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NXT UK is a dream come true for British wrestling. When WWE decided to tap into the independent wrestling scene with the first-ever United Kingdom Championship Tournament, it was still unclear the scope and vision that the company had for the product in the long term. However, it became more and more apparent that the foundation was being laid for the top British wrestlers to receive the exposure needed before the arrival of NXT UK. With the launch of a UK division, it was only right for one superstar to become a bona fide symbol that showcased the excellence of British wrestling. Unsurprisingly, WWE found exactly that in Pete Dunne.
The 25-year-old Birmingham-born superstar has built his name on the independent scene and only continued to develop with his experience of competing around the world. From his exploits with Progress Wrestling in the UK to his time with Michinoku Pro Wrestling in Japan and Westside Xtreme Wrestling in Germany, he was one of the clear choices to feature in the inaugural Championship Tournament in 2017.
Dunne, real name Peter Thomas England, came very close to being crowned the first WWE United Kingdom Champion, but inevitably fell short to Tyler Bate. While it was a minor setback, it would allow the two to reignite their rivalry and put on an incredible spectacle at NXT TakeOver: Chicago in 2017. It was at that point that Dunne would capture the UK Championship and begin the longest reign in the title's history. In fact, he would take it a step further by having the longest reign in modern WWE history. Remember: Dunne is only 25, so the future is bright for someone that is hotly tipped to be a future WWE Champion.
Dunne's mission to build his name, spread the reputation of British wrestling to a worldwide audience and create the perfect springboard for NXT UK had him play a crucial role across the company. He showed US audiences why he is known as the Bruiserweight, a nickname he rightfully earned for his brawling ability, no-nonsense attitude and finger-bending moves. Despite its infancy, the success of NXT UK has allowed WWE to announce TakeOver: Blackpool for 12th January 2019. Dunne's reign is an incredible feat, but when he makes his triumphant return to the city of Blackpool, he faces his toughest test in the form of Joe Coffey.
SPORTbible had the opportunity to catch up with Dunne ahead of NXT UK's show in Liverpool. We spoke to him about his reign as UK Champion, the success of NXT UK, his thoughts on TakeOver: Blackpool, stepping into the ring with The Undisputed Era and whether we will see him again on the WWE's main roster.
[SPORTbible] It has been two years since Paul 'Triple H' Levesque announced at London's O2 Arena that the first-ever WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament would be held in 2017. You were a finalist in that competition. Fast-forward to 2018 and we now have NXT UK. How does it feel to have been part of it and seeing WWE fulfil its commitment to promoting British wrestling?
[Pete Dunne] Yeah. It's brilliant, of course. The last two years have been an absolute whirlwind. It's just one thing to the next, and it's great to see how far we've come and I think the market for that is TakeOver in Blackpool. To go from where we started -- where literally my life changed -- to fast-forward two years and we get to go back to the place that put us on the map and introduced the world to more talent, just the same as us, and expose how deep the talent pool in Britain really is.
What is it like to be in Liverpool for the tapings of NXT UK?
It's great. I always love going to the bigger cities. You always know how the crowd is going to be: extra rowdy! The [Liverpool] Olympia's a great, great venue. I've wrestled in it once on the independents, so I think it's the perfect venue for taping TV. And I think any time we do any of these NXT UK shows the crowd is always brilliant. The best audiences in the whole of WWE -- and Liverpool is no different!
Did you ever imagine that the WWE would tap into the British wrestling scene the way that it has done with NXT UK?
No. No, originally when I was coming up on the independents, it was just the light at the end of the tunnel. I always knew I would get here and I thought Tyler [Bate] could get here, but outside of that, I didn't think that many of my peer group would be able to do this. Now fast-forward out of history with every single roster member [and] I've wrestled almost every single one of them all around the country, some of them around the world. Likewise with the US NXT brand, the same thing. Look at that WarGames match: every single person in that match I have history with. It's really cool how WWE has developed in [British wrestling] and there's more opportunity for people who grew up loving pro wrestling.
What was it like to bring British Strong Style to WWE and have the opportunity to take on The Undisputed Era?
Yeah, it's always great when we get in with them. Like I said, we have history outside of WWE with them, so being able to bring that over here... Roderick Strong is somebody I never got to work [with] on the independents, so he's always somebody on my list. I'm glad that we got to do it so many times. He's great to work within a WarGames setting. You can be so creative and you can be so different and unique and that is the whole point of NXT and the whole point of NXT UK: to bring something different to the table. I feel every time we get in with them we can do that. For myself, going to do WarGames was a great opportunity to do that also.
We've had NXT UK TakeOver: Blackpool announced, a massive moment during the tapings of the show. How did it feel to hear Triple H make that announcement?
