Welcome to part one of a two-part interview with PROGRESS ring announcer/booker Matt Richards. Matt is somebody who has worn many hats in the wrestling business. Initially working as a wrestler, at a young age he decided that his passion for the art needed a new focus. On his Tuesday Night Jaw podcast, Richards told the tale of how he worked on the door collecting tickets, on merchandise stands, ring crew, everything to find his place in the system.
The Manchester-based Futureshock would be the company in which he would make his name as a wrestling announcer. Rising in prominence, he would find success in other rising promotions, such as Fight Club Pro, as the British wrestling scene began to make a big impact on the world. In this first part, we’ll discuss his formative years in the business along with his current role with PROGRESS and the changes that have taken place since he joined the booking team.
Let’s start with an easy one, how and when did you get into wrestling?
Matt Richards: I used to tell this all the time. Essentially, I was ten years old, in school obviously, and we were messing about on the playing field. Someone came up behind me and hooked me for an Unprettier and hit me with it on the grass. And, being a rough Northern lad, I said ‘what was that? That was amazing!’ He said ‘Don’t you watch wrestling?’, and I didn’t but that was it from then. And, brilliantly, the lad who gave me that move is now a pro wrestler called CJ Banks. That’s how we both became friends, and we both came into wrestling together.
I remember when Owen Hart died and people couldn’t believe I didn’t know who he was. Or even Bret Hart, I hadn’t heard of him either. It was just this weird thing that all of my friends were into, ’cause it would have been during the Attitude Era. So I think I just gave up in the end and just thought okay I’ll watch it. But then we got more into WCW than WWF. Which is really funny because ’99-2000 WCW has some pretty bad stuff. Although you did have the cruiserweights – 3 Count, The Jung Dragons, Rey, and Kidman. So it just grew on me. Between first being introduced at 10, starting to watch at 12, and started training to wrestle at 15 it was quite quick.
You were speaking about your wrestling career on your Tuesday Night Jaw podcast recently. How long was your in-ring career?
Matt Richards: It was from 16 to about 21. It was brief, it was bad (laughs). No, it wasn’t all bad. It was brief but it was so different back then. And I know that sounds like a real veteran ‘oh it were better back in my day,’ but it was really DIY. We didn’t have people teaching us to the standard that you get now. And we were really fortunate that when we were 15, 16, 17 the likes of Robbie Brookside and Mikey Whiplash sort of picked us up.
They saw and went ‘let’s stop all these flips and high spots and learn a collar and elbow tie-up,’ and we learned really quickly on the job. But that was a time period that we could because there was no one watching our shows, where if you had 30 people in that was a good size crowd.
It was a very, very different time, but I just got to the age when, I think it was about 21, and I was just burnt out. It felt like there was no end in sight. WWE? Not a chance mate. I still remember meeting Gangrel and losing my mind because I thought that was gonna be it. And now we’re in a situation where the degree of separation isn’t even 1, it’s 0. It’s there readily available. And so, for me, I’ve always been quite honest with myself and I knew I was never going to get to the point where I should have been.
I was very fortunate/unfortunate because the guys I came through with are phenomenal wrestlers. Taking gratification in seeing their growth as well. I had to have an honest conversation with myself, so I went away, took the break, came back, and lo and behold here I am.
You also spoke about the different jobs you worked on TNJ. You were on the door, merch, ring crew, so being a jack of all trades which company was the first that you could actually call home?
Matt Richards: I started at a place called GPW: Garage Pro Wrestling which is now Grand Pro Wrestling. It was called Garage Pro Wrestling because we trained in a garage, proper old school. That was in Wigan which is funny because when you tell you people that you trained in Wigan everyone assumes you mean the Snake Pit and you’re hard as nails (laughs). No, no, no. One of us did then go to the Snake Pit and did alright for himself. So first was GPW and Futureshock after that.
That’s the company I think I’m most associated with because that’s the company I finished wrestling with and started ring announcing and commentating with. So Futureshock is very much home. But now I’m very fortunate that the longer I go on the more homes I have. Like holiday homes (laughs).
So are you taking bookings for other wrestling promotions still, or are you now exclusive to PROGRESS?
