Sep 09

The Evolution of British Wrestling by Dave Bodymore

1988, the year British Wrestling lost its place on mainstream television. British Wrestling was once a staple of the public’s television viewing, but why did it get taken from its TV slot and how has it evolved since then?

If you were to ask a person in the street most wouldn’t be able to name you any of today’s current crop of top British stars. If you were to do the same thing back in the days of the World of Sport programme then most would be able to name you some of the top stars of the British scene. The World of Sport programme allowed the wrestlers of the 60s, 70s and early 80s to become household names. Men like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks became some of the most recognisable faces in the country thanks to their mainstream exposure on ITV.

Whilst many in British Wrestling have grown and developed with the times, the World of Sport style is still idealised by some. Those people believe that for British Wrestling to become as big as it once was we have to return to our roots and embrace the style once more.

The History

World of Sport was a sports programme that covered the days football scores as well as two sports specials, horse racing and the wrestling as well. The matches were conducted under the Mountevans rules. They were best of 3 falls and were held over a series of rounds e.g. 5x 3 minute rounds. The referee would hand a public warning if a wrestler was caught cheating. You were allowed two public warnings in a match, if you received a third then you were disqualified.

Matches from the World of Sport era were mostly very technical affairs. This is where the British style of wrestling was developed. Men like Billy Robinson, Johnny Saint and Rollerball Rocco were grapplers. The difference between the modern day wrestler and those from the WoS era is that all the wrestlers of that era were trained grapplers. To get into the wrestling business back then you often had to shoot fight with veterans, who would stretch you and manipulate your joints, before they would allow you to learn how the business really works.

During the World of Sport days there were two notable promotions. First there was Joint Promotions. Initially spearheaded by Dale Martin in London, they controlled wrestling and the main titles in the UK. By 1975 Joint Promotions stranglehold on the British scene was crumbling. Several buy outs and members retiring meant the wrestling was being run by people with minimal knowledge of the business. At this time Joint Promotions head hunted the most experienced booker the UK had at the time, Max Crabtree. Max, brother of Big Daddy, oversaw the next big boom in British Wrestling by creating the legend that is Big Daddy. Max pushed his brother to the top of the pile, having him beat every major heel Joint promotions had to offer, but soon many of Joint Promotions most talented workers became dissatisfied with their position.

Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks

This dissatisfaction benefitted Merseyside promoter Brian Dixon. Dixon’s All Star Wrestling began to capitalise by using some of the disgruntled workers. At this time wrestling began to fall into disarray as newspapers began to try and expose the true nature of the business. Then on the 28th September 1985 another blow was dealt when World of Sport was taken off the air. Whilst wrestling continued with its own show till 1988 Joint Promotions monopoly of the TV was now lost, as they had to share with Dixon’s All Star Wrestling and the WWF.

Whilst the TV era is most notable for Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, it also created some of the world’s most notable British Wrestlers. Mark ‘Rollerball’ Rocco was a standout Light Heavyweight in the UK; he went on to perform in Japan as the original masked Black Tiger in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Along with Rocco there were also Light Heavyweight stars such as Marty Jones, famed for a match with Owen Hart, Dynamite Kid and Johnny Saint.

What Next?

After Greg Dyke axed British wrestling from terrestrial TV programming Joint Promotions renamed itself Ring Wrestling Stars. RWS continued to tour with Big Daddy in their headline slot until his retirement in 1993, after he suffered a stroke. Max Crabtree continued to tour after his brother’s retirement, replacing Daddy with former WWF star Davey Boy Smith as the headlining act. In 1994 Smith made his return to the WWF, leaving RWS without a headline name and sending them into decline. Max Crabtree ceased to promote with RWS in 1995, when they were unable to recapture their glory years.

In contrast to Crabtree and RWS, Dixon had used his two years on television very well. They had built up the returning Kendo Nagasaki as their top heel. They had established storylines that people wanted to see that included Rollerball Rocco and Scouser Robbie Brookside. When the TV coverage was taken away All Star Wrestling had several storylines left on a cliff-hanger. This saw them receive a box office boom as fans wanted to see what happened next. Whilst All Star had several good years after the TV ended, the boom wore off when Nagasaki retired for a second time in 1993.

Whilst the boom wore off, All Star kept themselves afloat by running live shows at established venues and working the holiday camp circuit, which they still have a monopoly over today.

Butlin’s holiday park wrestling

Tribute Acts

As British Wrestling began to decline and the once household stars became forgotten men, many promoters turned to WWF tribute shows. For several years UK wrestlers became knock off WWF wrestlers. And up and down the country fake Mankind, UK Undertaker, The UK Road Warriors and Big Red Machine (Kane tribute) were headlining shows. Around this time Scott Conway began promoting his TWA. He offered an alternative to the tribute shows and offered the UK fans a more serious wrestling product, much the same as All Star had done to Joint Promotions several years earlier.

The Resurgence

In the early 2000’s Alex Shane’s Frontier Wrestling Alliance began to promote using international talent. As well as this they had regional television programming in Portsmouth and a training school to create their own talent. Alex Shane is the man credited with the American Style glitz and glamour being brought to UK wrestling. In fact Shane has actually been vilified in some sectors for his development of British Wrestling and in some cases he is blamed for British Wrestling losing its identity. Shane became a regular presenter on Talksport Radio’s wrestling show which helped the FWA gain notoriety. This link with Talksport was integral during the promotion of the ‘Revival’ show at the Crystal Palace Indoor Arena.

