WOS Wrestling, Episode 1 (28/7/18)

Cast your minds back to New Year’s Day, 2017. The day that the fever dreams of Alex Shane finally came true, and British wrestling returned to our TV screens, with the pilot episode of World of Sport Wrestling.

At the time, I wasn’t won over. I felt the pilot was ambitious, but suffered from a lack of coherent identity, and was seriously let down by some convoluted booking and inconsistent characterisation, taking too much inspiration from modern day WWE. Shockingly, as she would become one of my favourite wrestlers in the year to come, the biggest crime of the World of Sport pilot was making me think that Viper was a bit rubbish.

 

Fast forward to July 2018, and the very first episode of the new series of the freshly rechristened “WOS Wrestling”. That already presents something of a stumbling block on that whole “identity crisis” front that I’d hoped would be resolved after the pilot, as the show can’t quite decide whether to position itself as a continuation of the World of Sport legacy or a shiny new product, and settles for a halfway house solution of an unwieldy acronym containing more syllables than the words it’s ostensibly abbreviating.

The identity crisis isn’t resolved in the opening video package, a dramatic – and genuinely impressive – hype reel for the “new generation” of British wrestlers that will make up the WOS roster. It sat somewhere between the more grounded vignettes of Lucha Underground, and ITV reality TV hype at its most knowingly melodramatic. To cut from the moody, almost introspective, vibe of that video to an overtly ITV light entertainment atmosphere of smiling, cheering families and waving foam fingers was an abrupt tonal shift that did nothing to shake my perception of WOS as a show that neither knows itself, nor its intended audience.

You’ve doubtless already seen criticisms of the show’s glorified holiday camp atmosphere, or else seen the knee-jerk reaction of “it’s not for the hardcore fans!” in its defence. As someone who routinely works hotel shows, and as a devotee of daft, family-friendly wrestling, I’d say they struck mostly the right tone in this regard – the British scene is strong enough to support a televised show aimed at a casual audience and the likes of PROGRESS, Fight Club and Pro Wrestling EVE, all of whom have managed to build loyal followings and grow their brand without recourse to a TV deal. It’s a fallacy to suggest that British wrestling has to be an either/or proposition of the two extremes of “hardcore fans” and the near-mythical “casual fan”.

If anything, I wanted to see WOS lean in more to the ITV Saturday Night atmosphere – too much of the presentation of this show, from the opening promo to the camerawork, backstage promos to the ringside commentary table, felt like they were cribbing from WWE’s style guide rather than taking advantage of the benefits of producing a mainstream studio TV show, with all the opportunities that presents.

Speaking of cribbing from WWE, the show opened with an in-ring promo from a heel authority figure – in this case, Stu Bennett, the former King Bad News Wade Barrett of WWE, somewhat optimistically referred to as a “legend” by Alex Shane on commentary. Barrett was a good choice as a name figure who has been away from the business for some time, and can lend legitimacy without overshadowing the full-time roster, or alienating a casual audience. His promo, though, did not hit the right notes for me. He claimed that British wrestling had been sullied by “clowns and buffoons”, and that WOS Wrestling was launching a new era. This smacked of early 2000s British indie wrestling, where every other show was all but guaranteed a cameo appearance by a World of Sport old-timer cutting an identikit promo, “And I thought they said British wrestling was dead! Well, let’s show the Yanks how it’s done!”.

Once upon a time, it may have been necessary to acknowledge that British wrestling had been in the doldrums, but in 2018 it’s a mis-step. Contrast with WWE’s own forays on our shores, in which Triple H’s promo at the Royal Albert Hall gave credit to the fans, and to the array of talent in the UK, for making the UK brand a possibility. In comparison, Bennett’s promo here seemed to suggest that the scene was dead, and we should be thankful that WOS has come along to save it. As a viewer, it feels too much of a one-way relationship, where the fan is denied the emotional connection of feeling that they have a continuing part to play in the success of the promotion. As someone who works in wrestling, I would say that burying the scene can only come back to haunt you – when, later in the show or in future episodes, they need to put over a wrestler as an experienced veteran, why should we care if apparently that means they’ve just been fighting clowns and buffoons?

