Mark Dallas: Wrestling With Convention
The founder of Insane Championship Wrestling on starting from nothing, losing it all, and embracing mistakes.
“I’m getting a bit philosophical, but you’re put on the planet to live life and experience feelings and emotions and aw’ that. You’re no’ put on the planet to go and fuckin’ clean out a bin and tell some old cunt where the toilets are.”
It’s a cold Wednesday morning in Glasgow, and Mark Dallas has finally woken up.
That’s not to say that he has been low-energy until this point – quite the opposite, actually. Since we met at his offices, which double as a wrestling school, he has been in perpetual motion, pacing back and forth, fidgeting with his tracksuit top – emblazoned with “Insane Champion Wrestling” – and gesticulating wildly with his hands.
Until now, his responses have been tinged with a veneer of corporate responsibility. He has been polite, warm and insightful but, mostly, uncomfortable. There are two versions of Mark Dallas: The Glasgow-born entrepreneur who is revolutionising the world of professional wrestling, and the boy from Maryhill who, until a few years ago, was living on the cusp of poverty.
I’ve met the businessman, his Dr Jekyll. Now I’m meeting Mr Hyde.
To understand Mark Dallas the entrepreneur, there first needs to be an understanding of the man. Raised in a working class household, “Dallas” (as he is almost exclusively known) quickly realised two things: the value of hard work and how unsuited he was for traditional professions.
From an early age, there was an understanding that the conventional workplace structure would not be a good fit for Dallas, a man of passion and impulse. Indeed, he was so keen to avoid the confines of a traditional job that at just 18, along with his cousin, he launched his first business.
“Me and my cousin had a shop that sold skip caps in the Savoy Centre. The thought behind it was that there was a certain type of skip cap that was really big in the UK,” he says. “They were from America, but from certain seasons of American football, so while [they] were kind of lauded in the UK, they weren’t really sought after in America as they were from 3, 4, 5 seasons ago.”
Dallas’ business model involved recruiting students across the USA to check local shops for older football caps. In exchange, he gave them a commission for each hat sold, or sent items of clothing only available in the UK. At first, this proved to be a fruitful venture, particularly due to the low cost of stock.
“Usually if they [the American stores] had the caps, they wouldn’t be on sale any more as they were so out of date. They’d be in a box and you’d be able to buy them for a dollar or two a hat and then we’d just mark them up tae fuck and sell them for like £30, £40 a hat in Scotland.”
The success, however, wasn’t to last.
“We never ran the business properly, so after a while it became hard to keep it going. At first we were making a good bit of money, it was my first taste of any type of success, business-wise. But your brand is so niche…” he pauses. “We never expanded, we never sold other things. Looking back, I’d have probably done that.”
“We never ran the business properly, so after a while it became hard to keep it going…. We never expanded, we never sold other things. Looking back, I’d have probably done that.”
After operating for nearly a year, Dallas closed the business and decided to “get an actual fucking job.”
For someone so headstrong and passionate, this wasn’t an easy transition. A number of jobs followed, including working as a lifeguard for Glasgow City Council, but there was no sense of progression – and certainly no sense of satisfaction. Desperate for some sense of fulfillment, he turned to a lifelong passion: professional wrestling.
Insane Championship Wrestling (ICW) was based around one idea: bringing the adult-themed, soap opera style of late 1990s American wrestling back to prominence. At the time of ICW’s launch in 2006, the only major professional wrestling company in America was World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). The lack of any meaningful competition had, by broad consensus, brought an element of staleness to WWE’s product. Additionally, the company had begun a process of sanitisation that would eventually lead to the reclassification of their shows as “PG” rated by 2008, a stark contrast to the “TV-MA” ratings at the turn of the millennium.
Dallas saw a gap in the market but, above all, he simply wanted to create something that made him happy. The raw, unfiltered, chaotic wrestling scene of the late 1990s, complete with copious amounts of blood, profanity and plot twists straight out of an M. Night Shyamalan blockbuster were his happiest times as a wrestling fan.
Accordingly, there was no business plan, long term strategic thinking, or corporate structure. There was simply a 19-year-old man, trying to recapture the halcyon days of his fandom.
That lack of planning manifested itself in poor attendance — the first two ICW events attracted 100 and 40 people respectively. As a result, the financial burden of running regular wrestling shows was starting to take its toll, with losses of approximately £200 per show, a not-inconsiderable amount of money for a young man flirting with destitution.
Insane Championship Wrestling shut its doors in late 2007. Amidst failure, it seemed like the monotony of a regular life would soon overwhelm any dreams of grandeur.
Whilst he found happiness in his personal life thanks to a stable relationship with his now-fiancée, the grind of everyday employment wore him down. It was a feeling intensified when his partner announced her pregnancy.
