Oli aiming to put wrestling firmly in focus

By Adam Cailler

THE history of successful Jewish wrestlers is very short . . . in fact, it can probably be summed up by the names Goldberg and Paul Heyman.

But one man making a career for himself in the sport is Oli Sandler . . . behind the camera.

Oli is the only full-time, contracted wrestling photographer in the world, working for What Culture Pro Wrestling.

"I know I'm good," the 26-year-old third generation Holocaust survivor said. "I've spent a long time 'paying my dues'.

"If you're good at something, you should know you are and have that confidence in yourself, but never let it turn into arrogance.

"Always remember where you started from - I always remember being that wimpy kid in the way of everyone. I still do get in the way, and I still get told off for it."

Londoner Oli and I came across each other in Manchester in January at a backstage meet-and-greet for TNA wrestling, organised by Simon Rothstein.

Within 30 seconds we had that 'oh, you're Jewish' moment.

Oli had a similar experience with Paul Heyman, himself a second generation Holocaust survivor.

"There's something about being Jewish where you instantly click with someone - no matter who it is or how famous they are," Oli said.

"Most wrestling fans would be blubbering messes if they met someone like Paul, but I had to stay professional.

"Once I mentioned to him that I was Jewish, I saw this light-bulb go off in his head and it was as if we had known each other for years.

"He gave me the greatest piece of advice I have ever received - 'make yourself so good, they can't sack you'."

Oli's journey to this point was never clear-cut.

A former pupil of London's Jewish Free School, he admits that he "never enjoyed it".

He said: "It was very cliquey, and I'm not a clique person.

"I went on Israel tour, which I enjoyed, but it did confirm to me that I am not a religious person, but a spiritual one.

"I do like the traditions of being Jewish but I find it hard to fit it in with everything else I have going on.

"I do Chanucah, I go to shul on High Holydays and Yom Kippur is very important to me. It's a day to reflect on what Judaism means to me, which changes every year.

"I never really give much thought to being Jewish, but I am proud of it and mention it whenever and wherever I can."

Being Jewish, for Oli, is more about having an "identity". While at JFS, he studied politics, theatre, IT and sociology . . . not photography.

He continued: "I realised very quickly that politics and theatre were not for me and ended up failing both of those.

"My AS-level results were a U grade in both subjects, so I had to pick another AS-Level subject, which was photography.

"It was black and white photography, nothing special, but I fell in love with the whole concept instantly.

"I was also having a lot of fun, but at no point did I think it was going to be a career for me.

"As with everything at school, you aren't told about the practicalities of life, only what you're doing right then and there - so I was never told about being a sports photographer.

"We talked about war photographers and documentary photographers, and were told to research, but never why we were researching it."

Oli left London at 18, and moved to Preston where he read multimedia production and web design at the city's university.

"It was essentially a non-degree", he joked. "It was just something to get me out of the house.

"I never actually thought I would get to university, I'm not academic or good at learning - I'm very good at doing. I'm very much cut from the same cloth as my father, Stephen."

Oli's paternal grandparents originate from Russia, but they didn't talk much about their past.

"They were very traditional Jewish grandparents - we worry about the now," Oli said.

"My grandfather was part of the Desert Rats and survived being blown up in Libya. He was then a cab driver for 30 years.

"On my mother's side, my grandma Renia Lister, wife of Oskar, was at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Only three sisters out of seven survived.

"Her younger sister then died of tuberculosis, while the other sister made it to the UK.

"Because of the effect the Holocaust had on my grandparents, it was very difficult to get to know them, but they instilled a strong work ethic into my parents, which was then passed down to me."

Oli is also a keen drummer, something which follows his "if it's easy, and you're good at it, do it" mindset.

He said: "I thought photography would be easy, which it wasn't, but I loved it anyway.

"When I was at uni, I became a resident photographer at night clubs. I became known as THE photographer for nightclubs in Preston. I wasn't getting paid, it became my social life.

"I left university without a degree, but my parents were fine with it. My parents have always been really supportive of me - they are really understanding that I have to be my own person and have always been proud of me.

"I could be in prison for dealing heroin and they would still be proud of me!"

I spoke with Oli in a back room at the Ruby Lounge, Manchester, as he was taking photos during another meet-and-greet session.

Oli first began taking wrestling photographs at a training school called LDN Wrestling, conveniently located next to his shul, Southgate Progressive Synagogue, in Oakwood, London.

He said: "I actually started as a trainee wrestler, doing basic things such as running the ropes and headlocks.

"The owner didn't pay me, but I only took photos for them so I could play around with my camera.

"I wasn't being paid, so there were no rules and I could experiment however I wanted to, which was a rare thing to be able to do."

Then 23, Oli began photographing for International Pro Wrestling (IPW:UK), which has become one of the best-known British wrestling companies in the world.

He recalled: "I joined the company when they were small and to see how big that company is now, I definitely feel like I contributed to that.

"It wasn't until 2015 that my career really took off. I was booked on the 5* wrestling tour, which took in some of the biggest arenas in the country."

Oli was on a tour which included top wrestlers, such as Rey Mysterio, AJ Styles and John Morrison.

But the photos have never seen the light of day.

Oli explained: "The guy running it had no idea what he was doing and ruined everything.

"He ended up not paying anyone so the photos will never be released - he paid me for my time on the day, but nothing else.

"Nobody remembers the tour anyway, but it gave me an in with the wrestlers, and gave me some great contacts.

"It was also where I first met the guys from WCPW."

WCPW offered Oli a contract in June, and he is happy to be employed full-time because "individual shows do not pay enough".

He added: "British wrestling is, traditionally, low budget in terms of production. It is getting better, but this was never a concept I had imagined.

"Until now, this was never a thing - a full-time wrestling photographer didn't exist.

"World Wrestling Entertainment may have some, but they take the photos, give the memory cards to a runner, who takes it to an editor who will upload it instantly - so they aren't photographers in the sense that they have control over editing etc."

His contract is a "Jewish contract," he joked, adding: "It's very much a handshake contract with a signature.

"I could do three shows in a weekend, plus hours editing per show . . . that could be my contracted hours, but it won't stop me doing more.

"I spent a long time thinking about the offer and what it means for my future - what it actually means is nothing. It's not a fixed term, it could end at any time.

"I want to be there for as long as possible - when it stops being fun, the photos will become s**t and then I won't be there."

Oli's passion for his craft is very evident. He said: "I love what I do, and I love producing photos for the wrestlers, who work so hard and kill themselves for the fans.

"I showed one of the wrestlers, Moose, a photo of himself performing a dropkick off the top rope. He has never seen himself performing the move, so when he saw it, he said 'oh my god, that's amazing', and he became a fan of my work.

"We are all talented in our own ways and have a mutual respect for each other. I'll be in this business as long as I can take good photos and enjoy what I do." or follow him at

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph