wrestling / Columns

Invisible Gold: A New Age of Wrestling

July 5, 2018 | Posted by Len Archibald
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The Golden Age describes a period of peace, prosperity, harmony and stability, a term coined from Greek mythology and recorded by Greek poet, Hesiod. His Works and Days explained the Golden Age, along with the Silver Age, Bronze Age, Heroic Age and the Iron Age. Each age (with the exception of the Heroic Age) was a decline of the age before. The Golden Age was a time where the residents of Greece were able to fend for themselves for food and lived to a healthy old age, where death did not come by the sword, but through, what Dr. Robert Ford in Westworld would exclaim as “A deep and dreamless slumber.” It was the best of times…

As wrestling fans, we have succumbed to the narrative that there are two distinct Golden Ages within the industry: The Rock n’ Wrestling Era, led by Hulk Hogan from the day he won the WWF Title from the Iron Sheik, reaching its apex at The Main Event where Andre “defeated” Hogan for the WWF Title and ended sometime within the aftermath of WrestleMania VIII, after Hogan’s second major sabbatical from the WWF. The second Golden Age, The Attitude Era, arguably started with the formation of the NWO in WCW in the summer of 1996 and ended at the end of WrestleMania X-7 in 2001, when Stone Cold Steve Austin reclaimed the WWF Title with the help of his ultimate nemesis, Vince McMahon. These two eras enjoyed sustained runs of box office, pop culture permeation and an overflowing legion of fans, both casual and hardcore, where at times it was difficult to decipher the two.

Of course, when both eras ended, there was a sharp decline in quality of events and quantity of fans. 1993-1996 were massive down periods for the WWF and WCW, culminating in 1995 as perhaps the absolute worst year of mainstream wrestling. Campy wrestlers (Bastion Booger; Blacktop Bully, campy matches (The Doomsday Cage Match) and just generally unengaging champions (Diesel and Hulk Hogan, respectively) defined this era. It was no wonder that Eastern Championship Wrestling – which morphed into Extreme Championship Wrestling, grabbed a foothold of the hardcore wrestling contingent. They were different, they pushed the envelope and they engaged in a sense of realism that was unheard of in the industry at the time. As a feeder system, ECW molded Steve Austin, Brian Pillman, Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guererro and Chris Benoit as future players and game changers. There was another promotion fans could latch onto. ECW helped crystalize the success of the coming era because as much as the WWF and WCW began to gain steam, ECW served as the ultimate alternative where fans were able to receive their fix apart from the corporate glow of the other mainstream companies.

When the WWF definitively won the Monday Night Wars, many fans of WCW and ECW, reserved with the fact that their perceived view of professional wrestling was lost to Vince McMahon’s whims, simply left – along with several casual fans who did not want to boo Stone Cold Steve Austin in his new role as a heel. The InVasion brought some fans back, but booking decisions soured fans and those who felt burned (again) departed as fans, never to return again. By the time the WWF course corrected and turned Austin face after Survivor Series 2001, the damage had already been done and was irreversible – the sharp decline in fan numbers only dipped further with spikes in viewership during Brock Lesnar’s face run, part of John Cena’s first WWE Title run, Edge’s first WWE Title run and the aftermath of CM Punk’s Pipebomb. These spikes were minimal and temporary, though. Throughout all this, fans clamored for any alternative and was quick to support Total Non Stop Action and Ring of Honor, two new promotions that provided an alternative to WWE’s silly at times, more character driven fare. These promotions were important as it showed that 1) There were still some fans out there that wanted to showcase their love affair with wrestling in the shadows, and 2) there was indeed a market for wrestling outside the WWE juggernaut.


This brings us to today. WWE signed a billion-dollar deal with Fox, where Smackdown Live will call home. This is going to ensure that Vince McMahon will receive some of the mainstream attention he has always craved. Monday Night Raw is still considered the most watched television show on cable, pulling in around 3 to 3.5 million viewers consistently. Smackdown Live pulls in about 2.5 million. The WWE Network boasts nearly 2 million subscribers, a number that is sure to grow. There has never been a time like now where mainstream wrestling is pulling in as much capital as it is now.

And yet, we as fans still believe we are at a downturn in the industry.

When WrestleKingdom 9 received the acclaim it did, after the hype it received from Western wrestling fans, there was a legitimate shift in the air. It has been a long time when it felt like there was another company that served as a legitimate #2 promotion in the world. New Japan has only gained momentum to the point that now, amongst the IWC contingent, names like Tanahashi, Okada, Naito and Omega are known and respected. Five years ago, some fans wouldn’t have even batted an eye towards the East and/or mocked fans who followed NJPW. It is nearly impossible to avoid the reach New Japan now has and each major New Japan event becomes more anticipated, with fans now fantasy booking up to the next Wrestle Kingdom show.

