On September 1st, 2018, All In took place and may have changed the Pro-Wrestling business.
I have about five hundred words I wrote for this, but I’m not going to use them. Basically, that would have been a survey of recent Professional Wrestling history, but as this is an editorial on All In, I want to get down to the point.
The important history is this:
A few years back, Matt and Nick Jackson – better known as The Young Bucks – and Kenny Omega joined New Japan Pro-Wrestling‘s massively popular Bullet Club faction. New Japan prides itself on a more sports-based presentation, and thus provides a stark contrast to the style innovated by the former WWF. The faction already had some notoriety in the United States due to the theatrics of original leader Prince Devitt (better known today as Finn Balor) and AJ Styles, who had grown to surprising super-stardom through his TNA Wrestling and Ring of Honor runs. Pair this with America’s ever increasing accessibility to the faction, and a true phenomenon was born. Though sometimes criticized as a pure rip-off of the lauded new World order, The Bullet Club actually exploits a somewhat different concept for their image.
The Bullet Club evolved not into a straight re-imagining of the nWo or Degeneration X, but a fictionalization version of the real life Kliq that drove the two legendary factions. In the nineties, The Kliq was reputed to be running the business from behind the scenes and, whether you believe that or not, still retains a pretty big fan base. Because of this, they also exploit one of the most important aspects of the group, inclusion of the audience. Whether portrayed as face or heel, The Bullet Club accepts their fans as members of their movement. Yes, the nWo and DX did this at certain points as well, but never for as long. The Bullet Club has also found success in fluidity, as members move on to other promotions (WWE in particular), the members who remain in the independents and New Japan keep the focus firmly on their own activities. The Bullet Club is beyond corporate lines and, in turn, so are their fans. To an extent, this effect extends to all wrestlers today, as communication has become so much easier without the interference of promoters. Bullet Club member Tama Tonga recently attested to this. In short, fans of the the faction are invited to rule the wrestling world along with their favorite wrestlers, and do so from outside obvious copyright restraints.
Cody Rhodes was a long-tenured WWE superstar, and one that certainly had some job security. The problem was, even when it seemed to be on the horizon, he never quite got the top spots he might have been suited for. He exited the company and did what many expected, joined The Bullet Club.
What wasn’t expected was its ultimate effect.
Rhodes, or just Cody as he’s now known, proved that New Japan and the American independents weren’t necessarily a step down from the WWE. Cody found himself more profitable and popular than he’d ever been, and able to go anywhere he wanted. Now, I’m not going to claim to be an economist, but it is clear from years of observation that it is far easier to make a living in Professional Wrestling than it has been in a long while. Cody knew this when he left, but what was proven was that you can also be a huge star without working for Vince McMahon.
Therein lies the promise of All In.
Are you All In?
All In was a show promoted by a group of wrestlers who built their reputation on not being WWE Superstars, and still maintaining their spot as “The Elite” group in the business today. A show that proceeded to sell out an arena, a feet not seen in the United States outside of the WWE since the fall of WCW. A few days ago, ROH and New Japan did the same, at Madison Square Garden. In many ways, All In was measurable proof that The Bullet Club is precisely what they claim to be. If you can be one of the top wrestlers in the business without the machine of the WWE behind you, it means that the landscape has truly changed. This was only hammered home by how much of the show was more similar to WWE presentation than New Japan’s, but managed to keep the crowd’s interest consistently. Many of the show’s Being The Elite storyline blow-offs bled American and retained much of the WWE’s now standard format, parodying it multiple times. They even had a celebrity in a match. To his credit, Stephen Amell was pretty impressive. The thing was, All In did the WWE format better than it has been done in a long time. There is an old wrestling adage that the best characters and the best stories are derived from the idiosyncrasies and personalities of the performers, turned up to eleven. The performers at All In proved that to be true. WWE seems to embrace that ideal in their signings, but their current shows simply don’t exploit their big personalities. If anything, characters are being toned down. While New Japan Pro-Wrestling has built a reputation on presentation vastly different from what American audiences are used to and (this is too often overlooked) can love, All In went head to head with the WWE in a way that no one has in decades: creatively
If The Elite can do it, others can too.
Wrestling just became the Wild West again.
Then. Now. Forever.
Look, I’m not saying the WWE is going anywhere, that’d be a little silly. It should also be noted that the company is more liberal with their talent than they’ve ever been, allowing stars to work in independent promotions when it benefits all parties. What I am saying is that their identity needs to be firmed up a bit. The Bullet Club, and all of the independent wrestlers who are learning from it, are really molding the identity of Professional Wrestling these days. When WWE began the overhaul of their brand that culminated with the rise of NXT, it worked on the principal that you’d finally get to see the best wrestlers on a big platform. There was a big scare that they would take stars so quickly that the indies could not recover. What happened was almost the opposite.
While WWE still maintains the biggest platform, they seem to be having a hard time handling all of the talent they’ve signed. It’s been somewhat of a harsh realization. WWE signed some of the best talent to NXT, talent that they would have ignored in years prior and often allowed them to retain their personas. Many of those stars went to the main roster and became huge. They continued the apparently successful process and signed more. Unfortunately, by the time the next generation got to the main roster, it was already saturated. It just seems unreasonably difficult to make a splash on the USA Network. These days, Raw is a mess and Smackdown! is only marginally better. The matches are fine, the talent is great, but the story momentum is gone. There’s a sort of creative gridlock; too many big fish in every division. As the internet expanded the reach of the indies, talented individuals saw the opportunity and exploited it. If they couldn’t be “Superstars”, they could control their own stories and make sure they didn’t stagnate. A few years ago, it seemed impossible to replicate the opportunities the WWE presented. In 2018, it is a distinct possibility. While no single promotion is competition for the WWE in the U.S., the informal alliance between the independents, the Lucha-Libre promotions and Japanese promotions is. That alliance is becoming a very real thing and it is because of the talent they all share. It was on display at All In.
I think the future is clear for much of the Pro-Wrestling world: Cooperation. When you aren’t the big machine, creating positive relationships creates more opportunity for everyone. It’s already happening and I can’t imagine it will end any time soon.
While I understand that they can’t let go of all of their corporate policies, to build back a positive and progressive identity, WWE needs to make their signings/debuts exciting again and, though I always feel strange supporting releases, clean out their roster a bit. NXT remains their best show because they lose talent and allow new, exciting angles to develop. While it was once exciting to see independent and NXT stars head to the main roster, this has almost inverted as the audience fears that they will get lost in the shuffle. Many already have. Though still successful monetarily, the WWE has begun to lose its status as the home of the top talent, there are just too many good wrestlers outside of the company. The nice part is, addressing their problems head-on would allow many wrestlers to build their personas back up and, in this fruitful environment, make a decent living. Too many times, the WWE has presented itself as the only real game in town. While they seem to have pulled back on this a bit storywise, they seem to have developed that attitude toward hiring. Both in narrative and operations, it would benefit them to establish an identity that functions alongside current realities. It is possible that the company could once again portray themselves as the top of the wrestling world, they certainly have the resources. What they need to do first though is find a way to show how special they are alongside the rest of the business. This requires a distinct focus on storytelling and booking. They don’t need to be “trendy”, but they have to balance the expectations of their die-hard fans with the more casual ones. Yes, Raw and Smackdown are always going to be a different product with a different look than most of wrestling, but they still need to progress along with the it. The WWE’s titles are the goal of countless wrestlers and recognized by millions of fans, there is no reason their shows shouldn’t feel special. They just might have to accept that they aren’t the only ones that will.