One of the closing quotes of another great retrospective by Dave Meltzer, following the death of William Moody – better known as Percy Pringle III or Paul Bearer – was the following;
“I feel that independent wrestling is the grass roots of our industry … if the roots die, the tree dies. I am on a personal crusade to protect our business on the local level.”
It’s much too easy to say that I agree wholeheartedly.
What’s difficult is trying to rise above the negativity with the indie world, to convey the meaning of this to an often callous, mainstream obsessed, historically ignorant and usually knee-jerk dismissive fanbase. To try to get through to the many that the future of professional wrestling is not best protected by the 800 pound gorilla who leads the industry no matter what it does. To try to explain that this crazy, awesome, maligned, pseudo-sport is best preserved by a dwindling number of profitable and viable smaller promotions across the country, and across the globe.
I also know trying to explain how badly the future looks for the sport is nearly impossible to convey to fans who don’t understand the past.
What’s hard is trying to struggle through the negativity and the dismissiveness of too many fans when they sneer at indie level guys (and gals) who work more for a passion than a paycheck, and put their health at risk on various levels, and in many, many ways try to perform an artform that historically required interaction that is seldom seen at the mainstream level.
What’s also hard is dealing with profit, economics and the like. Sure, the WWE is making $, has made $ and will continue to make $, but there are so many other aspects to it all, and many of them are willfully ignored or woefully unknown.
For all the talk about how the industry changed for the better since the mid 1980’s, the reality is that the yearly, average attendance plummeted from 1980 to 1990, by about 10 million fans.
For all the talk about how the WWE’s “Attitude” approach drove profits to new heights, there’s the reality that ratings over the past decade plummeted from 10’s and 11’s to the point where a 3.5 is considered great.
That’s a lot of millions of fans that left the industry in both aforementioned decades.
That’s a lot of viable, profitable, promotions that are no longer operating, no longer employing, no longer allowing talented individuals to ply their craft, no longer providing a platform for creative types to get their feet in the door, to learn the business and to move on to bigger and better things.
But the point that has to be hammered home is that there was a time when professional wrestling was an event in almost every major market in the United States (and Canada), at least once a month and likely every week when you consider the circuits surrounding those markets. And more when you consider the various other markets and regions and opportunities.
A million fans can quickly become ten million, depending upon the way you look at the statistics, but having a million fans come to the arenas on a monthly basis, paying for tickets, parking, food & drink, as well as those modern concepts like merchandising … well, that’s a ton of cash that dried up from the industry, and blown away like dust.
Fans can readily argue that wrestling is a TV and PPV based industry, but the mainstream hasn’t harnessed the profitability of PPV (as it should from the historical building up of shows) and the approach to TV is much of the same, overworking a format that really never maintained its masses for two years, let alone ten, and now we’re inching closer to nearly two decades of the same.
There was a time when wrestling was introduced by a guy at a podium, when it was announced by credible and charismatic local personalities, when the concept of a heel color commentator was far from being imaginable, and when the microphone came down from a wire from the arena’s rafters.
We’ve moved beyond twenty minute opening verbal battles, long beyond squash matches, long beyond a point where ‘believability’ would be important, and long beyond establishing names and talent and power and winning ability has any meaning.
Instead, it’s a static roster with a pre-set format and a wholly scripted approach.
And most fans today, even some who really should know better, think that wrestling was always that way, and scoff at any indication that it was not.
It was not.
Paul Moody – like James Cornette, like Paul Heyman, like undoubtedly many other examples, was a guy who loved the business, got a foot in as a photographer, and worked his way (literally and figuratively) to the big show, by way of small regional promotions, moving up to the bigger regional operations, and eventually getting noticed, getting his opportunity, and earning a living in a crazy industry that he knew all so well because of those easily overlooked opportunities.
Maybe today there is a place for a Wayne Keown to be a character, but for most of the past decade, setting aside Heyman and Vickie Guerrero, that manager role was going extinct.
Maybe things will change, but then again, maybe Jack Swagger will do another toke and they will both disappear.
Maybes always come to mind, especially when notable figures pass away, but when Lou Albano passed on, the accolades were there but no one (as in no one in the WWE) thought much about re-creating the magic of the ‘big three’ managers and the role they played in keeping opponents fresh and setting the structure for the product and developing/maintaining heat and most of all lending their talents to enhance their protégés and make a good-looking wrestler a viable main eventer, or making a talented wrestler a viable main eventer, or ….
Well, that’s the problem, because the mainstream has long passed by the historical approaches to professional wrestling, and the indie world is too stuck in trying to be the mainstream and attract mainstream fans that neither side of the coin has any real, viable inclination to experiment and learn and figure things out.
Today, and over the past decade and a half or more, what happened to the Moody’s and the Heyman’s and the Cornette’s?
The vastly talented wrestlers are mostly going to the UFC, where they can fight four times or less a year and make big $. (and wow, what a concept, but why bother mentioning that?)
But the big, big, big problem is that creativity in wrestling means a Creative Department, and a revolving door of Hollywood types who don’t know wrestling, don’t understand its past and don’t have any longevity in the business, and won’t have it.
Those creative geniuses of days gone by, those guys who got the book or got to give input to old school owners, those guys had to prove themselves, make money, and not just come up with a 1000 clever ideas and hope one or two ‘stuck’.
Those guys had to earn a living by attracting a paying audience.
Today, we’ve got promotions that can’t buy a free audience in an amusement park.
We’ve got promotions that have all the big expensive overhead all but given to them, and they can’t draw a dime, promote a big event, or make technology work for them.
There are promotions as well that see iPPV as a potential format, but can’t get the reality that a 3.5 hour show, no matter how cheap, is just too long for anyone to sit at their computer AND ENJOY.
(I’ve got computer disks and a growing number of review streams to watch, but I watch wrestling in front of my TV, not in front of a laptop or pc, and it’s just not the same, and even I can’t find time for watching on the internet!)
What’s amazing is that the standards of today are so removed from profitability that it’s laughable when someone tells me that this guy’s hot, that guy’s great and the other one’s a legend.
None of them, by the way, ever drew an audience on a weekly basis based on their talent, charisma or ability to entice paying customers to come to the same place in four weeks to see them work as a professional wrestler.
Sure, there’s a lot of Indie promotions that need support, and a lot that don’t always create the impression that they want to do anything beyond aping the mainstream, but I have to figure that if there are a few dozen promotions out there, and just to survive, some of them are going to stumble on new approaches or hone their approach or make themselves viable.
And there are some, like CHIKARA, like Dragon Gate USA, like AAW or AIW, like SHIMMER and others, that are doing their thing. Maybe those places give opportunity, maybe their ‘success’ will be ignored, but if promotions like these disappear, professional wrestling is doomed.
Joe Babinsack can be reached at