For British wrestling, 2016 was a spectacular coronation party. A scene ignored by mainstream television in this country since 1986, the scene has grown in momentum not unlike the punk movement of 1976, using clever promotion, grassroots hype and high-quality wrestling to gain big domestic and international attention. And as ICW packed over 6,000 people into the Hydro for Fear and Loathing IX and WhatCulture.com threw their weight behind a weekly online-streamed wrestling show and big-budget rosters, some very notable ears were starting to prick up.
Ears belonging to ITV, who decided having given a national platform to the British wrestling scene in the 1970s on the original World of Sport, would do so again on a revived World Of Sport: Wrestling show. And what dropped on New Year’s Eve was effectively a two-hour pilot for a potential new series which, if greenlit, could catapult British wrestling into its own stratosphere given ITV’s widespread availability and peak audience in the tens of millions.
Of course, WWE announcing it’s own UK Championship shortly after the WoS announcement dropped was a TOTAL COINCIDENCE, HONEST.
So given the potential significance of this show on its own, let alone what happened on it, we have to talk about it.
For starters, the presentation was super slick; perhaps too slick for some who are used to traditional indie wrestling PPVs, but ITV went in HARD on the production for this one. Quick-fire camera cuts, slick editing, a bright and colourful studio/arena and a breathless pace meant the show came off like a hyperactive PG-rated cousin to Lucha Underground. But given the original was tea-time family entertainment, this made total sense; if you were hoping for an edgier, smarky product, you should probably have stuck with the ECW section on WWE Network.
The entire show however had to stand or fall on the quality of the wrestling itself. Fortunately, I saw enough to tell me there was plenty of genuine passion and knowledge of the wrestling business sitting around the tables in the production meetings for this one. Hiring arguably the best announcer in wrestling history and arguably the best announcer in the UK scene currently in Jim Ross and Alex Shane respectively was an inspired first step; their commentary painted each story being told in broad brushstrokes, but both men successfully made the show feel like a big deal, got you invested in the matches and the in-ring characters, and were on their respective A-games; any doubts that JR can’t still go on the mic are totally unfounded. Shane also gets bonus points for sneaking in a South Park ‘HE KILLED KENNY!’ reference after Kenny Williams ate a suplex off a ladder. Nice.
From an in-ring perspective, the show felt like a stacked episode of Smackdown LIVE. It was an incredibly stacked deck, with a World of Sport World Championship match STARTING the show (hello, WWE No Mercy 2016) between Grado and Dave Mastiff – and after interference from Mastiff’s cornermen Johnny Moss and Sha Samuels cost Grado the match, a backstage brawl between both parties caused newly introduced General Manager Mr Beesley (Max Beesley Snr.) to declare that Mastiff would defend the title in the show’s main event, with the Number #1 Contender being decided in a Battle Royal. And while we’re here, can we get a shoutout to both GM Beesley and backstage interviewer Rachael Stringer? After years of seeing heel authority figures and browbeaten, awkward backstage personalities on WWE TV, how refreshing was it to see babyface Beesley go all Jack Tunney and browbeat the heels out of his office, and Stringer get up in the heels’ faces and call out their shit. Gotta agree with Adam Pacitti on this one; Beesley is MONEY as GM.
We then had a whistle-stop tour of Wrestling 101; a Money in the Bank ladder match (no, seriously), followed by a historic first EVER Women’s match in WOSW, a tag team match, and one more singles match with all except the women’s match offering qualifying spots to the Number #1 Contender battle royal. Way to make everything feel important, huh?
Perhaps it was the feeling of it being the odd one out in terms of what was at stake, but the women’s match was probably the weakest of all four; certainly not a dud by any means, and The Viper’s cocky monster heel schtick – think Nia Jax meets Kevin Owens – was pretty entertaining. Maybe Alexis Rose and her just didn’t gel together as well as the other matches? It happens. Still, the Viper went over, and I’d love to see the likes of Nixon Newell and Bea Priestley tangle in there to create a competitive Women’s Division going forward.
