On 14th & 15th January, at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool, Lancashire, WWE held the first ever United Kingdom Championship Tournament. With the likes of Danny Burch [Martin Stone], Pete Dunne, Mark Andrews, Tyler Bate and Trent Seven all involved, would the British Wrestling scene shine bright on the WWE Network? Let's have a look.
*Triple H started the show, on the stage, welcoming everybody to the event*
Jordan Devlin def. Danny Burch [Martin Stone] (8:55)
The finish was the main talking point coming out of this, which is a shame because Burch and Devlin seemed to be clicking in the latter third of the match after struggling to find a groove early on. Burch suffered a gash to the back of the head after taking a jumping roundhouse kick, leading to Devlin getting the win, despite a clear kick-out. It was unclear exactly what happened and certainly wasn't what the tournament needed just two matches in. I felt like neither man grabbed the opportunity up to this point and the confusing ending ended up taking the spotlight away from pretty much everything they did in the ring. Michael Cole would repeatedly refer to the match as controversial going forward.
Sam Gradwell [Ricky J. McKenzie] def. Saxon Huxley (6:06)
One of the weaker first round matches, Gradwell and Huxley never seemed to get going. Gradwell wasn't particularly well suited to the "Hometown Hero" role that WWE attempted to slot him into and after an initial pop, the audience decided they'd sing about Huxley being Jesus, because he has long hair and a beard. It felt like a missed opportunity that neither man acknowledged what the crowd was doing and attempt to bring the crowd back into whatever the pair were doing in the ring. The wrestling was perfectly acceptable, but felt like both were going through the motions and not being from Blackpool I had absolutely no reason to care about Gradwell getting the win.
*Post-match, Burch would attempt to shake Devlin's hand, Devlin responded by delivering a nasty looking superkick to Burch's already gashed head.
Pete Dunne def. Roy Johnson (7:50)
This was the strongest match, to this point, thanks in part to the duo having clearly defined characters and Pete Dunne being one of the finest pro wrestlers anywhere right now. Dunne's intensity throughout was spot on, bursting through the screen almostly instantly, it is almost impossible not to pay attention when The Bruiserweight is on-screen. This was best displayed during an assault on Johson's arm on the outside. There's certainly room for improvement from The Body Guy, but for someone who's not got a whole lot of experience, he acquitted himself well here, especially with his character work. I would have liked to have seen him selling the arm that Dunne had worked on the outside more, but apart from that Johnson showed he has real potential. The crowd being mostly pro-Bruiserweight perhaps took a little bit of sting away, but this was still a good showing.
Wolfgang def. Tyson T-Bone (6:20)
The sleeper bout of the First Round, with the two big lads putting on a bruising heavyweight encounter. With a proper sense of urgency behind from the beginning, as T-Bone nailed a vicious headbutt before the bell and moved quickly into a Wolfie face shine, the pair utilised their time well. Each move was hit with purpose and both men looked desperate to get the win. A pair of near falls, a mid-rope moonsault from Wolfgang and a German suplex followed up by a superkick for T-Bone, allowed both to sell their desperation and worked well to set up the finish with both on an even footing. I'd love to see what these two could do together without the restrictions the tournament setting placed on them.
Joseph Conners def. James Drake (7:17)
This match didn't do much for me at all, unfortunately, only really grabbing me when Conner's hit a pair of cool looking moves at the finish. The wrestling was mostly solid, the two are technically sound and experienced competitors, but both characters felt like villains, meaning that the bout lacked a catalyst to push it forward and neither man got to show us their best work in the ring. The story of Drake focusing in on Conners injured ear and Conners returning the favour later on was potentially interesting, but perhaps a little too intricate a tale to tell during a seven minute double debut. Also, two guys grabbing each others ears doesn't lend itself to creating exciting and engaging graps.
Mark Andrews def. Dan Moloney (5:45)
A cracking showcase for the former PROGRESS World Champion Andrews here, as he brought his silky and dynamic style to the WWE. Whilst the match was too short for Moloney to get his teeth into the match, he worked well as a base and spoiler for Andrews' highflying offense. The main points of Andrews' act were all on display as he ran through a "Greatest Hits" of his back catalogue of stunning offense, showing just enough of what he could do to grab anyone coming in cold. This tandem is capable of better, but did exactly what they needed to do here and ended up producing one of the stronger matches of the First Round. A rematch in ATTACK! or Southside would be lovely.
Tyler Bate def. Tucker (10:40)
*At the conclusion of Part 1, Pete Dunne attacked Quarter Final opponent Sam Gradwell on the ramp, with William Regal furiously shouting in Dunne's face*
Pete Dunne def. Sam Gradwell [Ricky J. McKenzie] (4:49)
Following an attack at the end of Part One, Dunne eased past Gradwell, in a solid start to the Quarter Finals, as The Bruiserweight continued to be presented as a force to be reckoned with.
