Drew McIntyre made history on Sunday night at WrestleMania 36 when he became the first Scottish wrestler to become WWE Champion. But it wasn’t just the first Scot to hold WWE’s holy grail, but the first British wrestler as well. To put that in comparison, Canada has had nine World Champions in WWE (Ivan Koloff, Stan Stasiak, Bret Hart, Chris Jericho, Edge, Chris Benoit, Christian, Kevin Owens & Jinder Mahal), while France (Andre the Giant), Italy (Bruno Sammartino), Iran (Iron Sheik), India (Great Khali), Puerto Rico (Pedro Morales), and Mexico (Alberto Del Rio) have all had one. The rest have all come from the United States. Even the Republic of Ireland – the part of the British Isles that is not under British rule – has two World Champions in WWE in the form of Sheamus and Finn Balor. But for whatever reason, despite having a plethora of talent from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, WWE has resisted putting a World Championship on them until just this past weekend, when Drew McIntyre defeated Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship. Here’s a look at some of the strongest contenders for a World Championship in WWE from the United Kingdom.
Drew McIntyre First British WWE Champion: Looking at Past Challengers
Billy Robinson, England
Sadly, one of the greatest technical wrestlers to ever lace up his boots was only used briefly in the WWE, back in the 1970s when it was still the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). He was committed to being one of the head trainers the New Japan Dojo in Japan, where he – alongside New Japan founder Antonio Inoki and Karl Gotch – helped create the “Strong Style” that NJPW has become infamous for. In North America, Robinson spent the bulk of his time with Verne Gagne‘s American Wrestling Association (AWA), which meant he was mostly unavailable to the WWWF for long stints – although he did have several matches with them, including a 60-minute time limit draw against then-WWF World Champion Bob Backlund in 1982. It’s a shame that Robinson never got to hold a true World title of any kind in North America, and his hard-hitting offense could have let to many battles over the title with the likes of Bob Backlund or even earlier against the flamboyance of “Superstar” Billy Graham.
Lord Alfred Hayes, England
While best known as a backstage interviewer and presenter with the WWF in the 1980s, Lord Alfred Hayes was a well-respected grappler from the 1950s until he became a manager in the mid-1970s. He would work many NWA territories upon arriving in the US in the early 1970s, including facing NWA World Champion Dory Funk Jr. on occasion. But he also found work as a top heel in the WWWF, where he would sporadically challenge Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF World Championship. Hayes could have easily been the villain to dethrone Sammartino in 1971 instead of Ivan Koloff, but the Cold War made a Russian character far more enticing to promoters, even if the transitional change only lasted 21-days. By the mid-1970s, his knees had effectively slowed him down to just managerial work, before becoming the backstage host most people remember him for.
Dynamite Kid, England
The Dynamite Kid, Tom Billington, had enchanted wrestling audiences in the UK, Canada, and Japan by the time he arrived in the WWF in the 1980s with his cousin, Davey Boy Smith, in the British Bulldogs. His innovation on offense inspired generations of pro wrestlers and he had all the tools to be a top singles star once the Bulldogs had separated ways. During the 1980s, his diminutive size, 5’8″ and 228 lbs., would have been laughable as a World Champion, but if his health had held up, he could easily have had classic encounters with the likes of Mr. Perfect, Bret Hart, Randy Savage, or Shawn Michaels in the dawn of an era in the early 1990s. Sadly, his health deteriorated after a severe back injury and the Kid was forced into early retirement in 1996. But seeing Chris Benoit, who patterned his move set after Dynamite Kid and was roughly the same size, hoist the World Championship after WrestleMania 20, it makes one wonder what kind of World Champion the Kid would have made in the 1990s.
“British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith, England
While injuries destroyed any chance of Dynamite Kid becoming a singles star in the WWF, his tag team partner Davey Boy Smith would find a second chapter of his career as just that. The Bulldogs had left WWF in 1988 and returned to Calgary’s Stampede Wrestling and signed with All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW), but in 1990, Smith returned to the WWF as a singles competitor. Now christened simply The British Bulldog, he became one of the top singles stars in the new look WWF of the New Generation, where he became WWF Intercontinental Champion and a 2x WWF European Champion. He would get WWF World title opportunities, facing the likes of The Undertaker, Bob Backlund, Bret Hart, Diesel (Kevin Nash), Triple H, and The Big Show during the 1990s, but his erratic behavior and frequent substance abuse issues made it impossible to ever crown him as “The Guy” in the WWF. In many ways though, it was people like Davey Boy Smith who paved the way for Drew McIntyre.
William Regal, England
As Steven Regal, Blackpool’s William Regal was a regular competitor in WCW who would go on to become a 4x WCW World Television Champion, but despite being one of the best technical grapplers on the roster, he was denied any chance of entering the WCW World title picture. His lone shot at the title actually took part in WWE during the Invasion angle, when he faced The Rock, who had recently captured the WCW World title. He would continue to be a big player in the WWE after joining in 2000, winning the WWE Intercontinental title on two occasions. He would never enter the WWE World title picture during the rest of his career, although there were times when his villainy would have made a welcome inclusion into the chain of names who did carry the title in the Ruthless Aggression Era. Still with the company, as GM of NXT, Regal was another who paved the way for Drew McIntyre in the WWE.
