Welcome back to the second, and final, part of an epic chat with PROGRESS booker/ring announcer Matt Richards. If you haven’t read that first part I would recommend that you do so before reading this. You can do so here. There we covered Matt Richard’s early days in the business as a wrestler and announcer, as well as the impetus that he brings to PROGRESS’s refocussing of what makes it such a special company.
This time around we’ll be diving into some of the bigger questions around the BritWres scene of 2020. Most prominently – Is BritWres dead? Important to note that this interview took place on February 26th – long before Coronavirus became it became as huge as it is now for wrestling and other public gatherings. With that said, enjoy…
You were on the inside of BritWres during the boom period. How did it feel from the inside, because it was incredibly exciting to be watching it as a fan? Did it feel as though you would wind up on national TV and be a superstar? Or was it taken with a sense of realism and could be realistically achieved?
100% with a sense of realism. Probably pessimism to be perfectly honest (laughs). It’s interesting that you mention the TV thing because that was always the carrot dangled in front of you. I’m old enough to remember a lot of the failed ventures into the TV realm. The Wrestling Channel was great and did give a platform to certain people, but I don’t think it was ever beneficial for a UK company to be on there. Do you remember when they did that weird ITV wrestling show that wasn’t a wrestling show?
Celebrity Wrestling? The reality show that had D Lo Brown and Roddy Piper presenting?
Yeah, it was like Gladiators and it was terrible. But getting back to the question, it was realism with a hint of pessimism because we’d had false promises before. I can’t count on my hands anymore how many times I’ve been told: “you’ll be on TV, you’ll do this, you’ll do that.” And ultimately it took the rise of new media to take us and put us where we wanted to be. Because for a long time it was detrimental to the product in Britain to try to be a TV product.
The proof of that is the rise of ICW, PROGRESS, Rev Pro. They are the perfect examples of why we should never compromise what we are because what we are is special. And those places, whether you think we’re still in a boom period or not, were at a point absolutely integral to British wrestling and what it is now. I remember when ATTACK! released their first-ever ‘Press Start’ video. The amount of shit those boys got! They were ridiculed.
Belittled by all these people who thought they knew better. But lo and behold Flash Morgan Webster, Mark Andrews, Pete Dunne, Eddie Dennis, Hitch (Wild Boar Mike Hitchman), the list goes on and on. All these people now are so prominent and influential upon this scene so I think it’s that thing of… I think we got to where we are with a chip on our shoulder. I know that’s what used to fire me up – that’s the reason I went to Fight Club Pro.
The people in Fight Club Pro were the ones who were told that they would never amount to anything in wrestling. And as such, it was a fuck you to everyone. That’s what built that company. It’s been an interesting journey because I think even when we got to where we are now, there has always been this attitude of let’s not stop. Like, we need to continue this on. And this is where the ‘BritWres is dead’ thing needs to be acknowledged.
Is British wrestling dead? No, I’ve seen it dead, trust me I’ve seen it dead. Is it the boom period, say like when the first (WWE) UK tournament happened? Absolutely not, and you have to acknowledge that. You cannot continue to deny that and say that everything is fine. I mean it is fine, but it’s not as hot as it was. That was the perfect storm in terms of independent wrestling. The perfect example of that again is when I was doing Fight Club Pro.
We went from doing it in front of 250 people in a grotty little warehouse to 1500 people, headlined by British Strong Style vs The Elite. Not even a show in between, just like that (snaps fingers). Because of that UK tournament. That’s it – that is a boom. Our job now, and the job of the people who have got to a level where they can influence it, is to build what’s next. And I can’t speak highly enough of everyone who is in NXT, or even AEW or New Japan.
Zack Sabre Jr and Will Ospreay’s desire to still have an input into the scene is integral. It’s well documented that Pete Dunne still has a lot of input too. There’s nobody in the country who knows more about every wrestler than Pete. He knows everyone and everything and that’s because he cares. With the potential that we’ve got, with the talent coming through, we can have that boom period again.
So the scene is in a rebuilding phase, which leads me back into PROGRESS. You haven’t announced a September show yet, usually your biggest of the year. Is that announcement coming or is Super Strong Style 16 now the big one of the year for you?
We’re still thinking about what we’re gonna do to be honest… I think Strong Style is gonna be really different this year. The way we tend to look at PROGRESS is that Strong Style is the end of act one going forward through the year. We use it to kick off act two because generally, you can build to Strong Style nicely. Tie up some things there and make some things happen that go forward. Then we can look at the rest of the year.
