Bull, Butlins and Big Lads Wrestling: Our Hopes and Fears for 2017

In The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, which I got for Christmas, Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing uses the term “salvage accumulation” to describe the process whereby large companies recoup value from activities which pre-date or stand outside of capitalist production. This, the author highlights, is an integral aspect of both current and earlier forms of capitalism, but is particularly present in the form characterised by supply chains: ‘If a peasant family produces a crop that enters capitalist food chains, capital accumulation is possible through salvaging the value created in peasant farming.’ In an enlightening field study of supply chains for the rare matsutake mushroom, Lowenhaupt-Tsing demonstrates that while this crop means different things for the South-East Asian refugees that forage it in remote rural Oregon and the import-export businesses that transform it into a luxury commodity for the Japanese market, these meanings exist in a precarious but ultimately mutually-supportive assemblage. The pickers have their own reasons for doing what they do, and have constructed their own communities in the former logging belt. It is through many degrees of separation, both physical and conceptual, that their matsutake eventually become prestige goods in the hands of lead firms.

Now, nobody here is suggesting that New Japan Pro Wrestling, Chikara, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Insane Championship Wrestling, Progress, What Culture Pro Wrestling (especially not them), or any of the other companies that have found themselves shunted or scraped by Vince McMahon’s juggernaut in the past twelve months are “peri-capitalist” entities per se. But there’s still an analogy to be drawn here. Each of the companies listed above (maybe not What Culture) has grown a following by imagining wrestling in their own distinct way. PWG gathers together the best talent on the independent circuit and brings them to a tiny American Legion post. Progress and ICW harness the raucous energy of British football crowds and turn it into part of their shows. NJPW have matches where two guys headbutt each other for real, sometimes in the throat. International communities continue to develop around these promotions because these are imaginings that are not commonly found in the WWE context.

Jack Gallagher takes on Akira Tozawa in the Cruiserweight Classic. Both men are now full-time WWE employees
Jack Gallagher takes on Akira Tozawa in the Cruiserweight Classic. Both men are now full-time WWE employees

But then again, what is the “WWE context” in 2017? In many ways, it is a context defined by salvage and supply chain translation. Akira Tozawa, Shinsuke Nakamura, Jack Gallagher and Chris Hero could formerly have been held up as talismans of the variety found in wrestling’s broader cultural footprint, but this year they will all wrestle for WWE (the first and the third of these names wrestled each other in the Cruiserweight Classic, and it has to be one of the most left-field matches seen on recent WWE programming). After signing over a dozen performers off the back of the Cruiserweight Classic and giving them their own Network show, WWE is now gearing up to launch a United Kingdom Championship tournament this month and a women’s tournament before the summer. One can only assume that further new signings and Network shows will emerge in the aftermath. This would give WWE a roster whose depth by far outstrips anything the company has known before, and one which is, at least nominally, able to cater to ever more diverse tastes in the wrestling community. What’s most astonishing about this process is the speed with which WWE has managed to hoover up so much wrestling capital. Every week seems to bring a flurry of new announcements, down to Kimber Lee, Evie and Heidi Lovelace being confirmed as new signees on the same day in December. It’s still perfectly feasible (at least by 2016 standards) that by this year’s end Io Shirai, Kairi Hojo, Hiroyo Matsumoto, Candice LeRae, Pete Dunne, Trent Seven, Tyler Bate, Nathan Cruz, Kyle O’Reilly, Adam Cole, Zack Sabre Jr., Kota Ibushi, Kenny Omega and Ricochet could join their ranks. So much wrestling miscellany under the same roof.

This is the stuff of both hope and fear. Hope, because as a rule I want talented independent wrestlers to be more visible, and richer, and because if I’m going to watch WWE programming it’s a good thing that it will showcase a more diverse range of styles and personalities. Fear, because this particular assemblage of lead firm and forager communities seems increasingly out of joint. Japanese salvage capitalists know that in order for their matsutake businesses to thrive they need to not run the pickers out of the forest. WWE, meanwhile, have scheduled the finals of their United Kingdom Championship tournament to coincide with Progress’ first ever show in Birmingham, and have poached as star attractions three of the British company’s top title-holders, all of whom are from the West Midlands. This period in WWE’s history might one day be ranked alongside Vince Jr’s original takeover of the territorial system, but it remains to be seen whether the kind of kill-or-be-killed instinct that got us here is what’s Best For Business in 2017.

– Luke Healey

London-based women's promotion Pro Wrestling Eve welcome joshi legend Meiko Satomura in February
London-based women’s promotion Pro Wrestling EVE welcome joshi legend Meiko Satomura in February

My biggest hope for 2017 is that the UK indie scene will keep growing. If the mooted World of Sport TV series takes off, it has potential to attract a whole new audience to the art of professional wrestling – or rather, to draw in demographics who had almost forgotten it existed once Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks were off their screens. That could be a revelation for the British scene. But honestly, even if none of the above comes to pass, we’re in the best position we’ve been in for decades. I hope the British indies keep go from strength to strength this year, in spite of WWE’s best attempts to stick their oar in.