Yeah, it's extra special for me because that's where I made my name. For myself and Tyler especially, Blackpool is special to us because that's where we really kick-started our own careers, so it's special for me to go back there two years on and see how far we've come. And I think sometimes with this job because it's walking on to the next you never get time to settle in, but I'm sure on that day, though, that I'm going to take a minute and really take in just how far we've come over the last two years. So for me, it's special.
And then for the brand, it's vital that we have that opportunity to go live. It's such a huge difference in going live on the [WWE] Network as to an episodic show -- not that it isn't great exposure. But TakeOver is a completely different animal, so for the brand, it's a massive, massive step in the right direction.
You currently have the longest reign as WWE United Kingdom Champion, as well as the longest reign in the modern era. How does it feel to reach an accomplishment like that at the age of 25 and leave your mark in the WWE history books?
To be honest with you, that is so early on in my career that it's the coolest thing for me. It's these things that add up over time and you can look back and when you finally do get that chance to take it all in. For example, standing there at Blackpool and being able to take all that in and saying, 'Right, in two years I've accomplished this, this, this and this.' That's definitely at the top of my list for one of them to look back at and be so proud of.
You've been able to carry that title from promotion to promotion across the UK. Do you think that has had a major impact in drawing more people to smaller independent wrestling companies?
Yeah, the growth of the independents, especially in the UK, has been crazy. We've been able to take Progress [Wrestling] over to Australia and to the States. I think a crucial part of that is the involvement from WWE. You know, being able to expose people like me, Trent [Seven], Tyler, Mark Andrews, etc., and then us still having the opportunity to go there and meet the fans and be personal with the fans on the independents, which obviously has a much more intimate feel. Not only has it helped build a platform for NXT UK, but it's also helped the independents.
I would go as far as to say that obviously there was a lot there for NXT UK to start, but had we started it two years ago just after that [Championship] Tournament, it wouldn't have been the same as it is now. It took those two years of being exposed on NXT in the US or the appearance I made on Raw or the live events that we've done with SmackDown and Raw. And on top of that, all the independents that we've been doing: meeting the fans, building a rapport, getting that title seen. That has been a major part in laying the foundation for this. Now I feel like we've kick-started it good, but TakeOver is the one where we really kick-start all of this.
Speaking of the title, do you think it is reminiscent to the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in how it works across different promotions and you visiting them as a fighting champion?
I've tried to sit there and compare it to things in the past, but it's so difficult. My sort of route through WWE has been sort of branded... in a way, I feel like a guinea pig almost in that it has worked out and it has hopefully created more opportunity for other people. So it's really hard for me to sort of compare it to anything else in the past. But hopefully it's remembered. You know, in ten years' time when people look back at my run, hopefully, it's remembered as the start of something that became the go-to thing in people's beginning in WWE. If there's an NXT UK and further down the line other NXT brands all around the world, hopefully this is the format they take on. So rather than saying it's reminiscent of something of the past, hopefully we start comparing those to my run with the title.
You've previously tweeted about being a vegan. Does that type of lifestyle have an impact on your training regime outside of the ring?
It's actually beneficial to your training. A lot of bodybuilders and a lot of strength athletes are moving over to a vegan diet. There's nothing in a vegan diet that is lacking compared to any other one if you're smart about it. The quality of the protein's better, the same amount of carbohydrates, a lot of fibre. It has everything you need. So, it's beneficial to your training, especially with the lifestyle on the road. It helps us stay in shape, stay healthy. I'm not trying to be a bodybuilder or anything like that, [but] I'm trying to be as healthy as I can and get as much longevity out of my career, so it's the perfect diet for that.
When SPORTbible spoke to Dave Mastiff in September, he said that his eyes were set on climbing to the top of NXT UK and challenging you for the UK Championship. Considering there is no weight class for the title, how do you prepare for a match with someone who might be taller or even classed as a heavyweight like Mastiff is?
Yeah, I love a challenge. I love something different. Obviously, the NXT UK roster especially everyone is of a similar size and there are one or two standouts, such as Dave Mastiff or Eddie Dennis. They're always fun to get in there and have a different approach to what we do, especially when this is such a routine at times doing the independents and wrestling as much as we do. I really look forward to those opportunities where I get to do something different, so Dave's one of them on my list that I want to get in there with. Along with Eddie, Joe Coffey is another one -- he's a big lad. So, it's always a different approach and it's fun to be creative in those settings.
Let's rewind the clocks back a year ago to when you made a one-off appearance at Raw in Manchester. What was it like to hear the crowd's reaction when you came out?
At the time, I never let things sort of settle in because I'm thinking, 'Right, I'm in work mode and I [need to] make the best of this.' I don't let things get to me, but definitely seeing the reaction afterwards. And even now I get people tweeting me about that appearance and any time I meet people on the independents they're always talking about that. It's another one of those notches on my belt to say, 'Yeah, I've accomplished that so early on in my career.'
