TV

The WWE UKC Tournament and the Potential of WWE: UK

This weekend, WWE decide their first “United Kingdom Champion” via a 16-man single-elimination tournament broadcast on the WWE Network, which is likely to pave the way for a UK-based weekly TV show.

Wrestling to me has always been a wholly American thing (I was born a little too late for the legendary British institution World of Sport, though I did get a kick out of its gaudy New Year’s Eve reboot a couple of weeks back), mostly conducted (until recent times) by North American wrestlers for North American audiences, quite understandably. This tournament and the potential series that is likely to follow, however, are a totally different proposition, giving Network subscribers in the UK localised content with exposure and financial backing not seen since the days of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. And that’s very exciting.

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Irish-born Sheamus batters Roman Reigns. The UKC tournament won’t have quite this crowd – perhaps if they follow the template outlined in this post, one day they will…

Though British grapplers like William Regal and Finlay have all had great runs as big-ish players in WWE in recent ties, they mostly represented their country via an early 2000s Nickelodeon movie kind of Britishness. Regal was a snooty, tea-drinking toff; Finlay a Northern Irish pub brawler who was accompanied to the ring by his leprechaun son and used to bonk people over the head with a shillelagh. Even in 2017, Mancunian Jack Gallagher’s current run has come about due to his character “The Extraordinary Gentleman”, a sophisticated, urbane sort of fellow who challenges rivals to gentlemen’s duels and requests one-on-one meetings “in parlay”.

This is not a slight on WWE, fashionable as that may be. No, I’m of the school of thought that believes it’s all about character, and that you need to get maximum mileage out of whatever makes you different from the next guy along; if that’s toff-toffington Englishness or an association with folklore fairies, then so be it. Two recent examples of English talent whose nationality was incidental rather than central to their character that prove the rule are Wade Barrett, a generic baddie who progressed through about seven indistinct characters and seventeen entrance themes, shouted “BOOM” a lot and left the company last year after treading water for half a decade, and Neville, who was immediately dealt a dud hand by being made to share a name with one of the least capable students in Gryffindor’s history and is only just emerging from the wilderness after barely being featured on TV for months.

The point I’m making is that when you’re putting Brits in a ring to tell a story of good vs evil in front of 10,000 baying Americans every night, there isn’t a lot of room for nuance. But what a UK WWE brand gives us is an opportunity to enjoy more characters that are exaggerated versions of the stereotypes of people we in the UK are familiar with; rather than having to go out in front of a US audience and play “British {insert British-ish gimmick here}” in a way that allows a global audience to immediately understand who they are, the new recruits can just play “{insert gimmick here}” in a way that a UK audience can immediately recognise and get on board with.

Some of the tournament competitors look like they’ve already nailed this; Tyson T-Bone wants to declare himself “King of the Travelers” and uses a finisher called the “Gypsy’s Kiss”, while Tyler Bate’s twirly moustache and use of the “Gotch-Style Tombstone” suggest he might play some form of wrestling Shoreditch hipster. Others’ WWE.com profiles suggest little more than “nice man who wrestles” and “nasty man who wrestles”.

What I want from this potential new brand is more of the former and less of the latter. Think a stable of The Apprentice contestants who walk down to the ring to Prokofiev music in mid-range Debenhams suits, cut promos in illegible business jargon and have a different member take on the role of ‘project manager’ every week, resulting in each match being wrestled in an entirely different style every time, followed by an inevitable defeat and post-mortem in a greasy spoon. Or an obnoxious public schoolboy who wrestles with a style influenced by the tribes he met on his gap year, accelerated to an improbably high position on the card despite being only six months out of university due to his dad being in a position of power, who makes his prone opponent do a beer bong after defeating them with his finisher, the “D.I.O.”. Or an old-school saaaahf-east Laaahndan boxer sort accompanied by a dastardly flat-capped, chain-smoking “promoter” who bonks people over the head when the ref’s not looking with a spit bucket or corner stool. Or, if you want to get really base with this, a builder whose tights don’t quite cover up the entirety of his posterior. Just think of the storytelling opportunities!

These lads can wrestle to a very high standard – but so can every talent WWE features on TV. This is why to differentiate itself, the UK operation has to be British through and through; I want brawls to look like they’re taking place in a pub car park and technical matches to carry on using the slow, methodical style introduced to American audiences by Zack Sabre Jr. and Jack Gallagher in last summer’s Cruiserweight Classic. I want Michael Cole’s stint on commentary this weekend to be a one-off before he’s replaced with a gravelly-voiced Brit yanked from an obscure subscription channel’s coverage of regional MMA. Also, fingers crossed we get a rowdy crowd seven or eight pints in by the time the first bell rings and who cheer and boo who they’re supposed to, rather than the sort that chant “this is wrestling!” at the first chinlock of the match.

Who’s gonna win the thing? My head says Trent Seven, based purely on the fact that he’s at the front of the pack in most of the promotional images that I’ve seen and is one of the few guys I’ve heard of with my limited exposure to non-WWE wrestling. But my heart wants Danny Burch, for precisely the reasons I’ve outlined above: though he’s not the biggest guy, he looks like he’s got a bod honed not by months of careful dieting and gym work, but years of backbreaking manual labour and Saturday afternoon post-football tear-ups, knows all of the staff in Wetherspoons by name and would glass anybody who got in between him and the fruit machine. Come on Danny.

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