Preview by Joseph Currier
After announcing the two-day United Kingdom Championship tournament last month, WWE finally makes their foray into the UK today at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool, England.
Nigel McGuinness will make his WWE debut on commentary on the show as he joins Michael Cole live on the Network. The second show will take place tomorrow, with the winner being crowned the inaugural UK Champion.
The 16-competitor field was officially set last week, with WWE later releasing the tournament bracket. The first round matches are:
- Tyler Bate vs. Tucker
- Jordan Devlin vs. Danny Burch (formerly known as Martin Stone on the indies)
- Trent Seven vs. H.C. Dyer
- Wolfgang vs. Tyson T-Bone
- Mark Andrews vs. Dan Moloney
- James Drake vs. Joseph Conners
- Pete Dunne vs. Roy Johnson
- Saxon Huxley vs. Sam Gradwell
Our live coverage kicks off at 3 p.m. ET. For more information on the tournament, check out Alan Boon's primer detailing what you need to know about it.
Hello! You're joining me live from my sofa as we witness the first night of the historic WWE United Kingdom Championship tournament from Blackpool's Empress Ballroom!
The 8 winners of these first round matches will go forward to the quarterfinals, which will be held tomorrow. Everything begins here!
The show started with a quick recap of the WWE's UK history and the announcement of the tournament, as seen on the preview show.
Live to the arena and the house lights are down. Triple H walks out onto the stage to rapturous cheers. He gives a short speech, ending with "are you ready?" There was a close shot of the title belt in the centre of the ring.
Michael Cole is ringside, and welcomes the "grapple fans" to the show, before introducing Nigel McGuinness, on colour commentary.
McGuinness tips Pete Dunne and Danny Burch, with Cole going for Joseph Conners, before throwing to an intro to Trent Seven and HC Dyer. Seven, you won't be surprised to hear, oozes charisma, even explaining Moustache Mountain. Dyer is portrayed as a striker -- occasional watchers of Southside Wrestling will know him as The Pledge.
Trent Seven defeated HC Dyer
Ring announcer Andy Shepherd introduces Seven, announced as PROGRESS tag team champion by Michael Cole. McGuinness puts over British Strong Style. Dyer enters and Cole again puts over his striking. They start quickly, with a back and forth, as the crowd chant "Moustache Mountain". Dyer rocks Seven with a big right hand for a two count. Dyer gets another near fall with a ripcord Blue Thunder Bomb but missed a frog splash off the top to give Seven an opening. A quick spinning backfist and a Rainmaker -- dubbed the Seven Star Lariat - later and Seven picks up the win.
A short but mostly tidy contest, which made Dyer look good in defeat and left lots open for Seven.Backstage, we see Jordan Devlin warming up for his first round match with Danny Burch, and then we get a video package on the two, focusing on Burch's time in NXT. Burch is better known to most UK -- and US indy -- fans as Martin Stone.
Finn Balor and OTT Wrestling promoter Joseph Cabray are shown at ringside as Shepherd introduces an intense looking Danny Burch, and then Devlin, focused in a leather jacket.
Jordan Devlin defeated Danny Burch
Devlin tries to score a quick roll-up but Burch kicks out before one. Cole lists Burch as a three-time IPW:UK champion, and the crowd are solidly behind the Londoner. Burch dominates early, but Devlin comes back and scores a near fall with a high dropkick. He gets another after Burch is caught up topped and tripped to the mat, before laying in a chin lock which gives the crowd a chance to get behind Burch again.
Devlin plays heel to the crowd before sinking in another chin lock, taking it to the mat for added leverage. Burch attempts a comeback but is quickly stopped in his tracks, and Devlin again plays to the crowd, earning a "you're not Balor" chant. Devlin earns a warning for raking Burch's eyes and returns to the chin lock, which Burch escapes with a jawjacker and hits a missile dropkick off the top. Both men are down but Burch kips up and lays in forearms, decking Devlin with an uppercut.
