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March 5, 2016

The Golden Age of Independent Wrestling Is Right Now: Don't Be Left Behind

There is an awakening. Can you feel it?

Last weekend, there were four independent wrestling promotions running within 45 minutes of each other in New York City - CHIKARA, SWA, House of Glory and NYWC. All four featured good live crowds and in the case of at least three of the events, they sold out. NYWC and House of Glory had so many fans, there weren't enough chairs with a number of fans choosing to pay to stand and watch the shows. In The Carolinas, there were multiple events with upwards of 1,700-2,000 fans showing up to see The Rock N' Roll Express battle the Powers of Pain in a Steel Cage for Big Time Wrestling while CWF Mid-Atlantic presented a 105 minute bout that everyone is raving about featuring Trevor Lee and Roy Wilkins. Multiple shows in California for promotions APW and Revolution Pro were sold out. Beyond Wrestling sold out two back to back shows in Rhode Island that received great reviews.

This weekend, Northeast Wrestling is expected to have close to 2,000 fans at their Wrestlefest event in Newburgh, NY. Pro Wrestling Guerrilla will present their latest big events, All Star Extravaganza in Reseda, CA that will undoubtedly draw raves and a sellout crowd. MCW in Baltimore will have another big house in Joppa, MD. There are countless other promotions running this weekend as well.

Wrestlemania weekend, there will be no less than TEN independent wrestling events with everyone from SHIMMER to EVOLVE to CZW to the NWA to VIP Wrestling to Queens of Combat to Kaiju Big Battel presenting shows. That number, by the way, does not include Ring of Honor. Most of these events, if not all, will be packed and will feature a lot of great in-ring wrestling. The biggest wrestling event of the year and ten events will be there as the alternative for the 100,000 fans in Dallas.

Mind you, none of what I wrote about mentions other promotions that are currently trying to build their foundation and brand name. AAW in Illinois. AIW in Cleveland. FIP in Florida. Tier 1 in NYC. WrestlePro in New Jersey. Atlanta Wrestling Entertainment in Georgia. Wildkat Sports in New Orleans. There are more quality independent wrestling promotions right now, at the same time, in the United States than at any point before this era.

Nor am I talking about promotions that can be seen in some vein, nationally, on cable. Championship Wrestling Hollywood. Paragon Pro Wrestling....or the countless ones that can be found on Youtube. Just this week, On Point Wrestling in New Jersey launched their own series online.

Now, let's open our scope to include Europe. WXW in Germany. OTT in Ireland. IPW-UK, Revolution Pro, PROGRESS in Great Britain. [Note from Mike: Or ICW, which many fans wrote me about after I neglected to list them here. Sorry!] The level of wrestling and the sheer amount of stuff out there is staggering, even for someone like me, who loves to follow as much as he can.

Holy sh**!

Don't say it's a revolution. Don't say it's aberration. There is no doubt about it. We are living in the golden age of independent professional wrestling, and it's pretty awesome.

So, why is it happening now? There's always been an independent, undercurrent to what mainstream professional wrestling is. Independent wrestling used to be a dirty word. Back in the territory era, anyone who didn't run without permission were considered "outlaw" shows and if those shows crossed the wrong promoter, The National Wrestling Alliance members would team up to trounce them.

When the WWF national expansion took place, suddenly the rules had changed. One, the territory rules no longer applied. Two, many of the smaller towns and venues that had previously been home to spot shows from the larger companies or now-defunct promoters were available. The era of the independents had begun.

Independents used to be, for the most part small, fly by night promotions. They ran shows that were pretty much the equivalent of the circus coming to town for a day. There would be a few names that fans recognized - The Jimmy Snukas, The Terry Funks, The Big Bossmans, The Abdullah The Butchers - either former nationally known names or renowned wild men who were their own men - responsible for drawing the house. Underneath would be a litany of locals, some talented, some not. Most of the locals never made it past that level. The promotions would come in, put on a show and be done. The shows might be good, they might be bad but most often, unless it was a specific promoters, it was likely a haphazard show. How haphazard? I once witnessed Terry Funk beat Abdullah the Butcher in a Texas Death Match...by DQ. These were shows designed to get money and get out. There was no foundation.

Now, following on the blueprint that promotions like ECW, IWA Mid-South and Ring of Honor created, we have independent promotions running regularly in the same venues, with the same talents, telling storylines that exist over multiple months. Some of them are still running and promoting the old grass-roots style and having great success with it. Big Time Wrestling and Wildkat Sports routinely draw good crowds without seeking online audiences. There are also companies building their momentum on DVD sales, digital downloads and streaming websites. We are seeing promotions making good money with multiple revenue streams. They aren't anywhere close to destroying WWE's place as the top wrestling company in the world, but they are making money for themselves and in many cases, thanks to t-shirt companies like ProWrestlingTees.com, the wrestlers have regular additional income coming in for themselves.

