wrestling / Columns

The 8 Ball: Top 8 Reasons Wrestling Needs the IWC

March 7, 2016 | Posted by Mike Hammerlock

Top 8 Reasons Pro Wrestling Needs the IWC

This week the Magic 8-Ball tackles the many-horned beast known as the Internet Wrestling Community (IWC). That term means many things to many people, so let’s define it before we get to this week’s list. Some people have a dated concept of the IWC as a very specific and small subsection of adult, male wrestling fans who worship workrate and make way too big a deal about snowflake ratings. That’s where it got started, but a lot of the talking points the IWC harped on obsessively in its early years have gone mainstream. Note how CM Punk and Daniel Bryan became two of the biggest stars of the 2010s after being held up as the poster boys for good wrestling in the 2000s. Note how much better John Cena has gotten in the ring in recent years. Many of those once outside opinions found their way into the mainstream.

Yet the original IWC cycled out of existence a long time ago. YouTube and social media and fifteen different pop culture phenomenons completely altered its DNA. The IWC circa 2016 has become the playpen in which wrestling fans of all stripes bump into one another. There’s no such animal as a “mainstream” wrestling fan who does intersect gonzo wrestling fans somewhere on the Internet. For the most part, casual fandom does not exist any more, and this extends far beyond wrestling. The only people who get no social media feeds and spend no time on the Internet looking up professional wrestling-related content are people who spend no time (or next to no time) watching professional wrestling. If you do something as generic as looking up the Wikipedia page for an individual WrestleMania event, you likely will read a 411Mania citation in the “Reception” section of the entry and, bam!, you’ve now paid enough attention to bump into someone with an opinion. Welcome to the IWC.

Like everything on the Internet, it’s unwieldy and filled with rabbit holes. You’re going to like some parts of it better than others. If you spend enough time engaging with it, you’ll probably find your tastes changing. Some fans like the LOL material, some like reading historical top 10 lists, some like reading wordy columns like this (hard to believe, but true). It’s a choose-your-own-adventure setup. Think of it like going to high school. You can’t hang out with everybody and maybe you travel in a few different social circles. Maybe you shift social circles over time. Maybe you’re more comfortable lurking on the periphery and keeping quiet until your confidence grows. There’s not only one way to do it.

If you’re a wrestling fan, the natural place for you to go to indulge your fandom is the Internet. There may not be a wrestling event to attend or watch on television at this particular moment, but the Internet is open 24/7/366 (it’s a leap year). In large part when I’m saying pro wrestling needs the IWC, what I’m really saying is pro wrestling needs fans. The IWC has grown from a collection of forums for maniacal fans to a leviathan that’s swallowed all fans. What this column is looking to get at are the leading reasons why the modern IWC is so vital to the wrestling industry (and we’re not just talking WWE here). The IWC does numerous things that benefit wrestling promotions both small and large. Due to the evolution of the IWC, fans are no longer passive observers, they’re an interactive part of the business.

8. Free Publicity

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There’s an old political and showbiz maxim that you don’t care what the papers say about you as long as they spell your name right. The IWC produces a furious amount of content around pro wrestling. From columns to comics to videos to fun with Photoshop, the IWC obsesses about pro wrestling. Do you have any idea how much a company would have to pay an advertising firm to come up with the #RKOOuttaNowhere meme? People work late hours trying to come up with that kind of virality. Pro sports leagues wish their athletes could become larger cultural phenomenons. The WWE got that for free courtesy of the IWC, which generated the meme and then ran with it. Even when the IWC is busting Vince McMahon or Dixie Carter’s chops, it’s talking about their products. Having fun at your expense is still having fun. If anything, one of the major problems TNA ran into is the IWC got apathetic about it. There’s money in snark and fanaticism. Hell, you’re right now reading a wrestling article on 411Mania that didn’t cost a single pro wrestling federation one red cent. Essentially the wrestling industry has its fans working for it. The IWC has taken up the role the mainstream sports media plays with pro sports.

