When I was a young boy, my grandparents told me about the glory days of British Wrestling. They watched the World of Sport every Saturday, with megastars like Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, Kendo Nagasaki, Mick McManus, and more. The show drew millions of viewers, including the Queen, who regularly tuned in to see the biggest stars do battle. You’d see people of all ages in attendance, but the rowdiest of those were old ladies. They loved to cheer on their favorites and hurl abuse at the bad guys.
The 70s and 80s saw an enormous boom in British Wrestling, long before other promotions grew internationally. The stars of the era remain some of the biggest names the UK has ever produced. When we look at anyone who broke through in America after that, can we claim anyone became a megastar? Not exactly. I fully respect the British Bulldogs, William Regal, and others for their contributions, but you wouldn’t put them on a Mount Rushmore of the greatest wrestlers of all time. The UK hasn’t been a serious draw since Big Daddy, who despite limitations brought on by his gigantic frame, was the most popular babyface the British Isles have ever seen. No one else can say they have sold out arenas or drawn millions of viewers on their star power.
Why is that? Well, you could say it’s because professional wrestling became Americanized. British Wrestling became outdated because everyone moved on to watching the WWF. Everything it did was miles ahead of what anyone was doing in the UK. They modernized wrestling, and it became far more interesting, while the British scene was stuck in the past. No one was interested in going to shows unless guys dressed up as cheap imitations of The Undertaker or Hulk Hogan. American Wrestling dominated and British Wrestling withered away. It became the standard and British Wrestling lost its identity. Nowadays, UK promotions produce Americanized shows, because it’s familiar and British traditions are outdated. But it’s not completely dead. There remains some life in the old dog.
Want to know more about British Wrestling history? You can read up on it here: Professional wrestling in the United Kingdom
When WWE expanded its focus to the British Wrestling scene in 2018, we appreciated the effort. Soon enough, they crowned the first WWE UK Champion in a tournament. WWE did well to blend its smooth production values with the spirit of British Wrestling, and what transpired was so impressive that even Michael Cole became animated by it. And while WWE did little to make NXT UK feel more “British”, the audience filled in by doing what we typically do: chanting, singing, and so on. Just by listening to the fans, you could tell it was a British show.
We had stars again, like Tyler Bate, Pete Dunne, Trent Seven, and others. And we didn’t mind European talents like Walter (now Gunther) coming in, because we respected his skill and presence. Traditional British Wrestling had always used Europeans (usually as heels) to square up to our fan favourites. However, while Walter was champion, the pandemic hit. NXT UK ceased operation, and Pete Dunne moved to the NXT brand. When NXT UK finally returned, the crowd’s absence highlighted how bland the show was, more so than any other WWE product. Without fans bringing the British spirit, it was just a bunch of random wrestlers working Americanly.
Walter and Ilja Dragunov were a saving grace, though, because they brought the British Wrestling spirit by working harder than anyone else in WWE. Despite putting on a match of the year candidate, they never mention NXT UK. I can’t remember the last time they said anything about it on Raw or SmackDown. WWE is only interested in plugging NXT 2.0.
There’s also a problem with the roster, which has changed little in a few years. Few American fans watch NXT UK, so they don’t know who anyone is. Hell, when Gunther (Walter) debuted, most didn’t know that he was the longest reigning champion of modern WWE. They also don’t know Meiko Satomura, the longest reigning women’s champion in the company. NXT UK has struggled to make new stars to replace those who have moved on, and now Ilja Dragunov is injured, no one’s ready to step up and carry the brand.
Another massive issue is the fact that NXT UK is not even close to being a draw. If you were to come here and ask fans what they watch, they may tell you they tune in for AEW, or Raw and SmackDown. Very few will admit to regularly watching NXT UK. There may have been a decent interest in the beginning, but it quickly dissipated because WWE doesn’t care. British fans are smart enough to know that NXT UK is the last thing on its agenda. If WWE were to ax a brand tomorrow, it would be this. And would anyone here care? Hell no! NXT UK has no real star power and is just another show for WWE to produce.
NXT UK is a flawed product that claims to cater to British Wrestling. All the while, it does so by producing it Americanly with wrestlers working the WWE style. It poached British wrestlers and damaged the independent scene, which was thriving just before its inception. The show has quality wrestling matches, but that’s not enough. If you want any brand to succeed, it needs characters that create hype and make us care. The talents aren’t to blame because they do what they can, but all they get fed are the scraps that WWE couldn’t be bothered to eat that week.