Unsurprisingly, my other big hope is for women’s wrestling in general. I’d love to see all-female indies like Pro Wrestling EVE working more and bigger shows, because a) female performers need far more opportunities to work and b) those shows are all kinds of fun. In WWE, it’d be nice to see a bit less time spent talking about ‘making history’. We know, Vince, we’re watching. If the Fed really wants to start respecting the roles of women in history, they could do worse than putting more than one woman in the Hall of Fame this year: Ivory and Jazz stick out to me. Oh, and that one lass- what was her name? Bull Nakano or something? PUT HER IN THERE VINCE.

– Sarah Parkin

My biggest hope for 2017 is that Lucha Underground starts really hitting its stride with viewership and talent relations. I think a lot of people want a fresh alternative to WWE right now and LU can offer that, but it needs the viewers to make that happen and it needs some better working relationships with talent. My fear is that 2017 will see the show fall apart, with wrestlers apparently unhappy with contracts and reportedly no new episodes filming until 2018. If LU hits it big this year though with the business half of season 3, it could be the biggest shot in the arm for wrestling in years, bringing together the Broken Matt Hardy craziness with Lucha Libre excitement and American-style booking done right, as well as some of the strongest representatives of women’s wrestling in the world and a cohesive universe that makes sense.

– Lachlan Albert

Lucha Underground has already set a precedent for more off-the-wall storytelling in 2017 by giving Cage a superpowered metal hand
Lucha Underground has already set a precedent for more off-the-wall storytelling in 2017 by giving Cage a superpowered metal hand

My biggest hope is we see a solidification in the popularity of the international popularity of the British wrestling scene; my biggest fear will be WWE continuing to raid the indies and other promotions, causing an overall lack of momentum.

– Bree Kinnear

My biggest hope is for GREATBLACKOTAKU to debut in NXT with a ridiculous OTT anime gimmick and dominate for 6 months.

– Daniel Zajac

My hopes for 2017 include major promotions finally starting to think outside the box when it comes to structuring matches, World of Sport getting picked up without Alex Shane and turning into a televised Butlins show, Braun Strowman’s continued push seeing him take on the Undertaker and/or Brock Lesnar, 205 Live being let off the leash (with Apollo Crews and the Lucha Dragons making their way on), TNA to finally fold, Jushin Liger to keep living life to the fullest on Instagram, Lucha Underground and NJPW on AXS to get on TV in the UK, Nia Jax to get a proper build, the Authors of Pain to dominate NXT, All Japan Pro Wrestling to build on last year’s success with Kento Miyahara as ace and keep going from strength to strength, Partick Thistle winning the Scottish Cup and Atsushi Onita managing to not die.

– David Forrest

Atsushi Onita: still not dead
Atsushi Onita: still not dead

 

Japanese wrestling (puroresu) doesn’t have the same mass popularity and national cultural import as it did in the 1950s and 1960s when Rikidozan was symbolically defending the nation’s battered pride from American invaders, the 1970s and 1980s when stars like Giant Baba, Antonio Inoki, Riki Choshu and Tatsumi Fujinami were household names, or even the 1990s; a decade which saw a gradual depreciation of TV revenues and ever more obscure broadcast timeslots, but a boom in live attendance for big stadium shows and an ever-greater stylistic diversification. But 2016 provided quite a few reasons for optimism, and Lucifer knows we needed a few of those.

The nation’s biggest promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling, started the year seeing two of their big four main eventers sign for WWE, but ended it in surprisingly rude health. Their Tokyo Dome show on 4 January 2017 actually drew one thousand more paid supporters than the previous year’s, which is testament to how well they’ve done building new stars to replace AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura.

Dragon Gate and DDT continue to pull in the numbers and delight their fans, and Big Japan ran Sumo Hall for the second time in its history while continuing to win plaudits for its Strong Heavyweight division (what we in the UK call “Big Lads Wrestling”), which it balances very well with its traditional deathmatches and wacky shit.

Most gratifyingly of all, All Japan, historically one of the giants in the nation’s wrestling and my favourite promotion of all time, which looked to be all but dead and buried a couple of years ago, had a resurgence under the stewardship of Jun Akiyama and got a scarcely-believable six and a half thousand fans into Sumo Hall for their year’s big show.

Joshi attendances are a shadow of what they were in the heyday of Bull Nakano, Aja Kong, Manami Toyota and the like, but the scene continued to tick along nicely and provided some of the best matches of 2016, usually involving the incomparable Io Shirai. While 2016 was a very dark year for Earth in general, the wrestling business proved as thrilling and interesting in Japan as it did elsewhere in the world.

