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Pro Wrestling Ulster in Northern Ireland and its growth

By Gary Mehaffy

“Suplex city!” Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap. “Suplex city!” Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap.

Ever since Brock Lesnar, in one, scene defining moment at WrestleMania 31, screamed “Suplex city, bitch!” at Roman Reigns (and for the crowd’s benefit) it has become a staple at not only WWE shows for the fans to chant, but at independent shows the length and breadth of America.

Oh, and across the Atlantic as well.

I heard it practically EVERY time anyone hit a suplex. From a superplex to a released belly-to-back suplex to a series of overhead/released belly-to-belly suplexes (and the last one was scary to be honest – the wrestler taking them was obviously tiring by the time he took the last one and landed super awkwardly on his neck). And the event included a cry of “Suplex city, bitch!” from one of the main eventers (Drew Galloway) after he hit an awesome looking suplex variation.

Welcome to Pro Wrestling Ulster Supershow 6.

Let me take you back to August 2014. I wrote a piece about a Northern Ireland independent promotion, PWU, and how they were taking the step up from promoting small spot shows in front of anywhere from 40 – 75 people to having their first show in the Europa Hotel, Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was set up for around 450 people. They flew in Drew Galloway to help lift the profile of the show, but the focus was primarily on their own, home-grown, roster. Drew brought new eyes to the product, but the hope was that these eyes would stay on the company and it would continue to grow. As management told me at the time, the hope was to do 30 shows a year, with 6 “Supershows” at the Europa Hotel and see where things went from there.

It’s now just over 7 months later, and they have staged 4 subsequent shows at the Europa (with each one selling out, and the most recent show drawing a shade over 500 people as best I can tell) and tonight (April 6th, 2015) they are trying out a new market in the Seagoe Hotel, Portadown. Once again, Drew has been brought in as a special guest – but the emphasis is still very much on local talent.

The event draws somewhere between 200-250 fans, and was set up for over 300. It comes a week after they had a Supershow at the Europa Hotel the night of WrestleMania, which had Shelton Benjamin on the card (as we are 5 hours ahead of Eastern, it was finished well before WM started). This, combined with it being a new market, would explain why the numbers were less than usual.

The show lasts 2 ½ hours, and culminates in a fatal-4-way match between Drew, Tron (ex-WWE developmental wrestler), Joe Hendry and Luther Valentine, with Drew defending (and retaining) his ICW, Evolve and Dragon Gate USA titles in an ‘ICW rules’ match. It was a great match featuring a run-in from new to PWU faction ‘The Murder’, (who came to them from their biggest rival promotion in Ireland), who took out Luther on the outside to further the storyline that they have going. The show, again, featured a great combination of talent and matches, and should have left everyone feeling that they had their money’s worth (and there was a meet-and-greet before the event featuring Drew and several of their ‘faces’).

I had attended to see how things had continued to develop for them as a company in the seven months since Drew had previously wrestled for them. The independent scene in the U.S. is thriving at the moment, and ICW in Scotland is now drawing well over 1000 people on a consistent basis. Several of the promotions in England are really picking up steam, and I wondered how PWU were doing in this respect. Were they developing as a company or were they happy to sail along as things were? Were they reliant on the ‘imports’ to carry the shows (Drew has been over twice, as has Shelton. One of the other Supershows had Matt Sydal/Evan Bourne on it, and the other had Al Snow on it – a show on which he won the PWU Title) or were they trying to bring their own guys up a level and have them be the draws?

I wanted to look at it from three points of view: Mine, the wrestlers on the roster and Drew’s.

For those of you still with me so far (some of whom may well be indy promoters interested to see what is the best way to lay on a show or promotion and not lose money like it’s going out of fashion!) we will go in that order.

Part one will look at a fan’s perspective of the promotion as well as that of the current roster. Part two will be my interview with Drew looking at PWU and how he feels independent wrestling companies can be promoted around the world.

I still found it to be a well-run show, with logical storylines and wrestlers who know their roles and how they should be working in the ring and with the crowd.  This also implies that it is well managed and structured behind the scenes.

There is a core group of fans who still seem to travel to every show (although not just as many to this one). They are up to date with the storylines and react well to what they see. They are not trying to take over the show or be ‘smart’, but are appreciating what they see while allowing themselves to have ‘suspension of disbelief’. Those fans to whom this is their first experience of a PWU show enjoy both the in-ring action and the general atmosphere. Some of them are patently only there because they know Drew from either WWE or TNA. We’ll come back to that later…….

They are expanding their roster (due to the buzz about the promotion and the number of shows that they are running) and they always ensure that they include their own guys in the mix with the ‘imported star’, whoever that may be. The emphasis is on the roster as a whole, not just the main event. And, importantly, they are continuing to move guys up (and down) the card where they need to. It’s not just the same people in the same matches over and over again.