We can’t blame the fall of the British Wrestling independent scene entirely on NXT UK. I remember when promotions like 1PW, FWA, PROGRESS, Rev Pro, and ICW were making waves. British Wrestling wasn’t mainstream, but we had a healthy independent scene, to the point that we saw many American stars crossing over. Now, I’m not saying that we don’t have promotions working their socks off. There remain a few who are dedicated to the cause, and their work is appreciated. However, indie promotions were considerably hurt by the #SpeakingOut movement. Here’s a statement from Wikipedia:
“On September 24, 2020, the British Government launched a formal All-Party Parliamentary Group inquiry into the UK wrestling scene after the numerous allegations that came out of the Speaking Out movement. The inquiry will be headed by Alex Davies-Jones. Progress and Trust Wrestling announced they will be working with the APPG.”
It’s bad enough competing in the market with juggernauts like NXT UK, but allegations of sexual misconduct do not help business. It’s hard enough convincing an average person to go to a wrestling show when it’s WWE or AEW, never mind a show with wrestlers you’ve never heard of. British people aren’t as willing to part with their money on something they’re unsure of, especially during uncertain times with the cost of living going up. They want to know the show will be quality, otherwise, they’ll stay at home or go somewhere else.
And then there are start-up promotions promising quality shows who miss the mark. 1PW is scheduled for a return but has had to change its lineup several times. Wrestling Entertainment Series UK severely overestimated how many tickets they would sell, so it had to cancel, and they then blamed this on the wrestlers for “not showing up”. An understandably negative reaction followed it, as several wrestlers pointed out their lack of professionalism and not taking responsibility for its poor organization. What this shows is that getting started isn’t the hardest part… surviving is.
World Of Sport Revived
A few years ago, ITV revived World Of Sport with talents like Davey Boy Smith Jr, Will Ospreay, Bea Priestley, Kay Lee Ray, Piper Niven (Doudrop), Kip Sabian, Rampage, Grado, Zack Gibson, The Coffey’s, and more. The production values were good, and it had a British feel. Like the original, it was something to look forward to on Saturdays, and it was on early enough for children. It was a family-friendly show and kids could be seen enjoying it in the audience.
Sadly, the show was canceled after one season. A second season was scheduled, but Dave Meltzer claims ITV instead chose the rights for AEW. The WOS producers denied this was the reason. Much like what happened to the original World Of Sport, American Wrestling shoved it off the air. Since then, AEW has done very well and is the most viewed wrestling show in the UK. So even if you get over the hump and gain a TV deal, producing a British Wrestling show for British wrestling fans feels futile.
There is a market, but not getting shoehorned out is a nearly impossible task. It’s like making a new version of Coca-Cola when there’s the original, Pepsi, and all the other brands to pick from. If anyone even knows of your product’s existence, why would they choose your cheaper alternative over the others?
Why hasn’t WWE brought a major show to the United Kingdom since SummerSlam ‘92? Logistics, apparently. I also remember reading that management didn’t see money in it. This is unfortunate because many fans would love to attend a big show, but it would be costly to travel overseas. I’d be super excited to see WWE produce one of its marquee events here because I know the fans would be ecstatic. We’ve been so starved that it would be an occasion to remember. But WWE is content with staying in the United States (it is shying away from Canada too), or receiving fat sums from a prince to have shows in Saudi Arabia.
Also, there’s a huge AEW following who would be at the edge of their seats for one of their shows. If you think wrestling isn’t as popular as it was in the US, you’d be shocked if you came over here. You rarely see anyone wearing merchandise or talking about it. I used to see plenty of kids walking around with WWE & John Cena bags, but that’s petered out. Wrestling has become a forgotten concept for much of the British public. There’s a new generation of kids who don’t have a clue what it’s about. It’s a shame that British Wrestling has devolved to where it’s nearly dead. If WWE isn’t making enough money from an event, it’s only because of its consistent failure to bring its product across the pond in no other way than an annual tour.
I’d love nothing more than for wrestling to have a serious boom again, but it won’t unless it takes care of its international affairs. There are fans outside the United States, you know! Why aren’t there major shows in France? Or Germany? Or even Japan? Why is it that WWE only holds premium events in America and Saudi Arabia? And when is AEW getting its brand over here? AEW crowds are already pretty loud, so imagine what a rowdy bunch of British fans would do. It’d be a riot! I think it will be a great time for all.
I hope many can agree that British fans should be neglected no more. WWE is bringing us Clash At The Castle in September, so I guess that’s a start. Fingers crossed it shows what wrestling has been missing out on. A hint of British spirit! For we know how to enjoy ourselves, but we also don’t want our intelligence insulted. Give us a reason to care and we’ll show up. If you don’t want to prove you have the goods, then stay away because we’ll bluntly tell you if it can be better. However, as seen in the past, if wrestling was to become a major part of our culture again, then there’s a ton of money to be made.
With that said, do you think the UK deserves a big show? And is it possible to revive the popularity of British Wrestling in the current climate? Please share your thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading!