By Liam Byrne. Catch him @tvtimelimit.
I was once blanked by Horace Hogan at a wrestling show.
Arguably, that is more than just my wrestling low point – that is a low point in life itself. I had made the decision to walk down the stairs from my front row seats that were three rows back and running up the entrance way rather than ringside, so had made a conscious, visible effort to get my hand shaken by Terry’s nephew. He shook two hands guys who got there first, then walked straight on past me. My fifteen year old wrestling fan’s heart was…I wouldn’t say crushed…more miffed by the fact that I didn’t even care for the guy, yet I looked like a bit of an idiot. I refused to go and chat to Steve Corino later, fearing more of the same.
I’ll be honest – he probably didn’t see me. I was a few seconds slower than the boys in front, Hogan already heading for his post-match beverage. Still, the anecdote wouldn’t be half as laughable with these mitigating circumstances.
2016 is the fifteen year anniversary of my first attendance at a UK wrestling show. For many, 2016 is poised to be the continuation of the resurgence of the UK independent wrestling scene that has been on the rise over the past three years or so. Week in, week out, leisure centres, pubs, gig venues and even arenas are being filled with the cream of British talent and their adoring fans. With some promotions able to command crowds in the four figure region, this really is the pinnacle of the British wrestling scene as I’ve known it.
It wasn’t always this way.
As a fifteen year old fan of WWE and NJPW (thanks to dubbed TV shows broadcast on Eurosport), the idea of wrestling promotions that ran in the UK was beyond me. I vaguely recall references in magazines to promotions that promised ‘The Legend of Doom’ and other WWF inspired knock-offs, but nothing that truly wet the whistle of the UK wrestling fan.
Then along came WrestleXpress.
The initial plan had been a star studded spectacular that would fill up the Coventry Skydome with a raft of the best wrestlers that money could hire and ship over. Names such as Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Ultimo Dragon – the list could go on – were all touted as being on the show. Living nowhere near Coventry, and never considering going to a wrestling show a viable option, I closed my ears to most of the news surrounding the event and plodded along with my probably angst-ridden and spotty teenage life.
It was my Dad that bought the tickets. Goresbrook Leisure Centre in Dagenham, a place best known to me as the venue where I would go swimming as and when I decided to be brave and venture further into this cesspool of suburban London. The name on the advertising was the same, WrestleXpress, so why was it suddenly in Dagenham? Little did I know at the time, there were bigger issues that I could have understood at the time (or even want to go into during this) which meant that the tickets for the show were honoured by a different company, the whole event was moved from Coventry to the worst place to live in London (as said by…well, me) and into a leisure centre that would host a better attended reptile show in the following weeks. I should know, I went to both.
It would be too easy to bemoan the show in light of what it could have been. Rather than Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, we had to contend ourselves with Horace Hogan and Earthquake. Steve Corino and Sandman did show up pre-interval to offer up an ECW-lite offering for a UK crowd starved of the hardcore violence that was all the rage at this time, but they were easily the biggest current names on the card. The rest of the card was filled out by a raft of TWA and FWA wrestlers, a mix of old hands and new starlets.
Pretty unarguably, the show was good fun. It is not every day you get to see Sandman cannonball senton into an unbreakable table, or Alex Shane getting chucked over a balcony onto a poorly placed selection of goons who failed to adequately catch him. But, more importantly, it offers an interesting snap shot of UK wrestling at this time. Between those who survived the choppier waters of the independent scene to still be around today, to the calibre of the overseas guests who competed on the card, WrestleXpress is an odd relic of the UK wrestling world as it once was, so far away from what it has turned out to be.
In terms of the British wrestlers, Doug Williams would go on to be one of the best exports this side of the British Bulldogs, and is still going strong to this very day. Several wrestlers from the show have gone on to work behind the scenes in other promotions, most notably Robbie Brookside for the WWE, Andy Boy Simmonz for Revolution Pro Wrestling (with occasional ring work still) and Alex Shane for NGW (possibly amongst others). I even watched an episode of NGW a few weeks ago which had a Johnny Storm vs Jody Fleisch match up, almost fifteen years down the line. Many more have faded into complete obscurity, either leaving wrestling altogether or doing the grunt work of training the next big stars in UK wrestling.
Last year, I went to a show which had Kazuchika Okada, Jushin Thunder Liger and Hiroshi Tanahashi wrestling, whilst friends I know recently went to see Drago vs Pentagon Jr. in Swindon. In 2001, we got an aged WWF throwback, a guy who was living off the dying embers of his uncles’ legacy, and two guys who were just looking for a pay day that they would struggle to find for the foreseeable future in any promotion ran by Vince McMahon – that is until he revived ECW, of course. They were all there for different reasons, at different junctions of their wrestling careers, but one that forced them along the path of wrestling in the UK.
Compare that to the reaction of NXT wrestlers to the crowds they met across the whole of their UK tour, and you can begin to see a shift in the perception of British wrestling, both in terms of the desire to run shows here, but also in terms of the likelihood of foreign promotions taking a chance on guys who ply their trade from Eastbourne to Hull. With wrestlers such as Marty Scurll and Will Ospreay wrestling at the BOLA tournament in 2015 and Jimmy Havoc and Big Damo being used on TNA television in the near future, there is a cultural cache being built up around the UK wrestling scene that just didn’t exist back when I was fifteen. We are no longer a joke.
Without wanting to dwell on the dodgy dealings behind the scenes, one was that WrestleXpress does act as a mirror to modern independent wrestling in the UK is that it highlights the pie in the sky dreams of wrestling promoters back in the day. The concept of someone booking and filling the 3,000 capacity Coventry Skydome was beyond all viable reality for most wrestling fans fifteen years ago – last year, ICW went one thousand people better in running Fear and Loathing VIII at the SECC in Glasgow, with Fear and Loathing IX running the Hydro in November (capacity 11,00). With PROGRESS also looking to run bigger venues this year, the sky is the limit.
And there won’t be one Horace bloody Hogan in sight.