In the latest step of the BritWres boom, WWE have assembled a tournament featuring some of the best British (and one Irish) wrestlers, all vying for the WWE UK Championship, and a potential spot on a 205 Live-style show on the WWE Network. The two night 16-man tournament begins here, with 8 first round matches that will separate the TV-ready stars from the one-and-done guys who aren’t ready right now. It’s a trial by fire for the competitors, the majority of whom have no experience on a TV wrestling show.

It was a pleasure to see the WWE production style get changed up straight away on this show; not only is Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom a dramatic change from the ‘generic Basketball arena’ look of WWE TV, the show opened with Michael Cole on the floor, UFC-style, welcoming us with “Greetings, grapple fans!” WWE clearly wanted to invoke old school British Wrestling with the production here. The show also churned along at a good pace, not getting bogged down in between matches, using live interviews sparingly but effectively, and the CWC-style pre-taped sit down interviews to introduce each wrestler were entertaining and necessary to the non-British audience, even if there was a weird fixation on presenting many of the wrestlers as survivors of muggings on the mean streets as a youngster.

Trent Seven vs HC Dyer

It was wonderful to see Trent Seven in a featured role, tasked with setting the tone for the show and grabbing viewers who may never have seen British wrestling before. He had shitty stock music, vastly inferior to ‘Seven Nation Army’, but did still get to be billed ‘from Moustache Mountain’, showing that WWE are generally letting the guys retain all their little quirks. Dyer was fairly anonymous here, as the match was mainly designed to get Seven’s signature spots in. He just has the worst luck with slapping the ring post, that Trent Seven. Seven finished Dyer with a Rainmaker; a new finish due to WWE’s piledriver restrictions, and Dyer took the bump very well. This didn’t set the world on fire, but introduced the WWE Universe to Seven nicely. **½

Jordan Devlin vs Danny Birch

Nigel McGuiness did a good job on commentary throughout the night discussing reach, size, height and weight, presenting the matches like real fights. This work was undone by some insistence on grabbing holds leading into babyface comebacks, which was present in this match in particular. Devlin stuck on a headlock that lasted for minutes before Birch came back, endearing him to absolutely no-one. Devlin came in with a lot of hype, but didn’t show any of it with this disjointed performance. It didn’t help that the ‘young, good looking’ wrestler was grinding down the ‘veteran bar brawler’ type, creating a weird dynamic. The crowd did get behind Birch though, who impressed with a lot of impressive moves that completely outshone Devlin’s ‘methodical’ style.

The end of the match was very clumsy, with Devlin busting Birch open with a kick and a potentially intentionally botched finish with Birch getting his shoulders up after two, but the referee calling the match due to some combination of an accidental 3-count and Birch bleeding profusely. It was all very confusing, and somehow, that confusion worked to get Devlin some significant heat after he claimed in his interview that he won “cleanly and decisively”. Devlin was a massive dick bragging about a tainted win, and the crowd got on him for it. Somehow, the botch worked out for the best, and Birch looked very strong in defeat after impressing in-ring far more than Devlin. The match was bad but the story beats came across very well. **

Saxton Huxley vs Sam Gradwell

Two effectively unknown wrestlers made for an odd matchup here. Huxley is a ‘Muscle Cat’ apparently, while Gradwell was made out to be an Anarchist nerd. Neither gimmick was played up at all though, and the crowd assigned gimmicks themselves anyway, with Huxley being jokingly christened as ‘Jesus’. This was standard BritWres ‘fun mode’ crowd chanting; when there was nothing in the ring to really interest the fans, they made their own fun. While they weren’t reacting to any of the moves, at least the show comes across much livelier. Gradwell won with a diving headbutt, a move he had been looking for throughout the match. The crowd was too busy chanting for Jesus to pick that up. A silly chant match early on can sometimes be necessary to get it out of the crowd’s system for the bigger matches later though.

Pete Dunne vs Roy Johnson

Dunne looked the most ‘TV-ready’ of anyone so far, and really proved why he was considered one of the best indie wrestlers in the world last year. The little touches of grabbing Johnson’s top knot for leverage or ripping off his gloves to bite the fingers just make Dunne seem that much more vicious and hungry for victory. There was a good contrast between Johnson’s power and Dunne’s skill and craftiness here, but Dunne was the one who carried it and made that contrast happen. He was clearly the superior worker and Johnson was along for the ride, but that is to be expected considering their experience levels. Johnson’s charisma still isn’t coming through in-ring, and I also question his decision to wear black workout-style attire instead of his distinctive neon green singlet. This wasn’t the side of Johnson who could potentially be a big asset to WWE. Dunne got a dominant victory here and the commentators put him over very strongly, so mission accomplished here. **½

Wolfgang vs Tyson T-Bone

T-Bone was the only wrestler to be ‘repackaged’ for this tournament by WWE, placing a far greater emphasis on his traveller background than T-Bone has ever had before. He even cut a ludicrous pre-match promo where, for some reason, he was putting on a bad Irish accent and mumbling a lot, because that’s what travellers sound like apparently. It was so stupid it ended up being actually quite endearing and gave the crowd something to be invested in for this match.

