By Gary Mehaffy for F4WOnline.com
Around the world, and especially in the UK and Ireland, the independent scene is thriving like never before. In the UK, groups like ICW, RevPro, OTT, and PROGRESS have seen their companies grow and their global impact expand like never before. Some of these companies rely on imports more than others, but in the majority of cases it is home grown talent that has led the drive, and has seen many of the wrestlers move on to WWE, NJPW, GFW, ROH, PWG, and more.
Three years ago, I first did a piece on a local promotion in Northern Ireland, Pro Wrestling Ulster (PWU). They had been operating for around seven years at the time, and were just about to have their first ‘Supershow’ in the Europa Hotel in Belfast, headlined by then recently released ex-WWE talent Drew McIntyre. This was a step up for the company, and I discussed the roster and how the company looked at the time.
Since then, some of their roster has really started to make a splash in the UK and European scene: Tucker participated in the WWE UK Tournament at the start of the year; Katey Harvey has seen her profile rise in PWU and OTT and has begun to wrestle regularly around Europe; Adam Maxted has recently received a WWE tryout; and Joe Hendry, who PWU has used regularly, has had WWE tryouts and currently holds the WCPW Title.
This summer sees the company reach a decade in business, and will also see them move into a purpose-built home in S13 on the Boucher Road in Belfast. They recently had NJPW star Harry Smith in for a show, and their first show in S13 saw them use GFW/Impact Wrestling’s Bram as well as NXT/ROH star Bull James. The rest of the roster, some of whom have been with the company since its inception, are all mostly from Northern Ireland with a couple of wrestlers from Scotland/England sometimes appearing on their cards).
Before their first show in their new home, I met with one of PWU’s owners, Andy Thompson, to talk about their past, present and future as a company.
You became a co-owner of PWU not that long ago although you have been with the company in one way or another over the 10 years. How has it been moving into that role, given that you also run your own business?
It’s really hard. I obviously like to put myself under pressure (laughing). When I opened my first piercing studio, we were pregnant with our first child and now we have two. Three years down the line, I’ve taken on another business, and moved businesses, and I’m about to open a tattoo shop. For me, it’s trying to manage everything. I can manage everything, but my wife doesn’t necessarily like me sitting on my phone all evening. And I do it a lot. I’m booking guys, I’m talking to venues, then you’re talking to the fans and replying to messages, then I’ve got enquiries for the shop and I’ve orders to do, so I’ve good broadband. We don’t take wages or anything out of the wrestling (company) and when we do set it up it’s going to be as a social enterprise, it’s all about reaching out to the community at S13.
Taking on a second business (PWU) – and it is a second business – it’s not the hobby it once was. The very first entrance way which we built was made out of wood and had tape around it, but it was our first entrance way. Now we’re looking at going into the Boucher Road, where we’re going to have a stage, we’re going to have a ramp, we’re going to have lighting, we’re going to have big screens. They (SquarePit) were like “Look, we’re opening up a whole new big thing – it’s a social enterprise that is going to create other social enterprises.” It really is our home for the next 18 months/2 years. PWU will set up our training there and run all of our shows out of there. In 2018, we’re going to be running a monthly show there and nearly hit that this year.
The good thing with wrestling is the buzz; you get that adrenaline coming all the time. It’s a really cool feeling to pull off a successful show.
PWU has brought in a lot of ‘stars’ over the 10 years: Al Snow, Bull James, Colt Cabana, Damo/Killian Dain, Drew McIntyre, Matt Sydal, Noam Dar, Shelton Benjamin, Kay Lee Ray, Toni Storm, Viper, Alpha Female, Harry Smith, Joe E Legend, Nikki Cross….the list goes on. How have you gone about developing your roster? How do you get the balance between local talent and ‘name’ indy wrestlers who are available?
We’ve always been about having our own guys, and if you can push somebody through, it’s nice. It is about having local guys at a local show. We’re not trying to be Progress or ICW. We’re trying to do our on-demand and trying to be as professional as we can be, but we are Pro Wrestling Ulster.
Last year, the women’s division got a lot of attention with regards to the amount of matches we had (2 on every show). This year, we have really, really talented women, all in the ring together as the same time. The Alpha Female match with Kaz was brilliant, up in Ballycastle. The whole aura of the match was kind of intense.
We’re not putting people over in matches that don’t mean anything – it’s leading to somewhere. We’re taking our fans on a journey.
In the 10 years we’ve run, a lot of people have had input to get us to where we are today. Yes, Tron and I are running the company right now, but the 5 guys that started it are still very much behind the scenes. We have a group of guys behind us and they want to do well for us. It feels like we’re all in it together and we’re all trying to make PWU the best it can be. The guys aren’t working for me – they’re working for Pro Wrestling Ulster. They want the best for the company.
We bring in featured stars as a thank you to the fans, for the autograph hunters, or those guys that want to get signatures and photos. Ultimately, yeah, we bring people in, but it’s the product that keeps them coming back. Other family friendly (wrestling) shows that are available maybe don’t offer the same depth of storyline that keeps them entertained.
