The Rise, Fall And Rebirth Of British Wrestling – Part One: The Beginnings
By Aaron Walker
Part 1. The Beginnings.
British Wrestling. Two words that for twenty years during the 60s and 80s were a household name all across the United Kingdom and around the world. Wrestlers such as Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, Kendo Nagasaki, Jackie Polo and Mick McManus, to name just a few, lit up the airwaves on ITV’s World of Sport programme every Saturday afternoon. WOS was a weekly sports roundup programme that recapped scores and events in the British sports world and shone a spotlight on other sports such as wrestling, bowling and stock car racing, or sports in general that were not as well known by the British population. Wrestling greatly benefitted from this exposure, and as such, began a boom period in popularity that would last the twenty years that World of Sport ran for.
Professional wrestling in Britain dates back to the turn of the 20th century but it wasn’t until the 1930s when wrestling began to adopt to the more American aspects of professional wrestling with its gimmicks and showmanship. Upon this, the more submission orientated “catch as catch can” wrestling was popularized and became the dominant style in Britain. The sport raised and dropped in popularity through the Second World War due to journalists condemning the sport as “fake” and London County Council banning professional wrestling up until 1970.
With the introduction of television, wrestling began to explode in popularity. Throughout the boom of TV, live events in the UK also saw a rise in popularity through Joint Promotions, which was the leader in wrestling promotion and events in the UK. The promotion was the British equivalent of America’s National Wrestling Alliance, where a group or collection of territories were listed under one brand, and due to the exposure that television brought in. Live events in Britain through Joint Promotions were advertising a reported 4,500 wrestling shows a year. British wrestling had hit a high in popularity and during its peak, 30 cities across the country had a weekly wrestling show. The market was full of different wrestlers, promotions and events and the popularity only continued to grow.
Perhaps the most famous feud in all of British wrestling during this boom time was Big Daddy Vs Giant Haystacks. Between the late 70s and early 90s, these two 600+ lbs behemoths collided on multiple occasions after formerly wrestling as a heel tag team until their split in 1977 with Big Daddy becoming the Face (or blue-eyes as it was known in Britain back then). Anytime these two clashed on live events or television, ratings and attendance sored through the roof, making this feud a must see for many British wrestling fans. The feud continued sporadically until Daddy’s retirement in 1993.
Despite its popularity and cult status, World of Sport was cancelled on the 28th September 1985, due to a change in ideals and attitude towards programming at ITV. Wrestling continued having television exposure through its own programme but was moved to a lunchtime slot rather than its usual late afternoon that inevitably hindered viewing and affected ratings thanks, in part, to its erratic schedule changes. The show then stayed on the air until December 1998.
After the cancellation of World of Sport and the end of its own separate programming, British wrestling carried on in a largely un-televised capacity, surviving in territories up and down the country. Not long after, the wrestling industry was hit with a series of articles in newspapers around the country as they once again questioned the “worked” aspects of the sport. It seemed to not do much harm this time however as most modern wrestling fans knew the truth but chose to ignore it as the attraction for wrestling was the suspension of disbelief. Live shows still sold well but regular audiences of the television product was put off by regular changes in scheduling.
As American wrestling was bought over to audiences, Joint Promotions began to lose its place as the number one promotion on the British wrestling scene. It was renamed as Ring Wrestling Stars in 1991 and continued to tour with Big Daddy and later former WWF wrestler “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith after Daddy’s retirement in 93, but using the same business model as they had through the 70s and 80s. This hindered the group as fans wanted different stars and updated match styles. The company began to struggle and upon Davey Boy Smith leaving to return to the WWF in 94, the promotion went into decline in 1995, and the company stopped promoting.
However another company, All Star Wrestling had changed its game-plan and benefited in many ways with the decline of television syndication. They were able to pick up many existing storylines it had from its TV time, attracting audiences to their live shows to see how the feuds and storylines continued. With established stars such as Kendo Nagasaki and emerging superstars like Rollerball Rocco and Robbie Brookside, ASW kept the fans coming with new and intriguing show to show storylines. With RWS ceasing activities with promotion in British wrestling, All Star began picking up many of the formers former champions and pitted them against their own stars creating even more of a box office boom through dream matches and experienced stars going head to head. The promotion maintained a good following through live shows at established venues and the holiday camp circuit.
Eventually due to the success of the American based multi-billion dollar, World Wrestling Federation and the downfall of Joint Promotions/Ring Stars Wrestling, most British promoters began ditching their own styles and instead began organising WWF tribute shows. These shows showcased British performers imitating WWF stars. By the turn of the 21st century, WWF imitators such as “The UK Undertaker” and “Big Red Machine” (an imitation on Kane) were more popular than the actual British characters and performers in promotions up and down the country.
British wrestling became a sorry state of affairs as to how it was some 40 years previously. The closest Britain came to its own self-sustaining British wrestling promotion was the Scott Conway owned TWS (The Wrestling Alliance). Conway benefited in a small way from the popularity of WWF Imitators by promoting his company as an alternative, with more serious wrestling catered to serious wrestling fans much in the same way that All Star had tried in the 80s.
Stay tuned for part two
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