Strong Style is our biggest focus point because it is our biggest event now. I don’t want to make such a bold statement but the focus at Strong Style this year is on British and European talent. We are obviously gonna have imports, we’ve already announced a few people who aren’t considered British wrestlers. Sonico is someone that is in there and is in there because we have a relationship with DEFY, and we’ve been impressed with him. Our bread and butter though is our talent and the talent in Europe. We truly believe that it is as good if not better than it has been and will be.
It’s just going to take time to establish these people as stars. You know, Pete Dunne didn’t happen overnight. I still remember Pete losing to Jack Gallagher in a Cruiserweight qualifier match. If you watched that at the time it happened you’d never have thought Pete would be as significant in terms of British wrestling. You’d have thought that Jack going off to the golden lands across the pond would the end of it. Whereas it actually gave birth to our boom period and strengthened our scene. It sounds like I’m being a company man, but I genuinely believe in our talent.
I think we have such a stronger variety of performers than we did when things started taking off. I truly believe that. Which isn’t to diminish anyone’s success beforehand. It’s just that I think we’ve got a better spread from tag teams to women, to world title and potential Proteus challengers. It’s just a better balance across everywhere. I could be wrong, and I’m sure people will tell me if they disagree, but that’s how I feel.
Looking ahead to PROGRESS Tampa, will this be your first time in the States as a performer?
In wrestling, yes. I’ve done conventions – presenting and stuff but with professional wrestling, yes.
How are you feeling going in? Excited, indifferent?
(Laughs) Indifferent. It’s funny, I probably come across as really xenophobic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really excited to get the opportunity to go and to be a part of WrestleMania weekend. I’m excited to show an American audience the new PROGRESS. For them, it’s an even longer waiting period than for people over here. I’m excited to take an eclectic mix of people over there. I’m excited for them to see people like Cara Noir for the first time, which is a weird sentence to say.
We’re taking people like The OJMO and Spike Trivet over for the first time, who aren’t going to be familiar to the majority of fans in America. So I’m excited from the perspective of showing the next lot that they can get really excited. So that if we come back again, the fans will get excited again. I think that’s cool for us. But in terms of being swept up in the WrestleMania thing, I am a little bit more indifferent. I’m more excited to go and watch all of the independent shows.
I am genuinely gutted that we’re running at the same time as Bloodsport because if there’s one show I would love to go and watch it’s that one. I’m excited to see a lot of American talent too. Someone like Effy is coming up a lot at the minute with his own show, and Danhausen’s becoming huge… and Warhorse and all these people. But there’s also so much talent that we aren’t hearing about. And that’s an exciting thing for us to discover.
For instance, we’ve announced for our Tampa show Warbeast. I absolutely adore Fatu, he’s the best combination of everything that makes Samoan wrestlers amazing. He’s got that intimidation factor of Umaga, but he’s got the agility of the likes of Rikishi and The Usos. He’s someone that’s so different and special, I’m excited to have him on our shows and to get a better look at him. I don’t think I’m actually staying for TakeOver or ‘Mania. I’m actually flying straight back out (laughs), I’m all business. I’m tempted to change my flight to watch TakeOver, but ‘Mania…
It’s too long.
It is, it’s too long. I remember Chavo Guerrero years ago saying that the perfect pro wrestling show is two and a half hours and I would go along with that (laughs).
Speaking of WWE, if you could have anybody from their entire roster to appear for PROGRESS who would it be?
That is a tough question. I’ll be honest, pretty much anyone from NXT. Velveteen Dream would be good – him against Cara Noir would be a match. I wouldn’t mind having Finn Balor back, that’d be nice. But for me, in terms of me watching that product in the way that I do now – I don’t watch the main roster a lot – I do watch NXT a lot. People like Swerve (Isaiah Scott) are doing really well now. He was part of our scene for a bit and I love seeing it.
It’s great to see Keith Lee getting the coverage that he deserves because he is unbelievable. He’s someone who came over and gave his all to British wrestling. I’ll never forget the matches he had with Omari at Fight Club Pro. There was a moment where Joel (Allen) and I were stood in the ring and he makes his entrance and does his thing. Then he’s stood in the corner and Omari makes his entrance and the place comes unglued. I remember Keith leaning over to me and Joel and saying “this is going to be the most fun I’ll have all week.” He loved that, being an attraction. This guy’s a bigger deal than me and I get to work my magic.