And I've been really lucky because most people go to the [WWE] Performance Center and they work really hard and they'll prepare for TV and so on, so on, so on. Where[as] I've experienced every single aspect of this company in such a short space. You know, I've been able to be part of main roster tours, I've been able to be a big part of NXT and now we've launched our own brand, so I've had such a massive education so fast in this company and I'm really grateful for that.
Is there any chance we could see you again on the main roster?
Yeah, one day! I mean, for now, my focus is entirely NXT UK. I enjoy the stuff I do in the States with the US side of things and I'm really glad I get to have that experience, but still... even when I'm there my main focus is this brand, is this title. I want people to be able to look back at those title defences and say every single one of them held up. I want to create something before I eventually do leave to go to the main roster or to the US brand full time or whatever else opens up for me. I wanna build this and make it as solid as I can and build the best foundations as possible. So, that is entirely my focus. But maybe one day.
If we did throw you up on the main roster tomorrow, who would you want to face? Who would be the dream opponent?
AJ Styles. He was my favourite wrestler when I was younger, so he's up there. There [are] loads: Brock Lesnar, Daniel Bryan, Samoa Joe. There are so many people I grew up watching, especially that early Ring of Honor period. That was what I was into. It seems like a lot of them have now migrated over on to the main roster, so I couldn't wait to get in with all of them. But I have to be patient and take it one step at a time. For now, let's focus on TakeOver, building foundations for this and then, down the line when it means more, hopefully I can get in with people like AJ and Daniel Bryan, etc.
Who do you think is a rising star in British wrestling? You know, someone that all wrestling fans around the world should watch out for.
I think you said Dave Mastiff earlier and he's so unique, so interesting. There are not many people that look his way and can move the way he does, so he's one for sure. I think Joe Coffey's great. I don't know if Zack Gibson counts now because he's been exposed so much, but he's definitely up there. Obviously, he's brilliant on the mic, but I think people focus on that a lot instead of how looking at how good his in-ring work actually is.
And then outside of WWE, there's a lot of Australians that have moved over. There's a tag team called Aussie Open [Kyle Fletcher and Mark Davis]. They're living in the UK and they're great. There's a lot more talent even outside of this brand and I'm sure will migrate over here at some point. I don't want people to make the mistake of thinking that all the talent that's currently signed is all the talent in the UK. It goes much, much deeper than this.
You recently had a baby (congratulations, by the way!). Would you like your daughter to follow in your footsteps, especially with all of the work that WWE has done to push women's wrestling in recent years?
I think the women's wrestling thing is obviously brilliant and I watched Evolution and it was a great spectacle to watch. As for my daughter, just whatever she wants to do. I don't care as long as she's happy. I'm sure my parents didn't really want me to pursue wrestling, but now they're really proud and wouldn't want anything different. So it'll be the same [for her], I'm sure. Whatever she finds interesting I'll support 100 per cent.
Thinking back, what match would you say had the biggest impact on your career?
The obvious one is the TakeOver match with Tyler. It wasn't just the UK that wanted their own brand anymore: that exposed us to the world and made it an interesting idea for fans worldwide. The match that got me to WWE was a match in Mansfield in front of about 70-odd people which William Regal came to watch, so that was the one that sort of opened the door for me. So they're the main two, I would say.
Speaking of Regal, almost all fans think quite fondly of him. After all, there are some people that often feel like he was the lost British champion. What is it like work with him in WWE and look at what he has done with pushing forward British wrestling?
I've said it before, especially that initial [Championship] Tournament for how special it felt, how unique it felt and the passion that was put into it. All of that starts with him! You know, this was his brainchild, this was what he wanted and he had a huge involvement in putting all that together. Searching for the right talent, working out matches with talent and working out little nuances in their characters. He's had a huge involvement and I think the way the show is watched back is a testament to him, to Triple H to Shawn Michaels.
That initial Tournament... people like Fit Finlay were there, Robbie Brookside of course. There is a whole list of them and Regal's right at the top of that list of people I'm grateful to and people that I'm hoping that TakeOver will be a real testament to.
The longest reign in modern history, the longest reign as UK Champion and you've achieved so many other achievements in your career so far. What else is left for Pete Dunne to do?
Like I said, right now, I don't feel I'm done with this UK brand. We're just getting started. I'm laying the foundation for hopefully something that will last for years, years and years in the future and is hopefully replicated in multiple countries all around the world. So I feel like it sort of fell on my shoulders, Tyler's, Trent's and a bunch of the other lads to really lay this foundation and show the world, show WWE that this way worked. Create opportunities for more and more independent wrestlers. Obviously, I'm only 25, so I can do that and then we'll focus on either going to NXT full time, maybe the NXT title or eventually [the] main roster and see what happens up there. But short term, the goal is to lay this foundation and make this brand stick around for a long, long time.
Tickets for NXT UK TakeOver: Blackpool are now sold out, but tickets for NXT UK: The Aftermath on 13th January are still available on Eventim.
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