Last summer’s Progress NYC show was the only time I can remember that a crowd chanted “Please Come Back” before a single match. Specifically, the audience showered the request upon Jim Smallman, a co-owner of the Camden, England based promotion, as he sat in the middle of the ring, dumbstruck.
Via email, Mr. Smallman told me “That response in New York brings a happy tear to my eye; I often watch it to cheer myself up if I’m having a bad day.” Though he expects few of those in the coming months, stating “I intend on having a lot of fun with my job in the USA this year.”
Yes, even though Progress NYC would not end as fondly as it started, Jim Smallman and his merry band of grapplers are coming back to the U.S. for a six-night tour, which made this an opportune time to chat with the man who starts every Progress how. We talked about the past and present of Progress, recent surprise changes sparked by New Japan Pro Wrestling(NJPW)’s booking, and how WWE’s involvement in the British wrestling scene (Britwres for short) may change things going forward.
Throwbacks and Flashbacks
To announce their touring talent for this summer tour, Progress released a rather odd, and particularly British, video referring the classic film Summer Holiday. In it, images of the touring roster -- including WWE UK Champ Pete Dunne and his British Strongstyle mates Tyler Bate and Trent Seven, then-Progress World Champ Travis Banks and Progress Women’s champion Jinny -- were digitally-grafted onto persons in the film, all driving equally-shoddy looking cars and buses.
Watching the clip, I was reminded of the bus service that notoriously no-showed when Progress was to be driven from Queens to Boston last summer. Jim didn’t make the video himself, but says he is “one hundred per cent convinced” that it is a reference to the touring catastrophe of last year.
But that wasn’t the worst part of the trip. The Elmcor center (a local gym) — the Corona, Queens venue where Progress NYC took place — was as hot as the surface of sun, and later reports suggested that the venue had been over-packed, beyond regulation. The service at the facility demonstrated that its building’s staff didn’t have the ability to service a packed house, and leaking moisture showed a building practically sweating under duress.
Then, during the second to last match -- Trent Seven & Tyler Bate vs. TK Cooper & Travis Banks -- Cooper went for a corkscrew moonsault from the top turnbuckle to the outside of the ring, and did not stick the landing.
The crowd popped big for the move, until it went silent, having realized something had gone wrong. It’s one of the memories of Progress that stayed with me the most, unfortunately, as I was no more than a seat away from the fallen Cooper, and could see — from his foot — that something was wrong. Jim says he “knew it was bad because Travis told me it was, then Pete grabbed me and told me that he would work with the others to make a handicap match on the fly whilst TK was being taken out.”
That amount of on-the-fly improvisation was a testament to the crew, as was how the entire locker room -- including Keith Lee, who’d only wrestled two Progress matches at this point -- spilled out to carry Cooper to the back. Jim told me “Everyone who works for us is a friend of mine and to see such a horrible injury right in front of me was heartbreaking,” but I’m sure their unity in that moment was heartwarming.
Before Cooper was carried away, though, Jim spoke to him and noticed he “was weirdly super happy and cheerful,” which Smallman says was “probably the adrenaline.” In the moment, the news of TK’s positive mood circulated around the crowd, and I flashed back to The Simpsons episode where Bart meets a daredevil who says wounds heal and chicks dig scars.
A second tour, bigger than the first
But, yes, even after all of that, Progress wants to do another U.S. tour (yes, they played New Orleans for WrestleMania season, more on that later). This time, it’s stopping at six U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, where it lands at the famed ECW Arena, in a card that will feature Jimmy Havoc against Rickey Shane Page and a tag match with Trent Seven and Tyler Bate vs TK Cooper and Shane Strickland (Banks was scheduled to be in this one, but an injury pulled him out, and Swerve’s replacing him). When asked who’s most excited to play this venue, Jim said, “Absolutely me, one hundred per cent,” before admitting, “although I know all the talent popped huge for it when we announced it.”
This upcoming tour is far from the first time that the Progress World Championship will be defended in the U.S. (this interview took place before Walter added the Progress Championship to his resume).
