wrestling / Columns

Independence: The New Territories

September 20, 2016 | Posted by Len Archibald
WWE 205 Live, Triple H

The Cruiserweight Classic has ended with much fanfare and praise. TJ Perkins has been crowned as the first CWC Winner and inaugural holder of the WWE Raw Cruiserweight Championship. The talk among fans is that WWE…of all places has produced one of – if not the greatest pro wrestling tournaments in history. Time will tell if this opinion will hold.

What has been overshadowed among the performances, presentation and pomp of the CWC is the fact that the Cruiserweight Classic is in fact the culmination of a new Territory Era. Forget “Reality” and “New” for a moment, and consider the implications and potential ramifications of the Cruiserweight Classic. We have lived among independent promotions for decades; now it truly feels like promotions such as Ring of Honor, EVOLVE and PWG are each staking a legitimate claim as companies not only breeding the next generation of world-class superstars, but as promotions that are building smaller stars in their own right.

Athletes such as Jay Lethal and Adam Cole are building their resumes and defining their legacies as traveling champions. Even with a niche following, the fanbase for these performers are growing as the exposure for their respective promotions grow. Everything old is new again – in a similar mold as Ric Flair and Andre the Giant in the 1970s and 80s, we are witnessing a point in time where wrestlers are moving town to town, plying their trade and evolving their “brand”.

Just like imagining a time before television or the internet seems like a baffling affair, there was an era when WWE was not the only major promotion in the game. In 1975, there were as many as 50 major “territories” in North America. Each area had its own promotion, its own booking committee and its own stars. Minnesota’s American Wrestling Alliance had Verne Gagne, The Crusher and Baron Von Raschke. The St. Louis Wrestling Club boasted Harley Race, Dick Murdoch and Bob Backlund. The Junkyard Dog, Rock n’ Roll Express and Midnight Express were mainstays in Mid-South. Each one of the promotions had their stars; if they found themselves under the National Wrestling Alliance banner, there was an agreement to share talent to bring in a major gate.

Fast forward to today: Jay Lethal and the Briscoes have become pillars for Ring of Honor, while Zack Sabre Jr. is becoming synonymous with Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Revolution PRO. It would be hard to imagine CHIKARA without The Colony or EVOLVE no longer housing the likes of Johnny Gargano (which is becoming a reality.) BxB Hulk has become an IWC running gag with some mainstream fans who have a (misguided) perception of Dragon Gate USA. In the decade and a half post-WCW, we have seen a credible crop of promotions emerge, building their own internal storylines and rivalries outside the juggernaut of the WWE Universe.

CM Punk’s run leading up to Money in the Bank 2011 would not exist without the Summer of Punk during his time in Ring of Honor. The context of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn’s never-ending rivalry would be lost without understanding their history in ROH and PWG. Just like heated feuds that pitted The Freebirds against the Von Erichs, a new generation of fans are engaged in self-imposed storylines and rivalries, separated only by region.

The obvious difference between then and now is of course, accessibility. This wrestling fanatic at a young age was made aware of Dusty Rhodes and The Four Horsemen on visits to my cousin’s house in Atlanta. Imagine my perplexed reaction when I met a fellow wrestling fan who moved to Toronto from Dallas and his hero was Kerry Von Erich and not Hulk Hogan. I scraped PWI and Apter mags to finally understand there was more than Vince McMahon’s grip. Seeing old pictures of a bloodied Ted DiBiase and Hacksaw Jim Duggan battling it out blew my mind – I only thought they hated each other when they arrived in WWF. Now, fans can view the context of Kevin Owens/Sami Zayn rivalry in its entirety with the click of a button. One only needs to hop on Google to discover the long-standing partnership between Johnny Gargano and Tomasso Ciampa.

When Ring of Honor debuted on the scene in 2002, the promotion looked to be another in a long line of those who would look to attempt to wrest the crown of mainstream wrestling superiority from WWE, only to be decimated. What we were unaware of at the time was ROH knew exactly what it was and wanted to be: not competition for the largest wrestling promotion in the world, but a simpler, smaller alternative that could survive with a passionate niche. Yes, those who lived during the height of the Monday Night Wars pine for those days of unpredictability and wish for another company to rise up and challenge McMahon, but the hard truth is as soon as the sale of WCW was completed, no wrestling promotion worth their weight in…anything could ever realistically compete ever again. WWE cannibalized their ENTIRE competition that spanned a continent and absorbed close to 60 years of history. No one promotion will ever compete with that. WWE is truly its own entity now. All that is left is second place.

