with Jim Smallman to defeat then-Progress Champion Mark Andrews and become Champion himself. He held the title for almost two years; 609 days, to be exact. He became hated in a way only wrestling heels can be hated, which is joyfully. He would enter the ring while the crowd chanted “Die Havoc Die.” Finally, at Chapter 20, in a dramatic, tense match against Will Osprey in the Electric Ballroom, Jimmy was defeated.

“It was perfect, because it’s exactly what we were building to,” says Jimmy. “It was the culmination of everything we worked for. The fact that the crowd reacted the way they did; I mean, we literally brought the ceiling down. One of the roof tiles fell off.”

For a long time after talking to Jimmy, we thought about the feeling of a perfect loss.

••

We went to Camden Lock Market. It felt like all the market clichés; bustling, vibrant, bohemian, loud. So much noise and so much food. And food smells! It felt how most markets must feel, but magnified.

It was a Friday but it felt like a Saturday; the kind of day you want to wander through busyness, lazily. Here we were, following one of Britain’s best wrestlers through Camden Lock Market. It reminded us of a clickbait headline; it was all so unreal.

We followed Jimmy, who weaved through the crowds. We watched as he reached out for a sample of meat from a vendor and ate it off a toothpick, never stopping. Like he’d done it a million times before. He showed us the places to eat and buy clothes and drink beer, and feel like a real Londoner, never stopping. He took us to a shop, lit entirely with neon lights, called Cyberdog. Inside, there were girls dancing on platforms built halfway up the wall. It was 3pm, and it was all so unreal!

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng
Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

As we followed Jimmy down a narrow market alleyway, towards another, he laughed. We asked what he was laughing about, and he mentioned an article he’d read earlier that suggested children should save their pocket money to afford a house later in life.

He asked if we’d read it.

“No,” we replied. And we agreed it was funny, in the ridiculous kind of way.  

Later, in the Black Heart pub, we asked Jimmy if he felt like a very political person.

“I’m political if stuff pisses me off,” he says.

The stuff that pisses Jimmy off is the kind of stuff that pisses a lot of us off. Gender inequality, homophobia, racism, Donald Trump. Pro wrestling isn’t perfect, he says. But it’s getting there.

Pro wrestling doesn’t have a reputation for being inclusive. But like all stages, it’s a space for transformation; a place for make believe to feel real. And in that way, it is human.

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng
Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

“It’s given me much more of a sense of who I am,” says Jimmy.

Jimmy Havoc might be the best heel in British wrestling. But he is also Jimmy Havoc, the soft-spoken person who spent an afternoon showing us Camden; Jimmy Havoc, with a degree in film studies from Kingston University. Jimmy Havoc, who used to be a teacher.

In the Black Heart, he talks about some of the things he loves. Like Taylor Swift, who he’s seen twice during her 1989 tour; Manchester on the Wednesday and London on the Saturday.

And travel. Through his career, he’s been to Germany, the United States, Canada and Australia. He loved Melbourne, but was disappointed with Sydney. He spends countless weekends driving, or flying, across the UK for matches; “Sleeping out of a hotel, living out of a suitcase.”

He spends his weekdays with his girlfriend, who is a model and professional firebreather. Their Friday nights happen on Mondays. After a late night of drinking, they’ll walk through Camden on a Tuesday morning. He says it makes him feel like they’re living in a different world to everyone else.

Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng
Photograph by Shang-Ting Peng

“I’ve peaked so many times,” says Jimmy. “Now, I’m just happy that I’m doing this job that I love and getting paid for it. I never have to worry that I can’t afford a beer on a night out. I’m not rich but I’m happy. That’s the most important thing; as long as I’m still happy doing it.”

And that’s one of the realest things you will ever hear.

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Originally published in The City Talking: Sport.

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