When I asked Jim about the time Marty Scurll defended the Progress Championship against Will Ospreay, in Dallas at WrestleCon in 2016 -- the match that made the belt a World championship -- he spoke with a hint of regret: “I wasn’t at the match but I wish I was. Glen [Joseph, Progress co-owner] was there. When I watched it back I was genuinely stunned at how much love our tiny little company got, and it was certainly one of the catalysts for us deciding to try to run shows in the USA.”
Smallman made sure to credit the chemistry between those wrestlers, saying “Marty and Will could have a great match with each other in their sleep, and that certainly helped the reaction!”
As for future US tours, Jim’s not certain that these summer tours will always be a thing, saying “we’ll have to see how this one goes first,” but that “as long as people want us somewhere though, we’ll always try to get there.” Smallman told me that outside of the cities they’re seeing on this tour, Los Angeles, Texas and Florida are the locations they’re most-often asked to visit, so Progress fans in those areas should know they’re not been forgotten about.
From the looks of Smallman’s tweets, though, you can tell he’s almost as excited about spending time in Portland, and that’s so much the case that he’s planned to spend a night there with some of the wrestlers, just to take in the city. He’s even able to take his daughter out for breakfast when he’s in NYC, as his ex will be there at the same time. Don’t think life on the road is all fun, though, as he will, sadly, miss his son’s Claudio’s second birthday, as that’s when the Chicago date of the tour is.
Started at the bottom now they’re here
But Jim Smallman and Progress weren’t always hopping around the world. While the company co-owner found himself in the center of the ring in New York City, he never even intended to be the master of ceremonies: he was roped into being the host.
When I asked him about the rumor that someone’d bowed out, he responded “It wasn’t that we had an original host, we just couldn’t afford to pay anyone for the first show so I said I’d do it. I have, repeatedly, offered my resignation since then!”
Last summer, in the months leading up to the NYC show, I binge-watched Progress’s 43 PPV-length events in mere months. Its initial major feud, which saw Jimmy Havoc set a high bar for storytelling in the promotion, had me hooked. My marathon viewing seems a little crazy in retrospect, which Pete Dunne confirmed at an indie show in Brooklyn when he told me that it sounded terrible.
Along the way, Progress began to run its canon/storytelling-filled chapter shows more frequently. The quickening pace has amped up from once every couple of months, to once a month, to around twice a month, and having as few as 7 days between chapter shows.
When asked about how that’s affected their storytelling, Smallman notes “It just means we have to turn more stories over, and that’s a pretty cool challenge,” one that’s “meant that we’ve had to work harder but I don’t mind that one bit.”
Almost as if he’s asking for more work, Smallman proudly says “we got into wrestling to work hard and we throw ourselves into everything with tons of intensity if we’re doing five shows in a month or just the one.” He’s confident that this will continue as “No matter how much we grow as a business, we still remain fans who do this because we love it.”
While Progress moved out of the small garage in Islington, England, where it started, and started playing larger venues, such as Alexandra Palace and its current mainstay, Camden’s Electric Ballroom, Smallman stayed as host over the years. As if he’s worried about one day getting in the way, he tells me “I don’t want to overstay my welcome with what I do.”
Smallman’s opening banter with the crowd typically creates organic running jokes about the odd reasons fans haven’t been to see the promotion before, and (recently) the favorite cheeses of each referee. While pro wrestling can be an awfully dramatic place, these light-hearted moments set the mood, as does the inclusive Everybody Welcome message on the Progress shirts that Smallman occasionally wears to the ring.
Smallman is one of the three co-owners of Progress, with Jon Briley (who’s been working on it with him since the beginning) and Glen Joseph (who was in the crowd on night 1). While Briley’s voice is rarely heard out loud -- though you should hear him talk about the NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia show on Smallman’s Tuesday Night Jaw podcast -- Glen’s the other grounding voice of the promotion, as a regular on commentary.