While they always had a Women’s Division from back when I saw them in August, they have now added a Women’s Title, currently held by Katey Harvey (more to come from her in a moment). While she did not defend it on the show (she was part of a 6-person tag match) it is obvious how much the fans in attendance react to her and appreciate not only her talent but the fact that the women on the roster are taken seriously and aren’t just there as filler or eye-candy. This is a serious division.

So far so good.

The only thing I would have changed on the night was to have put ‘The Murder’ over within 2 minutes rather than as part of a back and forth match. I know why it was done, but as they are doing a storyline with them where they ran roughshod over the company to get contracts and are taking out some of the main-eventers, I would have put them over stronger in their match. But in the grand scheme of things, if that is my only gripe then there isn’t too much for me to worry about in regards to the future success of the promotion.

But what of that of the wrestlers on the roster? How do they feel about it? I spoke to three of the roster, all with a variety of experience: Phil Boyd, Karl McKaigue and the aforementioned Women’s Champion, Katey Harvey. Phil is the most experienced of the three, with 12 years under his belt. He was trained by Fergal ‘Prince’ Devitt (NXT’s Finn Balor) and has wrestled around the world (including for Zero-one in Japan and various NWA affiliates in the UK, Ireland and USA) and also runs his own wrestling training school in Ireland (Fight Factory Pro Wrestling). Karl is 19 and has only 2 years of wrestling under his belt, primarily with PWU. Katey is the current PWU Women’s Champion, as I said earlier, and has been wrestling for almost 4 years, mostly in Ireland, but has recently been spreading her wings throughout Europe.

I asked them all what they thought of how PWU has grown from doing the small spot shows to now drawing 500 fans to their regular Supershows.

Phil:

“If we’re just talking the growth of PWU on its own – when I first went up to Antrim I was up there on a last minute call up, because someone from down South pulled a sickie and I agreed to come up. I came up, ad a great time with the lads – I hadn’t seen a few of them in 5 years! Then I got invited to the Holiday Inn shows – they were of a bigger scale than Antrim. From a personal point of view, I can’t believe the growth of PWU in the last year. Now they’re selling out 400/500 seats in the Europa Hotel. Probably when you were in Antrim there were probably 40. It felt like 6!

I think PWU are now in a really good position. I wrestle in a lot of places – I run a place down South – but PWU have that fine balance. They’re not over-reliant on imports. They’ve got a good balance there because people like to come to see the imports but they’re not the only reason they come. They’ve such a strong roster here that I didn’t know they had been developing over the last 5 years since I came up and did that Antrim show.”

Katey:

“It’s amazing! My first match was the Holiday Inn, and they hadn’t had a women’s match ever, I think. The women’s matches have become a part of why the shows have been successful. They’ve brought in a Women’s title because the people were asking (for it) because we had become such a big part of the show. I’d seen some of these guys wrestle 3 or 4 years ago on different shows, but it’s just a different beast now. Everybody follows the show, everybody is into the storylines. It’s probably the biggest thing in Ireland to the American companies as far as characters and storylines that people follow.”

Karl:

“We’re growing and we’re going to the bigger venues. We’re bringing in bigger stars as well like Drew Galloway tonight, Shelton Benjamin last week, we’ve had Matt Sydal over, Al Snow is our current champion – so getting those big stars in that are known off TV, a lot of people want to see that. I think we’re improving as well, the roster is improving. As time goes on, we’re getting better. As more people come to the shows more people know about it. Last week in the Europa Hotel there were half a thousand people there. When I has my first match in 2013, there were 50/60 people there tops in the Rugby Club in East Belfast, so it’s obviously a huge jump. It’s mad! It’s great to be a part of it. It’s good fun and it’s good to see the crowds getting bigger and bigger. It’s good to see the same faces as well. We seem to have developed a fan base now which we didn’t really before – or that I didn’t notice anyway. Whereas now you see the same people coming to the shows, which is good.”

I asked them how the felt about the fact that there is now a core group of fans following the product and their storylines:

Phil:

“They’re the only group in Ireland – I mean, there are hardcore fans in the UK, if that’s the right way to describe them – that core group of 10/15 people that follow the storylines. It’s not that they have to cheer the good guys, but they’re not the type of fans that think “Oh he’s too cheesy, I’ll not cheer him!” or the sort that will cheer the heels and boo the faces. They’re real wrestling fans who pay to see the shows and travel to Portadown/Craigavon from Belfast to see 2 hours of PWU action.”

Katey:

“They are really, really supportive. You will get Facebook messages and people tagging you in photos. You see the same faces at the meet and greet and it’s really nice to have that following.”

