World Of Sport: British Wrestling Is Back (And It Never Went Away)

Although the ratings won’t be in for a little while — it’s hard not to imagine the “revival” of ITV’s World Of Sport wrestling being a success in a slot which will have captured the eyes of many of the nation’s families, sitting down to tea on the last night of the year.

Success is, of course, relative, and the ratings will not touch the huge numbers of yesteryear, but they should be solid enough for a show which fell between two stools but largely achieved its stated aims.

The original ITV wrestling was a part of a dedicated afternoon of sports on the channel, including horse racing, soccer results, and more (including the downright bizarre, such as double-decker bus racing), and found an audience of the young and the old — with just about everyone else busy or attending live soccer matches.

The original presentation was, for most of its run, of a serious sport, with a quiet, reverent commentator explaining the holds a procession of intense, experienced grapplers applied while an audience of working class adults watched rapt at one of the nation’s many drill halls, covered baths, or concert venues.

The good old days…

In its latter years, the showmanship was upped (it was always present in some form, and often the most memorable wrestlers were the “characters”) in the Big Daddy era but a show that was still very much presented as a genuine contest — with production values that had barely changed in its decades-long run — could not compete with the imported glitz of the Hogan WWF, and the channel could import those tapes at a fraction of the price it was paying for home-grown fare. A sensible business decision was made, one perhaps tainted by a snobbery about wrestling’s core audience (which may seem familiar to American readers), and British wrestling went dark.

Branding the revival as World Of Sport was an understandable (if quizzical) move. At one stroke it would have turned off the majority of older viewers, and meant nothing to the younger ones, while the wrestling fans among those in-between will have had a different view of just what those three words meant — a narrow technical style rather than the variety on show most weeks.

That said, there is cache in nostalgia, and the show leaned heavily on it, without fully imbedding the old into the new — a sensible decision if the show is to be given a series which must stand on its own merits.

The show was built around Grado & Dave Mastiff

The show pretended that British wrestling had been dormant during the time between TV shows, and perhaps for much of the nation it has, despite visible posters for local shows in every town in the country. This was a revival, surfing off the back of a resurgent new wave of British wrestling, and that already created issues with its presentation, with the vast majority of shows under that banner either promoting a more adult product or — because a smart promoter doesn’t think in black and white terms — a mixed card, with something for everyone, without pandering to the youngest in the crowd, expecting them to lift to the level of the majority of the crowd, who will not be children.

The TV show, though, was very typical of its time slot — unchallenging stuff, more akin to American Gladiators or Ninja Warrior than any professional wrestling anywhere, and it will stand or fall on that. For this viewer, there was a gaping middle ground that it could have occupied — one that WWE roams like a proud king but with room for an innovative imitator — but was ignored, and once you accept that the show can be considered a cautious success on the its own terms.

The ladder match was particularly thrilling

The in-ring was great, and this should be no surprise. Every one of the featured talents has carved out their career so far by impressing audiences of all kinds — that gaping middle ground I talked of — and the style they have developed encompasses fast and thrilling action, showmanship, and feats that will make even a jaded fan gasp.

This was never more on display than in the ladder match — won by star-in-the-making Kenny Williams — and especially in the women’s bout, which could have easily descended to a pre-women’s revolution level but instead went for a solid bout between two accomplished grapplers.

Everything else was what it was — an attempt to appeal to the widest audience, which is obviously the most cautious and sensible approach but also risks falling short of being for anyone in its desire to appeal to everyone.

How the action was shot will be divisive, with the Kevin Dunn school of directing clearly being the biggest inspiration, and the backstage segments were WWE-lite, complete with a poorly-cast authority figure and a strangely-unintimidated interview girl, but everyone looked great, with new gear on display for most, leaving no question that these were professional showmen.

Jim Ross & Alex Shane called the action

The decision was made to go with Jim Ross as lead commentator and to most this was a positive. Ross carries a certain weight with him, and isn’t over-exposed to even a professional wrestling audience in 2016/2017, but does have his drawbacks. He is overwhelmingly identified with a specific product, and his repeated mentions of his old job and the wrestlers that he called there were a hindrance to the efforts of the men and women in the ring.

One of the old ITV wrestling’s strengths was in its announcing — a non-wrestling man and serious sports broadcaster — and this is something that could have been considered, especially given Alex Shane (who has his detractors) did an able job as colour commentator alongside the lead voice.

Although you risk getting caught “in the bubble,” the response to the show was majorly positive, however much you have to apply some grateful wishful thinking to that. It should be enough for a small run at least to be attempted, and this is where the product will find its feet.

It was notable that the following show, Ninja Warrior UK, filmed in the same studio and aimed at the same audience, was an altogether more polished and professional production, at ease with itself. That show is beginning its third run, and if World Of Sport can make it to that vantage it, too, should be a far easier, more consistent watch than the pilot.

Joe Coffey takes flight

The desirable end result for the British wrestling scene is a swell in business. ITV will want a slice of that — or at least the licensing fees that it can extract from eager promoters — but there should be enough, if the show is successful, for local promotions to latch on to. This, again (and because everything is not straightforward in an increasingly-nuanced world), is an exciting but worrying prospect, with more eyes (and bums on seats!) being incredibly positive for those striving to make a living (or not lose their shirt) off the graps game but also potentially negative.

Wrestling has reached a point where, while it’s perhaps a slightly questionable hobby in the eyes of the population at large, it is respectable entertainment, and seen as a good night out again.

A sudden rise in popularity — real or perceived — risks attracting the corner-cutters (who never really went away but have played to increasingly-smaller audiences), content to put on any kind of “professional wrestling” in ill-suited venues, purely to sell gimmicks and popcorn to children. Those who do it the “right” way, with decent production values and an investment in the business, will be thrown in with the rest, undoing years of good work at a stroke.

For now, though, all talk should be of how this return to mainstream TV can be used as a springboard to continue the renaissance of the sport in the UK. Stars have been created in the eyes of a considerable new audience, and promoters should do all they can to use this to bring more eyes to what they’ve been doing well for years. Whatever you think of the intentions behind the venture, or the actual product they put out on December 31st — 2017 has to be a year when we seek the good in everything, and wrestling should be no different. Although it never actually went away, British wrestling is back, and you should be excited for what it does next.

Alan Boon writes a weekly column for this site which covers the British wrestling scene. He also co-hosts a weekly podcast –The Indy Darlings — dedicated to UK & US independent wrestling.