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Stable Money: How WWE is playing catch up to the rest of the wrestling world

Bullet Club

There are some areas in which WWE simply can't be outdone like production values and mainstream exposure. They’re the biggest wrestling company in the world and it shows. But when it comes to areas like creativity, in-ring product, and even promos, they find themselves on a level playing field. In those three aforementioned areas, WWE is being outperformed by companies like NJPW, ROH, and DDT*.

*(Yes, DDT. Have you seen a Super Sasadango Machine Powerpoint, or an Antonio Honda match? The creativity and personality coming out of DDT is fantastic.)

One area WWE is doing poorly in is creating popular and marketable stables.

Take a look at this current linup:

  • The Wyatt Family, which is really just a vehicle for Bray Wyatt (and more recently Braun Strowman) -- a vehicle WWE is driving off a cliff.
  • The #Social Outcasts who are answering the question of what happens when you put four talented jobbers in a group? You get a group of talented jobbers.
  • The League of Nations, a group that actually has a ton of potential. While four foreigners/outsiders that are the top heels of the company all together sounds good at first. The problem is they’ve all been booked so poorly for so long that nobody cares about them anymore. Sewing them together isn’t going erase years of terrible booking.

I’m tempted to include The New Day in that list, but they feel like more of a Freebirds-esque tag team plus one than a stable. As an act, they are more over than any of the previously mentioned groups in WWE (I’ve got to get me a pair of those socks!). According to WWE’s online shop, New Day merch is currently selling better than anything The Wyatt Family, Social Outcasts, or League of Nations have to offer. (Well, that’s easy in the case of League of Nations because they don’t even have any merch whatsoever. Well done, WWE Marketing Department!) 

While WWE has seemingly lost interest in creating innovative, marketable stables, other promotions from around the world have picked up the slack.

The most obvious example is New Japan Pro Wrestling's Bullet Club. For that one person reading this who doesn’t know, Bullet Club is a heel group based in NJPW made up of gaijin and one native Japanese wrestler. The group that currently consists of The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, Tama Tonga, Bad Luck Fale, Cody Hall and Yujiro Takahashi is super over.

According to Pro Wrestling Tees, the original “Bone Soldier” Bullet Club shirt is the top selling shirt on the site by, what I’m told, is a very large margin. And it doesn’t stop there. In general, Bullet Club members outsell almost all of the top indie wrestlers and WWE legends that sell on the site. Not bad for a group based on a tiny island in Asia! It’s actually super impressive when you think about it: a group of indie wrestlers came together in Japan, got a cleverly designed shirt, copied gestures and catchphrases that were in fashion 15 years ago, and became the most over group in the wrestling world.

Another stable making waves internationally is Los Ingobernables.

Los Ingobernables originated in CMLL in Mexico with Rush, La Sombra, and La Mascara. With the NJPW/CMLL relationship, and NJPW’s Tetsuya Naito often working in Mexico and teaming with La Sombra, he too became a member of the group and later formed Los Ingobernables de Japon. I don’t follow what’s going on too closely in Mexico, but I have been told that Los Ingobernables sells a ton of merchandise. If you go to the NJPW online shop, you’ll find Los Ingobernables products in the top selling section, and more often than not sold out (I had to go to Rakuten to get my shirt).

While Los Ingobernables haven’t crossed over commercially into the U.S. just yet (linking up with ROH champ Jay Lethal is a good start), they are doing very strongly in Japan and Mexico.

So what is it about The Bullet Club and Los Ingobernables that have made them so successful?

It’s hard to pinpoint one particular factor. One thing they subjectively have in common is that they’re simply cool. But it’s more than that. They’re both doing things differently. Nobody was throwing up “Too Sweet” hand gestures until Bullet Club made it cool again. The Young Bucks joining had a big influence on the group’s popularity, and Tetsuya Naito’s transformation from Stardust Genius to Ingobernable freshened up his character and gave New Japan something new and different, something cool.

And there really is something to a well-designed t-shirt. When Bullet Club was taking off, I heard people were buying their shirt without even seeing them in action, and in some cases, without even being wrestling fans. If you put the NWO, Bullet Club, and Los Ingobernables shirts all side by side, you’ll notice they all have a common design feature, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

Don’t think for a second the WWE hasn’t been paying attention. After getting their butts handed to them by NJPW and CMLL, they made some big moves. At one point, they tried (unsuccessfully?) to trademark the “Too Sweet” gesture originally made popular by the NWO/Kliq, and brought back by Bullet Club. In a bigger move, they signed founding Bullet Club member Prince Devitt/Finn Balor to NXT, where he’s become the face of the promotion. WWE was quick to market “Balor Club” shirts which have a “shocking” resemblance to Bullet Club's “Bone Soldier” shirt.

Side note: “Balor Club” makes absolutely no sense. ONE PERSON DOESN’T MAKE A CLUB! Other than that, it actually makes perfect sense. WWE is playing catch up and trying to cash in on The Bullet Club’s success. Their plan? Plagiarism. Plain and simple. The biggest wrestling company in the entire world is being a copycat, and they're not even being subtle about it.

What’s more, WWE has just released a new “Balor Club” shirt and get this, it’s called “Bulletproof Balor Club!” BULLETPROOF! And it looks even more like the original Bullet Club shirt! The fun doesn’t stop there. WWE recently grabbed four of NJPW’s top stars (well, three and Luke Gallows) and of those four, three were former Bullet Club members in AJ Styles, Karl Anderson, and Gallows.

The WWE is making no bones about it. They are clearly preparing to unveil Bullet Club 2.0, but can they recapture the magic of the original group? That’s yet to be seen. For whatever it’s worth, “Balor Club” shirts are right up there with the top sellers in the WWE Shop.

Let’s not forget Los Ingobernables. WWE also signed founding member La Sombra from CMLL. Word is WWE’s upcoming cruiserweight tournament is going to be a platform for La Sombra (the new Manny Andrade) to break out as a star.

It really is amazing when you think about it. WWE has all that money and all those writers in creative, and they respond to the popularity of a group from Japan with plagiarism. Well, plagiarism and poaching (I guess all that money does come in handy). Bullet Club 2.0 might work. Maybe they can recapture the magic of the original. For the wrestlers involved, I hope they do. More power to them.

But for WWE, it’s all a bit embarrassing really. Their reaction to Bullet Club is such a clear example of how far behind they are when it comes to knowing what works today (except for NXT and New Day) and how lacking they are in creativity and originality. All the indie wrestlers out there today looking to make it big should take note. All you need is a bit of creativity, a clever t-shirt design, and bit of luck, and you too can be poached by the WWE one day.