After a buzz around Jay Lethal becoming a 2-Time Ring of Honor Champion, it dawned on me that very few discuss the fact that ROH has been around for 16 years. Same with Impact Wrestling. Both have seen dramatic shifts in management, tone and presentation – to positive or negative feedback, but the fact is those companies still exist, still have a fanbase and still are considered options apart from WWE. Lucha Underground is slowly becoming the new Impact, somewhat inverted – whereas they are considered to have a quality product by most but are always seen as on the chopping block. LU has taken the art of professional wrestling and evolved it to where it is viewed as a show about wrestling, despite the fact that the majority of the time is spent on…actual wrestling. The direction Lucha Underground has taken wrestling is exciting, a new way of exploring the merits of what a wrestling show can do.

I frequent wrestling forums, wrestling-based YouTube channels and Facebook groups/pages that are wrestling-centric. There are TONS of them. Don’t get it twisted – there is a larger online presence for wrestling and wrestling fans than ever before. WAR Wrestling is the major indie promotion based out of Lima, OH – a promotion that constantly sells out venues to the tune of 1,500 – 2,000 fans. They have grown so much that they relocated out of the UAW Halls to the main hall of our Civic Center that has a capacity of 3,000. There are hundreds of indy promotions around North America alone that boasts a very passionate and loyal fanbase that is feeding off the success of WWE. Fans are hungry to find out who may be the next star. SMASH out of Toronto has boasted stars like Zack Sabre Jr. and are viewed as a viable competitor to Impact Wrestling, housed in the same city.

How many articles do we read on wrestling websites now about EVOLVE, the results of the latest PWG show, signings of talent to SHIMMER or partnerships with Pro Wrestling NOAH? These are more frequent, the names more familiar, the events seeping further within the fanbase.

Yet, we are NOT in a Golden Age of professional wrestling.

Cody and The Young Bucks have proven themselves to be moneymakers without the WWE machine; Bullet Club and The Elite merchandise are the hottest sellers; Kenny Omega is becoming a household name with wrestling fans. Kota Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr. were offered contracts to work with WWE after the Cruiserweight Classic – contracts that could have helped propel them to mainstream status, but they turned the contract down to roam as free agents, to come and go to whichever promotion they please.

My attempt to be objective: there have been more than two “Golden Ages” in wrestling. When Georg Hackenscmhidt and Frank Gotch grappled around the country, they were a couple of the most recognizable and famed faces in the world. Every event they headlined sold out. Once they retired, interest in pro wrestling declined at such a rapid clip that during and after the depression, wrestling was nearly non-existent and viewed as downtrodden and only enjoyed by the lowest common denominator.

Gorgeous George was the first major television icon. His flamboyant personality was the hot topic on black and white TV screens. Despite the latent homophobia that fueled fans to see him lose, George was literal money and brought in millions of fans as people needed a release after the events of World War II. George carried the first days of television on his back – even Bob Hope got on the bandwagon, donating robes for George to flaunt. He was perceived as THE reason the majority of American’s purchased televisions. Gorgeous George unwittingly passed the torch to Bruno Sammartino in a loss in one of his final matches.

How many territories exploded in the late 1960s-late 1970s? At its peak, there were nearly 25 viable, profitable wrestling promotions within North America, each with their own stars and legitimate titles. Bruno Sammartino, Ric Flair, Andre the Giant, Harley Race, Dusty Rhodes and more would tour the different territories, bringing in gates and selling out arenas. Some believe mainstream wrestling started with Hulk Hogan, but Andre the Giant was already considered a worldwide pop-culture icon. Antonio Inoki became an established name with fans after his boxer vs. wrestler match with Muhammad Ali. El Santo was the hero of Mexico, with his films becoming cult hits in midnight screening theaters. No matter where you lived, there was a home for wrestling, a home for wrestling fans, and even if many wouldn’t see certain stars, the names were well known.

What does this eerily sound like if one thinks about it?

Now, I am a hardcore fan. I write and create media based on pro wrestling, so it is expected that I know the history of it, but I have noticed that there is a distinct conversation about wrestling outside of the WWE product. Even if fans don’t watch all the events, some know of Kenny Omega and Okada, Matt Riddle, The Young Bucks, Io Shirai and Tony Storm. Seeing NXT fans know instantly who Adam Cole was and sing along with his catchphrase is telling. Go to any wrestling site (actually, don’t!), wrestling-based YouTube channel or Facebook page: there is a LOT more than WWE that is being discussed.

Are we in a Golden Age of Wrestling and haven’t even noticed?

In 2001, the fanbase deflated, not only from Stone Cold Steve Austin’s heel turn, but the purchase of WCW and ECW. Why? The basic reasoning was the lack of options. Fans who cheered for Sting, with hopes for the return of Southern-style wrestling lost WCW. Fans who wanted their hardcore fix and anarchist trappings no longer had ECW. WWE pretty much owned EVERYTHING. Fast forward to 2018.