Midcard Escapers, a Kiwi Buzzsaw and a ... b i g s t r o n g b o i
But you don’t tune in to WWE because of Vince McMahon, you tune in for the wrestlers, and the same has to be said for Progress. While the list of former Progress World Champions is a who’s who of British wrestling -- including Will Ospreay, Marty Scurll, Jimmy Havoc, Pete Dunne and Mark Andrews (whose tragic reign lasted less than a day), many of its great performers are not world champions.
Take, for example Chuck Mambo, a sincere and tubular surfer whose love of tye-dye shirts and smiling is so wholesome that it manages to attract a healthy shower of beachballs in the ring, quite unlike what you see during WWE pay-per-views. During the run-up to this year’s Super Strong Style 16 (SSS16) tournament, Mambo was getting more serious, defining his persona and his style as more than just a light, fun routine.
But while Mambo would get knocked out of the tournament in the first round to Zack Sabre Jr. (and who could fault him, ZSJ would win the tournament) Mambo shined in that match, displaying a resilience and technical expertise that showed he was ready to escape the mid-card. Speaking of, Mambo and TK Cooper have been hard at work with a YouTube Series called (you guessed it) Escaping The Midcard that shows their friendship on the road as they make towns, in a format that may remind some of The Young Bucks’ Being The Elite.
ETM came to a head, and tied back into the product, though, when Cooper betrayed Mambo, hitting him with a steel chair during a championship match with Cooper’s tag partner Travis Banks, the Progress World Champion. While this cowardly move -- Mambo had the champ on the ropes -- would have illicited a negative reaction on its own, the fans who’d seen Mambo and Cooper’s videos felt an even stronger reaction, and saw the betrayal.
When I asked if Progress management had any role in Escaping The Midcard, Smallman denied it, saying “Nope! It’s all down to those guys,” before saying, “it’s cool when wrestlers take it upon themselves to film stuff like that, all promoters should be grateful as it’s only bringing more eyes to British wrestling,” and acknowledging that the videos “did help our storytelling a bit” and placing credit where it was earned, as “it’s all their hard work.”
Regarding how they got their message out, Smallman is positive about Teeks and Mambo’s choice of platform, saying “With media always evolving, any wrestler who can do something like TK and Mambo have to get a new audience or further their career is to be applauded.”
Smallman proceeded to note that this kind of action could help talent who think they’re stuck in a rut: “Not every wrestler has a big storyline in every company all the time, so it’s up to the talent to try and get over as best as they can. Utilising things like YouTube really helps.”
Speaking of Travis Banks, the odd twists and turns he’s made this year have also given me delight as I watched. While Banks was a babyface in this year’s WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament, the same is not true in Progress. Yes, he started his Progress World championship title run as the beloved Kiwi Buzzsaw who dethroned Pete Dunne, he soon morphed into the world’s biggest Roman Reigns fan, calling himself The Big Kiwi, doing the Superman Punch gestures, and all of the other pantomimes that you’ll see Reigns perform when he’s about to win on Monday Night Raw. When I asked Smallman what he thinks of all this (prior to Trav losing the belt to Walter) he said that “Travis makes me shake my head on a daily basis,” much like all fans, but that “then he makes me shake his hand.”
I followed up talk of Banks’ transformation by presenting Smallman with a popular reddit thread entitled Absolute Power corrupts absolutely: The history of the Progress world title as a cursed object? To which Smallman noted he’s been send the thread “a few times” before revealing that Progress did “find the title belt in a old graveyard,” and wondering “maybe that’s the issue?”
Which makes me wonder about the wrestlers whose souls have stayed untarnished by not getting the Progress World Championship. Surprisingly, that list includes Tyler Bate, the first ever WWE UK Champion. Bate didn’t need any title, though, to undergo his own metamorphosis, one that you need to watch Progress (or follow him on social media) to see.
The young wrestler from Dudley -- who calls himself a “b i g s t r o n g b o i” -- has changed a lot since he won the WWE UK Championship. He’s now taken a look that many say resembles Conor McGregor, and while Smallman can’t explain it, he sure finds it hilarious, noting “every show day for me, one highlight is waiting to see what outlandish outfit he’s turned up in.”
