Eighteen minutes into a 20-minute match, and Nightshade is seething.
Eyes blazing and teeth bared, she turns from her hobbling opponent and starts to growl at the crowd, who are crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in this dark, sweaty room. Each clutching cans of lager, they begin a taunting chant – “Lampshade, lampshade!” – stamping their feet at an increasingly frenzied pace. Nightshade’s growl crescendos into a roar and then a bone-chilling scream as she jumps on to the ropes and catapults herself at her opponent. She grabs them and flings them over her head, pinning them to the floor as the referee slams his hand down three times.
We’re at Eve, a punk-feminist wrestling event in east London, and guest wrestler Nightshade’s stage presence is on par with any act you’d see at Glastonbury. But just two hours previously, we’d met her as 22-year-old Lucy Gibbs – all sweet smiles and soft, curly hair. Her transformation into supervillain has been dramatic to say the least. “It’s so liberating,” she beams. “You don’t have to be yourself in the ring, and it’s just so much fun.”
Eve is a female wrestling promoter at the forefront of an unprecedented global interest in women’s wrestling, which has recently powerslammed into popular consciousness. The Netflix series Glow painted a fluorescent, Lycra-clad picture of mid-1980s wrestling, highlighting the era’s sexism and sisterhood via a diverse cast. Next came the hit film Fighting with My Family. A comedy based on the life of ex-World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fighter Paige, it charts her rise through the ranks of professional wrestling to become the first NXT Women’s Champion in 2013.
While ladies have featured in wrestling since the early days, women wrestlers have only worked the main events since 2005, when an all-female group called Shimmer made its debut (it’s still going strong). Since then, the WWE launched a new Women’s Championship in 2016 and staged its first all-female main event at WrestleMania 35 this year. Smash Wrestling will host an international women’s wrestling event in Toronto this August, while Eve, which launched in 2010, held the biggest women’s wrestling show in European history in June. And it’s not just female wrestlers that are getting a look in. Wrestling is becoming more popular among female spectators, too, thanks to its emergence into the mainstream media.
No promoter believes in this more than Eve, whose outspoken feminist approach seeks to change the sexualised way women wrestlers have previously been portrayed. “Women were decoration,” says Eve co-founder Emily Read, who now MCs the shows. “I trained in Portsmouth and the levels of sexism I found were horrendous. It was crushing. When I met [co-founder and husband] Dann he was already running women’s wrestling events and I saw that if I got involved in that side we could make big changes.”
“Wrestling used to be a big boys’ club,” agrees Dann. “Women weren’t being held to the same standards, and the majority would leave really quickly because they’d get bullied out. We wanted to create an even platform and open it up to everyone. For me, women’s wrestling is just wrestling that happens to be by women. Everyone deserves a space to do their art form.”
One of the first wrestlers to fight for Eve was Erin Angel, who met Dann 10 years ago when he booked her for a show. Eve’s equal-opportunities attitude was radically different to anything she’d experienced in wrestling before.
“When I started it was the Diva era, when the women were dressed in skimpy outfits and their matches weren’t very serious,” she says. “They’d do pillow fights and things. And I remember being told by promoters, you’re not wearing enough make-up, you don’t look pretty enough, you don’t have enough skin on show. No one would dream of saying that now.”
According to the wrestler – who takes joy in combining ultra-feminine sparkly outfits with jaw-dropping dropkicks – that culture change owes a lot to Eve. “Eve made everyone else step up,” she claims. “Other promoters are now taking their female wrestlers more seriously.”
It’s something that each wrestler competing there agrees with. “Expectations for women wrestlers were so low when I started wrestling in 2006, that I did a leapfrog and they were like, ‘Wow, that’s the first time a girl’s ever done that around here!’” laughs Nicole Matthews, who hails from Vancouver and is now a head trainer at a wrestling school there. “Because of that, they rushed me through training. I started at 18 and did my first professional match at 19.” That match was against Becky Lynch – who won the headline fight at WWE’s first-ever all-female main event at WrestleMania 35.
Matthews’ fast-track to fame had everything to do with talent – she competed in the WWE’s prestigious 2018 Mae Young Classic women’s tournament – but the Eve trainers agree that, for female wrestlers, being held to lower standards has made it harder for them to advance. “We want to get female wrestlers to the standard of the main event,” says Emily, noting that women wrestlers were traditionally allocated the “toilet break” slot before the higher-stakes men’s matches. “They’d never been given the chance before, and it wasn’t because of a lack of talent – it’s just that if you haven’t got any work experience you’re not going to be ready for the top job.”
But thanks to Eve, some of its alumni are starting to nab those top spots. The show we attend includes a farewell match between Scottish duo Kay Lee Ray and Viper, who signed with WWE to train at their new UK centre (the first outside of the USA). And their commitment is plain to see: nights here are not for the faint-hearted. The fighters slam each other’s backs into concrete floors dotted with drawing pins, and drag each other by the hair out of the ring to trade punches by the bar, cheered on by the sort of language that would make Tony Soprano blush. And despite the fact that each match has a pre-determined outcome, the risks involved are very real.
“You’re putting your body in someone else’s hands,” says Rhia O’Reilly, who debuted as a professional wrestler at Eve’s first ever show and once performed a whole match on a broken ankle. “Yes, it’s entertainment – it’s a live stunt show with a storyline – but a bad fall can paralyse you.”
It’s all the more remarkable when you understand how much further women have had to climb to get into this position.
“Women aren’t encouraged to rough-house or be loud,” says Emily. “A lot of male trainers are not aware that they have to help women to literally find a voice. But being loud and bold, and taking up space? Those things trickle into the rest of your life. Go get that promotion, speak up in a meeting. Some of our wrestlers start off shy, but after a year you see them walk in and they’re standing differently, with their heads up.”
For now, women’s wrestling remains a niche interest. There’s only one other all-female promoter in the UK – Fierce Females in Glasgow – and aside from Shimmer and some gender-segregated schools in Japan, wrestling promoters only host women’s training alongside the men’s.
But Eve isn’t about converting everybody into diehard fans.
“Eve takes the stereotype of being a woman and beats it up,” smiles Darcy Stone, a former dancer who incorporates ballet steps into her entrance routine, dressed in a kimono and tutu. “It’s not about wrestling anymore – it’s a movement. You can be a girly girl, and still hit hard.”
This is echoed by Emily, who celebrates Eve’s wide appeal. “The majority of people at our shows just want a good night out,” she says. “They don’t go to other wrestling shows but they like ours. We do family shows and we see these little girls there, and their faces are just lit up. It’s like seeing real-life superheroes.”
This clearly resonates with Rhia, who, post-match, changes from her gold Lycra costume into Batman leggings. “All we want is to make wrestling more accessible to everybody,” she says. “I want Eve to make people think that they can do anything and be whoever they want to be.”