Not since the 1970s have we, as fans, had so many options. If you don’t like WWE because of its campiness, watch New Japan that treats wrestling more as a sport. If you want to view something wildly different and push the boundaries of what wrestling can be, you have Lucha Underground. If you like the stripped down, no nonsense wrestling, Ring of Honor or Impact Wrestling may be your fancy. CZW exists if you need to fulfill your bloodlust. CMLL and AAA are around for pure Lucha. Perhaps you want to see the evolution of women’s wrestling – so check out SHIMMER. PROGRESS works for those who want to see wrestling on the other side of the Pacific. EVOLVE and PWG is where fans can catch a glimpse of those who could wind up as a future star in WWE. And then there is NXT. Yes, it is a WWE-based product, but it is so far and away a different animal that at times, we consider NXT as a complete different company.

Where do you live? Do you have an indy promotion nearby? Do you support it? I would think that if you want to loosen the grip WWE has on the wrestling industry, the only response is to support something else. WWE is already a billion-dollar company. There is not much more fans can do to reverse that. Vince has conquered professional wrestling as a mainstream commodity. BUT, Vince has not conquered professional wrestling itself. There are new indy promotions popping up every day. Ring of Honor is one Sinclair check away from becoming a major promotion. New Japan’s president is developing a plan for true international expansion.

All-In, a chance taken by Cody and The Young Bucks, sold out. A 10,000-seat venue in one of wrestling’s major hotbeds, Chicago – sold out. We can dismiss this as a “one time, special” circumstance and an anomaly, but the fact is, it happened. It was not expected. There were hopes and aspirations, but WWE is the promotion that sells out large venues. That is no longer the case.

We tell ourselves that wrestling is not hip and uncool to the masses. We aren’t seeing wrestlers on the cover of television magazines. We are comparing ratings metrics with those of the Attitude Era. The cynicism is real. I fall into that trap as well. But wrestling consumption has evolved. DVR and streaming numbers now must be taken into consideration ALONG with ratings. Wrestlers are not on the cover of TV Guide anymore – they are on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Muscle & Fitness and Forbes. Even thinking about newsprint, which is nearly dead, wrestling has an undeniable and unavoidable presence online – with WWE leading the charge on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. It would be interesting to see how many stories about wrestlers TMZ covers, and how many views those stories receive.

Wrestling has no stars that transcend pop culture? The Rock (who still identifies himself as The Rock, pro wrestler) is the #1 box office draw on the planet; people are clamoring for him to legitimately run for POTUS…with a scary thought – he could possibly WIN. Batista (who still pines for one last major wrestling run) has become one of the most recognizable character actors in Hollywood. John Cena is beginning to take legitimate steps to be another major star in Hollywood. CM Punk, even though was defeated(destroyed) twice in the UFC, became a mainstream star with that exposure. Brock Lesnar is one of the most well-known athletes on the planet, ready for another major run with the UFC when he is ready. GLOW is one of the most popular shows on Netflix. The Andre the Giant documentary was released to widespread critical reception. We don’t need a mainstream star: Wrestling ITSELF is the mainstream star.

I am no longer surprised when I see someone wearing a Bullet Club t-shirt. Arena’s chant “YES” at sporting events. Ric Flair has become such a mainstay with hip-hop culture that a rap song was created as an homage to him…and it sold like gangbusters. How many 15-year olds may have been introduced to wrestling because of “Ric Flair Drip”?

Peace, prosperity, harmony and stability: There is no longer a company trying to “compete” with WWE; instead promotions are free to do their own thing without worrying on stepping on each other’s toes. Companies are bringing in gates and performers are able to make a living hopping from promotion to promotion as free agents, no longer shackled by the idea that the only way to support themselves is to make it to Vince McMahon’s circus. Companies are beginning to collaborate and trade talent for the better of the industry. We are not hearing continuous stories about several start-up promotions on the edge of closure. The days of predicting Impact’s demise is behind us. Ring of Honor isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. New Japan is only growing.

For me, I can’t say that wrestling is in a downturn with a straight face. I am surrounded by professional wrestling. I was at a party Sunday night – it was a posh affair, full of people that made my wife uncomfortable because of their pretentiousness. A conversation about WWE’s billion-dollar deal caught my ear. Of course, I left my wife alone to fend for herself (well, I didn’t…a mutual friend came to her aid) and inserted myself in the conversation. Knowing who The Rock is, is one thing, but these people spoke about and had awareness of John Cena – who some proclaim as the face of our current downturn. How many people know about Cena. Only those who follow Make-A-Wish, or whose children watch Nickelodeon. It was clear to me that I underestimated Cena’s reach. I was honestly shocked – so much so that I was inspired to write this piece. We are in a very interesting time. Wrestling isn’t popular where it is the water cooler or locker talk during the Attitude Era, but it bubbles, invisible and subconscious. It just exists, unnoticeable until it is time to be noticed. Wrestling is part of the 24/7 cycle, not a fad, but soaked within the fads of the newest form of media consumption. We just know it’s there, and no one bats an eye. Going to a wrestling show is now just like going to the movies.

Perhaps there are no more casual fans – just wrestling itself is casual. I will accept that coin.

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NJPW, ROH, WWE, Len Archibald