In recent years, pro wrestling has been seen by many as slowly dying out. Supporters of that argument point to falling viewing figures, and house show attendances at WWE. They would also point out the lack of a #2 US promotion with any recognizable name value: Despite its name, the company formerly known as TNA has failed to make an “Impact” with casual wrestling or WWE fans. Outside of the US, however, wrestling is faring a little better. Maybe the best example of this is the UK.
The UK wrestling scene is a strange beast. British Wrestling had a very unique style, but when its TV deal was cancelled in 1988 wrestling in the UK became synonymous with WWE or WCW. Most current British wrestlers were inspired by US or Japanese wrestling instead of the traditional British style. In the last 5-10 years the UK scene has grown to a position where multiple UK promotions are regularly putting on shows with attendances of over 1000. That doesn’t sound like a lot to US fans but it’s a long way from where British wrestling was in the early 2000’s. Scottish promotion ICW has even used the SSE Hydro in Glasgow, which is where WWE host their events in Scotland. The British scene is so strong that in 2017 WWE launched WWE UK in response to National TV broadcaster ITV bringing wrestling back to the UK airwaves with a pilot of World of Sport Wrestling.
Many British promotions have started to make a name for themselves in the UK, aside from the already mentioned ICW. Defiant Wrestling came to fame using the YouTube money from its parent company WhatCulture. Revolution Pro Wrestling forged a strong relationship with New Japan and Trent Seven‘s promotion Fight Club Pro has developed a strong fan following. The most astonishing British promotion however is the one that can claim to be one of the fastest expanding wrestling companies in history: Progress Wrestling.
What Progress Achieved
Progress Wrestling held their first show on March 25th, 2012 in front of 323 people in Islington, London. It was founded by stand up comedian Jim Smallman and his agent Jon Briley. They were later joined by theatre actor/director Glen Joseph. Progress started off slowly, taking two years to reach their current home: The 700 capacity Electric Ballroom in Camden, London. After appearing at the Sonsiphere and Download music festivals, Progress’ first wrestling show outside of London, in Manchester, England, took place in December 2015, 45 months after their first show.
Arguably one of the most important steps for Progress’ growth was when they started working with WWE. In April 2016 they hosted two qualifying matches for the WWE Cruiserweight Classic; The winners were Zack Sabre Jr. and future 205 Live star Jack Gallagher. This was the start of an ongoing relationship with WWE.
Progress’s first international show was 54 months after their first show. They teamed up with Canadian promotion Smash Wrestling for three Ontario shows in September 2016. A week later Progress packed 2,400 people into the O2 Academy in Brixton, London. This was the biggest attendance for a UK wrestling show in London for at least 20 years.
The worldwide expansion gained pace in 2017. March saw Progress run their first shows in the US, working with EVOLVE at WrestleMania weekend. The first Orlando event was one of the highlights of Mania weekend. The relationship with WWE saw Progress talent and titles appear at WWE Axxess. July brought their European debut in Cologne, Germany. Their partners in this endeavor were WxW, Germany’s largest wrestling company. Progress returned to the US in August, debuting in New York City and Boston.
While 2017 was impressive, Progress’ 2018 schedule is mind-blowing. April involved two shows during WrestleMania weekend, Progress title defenses and talent at WWE Axxess, and three shows in Australia. In August Progress will have a five Show US tour, visiting Brooklyn, New York (August 4th), Melrose, Boston (August 5th), Seattle (August 9th), Cicero, Chicago (August 11th), and Livonia, Detroit (August 12th). Those shows are being run in association with EVOLVE and Seattle-based Defy Wrestling. At the end of August Progress will start a three day tour of Germany with WxW, visiting Hamburg, Oberhausen and Frankfurt. To top it off, Progress will hold their biggest show to date on September 30th at Wembley Arena, a 12,500 venue that has hosted WWE and Impact.
It is a sign of Progress’ desire to expand that they will run at least 39 shows in 2018, with 13 of them taking place outside the UK. In less than seven years Progress has gone from 323 people to running 1/3 of their shows outside of the UK. While many of these shows may sound small this is an impressive achievement for any company, let alone a British wrestling company. Even WWE doesn’t run 1/3 of their events outside of their home country. Of WWE’s 720 events in 2017, only 15% were held outside the USA.
How they achieved it
Progress’ rapid expansion is down to a lot of factors. Firstly, they established an identity as a friendly punk rock wrestling company run by three mates who loved wrestling. The punk rock aspect is seen with Progress mostly using music venues in the UK. Their careers in stand up comedy and theatre productions brought a lot of useful skills. They started slowly to gain experience and build a reputation. The reputation was built through word of mouth, the use of social media and easy access: They have their own On Demand service, Demand Progress. This reputation led to a loyal UK fan base and interest from fans spread across the globe. Progress was helped by the fact that British wrestlers such as Marty Scurll, Zack Sabre Jr. and Will Ospreay were making a reputation for themselves all over the world.
Once Progress had an identity, a reputation and a following they started networking hard. Progress built relationships with WWE, Smash Wrestling, EVOLVE, WxW, Defy Wrestling and Australian promotions EPW, MCW and PWA. Most of these relationships let Progress debut in new markets. Working with WxW saw Progress use WxW’s top star, WALTER, while Progress hosted WxW’s events in the UK. The biggest deal though has to be their relationship with WWE.
A non-WWE promotion appearing at WWE Axxess in 2017 and 2018 was unheard of before Progress and ICW. The relationship seems to benefit both parties: WWE UK’s next shows feature a lot of Progress regulars, while Progress started to use WWE UK talent like James Drake, Joseph Connors and Wolfgang. NXT’s Kassius Ohno even appeared at Progress’ SSS16 2018 tournament, making it all the way to the finals before losing to Zack Sabre Jr. For Progress, the fame of being strongly linked with WWE probably helped to open doors in the USA and Australia.
I won’t pretend that Progress is perfect. Their shows outside the UK can lack the atmosphere that attracted a lot of their fans. Some critics point out that Progress are using talent that they would not have looked at twice due to the WWE UK connections. In recent years the storylines haven’t reached the heights of Jimmy Havoc’s reign of terror, although that was one of the best storylines in British wrestling for a long time.
For anyone interested in Progress’ US tour keep an eye on Progresswrestling.com as tickets have yet to go on sale. In the meantime you can subscribe to DemandProgress for a monthly subscription of $7.49. This includes shows from Progress, AAW, and Smash Wrestling.