Will Ospreay is not an overnight sensation. But to American wrestling fans and promoters, Ospreay—who began his career in 2012—comes as close to being an overnight sensation as any rising star who has come along over the past 25 years. Confirming Ospreay as the new rage in the wrestling industry, our editorial staff ranked the Havering, England, native number 16 in our 2016 "PWI 500."
The lanky 6'4", 174-pounder remains humble despite this achievement. "It's kinda mind-blowing, the fact I'm ranked that high and there are so many guys below me that should be way higher," he said during a tour of Japan. "But, seriously, I'm blessed the people that organized the rankings think I'm decent enough to be this high on the list."
It was an extraordinary year regarding the "PWI 500." Most years, wrestlers from WWE, TNA, Ring of Honor, and New Japan would have easily secured the top 20 slots. This year, Ricochet (also known as Prince Puma) earned number 15, while Ospreay landed just behind at 16. Back in 1998, it was considered a phenomenal accomplishment when an indy star such as Reckless Youth captured the number-50 spot in the "500"!
"I don't think Ospreay earning the number-16 spot is that much of a stretch these days," noted Senior Writer Dan Murphy, who spearheads the
rankings each year. "Historically, the '500' was a great showcase for American indy wrestlers, but now the '500' is a crowded field that represents the very best globally. So, when a super-talented international star like Ospreay becomes a must-see attraction on YouTube and captures tons of social media buzz, his career is naturally going to skyrocket."
Starting as a backyard wrestler, Ospreay received proper training at Lucha Britannia's London School of Lucha Libre, and debuted in 2012 as "Dark Britannico," the evil twin of "Leon Britannico," portrayed by Paul Robinson. Within a year, Ospreay and Robinson had become friends and forged a partnership, becoming known as The Swords of Essex. They won the British tag team title in Revolution Pro Wrestling, and it was during this time that Ospreay began showing his true potential in standout clashes with Ricochet.
Yet Ospreay and Robinson were having troubles as a team, and, in frustration, Robinson walked out on Ospreay during a tag team match at a PROGRESS Wrestling event, setting up a feud that elevated both men's careers.
Ospreay came out on the winning end, but soon suffered a physical and mental setback. He injured his neck, and, in his initial return against heavyweight champion Havoc, was very apprehensive about executing his most effective aerial maneuvers and lost the match. Ospreay finally returned to his previous form in PROGRESS' Super Strong Style 16, performing his corkscrew shooting star press to win the tournament. On July 26, 2015, Ospreay ended Havoc's 609-day reign as PROGRESS Wrestling champion.
Ospreay enjoyed a six-month reign, turning back Mark Haskins, Mark Andrews, Zack Gibson, and Morgan Webster, among others. During the same period, Ospreay scored wins over big names such as Matt Sydal and PJ Black in RPW. He even challenged AJ Styles for the British heavyweight championship in a three-way match also involving Marty Scurll. The next night, Ospreay lost a close one to Kazuchika Okada.
Things went dark on January 24, 2016, when Scurll clamped his chicken-wing hold on Ospreay, forcing him to pass out to claim the PROGRESS title. Ospreay also lost to Scurll in the rematch.
But New Japan soon came calling. Remember his tough loss to Okada? Apparently, his strong performance gained the attention of the NJPW office.
Ospreay became the newest member of New Japan's Chaos stable in March. He entered the 2016 Super Juniors Tournament in May, and had what is considered his breakthrough match against Ricochet. Ospreay won his block in the tournament with four wins and three losses, and defeated Ryusuke Taguchi in the final. He was the youngest man ever to win the tourney, as well as the first Briton and the fifth gaijin star to do so.
But it was Ospreay's bout against Ricochet that gained worldwide acclaim. Steve Austin and William Regal were among the legends who praised the bout, but former WCW and IWGP champ Big Van Vader dismissed it as a "gymnastics routine."
The matter became a great debate on Twitter, leading to an odd clash between eras this past August, as Ospreay faced Vader at RPW Rising, held at London's historic York Hall. While the aging Vader overwhelmed Ospreay with his size advantage at times, the interference of Ospreay's rival, Pete Dunne, handed Vader the victory.
He says the Vader match was his most challenging to date. "It showed that I could wrestle anyone with any style and still make the match look good."
Ospreay also appeared for TNA during its U.K. tour earlier this year, and made two U.S. appearances for EVOLVE, losing hard-fought bouts to Zack Sabre Jr. at Evolve 58 and Ricochet at EVOLVE 59, both taking place in Dallas. Ospreay's live appearances seem to enhance his reputation exponentially, as fans and critics praise his offensive move-set, including his 630-degree senton, his front-flip DDT, and his amazing array of kicks.
"I'm just some kid that was and still is a massive fan of wrestling," said Ospreay. "I just want to enjoy myself, and, in return, hope the fans enjoy themselves. One person at a PROGRESS show told me that I'm the fan who made it behind the curtain, and it couldn't be more true. I wanna give back to the people that got me to where I am now."
Right now, Ospreay's big dreams are becoming legitimate career plans. "I want to bring more Brits, like Pete Dunne, Marty Scurll, and Zack Sabre Jr. to Japan," he said, "and would love to bring over Paul Robinson and Scott Wainwright to unite all three members of The Swords of Essex and challenge for the NEVER six-man championship."
Interestingly, his most ambitious goals make it clear that he wants to spend more time competing in the United States. His September match against ROH champion Adam Cole on NJPW's "Destruction In Hiroshima" card very nearly resulted in a win for the 23-year-old.
"Will Ospreay is so young, but has picked up so many aspects of this sport so quickly," said Cole. "The things he can do in that ring are mind-blowing to me, and he will continue to shock wrestling audiences all over the world for a long time. Getting to go toe to toe with Will in New Japan Pro Wrestling was a challenge I wanted, because being Ring of Honor World champion means that you face the best competition. And Will is certainly on that list. I won that night, but he gave me everything he had and was impressive every step of the way."
The key to Ospreay's future is avoiding injuries. At such a young age, he already has, according to The Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer, suffered from two slipped discs, several concussions, and two fractured heels, and shoulders that are prone to separations If he's forced to bring his game back to the mat, he stands to lose to most effective and marketable aspect of his game.
"I'm not going to make the extent of my injuries public and, being honest, it's nothing to be scared about or fear for my life," he said. "Please do not panic or worry about me as I'm walking and healthy. But it comes a point where your body can only take so much, and I'm making the adult decision to give my body time to heal."
For now, Ospreay is managing his injuries and impressising fans, promoters, and fellow wrestlers around the world. That question is: If he finished number 16 in the "PWI 500" with relatively little U.S. exposure, where might be finish next year?