I hate saying it like this, but I finished my last day in wrestling outside of PROGRESS with CHAOS. Which was slightly awkward because I didn’t know it was being taken over by Flash (Morgan Webster) and Hitch (Wild Boar). So I had to tell them I was leaving because they were supposedly closing. But that gave us a really nice moment with Dave (Youell), Nick (Woolcock) and Rob (Clark) the promoters have left as well as me and Eddie Dennis. It’s just with the PROGRESS job now, show day but even before that, I’m doing work so I just wanted to make sure that I could give 100% to PROGRESS. Never say never, I might turn up to the odd show every now and then, but for now, this is my main focus, definitely.
You commentated alongside Glen Joseph in PROGRESS for many years before becoming a ring announcer. The biggest gig during that time was undoubtedly at Hello Wembley in Wembley Arena. How was that experience?
The joke became that everyone was crying apart from me. And the joke then became when am I going to cry? Is it going to hit me with a realization of what I’ve just done? It happened to be two weeks later when I watched the whole show. I got to WALTER and Tyler (Bate) I just burst out crying. And I don’t know why. It was like my brain had finally just gone ‘oh yeah, that was ridiculous.’ I was joking about it the other day. I did that show in shorts and a t-shirt, so I think I was the most casual person there other than Jim (Smallman).
It’s one where I look back on it now and think that’s kind of crazy to be in front of 4750 fans at a British independent wrestling show. I will be forever proud of my tiny part in that. And from a business point of view, we’ve done it and never have to do it again. So there’s not that stress surrounding it for any of us.
Were there any nerves beforehand considering the size of that crowd?
I think I’m less nervous in front of bigger crowds because there’s a massive disconnect. When you do a show in front of 150 people you can see all 150 people. Also, if 100 people out of 150 don’t like what you’re doing you can hear that. Whereas 100 out of nearly 5000 people, it’s a minority. I get really nervous with the smaller, intimate shows. I used to get very nervous about doing Fight Club back in the Fixxion venue because everything was on top of you. Pushing my way through the crowd to get to the ring, then stand in the crowd while the match was on.
We’ll see about Alexandra Palace, but for now, I’m generally pretty cool. The first Ballroom show was really odd. It’s the first time I’ve felt like a bit of an imposter, had a bit of an out of body experience.
Could you name a favorite match, angle or moment from your time behind the commentary desk?
That’s really difficult because I always value things differently. In terms of moments as a commentator, you’re very much riding the wave of momentum of what’s just come before. It’s either your job to not say anything or making sure that you say the right thing at the right moment. A personal moment for me was Jimmy (Havoc)’s last match for PROGRESS at Alexandra Palace.
I got to have the last word ever said over a Jimmy match. That was a really important moment for me because Glen let me have that. I keep thinking back to that and thinking imagine what would have happened if I’d have messed that up (laughs).
In terms of matches, my first ever main event for PROGRESS was the first Birmingham show with Rampage Brown and Matt Riddle. That’s not a bad first main event! Ilja vs Jordan Devlin from Newcastle. In terms of having the pleasure to commentate over that – it was great. Young Guns debuting in Manchester at Chapter 96 because I have such a close relationship with them personally and I’ve seen how hard they’ve worked. It’s perhaps that same detachment as with Wembley in that I don’t value the moments as they happen. As a fan watching in the crowd, CCK debuting in Manchester (Chapter 48).
You’ve stepped into big shoes for PROGRESS replacing Jim both announcing and as part of the booking team. He had quite a distinctive style. Was there anything that you’d wanted to carry over from him and did you want a clean slate?
Me and Jim joke a lot about the comparisons because outwardly we’re very similar because we are mates and have similar interests and outlooks on wrestling. But our styles are completely different. I don’t think people were prepared for that if they hadn’t seen me at Fight Club Pro or other shows. I think people were actually surprised at how massively different it was [when I took over]. It’s been a big transition, but I was actually doing the creative job before I started the announcing job. I came in for Still Chasing (Chapter 95) when Eddie did the cash in on Walter and David Starr. My first meeting was ‘oh, by the way, Eddie Dennis is gonna be champion’. I had genuinely believed he was retired (laughs). So I came in creatively at that point, and Jim was more of a consultant. Then when January came around I would take that role also. It’s been a lot of adjustments. More with the creative stuff because I’ve always been creative and contributed everywhere I’ve worked.
