Sitting in the bowels of the Lakeland Center on the five year anniversary of his first professional wrestling match, and less than a year removed from his New Japan Pro Wrestling and Ring of Honor debuts, 23-year-old Will Ospreay can’t help but think back to the very moment that he first knew he wanted to become a professional wrestler.
Just over twelve years ago, an 11-year-old Ospreay was sitting at home watching the TNA Unbreakable pay-per-view main event between Christopher Daniels, Samoa Joe and AJ Styles.
“The moment AJ did the springboard shooting star press, because I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life, I was like, ‘I want to be an innovator, I want to do stuff that other people can’t do and blow people’s minds’,” said Ospreay. “The moment it happened, I watched that springboard shooting star press and I was like ‘Dad, I want to be a wrestler, so bad’”.
Lots of young kids watch wrestling and decide they want to become wrestlers. An overwhelming majority of them grow up to become accountants, baristas, construction workers or middle school teachers. Part of that is that a good chunk of those kids give up the pro wrestling dream. The Darwinian nature of the pro wrestling business takes care of the rest. Unless of course you’re Will Ospreay, and your parents take your comments seriously enough to seek out an opportunity that just might make your dream come true.
“My mom and dad took me to a (wrestling) school that, believe it or not, was 20 minutes down the road from me. It was called Dropkixx Wrestling Academy,” said Ospreay. “I stayed there for a year or two, but by the time I turned 13, I got kicked out because me and my friends were backyard wrestling outside of the training school. So from there they said if you’re going to do that, don’t bother coming.”
He never went back. It wasn’t that hard of a decision for Ospreay. The trainers at the school had told him that they wouldn’t be putting him on any shows until he was 18 years old anyways, and Ospreay loved putting matches together with his friends.
His mom took their commitment to Ospreay’s growing passion another step further, but her motivation this time was a little bit different. Ospreay admits he had fallen in with the wrong crowd at school and was spending time hanging out in the streets. Some parents might buy the newest video game console or maybe a new computer to convince their son to spend more time at home and less time hanging out with the neighborhood troublemakers. Ospreay’s mom bought him a wrestling ring.
“A proper wresting ring, man. My mom knew I was getting into some trouble at school and I was hanging out with the wrong crowds,” said Ospreay. “But she said ‘I have an idea. It might not be the smartest idea, but it will keep him off the street’. And it did – to my mom’s credit it kept me off the street.”
Not only did she buy him the ring, she put it smack dab in the middle of the family garden to give it a proper home in the backyard. Ospreay came home from school one day and there it was. He spent every day after school inside the ring, either by himself or with his friends who were also big wrestling fans.
“She did it as a surprise because she knew I loved wrestling,” said Ospreay. “A lot of people were like ‘You’re an idiot’. To her credit, it did what it was meant to do.”
Indeed. It also gave Ospreay his first taste of internet fame – a bit of foreshadowing for Ospreay’s pro career. Once he became confident in what they were doing, Ospreay began filming his matches and posting them on UKbackyardwrestling.com, a popular forum full of other backyard wrestlers. For the first time he had fans – and they wanted to come watch. Some even wanted to come wrestle him.
“We would post stuff on there and people would be like ‘Can we come over?’,” said Ospreay. “So complete strangers, that I’ve never met, these guys could be anyone, but they turned out to be really cool guys. We’d put on these massive backyard wrestling shows and put them up on YouTube. They’re still there to this day.”
The backyard wrestling world might have been the first to get a taste of the talent Ospreay had, but in 2016 every wrestling fan in the world got the chance to see what he had to offer and most were impressed. Most.
It all started in April 2016 when Ospreay found himself at Sumo Hall in Tokyo, working for New Japan and debuting against IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion Kushida. It was his first time wrestling in front of a Japanese audience. Over the next 12 months, Ospreay found himself growing by leaps and bounds, both as a person and a wrestler and he credits NJPW for a lot of that.
“I feel like I’ve become a worker ever since going to Japan. I felt I was good until got in the ring with Kushida and I was like ‘Oh my god, I’m maybe average’,” said Ospreay. “He brought out the best in me and I don’t know what it was, because I signed for one year with them. I finished that match and straight after signed for two years.”
One month after losing to Kushida, he was one of 16 wrestlers in the NJPW Best of Super Juniorstournament. Over the course of 18 days, Ospreay wrestled nine matches against the likes of Beretta, Jushin “Thunder” Liger, Tiger Mask IV, Bobby Fish and Ricochet and eventually defeated Ryusuke Taguchi in the tournament finals to become the first British wrestler to win the BOSJ. He is also the youngest winner ever.
“Super Juniors was such a moment for me because I’ve seen all my heroes win that,” said Ospreay, listing Prince Devitt and Kota Ibushi as two previous winners that he’s always looked up to. “The fireworks went off and I looked around, and was like ‘I’ve seen this on the telly so many times – now it’s happening to me!’. I was completely blown away. It was a phenomenal moment.”
It was during the sixth night of BOSJ matches though that Ospreay helped set the internet on fire in a match against a long time friend and rival. Facing off against Ricochet at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo, Ospreay knew it was an opportunity for the pair to do something really special. A segment early in the match saw the Ospreay and Ricochet hit a well-planned spot that showcased the high-flying ability of both wrestlers.
The crowd absolutely loved it. Even referee Hiroyuki “Red Shoes” Unno was applauding inside the ring. Those watching the match online hyped it on social media. Big Van Vader, a former IWGP Heavyweight Champion, hated it and took to Twitter to voice his displeasure.
