I went to London's only all-women wrestling academy and released my inner beast!
The scent of sweat smacks me hard in the face.
At first, I think I may have accidentally walked into the armpit of a burly construction worker just coming off a twelve-hour shift.
It’s the sweet smell of women who unashamedly drop-kick and body-slam each other across a 16x16 wrestling ring on a Sunday afternoon for entertainment and for glory.
I am about to become one of them.
The EVE Wrestling Academy holds all-women training sessions in Bethnal Green, taught by professional wrestlers Rhia O’Reilly and Greg Burridge. Rhia cuts a strong figure, while sporting a half-shaved head and friendly smile; she is a two-time EVE Champion. Greg is a stout man with sleeve tattoos and slicked-back hair, who works as a fight choreographer and stunt person.
There is barely room for all 21 of us as we move onto a matted area to the side of the solely illuminated wrestling ring. There are no windows, and dust is suspended in the beams from the track lights and neon signs that barely light the space.
High-energy music fills the room and we begin with a warm up.
Greg and Rhia come bouncing into the center of the mat, to the tempo of the music, like two people from an eighties workout video, who we immediately imitate.
“What day is it?” Greg shouts over the music, still bouncing, moving smoothly around the crowded space, arms pumping in the air.
“EVE Sunday!” the chorus of women shout back.
He asks again and this time I shout back, too.
Rhia has us organise ourselves into a circle. We go around and say our names and do five squats for each person. My legs shake, my breathing grows ragged, and our good-natured sighs grow more tortured with each new name. One-hundred and thirty squats later, I’ve sweated through my t-shirt and I resist the impulse to collapse into a heap on the ground.
Now it’s time to learn some moves.
Greg demonstrates the roll we’re to do when we enter the ring.
“I roll over my arm to protect my head,” he says. He follows through with the move, which is basically a very structured somersault, and stands, heavily tattooed arms raised gracefully over his head. “And I rise like a water nymph.”
A few women have taken the class before and are able to easily swing their bodies over their heads and rise like mythical water-creatures. When it’s my turn, I learn that the act of heaving one’s entire body over one’s delicate head does not come easily for everyone and halfway through the move I flop to the side, appearing more dead fish than water nymph.
With enthusiastic cheers from the other women, along with a quick tutorial from Rhia, I am able to complete an ultimately unimpressive roll, which seems to just fit the definition for: “Good enough!”
Next Greg and Rhia demonstrate an arm lock and it’s like watching the unlocking of a human-form Chinese puzzle box. Except instead of opening, the puzzle box has its arm twisted uncomfortably.
My partner cries out in pain the first time I twist her arm. I immediately let go.
“Are you okay?” I ask, worried.
She smiles back.
“I’m fine! That’s just part of it. We’re here to put on a show!”
We practice, eventually learning the escape move which is somehow even more complicated. I twist my face into pained expressions which almost always fall apart into fits of laughter.
“Release your inner beast, ladies!” shouts Greg, as he prepares us to finally enter the ring.
We’re encouraged to create alter-egos, who can be as mean and vicious as we want.
Naturally, avoiding eye-contact with the teacher doesn’t work, and I’m in the first pair picked to enter the ring.
I pull myself onto the platform and slip through the thick black rubber ropes. The hollow box beneath my feet echoes ominously with my first steps. While most of the room was lit only by neon and a few dim track lights, the ring I now find myself standing at the center of is flooded with what feels like a dozen spotlights, suddenly focused on me, and my mind goes blank.
My partner introduces herself first.
She takes long, powerful strides across the ring, owning it.
“My name is Ramona Killz, and I think you’re all scum!” she points to individuals in the crowd, who cheer her on, unphased, “You’re scum! And you’re scum! I’m here to fight!” She finishes with a roar.
It’s my turn and I take what I hope to be confident steps across the ring, but I suspect I look more like Bambi stumbling through a meadow.
“I am the Abbinator!” I announce, raising my arms to flex nothing. I falter. “And I think you’re all lovely people!”
I finish weakly with a thumbs up.
The first bell rings, and we spring into our starting positions -- we each place one hand behind the other’s neck and one hand on the offending arm.
I move first, strategically twisting her arm, and she immediately slips out. The lesson to put on a show of pain slips my mind and I laugh instead as she twists my arm.
And just like that we’ve exhausted our entire wrestling arsenal. The bell rings again, ending our match.
Two by two, the other women take the ring, introducing their ferocious selves.
By the end of the class, sweat sticks my shirt to my body as I myself contribute to the overwhelming odor I first noticed.
Rhia leads us through cool-down stretches, after which we immediately clear out to make room for the professional wrestling match taking place in the afternoon.
As I exit the gym, I walk past the banner hanging over the ring which depicts a uterus flexing its fallopian tubes.
“Fight like a girl,” it reads.