"I'm the Megan Fox of wrestling — everyone fancies me!" grins Martina, who wrestles in red and black animal print — her name emblazoned across her bum. Post-match she is ringside, posing for selfies with fans, selling signed photos and t-shirts. "I've got to sell all this because I've got kids to feed. There's 78 of them and they're going hungry," explains Martina. She earlier entered the ring swigging from a can of lager. "I lost five of my kids in Ibiza once. I've been banned from every country I’ve ever entered!"
I am at the Resistance Gallery in Bethnal Green for Fights and False Lashes, a wrestling show staged by EVE: Riot Grrrls of Wrestling. Emily Read, who co-founded EVE with husband Dann, describes wrestling as, "pantomime with punches". That goes some way to explaining why Martina is like the swaggering love child of Mercedes McQueen off Hollyoaks, fathered by any one of the cast of Shameless, and brought up under the influence of Lily Savage as a godparent.
"On stage, I amplify everything I am"
"My character's aggressive and obnoxious. It's me, but when I don't give a fuck anymore," says Jayla Dark. She's in her 10th year as a pro wrestler. Retiring in September to do her master's degree, Jayla's match tonight has been kept under wraps to surprise her fans — and she has plenty of time backstage to get into character. "My flight left Glasgow at 6.45am and I'm the last one on stage tonight, so it's been a long-ass day!"
Skye Smitson who's been wrestling for six years, says, "On stage, I amplify everything I am. I'm not aggressive in real life, so this is a chance to get it out there and dial it up by a thousand."
Tonight, Skye's been partnered with Rebel Kinney, to fight as a tag team under the name Stonewall Rebellion. "Our styles match — we're both hard-hitting brawlers," says Skye.
Although Kinney trains in Skye's home town of Bethnal Green, tonight is the first time they've come together in the flesh. "We've just watched each other's footage!" says Skye, who travels three hours to train in Portsmouth. "I'm a big fan of WWE wrestler Hardcore Holly, so I go to the VPW School of Excellence because he trained there.
"I was the last one standing at my first training session. They said I was a natural."
"I've always wanted a mohawk and now I've got one!"
Tonight, Stonewall Rebellion lost their match, but Skye is happy with how it went. "We got a massive reaction from the crowd — that's what matters," she says, bearing no grudges about being scripted to lose.
Yup, scripted. For fans of wrestling, this will come as no surprise, but for anyone who's as unfamiliar with the world of wrestling as I am, this could be a confusing concept.
"I’m the current EVE wrestling champion!" declared Rhia O'Reilly earlier today, at the EVE Academy training session that takes place every Saturday morning. Run by Rhia and former wrestler Greg Burridge, this drop-in class is my first foray into wrestling since my session at The Submission Room after watching Netflix series GLOW.
I am profoundly impressed by Rhia's announcement, especially as one of the other women in the class has just told me that EVE is one of the top wrestling shows in the world. Rhia must be amazing.
"I hate to scare people, but Romeo and Juliet don't actually die on stage. It's a show"
But having spent the three hour training session practising moves together in pairs, it seems like the wrestlers are working together. So how can there be a winner?
"What happens when you watch a movie? How does a hero win? How do they seize the day?" asks Rhia. Her tone suggests that the answers are obvious, but I'm not quite with her yet. Um, the hero kills off the baddie? "Someone writes the script that way. Yeah?"
So you're scripted to be the winner? "Yeah, absolutely. In Romeo and Juliet, I hate to scare people, but those people don't actually die on stage. It's a show. Yeah?"
"It's a live stunt show with a storyline"
Rhia seems taken aback by my ignorance but at the risk of her calling the paramedics to see if I've been concussed in class, I continue my line of questioning. So wrestling isn't a championship in the same way as other sporting events? "Wrestling isn't a sport," says Rhia. "It's entertainment. Wrestling is like a live stunt show with a storyline — we tell stories with what we do with our bodies."
OK, I've got it now! But while the on-stage characters have been invented by the wrestlers, and the matches have been plotted by the wrestling promoters, the injuries can be very real. Sure, there are some theatrics — in the training session, Greg shows us his "sex doll face" which he whips out of the bag when he wants the audience to think he's winded. And we're shown how to stamp on the floor at the moment we throw a "punch" in order to dramatize the sight with sound. But not all of the impact is an illusion.
"I was catching a girl who was heavier than me and my ankle just snapped!"
Roxxy, who works in a dental surgery by day, features in footage of a past wrestling match shown on the projector screen above the ring. The clip shows her bleeding from her face after being hit with what looks like a massive bit of bamboo. The blood was fake, right? "No, it was real," says Roxxy, sounding unfazed. "You’re going to get hurt, and I've only got a small scar."
