It's been nearly a year since my first foray into the British wrestling scene.
The atmosphere at British wrestling shows has gained worldwide attention for its likeness to a rowdy crowd at a football match, with the din of synchronised chanting and clapping often drowning out the creaks of the ring and grunts of the wrestlers.
As a fan, it makes you feel like you're part of something bigger. A chant that starts with one voice will quickly overtake the room, growing strenth with every refrain until you start believing – just like at any sporting event – that your enthusiasm could change the course of the match.
Between the intoxicating environment and the quality of the in-ring work, British wrestling events are a draw to people all around the world.
But don't just take my word for it – I'm not the only foreigner that's been irrevocably drawn into the fold.
Like me, El Phantasmo is a Canadian transplant to the British wrestling scene.
“I was doing cartoons back home,” he says, remembering his time before coming to the UK last June. “I'd finished a three-year contract with Netflix, and I had just turned 30.
“I thought, well, I can either continue to sit at this desk job for the rest of my life, or I can chase this wrestling dream.”
A tenured veteran of the Vancouver scene, El Phantasmo felt that he had reached his limit in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s been known that the Pacific Northwest is a black hole for wrestling,” he says, citing WWE superstars like Daniel Bryan (Washington) and the Singh Brothers (his Vancouver contemporaries) as wrestlers who needed to leave the area to get noticed.
“There’s just no internet presence about it,” he says of the Vancouver scene. “I’ve had so many good matches there that never got released on YouTube, never got put out on DVD – they’re just hidden in people’s memories.”
Admittedly, he says, Defy Wrestling seems to be running a good product in Seattle, Washington, but they hadn’t yet been established when he felt the need to leave. That, and heading to the U.S. hasn’t historically been easy for him.
“To (wrestle in) the States, you have to sneak in illegally,” he says. Typically, independent wrestlers are forced to lie to border agents in order to work in the United States without a visa. For most, this process works without issue – but not for Phantasmo. “I got caught, years ago. So that door was closed.”
In 2012, Phantasmo was denied entry to the U.S. after border agents were unconvinced that he'd return to Canada. The goal was to train in St. Louis, Missouri, with a group of wrestlers that included current WWE star Kyle O’Reilly.
He isn’t the only one – in 2016, popular independent wrestler Mike Bailey was caught crossing into the U.S. from his home in Canada and was slapped with a five-year entrance ban. He’s since made his mark internationally in Japan and Germany, as well as being a Britwres regular.
“England was the best place to come to,” says Phantasmo – and not least because of his visa situation. “England is a commonwealth with Canada, so it was easy to get a work visa to come here.”
That Commonwealth status also applies to Australia, which made it easy for young Britwres star Kyle Fletcher to follow his wrestling dreams, too.
“You can do wrestling in Australia,” says Fletcher, a native of Sydney, “but the exposure's just not there.”
Fletcher took advantage of the UK's Youth Mobility visa scheme, which will allow him to live and work in the UK for a two-year period.
“I just wanted more eyes on what I could do,” he says of his move across the world last year at the age of 18. “Maybe not at that point – but I knew I had the potential to be good.
"So I came where the best wrestlers in the world are.”
Fletcher's bet on himself has certainly paid off. During his relatively short time in the UK, he and partner Mark Davis have taken their tag team of Aussie Open to all of the biggest promotions in the country, where their matches are a hit on every show.
Pretty impressive for a tag-team that, in Fletcher's words, “kind of just happened.”
Coincidentally, his tag partner Davis lives with El Phantasmo.
Since arriving in the UK last June, El Phantasmo has worked for one of the country's most well-known promotions, Revolution Pro Wrestling. It was there, on June 4th, 2017, that he had his first match on British soil.
That match was against another international talent: David Starr.
Starr, too, is a mainstay on the Britwres scene, but unlike Phantasmo, he does have the choice of working in the United States.
“The fanbase in the UK is great,” Starr tells me over the phone from his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “They appreciate wrestling, and the intricacies of the sport.”
It’s the fans who have kept Starr coming back since his first match in the UK back in 2016.
“It’s just a really good environment.”
In fact, Starr likes wrestling in the UK so much that he’ll be making some serious life changes in the coming months. In September, he’ll start paying rent on a London flat, and in 2019, he’ll be prioritising his bookings in the UK.
“Everything in my life just felt like it was best to be based in the UK. Personally and professionally,” says Starr, whose girlfriend already lives in London. “I was just there all the time, and it came to the point where it was going to be one place or the other.
“It made more sense for me to be there, and I wanted to be there.”
Starr spent the weekend before our call in Mexico, wrestling for The Crash Lucha Libre in Tijuana and Mexico City. He’s wrestled in roughly a dozen countries around the world.
“America’s still great,” he says, not wanting to insult his home country. “There’s some great bits. Germany has some great bits. When I wrestled in Israel, it was cool there, too. In all these other places there’s nice, cool fans. But I’m definitely attached to the UK fanbase.
“It just feels special.”
Starr is the current British Cruiserweight Champion in Revolution Pro Wrestling, where he recently defended his title against El Phantasmo – almost exactly a year to the day from their first match together.
In that year, El Phantasmo has made some waves. In May, he debuted at Progress Wrestling, the company with the UK’s most widespread and cult-like following. Recently, he’s also been a part of main-event-calibre matches with internationally renowned stars like Will Ospreay and Cody.
“That was the entire goal when I came here: to wrestle at the top of the British wrestling food chain,” says Phantasmo. “It’s been a long and winding road to get to this point, but I’m really stoked that it’s happening.
“Now, the real work begins.”