It has been a strange week for professional wrestling. Last weekend, the eyes of the wrestling world were trained on Blackpool, England as WWE hosted a two-night tournament to crown the first ever United Kingdom Champion. Like the company’s Cruiserweight Classic back in the summer, the United Kingdom Championship Tournament was a wonderful showcase of high quality professional wrestling, without the knotty storylines and distractions of the main television shows. More on that later…
Meanwhile, it was more or less business as usual on Raw and SmackDown as both shows build towards the Royal Rumble next weekend. For me, the Rumble is the most exciting night of the year on the wrestling calendar and both shows delivered a compelling couple of hours of television as they moved their pieces around the board in order to set up the first step on the ‘Road to WrestleMania‘.
The pride of Britain
In August 2014, I was in a dingy little club in Coventry watching one of my first independent shows, put on by Triple X Wrestling. One of the standout performers on that event was a young man with an impressive moustache, who appeared as part of a tag team. I had never heard of him, but he made a big impression, particularly when his partner turned heel after the match and tried to force him to shave his moustache. He declined, beat down his former friend and left the arena as the evening’s most over performer. That man’s name was Tyler Bate and, last Sunday, he became the first ever WWE United Kingdom Champion.
Bate is a performer of remarkable charisma and, at only 19 years old, he is already an immensely accomplished wrestler capable of putting on an A-grade match with almost anyone. His contest with fellow Midlander Pete Dunne in the final was hard-hitting and brutal, helped by the compelling story that had been created by Dunne’s sneak attack after Bate beat Wolfgang in his semi-final match. The entire tournament was proof that, when they put their minds to it, WWE’s creative staff are very good at crafting simple stories that enhance what the wrestlers do in the ring.
The United Kingdom Championship Tournament was about far more than just what happened that day, though. It was a mark of what can happen when WWE works alongside the independent scene. On the second day of the tournament, I was in Birmingham for Progress Wrestling‘s first show in that city. It was a tough day for Progress given that their world champion and tag team champions were in Blackpool, competing in the tournament. Thanks to their work with WWE, however, Progress were able to welcome Finn Balor for a dramatic game of musical chairs and new NXT signee Tommy End for a farewell match against Progress mainstay Jimmy Havoc. These moments were fantastic and really enhanced the show.
There has been controversy in some quarters since the tournament, with some UK promotions forced to reshuffle their cards. This has allegedly happened as a result of conflicts between the broadcast ambitions of those promotions and the new WWE contracts of the performers used in the tournament. It’s certainly disappointing to see UK promotions deprived of talent that has been cultivated on these shores, but on the positive side, this suggests that WWE has plans for these British competitors now that the tournament is over.
This element of cooperation between WWE and the indy circuit is going to be imperfect for now. We are in uncharted waters, but it’s an exciting time to be a wrestling fan, and that’s especially true if you reside on this side of the Atlantic.
Royal Rumble must focus on the new
Name a few of the participants in this year’s Royal Rumble. Odds are that the names you just thought of include the likes of Goldberg, Brock Lesnar and Undertaker. That makes complete sense given how strongly these names have been promoted in the build to the event. WWE has to be careful in this respect because the Royal Rumble should be about more than pushing marquee names from wrestling history.
The match is a unique opportunity to give a shine to the likes of Braun Strowman, Bray Wyatt and even names bubbling just outside of the main event like Baron Corbin and The Miz. In that respect, this week’s Raw did a solid job. Lesnar appeared briefly to stand tall in the opening segment, but the main event was dominated by the likes of Strowman, Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins. Tonight’s episode of Raw, which acts as the go-home show, must continue this in order to make the most of the talent that will be entering the match.
WrestleMania season is always WWE’s opportunity to bring back the leading lights from their past for big matches. However, the company needs to remember that the best way to use these names is to give a rub to talent that is actually going to be around when the lights go down on the biggest wrestling spectacular of the year. These names should be in the Rumble because that creates a whole host of interesting and new match-ups, but the likelihood is that one of them is going to win, and that just isn’t right.
Like the Money in the Bank briefcase, a Rumble victory is an ideal way to light a fire under a surging wrestler in order to catapult them into the limelight on the biggest stage of them all. It should not be used to provide another highlight reel moment for someone who is already a guaranteed Hall of Fame inductee.
Ziggler’s heel turn gives him one last crack
Dolph Ziggler has been overdue a heel turn for quite some time, so it has been great to see him embracing villainy in recent weeks on SmackDown. This week, he went face to face with wrestling legend Jerry “The King” Lawler in the latter’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. After refusing to answer Lawler’s questions about his change in attitude, Ziggler superkicked him right in the mouth, leaving the legend lying in the ring. JBL even left the commentary table to make the save and cause Ziggler to flee.
This heel turn might give Ziggler his final chance to have a proper run as a main event talent. He has bubbled just off to the side of the marquee for many years and risks being left in the lurch thanks to the influx of new and surging performers. This refreshed character could quite easily make him one of the top heels of the SmackDown brand, particularly if he is able to maintain his current level of shocking aggression and brutality.
Ziggler is one of WWE’s most reliable in-ring talents and has a genuine connection with the fans. By twisting himself into the role of a bad guy, he is able to turn that connection around to make himself immediately a major antagonist. If he is given the platform and the room to finesse this character in the coming weeks, he could be well on the way to a huge spot on what is already shaping up to be an incredibly crowded WrestleMania card.
Were you impressed by the WWE United Kingdom Championship tournament? Who do you think should emerge victorious from the most stacked Royal Rumble match in years? Let me know in the comments section and come back next week for a new wrestling column.