Pete Dunne carrying professional wrestling into new era during reign as WWE U.K. champion

The first two years of Pete Dunne's WWE career are unlike almost any other that came before him, as he spent his time split between WWE-affiliated organizations and independent promotions while carrying the WWE U.K. championship. Courtesy of WWE

Suddenly, it was all hitting Pete Dunne at once.

Sitting in a Chicago hotel room with fellow wrestler Tyler Bate in May 2017, the then-23-year-old Dunne shut off his phone and began soaking in the moment the two British-bred performers had just shared at NXT's TakeOver: Chicago event. The professional wrestling world was already buzzing about the match, a 15-minute bout that pitted Dunne -- the self-proclaimed "Bruiserweight" whose reviled onscreen character is no less a schoolyard bully than he is a gifted wrestler -- against Bate, the baby-faced WWE United Kingdom champion.

Dunne went on to win the tense title fight, which immediately received praise from critics and peers alike and was later named NXT's "2017 Match of the Year." Four months into his WWE career, Dunne had already made his first mark in history with the WWE U.K. championship. Now, with his phone off and championship belt in hand, he was finally realizing the potential of his opportunity.

"It's crazy," Dunne told ESPN, reflecting on the experience more than a year after that match. "I think I'm in one of the best positions in all of sports entertainment. I really do have the best of both worlds -- being able to experience things from our own U.K. show, to being on main roster tours, to being a part of NXT -- [all] while still being able to take my own independent bookings and take the UK title with me. It's been a pretty surreal experience."

In the year since he won the WWE U.K. Championship, Dunne has helped bridge the gap between the juggernaut wrestling company and the U.K. independent scene he came from. Dunne and the WWE U.K. title have both played a major role in revitalizing the scene there, as pro wrestling has become more popular than ever in the U.K. and as a global audience learns more about its local talent.

Fans will see Dunne defend the WWE U.K. championship Tuesday on the WWE Network -- a key part of the second night of the WWE's second United Kingdom Championship Tournament at Royal Albert Hall in London. He faces Zack Gibson, the winner of a 16-man tournament that aired on the WWE Network on Monday.

It's just the latest surreal moment in a growing line of them for Dunne. He's fought on a wide range of shows, from Monday Night Raw to Destiny World Wrestling in Canada and PROGRESS Wrestling in England. At one show, Dunne faced off against Impact Wrestling heavyweight champion Austin Aries in a champion vs. champion match, months after Aries was released from the WWE. It's a bizarre and exciting era of professional wrestling that Dunne currently has landed in the center of.

"It was literally one month to the next that something cool was happening again," Dunne said. "I'm sure one day I'll be able to sit down and fully reflect on it and let it settle in, but right now it's just take it as it comes."

Dunne said he and the other U.K. Tournament alumni don't reflect often on their revolutionary accomplishments since the first tournament, but when special moments like his faceoff with Aries or his match of the year with Bate happen, they realize they're in on the ground floor for a historic shift in U.K. pro wrestling.

In some ways, Dunne's NXT TakeOver match against Bate traced the history of pro wrestling in the U.K. First, the two men tried to outduel one another with technical skills and a hold-and-escape in-ring wit that echoed the likes of William Regal and Fit Finlay. What followed that was a mix of heavyweight battering, acrobatic attacks and a chaotic string of near-fall after near-fall, which young stars like Dunne and Bate have helped usher into the new era of British strong-style performances.

Ironically, that pro wrestling grab bag that defies so many current U.K. stars comes from the fact that there was barely any professional wrestling to speak of while guys like Dunne were coming up.

"Honestly, we didn't even have a scene," Dunne says. "My answer to it was to travel elsewhere. I went to America for three months, I went to Japan for three months. I would fly myself around places to get more experience and run with people that were better than us."

Now, though, Dunne said the exact opposite is happening. Australians, Canadians and Americans are all flying to the U.K. to get experience and learn alongside some of the best minds in indie wrestling. And locally, pro wrestling is as popular as ever in the United Kingdom.

"That's a testament to the WWE, but it's also a testament to [PROGRESS Wrestling owners] Jon Briley, Jim Smallman and Glen Joseph," Dunne said. "They've done such hard work to build PROGRESS and that addition of the WWE, having whatever that working relationship is and becomes, has definitely helped take it to the next level."

Smallman told ESPN that because the talent who appeared on the first WWE U.K. tournament all still work in the local independent scene, it's helped everyone from wrestlers to promotions grow.

"It seems like most shows these days feature at least one person who was on that first special in Blackpool, and for some fans, they may not have attended a small independent show if they didn't recognize a name that was associated with WWE," Smallman said. "The difference these days is that it's talent from WWE UK that sells tickets more than former WWE superstars who are touring the independents. That's very positive for the future of wrestling in this country."