In terms of people we’ve never had? I am a really big fan of Montez Ford and Angelo Dawkins. Montez is the obvious one who gets the press, but Angelo Dawkins is a freak of nature. He is humongous and he can do pretty much anything. The problem that he’s got is the guy next to him is a freak of nature as well. Ford has charisma and unbelievably athletic. From the women’s division Bianca Belair. For a ‘Performance Centre grown wrestler’, she’s a great example of when that formula works it’s great. Io Shirai, even before Io went to NXT she would have been a dream person to have on one of our shows. Tegan Nox, Candace Le Rae, and Rhea Ripley would all be fantastic too. There’s such a depth of talent there now that it’s really hard to just pick a couple.
There have been rumors for years now that PROGRESS, ICW, perhaps wXw, will wind up on the WWE Network. Is that something that you believe will happen or is it just a perpetual rumor?
I genuinely don’t know. I wouldn’t be shocked if it did wind up on there, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it didn’t either. Even before I worked for the company in a behind the scenes capacity, I heard those rumors as well. It’s a bridge we’d have to cross if we ever had to cross it. I understand the perception of fans on the outside looking in. Those companies might be losing the essence of what made the company special, that which made it an independent company. But at the same time having a platform to present your product to a new audience is obviously incredibly tempting and something that we’d have to consider.
It’s been fascinating to watch BT Sport take over the WWE product, especially the NXT UK product. Why? Because the people that run it actually like wrestling. Here’s a little tidbit that Jim Smallman told me – the people that run BT Sport’s wrestling side of things are massive PROGRESS fans. They announce when people get signed and they’ve really gotten behind everything to do with NXT UK. They’ve really supported the product. I’m not saying that Sky never did but BT has done it in a more interesting and marketable fashion.
Have you ever seen Undertaker move so quickly?! ?
Stormed down that ramp and flipped that table!
— WWE on BT Sport (@btsportwwe) March 17, 2020
It’s crazy when we get caught in the bubble sometimes and think ‘I don’t like it so other people won’t either’. Now more people are talking about wrestling and it comes to this whole boom period issue. Wrestling on an independent level, we can think ‘well we’ve done Wembley’ or they’ve done the Hydro or York Hall or whatever. But the boom period mainstream-wise is just starting. There are people who watch wrestling that only like WWE. So for them, Pete Dunne is the coolest new thing; Grizzled Young Veterans, they’re saying ‘oh my God, who are these guys?’ And that’s the thing with mainstream and boom periods. It’s that if it’s slightly more underground there’s a delay. It’s the same with music.
I remember when Panic At The Disco was posting songs on MySpace. I remember Fall Out Boy’s first album tour, and to me, by the second album I was saying ‘I don’t like ’em anymore’. But now they’re arena bands. You have to remember sometimes, especially in the entertainment industry, the delay of mainstream to relevance or popularity is a big gap.
Especially with WWE appearing on Paramount and My5 over here too.
My Dad is usually my sort of measuring stick. He and my Mum would say about the Wembley show being on the front page of the BBC News website. To him I might as well be Cristiano Ronaldo, you know? That’s famous to him, but he’ll be like ‘have you heard about this?’ Because he only consumes mainstream press. Admittedly he’s a man in his 60s so not really our target demographic, but it is super important to have that. Also NXT UK, especially the TakeOvers, it blows their minds because they don’t see this. They’ve never seen some of these people before and they are immediately elevated.
If PROGRESS were to close its doors tomorrow what do you think its legacy would be?
It changed the perception of what British wrestling can be. I mean that from a presentation point of view. I’d never take credit for the work rate or talent in the ring because that level of talent, that level of ability has always been there in my opinion. Even in the dark period when I was coming in, the likes of Dean Allmark, James Mason, Mikey Whiplash, Robbie Brookside. They were working to that level, you just never saw it. It was usually in Bognor Regis or Rhyl or wherever in front of screaming children.
So PROGRESS’s legacy is the presentation of British wrestling to an adult audience. To say it can be cool, it can be different, it can be alternative. That’s something that British wrestling did on the whole. I don’t know how you feel about it, but in my early years, I was always embarrassed to say I was a wrestling fan.
I’d say that’s right.
Even when I was a wrestler I didn’t like telling people I was a wrestler. Now, if I was a wrestler now, I’d be like ‘hey, look at me!’ I think that’s been a key to places like PROGRESS. But I’d never say it solely as something that PROGRESS did. It’s been a collective effort from everyone, from every promotion across the country. Everyone has worked hard to change it from a pantomime. It’s kind of gone from being like Balamory to The Wire (laughs).
They’re essentially two shows that are driven by storytelling and have storylines that you can follow along in episodic ways. But one is presenting in a very different way to the other, and I think that’s what British wrestling’s got. The biggest compliment from American fans is that American wrestlers are former high school athletes. While British wrestlers were fighting in pubs when they were sixteen years old. So it is that presentation, a different way of presenting characters that are not larger than life. I’ve never really been part of that larger than life hype, maybe because I came into wrestling later. I’ve always been about relatability, finding someone to care about and relate to.
