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It Could Be Said #36 The WOS Wrestling
Quick thoughts on the latest WOS Wrestling Revival and then a look back at the last one
Inside The Ropes are carrying the news that various people involved in the last WOS Wrestling revival are looking into restarting the promotion with Nick Aldis and Mickie James-Aldis as the two of the featured stars.
I cannot stress enough how horrible an idea this is. I was always sceptical about the ability of a revival to succeed, a scepticism that was more than vindicated with the fiasco that was the 2018 reboot. It’s a scepticism that led me to write an infamously harsh review of the debut show for Wrestling Observer. By the third show I correctly predicted they wouldn’t keep their 5pm slot.
There are three fundamental problems with reviving WOS Wrestling. Firstly there is no such thing as WOS Wrestling. World of Sport was a magazine show that featured sports from all over the world, it makes as much sense to talk about WOS Wrestling in 2022 as to call the FA Cup Final, WOS Football. The key proof of that is when wrestling continued on ITV for a few years after the cancellation of World of Sport, the listings just called it ‘Wrestling’. Referring to old-school British wrestling by the name of the show that used to host it, is fine as a shorthand to distinguish it from overseas or modern British promotions, but it means nothing to casual, latent or lapsed wrestling fans.
Secondly, too much time has past since ITV cancelled wrestling in the eighties. Unlike Japan or Mexico, Britain developed professional wrestling independently of the Americans and that therefore meant its ruleset was the most different from what become the global standard. Likewise, in part due to censorship from both government and broadcaster, British wrestling placed more emphasis on sportsmanship and technical wrestling than brawling. It’s a style that today few can understand as viewers let alone wrestle given anyone under the age of 40 has grown up on a diet of overseas wrestling. As I had to remind my mother yesterday, I recently turned 37. One of my earliest childhood memories is being a wrestling fan. But that memory was playing with WWF toys because even I’m too young to remember the days when Joint Promotions ruled the roost.
Thirdly, there’s no easy money in British wrestling. It is hard out there at the moment for British wrestling, with many promotions either closing or being forced to go on hiatus. Some are even engaging in doomed dashes to the desert for some spending money. Everyone who has ever claimed ownership of the ‘World of Sport Wrestling’ brand seems to be under delusion that it carries some cache that means they can command higher ticket prices and draw bigger crowds. It doesn’t. Indeed it undoubtedly has negative associations with fans. Unless someone is willing to not just give it tv time but invest real money in production values, it would just be another indie, and there is not the time and money for British indies to do elaborate live tours or produce television shows. That wasn’t really the money to do that during the boom period as the failure of the likes of Lucha Forever, What Culture Pro Wrestling, original version of Tidal, and Fight Forever.
That Nick Aldis is the man they turned to illustrates the point, because everything I’ve said about why a ‘WOS Wrestling’ revival won’t work could also have been said about the attempt to bring back the NWA. Except I doubt that there’s any famous famous muscian willing to bankroll the idea, and GB News doesn’t invite wrestlers to be right-wing provocateur.
The Britwres Boom happened because people started looking to the future rather than trying to revive the past. Sooner everyone accepts that this was the only path to success, the better.
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As a bonus, below is the article I wrote back in 2018 reviewing the first season of WOS Wrestling for Fighting Spirit Magazine. Lightly edited to remove some typos and the names of two people who were identified in Speaking Out.
Saturday 28th July 2018 was meant to be a new dawn for British pro-wrestling as for the first time in thirty years it would have a regular timeslot on ITV. Not since Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister had the domestic scene had such a strong platform to reach the mainstream audience. It would be fair to say that over the next ten weeks, things did not go to plan.
The premiere would be watched by 900,000 people, peaking at just over 1.1million viewers. This had to be considered a disappointment consider that on New Year’s Eve 2016, a one-off episode had averaged 1.25million viewers despite going up against a major Premier League match and the usual holiday festivities.
