In the last twenty years, the British wrestling scene has moved away from being a hive of tribute/rip-off shows, and has become a hotbed of stellar shows and also home to some of the best up and coming talent in the world. Needless to say, it wasn’t always like this.
For years, the “holy grail” for British wrestling was to go back to the past, and get back on British television. The mindset behind this was sound – with the right television exposure, it could have sparked a flywheel effect, with increasing television viewership hopefully increasing attendance at the gate, and then potentially going viral.
Until the early 80s, British wrestling had a home on television, as a staple of the old “World of Sport” block of programming on Saturday afternoons. Back then, British television only had four channels, and simply having a show on television guaranteed you some sort of a viewership.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, and in the era of cable and satellite television, there were more channels sharing the same audience. WWE was experiencing a boost in popularity, with network/terrestrial station Channel 4 carrying pay-per-views and Sunday Night Heat for a brief period of time – so logic would dictate that WWE would gain a little increase of popularity that would rub off on the British wrestling scene.
One such promotion that benefited was the FWA – the Frontier Wrestling Alliance. Largely based out of the south of England, the group took a stride towards the mainstream with a card in February 2002 called “Revival”. Although the show was held under the name of the “Supreme Wrestling Alliance”, it was largely considered to be an FWA event. British radio station talkSPORT, who had a weekly wrestling slot on their station, in the form of the Saturday evening show “Talk Wrestling”, also got involved with the Revival show, with Talk Wrestling host Tommy Boyd also able to secure a television broadcast of the show on the now-defunct cable and satellite station Bravo.
The Revival show was a one-night-only tournament to crown a new “King of England”, and featured a largely home-grown roster, with just two fly-ins: Brian Christopher, and – more notably – Eddie Guerrero, the pair of whom were trying to work their way back into WWE’s good books. Whilst the show came across well live, on TV, something just didn’t click, and a follow-up event didn’t materialise – partially due to changes at talkSPORT that saw Boyd leave the station.
Following Boyd’s departure, Talk Wrestling’s days were numbered, and by the end of 2002, the show was unceremoniously removed from talkSPORT’s schedules, and replaced by (of all things) a show full of easy-listening music, called “Champagne and Roses”. Not exactly talk or sport!
Without any mainstream promotion, the British scene was forced to take a different route when it came to publicising their shows – starting by partnering with American promotions. May 2003’s “Frontiers of Honor” show was the results of a cross-promotion between the FWA and the then-fledgling Ring of Honor, with several matches involving the two groups. Outside of that show, the FWA didn’t do much else with ROH, leaving British wrestling effectively in a bubble.
Jump forward two years, and the concept of “supershows” emerged – one-off events that sought to bring together the best unsigned talent from North America, with a mix of British talent. This wasn’t a new idea, with the UK having been host to prior attempts at supershows, including the spectacularly ill-fated WrestleXpress show from 2001 that aimed for the stars, and ended up being an embarrassing scar on the British scene.
Publicly fronted by FWA mainstay Alex Shane, the aim of these new shows seemed to be to get the eyes of the world on British wrestling, and the hope of getting that elusive TV deal. Ah yes, TV deals. Without wishing to be too harsh on Alex Shane, that was his holy grail throughout his time in wrestling – a never ending desire to get back to the glory days where the British scene was regularly on television, as they were during the World of Sport years. Sure, the odd promotion had fleeting appearances on cable and satellite channels, but it was a far cry from the weekly spot on a national network television station.
These first of these supershows was in March 2005, in front of a packed crowd of over 3,000 at the Coventry Skydome. With eleven flown-in names for the show, “International Showdown” did restrict themselves to the bigger names from the international scene, with TNA’s Christopher Daniels and AJ Styles providing an X-Division main event, whilst the likes of Samoa Joe, CM Punk, Raven and the late Mitsuharu Misawa provided a diverse range of names and styles on the undercard.
Eight months later, they went back to the well with a lower crowd of 1700 returning to Coventry for a show entitled “Universal Uproar”. The fly-in count rose to fifteen for this show, which was headlined by a tag-team affair between Doug Williams and Jun Akiyama, against Go Shiozaki and Kenta Kobashi. But whereas International Showdown at least had a title match in the main event, the Universal Uproar follow-up contained nothing but exhibition matches. Nothing against any of the matches, but none of the results mattered in the grand scheme of things. Save for any references down the line, it really didn’t matter whether Colt Cabana or Nigel McGuinness won their World of Sport rules match.
With other groups looking to cash in on the supershow concept, and some even making a promotion out of it (*cough*1PW*cough*), it wasn’t until 2011 until the British scene started to re-emerge on the worldwide radar, and it was all started with a YouTube show.
For almost four years, WrestleTalk TV started out as a YouTube show recapping recent events in wrestling. It was eventually picked by Challenge – the British cable and satellite channel that had replaced Bravo as the home of TNA in the UK – and was slotted as follow-up programming to TNA Impact. The partnership with Challenge ended up acting as a foot in the door, with WrestleTalk sharing it’s timeslot with a recap show called “BWC: Wrestling Round-Up”, showcasing matches from the British scene (even if they weren’t timely). Although this show didn’t lead to a British wrestling show on Challenge, it did open enough doors for groups to get exposure on cable and satellite television, with groups like the Norwich-based WAW and Scotland’s ICW getting short-term deals. In 2014, the birth of “local” TV channels created a fresh opening, with different parts of the UK getting their own TV stations, all of which were free to set their own schedules. Whilst these channels reached only a few hundred thousand viewers each, every it was still considered as network television, that could be accessed without the need for cable or satellite television.
Next Generation Wrestling, based out of Hull, found itself with a spot on some of these local networks, but wisely choosing not to expand their footprint too far or run shows too often, as has so often been the killer for promotions who run before they walk. However, that promotion’s television shows has led to it getting the lion’s share of coverage on misleadingly titled series that would make casual fans think that NGW is the only group in the British wrestling scene.
As we’ve seen, television coverage really wasn’t the Holy Grail after all. Sure, it can help, but it s not the be-all and end-all. Groups like Revolution Pro Wrestling, PROGRESS and Preston City Wrestling have been able to get worldwide publicity – and even working relationships with WWE – without having a regular or indeed, decent television slot. Those groups stuck to the format of just having shows, with DVD releases (and later, video-on-demand services), and relied on good talent and word of mouth to expand.
How else would you explain the rise of British talent on the world scene? The rise of Will Ospreay from self-confessed backyarder to the heights of New Japan? The rise of Zack Sabre Jr, Marty Scurll… if you want to go further afield, then how about Mark Andrews, Spud, Noam Dar, Rampage Brown, Kay Lee Ray or Nikki Storm? All of those have either been involved WWE, TNA, or on their radars in recent years.
Perhaps the success of those wrestlers – and indeed, promotions – will make the rest of the British scene wise up. Television doesn’t necessarily lead to success – and you can be successful without TV. Having a good product that draws fans to shows on a regular basis is a model that has stood the test of time – and incurring additional production costs for the sake of being able to say “we’re on TV!” isn’t always worth it. Just ask ECW!