There has been a lot of discussion recently about the loss of some of music’s most traditional independent venues. Places where history was made, where some of the most iconic performances happened, where a band of nobodies became Somebody. Hell, if CBGB can become an airport restaurant chain, nowhere is safe.
I encountered this same phenomenon in a different environment lately, as one of my beloved indie wrestling promotions announced it was moving house. Fight Club: PRO is a Wolverhampton institution and has been based in the Planet nightclub since 2010.
Now, what to say about the Planet? FCP owner Martin Zaki remembers his early impression of the club: ‘When we first moved to The Planet there were concerns from fans and fighters as to the venue’s “condition” but this is something that almost immediately moulded into the promotion.’ He’s right. It’s a shithole. But, as fan favourite Trent Seven recently observed, ‘It’s OUR shithole!’
I’ve never been to a regular clubnight or music event at the venue, but I’ve been to too many wrestling shows to count. In the good old days (and for the final two shows there), we were let into the basement area to pick up drinks, get merch, maybe even take a few photos with the visiting fighters before being allowed upstairs into the venue proper. Unfortunately, the big flood of a few years back put paid to that for a while, forcing punters to queue in the inevitably-dreadful Wolves weather before being let in.
What fans see inside would put the fear of God into many people. The black walls are festooned with demonic skulls and skeletons. The toilets are every bit as graffitied, damaged and gross as those at any classic music dive. A wrestling ring sits under heavy lights in the centre of the main floor, with a large DIY cage built around it. By the end of the night, this cage will often be in pieces, lying in chunks on the ground surrounded by abandoned bottles, plastic glasses, blood and, often, a prostrate wrestler.
You’re absolutely right: it’s seriously, fucking awesome.
On this Friday in April, we were treated to the last FCP show at the venue. Trent Seven came out to announce this at the beginning, as well as to call for a minute’s silence for Kris Travis, a young but well-established British wrestler who recently died of cancer. People take the piss out of wrestling but the indie circuit is a tight one, where the talent and the fans come together in a display of fierce loyalty. The immaculately-observed silence demonstrated that, as did the chaotic chanting, shouting and loving abuse that came from the crowd throughout the rest of the night. You think your ears are ringing after a gig? Amateurs. You think football fans get rowdy? Ha! Come talk to me when you’ve had three hours of cage kicking, ‘The referee’s a virgin!’ chants and singing along to entrance themes as diverse as Royal Blood and, ahem, B*Witched. Then you’ll know.
The evening was a fitting tribute to Kris Travis, Fight Club: PRO, the Planet and indie wrestling in general. Local talent worked alongside international wrestlers, with a special appearance from Zack Sabre Jr, who is soon to take part in the WWE’s Cruiserweight competition. He’s the official Next Big Thing on the wrestling circuit and a crowd of a few hundred got to see him perform mere feet away. It’s like being able to say you saw Muse at a leisure centre in Devon just before their first album hit.
Other big names to come through the Planet’s doors include Colt Cabana, Kevin Steen (now Kevin Owens in the WWE), Rockstar Spud (who was a FCP regular before becoming huge with TNA) and the American Wolves, Davey Richards and Eddie Edwards, amongst many others. But it’s the local talent that makes FCP what it is. Tyler Bate is making serious ripples having only debuted a few years back; Dave Mastiff has been one of the biggest British stars, in both senses of the word, for years; and Clint Margera has made a name for himself as a death match specialist. It feels like a local promotion, and the Planet has been a big part of that.
FCP also benefits from being run by wrestling enthusiasts who understand the industry and fans inside-out. Zaki remembers the frustration with the British scene that led to him starting the promotion, the difficulty of finding truly physical wrestling shows, ones that avoided that ‘same old pantomime feel… The aim was to put on matches where everything is left in the ring on every occasion. No saving it for the big match. Giving it all every time.’ This mentality exists behind the scenes too. Speaking of the FCP motto ‘Train. Fight. Win.’, Zaki says: ‘…several of us were working for other promotions where you would literally complete the show and all go home. We wanted more. The idea was that we were a team, a unit, a club. You train, you fight and then you win.’ It’s an ethos that has served them well.
This is not the end of Fight Club: PRO. They’ve announced that they will be moving to Fixxion Warehouse, a local venue that does all-night music events, art exhibitions and more. For FCP, this should be a move to somewhere seemingly bigger and better, perhaps even with soap in the toilets. But there are pitfalls that come with such a move. A bigger venue often means bigger rents and the need to bring more people through the doors. FCP is a decidedly non-PC show but will it move its start time earlier to bring in more young people? Will it broaden the product to make it more widely accessible? If so, will that kill the very thing that makes FCP such a special promotion?
Speaking before the Fixxion announcement, Zaki understood these concerns but was excited about the opportunities the move could afford: ‘There has been a lot of speculation over the move and the term “bigger venue” has been thrown about. We shall be operating out of a new venue which provides us with our own permanent arena. This gives us the opportunity to re-build our training school and customise our own venue for shows. We are going to be in a position to offer more to our existing fans as well as some new aspects that weren’t available before.’ It’s a risk, but there are opportunities too.
It’s a dilemma we also see in music. Arena gigs allow many more people to participate but can lead to a much more sanitised product. Some bands can do the arena thing well – Springsteen, U2, Muse, etc. – but many acts are simply overwhelmed by their surroundings. As a fan, there is something exciting about being swept away along with thousands of other people at a big show, but you lose the intimacy of the smaller venues. When Derek Zanetti (aka The Homeless Gospel Choir) jumped into the Digbeth Institute crowd so he could play in amongst us; when I climbed onstage after a Bellrays gig at the Musician in Leicester to buy the band beers; when Kevin Steen high-fived me at the Planet before throwing Trent Seven face-first into the steel cage: those are the moments that will live forever in my mind.
Zaki himself thinks this final show was one of the highlights of their time at the Planet, and there is one aspect of the FCP experience that will always remain with him: ‘The one thing that always stands out is the sheer volume that is created by our fans. It is unbelievable. True, for years the cage has helped that but at our final show at The Planet – Planet Terror: Vol. 2 – there was no cage and the crowd was louder than ever. Perhaps one image that will stick with us for a long time to come is the fans and fighters as one, kneeling / standing at ringside, banging the ring, clapping, and cheering to the resonating chant of FIGHT CLUB PRO. It was truly emotional.’ I wonder if arenas can ever provide the same memories.
As I say goodbye to Fight Club: PRO at the Planet, I look forward to seeing what the future holds. There is some trepidation, but also a genuine feeling that I’ve been part of something special for the past few years. The move to Fixxion seems like a positive one, a chance to keep the local homegrown feel but with opportunities to expand. However, as with all changes, it marks the end of an era, with FCP fans likely to get nostalgic about it when they’re in their cups for years to come. So make the most of those local venues near you that might violate every H&S law and have you packed in like sardines for their bigger shows. Trust me, you’ll miss them when they go.
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Cover photo by Chico Iwana