The Evolution Of British Wrestling

Added by Nathan Major

Picture Credit: Rob Brazier (@RobBrazierPhoto)

Back in May, the pro wrestling world was set alight, the discussion boards and dirt sheets lit up in praise as they do when matches like this come along, the difference this time however, was the two men at the centre of this acclaim was two guys, not even in their mid-twenties, both from Birmingham, tearing it up on the big stage.

I talk of course of Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne, whose incredible match in Chicago set the wrestling world alight, if only briefly, this once was merely a pipe dream.

Cast your mind back to the early 2000’s. WCW and ECW were on their last legs, and were soon to bite the dust, one area however, had long since bitten the dust, the British wrestling scene. This arguably had snowballed from the cancellation of World of Sport in 1988, coinciding with the rise of the then-WWF on this side of the Atlantic, British Wrestling was forgotten, playing to crowds of under 100 was the norm, the only companies that could make money, and only briefly, were the companies running ‘WWF Tribute Shows’ usually with a local worker doing their best (or worst in some cases) impressions of the day’s biggest stars.

Looking back this all seems rather embarrassing, even though it was keeping workers in bookings the fact that the only way a British company could draw money was by being a cheap knock off is a terrible thought.

There has long been a belief that the wrestling business is cyclical, it gets hot and is the hottest ticket in town, then it gets cold and promoters can do nothing to put butts in seats, no matter how they try. The UK had had its hot spell in the 70’s and 80’s under the rule of a large man in a sparkly hat and white singlet, Big Daddy was a sensation, even the Royal Family were reportedly fans, but eventually, it cooled down, so it only makes sense that a hot period would roll around.

Alex Shane, now a producer of internationally broadcast NGW, was a spearhead of the resurrection of British Wrestling, his company FWA would start promoting ‘super shows’ in London that started to draw people regularly in Southern promotions, the cards would include a mix of rising US stars, UK guys waiting to break through, plus a few old WWF or WCW guys like Jerry Lynn and Juventud Guerrera.

The company had hit on a nice formula, a formula followed almost verbatim by 1PW in the following years and to a lesser extent RPW today. However, the reverse to this is bringing workers over from the US was expensive, and without those stars, it could be argued the shows wouldn’t have been successful, the UK guys breaking out on these shows needed the imports to enhance their own career, as evidenced by Jonny Storm and Jody Fleisch being present in the early days of ROH and CZW.

Did the ‘Supershow’ format kill off the FWA? Former FWA announcer and backstage employee Dean Ayass doesn’t think so. I spoke to him about the effect the FWA and its demise and he was quick to point to a culprit of the companies’ demise:

“No. I think that if I could point my finger at one thing, it was television. Ironically the dream that everyone was chasing was, to me, the downfall. The FWA had built its reputation on giving fans great top-to-bottom shows that were well structured and took fans up and down throughout the evening. But when we got TV on The Wrestling Channel, the shows were structured differently and, rather than having a great top-to-bottom format, we were recording TV episodes. That meant less matches, more talking and it turned people off. The atmosphere changed and the buzz was diminishing. The demands of TV kept pushing things more and more, to the point that, I believe that British Uprising 3 at the Coventry Skydome lost a lot of money.

He goes on to explain the faults with the TV show’s format:

“In the old days of TV, the cameras were there to record a regular wrestling show, which they then chopped up into episodes and edited matches to fit into the time slot. With the FWA (and I still see this happening today), they fitted the live show around the TV show, which to me is the wrong way around.”

Dean Ayass wasn’t the only person to point to the Coventry show as a turning point, long time wrestling fan Ben Corrigan (@BritWrestAwayDay on Twitter) also mentioned this event:

“They had their TV series on The Wrestling Channel in 2004 which built to the biggest show in their history, British Uprising III, at the 3,500 seat Coventry SkyDome, thinking they’d do a massive attendance based on everyone watching the T show. They did do their biggest ever audience, 1,800, but it was a financial disaster and pretty much was the end of the them thinking they were ever going to get anywhere with FWA.”

Mr. Corrigan also points out the emergence of new companies as a potential downfall for the company:

“Also crucial in FWA’s downfall was that other promotions started up, copying the FWA formula (storyline shows, aimed at older audiences, with strong promotional identity and were worth travelling for) that actually started doing “the FWA thing” better than FWA themselves. IPW:UK in Orpington, Kent would be an example here.”

“You also had Alex Shane putting his attention into his Super shows, such as International Showdown and Universal Uproar, as well as 1PW coming along in 2005-2006, and they were putting on the type of big, seemingly-important, import-laden shows that FWA just couldn’t match, and travelling fans chose to send their money their instead. But FWA was of its time – at the time there was nothing better – but the way they were (and the nature of the whole business at the time) just wasn’t right to allow them to adapt, evolve and grow.”

The feeling around British Wrestling at the time was fractured, mostly between the older and newer generations, when asked about the feeling around British Wrestling at the time, Dean had this to say: “There was a bit of a ‘them and us’ feeling between the older generation and the younger generation, which we encapsulated in the Old School vs New School feud in the FWA. The older guys saw the new guys as a threat to their spot, I think, but then when they started getting booked on FWA shows and saw what we did and how talented the guys were, those feelings mostly disappeared. Rather than competing with All Star and the like, we were appealing to a different audience, bringing new fans into the mix and giving wrestlers more bookings, so all was well.

I think we were really living in the moment at that time. We were all young and not really sure of where this was going, but enjoying the ride at the same time.”

