By Haydn Gleed
For those of you who read my blogs on a regular basis, you may have read in my somewhat tongue in cheek piece in December that one of my wishes for Christmas was for the UK Independent Scene to be better known and get more exposure. Literally 24 hours after that piece was published, Triple H was standing in the O2 Arena in London telling the world that there would be a tournament in Blackpool doing pretty much exactly that.
I’ll admit I had my doubts about it. After all, a company that struggle to produce a regular compelling three hour show would surely struggle to get across the stories of 16 men and present an interesting weekend of wrestling. On top of this, the talent that were involved in this were mostly people that wouldn’t have been on my top 30 list of UK wrestlers let alone top 16. Was I wrong? Can someone pass the salt for this crow?
I attended the first of the two shows and I’ve never experienced anything like it. The venue looked tremendous, the staff couldn’t have been friendlier, and the atmosphere was electric. Everybody had the feeling that this was special and they acted accordingly. The whole night there was singing and every match the people were engaged, and sometimes this was true to the extreme. At one point, I made a restroom visit during the show. A gentleman stood next to me watching the show on the network using his phone. It may seem like a crude story, but it kind of summed up to me the attitude of the crowd. They were enjoying the event and they wanted to be part of it and not miss a second.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a trend of an opinion from non-UK based viewers and the word I hear a lot is that the UK crowds are being disrespectful. It couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve listened to Jason Powell’s and Darren Gutteridge’s excellent All Access podcast on Monday. Darren made the point that it’s the British culture to sing and show your respect through the medium of chants. When I attend football, we sing songs about our team, about individual players, and its our way of showing respect. By singing we are telling the players we are behind them and we think they are great, and that’s what happens at pro wrestling events in the UK. I appreciate that it may be jarring to the ears of non-UK based fans and the common phrase used is “the crowd is trying to get themselves over” but it’s not the case. The fans are showing their respect to a person or people who are entertaining them.
One small complaint was that it was difficult to see the video packages that were played before each match, as there was only a tiny screen that was covered by most of the set. It was also a challenge to hear the promos too. Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter, as it seemed to me that the majority of the crowd was already familiar with the talent. Even if they were not familiar with talent, the crowd soon made up their minds based on the actions in the ring in terms of who they liked and disliked, and that’s where I thought the wrestlers were outstanding.
Jordan Devlin got a decent reaction, not an overwhelming pop, but it was still a positive reaction. The crowd started to turn on him mid-match and you could see his mannerism’s start to change. Instead of trying to get the crowd back onside, he rolled with it and started to act like a heel, jawing at the crowd and generally acting like a cocky dick. When the ending of the match resulted in Danny Burch being busted open and the strange pinning sequence, my instant reaction was “oh my, that looked bush league embarrassing.” In retrospect, either it was designed like this or there was some terrific improvisation and it was pulled back from the embarrassing brink amazingly well. My best guess is that it was improvised, as while Burch was being tended to for his war wound, somebody from the back was talking to the referee and the ref in turn spoke to Danny while he was on the mat. If I was worked, then all the better, but it seemed like an audible to me.
What I find incredible is the amount of people who have come out of this tournament with a new fan base behind them. The amount of people who have tweeted or emailed me and said they really enjoyed various wrestlers and want to see them again is fantastic. Pete Dunne is a name that has come up a lot, Tyler Bate obviously, Mark Andrews of course, but others mentioned were Trent Seven, Jordan Devlin and Wolfgang have popped up. Truth be told, I feel that every single person who competed came away leaving some impression on the viewers in attendance and at home, even if they went out in the first round.
It would have been nice to see a pre-match promo from Bodyguy Roy Johnson, as the man is electric and so charismatic on the microphone that it covers up for some greenness. Perhaps it would have felt out of place in this setting. Instead, it’s going to be a nice surprise if or indeed when there is a weekly TV series. The fact that over the course of four hours people are engaged with these wrestlers also bears well for a future TV show and interest that there will be in it. If you’ve heard any of the Progress Wrestling audio reviews that Darren and I have recorded, then you’ve heard us talk about several of the wrestlers who were in this competition and heard us say that Dunne has the talent to breakout, but he was being used in too much in a comedy role in Progress. This weekend showed how good he can be when the serious factor is turned up and he’s made to look like a badass.
