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Progress Wrestling and the Road to ‘Hello Wembley’: The Jim Smallman Interview

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I’ve followed PROGRESS for some time now, and I’m never disappointed by the quality of shows they put on, not just in the UK but around the world. Starting all the way back in 2012, we’ve seen guys like Tommaso Ciampa, Adam Cole, Samoa Joe, and Prince Devitt appear in the various Chapters, but it is the homegrown talent that has built the company, with wrestlers like Jimmy Havoc, Will Ospreay, and Pete Dunne making its roster one of the best in the world. On September 30th, they’ll be putting on not only the biggest show in their history, but one of the biggest UK shows of all time. Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with the lovely Jim Smallman, co-owner and face of the company about the build up to the event and what it means to him, how many of the matches came to fruition, how important the show is to many of Progress Wrestling’s roster, and more.

Firstly, congratulations on the book. How’s it feel to be a published author?

Oh, thanks. Keep on forgetting about that. I’m in Wembley mode now. It’s funny. Mainly because I was predicted to fail my English GCSE, and not only did I get an A in English GCSE, I went on to do it for A Level, then went to university. I was an English teacher for a bit, but this is the last bit of validation I needed, then, to have a major publisher pay me real money to write a book about wrestling. What I don’t want to do is do what every other book about wrestling has done forever and bury something, because most wrestling history books are about ‘this is why this company sucked,’ or ‘this is why this company died’ and I have no interest in doing that. I’m lucky that I co-run a successful independent wrestling company at the minute, but it might not be around forever, so I don’t want to focus on the negative. Wrestling is great, and it should be celebrated as the wonderful art form that it is.

I mean – you’ll know this – like, if you go on the internet there’s someone being supremely negative about something all the time. There’s a difference between constructive criticism and being negative, and there’re a lot of people that just choose to be negative about everything that’s happening in wrestling. OK, leave it for everybody else – leave it to those that like it.

You’re right. People aren’t allowed to like WWE, people aren’t allowed to like this guy or that guy. I get it, I mean, as you said, wrestling is an art form and should be celebrated.

It’s infuriating. On my podcast all the time, I’ll point out someone like Roman Reigns might not be to everyone’s tastes, but when people are chanting “you can’t wrestle” at him – anyone that chants that should immediately be forced to wrestle him, and see how they get on

That should be a stipulation, yeah.

Yeah, because he’s really good at his job. If you take off your fandom blinkers about what you do and don’t like, if I was to put together my ideal wrestler, would Roman Reigns be my ideal wrestler? From a personal taste point of view, no, from running a business, absolutely. You know, it’s the same for John Cena. When I was a snarkier fan, I was always like, “ah, no I don’t like John Cena,” without ever acknowledging the fact he was in my favourite match of all time against CM Punk – why did I ever dislike him so much? It was so silly. It was only becoming a promoter I realised. Sometimes, not everything can be aimed at every individual. Some things are aimed at different people, and John Cena is brilliant at his job – an ideal employee.

When I worked in an office, and my boss said to me, “you’ve got to go to China for a press conference, and you’ve got to learn Mandarin,” I’d have gone, “no, I’ll get Google Translate on my phone.” Where John Cena went, not only will I be a good wrestler and be in amazing shape at my age, I’ll learn Mandarin to help the business. That is who you want around. My opinion of wrestling has definitely changed since I’ve been a promoter.

So, Wembley. Hello Wembley is not far away, and I’m sure you have a full-on Wembley mindset, but just to reflect for a minute, what does it mean to you to host Wembley?

I can’t believe we’re doing it, and even though I know we are doing it, it’s been – we’ve been talking to Wembley for about three years as they wanted us when we first did Brixton Academy, but back then we didn’t think we’d sell enough tickets, and then we sold out Brixton Academy and Ally Pally, and we thought maybe we can. Enough tickets doesn’t mean 10,000 tickets and selling it out. We’re not silly – no-one is expecting to sell 10,000 tickets. We’re expecting to sell a few thousand which we’ve done. Because they approached us it makes it a little less surreal because we’ve not had to go out of our way to convince them. They already knew who we were and were already fans of what we did; they were already coming up with ideas about how we could do stuff. Whenever we do a show for more than the traditional 700 or 800 people, it is a weird feeling for me stood in the ring looking at all the people. I’ve done stand up in front of a few thousand people, but it’s in a theatre and it’s dark, and you don’t really appreciate it the same way when you’re in a wrestling ring.