Smallman then let his own imagination run away, saying “I’m sure by the end of the year he’ll arrive in a Rolls Royce, with a Siberian tiger, wearing a vegan faux mink coat,” before fondly looking back, saying “I think it’s awesome seeing him grow like this because I remember him as a shy 17 year old when he first wrestled for us.”
The best storyline in pro wrestling hasn’t had a match since last September
When it comes to Progress’ solid storytelling, which Havoc and Smallman set the bar for, the best thing going in the current product finds Mark Andrews and Eddie Dennis in a feud that started last September. While Dennis is clearly the heel -- having betrayed his former tag team partner at the end of a match -- they’ve spun the story with fascinating shades of gray.
The gist of the story is that Andrews has refused to fight Dennis -- who attacked him after a match -- which has pushed Dennis to trail the 205 Live superstar everywhere he goes, screwing up his life until he got what he wants, a match. Dennis’ angry monologues have elevated the tall Welshman, a former school teacher, into a must-see talent. His original argument stemmed from feeling insulted that Andrews offering him a way to win a title shot, rather than take it for himself. And the crowds haven’t always booed him, either.
When asked about how this feud demonstrates how you can book a feud without a match happening, Smallman says “I think Eddie certainly has proved it; both him and Mark Andrews have done a great job with their issues.”
Smallman isn’t surprised that the crowds aren’t 100 percent on Andrews’ side, either: “first of all it’s 2018 so the days of traditional heels and faces have long since passed us all by; but also because Eddie is such a great villain and he speaks with complete - in his mind at least - justification for his actions.”
Fortunately, Eddie’s stayed just sadistic enough -- ambushing Mark on stage and attacking one of his Junior bandmates -- and unhinged -- following Andrews to New Orleans to disrupt a match during WrestleMania weekend -- to stay on the wrong side of the dynamic.
The Progress Faithful
While Progress has always had a roster of Dream Team-level talent, its sixth-man, to borrow a basketball term, has been the audience, often called the Progress Ultras. They toe the line between funny and distracting so well that they inspire me to be a better fan, with sing-song style chants that the British football (soccer, to the unwashed western masses) scene is known for.
For the longest time, the Progress crowd greeted Zack Gibson -- who WWE fans may know from the second UK Championship Tournament -- with the query of “Where’s My Car Stereo?” accusing the ‘scouse bastard’ (another chant they’d yell at him) of having stolen their auto’s jambox. It’s all in good, loving fun, and respect, though, as the best baddies earn the best boos, right?
When I asked Smallman how Progress has managed to keep the crowd in a good mood and not turning on the company -- ala WWE’s beachballs incident and everything with Roman Reigns -- he slightly corrected me by saying “Oh, I don’t know... if our fans don’t like something, they let you know! And I’m fine with that;” which may have been a reference to recent times when Progress’ scheduling almost conflicted with England’s World Cup hopes, which led to a minor backlash on Twitter, or that time with The Faceless (don’t ask).
Smallman did admit that the Progress fans tend to be supportive, though, saying “I think they don’t tend to (usually) rebel and tend to cheer for the good guys and boo the bad guys because we try to react with what they like.”
A solid example came with the Travis Banks storyline, as the champ’s noble, stoic, but somewhat ... dull championship reign turned heel once the fans stopped cheering as much. Smallman hinted at this, stating “Whenever we’ve turned someone it’s usually been because we get a sense that that person is ready to be cheered or booed because we can sense a few people starting to go that way already.” And as if he knew exactly which Big Dog I was referring to when saying ‘how come your crowd don’t rebel?’ he stated “we’re not going to try and force an idea; if fans really dislike a character then we’re not going to try and make them love them.”
Keeping Progress special
As a U.S.-based fan of Progress, I’ve gone to great lengths to avoid spoilers for its shows, because the only issue I have with Progress is the 4-5 day wait before a show hits their video-on-demand service. So, I had to ask about live-streaming. Jim’s response? “We’ll never live stream shows; we’re much more concerned with the live atmosphere and the fans who travel to see us. I think that keeps the live shows special, to a degree.”