Now I’m not saying that I relate to a man who has a bear on his costume and bites people’s fingers and drops people on their heads. But I have way more of a connection with a Pete Dunne than I’ve had with a Hulk Hogan because I know where he’s from. I know how hard he’s worked, I know how proud he is of our stuff. And I think that comes across in him as a performer, as it does with every British wrestler.
I don’t want everyone to go and sign for NXT UK. I know that might be a controversial statement, but I want you to do what you want to do. There are kids that want to go and wrestle in New Japan or Senda. That was such a faraway dream for them 5 years ago. Guys now who grew up watching New Japan or All Japan and only want to lariat each other’s heads off…they can do it.
We’ll finish off with the usual quickfire round. What’s your favourite wrestler’s entrance theme?
At the minute it’s Damian Priest’s because I was really tired after a show once and it came on and I started singing words over the top of it. Now I and my friend have found it’s the funniest thing in the world ever. Of all time? Christian, when he first went to singles and he had the opera singer at the start. A big fan of Glorious for Bobby Roode too.
What’s your favorite wrestler’s gimmick?
That hard isn’t it? I’m a big Dragon Gate fan, so Milano Collection A.T. their gimmick was that they were Japanese people of Italian descent. They all had Italian gimmicks and he was a fashion model. His moves were called Emporio Armani and he used to use the catwalk and stuff.
And there was another which was absolutely insane, it was a gimmick called The Florida Brothers. They were two young wrestlers in Toryumon at the time who went on an American excursion after a 15 match losing streak. Then they came back and came out to Living in America and they were called Michael and Daniel. They wrestled in a Western-style, so they had singlets and would parody the Eddie Guerrero pretend chair shot and then collapse to the mat. In terms of bigger names… I reckon Stone Cold because it played into that 90s fantasy of beating up your boss. It was very American, to be the rebel. At the time I was working in HMV so I would have liked to have done that.
What’s your favorite gimmick match?
Ladder match, just because I immediately think of some of my favorite matches of all time. HBK vs Razor at WrestleMania. More importantly for me, is the Hardy’s and Dudley’s ladder match with Edge and Christian. That is the reason I’m in wrestling. They were the first people that hooked me because they were the first people that didn’t look like my perception of what a professional wrestler was.
What’s your favorite match of all time?
That’s tough man. Myself, I genuinely don’t think I could do it because it’s moods with me. I love deathmatch wrestling, I love Joshi wrestling, I love lucha. I genuinely love everything. Rey Mysterio vs Eddie Guerrero from Halloween Havoc ’97 I love. Just perfection. I love Bret Hart vs Shawn Michaels from ‘Mania – Iron Man. It’s the only Iron Man match I’ve not been bored watching.
I like a lot of FMW matches that usually involve a lot of C4 and Onita. Any time Kobashi, Misawa, Taue wrestled – there are a million matches from their Pro Wrestling NOAH heyday that I fell in love with. And there’s some really good World of Sport matches: Marty Jones vs Marc Rocco, Steve Gray vs Johnny Saint, Sammy Lee vs Sid Cooper. It really does depend on my mood as to what my favorite match is.
What’s your favorite film?
I do really like True Romance. It just hit me at the right time. I was trying to be edgy and stuff. Donnie Darko is another one for exactly the same reason. As an amateur film student I thought ‘it’s so deep, man.’ I actually do really like Ready To Rumble (laughs). Me and CJ Banks used to have it on VHS and we’d quote it back and forth all the time. It’s bad, but it’s the good kind of bad. Maybe just watch the OSW Review of it because they’ll have all the best bits from it in there.
If you could be any animal what would it be?
Ummmm… A cat probably. A dog’s too much energy and too much work. I’m more of a cat. I have my burst of energy at showtime and then I just sleep and chill for the rest of the day.
And that brings a close to our big chat with Matt Richards. Again, obviously a lot of the points about WrestleMania weekend are now null and void. But I thought it better to include them for a glimpse of what may have been, than to just delete them. Some very interesting points raised about the future of BritWres that I for one wholeheartedly agree with. Once the country/world can resume some semblance of normalcy, the task of rebuilding the scene can continue apace.
There are hoards of extremely talented men and women working their way towards being the next big thing. It looks as though PROGRESS will be at the forefront of bringing those wrestlers to prominence on a national scale. Exciting times ahead both for Matt himself and wrestling fans home and abroad.
Until next time, take care of yourselves.