Mark Andrews def. Joseph Conners (8:12)
The quality of the Quarter Finals continued to improve as Southside regular Joseph Conners turned in much better performance, as Mark Andrews continued to impress. In a rematch of a November clash at Fight! Nation Wrestling in Eastbourne, the two matched up well, with Conners given the opportunity to work much more aggressively, taking on the true heel role that suits him so well, whilst Andrews flourished as the likeable blue eye with the sick as fuck moveset. The two utilised their time on the outside of the ring well, with a good sequence leading into Conners sending Andrews head first into the steps with a drop toe hold, before Andrews was able to hit a somersault senton off the barricade as a reply later on. Like all the Quarter Finals, it didn't quite have the next gear to shift it into something special, but still by the time Andrews headed to the top for his Shooting Star Press the crowd were on their feet and like them I was more than happy with what I'd seen.
Wolfgang def. Trent Seven (6:43)
A WWE friendly version of their chaotic scraps in ICW, this was perhaps the most surprising result of the evening as many had pegged Trent Seven as the favourite to win the entire tournament. With less than seven minutes, the pair produced an all action contest starting strong with 255lb Wolfgang moonsaulting off the barricade before Seven came steaming through the ropes, bringing one of the suicide dives in the business to the WWE. The rest of the contest was big heavy strikes and developed into a real hoss battle by the time Seven hit a wicked Dragon Suplex and his Seven Star Lariat for a convincing near fall. The ending was neat stuff, with Seven showing how far he was willing to go by attempting to hit his mid-rope Piledriver, before Wolfgang took advantage of the desperation by sending Seven crashing to the floor and hitting his The Howling (Swanton Bomb) to earn the victory. I would've liked to have seen some development on Wolfgang injuring his knee off the moonsault, especially with Trent occasionally using a Boston Crab as a finish, which have given the bout a little more depth.
Tyler Bate def. Jordan Devlin (6:06)
Another solid Quarter Final, with Bate continuing to impress and Devlin managing to make amends for not quite making the most of his opportunity the evening before The bout was built around a handful of moves, as both proved they can easily work the "WWE Style", whilst also throwing in some lovely technical wrestling early on. The Blackpool crowd, who seemed to be in love with the Dudley lad, witnessed both men attempting a number of their signature moves at various points, as Bate went for the Airplane Spin and the Tyler Driver '97, whilst Devlin attempted a Moonsault on numerous occasions. The story boiled down to Bate being able to land his signature moves, whilst Devlin didn't land his. The use of Devlin's 540 kick, that had seen his match with Danny Burch called off the previous night, was a great piece of business, with Bate selling the moment well by desperately holding onto his head, as an attempt to stop the ref calling off the clash.
As fans of ATTACK! Pro Wrestling, Pro Evolution Wrestling, Combat Sports Federation, Absolute Intense Wrestling, Pro Wrestling eXpress, Tidal Championship Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Kingdom, Over The Top Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Guerilla have learnt since 2011, WWE found out that when Pete Dunne and Mark Andrews meet inside the ring, they create magic. The White Lighting and Bruiserweight characters fit together almost perfectly and the familiarity of the two performers behind the gimmicks, brought us the first must-see bout of the tournament. The styles clash of Dunne bullying Andrews with his rough and tumble style, including X-Plexes (X-Plexi?) on the apron and onto the ramp, with the former TNA performer always looking capable of pulling out something spectacular like a Standing Moonsault Senton, makes for some wonderful television. The near fall Andrews got after countering the Bitter End (Pumphandle Lift transitioned into a Flatliner) got a huge reaction from the live crowd and was arguably one of the moments of the entire tournament, thanks in part to the great ground work laid down by the four other matches the two had taken part in. If you enjoyed this contest, then I urge you to check out some of their back catalogue at the companies mentioned above, because as good as this was, the pair have had better bouts before and will most likely do again, whether in WWE or elsewhere.
The main thing I took away from the second semi was that Blackpool adores Tyler Bate. The wrestling at points almost became secondary to the outpouring of emotion that came from the crowd and their passion for the 19 year old from the Black Country. Considering Wolfgang had been a babyface earlier in the tournament, he did a superb job of allowing the crowd to build and build behind Bate, taking his time in almost everything he did, not quite heeling it up, but doing just enough to allow the swell of support for Bate to continue to grow. The wrestling itself wasn't quite as strong as I would've liked for the semi-final, but it was pleasing to see Bate's Tyler Driver '97 finish being pushed so heavily as he managed to hit the move for the win after taking a battering from the Scotsman. Like a lot of the tournament, this match did the job it needed to do to make the tournament as a whole stronger.
