TNT aired the last episode of WCW Monday Nitro on March 26, 2001. World Championship Wrestling, along with all its assets, had been sold three day prior to the World Wrestling Federation’s main rival. They had been locked in an intense, six-year-long television ratings battle.
The final image of World Championship Wrestling for most who followed it was a split-screen satellite multicast of Vince McMahon — the owner of the WWF and real-life heel — and his son, Shane McMahon, arguing over which one of them now owned the company.
TNT was unable to broadcast pro-wrestling on March 26, 2001. This marked the end of nearly 20 years worth of television programming.
WWF became World Wrestling Entertainment. The WWF has also absorbed WCW and Extreme Championship Wrestling. In addition, the WWF tape libraries have been merged with many historic and shuttered wrestle companies to make it a dominant force in professional wrestling. To many fans, the initials “WWE” and “pro wrestling” aren’t just synonymous: there’s no difference. And no alternative.
Yet the most diehard pro wrestling fans — far from a small audience, and one of the most passionate fanbases that exists — know WWE isn’t the only option. That it’s never been the only option. For decades, they’ve been nourishing their fandom, investing time, money, and loyalty to a variety of upstarts.
Last year was the year that this investment paid off. For the first time in 20 years, WWE isn’t the only one in the ring.
Let’s embark together on a brief journey of how pro wrestling took over North America, how WWE took over the very concept of what pro wrestling is, and how now, after almost two decades of no true competitors, there’s suddenly a new titan going toe-to-toe with Goliath. This new competitor has all the momentum.
The WWF’s takeover of the wrestling world
At the inception of professional wrestling as we know it (a predetermined series of bouts disguised as a genuine athletic competition, bound by the carnival art of “kayfabe” to never let the audience in on the truth behind the illusion), the logistics of the world more or less necessitated that countries or areas (particularly in North and Central America) were carved up into “territories” run by either promoters or cartels of promoters, each dominating their geographical area with their own regional television shows, circuits of “house shows” (or live events, where all the money was made), and of course, stars.
Minnesota had Verne Gagne’s AWA (home to Nick Bockwinkel and, at the beginning of his run under the guise we know him best, Hulk Hogan); Texas had the Von Erich Brothers in WCCW; Ray Stevens ran the Cow Palace in San Francisco; Florida was home to Dusty Rhodes and CWF; Chase Wrestling was the landmark St. Louis television show from Sam Muchnick; television star Andy Kaufman helped Jerry Lawler’s Memphis-based CWA enter the national consciousness; Vince McMahon Sr. ran WWWF out of New York, with its star-studded Madison Square Garden shows; and in Charlotte you had Jim Crockett Promotions, the de facto home of Ric Flair and Harley Race. Many of these territories belonged to the National Wrestling Alliance at some point. This conglomeration aimed to unify the various territories and decide collectively who would become the world champion. The theory and practice was that the world champion would move in and out of each territory, building regional heroes and driving ticket sales.
Of course, pro wrestling being the business that it is, territories were often breaking away from the NWA and crowning their own champions — often taking advantage of a loophole, screwjob, or other chicanery involving the established NWA World Champion that gave the breakaway promotion’s chosen man just enough of a leg to stand on that they could be rightfully viewed, in the eyes of their fans, as having a legitimate claim to being world champion themselves.
One of the first to break away from the NWA was Vince McMahon Sr., who was perfectly content to rule the Northeast, and whose WWWF was invariably referred to among wrestlers as “New York.” Back in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, wrestlers were free to come to a territory, make a little (or a lot of) money, and then when their run had ended or there were no more competitors or rivals that made sense, they were given the promoter’s blessing to head on over to another territory and do business there for a while … and they’d probably return again when a new opportunity presented itself.
That all changed when Vince McMahon, Jr. — the Vince most people in the world are familiar with — orchestrated a buyout of His father’s company, dropped a W, and set about making his WWF not just the biggest pro wrestling company in the world, but a wrestling company that reflected hisPro wrestling is supposed to be entertainment, not a blood-feud battle of wills. McMahon relentlessly poached the biggest stars, biggest personalities, and, most importantly, biggest physiques from other territories and made them exclusive to “New York,” while striking deals with national cable companies like the USA Network to get WWF programming on the air every week, from coast to coast. He began to take over television spots in some regions and drive companies out of business through his diverse tactics. This was what many countries considered the greatest crime.
Eventually, most of the remaining NWA territories, predominantly led by Crockett, coalesced under the WCW name, and childhood wrestling fan Ted Turner got into the “wrasslin’ business” by broadcasting World Championship Wrestling on the TBS Superstation before going head to head with McMahon by launching Monday Nitro opposite WWF Monday Night Raw in 1995, kicking off what is affectionately known to wrestling fans as the Monday Night Wars.