Karl:

“There are times when you go to Antrim that there are people (there) who want something to do on a Sunday night. The same when you come to Portadown or Ballycastle. But there’s always that group of people who come to every show no matter where it is, all over Ulster – Belfast, Portadown, wherever. It’s good to have that. It’s brilliant. It’s those people that make the shows. It’s good to see the same faces come every time, as I said before. It’s very beneficial to us.”

I asked them all what they see as the future for PWU:

Phil:

“I don’t think I’m the right guy to ask there! I don’t know where is the plateau (for them). You take the Europa Hotel – 400/500 people. Does that just become the average for PWU? You see ICW in the UK now drawing thousands. There’s no reason why they can’t draw 1000 in the future. The possibilities are endless, but for now PWU are pretty happy with their growth!”

Katey:

“Bigger venues! It wouldn’t surprise me to see a local TV deal either; it genuinely wouldn’t surprise me. They have the fan base, they have the roster and they’ve got really good management as well. The shows are well run, they’re well advertised – there’s nothing else like it in Ireland, really.”

Karl:

“It can only get bigger! Where’s bigger? The Europa Hotel is huge – we’re getting half a thousand people in there. (Where next) The biggest venues in Northern Ireland. Someday I believe we will fill them out. You think about the Odyssey Arena. I don’t know how many that fills out these days – I’d imagine quite a lot. You see to be honest? I think we could do it. We’re going in the right direction. If you had have told me when I started in 2013 that (now) you’d not be long off selling out the Europa Hotel in front of 550 or whatever it was that night, I would have been “Aye, right, ok! How are we going to do that?” But we have made that jump and we have proved that we can go out in front of bigger crowds and still put on a great show. And people are coming back. We’re doing something right in the ring because people are coming back to see us again. I’d say bigger venues, bigger shows, bigger stars coming over to wrestle for us. Hopefully we’ll deliver for the fans!”

I finally had to ask Karl and Katey about their futures. Karl is young (19) and he is seen by many in the company as a real prospect for the future. Katey is, in many people’s eyes, already there; she is ready to continue to step on to bigger platforms and exposure. I asked them what they thought themselves:

Karl:

“(Are there big things in the future?) I would hope so! I’ve been working as hard as I can since I started here. I started here 2 years ago when I was 17 – I’m 19 now. Hopefully, still, I have a lot of time to grow, to improve and to accomplish a lot of things. It hasn’t been the greatest start this year, to be honest – in 2015 I haven’t won a match yet, and we’re 5 or 6 shows in! Last year was good – I was the youngest ever All-Ulster Champion, and I won the belt twice – I’m the first person to ever do that! Hopefully it’ll build from onto bigger and better things. There are other belts in the company – bigger belts – and I have my eye on those as well.”

Katey:

“(Being the first Women’s Champion) was amazing! We’ve never had a Women’s belt in Ireland – we’ve never even had one defended in Ireland or Northern Ireland. To be the first is amazing, you know. Becky Lynch, who is in NXT, she trained in the same gym I train in. She is where I wanna be, and I feel that PWU bringing in this title is kind of s stepping stone for the rest of us to follow Becky.

The most amazing thing about PWU is the girls they’re bringing in to wrestle. They’ve obviously got Lauren La Roux, who is becoming an amazing talent. They’re bringing in girls like Toni Storm, Pollyanna, Viper – top class European girls – so I’m getting better by wrestling them. And that’s kicking open doors for me in Europe. I’m going to London for 3 shows next week. I’m going to Holland, I’m going to Belgium, I have an offer to go to Sweden. This is all over the next 6 months and it’s just because I’ve won that belt. Hopefully I can get to Japan, I can get to America, I can get to SHIMMER – they’re the big plans!”

I think that from the fans, and the roster’s, points of view, that there is a sensible way to run an independent wrestling promotion, and PWU are as good a model as any to follow. They didn’t run before they could walk – they built the company up sensibly. Yes, they rolled the dice here or there (especially on the first Supershow) but it has paid off. But only after hard work over a consistent period of time.

There is no reason, especially in this wrestling climate, that an independent promotion can’t thrive (and survive) but it needs to be run well – and it needs to be seen by more than just a core group of fans. It will never develop unless there is growth. You don’t forget where you have come from but you build to where you want to go.

In the second part of my look at independent wrestling, I will talk to Drew Galloway to see what he thinks about not only PWU, but how to bring more eyes to any independent promotion.

Gary Mehaffy has written for the Wrestling Observer/F4Wonline website for almost ten years, writing columns, interviewing over 50 wrestlers/wrestling personalities and even recapping Sunday Night Heat – may it rest in peace!

Email: garymehaffy@hotmail.co.uk
Twitter: @gmehaffy