So, why are things so hot again? A cross-sectional check-in with independent promoters and personalities show that there's a number of different reasons that all seem to be hitting at just the right time.

"Personally, I think the public is re-discovering local pro wrestling because of access via social media," said Dave Marquez, promoter and producer of Championship Wrestling from Hollywood, which just taped it's 250th broadcast episode. "As an example, with CWFH, the majority of fan correspondence is about getting info on recent WWE/NXT signings and their origins, they're seeking out those promotions where they started. In my case they realize guys like Finn Balor, Karl Anderson, Bryan Danielson or Adam Pearce used to perform weekly in their town, they're more excited and want to participate and not be left out the 'next big thing.' "

Dan McDevitt, who has been promoting Maryland Championship Wrestling for nearly two decades concurs that the lure of seeing WWE stars "Before They Are Stars" is certainly a factor as is the integration of social media into the regular day to day routine of younger fans.

"It's like the perfect storm," said McDevitt. "I think for some more hardcore fans its about having an alternative to the WWE. I also think that for the longest time the WWE turned their nose up at independent wrestling. Obviously they spent many years growing their own talent. Not that they were not successful at that but you also saw guys like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan rise to stardom and I think that may have made them start to maybe open one eye towards indy wrestling. Then come along guys like Seth Rollins, Kevin Steen, Dean Ambrose, Finn Balor, Cesaro etc. I believe that it got to the point that WWE could no longer turn their nose and they began to acknowledge the indys and acknowledge the fact that there is a lot of great talent out there that can succeed at the highest level and make them money. So I think fans starving for an alternative along with WWE beginning to acknowledge the existence of Independent wrestling and of course the rise of Social media where wrestlers can promote themselves online and share pictures, videos, interviews and match clips that can literally be seen by millions of people all over the world has helped create what I believe is the best time in Independent wrestling that I can ever remember and I have been doing this for 20 years. "

In many ways, the independent scene has WWE to thank. I wrote a piece last year noting that 2015 was going to be the year of Triple H and the Independent Wrestler. I was wrong. 2016 is that year.

Whether this was the plan or not when NXT began running on the WWE Network or when they began taking notice of companies like EVOLVE, WWE ended up enriching the independent level of the business. Fans who were lapsed began watching NXT because it felt more like "their wrestling" vs. the sports-entertainment of Raw and discovered they wanted to love wrestling again. I've had at least 20 fans I've met at independent shows in the last year tell me they are going to wrestling again because of NXT. By virtue of signing the Samoa Joes and The Sami Zayns and the Austin Aries of the world and not presenting them as if they are nobodies who's pasts were non-existent, WWE opened the door for the audience to track down their previous work and find there was something in that level of pro wrestling that they themselves enjoyed.

In an interview last month with PWInsider.com, Paul "Triple H" Levesque, discussed WWE's effect on the independent scene, commenting, "I know that if I go to certain groups, there are talents there working a certain style and genre and that's what we are looking for and that's what I'm going to gravitate towards. It's good for the health of the business and the more people that are excited about the business, the more people want to get into it and the more people that want to work hard to excel at the business, the better the business is going to be as a whole...I've said this about NXT. Without college football, the NFL loses it's feeder system and its a similar thing for us. I want that feeder system to be there and I want it to be healthy. I want them to have places to work and when they are ready, if its the right fit for them, if its their passion, and they are the right talent and right performer, we can give them that bigger global platform to get them to do what they do in front of the entire world. If that means making the independent undercurrent healthier, then that's what we do. I just look at it as helping the business to succeed long-term."

WWE legitimized independent wrestling, to an audience that wasn't aware or paying attention, and because of that, the old rules no longer apply. This summer's Global Cruiserweight Series will see a great portion of its 32 competitors come from outside WWE contracts. Adam Pearce is plucked from the indy scene to train at the WWE Performance Center. CHIKARA patriarch Mike Quackenbush is guest training as the WWE Performance Center. William Regal is at EVOLVE. Scratch that. Triple H is at EVOLVE taking photos with Gabe Sapolsky.

WWE made independent wrestling stronger and that trickle down effect, along with changes in technology that make it easy to go watch, well, everything CZW has ever produced on your Roku for $9.999 a month, has also allowed for immediate word of mouth and momentum for talents who begin to make their names on the independents.

Lio Rush out of Baltimore is a great example. He was trained by MCW and began blowing people locally away. That led to him getting bookings in NY and for CZW. Now, he's obviously on the Ring of Honor radar and getting the first TV exposure of his short career. Could this put him in contention for the Global Cruiserweight Series or an NXT tryout? Sure, because even WWE in 2016 wants to keep their eyes on who and what could be the next big thing.