The ladder match was high-octane cruiserweight-style action, and really good fun. ICW Zero-G Champion Kenny Williams (nice Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon aesthetic, dude) made a fan of me in short order, and he and Sam Bailey were the stars of this one with heels Delicious Danny (a former soccer player) and CJ Banks working smoothly alongside them. Props to all four guys here for a really fun match and some fun high-flying spots and planchas.
This was topped however by both the tag match, pitting the Coffey brothers against PROGRESS Atlas Champ Rampage Brown (Blampied, stop hiding behind the sofa) and Ashton Smith, and the excellent singles match between El Ligero and Zack Gibson. The latter featured nice contrasting styles as Gibson worked over Ligero’s arm and tried to limit his high-flying abilities, to not much avail in the end as Ligero hit the C4L tornado DDT for the win after a long slugfest of a match, and the former had the story of which team’s bond would be stronger being told and Joe Coffey running wild in a brilliant hot-tag sequence. If you go back and re-watch this show for anything, make it those two matches; both were hella fun.
The Battle Royal saw most of the babyfaces eliminated in fairly quick succession at the hands of Moss and Samuels, setting up the surprise final entrant in the match; and in true Royal Rumble fashion, halfway through we had Davey Boy Smith Jr (the former DH Smith of the Hart Dynasty) enter for the big pop. Given his father was a star fostered on the original WoS show and one of British wrestling’s most iconic names, his arrival as a surprise entrant was awesome, and he mixed it up with Samuels and Moss in some entertaining exchanges filled with crisp suplexes, dropkicks and Ric Flair backhand chops. He eventually got eliminated just in time for Grado to make the big comeback and eliminate the heels, and would save Grado from further post-match beatdowns.
So we end up right back where started for our MAIN EVENT: Dave Mastiff once again going against Grado for the WOS Title, but this time with referee Steve Lynskey banning Samuels and Moss from ringside. Grado had taken a battering in the Battle Royal and had been carried away by paramedics, and despite their attentions made it out for the match; and whilst this was your classic Daniel Bryan-style story, I actually think too much of the final half-hour of the show, including the main event itself, was sacrificed in favour of this narrative. Perhaps it was the editing leaving the match feeling rushed to a conclusion due to time constraints, but the main event felt weirdly flat; Mastiff working big-man-heel before a sudden comeback from a previously completely immobile Grado leading to an RK-Grado-Outta-Nowhere for the 3-count and the title. Sure it was a great feelgood moment and the entire show was geared towards Grado climbing the mountain, and he plays the entertaining ‘Scottish Dusty Rhodes’ (Alex Shane’s words) gimmick to perfection, but perhaps with smoother editing and pacing the conclusion would’ve worked better. Still better than being booed off the air, right Roman Reigns?
Being real though here; those are nit-picks. It was obvious they were bringing back the old ‘Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks’ dynamic for the 21st Century, and given how many video packages they put together for those legends of WoS, they worked hard to both a) let you know just how big a deal those legends were in decades gone by and b) present the wrestlers in front of you now as superstars on their level. And it worked. The show overall felt like a big occasion. And let’s give a hat tip to the crowd; in spite of some concerns about the TV studio setup killing the natural atmosphere of a wrestling crowd (being told not to do the ‘ONE FALL!’ shout, for example), they were vocal and vociferous throughout, and as Blampied pointed out on Twitter, how refreshing was it to hear straight cheers and chants for the babyfaces and loud boos for the heels?
So yeah, there were gripes. Maybe slightly less ADHD camera cuts next time, and I can definitely do without getting heels to do the ‘don’t try this at home’ segments to the audience. But overall, WOSW succeeded at what it set out to do; legitimise wrestling and present it as big-time family entertainment on a mainstream platform. The BARB reported an overnight rating of 1.25 million viewers, and given that number doesn’t incorporate on-demand and catchup viewings (notable given it was NYE and up against a HUGE Premier League match), whether that’s enough to turn it into a full series remains to be seen.
Here’s hoping. Or if you’re WWE…perhaps here’s hoping not?