When British wrestling went underground
It is perhaps wrong to talk about the return of British professional wrestling when it never really went away, but fans will certainly have noticed a change in the air over recent years. After decades in the doldrums, it is British wrestlers who are having the five-star matches and it is London's independent promotions – ones that put on shows across the capital and beyond, and which often train their own wrestlers – that are leading the way for the new style. So, where did things start going right for this much-misunderstood industry?
Wrestling has been a form of entertainment in London for well over one hundred years. Its forerunner was part of the traditional variety show, where a larger-than-life strongman was pitted against a brave/stupid audience member in a ten-minute bout. After a forced hiatus during the First World War, wrestling came back in a more recognisable form, utilising American showmanship to draw in audiences. Rather than fighting members of the public, the strongmen fought each other, often with a pre-determined outcome to help keep the feuds running for longer. Around 40 venues regularly held shows in London in the 1930s but the Council took against some of the sport's less salubrious elements – think mud wrestling and weapons – and chose to ban it completely.
Thankfully, then as now, those in the business were nothing if not enterprising. After World War II, they attempted to legitimise the sport, creating a set of agreed rules and titles to fight for. Nationwide, live shows started up again in a form resembling the American territory system, but it was the move to television that really changed things. Individual shows appeared on the regular schedule, with wrestling becoming a full-time fixture of World of Sport in the 1960s and '70s. Wrestlers like Big Daddy and Kendo Nagasaki became household names, cheered and booed by audiences young and old. Professional wrestling was finally mainstream.
The good times didn't last long though, and when the bubble burst, everything fell apart fast. For some, the media's focus on wrestling's fictional elements made a joke of the whole sport. For others, their devotion to the British style was tested by the availability of VHS tapes of shows from America, Japan and beyond. By the end of the 1980s, the live shows were still going but British wrestling was off TV, and even the live audiences started to fall away as promotions encouraged their wrestlers to ape their American counterparts rather than develop their own identities. At the start of the new millennium, it seemed possible that British wrestling would be replaced entirely with a weak parody of the American style.
But the true believers were still out there, determined that this wouldn't be the end of the story. Like the best independent music, wrestling went underground, flourishing in dank bars and basements, far away from the mainstream. Sure, there were still shows for the whole family, Saturday afternoon affairs in holiday camps and leisure centres, but the good stuff, the new stuff, was happening at night in a hard-drinking world of bad language and death matches. Wrestling went punk, and was all the better for it.
This punk rock aesthetic was directly referenced by London promotion Progress Wrestling, set up in 2011 by comedian Jim Smallman. Keen to promote British wrestlers and develop its own style, Progress quickly grew from The Garage in Islington to selling out the Electric Ballroom in Camden. Their DIY approach to building homegrown wrestlers and a loyal local audience has become a feature of the new British wrestling, resulting in a high-quality product that takes the best of global wrestling and gives it a decidedly British spin: more authentic than the American style, harder hitting than the Mexican luchas, and with a darker sense of humour than the Japanese shows. And it's brought the live crowds back in their droves, with major promotions not just in London but in the Midlands, Northern England and Scotland, too.
Ironically, there are fears that this recent success could end up diluting the underground scene in the future. Once the buzz about the British guys got loud enough, America came calling, and the lure of working for the WWE, the biggest wrestling company in the world, was understandably too much for many to resist. The industry will have to change to maintain its audience, but there's no need to fear for its long-term survival. It'll just take a step back, head out of the shiny academies and halls and back into those darker, grimier haunts where its renaissance began. From there, the new crop of fighters and promoters will rise up and rejuvenate British wrestling until it comes back into the light as something different once more. And, whatever that future looks like, London will be at its forefront.