In an ever-changing wrestling landscape, with WWE’s eyes fixed firmly on long-term goals of “global localisation”, All Elite Wrestling on the horizon, and every promotion with the financial clout to do so offering contracts to all and sundry, it might be time to consider exactly what the future of wrestling might look like.
To do that, we have to start by looking at what wrestling looks right now – and to me, what wrestling looks right now is an increasingly homogenised approach, at the expense of distinct variations in approach between promotions, territories and countries. Once upon a time, it would be impossible to confuse a wrestling match contested under Mountevans Rules in the United Kingdom with the crash-bang-wallop approach of wrestling the United States, or the athletic displays of Lucha Libre. Even within the United States, one could talk of “Memphis Wrestling”, “Southern Brawls”, or the “WWF Style”, and all would serve as signifiers of the identifiably different approaches to professional wrestling from one territory to another. Within Japan, promotional and personal battles both real and affected were contested over the ideological question of how closely wrestling should resemble a legitimate combat sport – leading to schisms within schisms, offshoots of promotions at loggerheads, each fighting for their own interpretation of what wrestling should be, eventually serving to usher in the era of modern mixed martial arts. The whole ideological contest would even play out in absurdist form as the overarching storyline of HUSTLE’s “fighting opera”.
So what changed? What ushered in a world of “British Strong Style”, “American Lucha Libre”, increasing westernisation of major Japanese and Mexican promotions, and WWE increasingly taking its lead from the independent scene – particularly when it comes to NXT, which month-by-month more closely resembles a PWG or EVOLVE supercard than a developmental programme.
Perhaps nowhere is this more prevalent than in NJPW, which since the rise and extraordinary crossover appeal of the Bullet Club has seen a gradual infiltration of Western-style booking and presentation, and more recently made a conscious, deliberate effort to broaden its appeal to Western markets. It would be tempting to identify the last 18 months to 2 years as the rot setting in with NJPW, but it’s really been a gradual process for far longer – I’d place the tipping point at Gedo becoming booker, but it could be argued that it began with the decline of Inokiism. Gedo was outward looking, taking influence from his own predilection toward Memphis wrestling, just as much as Inoki was stubbornly driven by ideology. As one gave way to another, perhaps out of necessity, NJPW gave us wrestling’s “Third Way”.
Shifting focus away from NJPW, though, this has been happening worldwide – in 2014, I attended William Regal’s “Audience With A Wrestling Villain”. During the Q&A session, someone asked Regal if he felt that Daniel Bryan had been “held down” by WWE, as was the popular perception at the time. Regal’s response was that Bryan and CM Punk had fundamentally changed WWE, and forced the entire roster to up their game and wrestle a style and a pace more in line with their own – any wrestler unable to keep up was less likely to be a focal point of the product. To those of us who grew up seeing WWE as the land of cartoonish wrestling, soap opera storylines and lumbering big men, a shift towards focus on the in-ring ability of long-time independent darlings sounded, on the surface, incredibly exciting.
However, that this happened in line with NJPW shifting towards a Westernised style meant that WWE and NJPW were meeting in the middle – NJPW becoming more influenced by American wrestling, as WWE took on more of the mid-00s ROH/PWG “indie” style, which itself always belied an ersatz Japanese influence. As WWE and NJPW would grow to take on more of the same consumer space, the distance between the two would grow ever smaller.
Consider also, the change in accessibility of independent wrestling. Once solely the domain of dedicated tape traders, bootleggers and fan-cam enthusiasts, the early 2000s saw a perfect storm to create the first independent wrestling boom – recording and distribution equipment became more affordable, and the internet a more viable business model, just as the demise of WCW and ECW created a gap in the market that legions of promoters were eager to fill. ROH, TNA, CZW, XPW, IWA: Mid-South, CHIKARA, the FWA, and many more besides were suddenly ready and able to vie for your time and money. Many recognised the opportunity to latch on to the once loyal ECW fanbase, to try and foster that sense of brand loyalty – some by replicating, or expanding on, the “hardcore” reputation of ECW, others by recognising the need to carve out a niche and establish a strong brand identity. All were defined, above all else, by not being the WWE – they were independent, and fiercely proud of it.
Now, early in 2019, a litany of streaming services, YouTube channels and onDemand media, paired with the ubiquity of social media, means that independent wrestling, and wrestling from all over the world, is more accessible than ever before. In theory, we should be faced with a panoply of distinct styles and approaches to pro-wrestling, each one reflecting its own influences, and the ideologies of its decision-makers. So why, across innumerable promotions, over multiple countries, do we so often see the same faces, the same matches, the same spots, sequences and routines, and most glaringly of all, the same visual presentation, the same tropes, codes and conventions, repeated time and time again?