He added, “Plus, logistically, it’s really hard to live stream properly on an independent budget!” which makes sense. Jim joked about how hard it is to avoid spoilers, saying “I wish there was an easy solution ... but my only advice would be to maybe live in a cave for a few days after a show. Not a super dangerous one with a bear in, but some kind of functional cave.”
Progress does its part, warning people to mute when they’re going to start tweeting spoilers, but I’ve started to just accept the spoilers as a part of the show. Yes, it’s exciting to go in to a show not knowing the results, but if you follow enough people who attend these shows, it’s fun to live through their excitement, as they share the wildest climaxes of shows.
Smallman declined to provide an answer about the never-ending speculation that Progress would be included on the WWE Network as part of a higher-priced tier.
What Jim Smallman thinks about NXT UK, The Rise of Zack Gibson
But if you want to talk about things that could change Progress, heck change British wrestling as we know it, look no further than WWE’s NXT UK. It’s the latest movement in a series of landmark incidents, which began with the first United Kingdom Championship Tournament, which Triple H opened by saying “Every empire has a beginning,” and featured footage from Progress (among others), when it came time to showcase wrestlers such as the masterful Trent Seven (who would go on to be an NXT tag team champion).
When I asked Smallman -- who was shown in the crowd at the original UK Championship Tournament, alongside Progress co-owner Jon Briley -- about WWE’s impact on the scene, he began by acknowledging the trolls, saying “I think people love to have conspiracy theories and gossip, and that’s fine.” If you’re not familiar, the word ‘conspiracy’ holds a special place in the lexicon of Smallman’s podcast Tuesday Night Jaw, as it’s been hurled at him alongside accusations that he works for WWE, or that Progress is owned by WWE, which he always countered by reminding them that he was working two jobs at the time, on the road doing comedy while co-running Progress.
Smallman continued, “You’d be crazy to argue that the WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament show in Blackpool in January 2017 didn’t have a good affect on British wrestling, it clearly did.” Specifically, he points to the tournament helping “draw mainstream crowds to independent companies. Look at all the huge indy shows we’ve had in the UK since then - not just with Progress,” though it did likely help enable Progress to run its biggest venue ever -- Alexandra Palace -- last September, as well as ICW, and OTT also got referenced throughout the show.
Further, Smallman says WWE’s show at Blackpool “helped a lot of independent workers go full time, all of them becoming better wrestlers for it.” I’d also argue that the UKCT show was the international coming out party for Trent Seven, Pete Dunne and tournament winner Tyler Bate, collectively known as British Strong Style. Few men shined brighter in the tournament more than these three, with Dunne appearing as a cross between William Regal, Daniel Bryan and an animal that’s still teething. Each of the trio have gone on to hold WWE-owned championships, and each has been involved in an epic NXT match or few.
As for the future, since WWE’s announced the NXT UK brand, which taped their first shows last weekend (July 28 - 29), and Smallman’s also positive about its influence, saying “It’s hard to predict the future, but again I feel it’ll be positive. NXT in the USA certainly hasn’t affected the independent scene there; there’s still an awesome bunch of companies doing great shows,” which is completely true, considering the likes of Defy, AAW, Shimmer, Evolve and Beyond, just to name a few that came off the top of my head as I wrote this.
Smallman hammered the point home by saying, “AND, NXT is routinely fantastic. In the UK it gives all of the wrestlers who want to work for WWE a clear path towards that goal, so you’ll see everyone stepping their game up on the Indies, be it PROGRESS or otherwise.”
As for who’s stepping up their efforts, look no further than Zack Gibson, the aforementioned ‘scouse bastard.’ Not only has he won the 2nd UK Championship Tournament, he’s currently one half of the Progress Tag Team Champions, with partner James Drake, as The Grizzled Young Veterans.
