Trent Seven, Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne -- the trio collectively known as "British Strong Style" -- have come a long way since making their WWE debuts 18 months ago
Over the next two days, those watching the second annual WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament on the WWE Network will see British Strong Style take center stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London -- and cement their status as the faces of the newly-announced NXT U.K. brand.
On Monday, Seven, Bate and Dunne will take on The Undisputed Era, made up of Roderick Strong, Kyle O'Reilly and Adam Cole, in the main event. Then, on Tuesday, Dunne defends his WWE U.K. Championship against the winner of the U.K. Championship tournament while Seven and Dunne -- a.k.a. Moustache Mountain -- get a shot at Strong and O'Reilly with the NXT tag team championships on the line.
In the days leading up to this historic event, ESPN spoke to all three members of the group, who have collectively helped put British professional wrestling back on the map and are leading from the front with a plethora of talent cropping up behind them.
At the 2017 U.K. championship tournament, which took place at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool, England, the members of British Strong Style were relative unknowns to a lot of WWE fans. Although familiar to the British crowd, having worked the independent circuit there for many years, it was really their coming out party.
All three men took part in the tournament, with Bate and Dunne making it to the final. Bate would go on to defeat Dunne and become the inaugural WWE U.K. Champion -- and in doing so, at 19 years of age, Bate became one of the youngest champions in WWE history.
"It was great," Bate told ESPN. "Leading up to it, obviously, there was a lot of pressure. No-one really knew what was happening, but you have to go in there and do the best you can and try and smash it. Since then I feel like myself, Trent and Pete have held this U.K. thing together and kept it relevant enough for us to bring it back a second time."
"It was so crazy how fast it all happened," Dunne explained. "I had met William Regal a month or two before at my tryout which was in November, then December was the press conference and by January we were filming. I think with the WWE, the process now seems to be, you get signed, you go to the Performance Center, you work through that system and then finally make it to TV. For us, we had this very unique experience where we were brought straight out of the independents and put straight out on live TV."
"We always wanted this and to wrestle on this level," Seven said. "You don't know how it's going to go so there's no point getting stressed or worried about it. As long as you perform to your highest ability then you'll always be OK. The inaugural tournament is always going to have the extra prestige, but they've turned it up a notch by rocking the Royal Albert Hall for two days, so it's exciting times."
If you had to choose the biggest breakthrough performer of the trio to this point, the answer undoubtedly has to be Dunne. As of Monday, Dunne's held the U.K. championship for 400 consecutive days; that gives Dunne the fourth-longest WWE singles title reign of the last decade, behind only CM Punk (434 days), Brock Lesnar (449 days and counting) and Asuka (510 days as NXT women's champion).
"I had no idea of the stats really," Dunne said. "I'm not really someone who keeps track of dates and stats so it's always cool when people post stuff like that because it puts things into perspective. Hopefully I'll keep the title long enough to surpass them."
"It was so crazy how fast it all happened. I had met William Regal a month or two before at my try out which was in November, then December was the press conference and by January we were filming. I think with the WWE, the process now seems to be, you get signed, you go to the Performance Center, you work through that system and then finally make it to TV. For us, we had this very unique experience where we were brought straight out of the independents and put straight out on live TV." Pete Dunne on the lead-up to the first WWE U.K. Championship Tournament
Paul Levesque, Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative, held a press conference call ahead of the U.K. Championship Tournament and, when asked who he believed would be the next performer to get the call up to the main roster and go on to become a WWE champion, one name jumped off the page.
"I see a lot of talent there but when I see a guy, and someone that stands out to me the most, like Pete Dunne. I think his ability to take a style from years ago in a classic wrestling sense, in a joint manipulation sense, and bring that classic U.K. style back -- but to do it in a modern form where he blends the two, his ability to be comfortable in what he says and what he does. Add to that his passion for this and his growth in this. He's one of those guys that just eats, sleeps, breathes this and is constantly learning. He's like a sponge every time I see him and that to me is impressive. So if I had to pick one guy it'd be Pete."
"Obviously it's amazing to hear that from people like him," Dunne said. "Being able to talk to guys like Triple H and Shawn Michaels and get their feedback, after 12 years of wrestling, 11 of them being solely in the independents trying to work it out for myself. To be able to get that nod of approval tells me I'm on the right track."
It's unquestionably been a phenomenal 18 months for the group and it appears as though they're still pinching themselves as they recall some of their favourite moments on this WWE run so far.
"Being backstage at WrestleMania was pretty cool," Seven said. "That was a pretty wild experience. Two years prior to that I was saving up to buy a ticket and two years later, I'm VIP-ing it and having a chat with the Undertaker backstage."
"My personal highlight of the last year was my match against Pete at NXT Takeover: Chicago, which ended up winning the match of the year at the NXT year end awards," Bate said.