How did you get involved with wrestling at all? In Northern Ireland, it wasn’t exactly easy to do.
I’m a child of the 1989 VHS. I have the SilverVision 1989/90 tour with the Ultimate Warrior on the cover. You used to have to go with your dad to the shop on a Thursday night to rent Survivor Series. My fondest memory of early wrestling was Roddy Piper being a heel. He wasn’t a scary heel, he was just a mean dude. For me it was WM6 – Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior.
How I got into Northern Irish wrestling? My little brother picked up a random flyer in the gutter, in the rain. It was a wrestling show in the Kings Hall, Ulster Championship Wrestling. He started training in Comber and my dad was taking him every week. Terry (my dad) and my wee brother were doing the shows, I was just going along watching. I went to one training session and ended up in hospital for three days.
I was helping out with things and thought “This is kind of cool.” I was 20 at the time – this is just awesome. And my dad is my mate, you know what I mean? The wrestlers were my dad’s friends before they were my friends. The father/son boundary has to get erased every now and again, which we were both really uncomfortable with at the start. My job is show producer as such. Now that I’m a co-owner, I’m having to bring somebody else in to do all those things that I had to do, so we’ve got a new commentator joining is for the show at S13. I will still be on commentary, but I’ll be the second guy.
When you look at your roster, who do you see that could break out on a bigger scale in the wrestling industry?
There are those who want to break out and those that are happy with their lot. Curtis Murray, over the last 3 years, is made to make it. I’ve never met anybody more dedicated than Adam Maxted. Look at this year – he’s wrestled more big names in a year than most Northern Irish wrestlers dream of doing.
If guys dedicate themselves, if they get their characters right, we’ve got guys that should be doing more on the UK indies, definitely. Tucker is a 10 year overnight success – it’s one of those stories. “Oh, Tucker has come out of nowhere…Pete Dunne has been wrestling for 10 years…” So has Tucker. He’s been doing it for 14. That’s not to take away from Pete, but there was a story there as well.
Anybody who wants to do it, we’re going to have the space and the facilities to help them if we can, but you have to be dedicated.
What does the future hold for PWU?
We’ve got our own goals, our own little internal goals (for the future). That plan, working with SquarePit and S13, the plan is within a year or two years, we will be within our own location. We are going to be running a mini-S13 somewhere in Belfast that is going to be home to wrestling, that people can go to. We can do Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night, it doesn’t matter. We can do gym shows for the trainees and all the really cool stuff that wrestling can do, that we haven’t been able to do, we want to make it special. We want to make it home. Going once a month next year, and maybe looking at breaking into some festivals, things like that.
Credit: Tyrone Times
I also spoke to Lauren La Roux, a member of the PWU Women’s division, as three years ago when my original article was written, she was in the PWU training school, aspiring to become one of the next generation of the PWU roster. This year has seen her involved in a storyline with Katey Harvey, where Lauren is being bullied in a big way. It’s a storyline that fans have invested in, and when they are out there, you can sense that they are looking forward to the day when Lauren fights back and stands up for herself.
When I did my original piece on PWU three years ago, you were only beginning your wrestling training. How have things changed for you over that time?
The week before I started training, PWU had its first female match for quite some time. Two girls – one from Dublin, the other from Scotland – Katey Harvey and Nikki Storm. That match they had excited me and I remember thinking if I could do half of what they could do I would be pleased with myself.
Back when I started, my goals were different. I wanted to be a wrestler; I just wanted to wrestle – now I am. My confidence and understanding has grown so much. I started out wanting to wrestle all the time and that hasn’t changed. I want to wrestle as often as I can. I still want to learn. I don’t think you can ever stop learning and I still want to grow and get better. That’s always been my goal and that won’t ever change
How has PWU developed women’s wrestling in Ireland/Northern Ireland?
PWU introduced the first ever women’s title for NI/Ireland. That itself shows they had a vision to showcase women’s wrestling and that they support women’s wrestling. Being one of the only girls at PWU for a long time, I can truly say that the guys there want women’s wrestling to succeed. Just look at the women they have had on cards and not only one match but sometimes two matches on the same show and to be given the opportunity of a street fight match.
They want women’s wrestling to grow as much as any woman in the industry does and they continue to give us the opportunities to allow it to do so.
What are your future hopes as a wrestler?
At this minute I just want to keep getting better and more confident. I really want to work in the UK and Europe, and I think those experiences will help me improve. I have my eyes set on the (PWU) Women’s Championship so hopefully that opportunity will come around soon enough.
PWU brings in some “name” wrestlers but relies mostly on its home based talent. How important do you think that is?
Very important. It’s great to have this other talent come in, but it is the home based talent that a crowd connects with. People consider PWU as a family and they like to see one of their own do well.
How do you see the move to a permanent base in Belfast helping the company’s growth?
S13 is a venue for many things, so people that may not necessarily know of PWU may now be interested. Having a permanent base shows stability in a way. It shows we are going from strength to strength. S13 is ‘our’ house now; it’s a home for our fans. It’s our home for our new training school which will hopefully keep bringing in people through the doors.