It is nigh on impossible to look back at any region’s Wrestling history without discussing the impact of the World Wrestling Federation. It’s fingerprints are everywhere. Every promotion in every state, in every country has been subject to its influence at one point in time.
For the UK, it’s influence was perhaps more profound than most- as the entire nation’s perception of what Wrestling was, completely changed. Gone were the days of the football results scrolling across the screen during matches- WWF was a different ball game entirely.
It’s gripping storylines, colourful characters and massive production values far outmuscled what both Joint Promotions and All Star had to offer. So when British wrestling eventually got the boot from Greg Dyke and co, the WWF were in an advantageous position to pick up the pieces.
And it was from this advantageous position that they began to craft the all-powerful brand of WWF- leaving both Joint and All Star in it’s wake…
The start of WWF’s UK conquest began in the early days of Satellite television. Still a novel concept in the mid 1980s, the WWF was initially used as cheap programming to fill schedules. Sky held the rights to the WWF, and would pay the small fee of £700 per show for their services. Nobody knew it at the time, but this was a massive game changer.
Maybe if Satellite television had bombed, things might have been different. But it didn’t and now the cat was out the bag. You could get good quality wrestling content for next to no money. This pretty much killed off any chance of a comeback from either Joint or All Star; who had come to rely on TV money in order to keep going.
Confirmation that the WWF had changed the game came when Sky offered the paltry fee of £500 per show to Max Crabtree and Joint Promotions. They scoffed at the offer and decided to keep running live shows under the new guise of ‘Ring Wrestling Stars’- built once again around Big Daddy. All Star on the other hand had used their 2 years of TV exposure wisely- building up Kendo Nagasaki as the company’s biggest heel and establishing storylines such as the infamous “hypnotism of Robbie Brookside” among others. The abrupt end of All Star on ITV meant many of these storylines didn’t reach their conclusion- resulting in a box office boom as fans turned up to live shows to see what happened next.
WWF meanwhile had begun to run regular tours to the UK. They ran their first event on October 10 1989 in London- filling the 15,000 capacity London Arena. They returned in 1991- this time running 2 sold-out nights in London and Manchester as well as holding sell-out events in Belfast, Birmingham, Brighton, Dublin, Glasgow and Sheffield. The tour was a big success and clearly showed that their was a huge appetite for Pro-Wrestling in the UK. Thus the decision was made that the 1992 edition of Summerslam (arguably the WWF’s 2nd biggest PPV of the year) would take place at Wembley Stadium.
The show was headlined by the ‘British Bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith challenging his real life brother-in-law Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart for the Intercontinental Championship. The match was an all-time classic, with Bulldog pulling off the win to send the hometown crowd into raptures. It drew a massive 80,355 fans- still by some margin the largest ever crowd to watch Pro-Wrestling in Europe and was deemed an overwhelming success, creating a new generation of WWF fans in this country.
Things weren’t anywhere near as rosy for the two biggest British wrestling companies however. Max Crabtree’s rebranded “Ring Wrestling Stars” suffered a huge blow when Big Daddy retired in 1993 due to a stroke. To combat this, they brought over the ‘British Bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith- fresh from his WWF Summerslam victory. The business model stayed the same, as Bulldog became the new star the promotion was built around. However there was one notable difference between Davey and Daddy. Davey left after just 6 months.
And that pretty much sounded the final bell on Joint Promotions and Max Crabtree’s involvement in the industry here in the UK. His reluctance to push new stars eventually cost him his company, his livelihood and his reputation. After almost 40 years of promoting Wrestling, Joint Promotions was finally put to sleep in 1995.
As for All-Star their box office boom didn’t last long, coming to an end in 1993 when Kendo Nagasaki retired for a second time. By 1995 the promotion was down to running just a handful of regular venues- relying on the holiday camp circuit to keep afloat. All-Star was so strapped for cash in fact, that they pretty much abandoned their identity in favour of booking popular ‘WWF tribute’ acts on their shows . Tribute acts such as the ‘UK Undertaker’, ‘Big Red Machine’ and even ‘UK X-Pac’ became the new stars of All-Star Wrestling.
For many, this was British Wrestling’s most humiliating and lowest ebb. What once was an industry that created homegrown stars, had failed so badly in this regard that they had no other choice than to abandon their identity in favour of mimicking what the Americans were doing. It was the only way to keep afloat during this period, and it became a real watershed moment for the industry.
The next and final edition of the history series will look at the ‘Rise of the Independents’- looking at how British Wrestling picked itself up, how Alex Shane and his FWA promotion created the blueprint that ICW and PROGRESS would later follow, becoming what we now see as British Wrestling.