A History of British Wrestling

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Hamish Woodward

Professional wrestling is booming in the UK in 2024.

Promotions like RevPro and Progress sell thousands of tickets every week, with stars like Will Ospreay and Drew McIntyre appearing for millions in the United States.

This is a long way from the sports humble beginnings.

Wrestling began as a music hall act, similar to strongmen acts in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

Strongmen would invite punters onto the stage to wrestle them to win some money. Eventually, one man would beat the wrestler, winning his few bob and going home happy.

However, this was all a fix. The ones who lost the matches were beaten fairly. The winner from the crowd was in on the grift. It was all a fix. While sports had been fixed going back to Ancient Greece and Roman Gladiator fights, this was the real birth of pro-wrestling in the UK.

Eventually, the sport moved into bigger venues. Varieties of wrestling, like Cornish wrestling, diverged into a standard, no-holds-barred type called “All-In wrestling”.

This eventually caused the sport to be banned in parts of the country, and it fell off in popularity until after World War II.

With governing bodies worried about the violent nature of the sport, new rules were created to make it more palatable. The Lord Mountevans rules sought to create a fixed ruleset, standardising pro-wrestling in the country for the first time.

Following this, the creation of Joint Promotions create a monopoly on the sport. Some of the biggest promotions joined forces, splitting the country into territories. Wrestlers who wrestled for promotions not in the cartel could not wrestle for them, creating a host of “outlaw promotions” that eventually fell to their collective might.

This led to Joint Promotions running 40 shows per day, dominating wrestling in the UK. They quickly gained a foothold on TV on ITV, adding to their domination.

The wrestling was included on World of Sport when it launched in 1965, and became a hit immediately. The likes of Mick McManus, Jackie Pallo and Sid Cooper became household names, and were the top wrestlers of this era.

In the 1970s, Big Daddy changed the face of wrestling. This super heavyweight grappler was a huge draw, attracting up to 20 million viewers weekly. He turned wrestling away from being focused on wrestling skill, and more on big moves and big characters.

Fans became enamoured with Big Daddy, and he became a celebrity across the country. While he helped draw the crowds in, the fans soon began to turn away from the traditional style of wrestling most wrestlers practised.

In 1985, World of Sport was cancelled. The wrestling had been moved around in its time spot for years, and it was dropped when the entire show was cancelled by Greg Dyke (although Reslo on S4C continued for some years).

This began a dark era for wrestling. With no TV and a focus on Big Daddy’s style of wrestling, the scene quickly fell. The WWF (now WWE) became the dominant force in Britain. They sold out Wembley Stadium in 1992, with the British Bulldog becoming the new biggest name in wrestling in the UK.

Summerslam 1992 at Wembley Stadium (Credit: WWE.com)

British wrestling was out of the public Zeitgeist from then on. Local promotions still ran, but they failed to draw the crowds they once did.

In the 2010s, promotions like Progress, ICW and RevPro began a revival of the British wrestling scene. The mid 2010s saw crowds of over 4000 drawn for their biggest shows, even inspiring both WWE and ITV to create their own UK-centric shows (although both to little success).

The “Speaking Out Movement”, NXT UK and COVID but an end to the chances of wrestling becoming mainstream. The promotions lost all momentum, while new American promotion AEW became the top show in the UK.

They drew over 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium in 2023, signing top British stars like Will Ospreay, Jamie Hayter and PAC.

AEW All In 2023 at Wembley Stadium (Credit: Hamish Woodward)

However, the British promotions managed to come through their hardships. They regularly draw crowds of over 1000, with 4072 fans buying tickets for RevPro’s 11 Year Anniversary show in 2023.

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Contact Brit Wrestling here, or email us at Contact@britwrestling.co.uk.

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