McMahon was victorious in that battle. He achieved his goal of putting all his major competitors out of business, and after losing stars like The Rock to Hollywood, Steve Austin to … a lot of things (including age and injury), and Brock Lesnar to the dream of the NFL and then UFC, he began pivoting to making sure that the WWE product wasn’t any specific wrestler, but the WWE brand itself. McMahon was inspired by the NFL. Every year the Super Bowl sold out and was the most viewed event regardless of who was playing. Football was also the most culturally important touchstone, no matter the quality. (McMahon would attempt to outdo the NFL twice via the XFL, but that was just another in his very long line of finding a “legitimate,” non-wrestling enterprise to hang his entrepreneurial hat on.)
WWE’s many unsuccessful challengers
Since WCW went off the air, there have been countless attempts to try to create a “legitimate” competitor WWE. TNA is perhaps the most famous, with strong ratings for some time. TNA suffered from a decline in ratings and was often on the edge of financial ruin and even collapse. TNA’s current name is Impact Wrestling and it airs every week on AXS TV. MTV attempted Wrestling Society X. XPW was a thing that briefly threatened to break big before flaming out spectacularly (and becoming its own episode of Vice TV’s Dark Side of the RingIt is. Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network featured Lucha Underground, whose cinematic, fantastical approach to the artform briefly generated buzz before a far-too-long hiatus demolished its momentum.
The truth is that the territory most associated with pro-wrestling before the mid-1980s was never actually there. Complete died. TNA was acquired by the NWA in 1990. The NWA continued to operate independently as a NWA World Champion. The territories morphed into “independent wrestling” or the more colloquial and affectionate “indie” wrestling. Early indie stars were heavily influenced by the exploits of the bombast of ECW and the tape trading scene that exposed American wrestlers and diehard fans to the hard-hitting “strong style” of Japanese wrestling, the innovations created by Mexican lucha libre stars Rey Mysterio Jr. and Psicosis, and the technical prowess of British legends like Johnny Saint and Jim Breaks, Canadian innovators Dynamite Kid and Chris Benoit, and countless more.
Northern California’s All Pro Wrestling created the first King of the Indies tournament in 2000, and the 2001 iteration was the first big viral independent wrestling tape, featuring performers like “The American Dragon” Bryan Danielson, Samoa Joe, Brain Kendrick, Adam Pearce, Doug Williams, AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, Low Ki, and Kazarian.
Spurred by this revolutionary demonstration of what professional wrestling could look like in the ring in the year 2001 — a jaw-dropping mix of high-flying, technicality, brutality, and athleticism — former Paul Heyman protege Gabe Sapolsky conceived of an East Coast-based promotion that would focus primarily on “dream matches” featuring the best available talent. Ring of Honor was born in 2002, with its first event featuring a briefly-fired-from-WWE Eddie Guerrero and culminating in its main event: a genre-defining Three-Way Dance between Danielson, Daniels and Low Ki.
The Ring of Honor was not the biggest company in America, but it would become the most powerful North American company after the closure of WCW/ECW.
ROH was a success from 2002 through the 2010s. It continued to build buzz with its live shows and DVD releases. ROH eventually started running shows in the exact same place as Wrestlemania during WrestleMania weekend. ROH came to define indie wrestling and be viewed as having the consensus highest quality in-ring product in North America (at least as far as men’s wrestling goes) as it grew. Stars were created and featured frequently: CM Pop, Austin Aries (AJ Styles), Nigel McGuinness. Tyler Black, Claudio Castagnoli. Kevin Steen. El Generico. Davey Richards.
Ring of Honor’s influence on the decade of independent wrestling was a strange side effect. WWE continued to take in its top stars. Punk (rechristened Seth Rollins in WWE), Castagnoli in WWE (Cesaro), Black (rechristened Seth Rollins), Steen(Kevin Owens), Danielson (Daniel Bryan), all became major components of WWE. The indie flavors began to impact the sleek WWE product. From the inside, WWE was changing with its wrestlers.
WWE is in the business of the “status quo”
Even dating back to the days of Vince McMahon Sr., the knock on the “New York” product by hardcore wrestling fans was that it was too flashy, too entertainment focused. It wasn’t like Southern wrestling, where the ultimate object was to make your opponent bleed buckets of blood in pursuit of being the best athlete, or, even better, in pursuit of avenging real-life emotion, like your best friend betraying you, or if your rival enlisted his friends to break your arm with a baseball bat in the parking lot. In the NWA, the son of plumbers took on the rich and spoiled athlete with the annoying trait that he was the greatest wrestler of all time. WWF had a cartoon superhero fighting a cartoon supervillain (usually tied to some general bigotry, like the wrestler’s weight or where they were born), with not a whole lot that could even charitably be called “wrestling” going on.
