HISTORY FEATURE PART 3: Rise of the Independents

When documenting the history of Pro-Wrestling in this country, the turn of the century will be looked at as the lowest of the low. It really can’t be understated just how much of a state the industry was in during these years.

An entire belief as to how wrestling should be presented was lost.  There were very few promotions still around, and even they had only survived because they mimicked American Wrestling.

Somehow, out of the ashes , a new scene was born. ‘New School’ promotions such as Alex Shane’s Frontier Wrestling Alliance laid the framework that the likes of ICW and PROGRESS would later follow. British Wrestling was back. Apparently…

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The recent revival in the British Wrestling scene can, for better or for worse, trace it’s roots back to one Alexander Daniel Spilling- better known as Alex Shane. Alex was a pretty average wrestler that gained notoriety when he started appearing on talkSPORT’s weekly wrestling chat show “Wrestletalk”. Alongside co-host Tommy Boyd, “Wrestletalk” became a must listen for any would-be Pro Wrestling fan on these shores. On the show, Shane was famous for revealing some of the industry’s most closely guarded secrets. He would openly talk about blading (when wrestlers would blade their own foreheads in order to make the fight ‘look’ more violent) and was a big believer that anyone who claimed wrestling was 100% real was insulting the fans’ intelligence. His honesty was a big hit with listeners, and he would take advantage of his new-found popularity by promoting his own wrestling company on the show, Frontier Wrestling Alliance.

FWA was the original ‘new school’ promotion. It differed from traditional British promotions in that it was run in the same way as an American independent promotion relying on word of mouth and internet buzz in order to garner interest. What was perhaps most important though was that it was built around young British talent, with a sprinkling of veterans and the best of the best from the independent scene. The likes of Eddie Guerrero, AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels and Steve Corino all had stints in FWA but the key that made it work was that the young British wrestlers were the star attractions. FWA put on their most ambitious show on February 9 2002 at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in front of over 2000 people. Revival- as it was dubbed, had been heavily built up by Boyd and Shane on their radio show in the weeks leading up to the event and was supposed to be an event which would revolutionise British Wrestling.

The show was a big success, with TV channel Bravo showing a cut down 90 minute version of the show on national satellite/cable television the following month. This, however, was far from the holy grail that it initially seemed. The show had been heavily edited to the point where key moments were cut. Tommy Boyd, who had put a lot of money into the promotion, started to doubt as to whether he had put his money on the wrong horse. Boyd and Shane’s on air relationship started to crumble, culminating when Boyd kicked Shane off the show. A few months later and it was Boyd who was sacked, and Wrestletalk ended. The FWA would run successfully for a few years after this, becoming the dominant promotion in a new era for British Wrestling. They never did get back on any meaningful television channel though, and eventually the buzz around the promotion fizzled out and the company ceased to be in 2007.

Although the FWA wasn’t the golden goose that it was initially hoped it could be- it did inspire a new generation of promoters. It showed them that there was still money to be made in the industry, it just had to be promoted in a certain way. A whole host of promotions sprung up around this time and it was a race to the top to see who would be the first to get the big break. That big break came in the form of Vice’s feature-length documentary on ICW- and in particular, the story of one Graham Stevely better known as Grado.

After a few years of wrestling sporadically as part of the Lowlanders tag team (a play on the Highlanders tag team from WWE) Grado made a promo for a match with Jackie Polo which included footage of himself dancing along to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”. These videos inspired ICW promoter Mark Dallas and he hatched the “Get Grado Booked” campaign. Around this time Grado also became the subject of a Vice documentary, The British Wrestler. It was one of those few instances in Wrestling, where everything came together just at exactly the right time.

Because of the success of the Vice documentary, the BBC took an interest in ICW, and decided to put their own spin on the Glasgow based promotion with their Insane Fight Club documentary. This exposure to national television skyrocketed the popularity of the promotion. Grado became the industry’s first real mainstream star since Big Daddy. His infectious personality and funny everyday man persona struck a chord with the general public. I mean, he was on River City for christ sakes!

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Around the same time, England became a battleground between three companies vying to become the next ICW. PROGRESS and Revolution Pro Wrestling were founded in 2011, with Preston City Wresting being founded a year later. Both RPW and PCW centred their promotions around creating dream matches between their homegrown stars and stars from the US as well as creating partnerships with Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling. PROGRESS approached the British Wrestling scene a little more differently. Run by comedian Jim Smallman, PROGRESS were keen not to be import-heavy like the RPW’s and PCW’s of this world, instead promoting British talent. This coupled with an emphasise on ‘strong style’ wrestling, and ‘chapter’ storylines set PROGRESS apart from any other promotion on these isles.

Nowadays ICW, PROGRESS, RPW and PCW perform in front of thousands of people on a regular basis. ICW have annual tours of the UK. Their Fear and Loathing event has attracted 4,000 and 6,000 fans in successive years respectively. PROGRESS performed in front of 2400 fans at the iconic Brixton Academy this past September. And to top it all off, ITV is bringing back World of Sport for a one-off New Year’s special- featuring a lot of the scene’s biggest stars.The industry these days is the healthiest it’s been since the much heralded glory era of Big Daddy et al. However, if anything, reviewing the last 30 years has tought me that the British Wrestling industry is full of peaks and valleys. Currently we are peaking. Can it get better? Yes. But there will be an enevitable drop in interest. It is at this point that the industry must ensure that it doesn’t get itself into the state it was in during the late 90s and early 00s. British Wrestling has come so far in such a short space of time- it would be a real shame to repeat the mistakes of the past, as opposed to learn from them.

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So, there we have it. 30 Years of Wrestling history condensed into 3 feature articles. I’ve had a blast looking down memory lane, and I hope you have enjoyed the trip also. Here’s to another 30 years of British Wrestling history…cheers!

 

 

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