In a broader sense, I feel like opening the show with an authority figure promo was too beholden to the WWE playbook, and that could serve as a turn-off to many sectors of the audience. To fans accustomed to WWE’s programming, it comes across as a cheap imitation. Anecdotally, in conversation with older fans of classic World of Sport, their biggest criticism of “American wrestling” is invariably that it features too much talking. For casual fans tuning in off the back of a fairly extensive publicity campaign, should they be expected to wait ten minutes into the wrestling show before they see any wrestling?

Later in the show, Stu Bennett and Grado would present “Don’t Try This At Home” messages using the phrase “sports entertainment” – the show will struggle to carve out its own identity if it insists on speaking the language of WWE.

 

The match that followed – the first of the evening – wasn’t an ideal introduction to the product either. A Five Way match, to qualify for a title match later the same evening, felt needlessly convoluted, repeating similar mistakes made in the pilot, while ensuring that wrestlers work double duty only serves to make the roster look thinner than it really is.

Crater – also known as NGW’s Cyanide – was introduced to the audience in this match, a 30-something stone budget Bane seemingly positioned as the monster heel of the show. A poor choice, then, to book him alongside Rampage, Justin Sysum and Sha Samuels, all of whom are close to his height and hardly small lads in their own right, only serving to lessen the visual of Crater as a monster. That Crater was eliminated in underwhelming fashion – disqualified for refusing to break a hold – very early in the match meant that the audience had little reason to remember him by the time the match came to a conclusion. He would have been better served with a squash match against a wrestler half his size, introducing him to the audience as an attraction in his own right, rather than an afterthought in an already over-egged match.

The finish of this opening match really didn’t sit well with me either, as a Dusty Finish saw Justin Sysum announced as the winner, only for Stu Bennett to also award the victory to Rampage, resulting in a Triple Threat match for the main event. This was a finish that actively, deliberately undermined the credibility of the referee (a complaint close to my heart!), gave us a swerve decision altering the match’s stipulation, and played up an overdone story of heel authority vs. underdog babyface. As an introduction to a new show, particularly one not aimed at a conventional wrestling audience, this never felt like it landed.


At this point, I’d like to raise that there was no women’s match on this show, a decision that Stu Bennett on Twitter has blamed on time constraints – despite two male wrestlers working double duty, against a third male wrestler who was given time to cut an in-ring promo.

The second match pitted Davey Boy Smith Jr. – alternating between that name and British Bulldog Jr. depending on the commentary team’s mood – and Problematic Fave, Will Ospreay. This was a tremendous match, that would have been a far better choice of opener – it was exactly the kind of match that could, and should, be used to sell “the new generation of British wrestling” to a mainstream TV audience. Davey Boy Jr brings recognition and familiarity (albeit by association) to the table, giving the audience an instant connection with him, while Ospreay is the perfect talent to impress first-time viewers with GIF-able high spots, and seems destined to become the focal point of ITV’s own advertising for the show. That it was a competitive, believable, babyface vs. babyface match, with a clean finish, only added to its appeal – in many ways, this match was the exact opposite of the show opening Five Way match, and the clean ending would have made the Five Way’s Dusty Finish somewhat more palatable if it had occurred subsequently.

Our next match was the first in a Tag Team Title tournament, pitting the makeshift team of Joe Hendry and Martin Kirby against the equally makeshift team of Kip Sabian and the unpronounceable Iestyn Rees, who were nevertheless presented as the more coherent team of the two. Prior to the match, we were treated to a backstage promo that appeared to be filmed in someone’s garage, despite the resources available to ITV – another decision seemingly made on the basis of how things are done in wrestling, rather than considering how things could be done on a more TV-focused product.

This was another match that, while fun, was let down by a “this works in wrestling” finish rather than consideration being given to whether it would make sense for a first show, or for an ITV primetime audience. Martin Kirby turned heel, abandoning Joe Hendry to fight the final stretch of the match on his own, following a minor miscommunication between the two earlier in the match. Unfortunately, as this was the first time the audience had seen Martin Kirby, his turn carried no emotional weight behind it – we don’t know who he is yet, so have no reason to be shocked by his actions, nor do we know Joe Hendry well enough to feel sympathy for him having been abandoned. There’s no reason to be invested at all. To make matters worse, it damages the credibility of the Tag Team Title tournament when, in the very first match, one of the competitors is happy to walk out and abandon the match altogether – if he doesn’t care about the titles he’s fighting for, why are the audience expected to think they’re worth anything?


