With WWE’s mainstream programming featuring a stronger wrestling element than in a long time, the development of NXT and last summer’s Cruiserweight Classic tournament, along with a genuinely stellar line up at NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 and the boom in the British wrestling scene (from Progress and ICW to the return of World of Sport to TV), it’s fair to say that in some ways professional wrestling is in something of a peak period, at least in terms of quality available and accessibility to it.
Within this WWE have now responded to the British wrestling boom in particular with the first ever United Kingdom Championship Tournament, held over two nights at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool.
I will say that going in to this my expectations and hopes were high, particularly following the disappointment of World of Sport, so when Triple H emerged to kick off the show with his customary ‘Are you ready?’ things certainly seemed to be in the right track.
The introduction to the show by commentators Michael Cole (on the best form I’ve possibly ever heard) and newcomer, modern Brit-wrestling legend, Nigel McGuinness only helped to develop that before, without much further ado, we cut to the introductions of the first two competitors.
Before each match we were treated to short videos about each wrestler that told us just enough to let us know who they were but not so much to dictate everything we would expect to see, leaving it up to the performers to tell the story in the ring.
Trent Seven vs H.C. Dyer
Being one of the most recognisable competitors Trent Seven entered to a strong reaction backed up by comparisons on commentary to legends like Fit Finlay and Marty Jones and the fact Seven holds the Progress Wrestling tag team championships (with fellow competitor Tyler Bate).
The match itself was solid stuff from both men but it never felt anything but Seven’s show with the crowd chanting ‘Moustache Mountain’ for him and he being the centre of attention throughout.
The pair told a nice story around a hand injury to Seven and Dyer hit a nice pop-up spinebuster for a near fall, but it was the Seven Stars Lariat (a close relative of Kazuchika Okada’s Rainmaker) that secured the win for Seven who came across as true star with huge charisma and great in-ring skills.
Being in the Empress Ballroom gave the event a genuinely impressive feel and this was backed up by exterior shots of the Blackpool tower bringing a real sense of authentic grandeur to things. Something of a big WWE show but with a twist, helped by an English ring announcer and the presence of McGuinness of commentary.
Jordan Devlin vs Danny Burch
Danny Burch is a face familiar as something of a jobber on NXT TV shows who has never really shown a great deal of character beyond being a generic British hard man. While that was still present here his overall presentation built on this before the match even started and he felt like a legitimate contender.
Equally legitimate was the much younger Irishman Jordan Devlin, however even before the match started the comparisons and references to fellow Bray native Finn Balor were becoming a bit tiresome.
The match itself was slower getting going than I expected with a more ‘sport’ feel than many. As it went on though Devlin’s reaction to the crowd saw him grow into the match’s heel and the pace picked up as Burch made a comeback with speed, strikes and an impactful lariat.
A spinning enziguri roundhouse-kick busted Burch’s head open leading to a controversial pinfall win for Devlin that didn’t impress the crowd and was confusing as a TV viewer as well. While this was probably the weakest moment of the whole tournament a swift superkick after the match from Devlin did a great job of getting him firmly across as the villain while I would hope his performance here will see Burch elevated back in NXT.
While this match wasn’t the best it could have been it began to inject a little story into the tournament that was much-needed, while not at the expense of the wrestling. I can only think this is something WWE have learnt after the near total lack of story in the CWC that has made it hard for some the wrestlers to establish characters as they have moved on.
‘Muscle Cat’ Saxon Huxley vs Sam Gradwell
Being the first competitor to not be wearing black trunks made Saxon Huxley stand out from the pack though the mish-mash of appearance and character didn’t gel well and it wasn’t long before the crowd leapt on his long hair and beard with a fine range of Jesus related chants that were hilarious and showed exactly what British fans are good at (even if they caused a bit of controversy across the pond).
Gradwell on the other hand looks like a legit young hooligan and with more comparisons to legends like Marty Jones and Johnny Saint he came with a pedigree.
While the pair put on a solid match this one was all about the fan interaction with Gradwell certainly getting the better of it and getting the win with a Dynamite Kid style flying headbutt.
‘The Bruiserweight’ Pete Dunne vs Roy Johnson
Since the announcement of the tournament one name and face has stood out from the pack across all the promotion, that of Progress Wrestling world champion ‘The Brusierweight’ Pete Dunne and, as he made his entrance here looking like a pissed off pit bull ready to tear his opponent apart, it was obvious why.
Roy Johnson on the other hand was a far flashier looking performer and rare in this contest for being a sportsman before becoming a wrestler as a former power lifter.
Both men played their parts here very well but it was, of course, Dunne who was the highlight as he gradually picked apart the tenacious Johnson in a way reminiscent of the men whose colours he wore, Daniel Bryan and Blackpool’s own William Regal. This culminated in Dunne’s trademark pair of moves the X-Plex release vertical suplex and The Bitter End pump-handle flatliner that got him an unsurprising but emphatic win.
Having not seem a lot of Dunne before but being aware of his reputation, even at this early stage of the tournament he surpassed my expectations as he came across like a legitimate star and genuinely terrifying grappler.
