Today on Independent Television (ITV) is the return (for one night only) of a popular British institution World of Sport. This programme lasted twenty years (from January 2 1965 to September 28 1985) and it popularised professional wrestling in the UK long before the WWE came anywhere near Britain. The wrestling on World of Sport was the starting point for UK wrestlers who would become WWE stars – the British Bulldog, Dave “Fit” Finlay as well as current NXT Commissioner William Regal. As World of Sport returns to ITV today with current UK wrestlers I thought I would look at the history of World of Sport.
Wrestling on ITV actually pre dated World of Sport by ten years. When commercial TV in the UK started in September 1955 British wrestling was an early part of its schedule (the first bout was broadcast in November 1955). There was a joke doing the rounds in the UK at the time that the BBC was going through the alphabet buying up each sport but had run out of money before they got to wrestling which is why ITV got it! Whether or not it was true the wrestling became a key part of the ITV schedule – usually on Wednesday nights – before it became part of World of Sport.
It should be said that the old school UK wrestling on World of Sport has little or nothing in common with the current WWE product and differs in many ways. In fact World of Sport wrestling had more in common with boxing and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) than it does with the current WWE product. To start with the matches were under a round system. Rounds lasted either three or five minutes and there were breaks between the rounds. The shortest bouts comprised of six three minute rounds while title matches could last as long as fifteen five minute rounds. The vast majority of matches were two out of three falls (a rarity in current WWE). The rules were different too. Punches, not breaking the hold when the wrestlers got to the ropes and attacking a man while he was down were all illegal and there was a warning system that resembles football. Wrestlers who broke the rules were given public warnings by the referee. Three public warnings meant instant disqualification – just like the three strikes and you’re out rule in baseball.
Another resemblance with boxing and the UFC – and difference with WWE – were the weight classes. There were seven different weight classes in old school UK wrestling – lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, heavy middleweight, light heavyweight, mid heavyweight and heavyweight (interesting that the heavyweight limit in old school UK wrestling was 209 pounds, not dissimilar to the current WWE 205 pounds upper limit for their Cruiserweight division.) Each weight had their own British title but there were also catch-weight contests between wrestlers in different weight classes.
Another difference between the two types of wrestling was the role of women. While women have not (to put it mildly) always been treated well in WWE at least they have usually wrestled. There was NEVER women’s wrestling on World of Sport. Repeat never. In fact until the 1980s they weren’t on the shows at all. When they did appear they were as managers – the most famous woman was Fit Finlay’s then wife Princess Paula who would be at ringside but unlike Maryse and Lana today never interfered in his matches – even though Finlay was a heel. What Sasha Banks and Charlotte would make of this is anybody’s guess (Women’s wrestling did exist by the 1980s but only in non televised events). One thing World of Sport has in common with current WWE was no blood – in the case of the UK wrestling hardly surprising when it was on at four in the afternoon.
The key difference between World of Sport wrestling and WWE is that the British wrestling was regarded more as a ligitimate sport than the WWE which is seen by owner Vince McMahon as “sports entertainment”. That is hardly a surprise because wrestling was part of a sports programme. World of Sport was on between 12 and 5 on Saturdays and also featured real sports like football, horse racing, cycling and golf among others. Wrestling was broadcast between 4 and 4.50 pm – during the second half of football matches. I suspect subconsciously the influence of World of Sport is responsible for me and most UK people thinking that WWE should at least pretend to be a legitimate sport (even today WWE in the UK is on the Sky Sports channels – not entertainment). And again the influence of World of Sport probably explains the UK hostility to intergender wrestling which I don’t think will ever be accepted by UK TV companies (Lucha Underground still does not have a UK TV contract).
Still there is no denying the popularity of UK professional wrestling. At its peak the wrestling attracted ten million viewers – far more than RAW does in the US now despite America’s far higher population. It made superstars of Mick McManus, Jackie Pallo, Jim Breaks, Mark “Rollerball” Rocco, Pat Roach – who ended up acting in films and TV series long before the Rock did – and above all Big Daddy – the UK’s equivalent of Hulk Hogan just as popular and as bad a wrestler and his arch rival Giant Haystacks who that idiot Vince Russo said couldn’t be a star but was the biggest heel in the UK.
Ironically having compared the UK scene to WWE its decline had more in common with WCW. Big Daddy’s continued dominance in the 1980s made UK wrestling stale and the industry like WCW failed to push new stars. It also had a nemisis in the TV industry – just like WCW. While WCW lost its TV contract (and its existence) when Jamie Kellner axed it from TNT and TBS the decline in UK wrestling began when then head of ITV Sport Greg Dyke axed World of Sport. Although wrestling survived as a stand alone show Dyke kept moving it in the schedule and as a result ratings fell – since people did not know when to find it! – giving Dyke the excuse to axe UK wrestling in November 1988. It has not been on ITV since – until today.
Initially planned as a one off it will be fascinating to see how well it is received by critics and viewers. But the mere fact that UK wrestling is back on ITV after 28 years is a remarkable achievement in itself…