“You’re never going to compete with Vince McMahon. He’ll kill you.”
So says Cary Silkin, owner of Ring of Honor until 2011, when the promotion that spawned such talent as CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Austin Aries and Seth Rollins was purchased by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. “I believe that there’ll only be one man in the wrestling business who’ll make money. We know who he is. He lives in Connecticut.”
Still, the megalith of the mat world is facing challenges from a number of startups. No one is delusional enough to expect to put WWE out of business. The goal is to offer a viable alternative for fans and wrestlers whom, for whatever reason, the company has overlooked.
The plan? Tapping into the versatile array of talent working for international promotions as well as in the indie scene. “We all know WWE is the best place to become a global player,” says former WWE Tag Team co-titlist Evan Bourne, who uses the name Matt Sydal for indie bookings. “But because of the dissemination of information today, it’s possible for indie guys to gain an international reputation.”
Although some US indie stars have been able to supplement their income with tours of Japan, Konnan—the veteran grappler labeled “The Mexican Hulk Hogan” due to his high visibility in that country—insists that the majority “are waiting for their big break. And this is it.”
He’s referring to Lucha Underground, a show scheduled to debut October 8 on the fledgling El Rey network, a cable outlet appealing to American-born Hispanics and those intrigued by elements of the culture.
This is not a wrestling league in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s a television series that features wrestling matches. While details of the tapings have been sketchy, it’s easy to imagine the 21st-century equivalent of an El Santo film, the Mexican movies that starting in 1958 depicted the country’s most popular luchador battling for justice against crime kingpins and monsters while tangling between the ropes.
Konnan is not only an on-air talent on the program but also runs the dressing room, doling out orders to a cast that includes performers from Mexico’s popular AAA promotion (Blue Demon, Jr., Fenix, Hijo del Fantasma), former WWE standouts (Chavo Guerrero, Jr., John Hennigan, aka Johnny Nitro), and free agents like Matt Capiccioni and Trevor Mann, who as Ricochet may be the most electrifying athlete on the indie circuit.
Two decades ago, during the Monday Night Wars, Ricochet (whose character on Lucha Underground is called Prince Puma) would have been quickly snatched by WWE, WCW or ECW, just to keep him away from the competition. But because of WWE’s sheer dominance today, some industry observers believe that the indie scene is thriving in unprecedented ways.
Just as intriguing: Despite the prominence of AAA wrestlers on the Lucha Underground roster, the show is not being produced by the company. Instead, Mark Burnett, whose credits include Survivor, The Apprentice, The Voice and Shark Tank, is the executive producer, while director Robert Rodriguez heads the El Rey network.
McMahon has not faced these types of adversaries in a long time. “We’re working with the biggest power brokers in Hollywood,” Konnan boasts. “These people are geniuses who understand what people want.”
WWE representatives did not respond to a request to participate in this article.
For the past several weeks, Jeff Jarrett, a former WWE intercontinental champion and the co-founder of TNA, has been scouting venues in New York, Dallas and Los Angeles for his new Global Force Wrestling (GFW) group while negotiating with sponsors and television networks. “Any network that’s lucky enough to land GFW,” he proclaims, “will hit the jackpot.”
Like Konnan, Jarrett views the professional wrestling landscape as a limitless bounty.
“The business is as healthy as it’s been since the (regional) territory days,” he says. “The talent pool is there. If you go to an indie show, you might see two or three high-quality matches. You wouldn’t say that a few years ago. They just need the stage. I have a database with 500 talents throughout the world. I’m not talking about good talent. I’m saying there’s great talent out there.”
“I think there could be three, four or five wrestling promotions if each is unique.”
And he’d have no reticence about working with any of them. Jarrett says he has agreements in place with 13 wrestling organizations on five continents.
“Justin Bieber and Metallica can each sell out the same arena,” Sydal notes. “Which means a wrestling promotion with a different type of brand can sell out the same places as WWE. You don’t always like the same band at age 48 that you did at eight. Your tastes change. So people who fell out of wrestling can be brought back by something they haven’t seen before.
