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‘Drag’s violent sibling’: Meet queer wrestling collective Fist Club

Wrestling isn’t just for cis-het men in pants, Fist Club’s fighting spirit is spicing up London’s wrestling scene

The Fist Club wrestlers posing in front of a blue screen
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out
India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence

‘Are you greased up?’ asks drag king Rich Tea, who is slipping into a pink and black unitard with ‘Little Dick’ printed on the backside. Cassius The Neon Explosion, the self-certified ‘bad twink’ of wrestling, is slathering himself in baby oil by the ring. He’s wearing bum-cheek bearing yellow hotpants adorned with daisies, and matching yellow and mint green ruffled leg warmers.

Meanwhile, Liv Laugh Love, an evil Starbucks-slurping Karen, wearing UGG boots and a cringey slogan sweatshirt, is trash talking her opponents to Loose Willis, the moustachioed, mullet-sporting host. Heather Bandenburg, the referee and one of Fist Club’s founders, is putting on her stripy leotard and Cher wig, while Lou Sa Soul is zipping a massive pink dildo into a sequined bum bag. Motörhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’ is booming in the background. 

Time Out has come to Monica’s Wrestling Centre, a gym in north London where the walls are decorated with colourful flags and retro posters, to catch up with Fist Club, one of London’s most exciting, and unusual, wrestling collectives.

A wrestler standing on the ropes of the wrestling ring with another wrestler crouching in front of him. A crowd cheers with signs in the background.
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

‘The first rule of Fist Club is... everyone looks great in spandex,’ says Heather Bandenburg, who performs as Cher and is the curator of Wrestival, which will feature Fist Club’s upcoming big show. 

‘It’s a wrestling show but we have a lot of cabaret elements,’ explains Loose Willis. Fist Club, founded in 2022 by ex-wrestler Bandenburg and drag artists Rich Tea and Daisy Lang, who performs as Rocky Rhodes, is a queer cabaret and pro-wrestling night which combines comedy, drag, and very real live grappling. 

Two years after its start, Fist Club has grown a dedicated fan base, is selling out regular shows at Bethnal Green Working Mens' Club, has helped create Wrestival, travelled to Brighton and Liverpool, and has even had a shout out from WWE legend Mick Foley. 

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‘I became a wrestler by accident,’ Bandenburg says. ‘And pretty much all of our roster is people who came to wrestling because we love the performance and the silliness of it, and the physicality of doing something that’s so ridiculous – it’s like becoming a superhero for 15 minutes.’

The first rule of Fist Club is... everyone looks great in spandex.

‘So often you find that wrestling takes itself too seriously,’ says Lang. ‘The pandemic shook up a lot of the wrestling scene, a lot of promotions, schools, and venues closed. In 2021 when we could start training again there was no space [for alternative wrestling]. 

‘The mainstream indie wrestling scene – men in pants – I don’t want to go to or be in those shows. Fist Club was about creating the kind of night that I would actually want to go to and have a good time at. It had to be about the atmosphere.’

Paul Bearer and Loose Willis
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

‘We all have different opinions about mainstream “pants” wrestling’, says Bandenburg. ‘But we have become a space where wrestlers want to come and play. We have wrestlers, such as Nina Samuels, who are champions and have been on WWE who come to and wrestle at Fist Club, because it’s so different from everything else.’

Punching up

When you think of professional wrestling, hyper-muscular and uber macho celebrities like Hulk Hogan, the Rock and John Cena typically come to mind. Fist Club has carved out a space in the wrestling scene for people who have felt excluded by this, and wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable going to a regular wrestling show. 

‘The people we work and train with love wrestling, they watched it as kids,’ Bandenburg says. ‘As a female-identifying wrestler I knew I was never going to have big boobs and long hair. When I was wrestling about 10 years ago I felt like there was just no place for me at all.’

 ‘There was a heavily misogynistic culture in wrestling in the early noughties,’ says Willis. ‘Most of my generation grew up watching the Attitude Era.’ (A lucrative period of time for WWE during which its programming was, to put it mildly, politically regressive, frequently sexist and occasionally homophobic.) ‘Now there are a lot more independent promotions and even on mainstream wrestling television shows people are willing to give women more space to have longer matches.’

‘But you can still see flaws. You can see who isn’t welcome, or who feels excluded. So Fist Club was trying to be very anarcho-punk, very LGBTQ heavy, very women heavy, very comedy heavy. It was trying to kick back [against the scene] for people who had felt excluded before.’

Livvi Grace holding Beau Belles for the Time Out front cover
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

And Fist Club isn’t just about jokes and silliness, it’s also become a space where performers are able to express themselves physically and creatively. ‘We encourage people to bring the ideas that are too weird to go anywhere else,’ Lang says.  

‘There absolutely is a case for taking wrestling seriously as an art form,’ says Willis. ‘It’s easy for people to be like, “It's very lowbrow. It's very stupid.” But that undermines how physically hard it is. You’re doing storytelling, a plotline and a character while getting physically dumped on your head and back multiple times.’

I felt like there was no place for me in wrestling at all.

Bandenburg once created an hour-long experimental live theatre and wrestling show based on her own experience of postnatal depression. ‘The show, called “Mummy Vs”, is about how as a parent, particularly as a mother, your identity gets stripped and it’s exhausting and hard to be anything other than a parent. Society doesn’t want that from you,’ she says. ‘I had matches between working mum and guilt – guilt won obviously. At the end there was a massive rumble where all these fears would come and I would beat the shit out of them while “Come On Eileen” played.’

