Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Rise of the Indies

Last Saturday night, I had the privilege of attending my 5th Chikara Pro Wrestling event, this time in Reading, PA, for the second night of Chikara’s annual Young Lions Cup tournament. Every year, indy wrestlers (aged 25 or younger) from across the country (and even from Japan) come to Chikara to compete for the prestigious Young Lions Cup, which is basically the top singles title in Chikara.

I would run down the competitors in this year’s tournament, but to be honest, outside of Chikara mainstays like Lince Dorado, Frightmare, Amasis and Ophidian, I hadn’t really heard of any of them. But that was what I enjoyed the most. Y’see, with the wrestling scene pretty much dominated by WWE, it’s nice to be able to see some wrestlers who I’ll probably never see again unless they come back to Chikara or somehow, some way make it to the big time. These are the guys who wrestle because they love the business. Nearly all of them have day jobs and travel across the country (usually on their own dime) to wrestle in front of crowds that usually number anywhere from 50 to 250 – a far cry from the thousands of fans who attend your average Monday Night RAW broadcast.

I’ve always had a particular affinity for independent wrestling, and WWE and TNA wouldn’t be where they are today without the indies. If you look up and down their respective rosters, you’ll see more than a few wrestlers who got their starts on the indy circuit.

Take CM Punk, for example – he was a big player in ROH long before he because the Straight Edge Superstar in WWE. Triple H toiled away in a variety of Northeast indy promotions before going to WCW and then to stardom in WWE. I could go on and on, but independent wrestling is the lifeblood of the industry, and it’s nice to see that independent wrestling has made such a tremendous comeback in the past decade. Heck, even NXT Season Two winner, Kaval (a/k/a Low-Ki) cut his teeth on the indy circuit.

Prior to the then-WWF’s national expansion in the mid-80s, wrestling operated as a series of “territories” spread across the country. The WWF ran the Northeast. Jim Crockett Promotions ran the Mid-Atlantic. Verne Gagne’s AWA ran the Midwest. Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling promoted Louisiana. Championship Wrestling from Florida controlled the Sunshine State. Georgia Championship Wrestling and its national TV show had control of the Peachtree State. The Von Erich family had a huge following in Texas with World Class Championship Wrestling and even a national following thanks to its nationally syndicated TV show.

These are just some of the promotions that dominated pro wrestling in the 70s and early 80s. When Vince McMahon took the WWF national, the territories started to dry up one by one until they were all gone, leaving WWE as the wrestling super power. NWA/WCW gave WWE a run for its money in the 90s, but it’s long since gone. The rest of the territories just couldn’t compete with the money McMahon could offer and went away. And for quite a few years, there wasn’t much wrestling outside of WWE, WCW, and (briefly) ECW. Now, though, indies are thriving again, and I’m starting to think that we may be in for another wrestling boom in the next five to ten years.

Think about it: no matter how much I rag on TNA and think that its product is god-awful, it still has a following and a national TV deal. If Dixie Carter ever gets her head out of her ass and actually hires some people who know how to book a good wrestling show, then maybe TNA will actually start to thrive instead of just treading water as it’s been doing pretty much since its inception. Of course, I think it wouldn’t take much to fix TNA, and one of these days, I’m actually going to sit down and come up with an easy-to-follow plan (step one: Get rid of Hogan, Bischoff and Vince Russo).

ROH Wrestling has gained a reputation for excellent in-ring wrestling (something lacking in both WWE and TNA) and an old school booking philosophy that’s sorely been missing in wrestling since the territories dried up. It also has something of a TV deal on HDNet (which, unfortunately, my cable company doesn’t carry – stupid Comcast).

There are even rumors running rampant of a new national wrestling company being started by one of Fred Wilpon’s sons (Wilpon owns the New York Mets). I, of course, will believe this when I believe it, but it does show that there’s someone out there who thinks that the time may be right to try to compete with WWE.

Look, as much as I do enjoy watching WWE, I realize that it has some serious flaws, not the least of which is overdoing it with a PG product, and I do understand why they’re doing it, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a way to get closer to the edginess of the Attitude Era without falling back into the Crash TV booking Vince Russo made famous (and then subsequently ruined when he went to WCW).

My solution is very simple – more wrestling. And that brings me back to the indies. Your average indy match is significantly longer than a WWE TV match and features a degree of innovation rarely seen in your average WWE match. Yes, I know that a lot of indy matches are nothing but spotfests. I’m not advocating matches like that; they just don’t work very well in the long run. However, some of the innovates moves and non-cookie cutter matches you see on indy cards would be much welcomed by me (and other fans, I surmise) in WWE.

Let’s face facts: pretty much every John Cena match is the same. On the rarest of occasion will you see him pull off a move that’s not in his usual repertoire. My challenge to Cena (and to every WWE wrestler) is for him to find a move or two that he can pull off and occasionally add them to his matches. Maybe it’s a new submission move or a suplex variation or a new kind of power bomb. Whatever it is, put it into the match and make the fans go “Oh!”

In Japan, every wrestler has a variety of signature and finishing moves, any number of which can be used to end a match. The matches are also more athletic and more competitive. WWE has plenty of wrestlers who can wrestle this more athletic “strong” style. Your average WWE wrestler might have two finishers and often over-rely on punches and kicks. Longer and better matches are the answer. Well, I think it’s the answer, anyway. I’m not in the business nor will I probably ever be, but I really think that WWE needs to try something new. Without the edgy storylines that people used to tune in to see, you’re left with having to rely on a PG product to draw in viewers or to bring back old ones. More wrestling, better wrestling, more competitive and athletic wrestling – this is what WWE needs.

When WWE was in trouble during the early part of the Monday Night Wars, it took a page from the edgy product of ECW, and the Attitude Era was born, a period of some serious money-making for WWE. I think WWE needs to look toward the indies again to find a new identity that will help them regain the audience it’s lost since WCW went away. Look to ROH and Chikara and IWC and PWX and AIW and PWG and all of those tiny promotions that operate out of firehalls and sports complexes and high school gyms. Look to the wrestlers who bleed and sweat for the love of the business, not movie deals or merchandising opportunities. Bring wrestling back to the fans, and they’ll come back to you. All you have to do is watch one night of a Chikara show to see this. Trust me on this; people are dying for a product that’s not a cookie cutter.

Well, that’s all for today. I will hopefully be back tomorrow with a review of Monday Night RAW’s 900th show (and it ain’t gonna be pretty) and the NXT season finale. Can’t wait to hear how many times Michael Cole will say that RAW is “the longest running episodic program in the history of television.” I’m sure it will be close to ten.



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