If you’ve heard about Gibson, it may be because the man is a genius on the microphone, and has earned the torrential downpour of boos that follow him from town to town, including Progress NYC, where even the Yanks knew to bathe the guy in jeers. He’s also wrestled one hell of an entertaining match against NJPW’s Toru Yano, who actually brought a detached car stereo to the ring, referencing the chant that’s followed Gibson for years.
Smallman told me “I thought Gibson did amazingly well at Royal Albert Hall,” and noted “He’s so much more than just an excellent promo guy; he’s always been able to bring it in the ring so fair play to him, he had some great matches over those two days.” And he’s right, as those matches included an absolute barn-burner with Pete Dunne for the UK Championship, where Gibson won in defeat with a strong showing, and an increased spotlight on his abilities.
The crowd enjoyed hating Gibson so much that a chant of “shoes off if you hate Gibson” grew to a boil, as Dahlia Black, whose both wrestled and done commentary for Progress, led much of the audience to literally take off their shoes and hoist them in the air. Ever a professional, Smallman tells me “My shoes remained on, mind you.”
If you want Gibson at his absolute, most absurd, though, you’d be best to find the Kaiju Big Battel shows (1, 2) from this past WrestleMania weekend in New Orleans, where he and James Drake played the role of the Louisiana State Athletic Commission, which had notoriously been trying to ban select ‘dangerous’ moves. Of his reaction to their performances, Smallman notes, “how much I laughed at those two at Kaiju Big Battel cannot be measured with conventional statistics. I was CRYING.”
Speaking of emotional reactions, the other stars of the second UKCT were Tyler Bate and Trent Seven, whose NXT Tag Team Championship win over The Undisputed Era blew the roof off the building. Smallman calls it “the loudest pop that I have ever heard,” and notes “I got a little bit emotional seeing two lads who I like very much indeed getting such an amazing reward for their hard work.”
Amazingly, that pop continued to their entrance at Progress’ Chapter 72 event, which Jim states is “part of the longest entrance / pre-bell sequence in PROGRESS history.” How long was it? Jim says you can “watch it back to see Pete Dunne checking his watch with [Jim] at one point.”
Throughout the process of running Progress, Smallman’s been juggling his work in the promotion with his career as a standup comic. That had to end, or at least get put on pause, this summer. As to why, Smallman reached back to his own childhood: “When I was a kid, my Dad had three jobs for a fair while, so doing all the stuff I’ve done has never meant I’ve felt stretched too thin, but being away so much for wrestling AND comedy meant that it was a strain on my family life and my own health, especially with all the driving I had to do.”
But don’t go thinking Jim’s no longer in the funny game. Aside from his banter in the ring, he’s also been carrying a hilarious war of brinksmanship with Stokely Hathaway, and about whom Jim said “He’s the greatest manager working in wrestling today. Fact,” over ... sneakers.
Yes, it’s a wrestling story as old as time itself. Jim wants shoes that won’t ship to the UK, Stokely acquires them, Stokely demands payment by the date of the ECW Arena show, including a 50 percent “Purchase Fee” a $90 NY Sneaker Tax charge and a $80 charge for services rendered by notorious PWG ticket “salesman”/podcaster Tom Blargh.
Oh, and if Jim refused? Stokely demanded multiple title shots if the payment were delayed. But the kicker came when Jim finally received said kicks, and discovers that he paid extra customs fees because of a pack of Haribo gummies, which include an invitation to join Stokely’s Dream Team faction, potentially creating another storyline for the U.S. trip, as Progress is coming to Hathaway’s territory.
And while Jim thinks the world of Stokely’s abilities, he noted “he shouldn’t have taken my sneakers hostage though :D.”
Throughout the year, though, Smallman hasn’t had trouble finding ways to fill the time. On previous tours, before this past April’s trip to New Orleans, he would made headway on his upcoming book, I’m Sorry, I Love You: A History of Professional Wrestling. Once that was over, though, video games took over. “I spent most of April playing FIFA on my Switch with Glen in airports,” and since “a lot of the talent have them now, I’m sure [the U.S. tour in] August will be full of us playing Mario Kart or whatever.”