Worse would follow, with the following week’s episode being watched by only 600,000 people, with its peak audience barely passing 800,000 viewers. The show flatlined at just over half a million viewers, until ITV pushed it earlier in the afternoon, seemingly to ensure it didn’t hurt the viewing figures for the new shows starting in primetime. Come the end of the season, the show was airing at 2.30pm and being watched by only 200,000 people. If the season premiere’s viewing figures were a disappointment, then the finale’s was a disaster. They are the equivalent of Smackdown failing to break a million viewers by the time it reaches its tenth episode on FOX.
There can be no doubt that WOS Wrestling failed. The only question now is why it failed and whether anything can be salvaged.
It Was Always Going To Be a Struggle
Before we look at the mistakes that people putting together WOS Wrestling made, it’s worth looking at some of the structural issues they faced. As FSM has noted in previous issues, there’s reason to be sceptical that in 2018 pro-wrestling works on a major network. When you adjust for population, the premiere’s viewing figures were actually in line with what RAW does on the USA Network. But whereas RAW is often the number one show on American cable, WOS Wrestling couldn’t even win its timeslot.
Speaking of the timeslot, this seems to have been chosen due to a sense in ITV that pro-wrestling should be shown on a Saturday afternoon. But this ignored the significant shifts in society and the media landscape since 1988. At its most basic, people are less free on a Saturday afternoon than they were then, due to fewer people working the traditional Monday to Friday week and families less likely to have a homemaker so requiring chores and errands to be done at the weekend.
But leaving that aside, ITV doesn’t seem to understand why Saturday afternoon used to work for pro-wrestling, or indeed sports in general. Wrestling’s old timeslot of 4pm to 4.45pm worked because it made pro-wrestling the lead-in to the football results scores, which for reasons to do with sport, media and gambling were much more important back then than now. Today fewer games are played from 3pm to 4.45pm, those games that are, have extensive live coverage through BBC and SKY, and the rise of the National Lottery means the old “guess the scores” football pools game is less widely played. Back then, somebody who was interested in football or gambling, would most likely turn on the television around 4pm and look for something to watch. Today the same person has less incentive to do so. It’s for this very reason that BBC abandoned its competitor to the World of Sport sports magazine programme, Grandstand, over a decade ago. Of course, ITV made a bad situation worse by actually starting WOS Wrestling at 5pm for the first half of the season. This meant that after the first week it was being hit by sports competition, either the athletics on BBC or the evening Premier League match.
The timeslot spoke to a broader confusion in the product. The timeslot suggested that they wanted a programme aimed at children, something that from the product presentation does seem to have been the intention. But the name is trying to evoke nostalgia for a programme that with one exception hasn’t been on the air since 1988. The result was predictable, with figures obtained by FSM’s own John Lister suggest that the programme failed to attract children beyond what an average ITV show would do, and that the overwhelming proportion of its audience were over 45 i.e. old enough to remember World of Sport. This of course makes complete sense, when BBC resurrected the David Jason sitcom Open All Hours in 2013, they rightly anticipated it would appeal to people who remembered the original series. To expect otherwise would be bizarre.
The problem however was that beyond the name, WOS Wrestling actually wasn’t offering people nostalgia.
Your Dad’s, Not Your Grandad’s Wrestling
In 2018 it’s easy to think of pro-wrestling as a global sport with WWE as the major league but one shouldn’t forget that there are local variants of the ruleset. In Japan, the referee’s counts usually goes up to 20, whilst in Mexico you simply need to leave the ring to allow your tag-team partner to enter as the legal man. But British pro-wrestling deviated from the American ruleset more than any other country. Most notably matches were divided into boxing-style rounds. Furthermore, as with Japan and Mexico, British pro-wrestling affected a more serious, sports-like presentation, with weight-classes and a strong norm against rulebreaking.
This created a problem. ITV was explicitly selling the WOS Wrestling as the return of British pro-wrestling to ITV, but for the casual fan that remembered watching Joint Promotions or All Star on ITV before 1988, they would not recognise what had become of their sport. Not only was the American pro-wrestling ruleset being adopted but the whole presentation was clearly influenced by WWE. You had the authority figure arguing with his pro-wrestlers, commentators bickering amongst each other, and storylines built around the type of shock turns and gimmicks that ITV rarely allowed to be aired on its television beforehand. Furthermore, there was no attempt to showcase any of the legends of the previous series, whether through video packages or asking someone like Johnny Kidd (who had an excellent match as recently as September 2017) to perform.