They trade strikes and Burch gets a two-count with a big lariat -- Devlin returns the favour with a roll-up. Burch hits some knees and locked in a crossface, and Devlin made the ropes. The crowd, again, are solidly behind Burch. Devlin landed on his feet from a Burch German suplex and scored a near fall with a wheelbarrow roll-up. Devlin pinned Burch and it looked as though Burch, bleeding profusely from the back of his head, kicked out right on the three. The referee called for the bell and awarded the pinfall to Devlin, and the crowd chanted "bulls---!"
This was obviously designed to get Devlin over as a heel, with Burch -- nominally in that role -- playing hometown hero. The match was exactly what is was meant to be, save for the possibly muddled finish.
After the match, Devlin superkicked Burch when the Londoner was going for a handshake, earning more boos.
Backstage, Charly Caruso interviewed Devlin, who called himself a "thoroughbred horse."
Michael Cole throws to the video package introducing our next bout, Saxon Huxley against Sam Gradwell. Huxley will appeal to fans of Game Of Thrones, while Gradwell -- known as Ricky J MacKenzie or RJM to UK fans -- is portrayed as a working class brawler with a tough upbringing.
As Huxley makes his way to the ring, Michael Cole announces Triple H will be live on the WWE Network after the show tonight. Gradwell -- from Blackpool -- gets a huge cheer from the local fans.
Sam Gradwell defeated Saxon Huxley
Cole and McGuinness talk both guys' backgrounds -- both trained by Marty Jones, with Huxley also training with Lance Storm and Brian Kendrick. They start cagily, with the UK fans immediately deciding Huxley is "Jesus" and chanting accordingly. He does bear a certain resemblance. They trade holds early on, before Huxley's larger size finds him briefly on top. Gradwell comes back with a dropkick for a near fall, and then controls the bigger man with a headlock into a butterfly suplex for another near fall.
Gradwell went up top and Huxley slipped outside, and they traded positions in the ring before Huxley hit a butterfly backbreaker for a near fall of his own. Huxley continues to control but Gradwell fights back with forearms, uppercuts, and punches to the midsection. An uppercut takes Huxley down and Gradwell hit a diving headbutt for the win.
A short match, perhaps befitting the disparity in experience between the two. Gradwell moves on as an unlikely underdog babyface.
After the match, Dave Taylor is shown at ringside, before Cole & McGuinness compare Pete Dunne -- up next -- to the Yorkshire legend. We then get the video package for our next match-up -- Dunne taking on Roy Johnson.
Johnson describes himself as the most "wavy" guy in sports entertainment.
Johnson gets cheers from the crowd when Andy Shepherd announces him, as Nigel McGuinness tries to explain "wavy". Cole puts Johnson over as a powerlifter, and McGuinness points out Johnson stopped powerlifting due to injury. Dunne gets a huge response from the crowd, who probably see him as the firm favourite for this tournament. Cole talks of Dunne's experience in Japan with Michinoku-Pro.
Pete Dunne defeated Roy Johnson
Dunne gets the fingerlock early, controlling Johnson on the mat with joint manipulation before locking in a headlock. Johnson shows both sides of himself early -- the playful babyface and powerful athlete -- but Dunne is in control, slamming Johnson onto the apron and then going after Johnson's arm on the outside.
Dunne takes Johnson back into the ring and continues his assault on Johnson's left arm, and runs through his usual array of weardowns. The crowd want to back him but he's so obviously heeling it up. Dunne scores a near fall and looks to continue his dominance but Johnson gets some brief hope with a slam, a corner splash, and a takedown, before Dunne cuts him off with a boot. Johnson came back with a Samoan Drop, earning a big two-count, but then eats a big forearm for a near fall for Dunne.
Dunne goes for the finish but Johnson buys some time with a forearm, before Dunne comes back with a head kick. Going for the finish again, Dunne gets caught and Johnson gets another two-count. All for nought, as Dunne hits "The Bitter End" (the "Drop Dead" on the indies) for the win.
Dunne goes forward to meet Sam Gradwell tomorrow, which is a fresh match-up for UK fans with both men running in very different circles. Dunne is popular with the crowd, but that could be tested against a hometown guy. Johnson looked good in defeat, and may get more of a chance to show his wares on a regular show.