FWA continued to grow with the help of young stars Johnny Storm and Jody Fleisch, as well as Alex Shane himself. At this time the influx of top foreign talent really began. The FWA would use any extra money earned to provide a bigger spectacle or pay their guys a little bit more money. They would also bring in top Independent US talent like Steve Corino, AJ Styles, Jerry Lynn and more. Shane’s theory was that the British fans would come out for the named talent but stay for the British stars. The FWA began to get itself a cult following and continued to grow.

Whilst the FWA’s name and fan base grew, new promotions began to crop up on the UK circuit. For new promoters to get into the wrestling business in the late 90’s and early 2000’s was incredibly difficult. This was due to the old school mentality still at the top of the business. However as the old school names moved on more people began to run shows. Sanjay Bagga introduced LDN who still run to this day. Whilst many dislike Bagga’s manner of doing business the fact he is running as many shows a year as he does says a lot for his acumen as a businessman. Another to begin running Shows was Greg Lambert, whose book The Holy Grail gives a great insight into his time in British Wrestling, as he began to promote at first with the FWA and then in Morecombe as the XWA.

Alex Shane, FWA promoter and one of the men responsible to British wrestling’s evolution.

Several of the UK’s promotions around that time grew as off shoots of the FWA. One of which was Futureshock wrestling in Manchester. Futureshock, now ran by Dave Rayne, has grown from an FWA training ground to one of the top promotions in British wrestling today.

The Current Day

With the FWA going out of business Alex Shane turned his hand to running Super shows. Shane’s Super shows followed the FWA plan of showcasing the top young British talent whilst allowing the British fans to see several top international stars on the same show. This model was taken and made bigger by 1PW, whose promoter Steven Gauntley brought over many TNA and former WWE stars to offer the largest Super show the UK had seen at this point. Gauntleys shows were famed for being very long and, as is backed up in 1PW: All or Nothing by James Dixon, were notorious for talent not getting paid.

Looking beyond the failure of 1PW, the current crop of British Wrestlers and British promotions are probably some of the best the country has had for a very long time.

Promoter Andy Quildan is one who is leading the way in the growing British scene. Quildan, who started as a referee, promoted for IPW:UK for a long time before a split saw him promote under the banner of Revolution Pro Wrestling UK. RevPro have overseen a successful return for wrestling to the York Hall, previously the stomping ground of the FWA. Quildan has allowed wrestlers like Zack Sabre Jr, Marty Scurll and Rockstar Spud to become international wrestlers in their own right.

Another promotion that is allowing British Wrestlers to become main event stars is Preston City Wrestling. Steven Fludder, promoter of PCW, started out with almost whole British cards and has grown talent like Kris Travis, Lionheart and Dave Rayne to a far higher level than any previous promotions had managed. Whilst Fludder has grown the name value of the British workers, he has also begun to increase the number of imported talent on his shows. Whilst to some this could look detrimental, the fact that he allows his hardest working talent to take on these international names helps to grow the value of the talents even more.

Photo from PCW’s Festive Fury event. Dave Rayne is enraged by the larking around!

It isn’t just England where British Wrestling is on the rise, Scotland is currently in somewhat of a boom period with both talent and numbers at the shows. Leading the way in Scotland is Insane Championship Wrestling. ICW have managed to attract an adult audience who come to the shows drink and enjoy an over 18 environment. The promotion harks back to the days of ECW, hardcore wrestlers like Jack Jester and Jimmy Havoc providing blood whilst wrestlers like Noam Dar and Mikey Whiplash provide expert wrestling talent.

The Conclusion

So since 1965 British wrestling has held a place on terrestrial television, lost its place on terrestrial television and became a tribute act to the USA and now began its rise back to where it belongs. But can British Wrestling ever be as successful as the days of World of Sport?

One thing you will notice I haven’t mentioned yet is the announcement that LDN will be bringing back the World of Sport wrestling format. Much has been published after the initial claims of a return to TV. ITV have said that whilst the event at the Croydon Fairfield’s hall will be recorded there are no plans for wrestling to return to their schedule at this time.

Whilst in its day World of Sport wrestling was one of the biggest programmes on TV, wrestling as a whole has developed so much that World of Sport matches would look prehistoric by comparison to today’s fast paced, action packed contests. Another issue that will be had is that matches from the WOS TV programme would often see wrestlers kept in headlocks or working a hold for a whole round. Why would the modern wrestling fan watch someone they don’t know hold a headlock for 3 minutes, when they can turn over and see John Cena or CM Punk on Raw or Smackdown? They won’t.

So has the evolution of British Wrestling benefitted the scene or has American Wrestling had a detrimental effect on the British Style? The fact that WWE has been readily available to see in the UK for several years has meant that British Wrestlers have had to evolve to stay relevant. As British wrestlers have made WWE their goal, they have had to become physically fitter and become more muscular. The fact that British Wrestlers now fit the stereotypical look of a wrestler means that British Wrestling has a more professional look.

Another benefit for UK talent is that top international names are happy to come to the UK. The British guys that are able to work with the imported talent can learn and develop their skills by working with some of the most talented wrestlers in wrestling today.

So can British Wrestling make a successful return to TV? Well only time will tell, however the current crop of British Wrestling talent offer the best opportunity that British Wrestling has seen in a long time of a return to television. Alex Shane has overseen a monthly British wrestling show on Challenge TV. This show, whilst only 30 minutes long, offers a chance for British wrestlers to be seen by a wider audience. With the right matches and the correct advertising for the promotions on the show, this could be one of the best chances in recent memory for the return that many have longed for.

One thing I feel is certain is that a return to the old school British style of wrestling is the wrong way to go. Whilst it is believed by some that this is the correct thing to do, the modern audience is not interested in the slow technical bouts of the past. If British wrestling is to return to the level it was once at, promoters need to work together and pull in the same direction.