❉ With British professional wrestling’s return to national network television, is the UK wrestling scene ready to go mainstream?
On 28 September 2014, I went the Electric Ballroom in Camden with a friend. He had bought me a ticket to a show, out of the blue. We met outside, then headed to the downstairs bar, reminiscing about our previous visit to the venue (to see the reformed Atari Teenage Riot, a year or so prior). But on this occasion, we were not at the Ballroom for a gig. We were there for the wrestling.
Progress Wrestling was the promotion in question, and at that time, I had little knowledge, and even less expectation, of the sort of show we were about to witness. You see, I was a lapsed wrestling fan at the time. My WWE viewing had ceased about a decade previously. I was just there for a pint or two and a catch-up with a mate.
Taking up position on the balcony, we joked how it would be really cool if some of the wrestlers somehow contrived a match to end up upstairs next to us, and then they could plummet over the edge, into the crowd below.
Eventually, the show began. The lights went down. Drake’s Started From the Bottom blasted from the sound system and cheers and chants erupted from seven hundred plus crowd. Then, feverish applause as the spotlights hit and Jim Smallman (stand-up comic, Progress co-owner and master of ceremonies) stepped into the ring. The epitome of East Midlands affability, Smallman set the tone, made all feel welcome and introduced each competitor with the required blend of reverence and hyperbole.
Later, I would hear that Progress describe their shows as ‘punk rock wrestling’. The promotion certainly have the same passion and DIY ethic, and their shows have an underground vibe you would expect to find at a live gig. That being the case, my first experience of a twenty first century, UK indy-wrestling show was not dissimilar to the Sex Pistols’ mythic 1976 debut, at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester – ie. ‘Nothing would ever be the same again’.
The talent on show that night in 2014 was the proverbial Who’s Who of British wrestling. Martin Kirby, Zack Sabre Jr, Marty Scurll, Rampage Brown, Noam Dar, Mark Andrews, Dave Mastiff, Jimmy Havoc, Will Ospreay – the latter two not only brought the fight up to the balcony as we had (jokingly) envisaged, but also took it over the edge. Ospreay booted Havoc off the fifteen foot drop, onto a scrum of other wrestlers, brawling amongst the crowd below. Then, Ospreay went one better. In defiance of gravity and good sense, he back-flipped off the balcony, dropping onto Havoc and the others, to the accompaniment of a deafening roar of approval from an audience, scarcely able to believe what they were seeing.
So, it turned out that British professional wrestling was, and is, in fine form. The finest it has been for some time.
In Scotland, Glasgow based promotion, ICW (Insane Championship Wrestling) have been running shows since 2006. Notable ICW alumni include Drew Galloway, Joe Coffey, Mikey Whiplash, and Scottish wrestling’s poster-boy; Grado. Over the past decade, ICW have been scaling up their ambition and their audiences; from their early days, in front of community centre crowds of a few hundred, to 2016 where they hosted the biggest UK wrestling show for over thirty years, at Glasgow’s premier national venue; the SSE Hydro, to turnout of over six thousand fans.
Alongside Revolution Pro-Wrestling, IPW, EVE, Smash Wrestling – there are over a hundred independent wrestling promotions currently active, across the UK. With so many outlets to available to hone and perfect their in-ring ability, it comes as no surprise that Britain currently has a surfeit of wrestling talent. So much so, that larger, international promotions, like New Japan Pro-Wrestling, America’s Ring of Honor and the global corporate behemoth of WWE, have been taking notice and opening their cheque books.
However, on 31 December 2016, something interesting happened. British wrestling returned to national, network television. ITV broadcast, World of Sport Wrestling; a two hour special, reviving a brand lain dormant for over thirty years. It promised to be a showcase of contemporary craftsmen of the squared circle. In doing so, ITV linked the current UK underground wrestling rebirth to its fondly regarded, and hugely popular, mainstream ‘golden age’.
The original World of Sport had run from 1965 to 1985 as a weekly sports round up, with its wrestling segment as the pièce de résistance. Here, ring legends such as Johnny Saint and Dynamite Kid would invent the moves that would become gospel, and the (literally) larger-than-life figures of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks would become household names.
The new WOS special had a tough brief. It had to reframe the hard-hitting and bawdy atmosphere of a UK indy wrestling show for a family-centred, light-entertainment time slot. Firstly, WOS wisely made the connection with the brand’s heritage explicit, with interviews and clips of wrestlers from the golden age, such as Rollerball Rocco and Klondyke Kate.
Then, they presented the audience with an underdog to cheer, in the form of Grado, whose charisma and connection with the audience dwarfs his in-ring ability – a description that echoes that of the legendary Big Daddy – and a villain to boo, with Dave Mastiff playing a slightly faster-paced, but just as loathsome version of Giant Haystacks.
With this clear structure in place, WOS then hurled wrestling talent at us, with a multi-man ladder match, World of Sport‘s inaugural all-female match, Viper Vs Alexis Rose (Klondyke Kate, the commentators reminded us, used to fight against the blokes, back in the day) and, for my money, the match of the night, between Liverpool’s number one, Zack Gibson and the Mexican sensation, El Ligero (from Leeds).
As a whole package, it worked. The wrestlers looked great and the studio audience were loud, enthusiastic and involved throughout. It was a strong reinvention that deserves a full-blown series. Is the UK independent wrestling underground ready to go mainstream?
Well, World of Sport Wrestling‘s revival has been enough to spook the WWE. They hurriedly announced their own British tournament to crown the first WWE UK Champion on 14th January, at the Empress ballroom, Blackpool. Sixteen wrestlers from the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are set to compete, including Pete Dunne (current Progress World Champion) and Wolfgang (current ICW Heavyweight Champion).
If British wrestling was ever going to crossover from its passionate and dedicated underground following to mainstream popularity, that time would be now. Whatever happens next, if you are someone who enjoys live music or stand-up comedy or the theatre or cabaret or any other kind of live performance whatsoever; check out your local indy-wrestling promotion. I defy anyone not to be entertained.
❉ WOS Wrestling Special is streaming at ITV Hub until 28th Jan
❉ WWE UK Championship Tournament on WWE Network 14th/15th January