December 30th, 2019.
I had that date in my calendar since the same date in 2018, when the independent UK wrestling promotion Progress held its annual Unboxing show, a secret show that has no previously announced card, and always impresses. Unboxing 2018 saw Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate say goodbye to independent wrestling in a completely amazing match that was under-appreciated. A show that gave me a hunch I needed to be at Unboxing 2019.
If you’re not aware of why Unboxing 2019 has become an extremely important (practically must-see) event for Progress fans, it’s kinda simple to explain. Jim Smallman, the public face (even though he covers his own in photos) of Progress, one of its three co-owners — who also ring-announces and has been involved in some of its most important storylines — announced last week that the December 30 show would be his last with the company.
A video.— Jim Smallman (@jimsmallman) August 2, 2019
Watch it please.
I’ll answer some questions about it at 2pm GMT.
Thank you everyone. pic.twitter.com/APgpMs4vTL
In tweets that followed, during a Q&A, he confirmed that he will still continue his work with NXT UK, where he and his two other Progress co-founders, have been working.
Most understandably, Smallman reiterated that a major factor in his decision is being able to spend more time with his family, which is presumably hard when you’re working two wrestling industry gigs.
And then Jim reiterated his lack of interest in the performance side of what he does for Progress. He was never meant to be the host of each show, but he had a knack for it.
#biya I already have a job within wrestling away from PROGRESS with NXT UK (with Jon and Glen too). Doubt I'll return to comedy outside of one gig next year to say goodbye to that.— Jim Smallman (@jimsmallman) August 2, 2019
I'm tired of performing. I'm 41 and eventually people will get sick of me. https://t.co/9DEJA4ASs2
While it all makes sense, it didn’t sting any less for it. Former Progress World Champion Mark Haskins tweeted his shock in a The Office GIF, and his beautiful, menacing wife Vicky Haskins opted for a “shocked John Cena” GIF one. AEW/PWG’s Excalibur and Evolve/Shine’s Lenny Leonard thanked Smallman. Hilariously, Pete Dunne popped onto Twitter to rib Jim, responding “Sell out.”
As an outsider, looking in at the British wrestling scene, I have to admit that I feel like I’m part of what some see as a problem. I only started watching Progress during the summer of 2017, months after the WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament, where Progress co-owners Jim Smallman and Jon Briley were shown in the audience.
That two-day tournament saw Bate, Dunne and others, including Trent Seven, become names on an international scene, and WWE begin its European expansion. Wrestlers got contracts. WWE NXT UK became a thing, and eventually got a TakeOver. Rumors of WWE acquiring companies including Progress, OTT, wXw swirled. Now, neither Progress nor wXW will use licensed music, a move that some claim signals an eventual move to the WWE Network.
All the while, fans trolled Smallman with the word “conspiracy” (he brought this up on his Tuesday Night Jaw podcast, which he recently passed to the amazing Matthew Richards, who does many things, including commentary for Progress).
Soon, we would find out that Smallman, Briley and the third Progress co-owner Glen Joseph were all doing double duty, working at WWE NXT as they continued to make Progress. Joseph’s voice, for example, can be heard when a WWE NXT wrestler is interviewed by someone off-camera.
So, without any insider info, I began to invest in my return to the UK (I went to Progress’ biggest show, at the Wembley Arena, last year) for Unboxing.
I say ”insider info” because, for the sake of transparency, I should note that Jim, Jon and Glen have been nothing but nice, kind and generous with their time in our interactions, as I’ve met them both as a fan and a journalist, interviewing Smallman last summer about the Progress Coast to Coast US Tour.
And then this last week in British Wrestling happened:
- At the main event of Progress Ch. 93, Zack Gibson (one half of the NXT UK Tag Champs, The Grizzled Young Veterans, with James Drake) emphasized the word conspiracy in a promo where he predicts, accurately, that he and JD will win the Progress tag titles that night, which will make Progress match NXT UK with its world champions (WALTER) and tag champs (GYV). Relatedly, Bate and Seven hold the OTT Tag Team Championships, while James Drake is also a champ at Pro Wrestling Chaos.
- NXT UK contracted superstar Eddie Dennis, at Progress Ch. 93, announces he will no longer appear at Progress, despite having the unfinished business of a title shot he won at Wembley.
- Voices of Wrestling reports that “NXT UK contracted talent may no longer appear on streaming services. They can work shows, but dark matches only.”
- Beloved UK referee Chris Roberts is announced to be leaving Rev Pro UK. His next steps are unknown, though he has refereed NXT UK before, for Ohno vs Gallagher in episode 45.
- UK wrestling promotion Defiant, formerly known as WCPW (WhatCulture Pro Wrestling) closes shop.
All of which leaves people in a confused if not frustrated place. Change isn’t just a’comin, change is here. It’s already really rare that WWE-contracted wrestlers lose when they’re facing those outside the company, which makes it feel like those independent titles are being held hostage.
And then we swing back into kayfabe
The WWE’s march into Europe is the biggest storyline that nobody has turned into kayfabe, aside from the errant wrestler saying Britwres is dying. Or at least it used to be.
Back in May, David Starr, Mr. Independent himself, won the Progress Super Strong Style 16 tournament, granting him a world championship title shot. It was a very interesting decision for Progress, to give such a major moment to a wrestler who’s openly critical of the company its co-owners also work for. It felt like Progress re-declaring its independence.
At Chapter 93, Paul Robinson delivered an incensed promo that lashed out at David Starr, complaining about Mr. Americanrana being too ... greedy? with his demands for workers rights:
Robinson (also known as Robbo) won a ton of praise for the promo, but it sparked a bit of ... independent thinking and tweeting from Starr.
Promotions asking me to “play nice” but then giving license & encouragement to attack.— (((David Starr))) (@TheProductDS) August 3, 2019
Interesting move, guys.
No more “playing nice”.
Amazing that this promo got shared immediately while my post #SSS16 promo discussing workers being in a united front to fight for our collective rights wasn’t.— (((David Starr))) (@TheProductDS) August 4, 2019
I even asked to have it posted to showcase how @wetheindie opposes a worker war.
Says a lot, innit. https://t.co/JZu1dY1gA4
Starr even began to talk about the aforementioned rumors of WWE restricting NXT UK signee appearances, in the following thread:
If the rumors are true and WWE is beginning to enforce the rules regarding their talents appearing on streaming services & DVDs, then that’s ok.— (((David Starr))) (@TheProductDS) August 4, 2019
But since this is all pro wrestling, I have to take a moment to wonder what’s real and what’s a part of the story. I could see Starr’s tweets as being 100 percent his truth, but the tweets saying that promoters asked him to play nice, that’s also a possible bit of story building.
If you think Smallman’s decision won’t be written into the show, then I think you should reevaluate how pro wrestling works. Smallman’s news arrives at a very interesting moment for Progress.
In the coming weeks until Starr’s title shot at Alexandra Palace and Smallman’s departure at Unboxing, we shall see how the lines between reality and kayfabe continue to blur.
How much will Starr paint WWE as a villain? Will he (or someone else) chastise Smallman for leaving, or selling out?
Only time shall tell.