Increasingly, we see distinct regional styles ironed out, as wrestlers feel free to emulate whatever they see from any other promotion into their style, themselves influenced by the wider range of influences they are able to pull from, but also safe in the knowledge that their audience are the most informed they have ever been. Whatever vestiges still exist of a unique British style are neglected in favour of, no offence to Trent and the lads, invented ideas of “British Strong Style” arguably just as much as by “American Style Wrestling” in years past. Pushes toward a Western market see the uniquely, and historically, Japanese elements of New Japan downplayed in favour of WWE-lite booking, and the stars of Lucha Libre incorporate a hodgepodge of Americanised characterisation into their personas.
I’ll point to a couple of key spots in particular by way of example – firstly, The Lady of the Lake. A sequence made famous by the great Johnny Saint, in which the wrestler effectively rolls themselves up into a ball and, incapable of prising them apart or forcing their shoulders to the mat, the opponent has no choice but to take the wrestler’s offered hand and be tricked into an arm lock or takedown. The likes of Bryan Danielson and Mike Quackenbush imported this move into American wrestling in the mid-2000s, and it later found its way into WWE as a comedy spot by the likes of Eugene and, later, Jack Gallagher.
But in an American context, it makes no sense. Under Mountevans rules, where a wrestler wasn’t permitted to attack their opponent while they were on the mat, their opponent eventually would have no choice but to reach out and take the offered hand – but in America, there’s nothing stopping you from just kicking the bastard. To his credit, I think Samoa Joe actually did just that once.
Another example sees a “pat on the back” used in lieu of Irish Whips, or of any discernible offence, when running the ropes – sometimes coupled with the two combatants taking it in turns to run the ropes, particularly in a contest between two fast-paced high flyers. This borrows heavily from the world of Lucha, where the underlying psychology is built on the notion of transference of momentum, rather than on building heat. Within a lucha framework, allowing your opponent to continue to build speed is a calculated risk in the hope that you would then be able to transfer that momentum, and thus control of the match, to yourself. Without the underlying psychology and match structure of Lucha Libre, it’s without purpose, and a key indicator of cooperation, that the two wrestlers are working together to choreograph a performance, rather than fighting to win a match – without going full Cornette, it’s obvious why this can present problems.
This increasing standardisation of wrestling, and dismissal of context, places me in a position where I find it difficult to enjoy modern wrestling, even when the matches are as close to objectively great as wrestling can get, because every single match starts to feel like something I’ve seen before.
What made someone like Rey Mysterio a major star is that he successfully adapted one style into another context, and made it work. Lord Steven Regal stood out in WCW because no one else there was working a European style. In today’s wrestling world, there’s very little sense that two wrestlers could have such a genuine, self-evident clash of styles that it would inherently build interest because of their distinct backgrounds. There’s little sense that, in watching one promotion over another, I’m watching a distinctly different product, with a different ideological or even stylistic approach. Very few promotions even bother to alter the proverbial window dressing. You have to look to the fringes – to comedy promotions, to deathmatches, to whatever the hell Gatoh Move is, in order to find something that stands out, or feels fresh. And I think we can see that reflected in the tastes of many in the I Maintain The Double Foot Stomp Is Silly community, and borne out by the results of last year’s Stompies.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The wrestling I’ve been watching the most of recently is Pro Wrestling: EVE, UWFi (via the “Bushido” episodes inexplicably now available on Amazon Prime), and a compilation of the USWA/ECW feud. While EVE can suffer from reliance on wrestling tropes as much as anyone, there’s still something of a sense of wrestlers from different backgrounds having different styles, perhaps because women’s wrestling has been in the background for so long that it’s not been as overtly affected by all this.
But where EVE stands out in many ways is its home venue of the Resistance Gallery; it’s almost a character in its own right, an active participant in many matches – Charlie Morgan’s wall run and balcony dives, Nina Samuels clinging to the lighting rig at last year’s She-1, or using one of the promotion’s own banners to tie Emi Sakura to the ropes this past weekend, Emi utilising the wall (and the distance from the apron to it) as part of her repertoire – the familiarity with the venue, and use of it as an integral part of the psychology of matches, is an underappreciated USP. Moving away from the WWE approach of venues being treated as interchangeable backdrops, like the cardboard backing of a puppet theatre, and recognising that they are as much a tool for storytelling and creative approaches to pro-wrestling as everything else in a wrestler or booker’s bag of tricks, is just enough to mark yourself out as doing something different from everybody else.