The announcers throw to the introductory video package for the next match - ICW Heavyweight champion Wolfgang versus Tyson T-Bone. Wolfgang says he might bring dishonour to the belt but that he will be the first UK champion. T-Bone is being portrayed as "the king of the travelers", and what would a British show be without a gypsy?
Backstage, Charly Caruso speaks to T-Bone, who may need subtitles for people who haven't seen Snatch.
They show Jon Briley & Jim Smallman of PROGRESS Wrestling at ringside, acknowledging a debt of gratitude to them for this whole thing. As Shepherd introduces Wolfgang, Cole claims that Wolfgang calls himself "the last king of Scotland," and McGuinness explains that Wolfgang holds a win over Finn Balor. T-Bone is introduced to cheers from the crowd - he works a lot locally -- and quite ridiculous music. I like it, though.
Wolfgang defeated Tyson T-Bone
T-Bone lays in a headbutt before the referee starts the match. Wolfgang says he wants to continue so the match starts. This is a brawl -- both big men throwing themselves into the fight -- with Wolfgang scoring a quick near fall with a double axe-handle off the top. T-Bone comes back with kicks for a near fall of his own, as McGuinness claims T-Bone did bare-knuckle boxing as a youth.
The tattooed brawler gets another two count and then locks in a chin lock, which Wolfgang fights out of before T-Bone lays in kicks and clubbing forearms for another near fall. The announcers tell the story of these men -- giving them character -- as Wolfgang comes back with a suplex for a double down. They take some time getting to their feet and trade strikes -- T-Bone is definitely getting the boos now, and the cheers for Wolfgang are magnified when the big man hits a moonsault for a near fall.
T-Bone comes back with a German suplex and a superkick for two and then throws Wolfgang outside as the crowd chant "let's go Wolfgang!" T-Bone looks for the countout, posting Wolfgang on the outside but Wolfgang made the count and made to go up top again. T-Bone caught him and then joined him on the top turnbuckle, looking for a superplex but Wolfgang dropped him face-first and then dropped a big elbow for the three-count and a quarter-final against Trent Seven -- a re-match from ICW's Fear & Loathing IX last November.
For two big men, they worked hard and surprised a lot of the fans with that. Wolfgang doesn't often get the chance to show his aerial prowess but is a former ICW Zero-G champion. T-Bone, like so many others tonight, looked good in defeat.
After the match, Wolfgang spoke to Charly Caruso and promised a party after he won the title.
They show James Drake and Joseph Conners preparing backstage and then throw to the pre-match video package for the first-round match between the pair. Both men are confident, with Conners just edging the over-confident stakes. James Drake enters first, announced as being from Blackpool, and gets scattered cheers. There can't be many FutureShock Wrestling fans in the house. Conners is cheered, which may be because he's been featured on WCPW as their champion of late and is more well-known to the fans in attendance.
Joseph Conners defeated James Drake
Michael Cole believes Conners is a legitimate main-eventer, and they fight over a lock-up early doors. The fans chant "he's got his own face, on his arse" at Drake, which -- to be fair -- he has. They trade holds and Conners hits some strikes, throwing Drake through the ropes, but Drake comes back with some of his own from on the apron, returning to the ring to take over the bout. He takes Conners down with a running knee for a one-count as Cole namechecks Brian Dixon.
They swap near falls with Conners taking control. They're trying to tell a story around Conners' ear, which was injured in a nightclub fight a few years ago and Cole notes that Cedric Alexander -- who worked with Conners for Southside -- has tipped Joseph for success tonight. Drake hits back with forearms and a flying forearm to take Conners down, and then earns a telling off from the ref for piling on the blows in the corner. Drake hits an enzuigiri and then rolls up Conners up but only gets two. They exchange blows again, and Corners bulls Drake into the corner before hitting a flatliner for the win.
Drake and Conners both gave a lot in that, but the ending seemed to come out of nowhere. They'll have had better matches in front of a lot less people and I'd imagine they'll both get picked up for the series roster if it happens. Conners will face the winner of the next match -- Mark Andrews versus Dan Moloney -- which makes Tyler Bate against Tucker our default main event!