At home, though, Smallman is “replaying GTA V at home on my Xbox One for the fifth time all the way through,” because “it’s an absolute work of art,” and says he’d “love that on the Switch,” to take on the road, as he’s “not good at downtime.” When he’s not Mario Kart-ing, though, he’s looking to spend time drawing as he’s “got a pencil for my iPad” to make “cartoons and stuff.” Don’t go expecting master pieces, as Jim offered up his opinion that he’s “a terrible artist” though he’s thinking “it might be an outlet for the jokes that [he] thinks up.”
About those Wembley cancellations
When I started talking to Jim, we’d only heard of one of the now-two talent cancellations for Progress’ huge Wembley show in September, which I’m traveling to attend. Specifically, Will Ospreay was off the card and out of his booked match with Jimmy Havoc, due to a contractual commitment for New Japan.
Then, after I’d talked to Smallman, we learned that Zack Sabre Jr. is also off Wembley, for (predictably) the same exact reason. While I’d only asked Jim for his thoughts about Ospreay, his comments also fit ZSJ doing a flying penalty kick off the card: “First of all, these things happen. Will is contracted to NJPW so there’s no use worrying or complaining about it, we love him and we respect his contractual obligations.”
And while these cancellations feel extremely rare, Smallman tells me they’re more frequent than we know: “We have to make a lot of changes to cards that fans don’t even see because of how we announce matches; most shows are planned three or so months in advance so we’re often having to make sweeping changes to stuff, it’s just that nobody knows about it apart from us!”
And when Smallman said that “It’s always a challenge, but we’re pretty creative and we do genuinely thrive under these conditions,” I had no idea that he might have been referencing the 3-and-in competition that Progress announced on July 17.
In short, since ZSJ is not going to cash in his championship match, his replacement(s) will earn their place by winning three consecutive matches during the matches between Chapter 74 and Chapter 75, during which the US tour takes place. That means any male singles wrestler without a match at Wembley (which means everyone but Pete Dunne and wXw’s Ilja Dragunov, more on them later) who win three consecutive matches (this is when the ears on any Chikara fans will be perking up) get a title shot at the then champ at Wembley.
As a fan of both Progress and Zack Sabre Jr., I have to admit that while I’m annoyed that Ospreay/Havoc isn’t happening at Wembley (I was really digging that story), I’m less disappointed -- and actually, kinda excited -- about the 3-and-in idea. Since Zack is under full-time contract with New Japan, it didn’t make sense for him to have a title shot. Sure, it was great when he simply, cooly, said, “Wembley, innit?” after winning the shot, but the more I thought about it, the less it made sense for storytelling. Ask any WWE fan: you want the person holding your highest title to always be around, not off busy in some other promotion.
Instead, now Progress gets to tell a new story, and many matches have higher stakes than they did before. Also, during that time frame, every match featuring the champ is a title match. Yes, I want to watch the world’s greatest technical wrestler/socialist on the biggest independent wrestling show in Britain in decades, but story trumps spectacle, 10 times out of 10.
Smallman says that “one of the biggest challenges we face as promoters is having to reshuffle things when stuff like this or injuries happen,” and I have to admit, they’ve done well so far with this.
The upside of the weird pro wrestling landscape in 2018
But as much as it stinks that NJPW can take away dream matches from Progress, the ever shaping, constantly morphing landscape of pro wrestling allowed Progress to borrow NXT’s serial knockout artist Kassius Ohno for SSS16. Smallman was delighted with the chance to bring Ohno in, saying “I love Kassius, he’s legit one of my favourite ever wrestlers and people walking the face of the earth.”
So, if you’ve been less than happy with the wrestler formerly known as Chris Hero’s NXT run (you’re not alone, friend) let me tell you: watch him in this tournament. It’s more than worth the price of admission. I’m more than jealous of my friends who attended, and the same goes for Smallman, who said it “was a joy to have [Ohno] around SSS16.” I only briefly met Ohno, at a merch table at an Evolve show at La Boom, and it was one of those encounters with a wrestler where you can instantly get a good vibe from them (yes, I’m aware I’m just a consumer and they’re performers).