McMahon never once made any claims about the authenticity of his product. He also stated that he saw it more as entertainment than wrestling. Most pro-wrestling fans were disgusted by the product in both principle and execution. In the 1980s, they clung tight to their territory … and then to Jim Crockett … and then to the NWA … and then in the 1990s to WCW. It was then gone. The only remaining pro-wrestling program on TV was one they hated. Many turned to indie wrestle. Some turned to tape collecting or old-timer conventions. Some simply forgot about the past and turned away. For the greater part of twenty years, WWE was free to do what it wanted, sometimes to the chagrine of many wrestling fans.
To WWE’s credit, the gambit has worked. WWE is synonymous with pro-wrestling, making the WWE brand even more valuable. Between Raw, Smackdown, NXT, monthly pay-per-views (or “live specials” after the advent of the WWE Network), and other assorted programming, WWE offers a minimum of eight hours of live programming every week, with no offseason. Although it is ranked among the most popular shows on television, WWE’s importance to conglomerates and networks has been greater than ever.
The ratings are still being compared to those golden days by many long-time viewers. This is despite cord cutting, DVR and uploading clips to YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and other network websites and thousands of other parameters.
There isn’t space here to run down the complete list of problems with WWE (up to and including its current, lucrative contract with the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), but many of them stem from Vince McMahon (and popular internet punching bag, EVP of television production Kevin Dunn) having final say in pretty much everything you see on television. McMahon, a fascinating and bizarre individual who has a unique view of the world, is truly amazing. He believes makes a good product, and without anyone threatening to put him out of business since the dawn of the millennium, there’s been no one to hold him accountable or suggest that his method isn’t working. Despite constant criticisms from the media and fans, the company continues to grow in profitability.
Both fans and wrestlers have many bones to pick about the wrestlers McMahon chooses to feature and the methods in which they’re used. An argument has been made innumerable times that WWE specifically punishes fans and performers alike for having the audacity to complain, or to suggest that certain wrestlers are being utilized while others are being pushed down viewers’ throats. Some wrestlers have chosen not to deal with the politics or broken promises of the WWE top, while others choose to make a living elsewhere to find creative fulfillment.
Indie wrestling’s rise to the big time
Cody Rhodes was the son of Dusty Rhodes and began a career of acting in Hollywood. He also stormed the independents. This coincided with an era in global pro-wrestling’s prominence. In the UK, which had been long without a product that was viable, there was a sudden rise in wrestling. Germany’s wXw was thriving. And most importantly, New Japan Pro-Wrestling was the hottest product going, as the gaijin faction Bullet Club ran rampant and followed the template set by Steve Austin and the nWo: never underestimate the power of a cool, iconic shirt that doesn’t say “wrestling” on it.
Cody was a Bullet Club member and also became the Ring of Honor World Champion. He began his Bullet Club run with Kenny Omega, and Matt Jackson. Their tag team, the Young Bucks, was the most offensive thing that they could conjure up. Omega and the Bucks christened their trio “The Elite of the Bullet Club,” and began posting what was originally a travelogue on YouTube. It quickly evolved into the highly popular, still-ongoing Being the Elite. This blog is full of inside references, sketches, and ironic jokes. Cody became a fixture in the BTE episodes, and the four men continued — both together and separately — to rack up acclaim and fans, sell out shows, and most importantly, make gobs and gobs of money off neverending merchandise. Their merch endeavors were assisted by the Chicago-based print-on-demand company One Hour Tees, which spun off into Pro Wrestling Tees, now the official t-shirt home to pretty much every non-WWE wrestler you can think of … and some that are actually currently signed by WWE. Cory and Elite began to think outside of Ring of Honor, as the end approached for their contracts with New Japan and that company.
Cody won a Twitter bet. Wrestling Observer NewsletterIn 2017, founder Dave Meltzer said that Ring of Honor was riding high on popularity due to the partnership with NJPW and could eventually sell out an arena of 10,000 seats. The All In pay-per view was presented by Rhodes and Young Bucks on September 1, 2018. This event took place at the Sears Centre Arena in Chicago. 11,263 people watched it. Utilizing ROH’s production team, the event was hailed as a masterstroke and a landmark moment for independent wrestling.
After All In’s huge success, things started to spiral and Cody and his Elite team began conversations with Tony Khan, a long-time pro wrestler and co-owner of both the Jacksonville Jaguars (and Fulham F.C. Shahid Khan, his father. After All In, trademarks were filed. In January 2019, All Elite Wrestling’s creation was officially announced. Kenny Omega, Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks signed full-time contracts with the company. They were also named executive vice presidents. Numerous truckloads were filled with international and independent names.