Last weekend's CWF Mid-Atlantic bout featuring Trevor Lee and Roy Wilkins wrestling in what, by all measures, was a great 105 minute match, led to immediate emails asking about Wilkins, who hasn't gotten much buzz outside of the Carolinas as well as where fans could watch and purchase the match.

Brad Stutts, who books and promotes CWF Mid-Atlantic broke down the background of how the match came to be, noting, "The initiative to do the 105-minute match came directly from Trevor Lee and Roy Wilkins. They asked us for the time and the opportunity. I think partially it was a desire to challenge themselves creatively to put together this elaborate piece of art that was intricate and compelling and engrossing. I also think partially it came from a desire on their part to raise awareness of CWF Mid-Atlantic and what we do here. Our vision of CWF Mid-Atlantic has always been to produce it as if the classic wrestling promoted in the Carolinas during the 70's and 80's had survived into the 21st century. How would that product look, sound and feel? Our crowds aren't snarky or entitled or obnoxious, they cheer the babyfaces and boo the heels and they support us so fervently that stepping into our building is like being welcomed back in time to the glory days of studio wrestling on television. But at the same time we aren't a nostalgia product, our athletes in the ring are young, modern and innovative. To me that is what sets CWF Mid-Atlantic apart from everywhere else – we've got the best of both worlds with a crew that is so passionate, so dedicated and has so much heart and soul that they put into every event. I think Trevor and Roy wanted the chance to paint their masterpiece that encapsulated the spirit and feel of CWF Mid-Atlantic. It was their effort to show the world how much they love this place and the kind of magic that is created here."

In the past, such a match might be remembered by only those who were there, shared memories amongst a few hundred fans of a good night out at the matches. Now, immediately, it's blogged about, it's shared via Twitter and Facebook and suddenly, the match and the talents take on a legend of their own...and now fans elsewhere want to know what the hell is up with this CWF Mid-Atlantic promotion. The match helps to put a spotlight on the promotion in a way it hadn't thus far been able to achieve...as well as to help brand the promotion as something unique for fans to discover. Don't like PWG's futuristic style? Perhaps a little old school-centered CWF is what you want to watch, right now. Immediate impulse buy. No waiting for DVDs. You can have it NOW.

Perhaps the best thing about this current era is that while WWE has shined a light on the undercurrent of the business, independent wrestling remains fiercely independent, because fans will always seek out some form of alternative product. Fans of Memphis Wrestling still watched the Poffo's ICW. WWF fans still cheered and chanted "ECW" when they invaded Raw. There is always a hunger for something different, something unknown, something fresh to satiate fans that want something unique.

Kevin Gill, the voice of Juggalo Championship Wrestling, which is as alternative to mainstream WWE as one can get, commented on that hunger for something different, noting, "Things are different now. Unlike the end of World Championship Wrestling, which saw large numbers of fans give up on wrestling altogether, the modern fan can lapse or take a hiatus from mainstream product while instead diving head first into an independent product tailored to their tastes. Every yin has a Yang. For every giant corporation, there are dozens of exciting alternatives. This isn't just applicable to wrestling, but to entertainment in general."

That alternative has led to countless quality wrestling matches, countless promotions, countless fans being entertained and countless wrestlers finding regular work.

"I was worried when I made the decision to leave WWE NXT, said Sami Callihan, who's now firmly entrenched back on the independent scene. "But three days later, every date I had from now to July was filled."

"The golden era of independents is the perfect storm of top shelf performers and promoters, unprecedented exposure, and dedicated fans who make it possible," said Kevin Gill.

Golden era, indeed. Whether it's families going to the local matches because there's wrestling close by, die-hard fans following promotions on the other side of the world via the Internet or a group of friends road-tripping to their favorite promotion, they are all witnessing the golden age for themselves.

Don't be left behind. There is a ridiculous amount of amazing wrestling out there now. Seek it out. Become enlightened. Be entertained. You'll enjoy everything, even WWE, so much more because of it.

Mike Johnson can be reached at MikeJohnsonPWInsider@gmail.com. His first independent show was in June 1992 and featured Jimmy Snuka vs. Demolition Ax and the official in-ring debut of Chris Kanyon but also the mind-boggling weird yet awesome match of S.D. Jones vs. Kendo Nagasaki...unadvertised.

Follow Sami Callihan @TheSamiCallihan.

For more on Dave Marquez' Championship Wrestling from Hollywood, visit www.HollywoodWrestling.com.

For more on Brad Stutts and CWF Mid-Atlantic, visit www.CWF247.com.

For more on Kevin Gill, visit www.KevinGillShow.com.

For more on Dan McDevitt's Maryland Championship Wrestling, visit www.MarylandWrestling.com.

source: pwinsider.com


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