UWFi, by any standard, stands out. It does so by committing to an ethos entirely. By doing so, it’s at odds with the “Three Ring Circus” approach to wrestling, that a good promotion should offer diversity – something for everyone (“if you don’t like the acrobats, stick around for the strongman, if you don’t like the strongman, wait for the clowns”), but sometimes that’s okay; rules are made to be fucked with. It offers a consistency of logic and of purpose that’s utterly lacking in most modern wrestling. To use a recent example – at the Royal Rumble, Becky Lynch needed clearance from Finlay to replace Lana in the Royal Rumble, but Nia Jax was able to interject herself in the men’s Rumble with no authority whatsoever. While that’s perhaps a separate issue to the homogenisation of the in-ring product, it stems from the same root, an “It’s Just Wrestling” mentality that means that wrestlers/promoters don’t necessarily feel the need to make sure it all adds up, knowing that the audience will make their excuses for them. It’s the same mindset that leads wrestlers to use spots that worked in the UK in the ’70s in Philadelphia in the ’00s, without a thought to whether the meaning has translated.
The USWA/ECW feud was a fascinating, brief window of time in the mid-90s, during which the WWF broke from convention to work explicitly with other promotions. On WWF television, ECW wrestlers, and promoter Paul Heyman, were depicted as an outlaw group, yet given the occasional midcard match against WWF talent. Colour commentator Jerry Lawler, playing the heel role, derided them as “Extremely Crappy Wrestling”. In the WWF, ECW were a curiosity, and Jerry Lawler himself was the clear antagonist – it was Lawler vs. ECW. In ECW, however, Jerry Lawler was representing the entire WWF, and the presentation of the feud was of ECW as the spirited underdog, the independent cutting edge newcomers battling against the million dollar big business of the WWF, with Lawler as the WWF’s key representative.
In the USWA, however, where Tommy Dreamer “invaded” television tapings in retaliation for Lawler’s invasion of ECW, the programme was painted as a conflict of ideologies. Jerry Lawler’s promos, and Lance Russell’s commentary, presented ECW as a group of violent, disrespectful, upstart misfits, looking to upset the established norm that the USWA represented – Memphis wrestling as a cosy, Saturday afternoon television fixture. This was a promotion where Jerry Lawler, as a babyface, could – with a straight face- scornfully deliver the line, “a band called Nirvana, have you heard of them?”, in 1997, some six years after the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and three years after the death of Kurt Cobain. Many of Lawler’s promos at the time pine for the good old days of pro-wrestling, criticise ECW T-shirt wearing fans in his own audience, and sound like your uncle’s “the problem with kids today” Facebook status. This is Memphis wrestling presented as a safe, familiar world for Southern old boys and family viewing, where Lance Russell’s warm, welcoming tones are as much a comfort blanket as play-by-play commentary, with Jerry Lawler fighting for truth, justice, and the American way.
While in ECW, the feud was presented as ECW vs. WWF, the little man vs the establishment, the promos ECW talent cut to be aired on USWA TV don’t acknowledge the WWF at all – it’s all about USWA vs. ECW, North vs. South, Old vs. New. Paul Heyman tries to paint ECW as the true heir to the legacy of Memphis wrestling, citing Memphis’ history of bloody, wild brawls, and the ECW wrestlers routinely say that their matches in the USWA will be “wrestling, the way it used to be”. On USWA and ECW broadcasts, both Lance Russell and Joey Styles effectively try and accuse the other side of hypocrisy – Lance Russell sees ECW as upstarts who think they’re the first to have wild bloody brawls, pointing out that Jerry Lawler had his fair share of “hardcore” matches in Memphis, while Joey Styles makes the same argument to undermine Lawler’s criticisms of ECW.
What underpins this entire story is the sense that these are three promotions with recognisably different in-ring styles and, crucially, vastly different ideologies. The WWF is big business, USWA is the homespun family-run dependent hometown favourite, as American and as dependable as apple pie, while ECW is the rebel, new kid on the block, hellbent on disrupting the established norm by any means necessary. Practically every indie promotion since ECW has tried to carve out that “anti-establishment” niche, but can you think of a group of two or three promotions that could work together, and against one another, this effectively today? Where you could identify that their approaches to how wrestling should be presented are so distinct that they are inherently at odds with one another, to the point that the same wrestler could work babyface in one promotion and heel in the other with no risk of inconsistency of character, or motivation? Ask yourself, of two or three of your own favourite promotions, if you could define their ideology, and how they differ from one another.
Looking to the future, the question is where does the next crossover talent come from? If wrestling from across the world becomes increasingly indistinguishable, where do the new ideas come from? It’s why I find Shayna Baszler more interesting than almost anyone else in WWE, as she stands out against a backdrop of superkicks and somersault planchas, and why an increased integration of a modern MMA style into wrestling is the direction most likely to continue to take off in the coming years. But it’s also why the relationship with China’s OWE is the most exciting aspect of AEW to me, as it’s looking to a resource as largely untapped by the major promotions today as Lucha was in the ’90s when WCW gave luchadores a major platform. It’s emerging markets with little prior tradition of wrestling that are most likely to present new ideas, new styles, and new ideologies – particularly if they’re allowed to grow organically, with their own traditions, their own distinct approaches, before WWE starts building Performance Centres everywhere.