7. Education

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Pro wrestling has a long and complex history. At some point in the not too distant future we’ll have tenured college professors who specialize in the history of pro wrestling. It’s where contemporary history, sociology and media studies intersect. If Ken Burns is looking for a subject for a new documentary series, he probably can’t do better than to dig into wrestling. In the meantime, the IWC serves as the keeper of that flame. Virtual textbooks have been written about the Gold Dust Trio, El Santo, the Montreal Screwjob and Misawa leading the Japanese exodus away from AJPW. You can’t find them in one place but there’s a ton of material out there in the ether. Sites like the Internet Wrestling Database, Pro Wrestling Wiki and even Wikipedia contain an enormous amount of information. You can research match and event histories, wrestler histories, move descriptions, even learn about how the business works. It’s all out there, courtesy of the IWC. It allows you to determine your level of information. You can go as far down that rabbit hole as you wish. And the deeper you go, the more likely you are to be a lifelong wrestling fan.

6. Word of Mouth

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Back in the early 2000s I used to read the Smash Wrestling site a lot, mainly for Arnold Furious. Around that time Arnold began reviewing videos from this new promotion called Ring of Honor. That’s how I found out about Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, Low Ki and these two young guys named C.M. Punk and Brian Danielson. Some of the hottest up-and-coming talent in the business and pretty much the only way you could find out about it was via the IWC. It was the “You Gotta See This” effect. When people followed that advice, ROH took off and careers were made. Same thing has happened in recent years with New Japan’s renaissance. The buzz around various Wrestle Kingdom and the G1 Climax events paved the way for the launch of the New Japan World streaming service. 411 writer Kevin Ford deserves a finder’s fee for all the people who’ve been turned onto Chikara because of his writing. Just this past year we saw Lucha Underground continually gain steam as a result of the IWC raving about the product. People tuned in to see if the hype was real. It was. The IWC alerts fans to what they might be missing. It even works at the WWE level. Fans were stoked when Hideo Itami (Kenta Kobayashi) Sami Zayn (El Generico), Kevin Owens (Steen) and Finn Balor (Prince Devitt) landed in NXT. Look at the reaction AJ Styles got at the Royal Rumble. Some fans know him from TNA, but a lot of those people knew that he’s been tearing it up in recent years over in Japan. The reason why they knew that is the IWC.

5. And That’s the Way It Is

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I mentioned earlier about how the IWC provides the industry with loads of free publicity acting as the de facto wrestling media. Yet don’t sleep on the value of actual news. Murky as the wrestling rumor mill may be, it keeps fans connected. We can find out who’s injured or if someone just signed a contract with a new fed. It gives us event results and reviews. When CM Punk suddenly disappeared from our TV screens after the 2014 Royal Rumble, the IWC was there to detail why. It’s not perfect and it’s certainly not professional, but the wrestling industry itself does a lousy job of disseminating news. If it weren’t for dirt sheets and bloggers and news aggregation sites, wrestling fans likely would be frustrated by the radio silence concerning pro wrestling. Behind-the-scenes and off-the-field news is a critical component of every other form of entertainment and sport. Suspect news is better than no news at all.

4. Working and Shooting

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Pro wrestling doesn’t use social media nearly as much as it should to build feuds, though sometimes we get shoots like Ashley Massaro’s epic takedown of Sunny last year. The proof of concept for having a feud fester via the IWC happened a decade ago with the Edge-Matt Hardy feud. For three months after Hardy’s release, sentiment built against Matt’s one-time friend Edge and his ex, Lita, who were making the beast with two backs. There was an Internet petition calling for Hardy’s reinstatement. Comments boards got swamped with Matt-Lita-Edge posts. Matt’s eventual appearances in ROH helped feed the fire. The whole thing came to life on the Internet. Eventually it exploded on our TV screens, but you had to be plugged into the IWC to know what actually was going on. The WWE’s Summer of Punk ran largely on IWC fuel too. As we move into the future, expect promotions to get savvier about how to inject feuds into the IWC and have them grow. Part of the delay is the bookers generally are old, non-Internet-savvy men, so they don’t think about transmedia storylines. Yet you don’t need to look farther than the Hollywood success of Marvel Comics to see where the business is headed. Comics, films, online (particularly the fans forums) – it all works together in a feedback loop. For instance, the marketing plan is for fans to be immersed and invested in the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie before it premieres. That’s a direct result of engaging with the fan community. Wrestling’s present is a little skimpy on this, but it’s the wave of the future.