Sammii Jayne has 10 screws in her body as a result of wrestling. She shows me a scar across her clavicle and recalls the time she broke her ankle: "I was catching a girl who was a lot heavier than me and my ankle just snapped," she says. Like Roxxy, Sammii Jayne is stoical, "It's a sport — injuries happen!" she shrugs.
Jayla Dark has broken her wrist, ribs, fingers and left ankle (twice). "I've permanently fucked my back and I've had more concussions than it's healthy to have. In the last two to three years I've tried to minimise the risks I take — I still do stupid things, but I do them less often. It depends on the audience — at EVE people hit harder and take more risks."
Jayla, who admits to going to hospital "less often than I should," says her husband retired from wrestling two weeks ago. Describing him as, "old and broken," she explains: "He's 34 but his body is older than he is. So is mine — so are all of ours.
"I'm one of the lucky ones because my retirement isn't due to injury."
"I wanted to create a bad ass bitch!"
22 year old Valkyrie, who's wrestled for the last five years, says: "It's more dangerous than rugby because of the results on the body." Rhia O'Reilly chips in: "Someone I knew who used to wrestle is permanently paralysed."
In May 2019, a male wrestler, Silver King, died during a show at Camden's Roundhouse.
But the risks involved don’t seem to diminish the wrestlers' passion or dedication. Debbie Keitel does wrestling training three to four times a week, as well as going to the gym six times a week — and like most of the wrestlers, she has a full time day job. "I am really tired, and I drink a lot of coffee," says Debbie, who wrestles every weekend.
Keitel is dressed in the sort of sparkling silver monogrammed leotard that Joan Collins might have worn in Dynasty if Alexis Colby had a scene in an aerobics studio. She looks fabulous — and entirely in keeping with her character. "It's Keitel, like Harvey Keitel," says Debbie, explaining the backstory behind her character's name. "I'm a big fan of Goodfellas, and Tarantino and Scorsese, so I wanted to create a bad ass bitch!"
"Oh my God, your nose job!"
Tonight, Debbie Keitel is partnered with Valkyrie to fight as a tag team. Together they are The Woke Queens. "They're two bitches who think they're enlightened, but really they're just bitches with money," explains Debbie. She and Valkyrie have travelled from Dublin for tonight's show.
"The Irish wrestling scene is growing, but it's still smaller than it is here," says Valkyrie, "It can be hard to get booked because bringing us over is an extra cost for the promoter, so I'd consider moving here to wrestle full time."
Valkyrie, who works part time in a tech shop, says: "Wrestling consumes your life — once you're in, it's like a drug. All your friends and relationships are in wrestling. It's hard going, and at the moment I get a lot of 6.30am flights, but I'd love to do it as often as my body will allow."
In the ring, The Woke Queens begin their set with Saturday Night Fever arm actions to Abba's Voulez-Vous, before standing about with resting bitch faces, cradling Starbucks cups with their names scribbled on them barista-style.
They've been pitted against Martina and Jetta whose entrance sets the fans off chanting: "Friends – with – be-ne-fits, friends with benefits!" The Woke Queens look horrified by Martina's beer-swilling chaviness and Debbie Keitel shrieks: "Why would you do that?!" as Martina sprays lager over her immaculate hair and make-up. "Oh my God, your nose job!" screams Valkyrie, as Debbie Keitel gets punched in the face.
"Guys do hit harder, but we're putting on a performance — they're not trying to kill me"
The comedy is a skill in itself and for my money it’s the best match of the night, rivalled only by Charli Evans versus Sammii Jayne, whose match keeps my eyes glued to the ring — its intensity making it unmissable viewing.
Originally from Australia, 22 year old Charli moved to the UK two years ago for wrestling. She's happy to wrestle men as well as women, explaining: "Guys do hit harder, but we're putting on a performance — they're not trying to kill me."
For Emily Read, the likelihood of being hit harder isn't the only reason to avoid mixed matches. "I grew up idolising wrestling," says Emily, "but when I got involved, I found it was a boys' club. It was taken as read that female wrestlers would sleep with their trainer, and when I started at one place, I was told the order in which the men would have sex with me.
"I'd get groped in training and I once ended up with internal grazing. When I told a trainer, he said, 'hands slip.'"
"I wanted to create a safe space for women"
It was this environment that inspired Emily to set up EVE's all female wrestling matches and all-female training sessions. "I wanted to create a safe space for women, where the crowd can't chant 'GET YOUR TITS OUT.' I can't change everything," says Emily, "but I can create one place that's safe."
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.