*Following the match, Pete Dunne blindsided Tyler Bate, throwing him should first in the ring post and supposedly separating Bate's shoulder*
Singles Match: Neville [PAC] def. Tommy End (8:38)
A nice bonus match here as former wXw Unified World Wrestling Champion Tommy End made his televised WWE debut (he'd already faced the likes of Roderick Strong, TJ Perkins and Lince Dorado on NXT house shows). The reaction End got made him appear like a star from the very outset, especially considering that Blackpool had point blank refused to boo Neville despite a heely promo from the Geordie jumper. Even Charly Caruso's interruption couldn't stop this one from being a good match as End and Neville showed real chemistry to produce a well-paced match, that mixed a variety of styles. The only thing that held this back was the length, as an extra five or six minutes could have allowed the duo to produce something special, although End and Neville worked well with the 9 minute limit and it certainly wasn't the occasion for a show-stealer. Hopefully, we'll get to see these two square off again at some point, whether in the Cruiserweight Division (End is slightly outside the 205lb limit currently) or elsewhere.
*Finn Balor spoke to the crowd about the success of the tournament before introducing the Final*
Tyler Bate def. Pete Dunne to become WWE United Kingdom Champion (15:13)
Where to begin with the main event? Bate and Dunne was exactly what it needed to be, following the story of the two nights, building upon it and delivering a second must-see contest, in front of one of the most invested WWE audiences in a very long time. Neither man has faced anyone else more than they have each other, having deep history in places like wXw, PROGRESS, Southside, Fight Club: Pro, Kamikaze Pro and Great Bear and all that experience lent itself to create a compelling and concise title match, that was full of urgency and drive. The Blackpool audience had appeared to have fallen in love with Bate across the weekend, for his fiery, entertaining and varied offence and likeable underdog character, this support seemed to grow throughout the match as he provided all the elements of what had made him so popular. On the other hand, Dunne upped his nasty dickhead levels that we'd seen develop against Sam Gradwell and Mark Andrews and the crowd completely went with it. It really does make a difference when the crowd follows like they did here, with the work that had been done across the two shows creating a marvelous viewing experience for this final, aided by some strong commentary from Michael Cole and Nigel McGuinness that complimented the story being told in the ring.
The West Midlands duo worked a simple contest, based around Bate's injured shoulder. The action was smooth as Dunne targeted the injury, often using it as a way of slowing Bate's building momentum, whilst the Netherton lad sold the damage superbly, not just through his movement, but all over his face. It was easy to buy into the high drama of the contest, as Bate scored numerous near falls, including reversing Dunne's Bitter End into a small package, fought against the a variety of painful submission holds, like a Triangle Choke and Double Wristlock, and pushed himself outside his comfort zone in search of victory, with a mind blowing Fosbury Flop followed up by 450 double knee attack. Each layer to Bate's struggle, was met with Dunne's aggressive and belligerent offence, creating storyline depth, that went beyond the straightforward premise. My only niggle with the contest was that there were some moments that perhaps over-egged the pudding, such as Bate's escapes of both triangle choke and double wristlock, which he turned into a powerbomb and brainbuster respectively, I feel the story of the match would have benefited from having one or the other, with Bate perhaps getting to ropes on the second. Even with that, I had a hell of a time watching this at home and both men did themselves and British Wrestling proud.
*The show came to a close with Bate celebrating with his newly won championship alongside Triple H, William Regal, Finlay and Finn Balor*
ATPW Scale Rating
Part 1 - 4.84/10
Part 2 - 6.81/10
The UK Championship Tourney was exactly what I expected it to be, with the level of talent involved and the format that was chosen. As a strong advocate for the British scene, I do hope that those unfamiliar with British wrestling and these wrestlers in particular stuck with the show after an underwhelming first episode. In a very similar way to the Cruiserweight Classic, the first episode was all about introducing the movesets and personalities of those heading to the next round, to make those next rounds more rewarding for those who stuck with it. The second episode built on that solid, yet unspectacular, foundation, continuing to build guys like Pete Dunne with a number of good matches at the Quarter Final stage, before producing two greats in Dunne's semi final with Mark Andrews and then the Final with Tyler Bate. By the end of the show, WWE had captilsed on Bate and Dunne's popularity and raw talents and had two bonafide stars at their disposal. There's a potential to build a brand around those two, as well as Andrews, Wolfgang, Seven and others, the rest of 2017 should be an interesting time to be a British wrestling fan.
Review - James Marston (@IAmNotAlanDale)
Editor - Jozef Raczka (@NotJozefRaczka)