I helped with booking and certain other things with Tetsujin, which was my first official/unofficial role in that regard. But to be involved with me Jon (Briley) and Glen (Joseph), booking creative has been a big adjustment and I’m still learning. Our intention this year has always been that this is a new chapter for PROGRESS. It’s a new impetus of what we want our product and brand to be, which is easier with me coming into the role because I am different from Jim. Obviously the injury to Eddie at Chapter 101 was heartbreaking, but it probably helped in terms of saying this is the new PROGRESS with Cara Noir, Ilja Dragunov, Kyle Fletcher, and Paul Robinson headlining. We’re never going to ignore our history because we’re very proud of it. But we’re keen to have a fresh approach to the old PROGRESS formula is I guess what you would say.
I was going to ask about this because a lot of the wrestlers featured in Natural Progression Series 6 are now regulars. Obviously Cara Noir is the World Champion or is it Unified World Champion?
Matt Richards: (Laughs) I dropped the Unified. The three of us still argue about it, to be honest. It’s the Undisputed Title in WWE isn’t it? We all know it’s the World Title, now I have a microphone I have the power to say it’s just the World Title. So yes, it’s the World Championship.
The wrestlers that have come in have played an important role in redefining what PROGRESS is. How do you think someone like Cara Noir facilitates that updated presentation of the brand?
Matt Richards: Cara’s fascinating because he essentially forced our hand. He basically forced our hand because you can’t come off the back of that performance at NPS, then wrestle Pete Dunne the day after and have us just go ‘we’ll use you occasionally.’ He really inspired us to use him in a way that would be the best presentation of him. And I think that’s what Cara brings. That he is not the stereotypical PROGRESS wrestler, and I say that as in the perception of a stereotypical PROGRESS wrestler. He is nothing like we have had before. I think what’s been fascinating is him bringing sides out of wrestlers or characters that you’ve never seen.
The Ilja Dragunov series is fascinating, and I’m very proud of what they did with it. Ilja could quite easily have said ‘no, I’m a hard man’. But he didn’t. He wanted to be more creative and be seen differently. I think Cara pushes people as a performer because of that. I think the four-way main event (Chapter 101) was great because it really punctuated four different personalities, four very different wrestlers within the men’s division. That’s what Cara does, he highlights people’s individuality and his interactions with Eddie too have been great. He’s bringing something out in Eddie that we’ve not seen, and bad Mark Andrews is great. He’s essentially the same but a lot more sarcastic and conniving. So Cara is the most symbolic change in the company. He’s easy to hold up as he holds our top belt and has been positioned at the top of the company. His artistry is at such a high level it carries through to the tiniest detail too. He’ll notice something and say ‘if that happens, then this needs to happen, then this, then this.’
As far as those little details go, are they decided upon on the day of a show or is it a correspondence between the talent beforehand?
Not to harp on the artist analogy, but it’s my, Jon and Glen’s job to draw the outline. It’s the wrestlers’ job to paint in the details. There’s some stuff that will be very set, that we need them to do. A certain scenario or beats to hit. But then we might give a general idea of something at another time and ask the wrestlers to flesh it out. Personally speaking, as someone who has been a wrestler, I think it’s invaluable that you value your talent and take the time with them to discuss things. Sometimes they’ll see things that we have never seen or vice versa. But there is a constant line of communication from us creatively and them as performers.
Do you feel, or is it just my perception, that over the last 12-18 months that longterm storytelling has taken a bit of a backseat and now you’re moving back towards that style?
Matt Richards: It’s difficult to comment because that year and a half I wasn’t involved with and I would never feel comfortable commenting on someone else’s creative decisions. I think that the big impetus we’ve had from Super Strong Style 16 was that refocus. That recapturing of what people liked us for and what people still like us for and want from us. Sometimes it just comes with a change in personnel. I can speak for us creatively. Our big thing this year is that value of we don’t just want to have storylines just based around titles or storylines based around a handful of people. We want everyone to have value. Every time someone is on our show they are there to be of value to both the show and themselves. We want to present these people in the best possible light because they’re the ones who deserve the spotlight to be shone on them.