But what a landscape second place is. It may be more exciting and rewarding to be engaged with the antics of those outside the WWE umbrella, simply because nothing is homogenized and the wrestling is as diverse as all of our collective opinions on what makes a successful wrestling promotion. The excitement surrounding AJ Styles’ coronation as WWE World Champion is based off his journeyman-like career trajectory from TNA to New Japan to WWE and the following he has built from his performances around the world. Styles is (re)setting a remarkable and indescribable precedence as a talent whose reputation outside Vince McMahon’s shadow has preceded him so much among fans that eventually the company had no choice but to take a chance on him. Now WWE know what fans who followed Styles’ career have known for over ten years: AJ Styles is perhaps the best professional wrestler on the planet and may have been for some time. The journey would not have been as gratifying as it is now if the Phenomenal One did not continue to build his brand outside WWE.

For those who remember those first weeks in 1982 when McMahon Jr. acquired the family business, WWF was just another territory of its own. It made money, but those in Florida cared more about Dusty Rhodes than Bruno Sammartino. You had to live in the Northeast to truly understand the Living Legend’s popularity. McMahon, in order to compete and to bring his vision to life had to make a radical decision: to consolidate and nationalize the professional wrestling industry, Vince had to look outside his father’s company and scour the country for the best of the best – talents who could be recognized on a national level. WWF soon acquired the services of the Junkyard Dog, Jim Duggan and other known entities from different promotions from around North America so fans from all over had a favorite based on the territory they followed. Eventually, McMahon stumbled upon a behemoth of a man who wrestled out of AWA and crowned him as the promotion’s face. What many may not remember is that Hulk Hogan was already obtaining a rabid fanbase that wanted him to represent them as champion before that first moment when Hulkamania ran wild.

This takes us to present day and the Cruiserweight Classic. For decades fans had been conditioned to believe that nothing outside WWE mattered. The CWC is shifting that perception in a way fans have not seen since Ric Flair arrived in the WWF with the Big Gold belt in 1991. William Regal admitted that Triple H tasked him and Canyon Cemen to scout talent from around the world to discover the best athletes under 205 pounds to lay the foundation for the CWC tournament. We are hearing – freely – from the mouths of WWE commentators the journey of different performers, including precisely the promotions that they plied their trade. To ensure the future of the industry, the largest promotion in the world has to resort to past tactics and discover talents from around the planet to grow their brand on a global scale. The fanbase that Samoa Joe, Rich Swann and Gallows/Anderson have obtained on their own can no longer be swept under the rug and denied, lest the company risk alienating those same fans and losing money.

Perhaps WWE has finally realized in this new social media age that it is impossible to keep its fans self-contained. Fans are not so much smarter about the industry as much as they are more aware of the expanding wrestling world around them. A tweet of any performer’s antics in or out if the ring can go viral and reach millions in seconds. McMahon can’t stop The Rock from endorsing Ricochet, opening the eyes of fans to those who have never experienced his otherworldly talent. Kevin Owens can post a picture of him and Adam Cole on the web without repercussions because no matter what WWE is unable to deny the reality that Cole exists in this new age.

There is also the reality now that performers are starting to find loopholes around their supposed iron-clad and suffocating contracts, allowing those no longer satisfied with WWE to find work elsewhere. CM Punk was able to escape his contract, preemptively exit WWE without finishing out his contractual duties and freely speak about it. Ryback, Alberto El Patron and Cody Rhodes all found ways to “mutually part” with McMahon so they could perform elsewhere and discuss their frustration with their treatment on open forums. The notion that professional wrestlers are “independent contractors” is starting to bite WWE as the talent is wizening up, lawyering up and starting to question its definition. Independence means freedom to freelance and much like The Road Warriors traveling from territory to territory, wrestlers are starting to see the plethora of thriving indy promotions and companies out of WWE’s reach to explore their terrain.

