This past weekend Triple H continued his goodwill tour to the independent wrestling scene by hosting the first United Kingdom Championship Tournament. The event saw 16 of Britain’s biggest names (I think? I’m not extremely well versed in the British scene but had heard of at least two of these guys) vie for the best looking belt in the entirety of the WWE, the UK Championship. It was an uneven two-night affair that managed to pack in a few surprises (on day 2 at least) that made it definitely worth a watch.
One notable factor of this event is that, despite the rumor that this was a Vince McMahon joint, it’s clear that Triple H is running the show. My own doubts that Vince would watch a second of footage from the British indies (not to be confused with the British West Indies, a chain of islands in the Caribbean) aside, a quick look at the general doughiness of the competitors (or scrawniness in a few cases) shows that Vince (who lest we forget goes nutzo for muscles) had nothing to do with manning this roster. The show is also run like an NXT event, with a more accelerated pace and production values akin to the yellow brand, as well as a more intimate ballroom setting that lent a certain grandiose yet personal atmosphere to the proceedings. Note, this is a good thing, as NXT has been the best part of the WWE family for some time.
If the event weren’t such a transparent response to ITV’s revival of the World of Sport brand, this would’ve been an endearing attempt to reach out to a rabid wrestling fan base that has gone undervalued by the world’s largest sports entertainment business. In many ways it still was, and since rumor has it that similar events are being planned for Asia and South America, its legacy may still prove positive. Nonetheless it was a good exhibition for some British wrestlers, making bonafide stars of at least three of them in the process. Here’s a breakdown of Day 1 of the event.
Match 1: Trent Seven Vs. H.C. Dyer
For the opening match of the event we have the early favorite (and one of two people I had heard of before the tournament) Trent Seven squaring off against a guy that would be a faceless jobber on the main roster, yet also managed to have potentially the best physique in the tournament. Seven is the ideal performer for the wrestling hipster: A strong-style competitor with a beer belly, undercut haircut, huge beard, and billing from “Mustache Mountain.” He wins, of course, with his own version of Okada’s Rainmaker called the “seven-star clothesline” in what is ultimately a forgettable match that doesn’t do much favor for either competitor.
The pace of the match is uneven, with Dyer controlling the bulk of the competition. Typically when introducing your big babyface to a new crowd, you let them absorb a little offense, but ultimately squash his less famous competition and hit all of his signatures in a strong win. Instead, Seven gets stomped for eight minutes then lucks into two signatures in time to his his finish. Admittedly, the British crowd was really hot for Seven, but as an outsider, I didn’t get much of an impression of his abilities as a competitor.
Match 2: Jordan Devlin Vs. Danny Burch
Cole and broadcast partner Nigel McGuinness make sure to reiterate that Devlin is a student of former WWE Universal Champion Finn Balor, something we may not have guessed from his attire, entrance and even face resembling the Demon King (albeit one who may be suffering from some kind of allergic reaction that causes his jawline to swell up). Burch, on the other hand, has served as enhancement talent for NXT events over the past few years–notably being squashed by the Cowboy James Storm in his first appearance on the Network original. The age discrepancy between the competitors is the most pronounced in this match, and yet it is the older wrestler (Burch) pushing the pace of the match.
Indeed Burch (who was obviously going to lose given the attention Devlin received in early vignettes) comes out of this match looking great, hitting smooth, crisp offense that hopefully got noticed by whoever will be booking the inevitable weekly programming that comes from this tournament. Mysteriously, he works face for the match–particularly confusing given that Devlin’s vignettes made him up to be this hardworking protege of uber face Balor. It really feels like a last minute change since, as Devlin’s walking to the ring, Cole slips in a comment about dude getting salty when he’s compared to his mentor too often. His mentor who is sitting in the front row. Just odd booking.
Much like Seven in the previous match, Devlin comes out of this matchup indistinct, barely getting any offense in before the finish–which is an event unto itself. Bee-stung Prince Devitt hits an–admittedly crisp–enzuigiri that somehow manages to catch Burch in the back of the head, busting him open. Devlin attempts a pin, and despite an iffy count which Burch may’ve actually got his shoulder up for, the ref counts 3 to end the match on what essentially felt like a blood stoppage. After the pinfall, Burch goes for a handshake only for Devlin to gain some of the heel heat he probably would’ve earned if the match would’ve run to its intended conclusion by sneaking in a superkick on the elder grappler.
Match 3: Saxon Huxley Vs. Sam Gradwell
Gradwell is from Blackpool, where the event is being held, so despite the fact that he looks like William Regal cosplaying as Lex Luthor, he’s working as a face. Huxley looks like Jesus wearing pimp pajamas and the crowd makes up several chants to let him know that they thought so too (notably singing “Hey Jesus” to the tune of “Hey Jude”).
The pace of this match is slow, not too surprising given that these are two of the larger wrestlers in the tournament, but it fails to leave much of an impression. Gradwell wins with a diving headbutt to move on to a much better second day match.
