Before Vince McMahon and Hulkamania swept away the old world of professional wrestling in the 1980s and became a world-wide phenomenon if you were a grapple fan looking for a fix of a soap opera in spandex living in the UK, World of Sport was where you looked.
Between the 1960s and late 1980s Saturday afternoons on ITV meant wrestling, with the likes of Mick McManus, Adrian Street, Johnny Saint and Jim Breaks (amongst others) providing wrestling action while Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks provided notoriety and spectacle. Then in the late 80’s the ‘British style’ fell out of favour for the big budget, glossy American product and wrestling in the UK headed to the holiday camps.
Over the last couple of years professional wrestling in the UK has had something of a resurgence thanks to the likes of ICW, RPW, Progress and others and, with the announcement last summer that they were bringing back World Of Sport (WOS) Wrestling with Jim Ross on commentary and a selection of indie stars lined up, it looked like ITV were looking to cash in on this, 30 years after last airing British grappling.
I had been looking forward to WOS Wrestling since the announcement, but tried to maintain a sensible level of anticipation. This was after all going out early evening on ITV so I wasn’t going in expecting ‘strong style’ or ‘hardcore’ wrestling, but more family friendly fun stuff, with some good action built-in. From the opening music and styling though I was dubious as it had the ring of everything that makes ITV’s output problematic – shiny and cheap with a lowest common denominator audience in mind.
The first bout was announced as being for the World Of Sport Championship with two contenders chosen by an unknown ‘committee’, so far ok, this is an old trope of the NWA and WCW, and even the choice of Grado, a perennial good time babyface (blue-eye, fan favourite) seemed to suit the show, even if comparisons to ‘The American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes felt a bit laboured.
His opponent was Dave Mastiff, a terrifying looking 300 pounder who is every part the pro-wrestling heel (bad guy, villain) to counter Grado’s fun loving persona. On his way to the ring, accompanied by Sha Samuels and Johnny Moss as a very imposing team, he cut a promo interrupting one from Grado, both of which felt over simplified and over scripted leading into a short match that felt the same.
The pairing and references on commentary felt self-consciously reverential to the Big Daddy/Giant Haystacks feud but its fair to say pro-wrestling has moved on since then and this was a problem across the show as a whole, along with the fact that the crowd reactions felt false. With such a short match and no real story to it until an interference ending, this didn’t start things off well despite the best efforts of the performers.
After the match we cut backstage to a brief interview with the ‘general manager’, the mysterious Mr Beasley, which felt like an attempt to emulate WWE’s similar backstage segments but fell down on almost all aspects, including the announcement of a Battle Royale at which point the smell of the low-budget mid-90s wrestling shows I remember seeing touring began to get a bit too strong.
After an ad break we heard from some of the genuine British Wrestling legends further hyping the appalling work of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks and ignoring their own great grappling, before a ladder match in some ways akin to WWE’s Money In The Bank gimmick.
The match itself was too short to really get into with four men fighting to reach a briefcase hanging from the ceiling. While I got the feeling at least some of the wrestlers had talent it was lost here as neither character nor any real action got across, largely thanks to some appalling camera work and editing. Anyway the winner, Kenny Williams, advanced to the Battle Royale.
Next up was a women’s match, hyped as the first of its kind on World Of Sport as in the past female wrestlers like Klondike Kate would compete against men, pitting Alexis Rose against Viper. At first I worried this may veer too far into the ‘titillation’ side of women’s wrestling but once they started this wasn’t the case as they put on the hardest hitting contest so far.
Both women’s characters came across and the story was simple but effective with the smaller baby face against the bigger heel. The bigger Viper won and after the opening pair of matches this started to bring me back on board (though the presentation was still all wrong).
Another qualifying match for the Battle Royale came in the form of a tag team match as Mark & Joe Coffey squared off against Rampage and Ashton Smith.
Like the women’s match this was a solid bout with both teams getting across characters and a range of hard-hitting looking action telling a fairly typical but well executed tag match story.
The Coffeys may have looked like they were aping WWE’s The Ascension at first, but I soon got over that and all four men impressed with the brother team getting the win with a nice double team strike combo.
While I was new to most of the wrestlers appearing here Zack Gibson and El Ligero came with something of a reputation that had me excited to see them in action and, once again despite the production, they didn’t disappoint.
Mixing styles of ‘lucha libre’ (Ligero) and a more submission style reminiscent of classic British grappling (Gibson) instantly made for a good story with Ligero looking for his highflying spring-board DDT finisher and Gibson working on Ligero’s arms to set up for his Shankly Gates finishing hold.
Ligero seemed to be slightly hampered by the looseness of the ropes a few times but worked through it like a pro (he wasn’t the only wrestler dealing with an unfamiliar ring, the 20ft WWE sized ‘squared-circle’ seemed far too big for most of them) and the duo told a fine story with real pace and psychology.
Ligero picked up the win with his DDT and really came across as a true fan favourite character that the small audience actually seemed to genuinely get behind while Gibson’s throwback heel character clearly also got to the crowd in the way he should.
After three matches that seemed to be getting things together we got the Battle Royale that instantly switched back to the poor booking that had marked the start of the night.
The initial section was set up to get over Sha Samuels and Johnny Moss, both of whom look like great heels, before surprise entrant ‘The British Bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith Jr (aka Harry Smith) came down to sort out the heels.
Smith has a genuine heritage here as son of the original Bulldog and nephew of Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart, but he was oddly soon eliminated by the heel duo after a few big signature spots, leaving them open for Grado to eliminate destroying any sense of threat they’d built.
After the win Grado suffered a hugely unconvincing knee injury thanks to a beat down from the heels supposedly calling the return match with Mastiff into question…
…of course there was never any real question as Mastiff returned to the ring before Grado made his third entrance of the show and they proceeded to have less a match, more an angle, that saw Mastiff attack Grado’s injured knee before Grado came back to hit his ‘Grado Cutter’ neck breaker for the win and a feel good ending.
In the show’s favour it had three good (one particularly so) matches in the middle with Gibson, Ligero, Rampage and the Coffey brothers coming out looking particularly good and it had Jim Ross on commentary as it’s always good to hear ‘Good Old JR’ back on the mic.
Unfortunately an inconsistent tone and terrible production work meant it looked cheap and above all silly, and when you’re dealing with a product that can already look inherently silly, emphasising this is never a good idea.
Pro-wrestling should suspend disbelief as we invest in characters we love or love-to-hate but all this seemed to do was poke fun at the formula and set back the cause of British pro-wresting 20 years to the dark days of the mid 1990s.
Much like then there are some good performers doing their best who I will investigate elsewhere where their work is respected, but with WOS Wrestling, ITV have created a product that, while it was never intended to appeal to die-hard wrestling fans, I can’t see appealing to anyone else either.
Lets just hope WWE’s United Kingdom Championship Tournament in a few weeks does a better job (I’m confident it will)…