Human Chess

Has Independent Wrestling Finally Arrived?

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  • For the stars of Being the Elite, changing the business is Too Sweet.

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    “Are you All In?”

    A simple question, asked all over independent wrestling in the last few months. A question prompted by a decision by “The American Nightmare” Cody (formerly Cody Rhodes) and the Young Bucks – Matt & Nick Jackson – to attempt to do what no other wrestling company besides WWE had been able to accomplish. Equal parts a call to arms to fill the 10,000 seat Sears Center in Chicago with only one single match announced and a hearty middle finger (or, if you prefer, a Too Sweet) in the faces of WWE. And it worked. In less than 30 minutes, Cody and the Bucks had the first non-WWE show in almost 20 years to sell 10,000 seats.

    All In may very well be the high point for Being the Elite. Starting off as a slice-of-life look at the Bucks and Bullet Club leader Kenny Omega’s life on the road in New Japan Pro Wrestling, the YouTube show slowly morphed from silly vignettes about the Bucks and Omega singing karaoke to driving the plot for both New Japan and Ring of Honor, the American promotion the Bucks and Cody are primarily associated with. In the last year, BtE provided backstory for the Bullet Club firing Adam Cole (coincidentally right before his departure for WWE), the current battle for Bullet Club leadership between Omega and Cody, and the reunion of Omega and Golden Lovers teammate Kota Ibushi.

    The success of the Bucks, Bullet Club and BtE has spun off into unlikely avenues. With the Bucks leading the way, New Japan now has T-shirts available for sale at Hot Topic. Funko is releasing POP! figurines of the Bucks, Omega and Cody later this summer. Appearing on BtE has proven to be a boon for non-Bullet Club wrestlers as well. Flip Gordon, who began appearing on BtE shortly after signing with ROH last May, has seen his stock rise both stateside and with New Japan. Longtime veteran Frankie Kazarian managed to work in plugs for his metal band VexTemper in his appearances last fall. And Bullet Club members Marty Scurll and Adam “Hangman” Page have seen boosts in their merchandise sales as they transitioned from special guests to featured roles on the show.

    All of this has helped the Bucks and Cody most of all. For Cody, the success of All In justifies his decision to leave WWE in 2016. Floundering for months in a gimmick he didn’t want, Cody opted to leave what would have been a safe job with WWE to try his luck on the independent circuit. Two years of work with every company from ROH and New Japan to Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and North East Wrestling has seen Cody move from lower-card obscurity to the big time. The Young Bucks, meanwhile, have repeatedly said that the money they make between ROH, New Japan, independent bookings and what can best be described as a merchandising empire allows them and their families a very comfortable life, to the point where they don’t need to go to WWE to say they’ve made it.

    But what does this say about the state of independent wrestling? It’s hard to find a problem with an independent show selling out a 10,000 seat arena, but it isn’t an ROH show. ROH certainly reaps the benefits of having Cody and the Bucks on their roster, as evidenced by the fact that they held the largest show in their history last April in New Orleans with Cody and Omega in a featured match, but they were recently stymied in their attempts to run an even larger show at Madison Square Garden. New Japan is struggling to sell out the 10,000 seat Cow Palace in San Francisco for their next US show in July after two rapid 5,000 seat sellouts in July 2017 and March 2018. On the flip side, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla is moving from its home in Reseda, CA to a larger theater in downtown Los Angeles.

    Perhaps a bigger concern for independent companies is what happens if the Bucks and Cody decide to head to WWE after all. It’s a situation that New Japan dealt with in 2016, losing AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows to the WWE in one fell swoop. One look at the current WWE lineup sees at least a dozen former indy darlings all under one umbrella: Styles, Daniel Bryan, Samoa Joe and Cesaro on Smackdown; Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn and Seth Rollins on Raw; the vast majority of NXT. It seems inevitable that all roads would lead to WWE HQ in Stamford, CT, especially with a company flush with cash now that they’ve reached a $1B agreement with Fox to air Smackdown beginning in 2019.

    That said, independent wrestling continues to survive because of a steady influx of talent and a fan base looking for something different from what WWE provides. Considering the sheer amount of streaming wrestling available from all corners of the globe, the audience is out there. And while PWG does not stream shows, they make their money the old fashioned way; their annual Battle of Los Angeles is a perennial top seller on DVD and BluRay. With the regular churn of talent going to WWE (five out of 24 wrestlers from the 2017 BOLA have signed with WWE since the tournament), there is also a regular churn of talent leaving WWE because the company can’t hire everyone, no matter how hard they try.

    Ultimately, Cody and the Bucks deserve all the credit for what they’ve done. All In selling 10,000 tickets is big news, but I won’t feel like independent wrestling has truly arrived until selling 10,000 seats isn’t news anymore.

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    Don Becker has spent all but 10 years of his life watching professional wrestling. Follow him on Twitter @imdonbecker.

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