Across the show as a whole it was very encouraging to hear WWE promoting some of the smaller independent British promotions and this was highlighted by the owners of both Progress Wrestling and ICW getting some screen time on the show. This points to good things for the future of WWE’s presence in the UK and relationship with both wrestlers and fans alike as it’s fair to say the fans of Progress and ICW support their ‘team’ just as much as the individual competitors.
‘The Last King of Scotland’ Wolfgang vs Tyson T-Bone
After quite a number of matches featuring smaller competitors, this one had the makings of a classic big man brawl and it didn’t disappoint. T-Bone came across as an impactful fighter from the start hitting a headbutt over the handshake before the pair went back and forth.
As the match went on it was ICW World Heavyweight Champion Wolfgang who really stood out with an incredible turn of speed for a big man giving the match a good dynamic of flashy stuff mixed in with the brawling.
Wolfgang though never looked like he was going to lose and sealed his win with The Howling Swanton Bomb.
Joseph Connors vs James Drake
While these two guys seemed to have a fairly similar look and style, it was Connors who stood out thanks to a partially missing ear that was used really well to tell his tough man story as he was reportedly left for dead after a fight in a night club leading to the disfigurement and he played up to it well – a bit like a modern Mankind.
After a great strong collar and elbow tie up opening, the match was very even and the ear came into play from both sides with Drake trying to attack Connors’ ‘injury’ and Connors looking to inflict similar brutality on his opponent.
After a very equal match it was Connors who got in his finishing combination of a reverse-elbow backbreaker (a very slick move I’ve not seen before) and his Don’t Look Down uranagi DDT to move on to the next round.
Mark Andrews vs Dan Moloney
Having had quite a storied career already, including a foray into US wrestling company TNA, Cardiff’s Mark Andrews (aka Mandrews) was something of a known commodity as a top-level high flyer. His opponent on the other hand, while perfectly fine left little impression and really that was the story of the match.
Throughout there was probably the clearest face/heel dynamic of the first round and Mandrews certainly looked like a star from the moment he stepped through the curtain. Getting in some nice high-flying action he got the win with his Stundog Millionaire counter (transforming his opponents’ suplex into a Stunner in slightly over convoluted fashion) and a very slick Shooting Star Press.
Tyler Bate vs Tucker
At just 19 years old it was very impressive to see Tyler Bate, the third member of British Strong Style with Dunne and Seven, headlining this first night – though he was playing the out-and-out babyface here.
Tucker was also playing face and the crowd loved both of them, but Bate just a little more as they put on a great show. The duo delivered a good back and forth but it was Bate’s slightly old school stylings that stood out with an airplane spin particularly marking this.
Tucker connected with a brutal super kick that looked like it would get him the win but Bate fought through and connected with his Tyler Driver 97 (a high angle Tiger Driver) to round of an excellent opening show of the tournament with real feeling wrestling matches accompanied by great character work and an amazing atmosphere.
The show concluded with the matches for the quarter finals being announced with the competitors on the stage and it was Pete Dunne who confirmed his impact with an attack on Sam Gradwell culminating in an X-Plex on the ramp and William Regal calling for his disqualification as the show went off the air.
After the close of the previous night’s show it wasn’t too surprising that Pete Dunne featured strongly in the intro for night two and we didn’t have long to wait as, after recap from Cole and McGuinness, the first match got underway.
Pete Dunne vs Sam Gradwell
With his back taped up due to the previous night’s injury Gradwell was in fine angry form and he and Dunne kicked the night off with an intense brawl both inside and outside the ring leading to Gradwell getting a modicum of revenge with a butterfly suplex on the ramp.
Things turned soon after though with Dunne sending Gradwell tumbling to the floor further injuring his back before hitting a nasty looking slam into the turnbuckles, landing Gradwell on his head, for the win in a short, sharp, stiff and effective match.
After a post match Bitter End, Dunne cut a short promo on the stage and proved that he was a complete all round package of a pro-wrestler and at this stage was my pick to win the championship at the end of the night.
Mark Andrews vs Joseph Connors
In contrast to the last match Andrews kicked this off with a fast and athletic back and forth with Connors before the bigger man slowed it down and got the upper hand.
With more action outside the ring Andrews hit a nice cannonball off the barricade before being on the receiving end of a slingshot flatliner as the crowd cheered both men on.
Much like the first round though it was Mandrews who reversed a suplex and hit his top rope dive to progress. While I and the crowd would have been happy with either man winning Mandrews really feels like he deserves this, though maybe he didn’t deserve to have to face off with ‘The Bruiserweight’ later.
Wolfgang vs Trent Seven
With the two biggest remaining competitors facing off this one promised to be a hard-hitting affair and it certainly was.
Both guys come with big characters the crowd loved and that seemed to fuel them through a brawl outside the ring, including a moonsault off the barricade from the 250lb Wolfgang and low-level suicide dive from Seven.
Back in the ring Seven called for his ‘Lariatooo!’ but was revered leading to Wolfgang’s Wasteland and a missed moonsault followed by a nasty dragon suplex. With his nose streaming blood and possibly broken Wolfgang shocked everyone by surviving the Seven Stars and hitting The Howling to progress after a match that, at this stage, was a sure-fire highlight.
