Good Friday was the beginning of a breakout weekend for Fight Club: PRO. In front of the largest crowd in the promotion’s history (having swapped its cozy Fixxion Warehouse venue for the more spacious Diamond Banqueting Hall), they successfully presented a genuine contender for Show of the Year with Elite Friday.
As the name suggests, this was the latest stop on Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks' tour of the British Isles. The previous two days had seen them perform in Scotland and London, while the following day will see them cross the Irish Sea to wrestle for Over the Top Wrestling.
But it’s Wolverhampton that managed to secure the highest profile opponents for them. Fight Club: PRO is co-owned by WWE UK wrestler Trent Seven, with his WWE UK colleagues Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne also being regular fixtures for the promotion. So Wolverhampton saw a unique matchup: one of the biggest acts in New Japan going up against the three men soon to be the centerpieces of a WWE television program.
The pro wrestlers involved didn't ignore the promotional politics. After a start that was dominated by the crowd demanding the different wrestlers stop to give them a wave (a common chant in English sporting events), The Elite got on the microphone. After mocking the Brits for signing such low-figure deals with the WWE compared to what they make independently, they went to deliver three superkicks, only for Dunne, Seven, and Bate to counter with stereo Pedigrees.
What was impressive was that was the moment when the match shifted gears as they upped the intensity of their work. The men involved didn’t need to do that, the crowd was having a good time with the comedy and chanting, but they all clearly wanted to have a great match.
There were far too many impressive spots to mention, with Bate diving over the ring apron to deliver stereo Meltzer Drivers a particular highlight. What it lacked in intensity in terms of fans caring which of the two monster babyface teams would win, it more than made up for with the sheer scale of the spectacle.
Omega would ultimately get the win, hitting the One Winged Angel on Dunne. It can't be stressed enough, if The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega are among the best in the world, then so are the members of British Strong Style. The two teams were equal participants in a great match, with the Brits matching the New Japan stars, step for step. Omega put over the three Brits afterwards, noting how far the three had developed since he first toured the UK in 2008.
As The Elite prepared to move onto their next stop, Fight Club: PRO was also heading out. Because, for the first time, the promotion is leaving its Wolverhampton base for a national tour, with stops in Manchester and London.
Co-owner Martin Zaki spoke to us about the logistics involved: “In 2015 and 2016 we teamed up with CHIKARA and assisted them in conducting what had been an ever elusive desire of coming to the UK. Following the success of these, and also fan requests for us to return to places like Manchester and London it seemed like something we just had to do. Logistically it's not too difficult. I really think it helps that our home is located centrally and therefore travel anywhere within the country is relatively easy. That being said, moving 30 - 40 people around the country is never going to be the simplest task.”
The gamble has more than paid off with all three shows selling out. Indeed so large was the crowd on Friday that the queue literally went around the block.
The heart of the tour is the Dream Tag Team Invitational Tournament. All three shows feature matches as part of the tournament with the promotion bringing in internationally renowned talent to supplement their regular roster.
Zaki explained the idea behind the tournament: “For as long as I have loved independent wrestling, tag team wrestling has been a passion. However, I believe it is something that promoters generally shy away from when it comes to international teams as let's face it, they are double the cost. We looked at the idea and just said 'let's do it' but if we are going to then let's make it ridiculous. The result is DTTI and judging by people’s reactions we certainly achieved the ridiculous.”
We saw the first two matches of the tournament on Friday. In an upset, Marty Scurll & Zack Sabre Jr. lost to The Hunter Brothers. I say an upset, but it would be fair to say that the promo work of The LDRS telegraphed the result. Both men began by berating the crowd, telling them how much they preferred wrestling in America, and promising that the forthcoming match would be over in ten seconds.
It was the perfect setup for the veteran team, who have been wrestling for over 11 years without achieving the international acclaim that younger Brits have gained, to be the underdog babyfaces. There was a lot of comedy early on, with Sabre and Scurll doing an elaborate chain wrestling sequence to prevent themselves from falling over after they had been spun around by the brothers.
The subtle-heel technical wrestling of Sabre and Scurll made for a good contrast to the high flying of The Hunter Brothers, a dynamic that played into the finish of Lee Hunter diving into a Sabre triangle choke but managing to reverse an attempted armbar into a cradle.
While the match was well-worked, it was slightly hurt by the fact that the crowd was getting tired. The promotion called an astute audible to bring forward the intermission to give the crowd a break.