Once again comparing WOS Wrestling to Still Open All Hours (after all the last series of Open All Hours aired the same year the World of Sport magazine programme was cancelled) shows how bizarre their approach was. The BBC sought to replicate the original sitcom by bringing original actors back, rearranging the characters so the old dynamic could be replicated despite the lead actor having died, and overall creating a show that reminded people of what they enjoyed three decades ago. It wasn’t great television by any stretch of the imagination, but it successfully scratched an itch for those who had missed the show and is now about to start its fourth season.
It’s true that pro-wrestling can’t be built on nostalgia for a prolonged period of time, let alone when thirty years has elapsed. But then again it wasn’t FSM that named the show after World of Sport, and built the promotion around it being the return of pro-wrestling to ITV. WOS Wrestling basically tried to pull a bait and switch on the audience by promising a product they had no intention of delivering.
More importantly, beyond the rallying cry of bringing pro-wrestling back to ITV, they had very little to promise at all.
What’s the Story
In the run-up to the premiere episode, FSM became increasingly optimistic about the prospects for WOS Wrestling. They announced the signings of genuinely elite talents in Will Opsreay, Joe Hendry and Kay Lee Ray whilst promising the mistake of focusing too much on Grado wouldn’t be repeated. But the week of promotion before the premiere the old doubts crept back in. The biggest warning sign was that it was the commentators, Alex Shane and SoCalVal that were doing most of the promotion, going on various ITV television shows to deliver generic talking points about pro-wrestling coming home. The problem is that it’s a one-week story that can’t be repeated when you’re trying to push the second episode. And sure enough, WOS Wrestling struggled to get any media the following week.
What made it worse was that the product they built didn’t have any hooks to entice the mainstream product to take a fresh look. It was effectively WWE-lite with a heel authority figure conspiring to make a brutish heel the champion due to concerns about the marketability of the popular babyface, a superheavyweight monster squashing people every week, and a tournament to crown new tag team champions being the dominant storylines throughout the season. The women’s title picture was probably the best storyline, built around the feud between Kay Lee Ray and Viper. Whilst they all made sense to pro-wrestling fans who have grown up watching RAW and Smackdown they had no salience outside that bubble.
The reality is that a product that took seriously its mission to reach a mainstream audience would have been built very differently to WOS Wrestling. At the most basic level they would not have assumed that people had such a thorough understanding of what pro-wrestling is, and therefore would have use graphics and video packages to explain the ruleset. ITV’s Ninja Warrior does an excellent job in doing this, with the gameshow clearly explaining what’s involved in its obstacle course each and every week. A key part of that would be keeping the rules simple and consistent. Throughout the season they would book multi-person matches but would flip-flop between these matches being fought under elimination rules or one fall to a finish. Indeed, the first match shown was a five-person elimination match, where confusion over the rules became part of the story.
If the rules were convoluted, then the production was chaotic. The rapid camera cuts destroy any sense of flow in the in-ring action, whilst replays were as numerous as they were pointless. The commentary added nothing, with all three being too focused on discussing the storylines to explain was happening in the match. Worse, none of them meant anything to somebody who wasn’t already a pro-wrestling fan, and a pretty educated one at that. To again compare it to Ninja Warrior, for that show ITV went and got two popular football commentators that have credibility with a mainstream audience. Pro-Wrestling may be so specialist that you need at least one person who can talk in detail about the product but having a sports or celebrity figure in the booth couldn’t have hurt.
And then there was the issue with the characterisation.
We Need Superstars
In many ways pro-wrestling and ITV should be a better partnership now than it was in the 1980s. Back then ITV was a serious broadcaster that wanted no part of the lurid angles that were such a big part of what made American pro-wrestling popular. Today it has become a master of reality television, with shows such as X-Factor capable of doing pro-wrestling better than pro-wrestling in the way they play on people’s emotions through the creation of babyfaces, heels and rivalries.
