wrestling / Columns

The State of Independent Wrestling After WrestleMania 37

April 21, 2021 | Posted by Ian Hamilton
IWTV Showcase of the Independents

Now we’re all calmed down from WrestleMania weekend, it’s a good time to look at the lay of the land when it comes to how the independents performed – and what lies ahead.

“The indies are dead,” they say. “WWE and AEW have taken the cream,” they say. And for that second one, you’re right. But for the first, we perhaps need to reexamine our relationship with independent professional wrestling.

If you’ve started watching wrestling in this millennium, your vision of the “independents” is probably split into two tiers: one of them being the colloquial “super indy”, and the other being shows that draw from a local area with no immediate intentions of growth outside of that area.

Not counting an All Star show, my first indy show was over WrestleMania weekend in 2004, for Ring of Honor. If you’ve got At Our Best on DVD (or look it up on Honor Club), you’ll see me pinned to the guard rails by the aisle having little to no clue at what was going on. We all start somewhere.

At the time, ROH was going through a lot of turmoil, thanks to an unwanted television appearance from its then-owner. ROH wasn’t owned by any big conglomerate, nor were they giving out exclusive contracts – two of the markets that people use to define independence – and there was a lot of doubt over whether ROH would last coming out of the weekend.

Fast forward 17 years, and for some, it felt like the indies were in a similar position, with chatter on social media suggesting poor ticket sales for shows. While some of the earlier shows were sparsely attended, by the time we got to the banner shows of the weekend (Bloodsport, Spring Break, For The Culture), those crowds were looking a lot healthier… but therein lies the issue. The consistency we had in years gone by isn’t there right now, and for the first time in a while, this was a ‘Mania weekend that I didn’t go out of my way to cover everything, and not just because of how absurdly priced that Collective bundle was (or that I’m just not a deathmatch guy…).

With WWE and AEW now existing on a major level and with exclusive contracts (with ROH, Impact and MLW also running with similar contracts to some degree), there were a lot of names missing from this year’s indy weekend. Save for Jon Moxley and Joey Janela, AEW talent didn’t work the indy shows…and if you compared the names on the show with who we had for the last ‘Mania weekend in 2019, well, it’s clear that covid-induced travel restrictions, signings and Speaking Out have done a real number on the talent pool.

Gone was any international flavour – no shows from wXw, Fight Club Pro, Rev Pro, DDT or STARDOM…gone were promotions that have since folded: CHIKARA and EVOLVE, to be specific…and as such, gone was much in the way of any real comparison between shows.

Let’s take a look at one of the bigger indie shows of 2019’s Mania weekend: the WrestleCon/Mark Hitchcock Memorial Supershow. Thirty-three names on the bill, with two dozen of those either being signed or otherwise overseas and unable to appear. The only one who was on that show *and* worked Mania weekend in 2021? Arez. If you want to compare the IWTV Family Reunion shows – a similar, not-tied-to-a-promotion event – 2019’s single show had 38 names on, of which we had a different split going into 2021, with only five names signed but an additional 14 out due to international travel restrictions – and that was a similar story for other ‘Mania weekend events in years gone by.

Since covid started, we’ve had no less than three festival weekends in the US: two Collectives, and a Showcase of the Independents. On paper, that business model makes sense: hire a venue for a few days, put a ring there and sell tickets to as many shows as you can, while looking to make extra coin from your streaming partner. Even on a normal weekend, with travelling fans and no pandemic, you’re going to get shows that sell out, and at the other end of the scale…shows that perform so badly, they become a meme. Hi IPW.

If you want to look at something that’s a little more regular, then take a look at PWG. Their first show of 2020 was cancelled because of the pandemic, so looking at their final show from 2019, you’re looking at a list of 15 people – two of which were imports from Australia (Mick Moretti & Paris de Silva), one’s with New Japan (Jeff Cobb), two are now with AEW (JD Drake & Orange Cassidy), four are with ROH (Tony Deppen, Rey Horus, Jonathan Gresham & Bandido), and four are now with WWE (Blake Christian, Jake Atlas, Dezmond Xavier and Zachary Wentz). The odd man out (who is still wrestling and hasn’t gone into hiding)? Aramis.

All travel restrictions will ease off eventually, but until then there’s the obvious question about “what’s left?”

Well, there are a few veterans left out there who, for one reason or another, aren’t contracted anywhere, who’ll pop up on big shows every now and then – likely including some of the latest WWE releases when their 90 days expire in July. Then you’ve got “the others”; perhaps names that are happy working their local shows, names and acts that perhaps have a shelf life, and perhaps names that are bouncing around the indies after being let go. Does that automatically make them bad wrestlers? Absolutely not.

There are many reasons why careers don’t develop as you’d think, and not all of them are related to performance – some wrestlers may have a day job that they feel has more in it for them than wrestling. Perhaps they’re at that stage where they don’t feel like there are enough opportunities out there that’d be able to pay the bills if they only wrestle. Perhaps they’re at a stage where they’re still saving up for that “one big gamble” – that a run on the indies gets the attention of someone who dishes out contracts, and that it’ll pay off for them.

Now…for a lot of folks reading this, until AEW arrived on the scene, they’ve not lived through a time where there was more than one major, national wrestling promotion out there. Of course, back when there were two major, national promotions, the world was a lot different – so there really are no legitimate apples-to-apples comparisons to be found. But back then, the independent scene was a lot different: it was all regional stuff, with promotions who tried to expand inevitably ended up flaming out, whether it be a company that had some golden years – like ECW – or a promotion like Main Event Championship Wrestling, which never really got going.

Ring of Honor was the exception to the rule, although it wasn’t until their sale to Sinclair that they were really able to stabilise as a company and really be able to offer contracts….while Major League Wrestling was in a similar boat, touring for their shows while also offering contracts. The big question is: what happens in a present and future where WWE’s producing a show every weekday evening, while using a seemingly ever-increasing pool of resources to sign up wrestlers with potential?

Can a Game Changer Wrestling settle down after a year that’s seen them run two Collectives, plus shows in California in addition to their usual north-eastern slots? Does a long-running promotion like Ohio Valley Wrestling try and break out of their Kentucky marketplace, or do they just try and grow their audience without increasing their costs by trying to run shows elsewhere?

There’ll undoubtedly be new promotions springing up around the world – particularly since companies have closed (by choice or otherwise) through the various events of the past year. Anyone who’s followed independent wrestling for a length of time will know what a crapshoot new promotions can be – even those that have good intentions can end up falling flat on their face; with the “best of the worse” being that they never run a show but take your money and keep it.

Are the indies dead? As we knew them, yes. At one point PWG’s cards highlighted the best of the scene – but with so much of their line-ups now off limits, do they come back, and if so, how will they differentiate from the rest of the scene? As always, we’re in uncharted waters – and while the perception of WWE signing up the indies to put into storage isn’t going to change (at least until NXT: EVOLVE becomes a thing), the indy scene has to make the best of a bad situation, no matter how it develops.

And so this column doesn’t read like me having a moan without any kind of constructive thought…while I hate lists like these (because there’s always someone you leave out) keep an eye on new names like Alex Kane, Daniel Garcia, Adrian Alanis and JJ Garrett. All names at various levels of their career, some of them perhaps closer to a contract than others, but they all have a real shot of being a breakout star of the indies, much like a Chris Dickinson has been in recent years, or just as likely getting signed up somewhere.