Fit Finlay, Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland’s Fit Finlay sadly waited until the twilight of his career before joining the WWE – he was pushing 50 when he joined them in 2004. While his tough persona still resonated with the WWE Universe, he was long past his prime as the competitor who had competed with World of Sport in the UK, Austria’s Catch Wrestling Association (CWA) or NJPW throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He joined WCW in 1996 during the Monday Night Wars, but much like Regal, was limited to the mid-card.
Nigel McGuinness, England
The one that got away. London, England’s Nigel McGuinness had relocated from the UK to the US to further his career, where he became one of the best indie wrestlers in the world with Ring of Honor from 2003 through 2009, where he won both the ROH World Championship and ROH Pure Championship. In 2009, McGuinness left ROH and signed a developmental deal to head to WWE, but after failing a physical, they had to let him go before he started. While he ended up prolonging his career a few more years in TNA as Desmond Wolfe, he would ultimately be forced to retire in 2011. McGuinness was thought of as highly as another ROH signing, CM Punk, and could well have won his first WWE Championship by now.
Mason Ryan, Wales
Around the same time that WWE was trying to sign Nigel McGuinness in 2009, they also signed Welsh wrestler Mason Ryan. Ryan had worked in the UK indies since 2006, and with his body-builder physique, he was an instant fit in the WWE Universe. He was pushed quickly in Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW), where he held the FCW Heavyweight Championship for 196-days, before heading to Raw in January of 2011. He debuted by interfering on CM Punk‘s behalf against John Cena, which resulted in Ryan joining Punk’s new version of Nexus. Unfortunately for Mason Ryan, he became injury prone and lost large chunks of time from the company, ultimately resulting in him being sent back to NXT from 2012 until his eventual release in 2015.
Wade Barrett, England
Arguably the biggest question mark is why this man never won the World title during his run with WWE from 2010 through 2016. Wade Barrett had worked in the UK indie scene before heading to WWE developmental in 2006. In 2010, he exploded onto the WWE scene when he led the Nexus takeover on Raw, heading the most exciting new faction in WWE in years. But the fall of Nexus was just one in a series of heartaches for the former bare-knuckle brawler. While Barrett would get his sporadic pushes – winning King of the Ring in 2015 and becoming a 5x WWE Intercontinental Champion – his injuries mounted and each time a role became popular, creative would run out of ideas for the talented talker. Barrett only received two matches for the WWE Championship and both came in Elimination Chambers – in 2011 and 2012. He left WWE in 2016 over his lack of desire from years of inconsistent booking.
Neville was an international indie superstar before heading to WWE in 2012 and becoming Neville in NXT, where he became NXT Champion. But the high flying Superstar would fall to the bottom of the rung on the main roster and it wasn’t till the end of his WWE reign, when he shifted heel and became a 2x WWE Cruiserweight Champion, that he was used even remotely creatively. There was zero way Neville could have been World Champion in WWE by any stretch of the imagination with how he was booked. But since his departure and arrival in AEW, as PAC he has shown that he can hang with main eventers like Kenny Omega, Jon Moxley (WWE’s Dean Ambrose) and others and perhaps WWE missed the chance on a refreshing new World Champion.
Tyler Bate, England
For decades, a man of Tyler Bates’ stature wouldn’t even be in the conversation for a World Heavyweight Championship in WWE. Only 5’7″ and 175 lbs., Bate is hardly in the same physical scopes as past champions like Hulk Hogan, Undertaker, or The Rock. But as the young Englishman showed during his reign as the first WWE United Kingdom Champion and beyond, he has the skills to face any opponent of any size – he’s had superb matches in the past year with larger men like Kassius Ohno, Dominik Dijakovic, and even reigning UK Champion WALTER. There’s no denying the magic Bate could have with the likes of Daniel Bryan, Kofi Kingston, or NXT’s Adam Cole should the chance arise.
Pete Dunne, England
Speaking of WWE UK Champions, Pete Dunne is perhaps the most poised at this current time to possibly becoming a World Champion in WWE. The 685-day reigning Champion has since crossed the Atlantic to regular NXT, where he’s NXT Tag Team Champions with Matt Riddle, but throughout his career, Dunne has shown an underdog spirit that has driven him past opponents like Damian Priest, Killian Dain, Wolfgang, and others, including solid contests against WALTER and Riddle himself. With the right underdog story behind him, there’s no telling what Dunne’s ceiling could be.
What British wrestlers do you think should have won a World title in the WWE? Who should be the first to follow Drew McIntyre? Who should be the next challenger for Drew McIntyre? Let us know in the comments below!
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