‘OTT, OTT, OTT,’ chants the baying crowd as they hold cans of beer aloft looking over an empty wrestling ring from a height. It’s a mixed crowd of all adult ages and sexes. Art type students skulk by with plastic cups of beer, bikers in leathers sit beside men in dapper suits and women with glamorous dresses, middle aged friends sport their favourite wrestling team on their t-shirts whilst supping their pints between their banter, young men with brand new clothes chat enthusiastically with their bemused dates. Then the lights in the Tivoli dim and the voices start to quieten. A projection plays on one of the walls on a circular screen, it’s like a search-light and everyone’s eyes are fixed on it.
What plays is an interview between rival wrestlers and why they are motivated to win. Then the film stops and the protagonists enter the ring, the crowd jumps to its feet and the roaring and cheering starts again. It’s Shakespearean in it’s drama, father against son, upper class against the lads from the flats. Good versus bad.
It would be tempting to over intellectualise it but what’s very clear is that people like escapism, they like cheering for an underdog that wins against the odds, it echoes the mythology and storytelling that is so ingrained in us.
‘It’s just so unique. There’s nothing out there like it. I can’t compare it to anything else, to me it’s just the ultimate entertainment show. Theatrics, comedy, comic book violence, there’s everything in it,’ says Leonard Hanna.
Hanna is the co-promoter of main-stage wrestling and over the top wrestling (that’s what OTT stands for). He also runs the main-stage wrestling academy and gives personal training classes. He’s sitting beside the wrestling ring that resides on the top floor of a warehouse in an industrial estate in Ballyfermot. Colourful posters of wrestlers are stuck to the wall, you can hear the thud of weights hitting the ground in the gym below as American rock songs blast out.
Hanna is softly spoken but very focused and engaging when explaining the world of wrestling. ‘The personal training is my day to day job but the pro wrestling has gone from a hobby into a second job. I grew up with two older brothers and they were both interested in pro wrestling when they were younger but grew out of it,’ he laughs knowing that people assume it’s a childish phase but obviously for him it wasn’t. ‘I’ve always been interested in it because it’s just a great form of entertainment. I get such a release watching it. To me it’s like mindless TV. You know that type of TV that you can just switch on and the mentally switch off, there’s nothing better!’
He used to work in construction but could see that work was starting to dry up, he also wanted a change so ‘I decided to do a course with the national training centre and in 2011 I set up my own gym.’ That was when he started doing weekly wrestling classes, over time it outgrew the premises.
He has amassed a loyal crew of volunteers that help bring the show to life, from videographers to lighting staff, Hanna even works the check in booth on the night of an event. ‘We use the best performers we can get. We fly guys in from England and The States.’ His pursuit of perfection is obviously working as the fan base continues to increase. ‘This year we did the Fringe Festival, we were told it was the highest selling show in the Fringe Festival’s twenty-one year history. We ended up having to turn people away.’
Getting to it’s current level of success took a lot of convincing. When looking for a venue they regularly were faced with skepticism. ‘People asked why would adults like that, we still get that.’ Lucky for them the Tivoli took a gamble, ‘getting a venue like that was crucial to the success. It’s got great sound and lighting which adds to the production value.’ They had to sign up for six months of shows, ‘if the first one bombed we’d basically screwed but it didn’t!’
Pro-wrestling like Hanna said is pure entertainment, over the past two decades WWE (World Wrestling Federation, it used to be WWF) has deviated from it’s roots, that is it just caters for children. Arguably that direction is a lot more profitable. Hanna was and is obsessed with resurrecting wrestling that is catered towards an 18+ audience. ‘When WWE was at its peak it catered towards the older audiences, that was when it was at its most entertaining. We probably get compared to that type of WWE a lot, our shows are very nostalgic for that time.’
But what about all the different types of people that go to watch it? A lot of them would be too young to remember Hanna’s favourite wrestler, Mick Foley. ‘I think a lot of people thought this is a weird looking show when they saw a poster of it on a lamp post or online,’ he smiles. ‘Curiosity made them check it out and they ended up loving it! It’s just so different to what’s on offer for a night out and that’s a lot of the appeal.’
He’s right, when it comes to entertainment options In Dublin, it’s a rarity. In the world Hanna helps create there is justice, redemption and reward for the person that works hard, it’s a fair world basically. Unlike the world outside the Tivoli which is a murkier place to navigate, a place where white collar crime is celebrated and political apathy is accepted. The wrestling that Hanna creates allows the punter to vent that frustration, it’s OK to hurl abuse at the toff wrestler or to rave with the wrestlers from the inner city flats.
The show is ridiculous and yet there is something oddly comforting about that, like eating a custard cream in front of the fire watching Knight Rider. ‘I attribute the success to the comedy of it. It’s really a variety show, there’s something for everyone.’ It is able to laugh at itself and there is something very liberating in that formula.