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The incomparable Io Shirai, seen here with her new heel stable, Queen’s Quest

My hopes for these coming twelve months begin, unsurprisingly, with the wish that all these groups continue to thrive critically and commercially. The departures of Styles and Nakamura shook New Japan out of what had become fairly predictable booking patterns, and while Gedo remains arguably as overreliant on rematch clauses as WWE, pushes and match results have become much harder to call – long may that continue. 2017 looks set to be the year Katsuyori Shibata finally ascends to main event status, which is long overdue, so hopefully it all comes to pass without his body falling apart (currently he’s more tape than man).

In terms of other wrestlers I’d love to see shine: Dragon Gate appear to have a very promising crop of new talent (Ben-K pre-eminent amongst them), Chihiro Hashimoto of Sendai Girls made great strides in transferring her impeccable amateur credentials into puro finesse in her first year as a pro, and All Japan seem firmly behind 27-year-old Kento Miyahara as their new ace; give him six to twelve more months as champion and people might be talking about his Triple Crown reign in terms of the greats. Many of these promotions have followed their counterparts in the USA and UK by launching streaming services, which will hopefully provide inexpensive and convenient ways for fans at home and abroad to consume and enjoy puro of different kinds.

Numerous fears bubble under the surface of all this promise, though. The once-great NOAH promotion may well sink now that its financial and interpromotional ties with New Japan have been cut. Early signs haven’t been promising, with a recent Korakuen Hall show not even breaking 700 attendance.

In recent years the joshi scene has undergone a kind of fragmentation with new promotions being established, what with Chigusa Nagayo setting up shop and the fallout from the Yoshiko affair leading Nanae Takahashi to leave Stardom along with quite a few talented wrestlers. There’s more than enough great female talent in Japan but you sometimes get the feeling it’s spread too thinly among too many offices, and while interpromotional matches aren’t uncommon we aren’t seeing the concentration of high-level dream matchups that, in the 90s, led to huge shows such as AJW Destiny. Stardom, historically isolationist, would do well to take the lead here, considering their relatively high visibility outside Japan.

I also worry that New Japan’s stated intention to expand into America eventually leads them to overextend themselves by trying to run too many shows in the States, or to Westernise their product still further from its current form under noted 80s NWA mark Gedo. However, my biggest fear is what havoc WWE might wreak; less in terms of squeezing out Japanese promotions’ popularity than hoovering up their people.

What does the WWE have planned for Shinsuke Nakamura in 2017?
What does the WWE have planned for Shinsuke Nakamura in 2017?

Luke has already covered this more eloquently than I could, but the aforementioned acquisitions of Styles and Nakamura by WWE show that their aggressive recruitment policy isn’t just confined to English-speaking countries. Long-term targets like Hikaru Shida and just about any Japan-based wrestler who made their initial name in America have been augmented by Stamford’s widely-reported pursuit of Io Shirai and Kairi Hojo from Stardom, and a wooing of Kenny Omega that couldn’t be more obvious if Triple H was stood at the foot of his apartment building singing an aria. WWE are currently behaving much like Chelsea in the early days of Roman Abramovich’s ownership or Real Madrid under Florentino Perez; get the talent under contract first and worry about how they’ll fit in the team later.

We’ve seen this in the case of 205 Live, a show which is doing damn near everything wrong that the excellent Cruiserweight Classic show at Full Sail did right; great wrestlers having short, heatless, seemingly intentionally chinlock-heavy and WWE-ified bouts in front of disinterested crowds who aren’t there primarily to see them. Wonderful workers like Drew Gulak, Jack Gallagher, Neville, Rich Swann and TJ Perkins, top draws on the independent circuit, are being wasted on this anaemic farrago. And now Tommy End and Big Damo are in Orlando, with Kimber Lee, Evie, Heidi Lovelace, Nixon Newell and Kyle O’Reilly set to join them; where do we imagine Vince will fit them all?

Like Luke, I’ll never judge any wrestler for wanting to make as much money as they can in a physically taxing business. However, I hope that Japanese talent sounded out by WWE think long and hard about the chances of comparable career advancement (and even monetary gains in some cases) at a time when Shinsuke Nakamura, who has headlined the Tokyo Dome more than once, is the champion of an ostensible developmental promotion, and Asuka, one of the top joshi workers, is not taking a full part in the Women’s Evolution™ but doing her best to anchor a division gutted by main roster callups and populated mostly by green long-term projects.

And all of this in a company where Raw and Smackdown, where the big money is, are run by a man who only hired Gail Kim because Jim Ross told him that men like to look at Asian porn, and who has historically portrayed East Asian characters as inscrutable, mystical, intellectually limited, or all three. Times have changed since the heyday of Kaientai, Tajiri and Kenzo Suzuki, but until we see a big change in representation, booking and writing I will remain sceptical that more than a handful of Japanese stars – if that – can thrive in WWE, both with respect to financial remuneration and creative satisfaction. If 2017 brings us more free spirits like Kota Ibushi, who prefers to do his own thing than tie himself to Titan’s loosely-named creative machine, I think that both Japanese and American wrestling will be richer for it.

– George Statto

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