It was the same when I was in America or Germany, where people are chanting your name, and that’s odd. On one hand it’s incredibly cool, but on the other I’m an incredibly shy person. It’s weird that we’re able to do something like this. Even if we’re able to do this once, at least we can say we’ve done it. Not only can we say we’ve done it, but we’ve done it and we didn’t lose any money, which, for three guys that started off in front of 350 people to get to the stage where we’ve been allowed anywhere near Wembley – I mean, people keep tweeting us pictures if they’re travelling past Wembley of the illuminated sign with our logo on it. That makes it feel a little bit more real. It will become a lot more real on the day when I walk out and go, “oh, this is big.” But as soon as it’s finished it’ll be back to normal, and we’ll be coming up with storylines. The best bit of advice you can give anyone is not just looking at what their goals are in the future but looking at where they’ve come from. I think me, John, and Glen are all terrible at thinking about people having fun now, and that’s our main concern – not worrying about selling tickets, but making sure fans are happy. We’re even more concerned about it now than we were when we first started. Because we’re so focused on that now, we never go, “hey lads, we used to run in front of 350 fans every three months.” We’re doing Wembley arena now. It’s only when we do interviews like this that I really think about it.

I mean, the card itself – I can’t get over how fantastic it is. I’m a big Haskins fan, so getting to see him against Riddle is just insane. And then Doug Williams against Trent Severn, Havoc and Robinson which is another match I can’t wait to see. Them two have got some history, and I think Havoc tweeted ‘the arena is going to run red,’ which if Chapter 75 is anything to go by it’ll happen. Have you spoken to any of the guys at all? How are they feeling?

What I think is amazing, is that when we announced it at Alexandra Palace last September I only told one wrestler about it, and we kept it quiet from everyone. That one wrestler I told about it was Pete Dunne because I didn’t know if we’d have Pete next year, and I didn’t know what was happening with NXT. Pete’s a friend, and anyone that becomes a champion becomes a friend, and also, he’s a tremendous young man. I told him about it, and the first thing he said was, “I don’t care where I am, I’m definitely doing that show.” You’ve got to bear in mind that guys like Pete, and Trent, and Tyler who’ve gone away and done TakeOvers are ridiculously excited about doing this show. They know it’s not just a big deal to us, but it’s a big deal to British Wrestling. It’s the same as when ICW did the Hydro for the first time, then the second time and the third – that’s a big deal. No-one’s done a show this big in England in forever, since Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks did it 30 or 40 years ago. No-one’s attempted to do something on this scale.

What’s really cool is, there’re wrestlers who really want to get on the show. Not just in this country, but elsewhere, and with wrestlers signed elsewhere it’s difficult to get them on. Also, knowing we lost Zack Sabre Jr. and Will Ospreay – they’re contracted to New Japan, and were called up to the shows in Long Beach I think, so they’ll be in America, which is a shame. But the cool thing to come out of that is – and I’m not taking joy in this – but they were absolutely gutted they couldn’t do the show because our company means something to them. It’s humbling to know they really wanted to do it. It’s really cool to know everybody’s trying to stay injury-free to make sure they’re OK for the show. I know we’ve had a few issues with injuries, but the card has ended up how we initially planned it a few months ago.

Going back to Pete Dunne, he’s doing so well in WWE and NXT. All of a sudden, he’s fighting Ricochet for the North American Championship which is huge, and he’s on top of his game. The Dragunov fight is a great booking, so how did that come about?

So, we watch a lot of wrestling and we’re friends with WxW. Around the time of 16 carat last year, Ilja became the biggest deal in Europe. With going to to Germany this last weekend, in terms of the most popular three wrestlers in Europe outside of Britain are all on our main show. You’ve got Ilja against Pete, Walter, our champion who is up against Tyler, and Timothy Thatcher who is part of our tag team match because of Kid Lycos’ injury. Ilja has something special about him – he’s still relatively new. Walter’s been around a while and he’s brilliant, but Ilja’s relatively new. He’s got an intensity and a passion behind him that has really resonated with people. I think out of the three of us it was John that first suggested we try and use him. We were hoping to use him last year, and it didn’t work out for some reason, but it turned out for how popular he is now’s the right time to use him. It’s also the reason we’ve not had him wrestle for us previously is because we want the first match he wrestles with us to be at Wembley. To have that big fight feel that you can’t just use him anywhere.

We know we have a lot of fans that travel to see us from mainland Europe. Speaking to fans this past week that have a photo, they say to us, “we’ll see you at Wembley” means that match has resonated with them in the same way that Walter and Tyler have. And also, a lot of the British guys are super popular in Germany, so knowing we’ll have a lot of people from over there is really cool. Also, Ilja’s popularity is only going to enhance because he’s doing Battle of Los Angeles right before so more and more people are going to know who he is and get to see him. He’s a very special talent.

Are there any wrestlers on the indie scene that you’d really like to see on an upcoming Chapter?