Nobody is safe. pic.twitter.com/003scDiKo8
— PROGRESS Wrestling (@ThisIs_Progress) February 17, 2020
Matt Richards: I can tell you now there’s a list of about 30 people who we think are incredible. But we want to make sure we bring them in at a moment where they will be presented in the best possible light. I told Cara Noir before NPS, ‘I understand that you’ve been waiting a long time,’ and he just said ‘yep.’ I could see that there was frustration in him. After the tournament, I said ‘it was worth the wait wasn’t it?’ to him. And he said ‘yeah,’ and it is sometimes you know? We are very conscious of long term storytelling. Long term building of characters. Long term presentation of people. The women’s division is something that we have really turned our focus on, and it’s something that we hope people have cottoned onto. I will say that in this situation a lot of times it comes down to logistics. Availability for show dates, injuries, or any other variable. This year we’ve been plagued with injuries.
The women’s division had been somewhat neglected at times for sure, so it’s great to see it being booked more positively. The tag team division too actually.
Matt Richards: Yeah, and it’s gonna take time. There’s going to be certain times when divisions aren’t as fleshed out as we want them to be. But I feel what was really important with the women’s division was to present it as an equal to the men. In terms of it’s not just that one woman has the title and another who’s like ‘I want your title.’ There’s more to it, there are more complex characters within that dynamic. I think a big thing is the introduction of new talent or fresher talent. I look at someone like Dani Luna who’s obviously standing out, but also having Gisele Shaw come back in and have it mean something.
— PROGRESS Wrestling (@ThisIs_Progress) February 2, 2020
She had her three-way with Jinny and Dani in Cardiff, but also had a singles against Chakara at Chapter 103. She seems to be a threat to Jinny’s title but at the same time Jinny needs to look over here shoulder because Medusa Complex are behind her. This presentation has been important to us. It’s not just been to tick a box and say ‘there’s your birds match’. We get it, we hear that criticism and we would not argue that a lot of it fair. It’s the same with the tag division. The presentation of young, up and coming talent. How will you build stars if you don’t give people opportunities? We are trying, we are consciously thinking about these sorts of things.
Tangentially related to this discussion is a question I’ve had for a while – Is the Proteus Title still an intergender championship?
Matt Richards: We have never said it’s anything. It genuinely is anything that the person who holds it wants it to be. Right now Paul Robinson holds it and the only rules are that win by KO or submission and that’s it. We understand the situation around intergender wrestling and it’s somewhat of a Pandora’s box because it’s not something we’ve really done before. When we open that we can never close it again. We dipped our toes in that with the Proteus Rumble. But we need to be careful with it because at the moment we’re trying to build our women’s division to be something meaningful. We don’t want to segregate the talent, we just want all of our championships to mean something. If I’m being brutally honest, I would say there probably won’t be many if any intergender matches for the Proteus. But that’s not to say that we will never do it.
Something that I personally enjoy in wrestling is comedy. But typically a comedic persona won’t get you into the World Title picture. How would think it possible for someone, say Chief Deputy Dunne, to segue from comedy to serious main eventer?
Matt Richards: I genuinely think it’s the hardest thing to do within the realm of wrestling. I think it’s hard to do because of several reasons. One of them is that to understand what comedy wrestling is you’ve got to look at the formula. The trap that everyone tends to fall into is comedy wrestler versus comedy wrestler. That’s fine when they’re the best at what they do, but it always falls flat when one of them is behind the other. Straight person versus comedy wrestler is always instantly funnier because it’s what makes comedy so funny.
It’s having that outlandish character within the realms of realism and the absurdity that comes from it. I love when Session Moth’s in a situation where she’s grinding on Minoru Suzuki (laughs).
— Session Moth Martina🍻 マーティナセッション (@mothfromdaflats) November 2, 2018
I think there’s some really good examples, especially when it comes to Chief Deputy Dunne. It will ever get better than when ATTACK! did the storyline where the Anti Fun Police basically disbanded. But that video where Santos gave Chief Deputy Dunne the badge legitimately nearly made me cry because it felt real. That’s the key ingredient: people have to have a connection with those characters. Otherwise, it’s going to feel fake and engineered. It’s also the blessing and the curse of a comedy wrestler because they can be more empathetic and get a connection more organically with them. But then they are at the mercy of the audience going ‘okay we want to see a bit more from him.’