For Dunne, he touched on the unique contracts the men are on, whereby outside of the WWE they can continue to work for certain independent promotions. In Dunne's case, that's meant defending the WWE U.K. Championship on the independent circuit, which goes against company tradition.
"For me, the best part of it is, almost like having two careers at once," Dunne explained. "I'm experiencing everything on the WWE side of things; I've been to two WrestleMania's now, I've been on several main roster tours, I've been to NXT TV, NXT Takeovers, live events, Download Festival twice. So I really have seen the full range of what there is to do in the WWE, meanwhile still being able to do my independent stuff and helping that improve. Seeing the likes of PROGRESS and seeing their audiences go up and then travelling the world and taking that title with me which is something that's never really happened before."
Seven went on to elaborate how these contracts came to fruition and why it's been such a massive help to all parties involved.
"The team at the WWE pulled together to get this thing going. It's credit to those people, William Regal, Triple H and also Matt Bloom who looks after the NXT Performance Center. Those minds have come together and managed to work out a contract and a way for us to work which has such a massive benefit to both sides. As far as the fitness and training that goes on over at the PC, it's unrivalled. If you can match those things together with the rawness of the independent scene with that quality, man management and skill that can be provided by the WWE you've created this little monster that we've got now.
"It allows us to keep one foot in the independent scene, so we can keep an eye on the people and see who's next," continued Seven, "Who are the guys coming up and wrestling 6 or 7 times a week, going to seminars, honing their skills and not necessarily take our place but be the next batch of U.K. guys to come over to the WWE and NXT in America and really kick it in to second gear. Allowing us to still work NXT TV, Tyler and Pete to work Takeover after Takeover, that keeps our relevance so high in the WWE that the crowds and live gates on the independent scene will continue to rise.
"Now the kickback from that is wrestlers are wrestling in front of 5,000, 6,000 or 7,000 people at independent shows which is a massive difference to wrestling in front of a few hundred like we did, three of four years ago," Seven concluded. "I think it allows us to stay relevant in the WWE universe to ensure we are still the future of this company and the future of this country but also allow us to plant the seed for whoever is going to follow us."
Older fans of the WWE, especially those based in the U.K., may recall the 1991 "Battle Royal at the Albert Hall", which aired on Sky Movies and was later released on VHS and DVD by Silvervision. It's now available on the WWE Network. While Bate and Dunne hadn't even been born yet, Seven remembers it vividly.
"I remember watching it and Lord Alfred Hayes was doing the commentary and it had a real British feel," Seven said. You looked at it and thought, 'oh my god, wrestling can work in the U.K.' and it's taken all these years to get British wrestling back to the Royal Albert Hall. Me, Pete and Tyler are going to stand there on the entrance way on Monday night and we're going to command a performance just as any other performer or band or orchestra in the history of that venue."
While Dunne wasn't alive at the time of this event, he can't wait to perform at the Royal Albert Hall and believes it could be the ideal venue to host future WWE U.K. events on a regular basis.
"I haven't performed there before but actually walking around and seeing it, it's the most spectacular wrestling venue I've ever seen," Dunne said. "When you talk about relaunching a British version of WWE, they've found the perfect location. To kick-start or restart the brand, they've managed to nail down the most British venue I could ever imagine."
This year's U.K. Championship Tournament participants will have a lot to live up to with the bar being set so high in 2017. Not only was the action in the tournament top-notch, with a memorable finale between Dunne and Bate, but the rivalry that followed has done a great deal to keep attention on both the U.K. brand and the WWE U.K. championship over the past year-and-a-half.
It's clear those efforts have been recognized, and as the NXT U.K. brand officially gets its start the second U.K. Championship Tournament is truly a vehicle to put a stamp on British Strong Style as the brand ambassadors for this market.
"I've said the whole time while we've been promoting this show, I really do feel like the brand is mine, the title is mine at this point," Dunne said. "They gave us an amazing platform to make a name for ourselves last time and it's crazy to see how far we've progressed in the last eighteen months. I'm proud of what I've done with the title. I feel like I've kept the standard of matches high. You know when it's a U.K. title match, I want to keep that standard and I want that attitude to run through the whole roster for this U.K. show. I want this time to be no different."
"It's like we're the established names right now from last year's U.K. tournament and in using our names it's going to put eyes on everyone else performing in this year's tournament," Bate explained. "So everyone who knows who we are will get to know who these other performers are. I've got faith in everybody and I know they're going to smash it."
"The pressure is really on these 16 guys now to go out there and make this tournament their own just like we got the opportunity last year," Seven said. "I don't want to come across egotistical because I think that's every man's downfall, I revel in that kind of pressure. We weren't told what the poster or anything like that would look like. It was just -- bam! -- there's our faces on every single underground station, across the WWE's social media and our attitude was like, 'OK, cool. Bring it on. Let's do it; let's raise the bar again.'"