The Rise, Fall And Rebirth Of British Wrestling – Part 2: From The Ashes
By Aaron Walker
British wrestling had suffered a mighty fall from grace
With no real television syndication for over a decade, fans lost interest in home-grown promotions and territories and became engrossed in the ever popular WCW and WWF, both of whom were locked in the “Monday Night Wars”, a ratings war for popularity and thus causing both promotions to put out some of its best programming for years, further damaging interest in British wrestling. Fans had their appetites satiated with the American brand of pro wrestling and therefore weren’t too bothered about the lack of a British based product. WCW and WWF both would travel over to the UK from time to time, to host shows, and later for the WWF, two annual pay per view shows.
British wrestling was not in its deathbed yet however, as promotions around the UK still existed with die-hard loyal fans and notoriety by word of mouth keeping them alive but with the American product so popular, and no television syndication in sight, it looked impossible for any promotion to really break ground and catch on among the masses.
One promotion that decided to pick up the pieces and have a go was the Frontier Wrestling Alliance. Founded in 1993 in Portsmouth, it became a source of serious wrestling in the mid to late 90’s with some of the best talent the UK had to offer, including talent brought in overseas from the US, Japan and Mexico. In 2003, FWA presented a sold out cross-promotion show from Bethnal Green, London with top US Independent Company Ring of Honor called Frontiers of Honor. The joint-promoted show was main evented by well-respected up and coming US wrestler Christopher Daniels and UK sensation Jody Fleisch. The show also saw the Ring of Honor title defended, with champion Samoa Joe defending against former FWA All-England Champion, Zebra Kid. The title defence and the cross-promotion highlighted that the FWA was being taken seriously in the wrestling world and a reminder of how great British wrestling once was and could be again.
Another notable promotion during this time of US domination was International Pro Wrestling United Kingdom (IPW:UK). The company debuted in 2004 and like the FWA became a hub for top UK talent and cross promoted their stars with FWA and ROH. IPW:UK and FWA would hit a bump in their working relationship when IPW:UK would begin booking FWA stars and FWA title defences without FWA managements knowledge. All would be forgiven and worked into a real life feud however culminating in a promotion vs promotion match in March of 2007. IPW:UK still promotes to this day, with the latest in British stars stacking its roster and live events.
During this time of relative quiet on the British wrestling scene, British wrestlers were making a splash on the American independent scene. Stars like Doug Williams and Nigel McGuinness were highly sought after in the US with McGuinness eventually becoming World Champion in top American independent promotion, Ring of Honor. Stars like Jonny Storm, Jody Fleisch would also travel over to the US on a regular basis.
With the creation of digital satellite in the UK, wrestling would be given another shot at television exposure, this time through its own channel, The Wrestling Channel. The channel would showcase British promotions FWA, LDN and classic matches from the World of Sport days. Unfortunately the idea was short lived as it only ran from 2004 to 2005, with the channel changing to The Fight Network in 2005, which then began broadcasting all types of fighting/wrestling/boxing and mixed martial arts. The programme didn’t do too well and ultimately closed in 2008.
Regardless of the eventual failure of the wrestling channel, wrestling was increasing in popularity with its respected well-travelled stars and small promotions around the country building in notoriety. Because of this, ITV, one of the biggest names in UK TV, would try to capitalise on the popularity by launching a celebrity based wrestling reality show in 2005 imaginatively titled Celebrity Wrestling. The show lasted only one series and featured two teams of C-List British celebrities in wrestling style events and was co-hosted by American wrestling legend Rowdy Roddy Piper. The show itself did more harm than good as it angered many real wrestling fans. The show focused more on competitions which involved grappling and the forced interactions between the cast of celebrities than the actual training or any sort of standard wrestling matches that wrestling around the world was popular for. Because of this, the show alienated its audience of real wrestling fans and plunged in the ratings, causing ITV to cancel after only one season.
With the WWF and WCW dominating the wrestling world many felt there was no real need for a huge scene in Britain and the rest of the UK. The WWF and WCW both had weekly television shows, monthly pay per views all from the comfort of your own home and the occasional visit from either companies to promote over in the UK, wrestling fans in the UK were relatively satisfied with what they had. Because of the American influence, wrestling in general was at a peak in popularity and this was due, in-part, to the huge budgets these wrestling titans had, allowing top-notch producing and delivery on live events and television shows. The creative team (especially in WWF) was also a big factor in the boom in popularity as they were well known for hammering out intriguing story lines and interesting feuds that kept fans hooked each week and kept them coming back for more.
In 2001, the wrestling world changed when the WWE (then still labelled as the WWF) would buy its competition, purchasing WCW for a reported $2.2 million. This included the company rights and trademarks, the company’s entire video catalogue from television to pay per view tapings and the contracts of 24 WCW wrestlers. The purchase bought an end to the Monday night wars and with the WWE now on top of the wrestling world it would begin to seemingly stop trying. Without serious competition, the WWE would over the next few years revert to a formulaic week by week routine of storylines and matches that is still commonplace today. With some of the best talent around including an ever- growing budget for live productions and their television product, fans had plenty to be happy about even with the now lack-lustre effort that the company was seeming to put out.
For decades, wrestling fans had always discussed the ins and outs of the product they were watching and with the implementation of readily available internet in homes around the world, wrestling fans were given a forum in which to discuss or critique the storylines, the wrestler’s performances and the company itself. In the mid 2000’s this became a problem for the WWE as the fans were becoming disinterested with the product due to the years of formulaic stories and lack of chances given to the real wrestlers in favour of the more “marketable” stars, regardless of their actual skills or fan reaction. Many fans voiced their concerns at these problems and began to look elsewhere as their number one choice for wrestling was beginning to become stale. This is where British wrestling would seize the opportunity, and begin its rebirth.
Continued in part 3…
Catch part one here
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