“When I wrestle for Dragon Gate in Japan, there’s a higher ratio of women to men. So there are different types of audiences. Someone just has to take advantage of the potential that’s there.”
In Jarrett’s vision, GFW will have a touring champion—like Lou Thesz, Ric Flair, Harley Race and Jack Brisco in the NWA’s heyday—defending his prestigious title on shows for various promotions. “In WWE’s universe, nothing else exists,” he says. “We’re not going to do that.”
The plan is for GFW to partner with existing powerhouses like AAA and New Japan, a formula that apparently flourishes overseas. “The big main event, the big fight, works in boxing and UFC,” Jarrett says. “And we need to focus on that.”
In August, he attended the finals of New Japan’s G-1 tournament, which drew standing-room-only crowds and high-profile media coverage daily. Among the entrants: former TNA world heavyweight champion AJ Styles, ex-WWE wrestlers Shelton Benjamin and Doc Gallows (who previously wrestled as Festus and Luke Gallows, respectively) and Davey Boy Smith, Jr., son of the late British Bulldog.
Each night brought unexpected swerves and greater anticipation until Kazuchika Okada defeated Shinsuke Nakamura in a thrilling match that felt every bit as spectacular as any sport's season finale.
“Wrestling has been around even before television,” Jarrett says. “It’s Shakespeare to the masses. It’s Hollywood. It’s athleticism. It’s music. Putting all these things together is like producing a hit song. I mean, what makes a hit? Is it the singer or the song? It’s both.”
Hitting the Wall
“I tried my best,” Silkin says about his efforts to establish Ring of Honor beyond its cult base. “I was giving it my best shot. I was doing it with sincerity. Even though I knew there was the attrition of losing guys, other guys would rise and some would come back. But nobody is ever going to get the best of Vince.
“If you went to a WWE show—any WWE show, whether it’s a WrestleMania or a house show in Kentucky—and you asked about Ring of Honor, maybe five percent of the people would know about it. They’re not on these websites. It’s a tiny world.”
As a full-time ticket broker since the 1980s, Silkin has noticed stark differences between entertainment and what’s labeled "sports entertainment."
“Billy Joel, Elton John and the Allman Brothers have kept their audience. I saw Alice Cooper tonight, and it was the same fans I saw at Alice Cooper concerts 40 years ago. That isn’t true in wrestling. Through all its incarnations, eras and changes in style, the fanbase is very volatile. They haven’t kept their fans.”
And, away from WWE, he contends, only a few remain loyal. The Pro Wrestling Guerrilla promotion in southern California, for instance, is known for stimulating matches, unpredictability and a sense of humor that adds to the entertainment experience. But according to Silkin, the group rarely draws beyond its most committed fans.
“When ECW was around, you’d have 400 people at one show, 800 people at the next show, and then people couldn’t get in. That’s not happening now. There’s no increase in business. There’s a wall.
“When I was a kid, a new guy would come into a wrestling territory, and you didn’t know what he looked like except for a picture in a magazine. Now you go to a show and see a great match. An hour later, the whole thing’s up on YouTube. People text on their smartphones at the movies. There’s 500 channels on cable. It’s too much. There’s no attention span. People don’t care about seeing something live in the same way.”
Regardless, he acknowledges that corporations like Sinclair remain willing to invest in wrestling: “Ring of Honor continues to exist. It’s still alive, and people love it. If we were having this conversation and Ring of Honor was over, it would be a lot sadder.”
No Sure Things in Wrestling
In 2006, Kevin Kleinrock truly believed that he was on to something. The promotion that he helped create and book, Wrestling Society X, was presented on television as a secret society. Matches were said to emanate from a bunker in an unknown location. There were special effects and electrical weapons.
No one watching would have believed that they were viewing an actual fight. But with the support of MTV outlets around the world, Kleinrock knew that he was offering something fans had never witnessed.
