Break out the baby oil, smash a folding chair over the head of a co-worker: WWE has a new home on British television. BT Sport has picked up the wrestling: will this be a new golden age of mullets, storylines, faces, heels and chokeslams, or is the greased-up grapplin’ permanently out for the count?
BT will show three of the USA entertainment franchise’s properties: WWE Raw, WWE Nxt and WWE Friday Night Smackdown at the probably-one-to-record-and-watch-later times of 1am on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday respectively.
There is also a pay-per-view venture, with flagship events Royal Rumble, WrestleMania and SummerSlam shown on BT’s PPV arm. Royal Rumble, on Jan 26, will feature the return of Brock Lesnar, the wrestling legend, sometime Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle, MMA champ and all-round sporting icon who has had more retirements and comebacks than Nigel Farage, and has, regrettably, also been smacked in the face considerably more often.
BT Sport has engaged the services of Ric Flair, Paige and Sheamus to help launch the programming, with hoopla upcoming this week. As coincidence would have it, Flair and Paige have both been the subject or inspiration for two tremendous films in recent years. Flair, whose tale of adoption to physical perfection to super-stardom, and then excess, alcohol and calamitous decline made for a brilliant ESPN 30-for-30 documentary Nature Boy; Paige the subject of feature comedy-drama Fighting With My Family, one of the sweetest and most enjoyable flicks I saw last year, and starring Bafta-woman-of-the-moment Florence Pugh as the wrestler who makes it all the way from Norwich to stardom in California as the youngest-ever WWE women’s, or Divas, champ. Sheamus (real name: Stephen Farrelly) likewise has an interesting life story that would make a decent movie, from Gaelic football to a spell as Bono’s bodyguard, on a journey from Dublin to WWE heavyweight champion.
Because the story, after all, is the thing, with this weird and wonderful genre, the hybrid child of sport and entertainment. It’s all made-up nonsense, but then so are lots of things these days, and at least this is actually supposed to be a fix, and a fix that does relatively little harm unless you’re one of the unfortunates who has to have a 300-pound gym rat jump up and down on his kidneys.
While sport’s greatest appeal is that we do not know what is going to happen, one could argue that the primacy of money in football is making the continued dominance of a tiny handful of clubs nearly as certain and entrenched as a doggedly followed WWE script.
After all, one sporting-and-TV success story of recent years, the PDC world darts, shows how dynamite a combo sport and entertainment can be. Cricket, for sure, could learn something from both Barry Hearn and WWE supremo Vince McMahon this year as it tries to solve via The Hundred the puzzle of how to put on an athletic show that is also a pop culture product.
As for BT’s WWE, whether it will find an audience in the UK in 2020 is anybody’s guess: perhaps its the sort of braindead harmless-fun escapism we could all use a little of right now, perhaps it is a naff throwback.
Recent televisual ventures for wrestling do not make for an encouraging form-book: Eighties favourite ITV World of Sport Wrestling was resurrected in 2018, although exhumation might be more accurate. ITV gave it every chance with a Saturday teatime slot in an attempt to “do a Gladiators” but it was a dire affair and the palest imitation of the Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks heyday, and has been quietly dropped.
Wrestling, like synthetic cheese, rapping, gun violence and populist politicians, is best left to Americans. So with the real McCoy now to be found in the middle of the night on BT, why not?