​From London to Los Angeles: How British Wrestling is Taking On the World

British wrestling spent a few decades wallowing in the wilderness, desperately trying to replicate the success of companies in America and Japan. That has all changed in the last five years, with the British scene currently experiencing an...
December 14, 2016, 2:57pm
Image: www.RobBrazierPhoto.com

"For years everyone was trying to shake the Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks perception of British wrestling," says Andy Quildan, the owner of top UK promotion RevPro. "A lot of people don't realise that there is a thriving independent scene in Britain. That has been a big barrier that we've had to break down."

It's fair to say that British wrestling spent a few decades wallowing in the wilderness, desperately trying to replicate the success of companies in America and Japan. Numerous poorly run promotions have come and gone, with many British wrestlers failing to make it out of the bingo halls and onto the international stage.

That has all changed in the last five years. The British scene is experiencing an unprecedented revival, led by a handful of companies and wrestlers who are taking the sport in bold and exciting directions.

Like RevPro, the PROGRESS promotion is making waves. Since 2011 they have amassed a dedicated fan base, which has helped them sell out every one of their shows – including at Brixton Academy in September. Billed as 'Punk Rock Pro Wrestling', PROGRESS was co-founded by stand-up comedian Jim Smallman, who believes the boom is due to a number of companies maturing and honing their brand.

"A core group of British companies – like PROGRESS, RevPro, and ICW in Glasgow – have gotten to grips with promoting their product. Everyone's learnt from each other, shown respect, and grown from there," Smallman told VICE Sports.

Will Ospreay (white trunks) has been making a name for himself globally // www.RobBrazierPhoto.com

Having numerous great promotions in Britain is fine, but the sport can't seriously prosper if the athletes in the ring are not up to scratch. Fortunately, Britain's new breed of wrestlers are exceeding expectations not just in this country, but across the globe.

Though still just 23, Will Ospreay is already well on his way to becoming a global name. Since making his debut in 2012, Ospreay – who is nicknamed 'The Aerial Assassin' – has enjoyed a rapid ascent, earning accolade after accolade on his way.

This year the Essex native won the prestigious Best of the Super Juniors tournament, held annually by New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). In existence since 1988, the competition has previously been won by the likes of Eddie Guerrero, Jushin Liger, and Koji Kanemoto, as well as current WWE star Finn Balor.

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"I remember when Will told me he was going to NJPW," recalls Smallman. "I was so happy for him as I knew it would be good for his career. He debuted for us when he was 18 and he was already outstanding. Now, at 23, he is one of the best in the world."

Quildan adds a similar sentiment: "When Will made his homecoming after winning the Best of Super Juniors, he received one of the biggest reactions I've ever seen. That was testament to all those fans that were there and watched him grow and evolve. They were part of his success and they wanted to share it with him. It was just a beautiful moment, which moved him to tears."

At 23 Ospreay's potential seems almost unlimited. But what about his contemporaries and rivals? If you're looking for a quintessential bad guy, few can rival 'The Villain' Marty Scurll, a man who truly lives his gimmick.

"I'm not just a British wrestler, I'm a freaking rock star – just look at me," barks 28-year-old Scurll. "When people come to see The Villain live it's a life-changing experience. Thankfully, because of my existence, I have been able to give British wrestling its resurrection from the days of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks in the eighties."

His climb to the top has seen Scurll capture both the RevPro British Heavyweight Championship and the PROGRESS World Championship. Next came America, where Scrull has found his biggest success to date.

Marty Scrull puts his foot in it // www.RobBrazierPhoto.com

The Battle of Los Angeles (BOLA) is an annual tournament held by cult American company PWG that has earned a growing reputation for determining the next breakout star in professional wrestling. Scurll won the 2016 edition, beating Ospreay and Trevor Lee in the final, as well as seeing off Cody Rhodes – the son of wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes – in an earlier round.

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"I won BOLA, which in my opinion is the biggest wrestling tournament in the world," says Scurll. "Cody Rhodes left WWE to compete in it. The 24 best talents on the planet and I won. I beat them all. It was a huge victory, yes, but I'm already looking to the next victory. I won't be happy till I conquer the entire wrestling world."

Smallman adds: "The boom in British wrestling at the moment means that more eyes are on us than ever before. The best example is at BOLA this year. I think eight people involved were on our roster and that's a big deal. That's because they are great guys who do great things wherever they go."

At the close of BOLA, Scurll stood with his trophy in the middle of the ring, face-to-face with the PWG Champion and the winner of the 2015 Battle of Los Angeles, fellow Brit Zack Sabre Jr.

The Isle of Sheppey in Kent may seem an unlikely starting point for a wrestler, but it has produced the man they call 'The Technical Wizard.' Unlike many modern wrestlers – who utilise powerful moves, speed and aerial assaults – Sabre employs a complex and unorthodox array of submission holds and pinning combinations.

Sabre (red trunks) locked in combat with Ospreay // www.RobBrazierPhoto.com

But, at first glance, Sabre does not look like a wrestler at all. He has a sensible haircut, is athletic but not necessarily muscular, and isn't afraid of voicing his left-leaning political views on Twitter. How have wrestlers like Sabre and Scurll flourished in a notoriously hostile industry?

"Guys like Zack and Marty have been toiling around for years now and perfecting their craft; they essentially started as boys and have now become men," explains Quildan. "They are a lot a lot more welcoming than guys who would be classed as veterans of the scene, as they remember what it's like to be a rookie. It definitely helps foster a positive environment."

Competing in the inaugural WWE Cruiserweight Classic, Sabre reached the semi-final of a much-lauded competition, where the standard of matches was a cut above the company's usual delivery. For an organisation that has largely resorted to tired old stereotypes when it comes to British performers, it was refreshing to see a wrestler from this country treated as a serious athlete and a credible threat to their opponents.

Sabre is not shy about flying the Union Jack // Image via

"I'm just happy that people are starting to pay attention to the fact that we have great wrestlers in Britain," adds Quildan. "That's what I'm most proud of. But when we talk about these guys, they are just the tip of the iceberg."

With these three men approaching the height of their powers, it's likely that more talented British wrestlers will begin to make an impact on the world stage.

"Whenever I see any of these guys doing well at any level, I'm pleased for them," says Smallman. "They are nice guys who have worked really hard and deserve this. As long as the scene is as fertile as it is right now, and people see it as a route to WWE or NJPW, they are going to train really hard and get noticed."

Big Damo, Jack Gallagher, Trent Seven, Pete Dunn, Sha Samuels El Ligero, Jimmy Havoc, Mark Haskins, Tyler Bate, Josh Bodom, Rishi Gosh, Lord Gideon Grey, Ryan Smile – there is a glut of British wrestlers on the precipice of stardom. That said, there is still a long way to go. Potential corporate investment and production upgrades may offer routes to further success, but Smallman fears the bubble could soon burst if promotions aren't wiser.

"Oversaturation is a problem. If people go to a badly run British show that features some of our roster, they will become sceptical and fail to see what the fuss is about," he says. "The more prosperous the scene is, the more people there will be who think they can run a wrestling company. If everyone does it properly, we will all still be here in 10 years."

While the industry should heed Smallman's warning, there is still much to be excited and proud about when it comes to British wrestling. Nobody embodies that confidence more than Marty Scurll, who we will allow the final say: "I want my work and The Villain to last forever, far beyond my physical self. I was put on this earth to be a wrestler and to inspire generations for years to come. I want people to watch my work back and think, 'Wow, this guy is the greatest of all time.'"