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Is WWE attempting to shape the UK independent wrestling scene to their likening?

Is the term “independent wrestling” becoming a misnomer in the UK, as WWE uses their influence to help friends and hurt rivals?

Interest in independent wrestling is currently at an all time high in the UK thanks to companies like PROGRESS Wrestling, Revolution Pro Wrestling (RPW), What Culture Pro Wrestling (WCPW) and Insane Championship Wrestling (ICW), amongst others, all having a loyal cult following.

This success, along with the knowledge of how popular professional wrestling once was on its station during the heyday of Big Daddy, has led to ITV, the largest commercial TV network in the UK, to record a one-off World of Sport Wrestling special that will air on New Year’s Eve in the prime spot of 4-6pm. The show will feature some of the top talent on the UK independent scene including Zack Gibson, El Ligero, Dave Mastiff, Rampage Brown, Sha Samuels and Joe Coffey, as well as TNA star Grado and legendary announcer Jim Ross.

Although this is being billed as a one time only deal, according to Dave Meltzer in the current issue of his Wrestling Observer Newsletter, plans are being made for a future taping, which suggests that ITV are considering picking up World of Sport Wrestling as a series next year, presumably provided the Christmas special does well in the ratings. Of course, ratings success is far from guaranteed, so any talk of a “major promotional war brewing behind the scenes” is premature, but unsurprisingly WWE are getting their ducks in a row to defend their turf and maintain their monopolistic control of their top overseas market, just in case World of Sport Wrestling takes off in a major way.

WWE’s method to shape the UK independent wrestling scene to their liking is to offer what has been dubbed “competition killer” deals to certain freelancers, where in return for a low dollar guarantee (the figure I’ve heard is $25,000 a year), WWE has the right to approve who they work for. Naturally, World of Sport Wrestling is on WWE’s blacklist, but apparently so too is What Culture Pro Wrestling, who have spent a lot of money on name talent this year to gain a foothold in the UK market and develop a highly viewed YouTube channel. Although WCPW doesn’t seem to be a direct threat to WWE at the moment, the upstart promotion may have rubbed them up the wrong way with their aggressive spending and attempts to exploit anti-WWE sentiment among hardcore wrestling fans. With PROGRESS Wrestling and Revolution Pro Wrestling being on friendly terms with WWE, such a ban obviously wouldn’t apply to them and they are likely to indirectly benefit from WWE’s interference in the UK marketplace.

ITV have taken steps to protect themselves from such interference by amending their contracts to bar performers from appearing on rival television shows and to give them booking priority (i.e., talent must cancel bookings if they clash with future World of Sport Wrestling tapings or house shows).

A few days ago, Gabe Sapolsky on Twitter implored talent not to “sign anything stupid”, so the question becomes are either of these deals stupid, and frankly the answer will be different on a case by case basis.

For performers who WWE haven’t shown any interest in, signing with ITV seems the right move as it gives them national exposure and will make them more valuable to independent wrestling promotions that target the family market.

For Zack Gibson, who was the hottest heel in PROGRESS Wrestling and it is known that William Regal had taken a shine to, the decision to sign with ITV may prove to be an unwise one. Since losing to then PROGRESS World Champion Mark Haskins at Chapter 37 on October 16th, he hasn’t been booked by PROGRESS and has obviously been placed on the backburner along with his Origin stablemates El Ligero and Dave Mastiff, who also worked the ITV tapings.

For those who sign with WWE, it depends upon how strictly they enforce their contracts and whether they show loyalty to those who give up their full freedom in return for the security of having a useful guaranteed monthly income coming in to supplement their earnings. On balance the trade-off seems worth it, as there are serious question marks about the long term viability of both World of Sport Wrestling, who are yet to prove that there is enough mainstream interest in a British pro wrestling television show to keep ITV bosses happy, and WCPW, who it’s hard to believe aren’t making heavy losses at the moment, given the amount of money they are spending on high ticket ex-WWE stars. If the number of blacklisted promotions grows, then maybe the trade-off won’t be worth it in the end.

So for better and possibly for the worse too, WWE’s influence in the UK marketplace is shaping the creative decisions of key independent wrestling promoters. Indeed, PROGRESS Wrestling is currently running a “summer of Punk” style worked shoot storyline where new PROGRESS World Champion Pete Dunne is claiming that “the only thing this title's good for is to lean on when I sign a contract“ (see the video at the top of the article). Dunne is a superb performer who richly deserves his spot as PROGRESS’ top dog, but one can’t help feeling a little disappointed that it may have come at the expense of Gibson, a tremendous heat generator and a top quality worker in his own right too, possibly because he’s not following the career path WWE wants him to.

On the other hand, some promotions, like ICW perhaps, may be wary of using or completely getting behind talent who sign these contracts with WWE. Indeed, Meltzer alleged that there was pressure backstage at ICW’s largest event ever last month for talent offered these contracts by WWE to turn them down:

At the ICW show in Glasgow, the WWE contracts were major talk, and the peer group pressure was to not sign with people calling them “mark deals,” with the idea that “They don’t want you, they just don’t want anyone else to have you.”

Personally I think that was bad advice, although it’s always wise to be wary of WWE’s true intentions. Given that WWE will regularly need to replenish their NXT roster as talent gets promoted to Raw/Smackdown and will likely run another Cruiserweight Classic tournament next year, one would have to believe that the British talent that signed with WWE would be in the front of the queue for those spots, whilst those that turned the offer down would have to wait in line much longer.

Whatever happens, 2017 will certainly prove to be a very interesting year to follow independent wrestling in the UK, both onscreen and off.

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