The other tournament match saw Mark Andrews & Eddie Dennis defeat Jack Evans & Angelico in a fun, fast-paced match. As is to be expected from the men involved, there was plenty of high-flying action, most notably both Andrews and Angelico diving from the balconies on either side of the building in quick succession.
One of the side effects of booking a tag team tournament over three days is that you have to find things for the international competitors to do in the days they’re not competing. Rey Fenix & the former Pentagon Jr. will be facing Pete Dunne & Sami Callihan in Manchester, but in Wolverhampton the Lucha Brothers fought each other.
This was everything that you would hope for from the two, with Pentagon winning a match that successfully combined high flying and intricate matwork as only the best lucha libre can. Pentagon’s star quality and ability to work the crowd is something to see. If he can ever fully escape his Lucha Underground contract, he could easily be the breakout star that WWE is looking for.
Speaking of Callihan, he won an enjoyable three-way dance against Shane Strickland and Lio Rush, pinning the latter with a package piledriver. Surprisingly, considering that Callihan is something of a regular for the promotion, it was Rush that got by far the biggest reaction of the three.
The match was cleverly constructed, with all three clearly going out of their way to avoid the cliched format of one person laying down in a corner for a prolonged period while the other two wrestle. Instead they successfully performed intricate three-way exchanges without ever getting lost despite wrestling at a quick pace. That said, as the match built to its finish, it did begin to conform to follow the standard format more.
Of course, not every month will see Fight Club: PRO bring the world’s hottest indie wrestlers to Wolverhampton. With this in mind, the promotion shrewdly used the shows to showcase their new champion, Travis Banks, in a series of spotlight matches.
I feel that Banks is a future superstar, and Zaki agrees. “His intensity, his drive, his passion is incredible," Zaki said. "He truly deserves every success that comes to him. He has played a huge role, possibly bigger than he realizes, in Fight Club: PRO achieving the recognition it does right now.”
One of the most impressive things about Banks is how he shrewdly manages his career. I spoke to him for Fighting Spirit Magazine, and a key thing he stresses to young wrestlers is the need to build contacts. One of those contacts helped him enter Fight Club: PRO.
“Prior to Trav coming to the UK we were contacted by Kyle O'Reilly, vouching for him and asking if we could look to perhaps book him at some point," Zaki said. "Right here we knew he would be good. It did not take him long to prove that he wasn't just good, he was great.”
He had a superb match on Friday with Will Ospreay, proving himself equal to one of the best in the business. The story of the match was simple but effective, with “The Aerial Assassin” landing several spectacular moves on the champion before wilting in the face of the onslaught from “The Kiwi Buzzsaw.”
Banks’ work has genuine physicality, and is a world away from the more junior heavyweight style that we often see from Ospreay. His fiery comebacks were particularly impressive, with his facial expressions and strong style offense conveying real intensity. He would win by submitting Ospreay with the crossface.
His next defense will be against Mark Haskins, who cemented his (previously announced) contender status by winning the show’s opener. Although there was no ladder, this was very much in the style of the multi-man ladder matches that often open WrestleMania.
This was all action, with the wrestlers’ ability to deliver big spot after big spot with no transitions enhanced by there being so many people involved. What had been billed as a four-way dance was supplemented by two surprise additions: Jimmy Havoc and Nixon Newell. The latter was a genuine surprise considering that the promotion’s last two shows had been built around celebrating her career before she goes to NXT.
Newell is yet another example of how the argument that hardcore fans refuse to accept clean-cut babyfaces is nonsense. Much like Bayley, she’s a girl next door who likes pop music but is adored by the predominately male crowd because she’s great at what she does. I’m not a fan of intergender matches, but there’s no denying that she was every bit the equal of the men in the crowd. She not only moves around the ring incredibly smoothly, but has genuine aptitude for delivering high-flying moves. She should become a huge star over in America.
Fight Club: PRO Elite Friday was one of the best shows you are likely to see this year. It was a deep card, with genuine superstars of either the British or international indie scene in every match, and they all pushed themselves to deliver great action.
As Zaki explained to me: “We never stress this but I feel it is subconsciously known and understood, if you come to Fight Club: PRO then we expect your best and we expect you to give it all for that crowd, in return you will be given the freedom to express yourself as you wish with our full trust and support.” Everyone involved sure made the most of that freedom.
Will Cooling writes for Fighting Spirit Magazine, the UK's biggest and best full-color pro wrestling and mixed martial arts newsstand magazine. This month, he looks at how pro wrestling has failed to participate in Television’s Golden Age and why the bloom has come off the rose for NXT.