We are in uncharted waters when someone like Kota Ibushi can turn down a potential lucrative contract with WWE because it makes more sense to make money traveling the globe on his own terms. The Golden Star of Japan has his own “brand” to worry about, much like Ric Flair did when he hopped from WCCW to Georgia Championship Wrestling in the past. Will Ospreay or The Young Bucks may never need to step foot in a WWE ring unless they feel there is nothing left to accomplish because the number of promotions outside the McMahon umbrella are vast and lucrative enough – without the restrictions and rigors of traveling 300+ days of the year.

As WWE continues to grow their brand, EVOLVE, SHIMMER, Lucha Underground, Ring of Honor, etc. continues to grow as well. As the information age continues to obliterate restrictions on content fans are able to view, talent is discovering the limitless avenues they have to add to their wealth and not be beholden to WWE. There was a time, maybe even up to a few years ago when fans and talent may have considered WWE to be the only viable option to find success in the industry. We had felt that the lack of competition for WWE would eventually kill the business and turn away future fanatics.

The lesson learned from TNA’s ill-advised move to compete against Monday Night Raw in 2009 was twofold: there is no shame in “second place” in the wrestling landscape; and truthfully, attempting to compete in the first place will only stifle growth. TNA, under Billy Corgan is now on the cusp of a new era of its own as the company can lead the charge for a new era of territories where talent exchanges, temporary freelance appearances and allowing performers the freedom to be themselves can pay dividends for all parties. Young performers can learn the ropes going from promotion to promotion to polish their craft. Veterans can use their name recognition to bolster the credibility of any given promotion and add value to a card. The companies themselves can create organic, self-contained storylines of their own as talent shifts in and out to keep the fans on their toes and minimize overexposure of performers.

What does this mean for the CWC performers? Not all who competed signed a WWE contract. Zack Sabre Jr. can travel back to PWG or any promotion in his native England now and name his own price as just being on a WWE platform increased his value tenfold. Any cruiserweight that wishes to continue traveling on their own terms can now add “As seen on the WWE Cruiserweight Classic” on their resume and have a promotion add that to their posters to increase eyes on their product. Indy promotions are succeeding at a higher clip than anticipated: promotions such as WAR Wrestling out of where I live in Lima is able to bring enough box office that they can pay for the services of Abyss to appear and compete. Smash Wrestling out of Toronto is able to obtain Zack Sabre Jr. for its future card. PHX Wrestling out of Phoenix, AZ can pay for Willie Mack and Thunder Rosa from Lucha Underground. I will be attending the Heroes of Wrestling show in Fort Wayne, IN at the end of October and the card is stacked with talent that have made names for themselves on a mainstream and international level, boasting Ryback, Aron Rex and others. What seemed impossible years before unless you were Ring of Honor or TNA – finding world-class talent to fill an indy card – is now obtainable by smaller promotions if they have the ambition and business acumen to achieve their goals. No wrestler that understands the basics of capitalism and mathematics of commerce EVER wants a promotion to fold: it is one less road for them to make money.

The wild west trappings and smoky back-end deals of the territory era are behind us. Only a few promotions have some form of television deal. WWE is the undisputed top of the industry. Despite all that, technology, smarter goal-oriented performers and a fanbase that demands more from the indy promotions that they support have created an environment where the territory era has somehow evolved and returned in 2016. Territories are now the hundreds of independent promotions that span the globe, and as they thrive, the wrestling industry thrives. WWE knows this and have made stars (or expanded the fanbase of established stars) through the Cruiserweight Classic to expand their own reach, and build the independent brands of the wrestlers who participated. Whether this is a grand scheme to further WWE’s reach, a small piece of a puzzle that leads to another potential “golden era” or something that shatters the notion of what wrestlers are able to achieve on their own, we will not understand until years from now and hindsight has reared its head. All I know is that there is more wrestling, more opportunities for great wrestling and a greater chance that someone or somewhere will gain notoriety without needing to make a play in Stamford. I will never complain about more wrestling.

Do you think the current independent landscape and mindset of wrestlers outside WWE has ushered in a new “Territory Era”? What independent promotion do you support? Share your thoughts below!

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Len Archibald