CM Punk, Bryan Danielson, and Tyler Black: How WWE Is Winning The Indy Wars
For well over a decade now, WWE has used a tried and true formula for developing talent. Often, prospective wrestlers were or have been sent to developmental territory to train in all aspects of wrestling-- from technique, ring presence, playing the crowd, and mic skills. A wrestler will spend anywhere from a few months to a few years in developmental before the chance to be called up to the main roster, which may or may not bring success. Brock Lesnar, Batista, John Cena, and Randy Orton all went this route to success, with the common thread being that all four spent hardly in time in what would be considered the "indys"-- the independent wrestling circuit. They were all "home grown" in that all the various factors that made them the wrestlers they became developed within the confines of the WWE.
All four spent time in Ohio Valley Wrestling, which was part of WWE's developmental program from 2000 until 2008. In that time, Batista became OVW Heavyweight Champion, Lesnar became half of the Southern Tag Team Champions twice with Shelton Benjamin as The Minnesota Stretching Crew, and Orton became a two time Hardcore Champion (a title represented by a trash can, no less). Only Cena had any real experience outside of the WWE, as he spent a year in what was known as Ultimate Pro Wrestling, a now defunct promotion in California. Here, he developed a robot-like persona known as The Prototype that was used in OVW before being dropped for a rappin' White boy gimmick by the name of Mr. P. Cena was a former Heavyweight Champion and Tag Team Champion during his time there.
The formula worked well for many years, and many of the wrestlers seen on WWE programming in the last decade came strictly from developmental territory without any real independent wrestling experience. But the formula has changed. It actually changed years ago under our noses, and hardly anybody noticed. About 5 years ago, WWE started really scouting the indy circuits for new talent, and an entire group of superstars who spent years in the 'minor leagues' were given a chance to head to developmental and eventually the main stage of WWE. CM Punk spent years in the Independent Wrestling Association: Mid South, winning the Heavyweight Championship on 5 occasions and feuding with the likes of Colt Cobana and Chris Hero. Punk also became part of Ring of Honor in 2003, having high profile matches with AJ Styles and Samoa Joe while also becoming part of Raven's "Gathering" stable on TNA. Punk's 60 minute time limit draw match with Samoa Joe for the ROH Championship became the first North American match in 7 years to receive the "5 Star Match" rating from David Meltzer's Wrestling Observer Newsletter, and the subsequent DVD became the best selling ROH DVD at the time. In 2005, Punk received the call to WWE, and during the time was given the ROH Heavyweight Championship, a belt he claimed he was to take with him to the WWE. Punk moved on to OVW, premiered on ECW in 2006 and slowly became the superstar (or mid-carder, depending on your vantage point) he is today.
Other wrestlers who started off in the independent circuit also made their way up through developmental territory onto the main stage. Matt Sydal, aka Evan Bourne, spent 3 years in ROH, teaming for a short time with Christopher Daniels to become the ROH Tag Team Champions. Sydal moved on to OVW, became the company's last Heavyweight Champion before the company broke ties with the WWE, and moved on to Florida Championship Wrestling before heading to ECW and eventually RAW. Both Shaemus and Drew Macintyre got their start in Irish Whip Wrestling. Shaemus both lost and regained the International Heavyweight Championship from D'Lo Brown and eventually lost the belt to Macintyre. Macintyre went on to OVW and FCW, and Shaemus went on to FCW.
At the same time, WWE used the Deep South Wrestling territory from 2005 to 2007, building up 'home grown' talent like The Miz, Kofi Kingston and Jack Swagger, with the latter two eventually joining FCW when it became the only developmental territory in the WWE. Something changed though in early 2010 in regards to WWE and its development of independent talent. This something happened with Bryan Danielson, a veteran of the independent scene. Danielson became featured on NXT, a new program showcasing talent from the FCW roster in an effort to find the "next breakout star". Unlike the others who made their way through the independent circuit, Danielson's experience wasn't hidden. In fact, it became the main feature to his new 'Daniel Bryan' persona, the wrestler who had wrestled all over the world but always seemed to find a way to lose to rookies. WWE went so far to promote his past experience that Michael Cole became the defunct heel announcer, systematically generating heat and exposure for Bryan's "minor league" experience. The same happened with Low-Ki, aka Kaval, eventual winner of NXT season 2 and former TNA X-division Champion. Instead of hiding their past, soon their past became part of their character. The fact that they came from the outside-in was integrated into the storyline, and so far has generated positive results with Kaval's win on NXT and Bryan's surprise Summerslam performance after Tiegate and his upcoming US Title shot at the Night of Champions.
WWE is banking on independent wrestling. This is obvious by the recent acquisition of current ROH Heavyweight Champion Tyler Black, who is using much of the same heel "I'm taking the belt with me" persona Punk used 5 years ago. Far from these guys hiding their past, Daniel Bryan brings up clips you can find on youtube of this Bryan Danielson guy in a promo, Kaval raps about being the only place on wrestling to see some "Total Nonstop Action", and suddenly the paradigm shifts. WWE will still find and use "home grown" talent-- the buildup and push of a demasked Dos Caras Jr. as Alberto Del Rio being the most recent example. But for now, the independents seem to be the place WWE is placing their stock, and much of this at the peril of TNA.
TNA has possibly the biggest roster of former ROH alumni in Samoa Joe, Jay Lethal, AJ Styles, Desmond Wolfe, Chris Sabin and Alex Shelley (The Motor City Machine Guns), and until recently Christopher Daniels. And what is TNA doing? TNA is banking on old ECW wrestlers from over 10 years ago, old WCW talent, and a Ric Flair led stable which can't seem to appear anything like a threat. AJ Styles, Pro Wrestling Illustrated's wrestler of the year, is relegated to a TV title that is never defended. Samoa Joe is off the air for weeks only to be put in a lackluster feud with Nash and Sting, and Lethal is virtually absent from TV after a hot push with Ric Flair. Christopher Daniels is now absent from the company. Everybody here derides the booking of Desmond Wolfe, so we won't even go into that. In fact, the only younger talent from the indys that is currently being pushed is the Motor City Machine Guns, which is about the only thing that gets a TNA crowd to go crazy right now (something you'd think Carter would hear, as much as she's in the audience right now).
TNA is making a lot of booking mistakes-- that much is certain. What those mistakes are will be puzzled on this site constantly. One of the main ones I see is their giving of the ball to older talent while WWE banks on the younger independent wrestler. It's like Bizarro world wrestling or something and the exact opposite of what we'd expect from each company. While it's sad what TNA chooses to do with its indy talent, I very much look forward to seeing what WWE does with theirs.
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