Once again offering the viewpoint of the fan, Ben had this to say:”(British Wrestling) had previously been a one-off show you’d go to in the leisure centre, buy a foam hand, cheer the goodies, boo the baddies and then go home and do it all again when they called by next year. This new crop of BritWres promotions in the 00’s first FWA and then IPW:UK, 1PW, SAS, FutureShock, GPW, etc. made it feel like it was something worth watching and something worth putting your time and money into following. I can’t personally say I ever thought it was going to catch on, gain mainstream popularity and explode, because I didn’t, and I never got the sense it would, but I was happy that there were good promotions putting on good shows that were to my tastes and that I enjoyed. There was a real sense of community that built up among the regular fans too, with real friendships being created through seeing the same faces at the shows; friendships that last to this day.”

Following the closure of FWA in the late 2000’s new companies, for example IPW:UK opened up in the London area, a company that goes strong today, which offered many of the same Indy stars of the time, more staggered out with up and coming British wrestlers, it’s longevity is proof of its success, even if it has fallen somewhat behind the forefront with the rise of companies like PROGRESS and ICW.

The importance of FWA to British Wrestling’s return to prominence cannot be understated, in fact when asked about this Dean Ayass was quick to make his position known: “I think we modernised the British wrestling business that was still stuck in the previous decade or two. All Star was the big show in town but they had a tried and tested formula and each show was a one-off with occasional angles to set up a one-off match for the next show.”

“In the FWA, we had far more structured storylines that spanned months’ worth of shows and we also were the first promotion to bring over big US independent names on a regular basis. We were the first overseas booking for AJ Styles. Christopher Daniels won the FWA British title. A big US name is now pretty much expected for a major British independent show and that all started with the FWA.”

Ben Corrigan concurred with Mr. Ayass’ statements:

“FWA’s effect and influence is apparent across today’s crop of British wrestling promotions, even if they don’t realise it. At the time, most British wrestling was essentially just the touring circus “AMERICAN WRESTLING” type one-off exhibition shows in town halls and leisure centres (or worse – the WWF Tribute shows). FWA started putting on shows with more substance – a recurring home cast of regular characters, storylines & feuds that continued and built from show-to-show that you could follow.”

“While others had tried it for one-off shows, FWA targeted themselves at the “smarter”, hardcore fan who would be willing to travel from around the country to see the shows and pay more on tickets/merchandise/etc. for a show that was specifically catered to their interests, rather than just the local families paying a fiver. FWA was also responsible for the strong promotional branding and merchandise you see from most BritWres promotions these days. Before, it was just “WRESTLING LIVE” – shows from different promoters were indistinguishable from each other. FWA had their branding and logo all over the place, creating an identity that people could relate to and were loyal to. They had t-shirts printed up with the promotion’s logo on them – again, unheard of for BritWres at the time. They had t-shirts for all the top stars, shirts for each event etc. Everyone does it now, but FWA were among the first to especially film their events and released them on tape (and later DVD), so that people who weren’t there could follow the promotion from afar and check out the matches everyone was talking about.”

So what effect did Alex Shane have on modern British wrestling, Dean Ayass was once again on hand to give his view: “I’ve known Alex still day 1, in fact before day 1, because I knew him before we both got into the wrestling business. When he was 15, we went down to the Hammerlock School of Wrestling together. He told me years later that his dad wouldn’t allow him to go there on his own, so I’m to blame for Alex Shane being involved in the wrestling business I’m afraid!

He’s one of the most ambitious people I know. He’s always got an idea on the go and a next step to climb to. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the result never stops him. He’s got his fingers in lots of pies and he’s been very influential on a lot of different aspects of 21st century British wrestling.”

Mr. Corrigan found himself with a mixed view of Alex Shane:

“Alex Shane’s greatest talent is in being charismatic, charming and being able to influence people and go along with what he was saying. The early-to-mid 00’s FWA was undoubtedly led by him and his ideas, and that led it to its greatest points. He is a good “ideas” man, and was constantly thinking of new ideas they could try or different ways of getting attention. Most of his ideas tend to be quite radical, however, with most of his most visionary concepts being around the idea that wrestling as a whole needed to evolve, adapt and transform if people were going to take it to the next level, that people needed to look at wrestling in a completely different way.”

“I think British Wrestling grew, based on the work of a lot of people and the environment and social scenarios that just happened to come along. The current BritWres boom, for instance, mainly came from the right talent happening to be around when wrestling took on an almost cult/underground geek culture interest and people were looking for an alternative to WWE. It also came out of the fact that the most successful British promotions of the present started marketing and presenting their shows as being more like going on a night out or going to watch a gig, or a sporting event like darts or football. None of that came from Shane.”

Of course, this is only scraping the iceberg of those days gone by, and the opinions of only two people, every person around at that time will have their own stories to tell, I for instance was inspired to write this after reading Greg Lambert’s ‘Ropes and Glory’ and his earlier book ‘Holy Grail’ which are perfect reads for anyone interested in further details from this era of British Wrestling history.

British Wrestling continues to evolve, and no-one knows when the next big thing on the British scene will emerge, or even where it will be in 5 years’ time, but I’m sure we’re all looking forward to the ride.

Dean Ayass can be found at @DeanAyass on Twitter as well as commentating on IPW:UK events, for more details.

Ben Corrigan and his adventures around the world of British Wrestling can be found on Twitter at @BritWrestAwayDay