Another reason people enjoyed this tournament is thanks to the unpredictability, and it wasn’t just the fans at home that were not entirely convinced as to what was going to happen. I was in the media section with several pro wrestling writers and analysts, and we were trying to talk through what was going to happen, and not one of us really got close to the how things played out. Tyler Bate winning was not seen by anyone in the group, and it’s ridiculous how talented this 19 year old kid is. He has the world at his feet, and he was certainly a worthy winner.
So how did this rank with me personally? It’s not a full reflection of what I love about the British independent scene right now, and it’s only because of personal taste. Using the British Board of Certification of movies as a comparison, the World of Sport wrestling show that aired in the UK in January was a U (your standard kid friendly movie like 101 Dalmatians or Frozen), WWE’s presentation was a PG/12 rate (I guess like PG-13 in the United States), Progress is a 15 (swearing, adult themes and a more adult based product), and Insane Championship Wrestling is a 18 (your British equivalent to ECW). My range is more the 15 certificate, which is Progress Wrestling, but for pure storytelling without it feeling that I was being talked to like a child being sheltered from the big bad world of physical combat, I thought they did a tremendous job. Just know that there are options if you want to see a more adult version of wrestling in the UK with the same sort of talent.
Speaking of Progress, on the way home from Blackpool on Sunday I attended their latest chapter in Birmingham. I was curious to see a few things. Firstly, I wanted to see if there was any effect on the crowd in terms of its size. With the WWE show a 100 miles further north, I did fear there could be some drop in attendance but it wasn’t thankfully to be. I also wanted to see how they would address the fact the WWE was being held on the same evening as the Progress show and to see if there was any backlash to Jim Smallman being shown on camera. To put this in context, Jim puts himself over as a man who if he wasn’t in the fortunate position to put together a wrestling show would be in the crowd with the fans. Indeed, in between matches he was standing with the fans having a conversation about wrestling. So with that being said, the fact he was shown in the crowd on night one suited and booted could have appeared to some that he had sold out to the corporate WWE. He did address this fact and he was perfectly honest with the fans much in the same way Paul Heyman was back in the day to the ECW faithful. He essentially said that it was a great honor to be part of night one and he hoped to continue to have a strong relationship with WWE moving forward, but he stressed it would not change Progress, and that is the key I believe.
In a way, it can be frustrating to the Progress and other UK independent faithful to see a company that they have believed in passionately for years and poured their money and love into be eclipsed by the giant that is WWE as soon as the scene got hot. However, I feel it’s smart business for Progress, ICW, and others to play ball with WWE, just as it is for WWE to play ball with the Progress’s of the scene. As long as WWE don’t interfere in terms of the way the UK independent scene is run and dictating how and when talent can be used then I think it will be a win win all round. If WWE have their weekly TV show there will be a constant flow of talent looking to get noticed on the indie scene, and the independent groups will have star attractions making appearance from WWE, even if it’s just to play musical chairs mid-ring with the fans (see the Progress Chapter 42 spoilers from Sunday). If there was any concern that the interest would ween based on the “WWE invasion” the night after the WWE tournament ended, Progress put tickets on sale for their show in July and they sold out the allocation within half an hour.
So going full circle to my December blog, did Santa bring me part of what I asked for? He did and although it’s no longer a hidden gem that the UK can call their great little secret, the world can now share and explore a new scene that in 2017. They can gain access to it in a couple of clicks of a button. The UK Indie scene was hot before WWE arrived, but with the way this tournament played out and the entertainment it provided for a brand-new audience, it has now been certified a for a worldwide audience.
As always, you can find me on twitter @haydngleed or via email email@example.com