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Each weekend throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland, dozens of wrestling promotions hold events in front of sold-out audiences. From Brighton on the south shore of England to National Stadium in Dublin, professional wrestling is as hot in the that part of Europe as it has ever been.
The audiences for each show may not be enormous; the biggest shows may do a couple of thousand of fans while most shows attract between 300-700 fans, but the volume and the passion of the crowd is unmatched in any other part of the world. Fans are not just customers who purchased a ticket, with creative chants and rowdy attitudes, the audience can be as big of a part of the show as any world champion.
The independent scene in these countries has exploded over the last decade, with new promotions cropping up seemingly every week. British (and Irish) wrestling talent have become some of the biggest names in the industry, and more and more wrestlers from abroad are finding a home in the British Isles.
With that interest in mind, the market in Britain and Ireland has become a cutthroat business, with everyone wanting a piece of the pie. Not only are the independent promoters competing against each other, but the largest wrestling companies in the world, WWE and New Japan Pro Wrestling, have also begun making investments in the market. With WWE announcing a strict set of guidelines for contracted U.K. talent last November, it's unclear if the scene will continue to thrive and promote a diverse group of wrestling.
The Wrestling World Catches Up With The U.K.
The United Kingdom and Ireland have always been an important market for professional wrestling. Ireland produced Danno O'Mahoney, one of the great drawing cards of the 1930s, as well as Steve Casey. The U.K. has a long history of producing technically superior wrestlers, including Bert Assirati, Billy Robinson, Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith, among others; and in modern times has been a key market for WWE. For decades, wrestling was a staple on television and names like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks remain household names in the U.K.
However as WWE manifested itself as the global leader in professional wrestling, professional wrestling inside the U.K., not unlike many of the territories, began to wane. It was not until the late 2000s, shortly after independent wrestling began to establish itself in the US, that a real sense of British independent wrestling began to take shape. Over the next ten years, promotions such as Progress Wrestling, Revolution Pro Wrestling, Preston City Wrestling, Over the Top Wrestling, Insane Championship Wrestling, Fight Club Pro and many others would establish successful products featuring talent from all over the British Isles. The promotions would gain a cult following of passionate fans, willing to travel all over the country and quickly gain notoriety for their exceptional showcase of talent.
It's not surprising that independent wrestling would thrive in the U.K. Independent wrestling values smaller workers and technical quality at a higher level than more "mainstream" wrestling; something that the U.K. market has traditionally been more accepting of. For years, undersized wrestlers, from the original Tiger Mask to Daniel Bryan, would cut their teeth on the British scene before finding major success in larger promotions.
The British independent scene has also been prolific at churning out young talent. Part of this is due to the number of promotions in such a densely packed area. Talent in the U.K. can easily work in four or five different cities per week, working against different opponents and learning different styles, from lucha libre to Japanese strong style. Millie McKenzie is already one of the top female wrestlers in the world at the age of 18, no doubt in part because in 2018 she worked 111 matches for 20 different promotions. The same can be said for plenty of other young standouts, including Tyler Bate, Will Ospreay, Pete Dunne, Jordan Devlin, Joe Hendry, Toni Storm and a bunch of other names that flesh out the scene.
However, the era of talent being able to work with an incredible diverse cast of opponents and promotions is likely coming to an end. In the interest of launching their own UK promotion under the NXT brand, WWE has announced enhanced restrictions on the use of contracted talent by outside promotions, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere for promoters and fans.
The WWE comes knocking
The U.K. has been a valuable market for the WWE for decades; and the television deal WWE has with Sky Sports is, along with their Indian TV contract, the most lucrative deal for the company outside of the United States. WWE has seen the growth of the industry inside the U.K., and over the last couple of years has made tremendous advances on capitalizing on the market outside of a couple of shows each year.
The launch of NXT U.K. has been not subtly aimed at derailing competition from WWE within the U.K. market. It's not a coincidence that the brand was announced during the same period that ITV (one of the largest television networks in the U.K.) was planning on bringing back a version of their old wrestling show, which was a ratings success in the 1970s and 80s. Afraid of the relatively small gains that independent promotions in the U.K. had made, and threatened by a large television company introducing an alternative wrestling format to a larger audience, WWE set out on acquiring their own exclusive talent to build their own brand for the U.K. and Ireland.
Under the original concept, WWE acquired top British talent such as Bate, Dunne, Trent Seven, Wolfgang and others, with the idea that they could still work all of their typical independent dates, but WWE would have first dibs on bringing the talent in for events. The contracted talent was allowed to work for all other promotions with the exception of the ITV promotion, and other promotions that had television deals (including Ring of Honor, Impact Wrestling and Lucha Underground). For the talent it was a pretty sweet deal, they could still work for most of their regular dates and also appear on WWE programming.
Things have changed since then, with WWE becoming increasingly restrictive over the use of their talent. This culminated when last month WWE announced a new set of rules for contracted U.K. talent. This included tiering talent by their importance to WWE (and also their likely drawing power in other promotions) enacting harsher restrictions on their biggest stars.
Tier 1 talent have contracts similar to American NXT contracted wrestlers, in that they cannot perform for any other promotions outside of WWE, with the exception of a few independent promotions that have become somewhat aligned with WWE (Progress Wrestling, Insane Championship Wrestling, Over the Top Wrestling and a few other promotions) and even then they cannot appear on streaming or Video on Demand services. This is similar to how WWE has allowed certain NXT talent appear on dark matches for EVOLVE shows. Tier 1 talent includes the biggest names in NXT U.K., including Bate, Seven, Dunne, Storm, Gibson and many others.
Tier 2 talent is structured similarly to Tier 1, except that talent can appear on streaming and Video On Demand services. The final tier, Tier 3, is structured similarly to the previously arranged NXT U.K. contracts, where talent can work for any promotion with the exception of promotions that have television.
Perhaps the biggest blow is a seperate rule WWE has enacted, that states that all contracted talent cannot work with wrestlers that are contracted to other, rival promotions. That ends any possibility of big dream matches between top NXT UK names and other major names outside of WWE. A talent like Pete Dunne will no longer be permitted to wrestle Will Ospreay, Zack Sabre Jr., or anyone affiliated with New Japan Pro Wrestling, nor with anyone from Ring of Honor, or Impact.
For promoters this has obviously complicated matters. Building a card for a major show has turned into a minefield as promoters now have to make sure that the wrestlers affiliated with WWE and the wrestlers affiliated with rival promotions do not interact on cards; putting to rest many dream matches that promoters may have in mind.
For the wrestlers, the days of being able to work freely with a wide range of opponents may be in the past. The uniqueness of the British wrestling scene that allowed wrestlers to work for dozens of promotions and hundreds of opponents each year, has ended for a lot of talent. The line in the sand is now wrestlers are either with WWE, or against them; which is shame since one of the key aspects of British wrestling has been the amazing diversity displayed on every show. Now WWE talent will be mostly restricted to working with other WWE talent, which can still lead to a lot of success, but will possibly hamper the rapid skill develop the U.K. has been known for.
For a few years, the UK scene may have been like the wild west, with essentially no restrictions put in place, wrestlers were free to work for whoever would be willing to pay them, and they would be able to work with any opponent they could find. That freedom led to a tremendous growth in their fanbase, but as with most things that find success, once more money began to be made in the industry, restrictions and rules began to be put in place. The strength of the UK and Ireland has been it's dedicated fanbase and its ability to rapidly develop new talent, and while both traditions should be able to endure this new wave of rules and restrictions, the west has been settled and controlled by monopolied interests, perhaps bringing a close to a golden age of wrestling.