NXT, WWE and Welsh Wrestling
As WWE’s NXT UK brand brings its Takeover show to Cardiff, Chris Andrews]spoke to NXT UK star Travis Banks and Dragon Pro Wrestling’s Ben Harris about the growth of British grappling.
In terms of professional wrestling, we’ve never had it so good here in Wales, with a number of wrestling promotions all putting out quality product, and plenty of opportunity to get in the ring yourself. But it wasn’t always this way. Sure the 1960s, 70s and early 80s saw Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens regularly hold bouts featuring legends of the British ring such as Kendo Nagasaki, Tibor Szakacs, Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, but when the roof of the arena collapsed in 1982, so did wrestling in Wales, and a few years later so did British wrestling in general.
People wanted to see the larger-than-life characters emanating from the World Wrestling Federation in America; the growth of Sky in the UK brought that to our screens, yet live wrestling in Wales was dying. The WWF brought their show to Cardiff as part of a European tour in 1994, where Bret Hart defeated his brother Owen to retain the Heavyweight Championship, but it would be years before they would come back. This, though, was the era when the seeds were planted for a lot of future stars. “My favourite wrestlers were Sting, Shawn Michaels and Mick Foley,” recalls current NXTUK star Travis Banks.
In the meantime, we were left to witness tribute act versions of popular WWE stars in leisure centres around South Wales to fill the void. Fellow sufferer Ben Harris from Dragon Pro Wrestling remembers: “For a long time, the UK’s scene looked back heavily to the ‘glory days’ of British wrestling’s heyday, or visiting American talent on occasional visits to Britain.”
Still, we got a glimpse of what could be in 2001, when the short-lived World Wrestling All Stars promotion hit Cardiff and fans witnessed genuine wrestling royalty in the flesh: Bret Hart was back, as was Scott Steiner, Jeff Jarrett and the Road Dogg. In due course, the recently-renamed WWE returned with all the stars in tow, Triple H, Ric Flair and Randy Orton all gracing the Welsh capital. It was glorious – and they’ve been returning every year since, sometimes twice.
Aside from the odd character here or there, there was still limited British presence in wrestling’s upper echelons – but that was about to change. “There was a whole generation of new developing wrestlers in the UK adapting the traditions of the past, updating it and making it relevant for the present day,” says Harris. “New companies like Attack! Pro Wrestling, ICW, OTT Wrestling and Progress started making British talent the focus again.”
Accordingly, the WWE have been forced to take a bigger interest in grassroots UK wrestling – which led to the launch of NXT UK, an offshoot of the main NXT brand in the USA, where future WWE superstars learn their trade. Fri 31 Aug and Sat 1 Sept will find NXT UK showcasing their talents in Takeover: Cardiff, where talent that established itself in this city gets to perform on the big stage under the WWE banner. Says Harris: “With the spotlight focused firmly back on the new wave UK stars, the audience has watched the rise of some of the biggest names on the international wrestling scene today grow from rookies, to the ring, to the national and international stage.”
Sure to be on the bill are Mark Andrews, Wild Boar and Flash Morgan Webster, who were all nurtured here in Wales with Dragon Pro Wrestling – as was Travis Banks, who wrestled here numerous times for Attack!, and fondly recalls wrestling in Cardiff in 2016. “The first match that got me noticed on the UK independent scene was actually me versus Tyler Bate at Walkabout.”
With his imminent return to Cardiff, what can a casual WWE fan expect from this show? “We are up for it, the crowd will be up for it and the whole spectacle of the event will be enough to draw even a casual fan in.”
NXT UK Takeover: Cardiff, Motorpoint Arena Cardiff, Fri 31 Aug; NXT UK Live Cardiff, Motorpoint Arena Cardiff, Sat 1 Sept. Tickets: £41.80 Fri 31 Aug; from £18 Sat 1 Sept. Info: 029 2022 4488 / motorpointarenacardiff.co.uk