Pro Wrestling Ulster
A wrestling saga with a Northern Irish twist
No matter who you are, or where you live, chances are you’ve heard of World Wrestling Entertainment. In America it is a billion dollar business and the stars of the show are national celebrities.
But it's not all glamour and green in world wrestling - here in Northern Ireland, as in most of Europe, wrestling associations and the part-time wrestlers who run them operate on the extreme margins of the sporting landscape. They do it for the love of it, they say, not for the money. Mainly because, with almost zero interest in what is considered an outdated form of entertainment from the public, there's no money to make in the first place.
The release of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film The Wrestler has shined a light on the unique underbelly of American wrestling - all dreams and no dosh. But what about the reality of the Irish scene? The story of Pro Wrestling Ulster, Northern Ireland's WWE equivalent, is similar in many ways to that of the hit movie.
In 2000 a group of independent wrestlers decided to form their own organisation, Ulster Championship Wrestling, bringing some stability to a sport that, in Ireland at least, has never broken into the mainstream. These performers - who had spent years training, performing and booking shows wherever they could - wanted to professionalize their outfit, train others to wrestle and put on events complete with title fights, storylines and rivalries.
At times UCW events drew in 30 people, other times as many as 150. It was not a profitable scenario - unable to secure sponsorship, UCW members bank-rolled events out of their own pockets. Six years in and UCW found itself against a brick wall, still putting on shows, still losing money and still relatively unheard of.
It was at this point that there was a change. Some UCW shareholders felt it was time for a new approach, with profit as king. The gimmicks associated with their brand of wrestling would be out - instead they would put on a few shows a year aimed at showcasing the best wrestling talent and bringing in the bucks.
However not everyone involved was happy with the new ethos and before long a split emerged. Those who did not agree felt committed to the idea that wrestling should be more about entertainment and performing moves in a ring. The storylines and gimmicks were a pivotal part of the show to them and they would not compromise.
This section eventually split off and in 2007 Pro Wrestling Ulster was formed. Peopled with wrestlers and trainees from the UCW Training Academy, PWU members had the determination to make their wrestling organisation work - but getting started was far from straight forward.
The two groups clashed in a row about ownership of their full sized ring, championship belts and other equipment. The dispute was finally resolved when the PWU agreed to buy the ring at a reduced price and the two sides went their separate ways.
Since then UCW have vanished from the Northern Irish wrestling scene. PWU persevered, putting on shows and bringing in new faces. Organised around ideas of mutual respect and a love of the sport, rather than who owns what, with a figurehead in place to keep things well oiled, it's an unusual way to run an organisation.
I was able to catch up with some of those involved with PWU and find out what it takes to run such an organisation. John Templeton learnt his trade in the old UCW Training Academy and has been with PWU since its formation. He was able to tell me about the unusual way things are run. Is there the potential for internal conflict?
'Everyone gets their say, but the more experienced guys usually have a better idea of what they’re talking about, so they get listened to more,' Templeton remarks. 'Everyone helps out with promoting because if there’s no show then there’s no show for us to run off.
'Of course there are guys that don’t like each other and we usually have some scandal going on but it’s all put aside at show time. There’s the guy in charge, usually JDP, and he books shows or gets someone like me to do it. The booker decides everything on his show - who’s going to wrestle, who’s going to win and what order it all happens. But everyone else still helps with promotion and things like that.'
JDP, real name Daniel Patton, is a founder member of PWU and one of the biggest names on the PWU roster. Like everyone else, JDP doesn’t make any money off the organisation. He insists that all profit made is put back into the business to make it stronger.
'PWU shows traditionally make enough money to sustain the company,' he explains. 'We’ve had shows that have lost money but in general I’d say we turn a small profit every show. We’ve managed to buy our own wrestling ring, digital recording equipment and title belts too.'
For all the small victories in the local wrestling circuit there are defeats as well. Despite their hard work, two years have passed since the PWU was formed and not much has changed in that time. Crowd numbers are never very high and it remains difficult to book well-known, professional names with such a small franchise.
Surely the lack of money being created is bound to cause the same strain that ultimately lead to the death of UCW? When this theory is put to Templeton he shakes his head. He’s gone from a lowly trainee to PWU champion and knows as well as anyone the effort needed to keep the show running. PWU works because of the training programme in place - when one wrestler decides they’ve had enough, there's always someone new to take their place.
Watching Aronofsky's The Wrestler viewers are intrigued by the story of the washed up wrestler going from show to show making just enough money to get by. But here in Northern Ireland there exists an interesting juxtaposition - young, up and coming wrestlers with little means actually spending their own money just to perform in front of a crowd.
'It sounds clichéd,' says Templeton, 'but we do do it for the crowd and the love of performing. I’m sure there are some older disgruntled guys, but for every one of them there’s five or six trainees willing to give it all they’ve got just to get into the ring. The day that no-one shows up is the day I’ll stop doing it. But while there’s even ten people in the crowd, it’s always worth continuing.'