“We were trying to create a true alternative to WWE,” he recalls. “We didn’t want to compete directly with them. When the average person heard of pro wrestling, they were still thinking of the Hulk Hogan leg drop, and not the exciting style that wrestling had evolved into.
“We wanted to show that wrestling could be young, hip and cool again. We wanted that 18-24 male demographic.”
As with Ring of Honor, the roster was impressive; Teddy Hart, Jack Evans and Tyler Black (aka Seth Rollins) were regulars on the program. Unfortunately, Kleinrock maintains, the part of the plan that was supposed to secure success quickly backfired.
“Unlike WWE and TNA, the network was funding the show. And they wanted something to explode or someone to get electrocuted almost every week. It had to be crazy. So you had standards and practices worried about kids doing these things at home, and executives worried about fans getting bored by traditional wrestling.”
After sinking $3.6 million into the venture, Kleinrock claims, MTV lost interest. “We were on for four weeks, and then they pretty much showed the rest of the episodes in a marathon.”
The experience left Kleinrock perplexed about what a new promotion could do to stand out: “When you try to make it too different (from WWE), do you turn off the average wrestling fan too much? But on the other hand, when you try to duplicate WWE, you get TNA—or WWE Light. Ring of Honor is great. But they can’t compete on the entertainment or production side.”
Nonetheless, Kleinrock, like Konnan and Jarrett, can’t walk away from the business and continues to challenge the status quo. He’s been a consultant on Lucha Underground.
The NXT Factor
In contrast to projects like Wrestling Society X, Konnan believes that Lucha Underground will seize the fascination of both Latino fans who remember watching lucha libre with their parents and grandparents as well as others intrigued by the masks, hip quotient and high-flying action.
But presenting lucha libre requires a certain type of sensibility.
In 1997, WWE attempted to create its own lucha show, Super Astros, establishing a working relationship with AAA. The talent—Apolo Dantes, Negro Casas, Hijo de Santo, Essa Rios and others—was there, along with Konnan. But the project faltered, Konnan says, because the late Victor Quinones, the man overseeing Super Astros, came from the world of Puerto Rican wrestling, where matches were often plodding and bloody.
“Just because you’re Hispanic doesn’t mean you understand lucha,” Konnan argues.
Still, because of its depth, WWE is able to work past its misfires and continue refining its product in a way that’s daunting to anyone attempting to start a new league.
Kleinrock, for one, finds present-day WWE programming compelling. “The Bray Wyatt and Dean Ambrose characters are refreshing because they’re so much more than what we had in the last few years,” he says. “The way they connect to the crowd is money and different from what we came to expect from the PG-13 era.”
Sydal considers himself a fan of NXT, WWE’s developmental league which consistently draws a small, fervent audience—reminiscent of an ECW crowd, minus the profane chants—for a roster of athletes who established themselves in organizations like Ring of Honor (Kevin Steen, Sami Zayn, Corey Graves), Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (Adrian Neville), AAA (Kalisto), and Japan’s Pro Wrestling Noah (Hideo Itami, aka Kenta).
On September 11, the group presented its third two-hour special, Takeover II, on the WWE Network, an event that channeled the mood of an intimate indie show, where the audience knows it’s watching a selection of young, hungry daredevils bent on proving their greatness.
Former WWE announcer Jim Ross blogged that he was so intrigued by the matchups that he all but forgot about the competing Steelers-Ravens game, reserving special praise for Charlotte—NXT women’s champion and Flair’s daughter—for possessing a “simply special” quality “far beyond someone with her experience level.” Neville, who retained his NXT title in a riveting Fatal 4-Way involving Zayn, Tyler Breeze and Tyson Kidd, was compared to a younger version of the innovative Dynamite Kid.
Among the highlights of the match: a four-man, double-suplex powerbomb from the top rope.
“I think NXT is a really good example of WWE throwing out an extra option,” says Sydal. “The show flows the whole hour. It might be the best show in wrestling. They’ve found a way to empower their talent and make them creative and innovative within the WWE framework. It’s like an artist’s colony for like-minded wrestlers.”
All quotes obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.