It gets harder and harder because more people in America are being signed, so it makes it harder and harder for people to remain on the indies. I think anyone that’s remained on the indies and received any kind of buzz about them we’ve used. I remember when I was in America the people I was desperate to use were Bandido and we’ve used him, Brody King and we got to use him. I really wanted to use Jonathan Gresham and we used him and they did a great job. We wanted to use LAX and they did a great job; they were all people that I wanted to use. There’s a couple of people like The Rascals, the Tag Team from Ohio who do appear in the UK quite a bit. I think they’re fantastic and super talented, and then there’s most of Japan as I love Japanese wrestling. We’ve been close to using Japanese wrestlers in the past. I’d love to use someone like Daisuke Sekimoto, but the opportunity has never really presented itself. Everyone in NJPW is off the table because they’ve got deals with other companies, which is a shame, but it is what it is. But someone like Sekimoto would be great to use because of the Altus division.

We’re always identifying talents that we’d like to use. Next, it’ll be a case of who do we want to see in Super Strong Style next year because that’s quite often where we showcase new talent for the first time to our crowds. It’ll be a case where we’ll watch Battle of Los Angeles and see who’s making a name for themselves and then see what we can do.

PROGRESS as a whole has had so many great wrestlers fight in it. Matt Riddle now is having his final indie performance at Wembley, so you must be pretty proud to have him on the show?

Yeah, it was something we thought about a few months ago and approached him, and it seemed very obvious that he was going somewhere else, but it turned out they were absolutely fine with him coming and having his last performance with us. You’ve got to remember that two years ago at Brixton Academy we had the last indie performances of Jack Gallagher, Aleister Black, and Tommaso Ciampa on one show, so we’ve got that weirdly good track record – we had Finn Bálor in his last match. This show is built around the talent that has got us there. Everybody on this show, whether it’s Mills and Mayhew who haven’t been around for long, or guys like Jimmy Havoc who’ve been around since the start – everybody on this show have a history within the company.

Everybody on this show is part of the reason we’re at Wembley in the first place. We’re not just trying to see what big names we can get because that’s not what this company has ever been about. Matt Riddle is a huge part of the company. He’s been Atlus Champion twice, he’s had loads of matches for us, he’s a good friend of all three of us, and friends with everyone else in the locker room. It would make sense for us to bring Matt over, absolutely.

I’m so excited, and so excited for you. PROGRESS is a company that has always told great stories through its matches more so than through the theatrics of other companies. There’s a real passion in the company and a real friendship that comes across, and I think that’s why it means so much. You’re bringing people back that haven’t fought for a while, and you’re culminating stories that have been going for a while. It’s a love letter to PROGRESS Wrestling, and for the fans as well.

That’s what our wrestling should be. I love indie wrestling, and my favourite companies outside of PROGRESS to watch in this country are Fight Club: Pro, and in America I love Evolve and PWG. In Japan I love DDT and companies like that. I love indie wrestling, and sometimes the joy of indie wrestling is just really good matches that you want to see and that’s great. The problem is to run as a sustainable thing – like, I love WWE, right. If you watch WWE and it was just – if you watch Wrestlemania III, and that entire show was built around Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat’s brilliant five-star, 15-minute match for the Intercontinental title. For some people that’d be great, but the problem is, for that show to be massive you needed Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, and whilst that match in ring wasn’t brilliant, what was brilliant about it was the storytelling. That’s the best way of underlying storytelling in and outside the ring. It’s a huge part of making wrestling successful.

What we always try to do is get the independent sensibilities right by having great matches and have great storytelling. We’re not confined by TV, like, at the last chapter if we want to have a 45-minute long main event, we can. If we want to have matches go 20-25 minutes we can. Equally if we want a match to go 6 seconds because it’s Matt Riddle knocking Trent Severn out Super Strong Style, we can, and then it ended up being an even bigger story. You’ve got to get the balance right in wrestling. I think for the 6 and a half years we’ve been doing this, it doesn’t mean we sit back and think we’ve nailed this. I spend everyday of my life making sure we try and make people happy. I take it immensely personal if someone doesn’t like what we do, and I shouldn’t, but the bigger we get there’re going to be more people that choose that they don’t like us, but I take it really personal.

It’s something I’ve made with my two best friends and I want people to love it, and if they don’t it’s fine, but all we want to do is keep sending people home happy. Still tell stories and have a happy locker room that we’ve always had and try and do everything right. That’s the pressure we put ourselves under all the time. That’s the thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night, not have we sold enough tickets, but that we’re sending people home happy. That’s what will always drive me. Hopefully if we keep getting the in-ring stuff right, and we keep getting the storytelling right, then fingers crossed we’ll be able to go on a bit longer.

There are still tickets available for Hello Wembley on September 30th, and you can purchase them right here. From everyone at Fight Booth PW, we wish Jim, Glen, and Jon the very best.

Chris White loves to write, and is a huge fan of wrestling of all kinds. He supports the Boston Celtics, listens to hip hop, and wishes Ric Flair was his granddad. He's a pretty cool guy, just ask his mum.

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