#WilliamRegalWeek: Essential Viewing

It’s the Day Two of #WilliamRegalWeek, a celebration of all things Made in England and the third installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. We started with A Wrestler You Should Probably Know Better and now we give you the finer points of the Darren Matthews oeuvre with some Essential Viewing. We’ll march through tomorrow with a GIF Parade before making our Amazon.com-on-steroids dreams come true with “Juice Make Sugar Recommends…“. We’ll finish everything off on Friday with a Difference of Opinion (where JMS HQ erupts in a tea-fueled civil war.) 

Writing about which William Regal matches to watch five years ago would have been a dream job for me. There was a stretch of time from his redebut as the snobbish Steven William Regal in 2000 until his push-ending sixty-day suspension in 2008 in which Regal was my all-time favorite (hold your nose) performer. To paraphrase the Beatles, there’s just something in the way he moves.

In the Eric Bischoff/Vince Russo era of storylines first, wrestling twenty-seventh, Regal stood out as a guy who was there to wrestle. However, for all his appeal, Regal was both poles with no equator.

His promos ranged from the menacing to the highly amusing, but while entertaining, the style was never main event and even when he had “help,” his look was never quite there either. While gorgeous and legit, his in-ring style made it nearly impossible for him to effectively work with main event stars. For me, contextualizing Regal’s place in wrestling is like that realization that Full Metal Jacket is “awesome,” but not even a top five Kubrick movie.

From the instant he arrived in the United States, Regal was acknowledged by anybody who actually understood what was going on as a next-level worker. Unfortunately, the North American wrestling world of the early-to-mid-90s was still reeling from the 80s’ crazy reliance on foreign heels. Regal, a heel who happened to be foreign, was highly respected and completely trusted to put on great matches, but not given much to sink his teeth into by WCW bookers. Here, at Clash of the Champions 28, we see the ultimate example of how William Regal was treated early in his career:

Yes, that’s the Antonio Inoki he’s wrestling. From a storyline perspective, it made as little sense then as it does now for a talented midcarder to be wrestling one of the most popular and successful stars of all time in a one-off, but it shows what WCW thought of Regal. Think about all the pressure on him in this match: Inoki was already in his 50s, had minimal connection to the crowd beyond name recognition to a small percentage of wrestling magazine readers, and was going to get himself over no matter how hard he had to kick, chop, or slap Regal.

The match isn’t the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen, but it is yeoman’s work. Even though Regal was never presented as a main event wrestler, his bosses trusted his abilities to the point where they felt they could put him in the ring with a babyface nobody knew and get heat on the match. Conversely, you could say our hero was asked to do a job that nobody higher on the food chain was willing to do. Either way, it speaks to Regal’s greatness.

Regal didn’t become one of the most recognizable midcard acts of the last twenty years just because of his wrestling ability, though. After his (kayfabe) protege Jean-Paul Levesque left WCW, Regal embarked on one of the most humorous missions in the history of wrestling: transforming legendary Midnight Express member “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton into an adopted member of the British upper-class:

It’s hard to find a better comedy sketch anywhere, be it Monday Nitro, Saturday Night Live, or Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Eaton’s “mouth full of mashed potatoes” accent and bull doggishly determined but dumb facials round out a superb performance by Regal as the Upper-Class Twit of the Month. Regal plays the comedic heel masterfully while also satirically tearing down the British class system of which he and his family had been victims. Of course, Regal and Eaton were both tremendous wrestlers, which made the Blue Bloods gimmick work in spite of their odd couple pairing and comedic presentation. In a sense, the Blue Bloods were a microcosm of Regal’s career: tough enough to keep credibility in the face of slapstick.

Regal famously washed out of WCW for getting cute with a guy who got cute with everybody on the roster, ending up in the WWF as  “The Real Man’s Man” Steven Regal. The gimmick was legendarily terrible, with Regal wearing a bright yellow hard hat (which seemed a size or two too small) and a flannel vest. In spite of the sheer manliness of the gimmick, the year was 1998 and a construction worker character was about as relevant and sexy to then-Russo-loving fans as a wrestling Dickensian orphan. While the gimmick is a mere footnote in the career of a long-established great wrestler, it did give us the finest Titantron video in the history of Sports Entertainment:

Mixing your own concrete? Manly. Working construction? Professionally manly. Hand-squeezing orange juice? Domestically manly.

After bouncing back and forth between short runs on WCW TV and in WWF’s then-Memphis-based developmental territory, Regal suddenly became a hot free agent following a spectacular match against HE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED at the third Brian Pillman Memorial Show.

Regal and Benoit’s match is something between a Japanese house show of the mid-80s and a English carnival show at the turn of the century. The two work holds with legitimate, sports-like intensity and work in multiple test of strength spots along with the signature tumbles of Commonwealth-style wrestling. The match also contains one of the best submission finishes this side of MMA. After nearly fifteen minutes of working holds, Benoit finally locks on his signature Crippler Crossface, and Regal taps instantly. If you suspend your disbelief only as much as you need to to enjoy wrestling, this match feels real.

Following his strong showing at the Pillman show, Regal embarked on the part of his career for which he is now most famous: his run as sometimes-wrestler, sometimes-authority figure William Regal in the WWE. This performance leaned heavily on the tricks and strategies Regal had learned leading the Blue Bloods: acting like a snob, making funny faces, and beating the ever-living tar out of people in the ring. He was simultaneously the comedic “that guy is such a maroon” and “I wish someone would shut this guy up!” heel.

Regal settled into a long run as a midcard “gatekeeper” heel. He would get the European or Intercontinental Title, beat up a couple of guys, and then work a program where he made someone look really good. His IC Title match with Rob Van Dam at Wrestlemania X8 is on the short list of matches that WWE brings up when touting the high-match-quality legacy of the belt. It’s Regal at his best: a tough, but easily duped jerk just flawed enough to be incredibly vulnerable.

One of the things that made the William Regal character special though was Regal’s own ability not to take himself too seriously. He understands the twenty-first century WWE style of entertainment-based wrestling as well as anybody. He can hit an internal switch and go from being a wicked villain to an object of ridicule. Perhaps the finest example of this is his backstage encounter with the then-more-over-than-people-remember Cryme Tyme:

Even now as his in-ring stints get further and further apart, Regal can wrestle and tell a legit-looking, dynamic story as well as any wrestler ever to grace the ring. This match from a 2011 episode of Superstars helped elevate the profile of Regal’s former student Daniel Bryan in the WWE. As with Benoit, Regal played the perfect, heelish adversary to “great wrestler” Daniel Bryan.

When you step back and look at the career of William Regal, he’s something of a mystery. There’s a near Goldust-level number of missed or spoiled opportunities, but also a main-event-level number of memorable moments outside of the ring that give him a truly unique place in WWE, and wrestling, history.