Smallman said the independent scene in the UK first started regaining momentum about five or six years ago, when the internet began allowing fans more opportunities to see matches and become familiar with local promotions online. Promotions like Insane Championship Wrestling (Scotland), Revolution Pro Wrestling (London), Flight Club: PRO wrestling and, eventually, PROGRESS, all started gaining popularity.

Then came a key moment that started a shift in how WWE worked with outside companies, when legendary British wrestler William Regal reached out to Smallman about finding U.K. wrestlers for the Cruiserweight Classic. A year later, we got the first WWE U.K. event in Blackpool.

On weekends, Smallman said U.K. pro wrestling shows in the mid-2000s would get about 200 people, at best. Now that number is about 500. In Manchester, Futureshock pro wrestling promoter Chris Booker told ESPN that his promotion will sell at least an extra 100 tickets when Dunne and the WWE United Kingdom Championship are on the card -- an enormous increase, especially given that Futureshock usually hosts between 200-450 fans for a normal show.

In September, PROGRESS is hosting a 10,000-capacity show at Wembley Arena in what will be the largest independent wrestling show in England in more than 30 years.

Dunne hopes to see the success rippling through the United Kingdom scene to be a precursor for what's to come globally. He speaks of a WWE-led global territory system -- a North American division, a United Kingdom division, a Middle East division, and so on. All with their own championships and their own rosters, homegrown from their local independent scenes. It's all possible in Dunne's eyes because he's seen it happen at home.

The WWE has been open about its efforts to create a full-time show based in the United Kingdom -- officially announced during the second U.K. Championship tournament as the NXT U.K. brand -- as well as the possibility of growing an international network of wrestling divisions. WWE executive vice president Paul "Triple H" Levesque calls it "global localization" -- an effort by the WWE to formulate a new-age territory system across the world.

In a news conference with reporters ahead of the second U.K. Tournament, Levesque said the goal for that system is to create local programming that fans can engage with on a more regular basis -- local superstars they can watch grow from their own backyard to the main roster. That system would also allow the WWE to interchange its talent internationally to help wrestlers learn different styles of wrestling from around the world -- much like Dunne did on his own.

The guinea pig for that experiment is the United Kingdom-based NXT U.K. show the WWE has been developing for over a year now. After announcing the signing of legendary British wrestler Johnny Saint as the brand's general manager, the second running of the U.K. tournament brought in another round of 16 competitors like Travis Banks and Flash Morgan Webster that should give fans a good sense of who will take part.

In its initial run of shows, NXT will tape two nights of content in Cambridge in July, in Brimingham in August, in Plymouth in October and, to close out the year, November in Liverpool.

This move for a full-time show will, in some cases, reduce the mobility of those who sign on with the WWE and NXT. U.K. promotions like Revolution Pro and Defiant Wrestling, which don't have explicit deals with the WWE like PROGRESS and Insane Championship Wrestling do, will no longer be able to feature WWE-contracted talent.

"Sadly those in the tournament and those who have also signed but aren't in the tournament will no longer be appearing for us," Revolution Pro said on Twitter earlier this month, alluding to the fact that talent they have regularly featured like Banks and Webster, among many others, have been lost to the industry's biggest company.

The WWE has shown no indication that its current working relationships with companies like PROGRESS and ICW will change much. Those relationships will seemingly echo the WWE's relationship with EVOLVE Wrestling in the United States, as was clear over the weekend, with those companies essentially serving as an extra level of developmental much like Major League Baseball's minor league system.

That means promoters like Smallman, who get to send off talent to the WWE while still being able to bring some of them back into his independent ring, can enjoy the pride in knowing they've helped grow talent enough to compete on the next level without the bitter feeling of losing them completely.

"One of my favorite moments in the history of our company was at what was our biggest show ever at the time in September 2016 when we said goodbye to PROGRESS regulars Tommaso Ciampa, Aleister Black and Jack Gallagher," Smallman said. "They're all my friends. Not one fan chanted, 'You sold out!' Everyone stood and applauded and chanted, 'You deserve it!'"

Dunne knows the feeling himself, and he's hopeful that the WWE's push to set up a U.K. territory will help his friends get jobs and make a living off the business -- previously a rarity for wrestlers confined to the independent scene. Neither Dunne nor the WWE at large want the sweeping industry changes that have shaped the business in the United Kingdom to change.

As a matter of fact, the process of carrying similar formats to regions all over the world is already in progress -- and with that comes the possibility of independent wrestling scenes across the world getting a chance to have their talent exposed through the WWE system.

"I would love it if more people got the opportunity that I have," Dunne said, thinking about the newfound pipeline the WWE's presence in the U.K. has helped create for its local independent wrestlers. "Anyone who's dedicated some time to this and worked really hard, now it's an option. More of my peers and friends are now able to work full time with this because of what the WWE has allowed us to do, to build those houses and build those smaller companies. Hopefully that goes the whole way through. Hopefully the U.K. brand that we're launching is the guinea pig that works and it carries on for the rest of the way globally."