AEW's All In: Searching For The New British Bulldog
It’s been over thirty years since the British Bulldog famously pinned Bret Hart in Wembley Stadium to capture the Intercontinental Championship. To this day, the event and the match represent arguably the greatest moment in British wrestling history. Forget Big Daddy slapping meat with Giant Haystacks or Drew McIntyre lifting the WWE Championship in a pandemic-silent room; Davey Boy Smith raising the iconic IC belt is still considered the pinnacle by many. Until recently, the UK was lucky to get more than an annual Raw and SmackDown and a smattering of house shows. There hasn’t been a wrestling show in Wembley Stadium since. This is due to change (not when WWE returns with a SummerSlam or a WrestleMania, as has been long rumored) because Tony Khan’s upstart All Elite Wrestling holds its first major show on European shores. WWE just held a premium live event mere weeks before in the same city, but in London’s 20,000-seat capacity O2 Arena. After some well publicized teething problems, the Wembley Stadium show should represent both prestige in its own right for AEW and a thumb in the eye of their longer-established rivals, who’ve long been reluctant to hold a similarly major event in Europe. As ticket sales reportedly exceed 74,000 - that is, making the coming show one of the best attended pro wrestling shows in history - it now seems certain that AEW’s All In will in many ways be the true successor to SummerSlam 1992. If that’s the case, will Davey Boy also have a successor? Let’s examine the candidates for the modern day British Bulldogs.
There is first the case to be made for NJPW loanees: Zack Sabre Jr. and Will Ospreay. While gifting a star-making turn to someone who may not reappear in your promotion for a year (or ever) may seem unwise, an impartial observer may suggest Tony Khan has not always been a paragon of wisdom. Sabre Jr. - who built his reputation on intricate submission wrestling and stealing Stewart Lee bits for his promos - enjoys the esteem of technical wrestling enthusiasts in the UK, Japan and across the world. However, there is no escaping that Sabre Jr. hasn’t wrestled in the UK since prior to the pandemic and, even in the wrestling community, is a relatively niche figure when compared to the CM Punks and Chris Jerichos of the world. This is less true of Ospreay. Ospreay has appeared on AEW programming several times in the last year and has justifiably earned many plaudits for his matches with Kenny Omega. Nonetheless, his recent return to Progress Wrestling - once the tip of the spear of the UK’s then buzzing ‘punk rock’ wrestling industry - struggled to fill the 700-person Electric Ballroom in Camden, 10 miles from Wembley Stadium. It’s therefore difficult to argue even the preternaturally gifted Ospreay has the necessary cachet.
Somebody who has cachet to spare - and is an honest to goodness AEW employee to boot - is Saraya, formerly known as Paige in WWE. This former life is key to the argument for Saraya, who preceded even the Four Horsewomen in the now decade old campaign for mainstream women’s wrestling to be taken seriously. True connoisseurs fondly remember Saraya’s victory over Emma to become the first-ever NXT Women’s Champion. This was significant not just because of the storyline accomplishment but because of the statement it made: women’s wrestling can be as good as, if not better, than the men’s. NXT would go on to prove this point many times over but it would always be the house that Paige built. Saraya herself made many similar statements during her time in WWE before being forced into early retirement. Mimicking the likes of Edge and Daniel Bryan, after nearly five years absent, Saraya shocked the world when she emerged from presumed permanent retirement and returned to in-ring action. What’s more, she returned not to the house that she built but to AEW. Her defection ranks alongside Jon Moxley’s in terms of surprise factor, though she has yet to find her footing in AEW as three-time world champion Moxley has done. A significant role in All In could be an opportunity to jumpstart her AEW career and give some momentum to a return that has arguably fizzled.
Better established in the company is Hampshire’s 28-year-old prodigy Jamie Hayter. Unlike Saraya, Hayter has already held the AEW Women’s World Championship. Powerfully built, strong and with an unrefined charisma, Hayter is perhaps the candidate who most superficially represents Davey Boy. Originally introduced as a goon to initiate and take beatings for Britt Baker, Hayter’s undeniable talent saw her emerging, Batista-esque, from Baker’s shadow to claim the title for herself. Also like Batista - whose early iterations a friend quite fairly called “a man in shiny pants” in only a half-pejorative way - many feel that Hayter is lacking a third dimension and is yet to evolve into her final form. While Batista would eventually become a well-regarded and well-paid actor, Hayter will first want to emulate his late wrestling career when he donned a pink polo shirt, popped the collar and suddenly grew one of the most compelling personalities in all of professional wrestling. Health permitting, All In could be a suitable launchpad and the AEW Women’s World Championship a suitable objective.
Launchpads have rarely been necessary for AEW stalwart Pac. Pac, known as Neville during his time with WWE, does bear some comparison with one half of the British Bulldogs. With his small stature, muscular frame and snug, elegant, technical high-flying style, he bears a much closer resemblance to the innovative Dynamite Kid than he does the underappreciated Davey Boy. He may not be a pillar but Pac is part of AEW’s foundations. With the company from its first show, his matches with Kenny Omega and Orange Cassidy helped put the promotion on the map. In footballing terms (soccer not NFL), Pac has functioned as what would be termed a “utility player” - filling in wherever necessary. The first wrestler to hold two AEW titles simultaneously - the Trios and the then All-Atlantic Championship - Pac has been up and down the card in many capacities. An obvious option that would draw ready comparisons to SummerSlam would be for Pac to rematch with Orange Cassidy for the now-International Championship. Although comparisons with Bret Hart may invite derision, it’s worth noting that Cassidy has more successful defenses of his championship than Roman Reigns does his. An inversion of the dynamic in Pac and Cassidy’s previous matches - with Pac now the hero and Cassidy the villain - could also provide novel results.
Speaking of novelty, it would be unfair not to make the case that there needn’t be a Davey Boy successor. Just as they can accept that British food, films and even music aren’t necessarily the best in the world - at least in the exclusion of all else - most British people can accept that there are alternatives to British wrestling and have grown up alongside a version of pro wrestling in which British talents are few, far between and often not that good. To the shock of many worldwide, British people don’t exclusively eat steak and kidney pie, watch Ken Loach films and listen to the Beatles. To pick a random example, Mick Foley’s capture of the WWF Championship is as dear to British fans of a certain age as Davey Boy’s famous victory. And, despite the state of his teeth, Mick is decidedly un-British. More important than jamming people into what is likely to be an overstuffed card because of an accident of birth is to reward the genuinely talented. Those coming from all over Europe to see the show wouldn’t be surprised to see Bulgaria’s Miro on an AEW show, nor the Netherlands’ Malakai Black.The same can be said for Saraya or Jamie Hayter or Pac. Or Sting or Bryan Danielson. But not, it’s sad to say, Kip Sabian.