European Wrestling - The History and Modern Legacy
When it comes to professional wrestling, America and her neighbouring lands have the game wrapped up. Look at some of the top names from the past few years, those that have defined the business. Stone Cold Steve Austin. The Rock. Bret Hart. John Cena. Ric Flair. Hulk Hogan. Eddie Guerrero. We could go on and on. Each and every one of them has a deserved place in wrestling history and, give it another few years, they will all be in the Hall of Fame.
Europe doesn’t have this tradition though, but that’s not to say Europe doesn’t have a wrestling tradition but more on that later. Granted, perhaps one o f the biggest names, Bruno Sammartino was born in Pizzoferrato in Italy. Then there was Andre the Giant from Grenoble in France. Yes, Sheamus has been a multiple world champion. Then we have Davey Boy Smith ‘The British Bulldog’ and The Dynamite Kid. Then...the well runs a little dry. Don’t get me wrong, any list with Sammartino, Andre and The British Bulldog is a list worth admiring but, looking at the lists of US/Canadian/Mexican wrestlers there isn’t even a competition.
Looking at European professional wrestling promotions there is a great range from Total Combat Wrestling in Milan to the Super Wrestling Alliance in Barcelona. Nearly every European country has a national Federation. Ireland alone currently has six promotions, four based in Dublin alone. Not bad for a country with a population of approximately 6.5 million. The United Kingdom has 85 different promotions. 85. Again, compare that to, say the United States and that isn’t a big number but for a country the size of the UK, that’s huge. Who is currently employed by WWE and TNA from the UK and Ireland? The aforementioned Sheamus. Wade Barrett. Drew McIntyre. William Regal. Mason Ryan. Magnus. Rob Terry. Rockstar Spud. Now, eight wrestlers from the UK and Ireland is a pretty good percentage I suppose and I shouldn’t knock it, but where is the next legend going to come from? A random look at the rosters for Europe and we have Antonio Cesaro taking on the best and fan favourite Santino Marella. That’s it. So, with Cena, Bryan, Punk, Orton, Del Rio, RVD and HHH all powering the juggernaut, Europe is left behind.
Now, I know the main argument will be that any wrestler has to prove their worth, it can’t just be given to you. Just because someone is British doesn’t mean the brass ring should just be thrown to them like a cheap trinket. I do wonder though how the next European success can even happen at the moment. Cesaro, arguably the top European wrester in either top American promotion, has produced some excellent matches this year and his reward? He’s in a tag team called ‘The Real Americans’. I know a throw-away explanation was provided by Zeb Coulter but Cesaro deserves at least half a chance after his proven work ethic and in-ring ability. Drew McIntyre is an afterthought in an afterthought of the 3MB stable. Creative appear to have given up on Wade Barrett (but there are rumours of a repackage). Sheamus is out injured and, if he is the ‘great hope’ for legendary status down the line he seriously needs a character change-up and some serious feuds. Again, no-one gets given these things. What I’m trying to say though is that Europe has as much a heritage for professional wrestling as America, Canada and Mexico, and it should be embraced.
Now, the first time I saw wrestling as a child, it wasn’t American wrestling. No. It was on a British channel called ITV and on the World of Sport. I was very young but I do remember watching it and thinking it funny. Essentially, it consisted of an audience of angry grandmothers shouting obscenities to usually out-of shape (by WWE standards at least) men with names such as Kendo Nagasaki (from Stoke-on-Trent), Giant Haystacks (later Loch Ness in WCW), the Dynamite Kid (him again) and genuine UK household names Big Daddy and Mick McManus. Unfortunately, the latter died earlier this year and it was still reported by all the mainstream media. That’s how ingrained that period is over here. In a way, McManus, whose first professional bout was in 1945, was a precursor to the heel tactics of Ric Flair and over 20 million people watched his 1963 match against Jackie Pallo.
If you’ve never seen it, here’s two of the biggest legends in British wrestling, Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, in their final match.
I know what you’re thinking. That was 1981 and two huge men went to a count-out ending. Nothing’s changed has it? The thing is, and I know I’m being specific to UK wrestling, it was a huge business for a while. British wrestling on a terrestrial channel. With the best will in the world to the 85 five UK-based promotions, it would take a hell of a crazy billionaire to get UK wrestling back on a British channel. The nearest we ever got was an abomination of a programme called Celebrity Wrestling in 2005 that not only failed to contain any celebrities but also got hammered by a rejuvenated Dr Who in the ratings.
That UK promotion was the launch-pad though for Steven (later William) Regal, Fit Finaly and Davey Boy Smith. At its peak in the sixties, the World of Sport viewing figures were in excess of 16 million, and an investigation was held ten years later when the figures dropped to 7.5 million. That’s still a huge amount for an entertainment niche. Ironically, the 1988 axing by current English FA chief Greg Dyke was down to football rights money and some American Wrestling promotion called WWF that was making in-roads in the country. So, you can look at all the wrestling companies in America that were put to the wall by the McMahon behemoth, but it was happening around the world too.
