Thursday, 12 April 2012

A brief bit of history

British wrestling history is a tale of three halves. Pre World War II, Post World War II and Post network TV. As the entertainment we know and love today the Pre WWII wrestling establishment bore little relation to what would come to pass after it. The matches could be wild to say the least and came from the folk styles of wrestling that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What occurred after the war set up the way things went for quite some time.

After World War II Britain had become a social melting pot, an NHS, better education, more jobs; the world was still in austerity but things where getting better. Working class folk had more money to spend on entertainments. They now had many more places to entertain themselves to; specifically what was to become the Club Circuit. With national service still in full swing Services Men’s clubs cropped up all over the UK. With unions not only strong but still based in industry, working men’s clubs also popped up on estates in small towns. Club Land as it was to become known was the place to play in entertainment, just as Music Hall had been before that. The key link between those two eras of British entertainment was variety. A club could not put on a comedian seven nights a week, so new ways of entertaining people had to be found. Boxing and other sports that could be put on in a confined space became popular. Another beneficiary was wrestling.

The newly minted Mountevans committee determined a set of rules that got away from the pre war free for all and helped promote a lively but wholesome sport for the whole family to enjoy or promoters to exploit, depending on how you looked at it. One of the quick developments was the linking of promoters nationwide. Having seen how the NWA had managed to sooth tensions in the USA to the point where everyone made money. British promoters pulled the same trick and called it Joint Promotions. In reality much like in the US it was a closed shop. No one could run in anyone else’s territory. As TV contracts became more lucrative this was an important issue but back in the late forties and early fifties it left two lasting marks. One; The town halls and exhibition centres of the UK would run the big companies from Joint Promotions such as Dale Martin in London or Best promotions in Liverpool. Two; there had to be other places to wrestle specifically in the North. Wrestling in the North, thanks to the pre war era, was a shooters heartland. So as clubs began to run weekly wrestling shows (a different night in each club) it provided an independent circuit for smaller promoters and wrestlers to earn a living. As Johnny Saint recently pointed out in his Art of Wrestling Podcast with Colt Cabana; he could work shows all around Manchester all week long and earn more than he could in his day job. As he worked his way through the club scene he got noticed by Joint Promotions and went to wrestle for them and then on and up to be one of their champions. Colt likened it to being an indie star now that goes on to being picked up by the WWE. These rival promotions would sometimes get a “little to big for their boots” and take on the major promotions, as Paul Lincoln did to Dale Martin promotions in the 1950s, but overall everyone kept the peace because everyone was making money.

Of course with a closed shop that meant wrestlers got what they got and not a lot more and that was pretty much that. Once you got to a good spot on the card you where earning a lot more than you would be working the Club’s and a lot more than working a day job, and doing something you loved for twenty minutes a night wasn’t really work. The independents though had their moments. The British Wrestling Federation was a promotion running out of the North West of the country and featured the British Heavyweight Champion Bert Assirati, who for want of a better word, had blackballed himself out of Joint Promotions for being his own man. As Joe Cornelius explained in his book “Thumbs up Boy” he would get called to go wrestle somewhere in the world at short notice and would find Bert waiting for him in the dressing room when he got there. The reason; Bert had probably hurt someone in his attempt to get over and no one would wrestle him so they would call Joe. By the late fifties however Bert was taking fewer and fewer matches and the Crabtree’s (for it was them who owned the BWF) started to promote Shirley Crabtree (a much more trustworthy champion, who also happened to be one of the brothers), Shirley retired not long after being given the belt, partly to do with the money, being an outsider, and partly because the belt had been given to him while Assirati had been out of town and Bert wanted a say in getting it back, the hard way if necessary. Bert was not afraid of an open challenge or two, once turning up at the Royal Albert Hall to challenge Lou Thesz. As Joint where a loose NWA affiliate, that never occurred. Knowing what we know now about Lou and what we know about Bert it would have been somewhat of a boring shoot match, but it would have made money.

That is really what did for Joint Promotions in the end, a lack of vision. As the seventies arrived the Joint banner was flying high, as they continued the flags began to dip. They had the TV money which was secure, but as the promoters and bookers all reached retirement age, there was only one man left to turn to. Max Crabtree who became the chief booker for Joint Promotions. While Crabtree once again turned to his brother to become Big Daddy, somebody else was looking at making things work in a different way.

Brian Dixon began his wrestling career by running the Jim Breaks fan club, he moved on to promotion as an independent in the late seventies. When he got there he set about changing the wrestling industry in the UK. His first major signing from Joint was John Quinn who had recently headlined a Wembley against Big Daddy. He then signed World Heavyweight Champion Wayne Bridges, and so it went on. Every year Dixon would sign a major star. But it is what he did with them that counted. His shows worked on an episodic format like Southern wrestling. No weekly TV shows though, just a weekly live show in the same venue. The result was live money cash which pulled them in every week. There where also benefits to having the stars. Marc Rocco liked wrestling the Dynamite Kid, so when Tommy came home he did not have to go far to find a match to fill a spare night. Marc also had friends in the front offices of NJPW so when they needed to season a kid they had found, Fuji Yamada or Jushin “Thunder” Liger, ended up in All Star promotions and produced similar box office and response as Akira Maeda and Satoru Sayama had done for Joint years before. When All Star got a share of the TV contract  in late 1986 they used it to their advantage booking storylines just as they had done on there weekly live events. Joint looked 30 years older in comparison. When TV was pulled in 1988 Joint went into terminal decline eking out a living for the few loyal performers left. Everyone else of note went to All Star and took their titles with them. The major money feuds that ended the TV run of All Star, Wayne Bridges and Marc Rocco versus Kendo Nagasaki and whomever they could find to get beat up, made money for All Star long after TV coverage finished. Of course free from the constraints of Joint, Marty Jones could go one last time with Marc Rocco and Dave Finlay, the money was till there for a while before decline truly set in the wake of the WWF take over.

Looking at the business now, as it all bad for British wrestlers? In the WWE there are two major British talents Wade Barret and Mason Ryan. Steve Regal is important to the WWE as a talent trainer, commentator and occasional in ring competitor and is still working 24 years after his TV debut. TNA has Doug Williams, Magnus and Rob Terry along with a very strong UK fan base. Dragon Gate has PAC. Ring of Honor has used many British talents in the past, most notably former champion Nigel McGuiness, still commentating for them now. Dave Finlay to after a successful career in WCW, WWE and now back on the indie circuit to scratch his itchy feet is working shows for Ring of Honor. Back home there are over twenty regular promotions doing strong enough business to survive and even thrive. Let us not forget to one person who links all of these eras together. Former World’s Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan, not only trained by Steven Regal and Robby Brookside, but also a very proud alumnus of All Star Promotions.                  
I would like to acknowledge this article in the writing of this piece;

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