“I can remember sitting in a house and my missus being pregnant and thinking this cannae be all there is to life. That’s it now, I’ve went and had all my fun, been young and aw’ that and now it’s time for me to fuckin’ go and get a 9-5 and just come home every night and fuckin’ put the telly on and long for the weekend and then go to fuckin’ IKEA,” he says.
“People can tell you not to make mistakes and what to dae, but there’s no greater way of learning than actually making the mistake yourself.”
At his partner’s behest, and eager to prove to his son that it was possible to marry an indefatigable work ethic with a career he was passionate about, Dallas fully re-launched ICW in 2010. Moreover, he was determined to learn from his missteps: Primarily, a lack of promotion, overreliance on the internet as a medium of advertising, and no business strategy. Rather than regretting his earlier errors, Dallas saw them as a key component to his future success.
“People can tell you not to make mistakes and what to dae, but there’s no greater way of learning than actually making the mistake yourself,” he says. “If you make and you feel the effects of that mistake, you sure as fuck won’t make that mistake again, because you know what it’s like to be burned by that decision.”
Soon, his hard work and improved business nous began to pay dividends. In June 2010, ICW achieved their first sellout event, drawing nearly 200 fans to the Maryhill Community Central Hall. At this point, it is tempting to glibly declare “and the rest is history”. But so unlikely are ICW’s achievements, they require listing to fully realise the remarkable feat that Dallas has accomplished.
Sellout shows followed all over Glasgow, at venues including the Classic Grand, The Garage and the O2 ABC. The iconic Barrowland Ballroom reached maximum capacity on three consecutive occasions, leading to ICW being inducted into the Barrowland Hall of Fame alongside Noel Gallagher, Iggy Pop and David Bowie. In 2015, the company sold out the SECC, drawing a record 4000 fans. A year later, ICW broke their own attendance record when over 6000 fans packed the SSE Hydro, in a show that was the most-attended British wrestling event in 34 years.
Not content with conquering Glasgow, Dallas has taken his brand all over the UK and Ireland, with sellout shows the length and breadth of the country. What’s more, he did it all whilst maintaining the signature Glaswegian humour and identity that has punctuated ICW since the days of 40 fans and oceans of empty seats.
Last year, in perhaps their biggest coup to date, ICW signed an international television deal, ensuring that their product would be shown weekly in 39 countries around the world, from Italy to Iraq. Most notably, the television deal included America and Canada, two traditional hotbeds of professional wrestling.
“You find with most people that are entrepreneurs that the thing that drives them is something that they wanted. You don’t really get a lot of entrepreneurs going: ‘Oh somebody needs this thing that I don’t really need.'”
For a lesser man, the success could have proved overwhelming, but Dallas has shown an uncanny ability to adapt and learn on the job. As ICW has grown, so too has his understanding of business and marketing. He gives the impression of a man who would rather rage against the machine than be a part of it, but with each milestone ICW is becoming part of the wrestling establishment, a fact that he seems to be making reluctant peace with.
At his core though, Dallas is still the wee boy from Maryhill Road that loved wrestling. It was that love, coupled with his desire to carve his own path, that he believes has been a key component in his success.
“You find with most people that are entrepreneurs that the thing that drives them is something that they wanted,” he says. “You don’t really get a lot of entrepreneurs going: ‘Oh somebody needs this thing that I don’t really need’. A lot of the time it tends to be that somebody wants something. Hugh Heffner wanted to have a wank – Hugh Heffner is a billionaire.
“I know that’s a really crude way of putting it but there you go. At the base level it is a basic fucking ‘I want this thing’. I wanted this wrestling show that no longer existed anymore, that really captured my imagination. So I went and created it.”
Towards the end of our interview, Dallas finally sits down – the first time he has settled in the hour we have spent together. A calm washes over him, as if the previous, prolonged tsunami of working class wit and wisdom has finally passed. Dr. Jekyll is back, and after a moment of silent contemplation, he speaks in a much more measured tone.
“My goal in life was to have something that creatively fulfilled me, so that I didn’t feel that my life was just about working. It’s not that working or doing a job you don’t like is a bad thing, but you need to find the balance and [ICW] was my way of trying to do that. Luckily I struck gold and when I found the balance it was the thing that ended up changing my life and becoming my full-time job.”
And suddenly, Mark Dallas is on his feet again, the fleeting moment of peace proving to be an oasis in the desert of organised chaos that is ICW.
As he prowls the office floor like a lion in an enclosure, it’s hard not to be inspired by his energy, to want to follow him into battle. But then, that is his gift: the ability to make others share his passion. That, of course, and a particularly Glaswegian aptitude for swearing.
[Editor’s Note: William Shand wrestled with ICW for six years and currently works as a broadcaster for the organisation.]