“I think he just saw a gif and he was just like ‘this is gymnastics’, and to be fair, I do agree with him. But I don’t ever knock someone from a death match. I don’t knock somebody doing technical wrestling. I just do what I do, it’s my thing, I like to do my style,” said Ospreay. “I’d never knock Vader because he’s a 400 pound guy doing a moonsault.”
The Twitter beef caught the attention of the wrestling world as the old guard vs. the new generation and Revolution Pro Wrestling, one of the most well-respected British promotions, saw an opportunity to take advantage and pack a house. They put the match together for mid-August and it ended with Vader going over – even though he apparently agreed to the opposite until hours before the match, something that left a bad taste in Ospreay’s mouth.
“The only thing I’ll say about the situation with me and Vader is I found it very unpleasant and I would not like to be in that situation ever again,” said Ospreay.
A few months later Ospreay’s amazing year continued when he signed on with Ring of Honor and debuted with them in Liverpool, England as part of the ROH Reach for the Sky tour. In his first match he beat Bobby Fish to win the ROH World Television Title. He’d go on to lose it the next night to fellow Brit Marty Scurll, but he’s clearly quite happy to have landed in ROH.
“I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity here, especially the pedigree and prestige of Ring of Honor,” said Ospreay, while mentioning the likes of Tyler Black and Kevin Steen as two guys who held their own with ROH before moving on elsewhere. “So for me to get to spend some time here, I’m blown away. It’s so cool just to be a part of it.”
His amazing 2016 finished with his debut appearance in the PWI 500, the annual list of the top 500 professional wrestlers each year according to Pro Wrestling lllustrated staff. Just making the list is an accomplishment for many working the independent circuit. Ospreay debuted at #16.
“Obviously you see it with your mates and you see all your heroes in there and think, ‘this is cool. Wonder what it would be like to be on it one day?’ Oh, number sixteen? What do you say? Cheers? Thanks?,” wondered Ospreay.
Still, making such a strong initial showing on the PWI 500 isn’t enough for Ospreay and he knows that the industry will be watching to see where he lands next year. Move up the list and fans and critics alike will see progression. Move down the list and the critics suddenly have ammunition. But Ospreay isn’t working to satisfy others – it’s all about keeping himself motivated to do better.
“Now I want top 10. That’s my aim for this year, but it hasn’t been the best of starts I’d say. I need to put on matches like the big ten-man tag (at the WrestleCon Supershow) where everyone was like, ‘what the fuck did I just watch?’” said Ospreay. “I need to keep doing that. I need to start redefining what professional wrestling is, because that’s my goal. I want to change the business. I want to revolutionize the business.”
Sitting just one spot above him on the PWI 500 is the man he had that controversial BOSJ match with, Ricochet. Ospreay recognizes that part of the reason he’s been able to soar to the heights he has over the past year is the talent he’s been in the ring with, including Ricochet. Along the way he’s managed to become friends with Ricochet – even if there’s a bit of a friendly rivalry there.
“I keep saying this, but when I was 16 years old, I used to watch all of his videos from the IWA doing double moonsaults off ladders, and now I get to say he’s one of my best friends,” said Ospreay. “I think we’re always in competition with one another, but it’s a friendly competition. He gets a hot girlfriend, I get a hot girlfriend, too.”
While he’s worked some fantastic matches with Ricochet on three different continents, when it comes to what’s next, Ospreay has his eyes on another NJPW megastar that he wants to find a way to work with and it’s all based on one tiny moment on a EVOLVE card in early 2016.
“I did a six-man tag with (Kota) Ibushi once, but there was a moment where we both tagged in, crowd just goes insane, and I just thought ‘Imagine if this was just one-on-one. Jesus Christ,” said Ospreay. “If we forgot about the two guys on the opposite teams and it was just us two in the ring, I think could put on some insane matches.”
Twice in his career Ospreay has been in touch with WWE. The first time was in 2015 and it was more of an informal conversation to let him know they had seen some of his matches. One year later they came calling again, this time with a contract in hand. Ospreay turned them down, wanting the opportunity to continue to develop his skills. The self-awareness of where he’s at in his professional development is one of his greatest assets as he continues to work on reaching his potential.
“It’s not just an art form, it’s my passion. It’s belief, it’s everything that I feel like wrestling can be and should be, to an extent,” said Ospreay. “People want to bash what I do, I get it. I completely get it. If you were to ask me who my favorite wrestler is, it’s either (Kazuchika) Okada or a guy like (Katsuyori) Shibata. I wish I could wrestle like Shibata or Okada, but I’m not there yet.”
Still, working for NJPW, ROH and a number of promotions in his home country, Ospreay has gone from working matches against strangers he met on the internet to earning a living doing what he loves.
“I never got into this to make millions of dollars, I got into this for fun. The fact that I’ve made money out of this and I can legit provide for my family, I can help pay my mom and dad’s bills,” said Ospreay. “They took care of me for so long and this is paying the bills for them? I can pay for my own car and I’m just truly blessed by it.”
Spending one full year of his five year career firmly under the glaring spotlight that the professional wrestling business can thrust on an up-and-coming wrestler has turned Osrpeay into a star and helped build up a legion of loyal fans. Through it all he’s managed to remain grounded by remembering that while he’s the one stepping into the ring each night, he’s really no different than the young kid that grew up in Northeast London idolizing AJ Styles.
“This girl, she got so nervous and worked up. I said ‘Why are you nervous? I do what you do. I go to work. I pay for shirt. We eat the same food. To you, I’m Will Ospreay – to my mum, I’m Bill.’ I’m a normal guy,” said Ospreay. “I’m the cheaky Essex boy that got told he was the fan that made it backstage.”