Matt Richards: We’ve seen the Anti Fun Police this year go from the Reverse Battle Royale to having a fantastic wrestling match with Devlin and Davis in Cardiff. Then you go from that to the absurdity of them teaming with Walter, and they are two of the most talented comedy wrestlers in the country. That’s because they’re both more than a comedy wrestler. I think it’s a very difficult thing to do, but when it’s done right it’s one of the most powerful things.
I think Gene Munny is a great example of this. Gene’s introduction to the audience is through the sheer absurdity of what Gene Munny is. I still don’t really know what Gene Munny is (laughs). But the minute you get past the initial introduction you start to see there’s more there. And that is incredibly important and why being a comedy wrestler is incredibly hard because you have to have substance. Gene is someone as a performer who I’ve seen have some genuinely fantastic wrestling matches where I’ve cared so much about him. I’ve seen him wrestle Su Yung dressed as a Ghostbuster and where he murdered a referee.
// Match Six //
— 𝙍𝙄𝙋𝙏𝙄𝘿𝙀 𝙒𝙧𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙡𝙞𝙣𝙜 (@RIPTIDEwres) December 2, 2019
How about you involving yourself in a storyline in PROGRESS? Is that too hackneyed or played out?
Matt Richards: (Laughs) Good lord! No is the short answer. I’d never say never, because I don’t like to do that, but I just don’t think there’s any value to it. Number one, I think it’s very arrogant to assume that people will like or dislike you. Because the job that I do is to be present the best version of yourself. So if we’re in a situation where we want people to like me and they don’t, that’s quite disheartening. The same with vice versa. Also any time a non-wrestler is involved in that sort of way, you’re taking a job away from a wrestler. Not to go full 1980s NWA, wrestling is the name on the marquee.
I want my talent to be the people who are the talents and I never want to take a slot off them. But at the same time I have absolutely no problem with people that do.
Matt Richards: One of my favorite matches of all time is Chris Roberts versus Shay Purser. Shay is a wrestler, but Chris is the furthest thing from a wrestler yet I was super invested in that storyline. You look at the history of our company, obviously, Jim being the trigger-point to the Jimmy Havoc storyline was so integral. But the reason it was so important and integral was because no one else was doing it at the time. It felt real, because Jim was a comedian and a person and not a professional wrestler. So if we’re ever in a situation where that’s the case then maybe, but I have no active interest. I know there was a bit of a campaign at one point for me versus WALTER and I can tell you right now, especially since I have some say, absolutely never.
How many Chapter titles have you managed to get in so far?
Matt Richards: Zero. Fuming. Absolutely fuming. I nearly walked out of the job because of it. It’s because Jon’s got two year’s worth of Chapter names so unless they’re really good ones… The best ones I’ve suggested so far are one’s that we absolutely cannot use. There was a line in a Rick & Morty episode recently which was “Your cheers mean nothing, I’ve heard what you booed.” I suggested it and then we decided it was a little bit offensive so we won’t use that one. Jim’s last Chapter had a lot of different code names and none of them were appropriate. So sometimes you’ll have a really good one but you can’t use it.
Matt Richards: My favorite is still Men Throwing Men At Other Men which is a quote from Jim’s wife. Or Don’t Make Me Use The Sit Down Gun which is a line from Danger 5 which I think is a Jim title. True Friends Stab You In The Front was a good one because it was the show directly after Eddie Dennis and Mark Andrews reunited as FSU. So I’ve had zero so far. I had a few for the Welsh show but it was already named Bang Tidy. I think the Manchester one will be my first one [since revealed to be called Your Granny On Bongos] because I tried to name the Leeds one and got shot down again.
Is it just a case of chucking things out there and seeing what sticks?
Matt Richards: Yeah, it’s whatever makes us laugh. And Jeff Goldblum’s Fly Machine (Chapter 104 at the end of the month) was our cameraman Al who said it. He was in a creative meeting last month and said “that title is so good,” and we were like it was your idea!
And that’s your lot for part one of our epic interview with Matt. Join us for part two when we will be discussing the boom period of British wrestling, WWE, AEW, what animal Matt would be and whether BritWres is dead. I hope to see you then. You can follow me on Twitter if you are so inclined @JesusofGazareth