As per future NXT or WWE talent Jim would love to bring around for a future SSS16 tournament or the annual Unboxing card, where everything is a surprise? “I’d always want them to have history within Progress, so Aleister Black or Tomasso Ciampa would be awesome” and that “it’s been a long time” since Noam Dar’s been in a Progress ring, and it’d be ‘nice’ to see him back as well. Ever the polite promoter, he noted “appreciate that may never happen!” about any of these returns.
Progress’ women’s division
For a while, the Progress Women’s Championship was defined by Toni Storm, who held the title for 357 days and defended it 14 times. And while those numbers aren’t great, that’s still a record that WWE fans wish Brock Lesnar could have with the big red belt.
Fortunately, the always-traveling Storm’s reign was ended by Jinny, who’s as diabolical as she is fashionable, and only needs one name, like Madonna. When asked about Ms. Storm, Jim tells me that Toni “was a brilliant first ever Progress Women’s Champion,” though he admitted “of course we did have some issues with Toni being in Japan for Stardom so much.”
Instead, the plan was to “build up the rest of the division whilst she was away,” which they did by giving time to introduce excellent talents such as Charlie Morgan and Millie McKenzie.
Jim also was forthcoming with admission that “whilst I accept that we could always have more female representation on shows I think we did do a good job of building to the title switch between Jinny and Toni.” He notes that “Toni’s unbeatable nature as champion gave the switch a lot more gravitas,” and I personally thought the smarminess of Jinny’s win, how she needed Chakara and Nina Samuels, helped make her less likable, as she borders on Cool Heel territory.
”One day,” Jim says, “I’ll sit down with Toni to get her thoughts on her title win, as it was very emotional.” But if you want the polar opposite of that highly charged moment, watch Toni talking to Glen Joseph about peeling skittles:
The other Progress show I want to see
If the Progress U.S. Tour shows are too far away for you, and Wembley’s too soon to book tickets to, then there’s still something else wholly unique that I think you should consider seeing some day.
In a show titled “Chapter 70: May 27th 1978” Progress went full-throwback, with everyone -- Jim Smallman and Glen Joseph included -- working in retro personas, as if they were in 1978. It’s another must-watch on Demand Progress, and I equate it to a British version of WWE’s Southpaw Regional Wrestling.
When I asked if they’re thinking of doing it again (I really want to attend), Jim noted “I think we may have to make it a regular thing each year now, fans seemed to love it,” before taking the credit by saying “It was my stupid idea so I was ready to take the heat if it sucked, but we had a lot of fun with it.” While I can’t do the retro gimmicks any justice in words, Jim mentioned that one of his favorite parts (outside of the bonkers commentary from Glen Joseph and Matt Richards) was “the Sheepwhackers, which I’m still giggling at now.” And I’ll let your imaginations explain what that means.
As for other credit
After witnessing Progress play it at multiple shows, and realizing it was an intentional thing, I asked whose idea was it to play Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” when shows are over. “I didn’t choose Limp Bizkit, I think Jon did.” Jim notes that he uses “For Whom The Bell Tolls” as his entrance music because “it was my daughter’s favourite song when we started the company. She would have been 8 at the time.”
Jim’s also to blame for the Progress New Orleans Chapter show title of “Mardi Graps.” With regard to that, he said: “Sorry.”
Speaking of New Orleans, don’t worry about Pete Dunne getting banned for using the pile driver to beat Eddie Dennie. Smallman notes “I saw him hit it - I was stood in the entranceway - and immediately panicked. The crowd popped huge for it, then all turned towards me to see how I reacted. Was pretty funny. As Pete walked past me he quietly said ‘don’t worry, I asked.’” It turns out “Dunne and Eddie Dennis had asked the commissioner if it was OK” and the clearing of the move made all the more sense, considering how Dunne was the WWE UK Champion, and the commissioners were trusting of how WWE performers act.