A king of the wrestling world, William Regal will showcase a new generation of fighter in his adopted home town this weekend.
William - real name Darren Matthews - launched a 30-year career in the ring in Blackpool and now gets his kicks from bringing through new talents as general manager of WWE NXT, which comes to the Empress Ballroom tomorrow night.
Born in Staffordshire, in a village where he felt he ‘never belonged’, William set to making Blackpool his home at 15, when he started ‘hanging around’ promoter Bobby Barron’s wrestling show at the Horseshoe Showbar at the Pleasure Beach.
“I knew I was leaving school the next year and was either going to be a brick-layer like my dad or a wrestler,” he said. “I got talking to the guy at the Horseshoe but they made it hard for you to get into the job, they wanted people who would stick around.
“My dad’s sister had a guest house in Kent Road and I stayed there every weekend from Easter ‘83. When I turned 16 the next year I left school and saved some money to come to Blackpool and started at the Horseshoe.”
Bookings started coming in from other companies after a while and he travelled the UK to fight, but Blackpool remained home.
“I made the most of the time I wasn’t working, watching all the shows and other acts as I knew it all helped with the job I was doing,” William said.
“There wasn’t a night of the week you couldn’t find something to see and all the theatres were packed.
“I used to go to the Tower Circus all the time, to see how they would work with a quiet crowd and make them laugh.
“It was the best place to be.”
In a career that’s seen him travel the world and battlig on the international stage for both WWE and WCW, William still cites the night in July 1986 when he first got to wrestle at the circus as his greatest professional moment.
Now to be bringing WWE’s developmental branch NXT to Blackpool for a sell out show is an ‘unbelievable’ honour.
“NXT has become a phenomenal thing,” he said. “We saw we had to build the future.
“When I started in America there were wrestling companies in every state. You had to learn your trade but that’s all dried up, there’s WWE or a few small companies but to get good you have to do it all the time.
“So we built this incredible facility in Orlando, a ‘university’ for wrestling. We do all these little shows in Florida so they experience working in front of a crowd, it started with 50 people coming once a month now it’s 3-400 people.”
NXT was soon added to the WWE TV broadcasts and has grown a following in its own right, and after taking part in WWE’s mega event Wrestlemania earlier this year, promoters Live Nation contacted them offering a UK tour.
“I suggested the Tower Circus as it’s still to this day my favourite venue, but the pantomime’s on, so we got the Empress Ballroom,” William said, going off track to recall having worked security at the Winter Gardens during his time in town.
“Live Nation got some good deals with the big arenas, and the next thing is we’ve sold out Wembley with the development show.
“I don’t regret anything I’ve done in 30 years in the ring, and now I’m getting to watch the new generation come through; and to bring them to Blackpool is something so special to me.”
So, two years on from his last match, does he miss the physical action of the fight?
“I love stepping out in to the ring even more so now [as a host],” he said. “The last few years I was wrestling, my body was breaking down and it was getting harder and harder so I was glad when it was over.
“Now all I get to do is go out there and welcome the crowd, say hello and do a bit of talking.
“And I get to look into the eyes of the people who supported me for all these years; everybody who comes to wrestling has been my family for 32 years.
“I enjoy it so much more now, to be honest, as there’s not the worry of getting hurt, and the hardest thing is not to get my suits creased.”
Besides hosting the event tomorrow, he’ll also be backstage, making sure the young wrestlers are ready for the show, calming their nerves, and it’s clear he enjoys the mentoring side of his role.
“I can say to them the things I have learned on the job,” he said. “The way we do it at NXT there’s no pressure. I was rotten for the first two years but there was no pressure in front of 50 people at the Cala Gran - I wrestled once in front of six people at the Jaggy Thistle - so you just learned your job slowly.
“It came together for me when I was 20, I had those four years of getting better and people expect to get it in six months - sometimes that happens, sometimes it’s two or three years.”
While William only lived in Blackpool for a fairly short time, and moved to the States in the early 90s, he still makes regular trips back, visiting his wife Christina’s family.
It’s still very much the place he calls home and he’s a proud ambassador for the resort in the USA.
“I’ve always billed myself as being from Blackpool,” he explained. “Going to American they wanted me to be from London, but I said ‘No’, so people know me in America as from Blackpool.”
So he’s a proud Blackpudlian, but the limited schedule means he won’t be giving the NXT team a guided tour - this time, although there are hopes for a return visit in the not too distant future, possibly even some kind of summer season.
But one thing he does hope to do while at the Winter Gardens is to set foot on the Opera House stage.
“I want to go on there and look out,” he said. “I have been there to see so many shows, every season I would see these incredible people there, so that’s something I desperately do want to do while I’m there.
“The last few years, people have talked Blackpool down. I was there in April, it was a beautiful day and everywhere was looking so nice and tidied up.
“I loved the place [as a child] because everything I loved I could do there.
“People don’t understand what they have got on their doorsteps now, and the same things are there now as when I was younger. They don’t get out in the same way to see these shows, and the incredible theatres and places Blackpool has.”
While NXT TakeOver: Blackpool is sold out, the WWE Network will exclusively screen NXT TakeOver: London Wednesday.