Hey there grapple fans it has been a while. I have been busy over at www.tnafanforum.com being a moderator and putting together my weekly Youtube PPV round up; Sheriff Lonestar's PPV of the Week. JP gave me my own thread and everything. Also I had to have something to write about. Another blog of note gave me that something. The wonderful wrestling personality/journalist/manager/writer/booker/promoter Greg Lambert recently wrote a blog on the future of British Pro Wrestling (hope you like the caps Greg ;)) that got me to thinking about how the industry has come this far. You can read his blog over at Wrestle Talk TV's wonderfully informative site; PHERE THE TRUTH Greg 'TheTruth' Lambert July 30th 2013 15:19 GMT.
Greg explains in his piece the feeling that British Wrestling is holding itself back because of its current emphasis on in ring work. He states “It feels like the trend in most top British Wrestling promotions these days is towards what's on the marquee, wrestling. Generally speaking, this is a fast-paced, creative, hard-hitting, strong style, almost a Ring of Honor style of wrestling, which the majority of British Wrestling fans clearly enjoy.” and that “The problem is, those fans who appreciate the endless great wrestling matches, are generally the kind of fans who already like wrestling.” I do have the tendency to agree with him but I thought it would be interesting to see how we got to this point. Why is there so much strong style in the UK?
In short, strong style essentially comes from New Japan Pro Wrestling, alongside Kings Road it is the predominant style of the Japanese Pros who favour in ring stiffness to give their product credibility. Initially Japanese pro wrestling was helped along by western trainers. Significant westerners who trained the Japanese include Lou Thesz, Billy Robinson, Joe Cornelius and Karl Gotch. Noticeably all of them, with the possible exception of Cornelius, who was an excellent showman in his day, where renown for generally being hard cases. Gotch was a well known amateur who spent time at The Snake Pit in Wigan to perfect his shooting skill. Billy Robinson was an actual Lancashire shooter who had a great influence on All Japan Wrestling and won their PWF title being one of the first Gaijin champions and of course Lou Thesz was well, Lou Thesz. An all round wrestling God, unstoppable hooker and six time NWA world Heavyweight Champion who once drew 87.0 rating with Rikidozan in a world championship match. Yes 87.0, 87 percent of the TV owning people of Japan watched that match. With that kind of penetration in the earliest part of the wrestling history of a nation it is easy to see why the shooters won favour over say any passing lucahdors. It also framed the way the sport has been run in Japan i.e. as a true sport. The US's showmanship is only just beginning to rub off. That strong style had further developments along the way bringing in some influence from Mexico and the UK even. (I was just watching Tiger Mask vs The Dynamite Kid from 1983 and was amazed how that match could easily transfer onto a NJPW card or ROH card today.) Essentially though it set the tone. I am not talking about the peaks and troughs of general wrestling draws, I mean the actual inherent culture of that wrestling country. The Japanese attitude of the way things should be done.
So how did we get to Ring of Honor, and then onto the UK's scene? The world has become a much smaller place. The stars or ROH in its initial burst. Chris Hero, Claudio Castignoli, CM Punk, Brian Danielson and their subsequent WWE make overs know as much about Japanese wrestling as they do about north American wrestling, they also know as much about British wrestling. They had the tapes, they ordered them, they devoured them they learnt from them. Then they went and found people to train them in that style. They went to Japan to learn more. Watching Brian Danielson's work in NOAH is a testament to how well he can adapt to a different wrestling philosophy. They wanted the strong style to be at the forefront. They broke it down and analysed it over and over to give it an American twist then they moved on to British Pro Wrestling and did the same. They dug out Johnny Saint from retirement, they went to WWE Dojo's with William Regal and Dave Taylor, they looked for opponents in that style. At the same time DVD's and tapes began flying across the Atlantic to our home grown talents. Magazines like Power Slam gave detailed run downs of what was happening everywhere in the world and people sort out those matches to. What really revolutionised the way wrestling has been appreciated is Youtube. Literally any card that has been performed in front of a TV camera is on there right now, or it soon will be. Which is the reason why I can run PPV of the week on TNA Fan Forum and never fear of running out of things to write about.
Meanwhile, ROH was born out of a DVD distribution model built on the foundations of what ECW left behind in the North Eastern United states. As I have said before it essentially took three promotions to replace ECW; ROH, CZW and Chikara, but what ROH focused on was match quality and strong style match quality at that. They wanted to produce cards that rivaled NJPW in standard so as to be able to sell that product in the same DVD category and sell they did. All over the world. Which in turn became a model for smaller wrestling companies world wide.
Why did it hit with the UK wrestling fans? I do not know, but I have been a punk rock fan long enough to know that there is a group of people in the UK who looked to San Francisco in the 90's for their inspiration while everything here was going all Britpop. That influence of bands from Bad Religion, The Offspring, NOFX and the highly principled aesthetic has left a lasting legacy on the UK punk scene that is still going strong today. I know that some of my friends are active Roller Derby enthusiasts who followed the good women of Austin, Texas who reinvented a fake sport into a real one for their own pleasure and the entertainment of others. Perhaps that is the real reason, an ongoing search for the other, to find something else and make it our own, however in this case it was more ours in the first place than we thought.
What has happened to wrestling in recent years is effectively what has happened to music. Stratification. When I was youngster I was very big fan of the band Hüsker Dü. To find Hüsker Dü records I had to research them, find out about them in books and magazines, go on off trails about Soul Asylum and The Replacements, go to the library and borrow the tapes or CDs to listen to them. It was a task in itself. I am now three mouse clicks away from listening to everything they ever did and a complete history of their work right down to what underwear Bob Mould was wearing when they recorded Candy Apple Grey. The wrestling world is much the same. I am able to download or order whatever style of wrestling I want from anywhere in the world. I can watch the whole of the G1 climax tournament this year. Live if I want to. There is simply so much content out there is not time to watch it. That is where wrestling taste has come into play, the three ring circus of wrestling that ruled the last 80 or so years of our sport has been bypassed to form a layered and stylised approach. Each company now specialises in a specific thing that limits its very existence. Even WWE only wants people who can wrestle their style, with very good reasons it reduces injury risks and makes predictable from a booking point of view. However it means that those niche audiences are going to control the output of a company, especially the smaller ones, in the long term.
I am not surprised that Greg's findings led him to believe that there was a huge base of talent available in the UK. I am also not surprised that he found a lack of characters. The move towards strong style as a UK staple wasn't really a move as essentially UK wrestlers always have been the driving force behind it. It comes from something primary about wrestling in the UK. The pits up north and the submission style, Lord Oakley and his near riotous promotions from before the war, George Hackendschmit chasing over matched boxers up the street in Liverpool, The Snake Pit. It is as part of our wrestling heritage even more than Big Daddy. It is also no mistake that the last great feuds of the ITV era. Marty Jones and Steve Wright, Johnny Saint and Mike “Flash” Jordan, Chick Cullen and Mark Rocco, featured Lancashire grappler’s with strong amateur or second generation backgrounds who where well versed in the shoot style and had success or where well known in Japan. Even today the Northern Shooters Gym, is a highly respected part of EVE: Pro Wrestling who take their cue from Joshi, essentially strong style for women.
So how do we bridge this gap? Taking a lesson from the past, and as much as it pains me to say it, the big draws of the golden era where Daddy, Haystacks and Nagasaki, not the shooters and hookers I love. It is those characters that transcended the television medium and it is characters like that that will bring British mainstream wrestling success again. Breaking out as a mainstream entity requires that, and that is harder than ever but it can be done. So for all of those wrestlers, promoters and wrestling workers out there. Keep your eyes on the prize folks, you are getting there.