Match 4: Pete Dunne Vs. Roy Johnson
If there’s one guy that came out of this tournament looking like a star it’s Pete Dunne. This scowling 23-year-old looks like a stoner metal version of Biff Tannen and wrestles like Lord Steven Regal mauling cruiserweights on Monday Nitro. He’s got a great look and his character mannerisms really drive home the fact that he’s a bully through and through. His offense is all cruel and punishing. Submission holds into appendage targeting work, it’s a real cerebral heel style that gets over his pitbull-like nature and shows that he’s the truest heel in the tournie.
It’s unsurprising, then, that he breezes past Johnson, who himself looks like MVP’s little brother who forgot his wrestling trunks at home. They mention that the guy’s only been wrestling for two years and it shows. He botches a few things throughout the match, most notably the finish which made Dunne’s pumphandle flatliner (dubbed the Bitter End on the second day) look a little weak.
Still, the right man won, and Dunne heads to a semi-final match with Gradwell.
Match 5: Wolfgang Vs. Tyson T-Bone
Up next we have Scottish John Goodman clone, Wolfgang, vs. what appears to be a local tattoo artist pretending to be Brad Pitt in Snatch. I looked him up, and T-Bone is an experienced competitor in the UK, but he looks all kinds of out of place here–a shame because he’s got an interesting look and gimmick. Not only was his pre-match promo the drizzling shits (to use the British vernacular), he can’t really seem to take on any offense convincingly either. The best thing he does is headbutt Wolfie during the pre-match handshake, after that it’s all downhill for “The king of the travellers.”
Wolfgang, on the other hand, really knows how to move in the ring. A guy that size hitting so many aerial moves is impressive. It’s such a shame, then, that his look will likely hold him back. His tattoos of the Joker and Han Solo kind of take away from his would-be badass mystique, and his singlet makes him look more like Hugh Morrus than Mr. Perfect. Not helping is Cole dropping questionable “factoids” about the man that make him sound like a total lame-o. Taking your name from the little kid on The Munsters is not something a tough guy does.
Mercifully, the match isn’t long. Wolfgang wins with a swanton bomb and moves into a second round matchup with Seven.
Match 6: Joseph Conners Vs. James Drake
If Drake didn’t have a beard this would feel like one of those fighting game matches where Ryu fights palette swapped Ryu. Both are skinny brunette gents with long hair working an “unhinged grappler” gimmick. To be fair, Conners (a former WCPW champion) is missing half an ear, which they play up quite a bit, but it’s not enough to make him distinct.
Unsurprisingly, this is a pretty even match. They work a very WWE-style match, which unfortunately makes the whole thing a little bland. I’ve seen Conners once or twice on WCPW and he has the potential to be an exciting competitor, but this just isn’t the showcase that many (particularly Michael Cole who called Conners his favorite for the tournament) thought it would be.
In the end, Conners hits a pretty sweet back elbow into neckbreaker combo that sets up for his finish (yet another flatliner variation) and the win.
Match 7: Mark Andrews Vs. Dan Moloney
Moloney is maybe the most indistinct competitor, giving a pre-match promo where he (a 19-year old) says he’s “seen some things.” When the faceless interviewer inquires what kind of things he’s seen his response is “I’d rather not say.” Riveting.
Mark Andrews, on the other hand, is one of the other stars made by this tournament. Looking a bit like a skinnier Rockstar Spud (yes, actually skinnier), Andrews was the best true cruiserweight in the tournament. His moveset will earn him a lot of fans–particularly his suplex into a stunner counter that popped the crowd more than any move they had seen to that point.
He finishes with a shooting star press that was better than Billy Kidman’s, though not quite as beautiful as Matt Sydal’s. Andrews is the guy that will catch the attention of the younger fans and move the most merchandise, so expect to see a lot of him whenever the WWE’s British project really takes off.
Match 8: Tyler Bate Vs. Tucker
Unquestionably the match of the night was the final prelim match between Trent Seven’s Mustache Mountain partner, Tyler Bate, and cruiserweight Shawn Stasiak, Tucker. Tucker is another Finn Balor protege, but since they barely mention it you knew he was going to lose. It’s a shame too because, despite the unfortunate placement of a little face on the butt of his trunks that makes it look he pooped his pants, he really puts on a hell of a performance in this match.
Bate is only 19 years old and has that unquantifiable “it factor” that makes him endearing to the crowd despite the fact that he’s not terribly unique. That being said, dude has great facial work and storytelling ability in the ring. He showcases some great power for such a short guy, pulling off that John Cena “catch the crossbody roll through and lift him on your shoulders into a finisher” thing with ease.
The match is competitive, with a number of great close-falls and high spots–including a sick superkick from Tucker that clearly strikes Bate right in the face. Alas, Bate manages to hit a tiger driver for the finish and looks astounded that it worked in an endearing sign of exhaustion after such a back-and-forth match.
With the matches complete, McGuinness and Regal bring all the remaining competitors on the stage to build up for day 2. As Regal wraps his speech and we the camera zooms out, Pete Dunne sucker punches his round 2 opponent Sam Gradwell, hitting a release front suplex on the ramp before Regal gets in his face and chases him backstage.
Stay tuned for day 2, where three men distinguish themselves as the stars of the British division, a Dutch black metal-themed MMA fighter makes his debut, and a new champion is crowned!