In the late 1950's United States, blues music, a uniquely American art form, was at death's door as an industry. It's pioneers and icons, men like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, were performing in relative obscurity, and the fate of many a bluesman was to die broken financially, with substance abuse often a contributor.
The promoters--or producers--made most of the profit off anyone lucky enough to sign a one-sided talent contract, and mainstream TV or radio exposure was fleeting if not nonexistant. Relegated to niche charts referred to as "race music"--i.e. any music performed by non-whites--for decades, blues had recently been lumped into the "Rhythym & Blues" category. It was still a nice way to say "colored people's" music, and there was more rhythym than blues in most of the chart hits there. Those crazy kids Chuck Berry and Little Richard were even swiping a few blues licks and putting them in that new stuff they called Rock & Roll. But scarcely anyone in the States, much less middle-class, suburban white kids, were listening to the classic blues--the raw, rough around the edges, REAL stuff you got from going to the indy clubs in Chicago or the juke joints in Mississippi listening to the veterans, not the show-biz, homogenized stuff with singers in tuxedos you got on Dick Clark's American Bandstand.
Sounds a lot like the wrestling business, doesn't it?
Except blues had fans in the right places. Like England, for instance. A 1958 Muddy Waters tour electrified the music scene there, and made blues fans out of the kids who would become the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and many of the other greatest musicians of all time. The old artists, forgotten in their home country, became stars in the United Kingdom, the kids who grew up watching them there paid homage to them in their own careers, and by the late 1960's, the blues--and the bluesmen--were experiencing a performing and recording renaissance in America that led to them making more money and gaining more notoriety in the twilights of their careers than they ever had when they were fulltime practitioners of the genre decades beforehand.
Let's hope the wrestling business follows suit on the rest of that. Because England is certainly doing her part.
I was gobsmacked to see during my ten days there in early October that England has become the center of the pro wrestling universe, at least for anything that doesn't involve World Wrestling Entertainment. And don't get me wrong--the WWE is probably more popular per capita in the UK than in the US, if my observations are anywhere near accurate. But England, Scotland and Ireland all love their own, home-grown wrestling promotions these days, and have more of them that are actually doing credible business than the States.
If you're reading this magazine, it's probable that you have more than a passing knowledge of TNA--or IMPACT Wrestling, or whatever they're calling it this week--having major financial problems and dissolving into a mass of lawsuits. CHALLENGE TV has dropped them in the UK. Up until recently, TNA did a decent job of convincing a lot of people it was the number 2 wrestling promotion in America. Truth be known, that horse left the barn a few years ago, and Ring of Honor has been the second biggest overall for awhile. Despite the fact TNA has not run an event it charged admission to in the States for over two years, and has merely subsisted on declining TV rights fees while being a non-entity in live events, pay-per-views or merchandising, the company could still come to the UK once a year, draw big crowds and look halfway major league.
To show you how much of that major-league feel was due to the UK fans' reception, this year there is no tour because they can't afford the trip.
I cite Ring of Honor as the number two promotion in the US because of it's powerhouse lineup of local broadcast TV stations in some 70 markets with between half a million and a million viewers each week. Still, for live events, ROH doesn't draw much over 1000 fans anywhere except New York City and Toronto, metro areas of better than ten million people. Neither does any other local or regional promotion in America except for Big Time Wrestling and Northeast Wrestling, two companies which run events featuring past legends and current big names in both matches and autograph signing capacities, which draw between one and two thousand fans in hot wrestling markets once or twice a year.
I was just personally involved in two wrestling events in England over a three day time period only a few hundred miles apart, one of which drew a sellout 1000 fans A WEEK IN ADVANCE, and the other which drew over 2500 red hot, raving spectators. Both were promoted by the same company, WhatCulture Pro Wrestling, and other promotions there that I heard about are doing as well, even better. PROGRESS wrestling recently drew over 2000 fans. Everybody has taken notice of ICW's success and they're going to draw the biggest native British crowd in the last 30 years soon. Just after I returned home to the States, it was announced that ITV would be shooting a World of Sport pilot. It seems the whole UK is going wrestling crazy, and it's exciting to see that again after years of being used to wrestling's doldrums here in the States.
To what do I attribute this development, you ask? Well, you never know for sure, but I can offer a few observations. Firstly, I think it has to do with respect. Now I'm sure there's some of the other kind of folks in the business there in England just like there is here in the States, but almost everyone I met and worked with--the office staff and talent roster for WhatCulture Pro Wrestling, Kenny MacIntosh and his Inside The Ropes crew, even the fans at the fanfests and meet & greets--all seemed to have a higher level of respect for the sport of wrestling in general, and they all treated me like a King as a talent and a guest. As a talent you want to go the extra mile for the promotions and the fans that treat you well, and as a fan you appreciate the effort it took the star to get there and don't take getting to see them live for granted as many fans do here in the US. The wrestlers themselves seemed to work hard and sense a spark in the business that makes it fun to be a part of.
This doesn't seem to me like a "fad" that "American wrestling" is hot and people in England are suddenly buying it. This felt to me like wrestling itself was hot, and the fans enjoyed seeing the best of the British scene combined with names from the national TV 1990's and the current day in person and on the same cards. And the opportunity is still more novel there of actually getting to meet the "legends". The Inside The Ropes Evening with Jim Ross and myself is an example.
