There is a war coming. This one won’t generate nearly the hype that the “Night Wars” did, and you might not really be noticing it on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean, but there is a war going on for the wrestling soul of the United Kingdom.
British wrestling used to be Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. It used to be World of Sport and a handful of wrestlers who “made it” stateside like Dynamite Kid and the British Bulldog. However the demise of World of Sport in 1985 was soon followed by wrestling leaving free-to-air TV in the UK, and the wrestling scene began to disappear.
Since the death of WCW and ECW, independent wrestling promotions began springing up all around the USA to feed the desire for non-WWE wrestling. In 2002 Ring of Honor started, as did TNA, now IMPACT Wrestling. 2003 saw Pro Wrestling Guerrilla founded in Los Angeles and in 2004 All American Wrestling hit Chicago.
For the UK it was later, but the wrestling explosion came. In 2006 Insane Championship Wrestling was founded in Scotland, while 2012 saw the inaugural shows of PROGRESS and Revolution Pro Wrestling, these three promotions in particular have seen a generation of British wrestlers go from working in front of 50 people to working in front of a global audience of hundreds of thousands.
This trio of promotions have seen guys like WWE’s Drew McIntyre, Sheamus and Finn Balor to current WWE UK Champion Tyler Bate come through their doors, but they have also blended terrific storytelling with incredible in-ring action to make stars out of people that would make Vince McMahon speechless. Where the WWE have a prototype of big muscular men who can talk, the UK scene has taken to great workers of all shapes and sizes to attract fans, appearances from foreign stars, and created a buzz that has a five-year-old promotion selling out a show 5,000 miles away in Orlando during WrestleMania weekend.
And while it was just a couple of popular local promotions the apex predator of the wrestling world was happy enough to let it continue, but everything changed when World of Sport made a return at the end of last year, and with a 10-show series being commissioned in conjunction with IMPACT it is sparking a huge fight over the British wrestling scene.
The UK represents WWE’s largest foreign market, and while they are trying to crack the nuts of India and China, the UK is a constant cash cow for WWE. They run Raw and SmackDown here twice a year, they sell out house show tours for both the main roster and NXT up and down the country.
Both Raw and SmackDown air in the UK on Sky Sports, which is a pay-channel – and that’s where the problems start. Raw gets around 100,000 viewers a week, the one-off World of Sport show got around 1.2 million thanks to being on the free channel ITV. And that’s where WWE get scared.
They can have all the John Cena’s and AJ Styles’ they like, but while they are on Sky Sports at 1am in the morning they are always going to be limited in their viewership, and the thought of someone else taking up TV time and building an audience of millions has them extremely worried about losing their foothold in the UK.
When World of Sport was originally announced for the one-off show WWE responded by announcing their own UK Championship tournament and signing up UK talent to deals that would keep them off of TV with other companies. The leading trio of Pete Dunne, Trent Seven, and Tyler Bate (known collectively as British Strong Style) along with Welshman Mark Andrews headlined the show, but many mainstays of the British scene were also involved, taking them away from World of Sport.
World of Sport’s one-off show featured some names well known to British fans: Grado, Dave Mastiff, and El Ligero, but without the availability of the megastars like Zack Sabre Jr, Marty Scurll, and Will Ospreay who are off pursuing their dreams in Ring of Honor, PWG, and New Japan, the show felt a little light.
Over the WrestleMania weekend, with PROGRESS and RevPro running shows in Orlando, WWE responded to the announcement of the new 10-show series by signing Jimmy Havoc, Mark Haskins and others who have helped to build the British independent scene over the last several years, and as the WWE sign and mothball these wrestlers you have to question if their motives are truly the best for wrestling in the UK.
For the first time since the inaugural tournament back in January, WWE ran their UK stars out last weekend in Norwich. The timing coincided with their European tour, which saw some of the cruiserweight division as well as Triple H join them. They crowned a number one contender for a UK title match that will be part of NXT TakeOver: Chicago, and it is possible they will use that to lead into a weekly show on the WWE Network to try and grow their audience and compete with World of Sport. It would be a wise use of a lot of talented wrestlers, but until that point there are a lot of extremely impressive workers that the wider UK public can not experience.
If a WWE UK show takes off, and World of Sport continues, then the vibrant Indy scene in the UK could struggle. Progress’ punk-rock style feeds off the energy of the crowd and quality booking, but it also requires strong in-ring performers, and if there are two successful and well-funded then the talent will quickly disappear. RevPro’s model of making local stars and booking them against globally recognised talent only works if talented youngsters like Josh Bodom are with them and not signed up to WWE immediately.
While I will be very happy if World of Sport takes off and brings wrestling back to prominence here in the UK, I don’t want it to come at the expense of what the Indy’s have built and the atmospheres at shows up and down the country. Unfortunately, there are always casualties in war, and when the WWE set their sights on removing competition they tend to salt the earth after they win.