… to the Graps of Raith

One of the mantras constantly expressed about the business side of professional wrestling is that it’s cyclical. Business waxes and wanes based on a variety of factors — cultural, social, economic. And at the moment, the UK scene is on what appears to on a waxing of bikini line proportions.

Over the last couple of years, the independent scene has undergone the sort of cash-heavy boom that hasn’t been seen in more than a decade. To the extent that a toe is being dipped back into the waters of professional wrestling by the UK’s mainstream broadcasters.

The last time this happened was fifteen years ago this month, when Bravo showed the British Revival show from Crystal Palace in London. The show predominantly made use of talent (and a ring) from the popular indie group the Frontier Wrestling Alliance, but was promoted — and tied into — a show on TalkSport hosted by Tommy Boyd, and produced for TV by his former Magpie colleague Mick Robertson.

That show proved to be a false dawn, but the FWA would find itself promoted — rightly or wrongly — as the pre-eminent pro wrestling group in the UK over the next couple of years, becoming one of the featured companies on the satellite and cable based The Wrestling Channel.

Since then, a few groups have managed to find their way onto local tv services, or as schedule fillers late at night on channels high up the programme guide but, ITV’s hysterical Celebrity Wrestling failure aside, nothing has come close.

But the strength of the promotions and talent up and down the country — who have, rightly, been lauded as among some of the best in the world — has led to a resurgence in the popularity of the indie groups.

Late last year, it emerged ITV was to make a return to the world of pro graps. The company, which hadn’t aired professional wrestling since ending its 33-year run of shows in 1988, was resurrecting the World of Sport brand to put on a new TV taping at Salford’s MediaCity, ostensibly a one-off but in reality a backdoor pilot to gauge popularity of the format to join the Saturday night roster of shiny floor action shows such as Ninja Warrior UK.

The show was taped in November and aired on Hogmanay, drawing a small but reasonable audience that ‘insiders’ claimed was acceptable. Wrestlers began being offered contracts, although at the time of writing there’s still no formal announcement of it being commissioned.

That taping featured some of the best independent talent from around the country — including a significant portion from Scotland, most notably Grado, who ended the show as the new World of Sport champion and positioned as the natural successor to Big Daddy.

Say what you like about Grado (and, cards on the table, I’m no fan of his in-ring work), but he’s a ridiculously charismatic figure. A likeable, podgy Ayrshire lad, who has somehow become one of the key faces of the modern era of British wrestling.

Much of this is down to his appearance in a short film for Vice, The British Wrestler, and two subsequent documentaries for the BBC focusing on the promotion where he made his name – Glasgow’s hardcore, adults-only Insane Championship Wrestling.

ICW is a curious part of the resurgence of British wrestling. Originally born in 2007, it went on the shelf for several years before returning at the start of the decade, expanding out of Maryhill community hall in a wave of popularity. Over the last couple of years its run Glasgow’s three major venues — the Barrowlands ballroom, the SECC and then, last year, drawing around 6000 to the new Hydro arena — more than TNA and the WWE’s NXT brand managed combined.

The company’s talent has achieved that curious sort of Scottish celebrity status, with Grado the breakout star — going from cameoing in River City to having a part in popular comedy Scotsquad, doing panto and that ultimate sign of transient fame in Scotland: getting a column in the Daily Record. He and ICW owner Mark Dallas have also filmed a series of comedy skits for BBC Scotland’s web channels, and linking up with Still Game’s Greg Hemphill for a couple of wrestling shows.

Between the documentaries, the skits and the media attention, ICW’s profile is as close to the mainstream as any UK wrestling company has managed in years — enough, in fact, that the WWE ran its UK TV tapings in Glasgow’s Hydro late last year, just two weeks before the ICW show at the same venue. Normally, that’s the sort of predatory, pre-emptive behaviour the WWE displays when it starts to feel threatened by someone.

Yet for all that, ICW still hasn’t secured any kind of TV deal in the UK. A brief run on MyChannel ended when the show aired in the wrong timeslot, it’s adult-oriented content falling foul of Ofcom. They do air some shows on Canadian group The Fight Network, which airs in 32 countries — including on OSN in the Middle East. As a former OSN subscriber in Abu Dhabi, I’m sure the profanity and edgy promos go down hugely well there…

But the UK isn’t among those 32 countries. And at a time when ITV’s looking at returning to the wrestling business, and bizarre Scottish vanity project Five Star Wrestling can get a deal with Spike for a series featuring a bunch of US imports, shot badly in a deserted Dundee ice rink, yet ICW can sell out the SECC, draw the UK’s biggest crowd for a non-WWE show in decades, and not get offered a deal, something odd’s going on.

It seems curious, given the level of fame in Scotland especially, that no home broadcaster has emerged.  You’d have thought, with local programming requirements and a new channel on the horizon, that STV might have wanted to do something.  Or that BBC Scotland would have wanted to do more, given the success of their documentaries and relationship with Dallas.

Perhaps it’s that, to go to television would require some changes to the product itself. I was at the Ritz show in Manchester this weekend, what was effectively a house show, even if ICW insists it doesn’t do those. The main event, between Wolfgang and current champion Trent Seven, ended with a spike piledriver by Seven, standing on two chairs, through one of those chairs. This as the finish to a title match in front of at best 300 people in a nightclub.

Wolfgang and Trent Seven in ICW
Wolfgang dumps Trent Seven in one of the safest bumps of the night…

ICW, with it’s no disqualification, anything goes, hardcore style, its profanity-laced promos and commentary, is the diametric opposite of World of Sport Wrestling, and that’s undoubtedly a tough sell for broadcasters, particularly as many still see wrestling in the family-friendly PG rated mould the WWE has spent the last decade pursuing.

At times ICW resembles ECW, the US indy promotion that tried to challenge the WWF/WCW axis in the 90s. It did so, initially, by providing an edgy alternative, aimed at a more adult audience, and developed a rabid, cult-like support. But after that initial burst of success and shaking up the mainstream rivals, it struggled to grow, lacking the funds needed to progress to the next level, and seeing the richer rivals able to cherry pick talent at will.  In the end, that cult audience just couldn’t sustain them and ECW folded.

It feels like ICW’s getting close to that level where ECW was. It’s got an international name and reputation. It’s seen as creating stars – Wolfgang worked the WWE’s UK tournament, as did Seven. Former ICW alumni Noam Dar, Nikki Storm and Big Damo are all over the other side of the pond. Grado was signed up by TNA and given a significant push. Alongside Grado, Kenny Williams and Joe and Mark Coffey all featured on the World of Sport taping.

There’s been some talk of a deal with the WWE for it’s online service to start carrying ICW shows, and there’s certainly enough of a working relationship between the two that ICW footage has been used on WWE programming, for Mark Dallas to appear on camera at the UK tournament, and that former alumni Fergal Devitt could be sent over to make an appearance at the Hydro by way of apology for the WWE double-booking Mick Foley.

It may be, ultimately, that ICW doesn’t want to go on mainstream TV. Not really. Certainly not here in the UK. It’s got the international deals, a successful on-demand subscription service online, and a fanbase that turns out for the shows and sustains the live gate. Perhaps they got their fingers burned with the MyNetwork fiasco.  Perhaps they’ve been made an derisory offer and turned it down.  Perhaps the phone just hasn’t rung.  Or perhaps Mark Dallas’ end game is simply to continue as they are…

I really want them to succeed – they’ve done more to promote and add profile to Scottish wrestling than any other organisation in modern history, and have nudged closer to the mainstream than anyone in years.  But trying to imagine where ICW goes from here is a challenge in itself.

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