The opening part of the match, with two big hairy lads going straight at each other, was a lot of fun, and very different from anything else on this show. This was a very good matchup as Wolfgang and T-Bone played off of each other, whereas they may not have looked very good in there with to the younger, flashier guys. The match slowed down later on, but Wolfgang impressed with a moonsault and a swanton finisher to win, and T-Bone’s character work did come through in-ring. This may have been the best Wolfgang match I’ve seen. Good fun from a match I would never have expected to be any good. ***

James Drake vs Joseph Conners

While Wolfgang/T-Bone was a good matchup because both were similar wrestlers, this was a bad matchup because Conners and Drake look very similar and wrestle similarly too. Simply put, if a Network owner tuning in had never seen either man before, they would have no idea which was which, and neither man did anything in this match to stand out from the other, let alone the other 14 wrestlers.

The most impressive part of this match was Michael Cole on commentary, who spoke very genuinely about his belief that Conners could be a future main eventer, and throughout the night Cole and McGuiness proved that they did their BritWres homework beyond just the ‘fun facts’. Conners’ performance didn’t really match up to Cole’s praise though, as he slapped on restholds like Devlin, but without an overall story for the match to make it mean anything. The crowd were also pretty quiet at this point in the show, as they could muster only token ‘Arseface’ chants for Drake, a relic of his lone PROGRESS appearance. Conners won with a horribly generic jumping Complete Shot finisher. He’ll need to do a lot more on Day 2 to impress.

Mark Andrews vs Dan Moloney

Andrews was easily the most TV-ready wrestler on this show, which was no surprise. He could slide onto RAW this Monday and be completely in his element, which is very impressive when you consider he’s still only 24. He even got to break the run of shitty stock entrance themes, as he’s come to WWE with a song by his own band, Junior. Moloney meanwhile was presented very well as a ‘working class brawler’ type in his pre-match video, and looked particularly dangerous.

This was the first match on the show which felt like it could have been ripped straight from an actual BritWres show like Fight Club Pro, albeit with a few minutes trimmed off. There was a proper energy to this match that the crowd reacted to earnestly. Andrews delivers quality every single time, but Moloney looked great here too and very much belonged in the WWE environment. The final stretch got some great reactions for both men’s moves, and Andrews felt like a star upon winning. This was a bit too short for me to praise it too much, but it was very good while it lasted. ***

Tyler Bate vs Tucker

This originally seemed to be an odd choice of match to go on last, with Tucker being an unknown and Bate being a prodigy but by no means the best wrestler in the tournament, but this match more than earned its spot as the de-facto main event. Bate had an amazing rip-off of his ‘Sledgehammer’ theme, I can only imagine the parody lyric potential for that one.

This match was the best paced on the entire show, mainly by virtue of being the longest at 10 minutes, allowing everything the wrestlers did to breathe and feel like a distinct portion of the match. Nothing was hurried and as a result, pretty much everything felt more significant. Bate’s holds were interesting and meaningful as he didn’t just sit in a chinlock for two minutes, but was looking to naturally advance his position, and contrasted with Tucker instead searching for ‘high impact’ moves like his superkick. This was the first Tucker match I’ve seen and he was impressive in such a big spot, but Tyler seized this opportunity to come across like the biggest star in the tournament. His final stretch of offence, from the aeroplane spin all the way through to his Tyler Driver ’97, had the crowd the loudest they had been all night. A hugely impressive command of a main event situation by young Tyler, and he’ll have made WWE sit up with this performance, while Tucker may well have earned a call-back too. Certainly a surprise Match of the Night. ***½

Final Thoughts

A really fun show which separated the TV-ready talents from those who were not ready yet. There weren’t any must-see matches here and the show was mainly designed to build up characters and plot points ahead of today’s final rounds, but there was plenty of good stuff, particularly from the last two matches.

WWE went out of their way to namedrop and feature UK indie companies on this show, with the owners of PROGRESS, ICW and OTT getting screen time, and IPW among other promotions getting prominent mentions too. All of these promotions are either on FloSlam and essentially twinned with EVOLVE, or were already notably buddy-buddy with WWE.

WWE clearly values the UK scene as a market for future talent and are playing nice with the UK indies, but of course, the other side of that coin is their blacklisting of WCPW as a promotion the WWE UK guys can work for, and the opposition to ITV’s World of Sport; the reason this tournament existed in the first place. Add the emergence of 5* Wrestling’s TV series deal with Spike, and you’ve got a UK scene which is now very fragmented and with the stakes bigger than ever. We saw the friendly face of WWE’s programme to control the UK scene for the first time on this show, and things are only going to get more interesting from here.