To go back to my point though, it is brilliant that WWE and TNA bring their product to Europe. Hell, we’re living in an age where Europe/UK & Ireland/England is so important that the NFL might one day have a franchise in London. Seeing the top promotions and the top wrestlers in Europe is great but, as with any fan of anything ever, we want more. We want our own guys to cheer and boo. We want our own legends and those wants and desires are getting further away by the year.
One need only look at Wade Barrett. This man is still one of my favourites even though he has jobbed himself out of existence and his most important TV act this year was trying to shave Daniel Bryan’s beard. He is just the man we want to cheer though. He has the physique, the mic skills and the right attitude. He’s just lacks confidence from creative. Granted, due to recent events, maybe he needs a character shake-up as much as Sheamus does but still, this is a man who could make a lot of money. Just like WWE is desperately looking for the Mexican star to replace Rey Mysterio from an economic point of view, it could be argued with more and more sojourns to Europe, they need to make that level of star for us now too. If it is all about money and ‘what’s good for business’ they need to either have confidence in one of the European stars they already have or go to the Swiss Wrestling Federation or the Belgian Catch Wrestling Federation or the British Wrestling Federation or, indeed, the Federations from Russia, Germany or France. If the European territory is becoming an important economic place for the WWE (and TNA who are bigger in the UK viewing figures than WWE quite often) then they need to give us something to spend our money on.
Yes, the growing argument for a PPV to be held in the UK is a valid one. Yes, it would be expensive but what if the one of the RAW’s that they bring over here was the go-home show or the night-after episode? Very simply put, and I’m picking this PPV out of the air because I know there’s little chance of it moving from LA, but if you were to put SummerSlam in Wembley Stadium it would sell with the right card. The last warm nights are with us. The regular boisterous crowd chanting non-stop and Sheamus versus Barrett for the World Heavyweight Title. I know it’s a pipe dream but, bloody hell, it’s a good one. And, a deserved one for a continent which gives a lot of economic strength to the product.
It’s a tough game though, and if the audience doesn’t connect, it’s very easy for the management to lose confidence very quickly. Look at Drew McIntyre. Again, the man appears to have it all but it’s just never clicked. I suppose he can be grateful he hasn’t be laden with an unfortunate pirate gimmick like that other young hopefully, Paul Burchill. Again, if the top promotions want to make serious inroads into Europe and make some good money in trying times, they need to open up, maybe hire a European writer/booker who knows how to deal with these wrestlers because I refuse to believe that Cesaro, Sheamus and Barrett aren’t good enough to go all the way. It needs to take risks and, dare I say, not saddle every foreign wrestler with a national sterotype. Sheamus has been a Celtic King, Barrett a gypsy boxer, Santino a comedy Italian stooge. Give them something more interesting to do. In the same way a ‘stars and stripes’ hero rapidly becomes dull, so do those other stereotypes.
I obviously have to go back to my Sheamus argument. Many will be saying that Europe does have a top flight star and, in a way, you’re right. Again though, he hasn’t really clicked recently. Maybe it was the face turn, maybe it was the WrestleMania title win. Who knows. At this point though, he has the most potential to become a ‘European wrestling legend’ but, with an upcoming ‘reboot’ for Wade Barrett, who knows? Anyone who saw the post-show Raw in 2012 will see that the bloke has the potential to be hugely popular. He is the complete package and I really feel him and Sheamus can lead the European charge with the inevitable inclusion of one Mr. Cesaro.
To end though, WWE & TNA (hell, Ring of Honor too) are missing a trick by not at least trying out more and more European wrestlers. They’ve got the performance centre and it should be a new beginning in terms of bringing the top young independents to them and, let’s be honest here, moulding them into what is needed for the product. The Intercontinental Title is just that. A title for the different continents but, for that to work, let the wrestlers from different continents fight for it. Let it mean something again by relating it back to what the name of the title actually is. Make it a partisan entity (and that doesn’t automatically mean reverting to cultural stereotypes) and let’s see top guys go for it. Europe has a lot to offer wrestling. It has a much history in the business as America so let’s see that offer taken up in a big way.
“When I was at school I couldn't even spell pro-wrestler and now I are one.” (William Regal).
Finally, my talk of British wrestling reminded me of an excellent BBC documentary produced late last year called ‘When Wrestling was Golden: Grapples, Grunts and Grannies’. I’ve linked it below and if you have any interest in the history of wrestling or even a passing interest in anything discussed in this article, give it a watch, it’s excellent. Failing that, it has rabid grannies in it and they’re always worth watching.
Please follow me on twitter @HughFirth or email me on email@example.com All constructive criticism is appreciated.
Ta ta for now and hopefully see you next week.