3. Kids Grow Up

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When you’re a kid you buy into the basic story presented to you. Hulk Cena is a good guy, Harley Hearst Rollins is a bad guy. You don’t question it any more than Big Bird needing to know the letter of the day or why once a year a rabbit circumnavigates the globe to hide eggs and leave candy. However, at some point in the young lives of whatever they’re going to call the current under-10 generation, they’re going to become fairly tech savvy. Eventually as their tech prowess expands and their ability to see the gaping holes in wrestling plotlines increases, they’ll probably bump into the IWC. This is a good thing. It might start innocently enough with them taking a Buzzfeed quiz about “What 80s wrestling legend are you?” Yet soon enough they’ll find themselves in a subreddit with a cast of shady characters screaming about how Cesaro needs to become WWE champion by next week. It’s the circle of life. You’re supposed to disdain the things you liked in your younger days now that you’re older and wiser, or at least more jaded. The upside for wrestling is the IWC is there to keep fans engaged during those transitional times.

2. This is the Modern World

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It is a function of planet Earth in the year 2016 for fans to dive deeper into the entertainments they enjoy. It’s gotten to the point where fantasy football may actually be bigger than the NFL itself. For fantasy players, the phrase “your team” no longer means the NFL franchise that plays in your home city. Cosplay, which depends on Internet/social media for community connectivity, has become a measuring stick for how successful, even at a cult level, your movie or television show (or web show) has become. It even goes down some very kinky roads. Thanks to the Walking Dead phenomenon, there are people out there looking to engage in zombie hookups. That’s a real thing. Humans do that. If people aren’t taking your form of entertainment and making into their, sometimes twisted, plaything, then you’re not succeeding. If the Internet goes dark on pro wrestling, if the comments sections dry up, if people stop making memes, if the podcasts go quiet, if nobody can be bothered to hashtag or share, then pro wrestling effectively dies. It’s an inherent part of fandom. The IWC actually helped blaze that trail.

Lucha Underground gets it. The promotion pumps a furious amount of image and video content into the IWC. It’s used the Internet to put the LU comic into more people’s hands. Executive producer Eric Van Wagenen has done Reddit Q&As and Nerdist podcasts. It’s not alone. Last year Chikara launched a weekly YouTube show. If you truly want to follow Evolve, then you really need to follow the promotion’s various wrestlers on social media to see the feuds get built. Meanwhile GFW, which seems to operate at an old school press release level of communication, can’t get an ounce of traction. Modern reality is even the most casual fan goes online to spend more time with the things he/she enjoys. The WWE does it’s Facebook/Twitter version of IWC engagement, which is mostly marketing, but I don’t think Vince McMahon fully appreciates he’s the tail trying to wag the dog.

1. Bullshit Detection

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Wrestling is an on-the-fly creative endeavor. Probably the closest art form is standup comedy. In both cases, the audience can be brutal if an angle/routine fails. The fans will tell you when you suck. However, pro wrestling fans are out there talking about pro wrestling all the time. Wrestling promotions don’t have to fly blind. For instance, a short trip around the Internet would have told the WWE that Roman Reigns was going to flop as a face at Fastlane and that fans would revel in his blood the next night. Live crowd reactions leading up to Fastlane told the same story, but the online world delved into why it was happening. The IWC generates plenty of noise, but it wasn’t hard to find the signal on that one. Fans are telling promotions, indirectly, who they like and which ideas are crap. There was a sea change in the online world when New Day went from stock gospel characters to devilish wrestling nerds (because we’re all nerds now). It was almost instant validation. On the flip side, the IWC served as a canary in the coalmine for why the Ascension’s Demolition throwback gimmick was going to fail.

To the WWE’s credit, I think somebody in the company took note of how violently the IWC reacted to Kalisto getting a flamboyant hairdresser gimmick and Undertaker vs. Braun Strowman at WrestleMania 32. I’m not saying the WWE specifically floated those ideas and gauged the reaction (though it would have been smart business to audience-test them in that fashion), but I’m fairly certain the “No!” in both cases was so resounding it got heard. And it’s not just the WWE that stands to benefit from IWC input. The disgust for Magnus’ run as TNA champion a couple of years back was palpable. Had TNA picked up sooner on the overwhelming negative IWC reaction, it could have corrected course much sooner and perhaps saved Magnus as a main event-level performer in the process. Don’t listen at your own peril. The IWC doesn’t hold a single opinion about anything, but a small amount of savvy can help you negotiate it well enough to understand when you are in the midst of making, or about to make, a critical mistake.