Yet nothing from the reality show playbook was learnt for WOS Wrestling, which left the roster feeling very bland. Part of the problem is that at no point did they put together the type of character pieces that quickly turn ordinary people into celebrities that are watched by millions of people. Take the first episode, it would have been the simplest thing in the world to send Davey Boy Smith Junior to Wembley Stadium, have him walk around it and talk to some fans who watched his dad perform there. Then have him talk about how he misses his dad and wants to bring British pro-wrestling back to honour his memory. Likewise, they could have shown Will Ospreay and Brie Priestly moving into the new house they were able to buy due their earnings from pro-wrestling. Show footage or photos of Ospreay wrestling all over the world, whilst he talks about how he never thought a kid from Essex could achieve what he has. ITV have the people that could have easily told both these stories in a matter of minutes, yet no attempt was ever made. This was partially because they tried to cram so many matches into each hour episode, that there was never any chance to let the matches breathe. But it may also speak to lack of investment in the production.
Another trick they failed to copy from the reality show playbook is picking contestants based on their personality as well as their talent. One of the problems with WOS Wrestling’s roster was that it was too few of its members had the type of over-the-top gimmicks that would grab the audience’s attention. Instead, it would be a lot of good pro-wrestlers having good matches, without ever doing anything to look a star. The two men who the main event picture was built around, Rampage and Justin Sysum, typified this. Both have good looks and work well in the ring, but neither did anything other than be a pro-wrestler. Here is where thinking more carefully about the roster would have been beneficial. Obviously, there were limitations due to WWE signing so many performers to WWE UK contracts but there is talent around that have the larger-than-life personality required to play to a mainstream audience. The blue-blooded advocate for “strong and stable” pro-wrestling, Spike Trivet would easily be able to give fans real reason to hate him, and the gimmick of wrestling Tory may well have attracted media coverage. Likewise, they could easily have brought the No-Fun Police to ITV. Meanwhile Chuck Mambo’s surfer dude persona and beach balloon bombardment entrance would have been an obvious contrast to some of the more serious characters. But again, such colourful characters would need to be given time to get their gimmicks across. Notably the best gimmick work WOS Wrestling did, the bromance skits between Adam Maxted and Nathan Cruz, were relegated to social media due to lack of time. Likewise, no attempt was made to have Joe Hendry put together parody music videos, despite such an approach providing successful for ICW and What Culture Pro-Wrestling. Only Grado managed to fully succeed in getting his personality across.
Finally, the programme failed to impose a structure on the programme that made it easy to understand why they should compare the action inside the ring. Reality shows such as X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing are structured around competitions that have both a natural weekly rhythm and build to a finale. Likewise, the programme explains to viewers why they should care about the result, with X Factor it’s the chance to win a recording contract. WOS Wrestling didn’t do that. Instead, it assumed the fans would care about pro-wrestling championships. They would have been better served to do a simple format, with men and women competing in round-robin tournaments that allowed them to focus on developing the characters of a smaller cast of performers.
The Long Play
With the first season now over thoughts obviously turn to the future. The key question is whether the series will return for a second season. The rumours are that there are people in ITV who are very keen for that to happen, but that doesn’t conform to them relegating the show to the early afternoon, a decision that destroyed its audience. Perhaps if the forthcoming national tour does well, the channel will conclude that there’s money to be made from pro-wrestling fans, which will make them willing to give it another season. However, at this early stage it doesn’t seem that the tour is selling particularly well.
At the very least some talent young performers have had the chance to appear on national television and that may make them drawing cards. And it must be said that those young performers seem disproportionately likely to perform for Next Generation Wrestling. Indeed, on the same day WOS Wrestling was concluding its debut season, NGW’s Ultimate Showdown saw Nathan Cruz take on Justin Sysum with Rampage, Joe Hendry, Robbie X, Kip Sabian & Iestyn Rees, and Adam Maxted all featured as well. Given that the team behind WOS Wrestling is known to be close to NGW this seems more than coincidence. British pro-wrestling left ITV the first time in part because promoters placed protecting their house show business above working together to present the best television product. It would be a crying shame if similar cynical manoeuvring has led to history repeating itself.
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