Jordan Devlin vs Tyler Bate
With more comparisons to Finn Balor, Devlin really played up his antics from last night as the crowd chanted ‘Your just a shit Finn Balor!’ in their typically unsubtle fashion while Bate was clearly the tournament’s fan favourite.
Despite this all becoming a bit too heavy on suicide dives the technical stuff here between the two was spot on as it built to a great airplane spin spot, developing on last night’s, before Devlin used the ropes on Bate’s eyes to regain the advantage and hit his spinning kick.
Surviving that though Bate hit his Bop And Bang sucker punch to set up the Tyler Driver 97 and win, showing himself to be a fine technical performer with even more excellent character work.
Mark Andrews vs Pete Dunne
Heading into the semi-finals this was the second match of the night for both men and it was clear that Andrews had the tougher path here, but the duo went at it at a pace from the off with Dunne showing another side keeping up with Andrews speedy high-flying.
With arm drag reversals and big moves galore, including a huricanrana from the ring steps, Andrews had many close falls before Dunne turned the tide with a modified X-Plex onto the ring apron.
Dunne’s strong style attack continued with some vicious looking stomps to Andrews head and neck building on a nice little neck injury story that developed across the match but Andrews still managed to counter an X-Plex into the Stundog and go for the Shooting Star.
Driving his knee’s to Andrew’s gut, Dunne countered and sealed his place in the final with a German Suplex into the turnbuckle another X-Plex and The Bitter End to round off what was arguably the match of the tournament.
Wolfgang vs Tyler Bate
On paper this was a huge mismatch with the biggest guy in the tournament squaring off against one of the smallest, but, thanks to a shoulder injury and broken nose, things were more even and a swift jab to Wolfgang’s face only helped Bate’s cause.
Despite the injuries Wolfgang put on a power display against his smaller opponent and even missing an early attempt at The Howling didn’t seem to slow him down.
As the crowd reached a crescendo that would barely let up for the rest of the night it was Bate who shocked everyone by hitting his Tyler Driver 97 on the big man to win a shorter but still sweet contest and earn his place in the final.
The celebration was short-lived though as Pete Dunne continued his tear across the tourney by attacking Bate from behind and twice driving him shoulder first into the ring post before being run off again by William Regal and setting up a final with great heat and a great story between these two superb performers.
Adrian Neville vs ?
Having been missed out of the Cruiserweight Classic last summer and now not in this tournament, Newcastle born grappler Adrian Neville was on hand to continue his very successful heel turn in front of this comparatively local crowd, and turn well he did.
Of course having this match gave Dunne and Bate a chance to have a break but also worked well to further establish Neville’s new bitter bad guy persona which is far better than his past bland baby face superhero and the crowd ate it up as he claimed no one could beat him, not just in the UK but all of Europe.
At this challenge new WWE signee and regular performer on the UK scene, Amsterdam born fighter, Tommy End appeared making his on-screen WWE debut (before becoming Aleister Black in NXT full-time).
The pair put on a great little exhibition that, even if not at full pace was still hugely entertaining and seemed to merely hint at End’s capabilities. After some amazing strikes from End, Neville got the upper hand with a standing top rope hurricanrana that set up for The Red Arrow giving the Englishman the win to a rain of boos.
Following an appearance at a Progress show in Birmingham earlier in the day Finn Balor was on back in Blackpool ahead of the final and, while the ‘We deserve this’ chant from the crowd was a little grating it was hard to argue that the UK really has deserved something special for a long time being such a hotbed of wrestling action over the years.
WWE United Kingdom Championship
Tyler Bate vs Pete Dunne
With Bate selling the shoulder injury and Dunne the confident and vicious heel the scene was well set for a British Strong Style final that didn’t disappoint.
The crowd was chanting ‘British Wrestling’ early, clearly still split over who they wanted to win of these two rather different (here at least) grapplers.
Soon though the story took over and they got behind Bate as the pair delivered some stiff work that built and built to a crescendo for the whole weekend.
Once again Bate’s airplane spin grew into a back to back to back trio of them and a 450 double stomp looked set to finish off Dunne, but it didn’t.
Dunne came back with a Bitter End before locking in a Kimura double wrist lock that Bate reversed into a nasty looking brainbuster that still didn’t get him the win.
With things hitting their peak another stiff striking exchange came to an end with a pair of rolling wheel kicks from Bate setting up a Tyler Driver 97 for the three count making him the first ever WWE United Kingdom Champion.
With Balor, Regal, Fit Finlay and Triple H all on hand Bate looked brilliantly shocked, and I don’t think it was entirely an act, as the crowd gave the performers a standing ovation to close off an amazing two nights of properly structured professional wrestling that built to a raging climax of passion and power.
If this is a sign of things to come I can only be incredibly happy and I hope WWE take some of this into their other regular programming as it is some of the best I have seen from that company in some time, of course a lot of the credit for that is down to the excellent wrestlers coming out of the UK and Ireland right now.