The main event played into Stu Bennett’s opening promo, with the “clowns and buffoons” line obviously intended to introduce Grado, and kickstart the story that Stu Bennett doesn’t feel Grado is a deserving champion. In the main event, Grado spends the majority of the match goofing around with comedy spots, before losing more or less cleanly to Rampage, who takes advantage of a big move from Justin Sysum to seize the opportunity and hit his own finish and take the title.

After the pilot episode, I complained that Grado – as the supposed underdog – was booked far too strongly for that role to stick, given that he worked triple duty, winning two of his matches and only losing the third due to outside interference. Here, though, the booking of Grado shifted too far in the opposite direction. We were introduced to Grado and almost immediately told that he was an undeserving champion, and closed the show with him flat on his back, pinned clean in his first defence. I don’t come out of that feeling sorry for Grado and rooting for him to get revenge, I come out of it thinking that Stu Bennett was right, Grado clearly isn’t good enough to be champion.

To make matters worse, this was a booking mistake that could have been very easily resolved had the whole show not felt like they were in such a rush. Had the number one contendership match happened this week, and the title match the following show, rather than later in the same night, the audience would have seen Grado as champion for at least one full episode, and had more reason to identify with him as a defending champion. Not only that, but it would have taken advantage of the inherently episodic nature of pro wrestling television, giving us a match to tune in for the following week. The story of Grado fighting against the odds is clearly going to be at the heart of the series, but would have been better served by giving us the impression that Grado had been genuinely robbed of a victory that was rightfully his, rather than being defeated with relative little difficulty.

The show ends rather abruptly – making me think it would benefit from some kind of in-studio framing device or host segments – closing with a quick trail for the following week’s show, featured a Money In The Bank knock-off ladder match and a women’s title match. Another example of following WWE’s lead doesn’t make me optimistic that the show is going to find its own identity any time soon, nor is it likely to feel less like it’s rushing to hit every pro-wrestling trope it can think of, rather than filtering down to a “less is more” approach and considering what would be best suited for a primetime ITV format. That there are few things I dislike more in modern wrestling than the Magic Briefcase gimmick doesn’t make me warm to that announcement either.
The other match promoted for next week is a Women’s Title match between Viper, Kay Lee Ray and Bea Priestley, which promises to be a potential showstealer. However, I can’t help but notice how the World Title was contested on the pilot episode in a Battle Royal that required multiple qualifying matches, and defended on the first episode of the series after a hard-fought number one contenders match, and the Tag Titles are determined by a multi-week tournament, while the Women’s Title is being thrown into the mix in a single match with no build, with seemingly no explanation as to how these women in particular earned their shot. The role of women in WOS Wrestling moving forward remains to be seen, but everything points toward them being a sideshow attraction – a role that’s frustratingly backwards at the best of times, but never moreso than when on the first show of a new promotion, starting from a blank slate.

 

I’m aware that this was an overwhelmingly negative review, perhaps to the point of nitpicking. However, the show managed to be greater than the sum of its parts, and I enjoyed it in spite of every criticism I’ve made. WOS have put together a genuinely superb roster, and there was a germ of an interesting product here once they manage to get into the swing of things, if they can shake their persistent problems with pacing, lack of coherent identity and rushed booking decisions. I worry that, with the series being pre-taped, there may not be the scope to resolve all of those issues this series, but I remain optimistic.

It’s a show I will continue to watch, and that I hope to see succeed. I’m not of the mindset, as many are, that British wrestling on television should be supported no matter what – that was an argument that didn’t hold water when it was thrown at critics of the execrable tax dodge (allegedly) Five Star Wrestling any more than it does now, and it’s a hangover of an early 2000s mentality that getting back on TV was the be-all and end-all of British wrestling. But British wrestling being on TV is a boon to the scene as a whole, and can only benefit the smaller promotions aiming for a similar demographic to the ITV audience.

More importantly, though, WOS is a watershed moment in wrestling, as all contracted wrestlers were treated as Equity members, recognising the talent as television actors with full union representation, rather than disposable commodities euphemistically referred to as “independent contractors”. They saw their travel and accommodation costs met by ITV, their minimum rate negotiated through collective bargaining, and were fully supported by Equity in negotiating higher wages. If there has ever been a reason to support a wrestling promotion, and to be suspicious of WWE’s growing interests in the same market, that is it.

 

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