LONDON — It might be billed as a one-off, two-night special, but don’t think for a minute that WWE hasn’t got its eyes on bedding down with a permanent presence in the United Kingdom.
Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE executive VP of talent, live events & creative, pulled no punches when asked about WWE’s ambitions for all of its brands across the pond.
“We’ll do 30-ish events here in the coming year, and we’re putting together plans now for the next four years, and really trying to stamp what we do here for the long term,” Levesque told ESPN.
The latest WWE brand to be launched, the United Kingdom Championship tournament, was announced in a bombshell news conference at London’s O2 Arena on Thursday morning.
Although Levesque told ESPN that plans for the 16-man, single elimination competition — which will take place live on the WWE Network Jan. 14-15 in Blackpool, England — have been in the works for over a year, the timing of the announcement is certainly intriguing.
Free-to-air U.K. terrestrial television channel ITV recently commissioned a one-off wrestling special, under the old World of Sport Wrestling banner that used to air in the 1980s, with the pilot set to be screened on New Year’s Eve in a prime-time slot.
If the show is successful, it could become a regular staple of ITV’s lineup. But while World of Sport Wrestling is looking to lock performers down to contracts, William Regal confirmed to What Culture Pro Wrestling in London that talent featuring in the U.K. Championship tournament will be free to work for other U.K. promotions.
“WWE has always had a very special relationship with the U.K., and I think this is another step in that relationship, of putting our foot on the ground and not only saying this is our home away from home, it’s our home,” Levesque added.
“That’s the goal, is to become a weekly show. Hopefully we can make that work out, a weekly show that can feature the best of the U.K. talent and put that out there in a way that gives talent here a clear path into the WWE. Starting here and moving up the line and going through things. I think that’s a huge opportunity and will help everybody down the line.”
With the popularity of cable television declining in the United States, and streaming platforms on the rise, it makes sense that WWE could be preparing the groundwork for a global territory system.
The U.K. Championship tournament will no doubt provide a pipeline of local talent to WWE’s developmental promotion, NXT, and Mexico, Japan and Canada would be obvious candidates in which to set up similar promotions.
“It’s a way for us to get more talent, period, talent that want to lace up boots and put on trunks and do this,” Levesque said. “One of the things I found five years ago when we started this process [of the WWE Network], was giving people a pathway to get to the WWE. It gives us a platform like nothing else to go and do this type of content. I think you see that with NXT becoming its own brand, and the cruiserweights with ‘205 Live.’ That same process is beginning to happen there. And this is another step in that direction. There’s a systematic approach.
“[Before] it kind of was this pipe dream. You hear people like Finn Balor or Nigel McGuinness say, ‘It was always my dream,’ but just how do you do it, right? You just kind of do what you do and you do it for so long that maybe someone will see me or maybe I’ll get my stuff in the right person’s hands, but how?”
Balor did eventually make it to WWE in 2014, via NXT, after having wrestled for 14 years on the independent circuit, including eight years in New Japan Pro Wrestling.
McGuinness, on the other hand, saw his in-ring career ended prematurely by health issues in 2011, after a deal with WWE fell through in 2009 for the same reason. But he will commentate on the U.K. Championship tournament alongside Michael Cole and Regal at the Empress Ballroom.
“Whether it’s a Pete Dunne or a Trent Seven or a Wolfgang, or any of the guys in this tournament — they’re good, they’re really good, and you’re gonna see that here,” Levesque said. “We’re taking these guys and giving them the platform to show the world what they can do so they can fulfill their dreams and be a part of the WWE.
“People can put it out there in any way they want. Success is not just measured by getting to that, there’s a lot of successful people [outside WWE], but I think anybody with any level of success, if you said, ‘Would you like to be at Wrestlemania in front of 100,000 people?’ it’s a different level of success.”
Many of the 16 men competing in the U.K. Championship tournament have been pooled from Insane Championship Wrestling, Progress and Revolution Pro.
Going forward, Levesque said WWE will work with the U.K. independent promotions to cultivate talent and provide them with a global platform.
“The only way you get better at this is by doing it and getting to those big dances and doing this with more pressure on you,” he added. “As they progress, they’re going from there to NXT or to Raw or SmackDown and making their way up that ladder.
“And to me now, if I’m a kid looking at that, and I’m sitting at Raw, now that burns into my head — I’m gonna do this for a living. Here’s what I gotta do. I get trained, I go here, I go there. There’s my way to the top. It gives you a goal.”
There are several names conspicuous by their absence from the U.K. Championship tournament — the three British stars not under a WWE banner who are most known to global audiences. Zack Sabre Jr. competed in the Cruiserweight Classic this past summer but is not believed to be tied down to a deal anywhere. There’s a definitive reason for Ring of Honor duo Marty Scurll and Will Ospreay (who also has a contract with New Japan Pro Wrestling), as those contracts restrict them from competing for WWE.
Levesque confirmed to ESPN, though, that a name like Ospreay is definitely on WWE’s radar.
“Will Ospreay is an amazing talent,” he said. “There’s a lot of amazing talent out there. When they’re available, when it’s the right time for them, I wanna work with all of them.
“It’s funny to me people say things along the lines of this guy is an amazing talent but maybe he’s not the right fit, or this guy doesn’t have the experience. If they’re great at this, then talent is talent,” Levesque continued. “I wanna bring in the best talent; I wanna help them be better. I wanna take our process and help them be the best they can be.
“Some people go like, ‘Oh, they try to fix things.’ We don’t try to fix things, we try to make them better. I learn something new every single day about the business because it changes on a daily basis. Anybody [who] thinks they don’t have anything to learn in this business is crazy.”