Once again, in the States, the wrestling personalities who can draw more than a few hundred fans to a one man show, Q&A type presentation are rare, and while Jim Ross pretty much holds the attendance records for those type events, even his bigger ones are usually scheduled the night before a major WWE PPV event like Wrestlemania. In this case JR and I--I joked that I looked like JR's delinquent nephew that had wandered away from a government home--filled every one of the roughly 500 seats on a Wednesday night in London. I was flattered by the turnout, but to be honest a lot of it had to do with Kenny MacIntosh's hard work. Over the past few years Kenny has established these Inside The Ropes events all over the UK as having the biggest names and being of the best quality, so it's easier to fill the hall when folks know they're going to get their money's worth. Kenny worked overtime to arrange Bret Hart's "unscheduled" run-in at the end of our Q&A, and the fans threw babies in the air. The fans who attended somehow managed to be mostly polite but knowledgeable and discerning at the same time, and everyone had fun--even the guests themselves.
The WCPW iPPV held in Newcastle was, of course, the broadcasting reunion of JR and I. It had been over ten years since we had done Ohio Valley Wrestling TV together, and over 15 years since we had done national TV or Pay Per View for the NWA, WCW and WWF. I have to admit, the only bulletproof job in wrestling is being JR's broadcast partner, because you're going to sound better than anyone else even if you don't say anything, just by working with Jim. But also, I was pleased to find that the production equipment and crew were easy to work with, and the show itself was exciting and fun to call. I understand that while the FITE app worked perfectly, there were problems with the live stream on WhatCulture's site that were corrected in replays. Maybe it's just the Curse of Cornette on iPPV, but from an announcing standpoint this layout was network TV compared to GoFightLive's technical "experts" on the old ROH iPPV broadcasts.
The talent was a step above normal independent wrestling. Kurt Angle, who wrestles more in the UK than he does the US these days, headlined, and Cody Rhodes was involved in a feature match, plus Bret Hart addressed the audience. There was "name" talent on the card to be sure. But I was also impressed at how the "local" talent, often an afterthought in these "star-studded" affairs, were not only featured as prominently as the "stars", but were actually as "over", and carried their weight on the card admirably.
The Refuse To Lose iPPV was built around Angle vs. a "Local Hero"--literally. "Local Hero" Joe Hendry, for whom that name started as something of a comedy bit in his native Scotland barely three years ago, was in the main event and featured in all the advertising as the "Local Hero" vs. the "American Hero", and the match brought the fans to their feet at the end as Hendry hung with Angle and earned his--and their--respect.
But in Manchester a few days later, it was WCPW Champion Joseph Connors and his ex-partner, now number one rival Hendry doing their best to steal the spotlight from the other half of the double main event, Angle vs. Rhodes in a Dream Match. The fans knew their backstory, their signature moves, and who to cheer and who to boo, and these two guys tore the house down there as well. It's a tribute to WCPW and the native, UK based talent they book that wrestlers like Hendry and Connors, even the ring announcers are personalities in their own right who the interactive audiences have their own chants and reactions for. This has all happened in a short period of time.
WCPW is operated by the WhatCulture website, which has an amazing online presence. They recognized that a large percentage of their site's fanbase and customers were into wrestling too, and while they've begun drawing these large crowds, the promotion itself is still in it's rookie year. In 2014, Hendry was a promising rookie in Scotland that actually defeated me in a Burger Eating Contest in Glasgow during my first trip there. On that same 2014 tour, Connors attended a wrestling school seminar in Nottingham that I guested at, never dreaming that less than three years later he would defend a promotion's World Championship on a show called by Jim Ross and myself. When wrestling starts getting hot, things happen quickly. Up and down the cards, it was clear the vast majority of the audience was familiar with the wrestlers' backgrounds and the history of their rivalries, either through the promotion's YouTube shows or social media. Alex Shane and Dave Bradshaw, both of whom I had the pleasure of working with while I was there, do a fantastic job of educating the audiences as the "presenters"--that's English for "announcers". I learn something different every time I go!
A couple of guys who deserve a nod are WhatCulture personalities Adam Blampied and Adam Pacitti. At first I was dubious, to put it mildly, about WhatCulture's on-camera personalities becoming wrestling personalities, but--at least in their case--it's worked. These two both have stronger online followings than a lot of American wrestlers who've been in the business for a decade--and they are as over with the fans as the wrestlers. In Blampied's case, he genuinely tickled me with a classic "heel manager trying to weasel out of being slaughtered by the babyface" promo before showing he was a trouper and getting destroyed and carried out. WCPW's James Dixon does an incredible job behind the camera, and along with Kenny Mac they are the company's two best "talent wranglers", being able to get large numbers of diverse talents to the same location and working together. Not only the WCPW promotion, but ALL of the major companies across the UK, have really put something together with the fans when it comes to a pro wrestling resurgence, and it was fun to see and be a part of.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my return trip to England--except for the lack of ice and really cold soft drinks, but we've covered that elsewhere--and I had a ball at the wrestling shows. UK wrestling IS on a roll right now, and maybe some of these young lions will be the future equivalents of the Beatles and the Stones. When they get big enough, they'll cross over to America and lead a resurgence in wrestling's popularity, ushering in a Golden Age and taking the sport to undreamt of heights.
Okay, that may be a little grandiose. But never put ANYTHING past a kid that can beat Jim Cornette in a Burger eating Contest.