Wrestling also takes a serious physical toll, with injuries including broken big toes, legs and dislocated elbows having affected some of the Fist Club fighters over the years.

‘I started training when I was in my early 20s. I wrestled three times a week at the London School of Lucha Libre,’ Bandenburg says. ‘Looking back at some of the insanity that I did, l was ridiculously fit. One day you're like, “Oh, I can jump four feet in the air because of my mighty legs.” You’re basically a gymnast and a stuntman.

She was also subject to some real negligence when taking part in more mainstream wrestling shows. ‘I got kicked in the stomach during a match once and I thought I had ruptured an organ,’ she recalls. ‘I was lying on the pavement outside the venue. My partner was about to wrestle and he had to drive me to A&E.’ 

Two women wrestlers in '80s-style neon leotards posing with flexed biceps
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

Experiences like this are part of the reason why Fist Club’s multi-pronged approach to performance has allowed it to come out on top when it comes to the welfare of their performers. ‘Our wrestlers get paid a bit more [than in other shows],’ Bandenburg says. ‘We can learn so much more from the way theatre and cabaret is run by putting thought into the wellbeing of our performers instead of treating them like a piece of meat.’

Fight night 

‘It’s drag’s violent sibling,’ says Willis, when asked to sum up Fist Club. On a typical Fist Club night audience members can expect to see garish costumes, stand-up comedy, elaborate plotlines, drag and cabaret performances, and lots of violence. 

‘You walk into the room and you are part of the show,’ says Lang. ‘The performers are coming out through the crowd. We encourage people to make noise.’

‘From the outset everyone will be screaming “Fist, fist, fist, fist”,’ says Willis. 

The Fist Club characters range from the funny, to the wonderful, to the truly bizarre. ‘My speciality is in niche, weird horror-tinged characters like Peppa Pig, Baba Yaga’s Hut (a nightmarish wendy house complete with chicken legs), or Paul Bearer,’ says Lang.

I meet Paul Bearer a week later at Monica’s Wrestling Centre. Dressed like a creepy funeral director in a jet-black suit and red tie, with a stark white face and comedy moustache, Lang carries a golden urn and speaks in a ghoulish high pitched wavering voice, imitating the legendary WWE manager of the Undertaker. 

You get hooked into the drama of wanting to see the villain get absolutely punished and the hero see that victory.

‘I've got the big head and I come out to the Peppa Pig theme tune. And then there's an unmasking as part of my entrance where I turn out to be a sort of “Eldritch Horror” sleep paralysis demon who spits black gunge at everybody,’ says Lang. 

Thanks to their top character work and storylines, Fist Club has a dedicated group of superfans. ‘People come back each time to see the development in the storyline,’ says Willis. ‘If you establish a really great character with one of the wrestlers, then you want to see who they're going to fight or feud with next.’

KM Lane smashing Rich Tea in the back with a chair
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

 One of Fist Club’s longest-running feuds was between Loose Willis and Brenda (portrayed by Rhia O’Reilly, who will be running her women’s promotion Galzilla at Wrestival), a professional wrestler and corporate stooge who hated fun, anything camp and all sexual innuendos. ‘The audience hated her,’ says Willis. ‘At every show people would yell “Fuck you Brenda” at her because everybody was so angry at the character work that Rhia [O'Reilly] had done.’

‘Our feud went on over multiple matches and we continued it on social media. You have people coming up to you in real life and being like, “What’s actually going on with you and Rhia because it seems like you’re fighting?” People get so emotionally invested. That’s when we know we’ve done our job.’

The feud culminated in an ‘office supplies deathmatch’ with Brenda being smashed through a table by Lou Sa Soul, the current reigning Fist Club champion. For Willis, battles like this are dramatic enough to rival the best reality TV. ‘As an audience you get absolutely hooked into the drama of wanting to see the villain get absolutely punished and the hero see that victory. It’s so cathartic,’ he says. 

Fist Club is currently preparing for its next big show on May 3 which will take place during Wrestival, a three-day wrestling extravaganza featuring many of the Fist Club fighters. From comedians picking wrestlers for fights live in the ring; to a show performed completely by female wrestlers as drag kings; and ‘The Schmozz’ – a scratch night that matches up poets, clowns and writers with wrestlers – Wrestival plans to be a wacky wrestling smorgasbord. 

‘These wrestlers are taking bumps and working their arses off,’ says Sikisa, a wrestling podcaster and Fist Club host and whose focus is on burlesque and stand-up comedy. ‘Our show will feature comedians commentating, which you would never get in a traditional match.’

One athlete, Livvii Grace, who’s also a full-time engineer, will be fighting in a stonking five out of six wrestling matches that will take place during the three day event. ‘It’s pretty intense,’ Livvii Grace says. ‘I can be a professional wrestler but portraying characters is something I’ve never done before. Fist Club has pushed me to my limits physically and creatively.’

‘It’s just a really fun night out,’ says Bandenburg. ‘You get everything from it. It’s so far removed from our everyday lives, it’s so visceral. Watching wrestling on telly just doesn’t compare to seeing a live wrestling show. The thump of the canvas is so loud – you can’t help but get carried away with the spectacle.’

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