They show the video package for Andrews/Moloney -- Andrews has definitely benefited from a couple of years on TNA (how often can you say that?) and Moloney is playing the moody loner gimmick. Andrews speaks to Charly Caruso, setting out his aim to win the belt. Moloney improved so much in 2016 and very much deserves his place tonight. Andrews is a star in waiting, and is loved by the crowd.
Mark Andrews defeated Dan Moloney
Moloney overpowers Andrews early on but Andrews flips and luchas his way out of it. Cole credits Zack Sabre Jr. for Andrews's training as he hits some more flips and dives and kicks. Moloney eats some elbows and gets a near fall after a flapjack, as the crowd cheer for Andrews and Cole & McGuinness attempt to portray Moloney's hometown Birmingham as gritty.
Andrews comes back with some more aerial offense, hitting the Stomp 182 and a standing moonsault for near falls. Moloney gets sent outside by a hurricanrana and taken down out there by a turnbuckle moonsault by the Welsh flyer. Back in the ring, Moloney is back on top and scores a very near fall with a knee to the face, but Andrews hits Stundog Millionaire and a shooting star press to pick up the win.
Moloney is solid and still learning and this whole experience will stand him in good stead. He moves onto the Chikara Young Lions Cup next month, while Andrews will face Conners in the second round -- a WWE match between 2 wrestlers better known for recent stints elsewhere. Such is 2017 (as 2016 was before it). That brings us to our last match -- Tyler Bate against Tucker.
The video package portrays Tucker as a technician who loves brawling, and explains he's recovered from a potentially career-ending knee injury. I was happy for that because I know nothing about Tucker. Bate is light-hearted, and they play on his youth and his knockout potential.
They show Mark Dallas & Duncan Grey of Insane Championship Wrestling at ringside, putting over their role in the development of the current British wrestling scene. Tucker enters first, to a muted response from the crowd, who will be largely unfamiliar with his work (he rarely works outside Ireland). Tyler Bate receives a great reception from the crowd, and he waves and waves and waves on his way to the ring, as befits his Moustache Mountain gimmick.
Tyler Bate defeated Tucker
The crowd sing loudly for Bate as the two circle, with Tucker getting the early takedown. It's a stalemate early on, with neither man able to get much of an advantage. Bate gets on top, working neckholds to wear down the Ulsterman, as the crowd chant for Moustache Mountain and Dudley resident. Tucker escapes the hold and hits a heel kick, which rocks Bate to the canvas. Tucker takes Bate down again with a rana and then gets a near fall, but Bate kicks out.
Tucker misses a senton off the top and Bate takes over and looks for the Tyler Driver '97 but Tucker flipped out for another two-count. Tucker sent Bate outside the ring and got caught by a forearm as he attempted a tope suicida. They work outside and Tucker takes Bate down with another rana on the ramp. The referee interrupts his count to check on a cut on Tyler's head and both men make it back in.
Tucker gets caught attempting a slingshot crossbody and Bate throws him up into an airplane spin,before reversing the rotation to double the effect on Tucker. Bate gets another very near fall but Tucker comes back, kicking Bate hard to the floor. The Ulsterman rolls Bate back in for a pinfall but Bate kicks out before the three. Tucker goes up top again, looking for a Swantuck Bomb but Bate gets his knees up and they trade blows before Bate hits the Tyler Driver '97 for the victory.
Aside from a couple of nervy moments, these two stepped up to deliver more than a de facto main event, with the contest of the evening showing both in a great light. Bate is a star, and will come out of this tournament a made man. Bate faces Jordan Devlin, another Finn Balor trainee, in the quarter-finals tomorrow.
At the end of the show, they introduced the quarter-final participants onto the stage, and Dunne took the opportunity to take out Gradwell, much to William Regal's annoyance.
As a showcase for what the UK scene -- or a tiny portion of it -- can offer, the show delivered. It created -- or rather magnified -- some characters who will trade on this notoriety on their exploits on the independent scene, both here and in the US. There's still another seven matches to come, with some tantalizing match-ups in the offing, and you can join us tomorrow for another live experience, as it happens.