In May 2019, a week before the company’s first PPV, a deal was announced for a weekly television show on TNT, marking the cable network’s return to broadcasting professional wrestling for the first time since WCW was bought out. AEW Dynamite launched in October 2018, and averaged 1.4 million viewers. WWE counterprogrammed with NXT being moved to Wednesday night to face AEW. NXT was a newly placed streamer on USA Network. NXT is now being moved to Tuesday evenings instead. In less than two years, AEW won the Wednesday Night Wars.
All Elite Wrestling’s popularity has continued to grow since its inception. However, the signing of CM Puk, who will be making his comeback to professional wrestling after seven years, has given it a greater chance to do so. Punk was a crossover star for WWE and had the non-wrestling world talking about him in the summer of 2011 after his “pipe bomb” promo successfully blurred the lines for viewers about whether what he said was “real,” which was compounded by his promise to walk out of the company after winning the WWE Championship on the night his real-life contract with WWE expired. “The Summer of Punk” got off to a rousing start when Punk put his money where his mouth was and beat John Cena for the WWE Championship in his hometown of Chicago on July 17, 2011.
WWE got cold feet and curtailed the storyline, but Punk became a top star in the company from 2011 to 2014, when he walked out after that year’s Royal Rumble and tried a UFC career on for size for a couple of years. Punk returned to WWE in 2019 when FOX Sports hired him as a regular panelist.WWE BackstageFS1 but the fans still clamored for an in-ring appearance.
Punk debuted in AEW on Aug. 20, 2021 on the second episode of AEW Rampage, the company’s new, second weekly show. Although the episode received the greatest ratings ever since Dynamite’s debut two years prior, the best indicator of pro wrestling success was merch. Despite having been around since 2013 and officially partnering with many household name wrestlers and non-WWE companies, and despite having eight years of selling the ubiquitous Bullet Club shirts and partnering with Hot Topic since 2017, CM Punk’s return shirt became the single biggest-selling design in the history of Pro Wrestling Tees within days of his debut and effectively depleted the world’s supply of ringer tees, forcing PWT to print the design on a plain white tee until they could locate another cache of the all-important ringers.
CM Popunk and his imminent in-ring comeback were talked about for weeks by the industry, with the anticipation of his return at All Out 2020 on September 5. AEW pulled out the stops for its first post-pandemic arena show, as the 10,000-plus fans in attendance not only got to see Punk’s return against Darby Allin, but were treated to two huge debuts to end the night, as recent WWE escapees Adam Cole and the former Daniel Bryan, once again Bryan Danielson, appeared to send the crowd into a series of frenzies.
AEW continues to open “the forbidden door” with its ongoing partnerships with New Japan, Impact Wrestling, Mexico’s AAA, and other companies, creating a brave new world of globalized professional wrestling where anything seems possible and where the object seems to be to keep its fans and viewers happy. For the most part.
All Elite Wrestling has its flaws and shortcomings, just like all pro-wrestling companies. Still, there are real concerns regarding lack of representation and the hiring of people with doubtful pasts. There is also a lack of unions (and a severe lack of concern by the EVPs) and the WWE-like tendency to sign dozens upon dozens of wrestlers while not having enough room.
But the long and short of it is that AEW is here, and it’s a force to be reckoned with. For the first time in a very long time, there is a very real and very crowd-pleasing alternative to WWE — one that is primarily focused on being a professional wrestling company, rather than televised entertainment that happens to be pro wrestling-shaped. It’s a very important distinction, especially where wrestling fans are concerned.
It’s going to be many years — if it ever happens — before the AEW name comes anywhere close to attaining the level of cultural footprint and, perhaps more importantly, the cache and raw value that the WWE name holds, but AEW doesn’t appear to be concerned with that. It’s focused on creating the product that it wants to see, and making it the premier location for the very best in-ring contemporary wrestling in North America … just as Ring of Honor did back in 2002.
It’s the best possible time to be a fan of professional wrestling. You can watch pretty much everything that has ever happened in WWE, WCW, or ECW on the WWE Network (which now resides on NBC’s Peacock app, part of another lucrative deal that WWE has pulled off recently), New Japan has started up a Los Angeles-based arm of its company and airs a weekly English-language show on Fite TV, and numerous other promotions offer streaming services for modest prices.
You can watch the top two wrestling organizations in America perform several times per week on television. WWE vs. AEW isn’t quite WWE vs. WCW yet, but it’s clear that All Elite Wrestling is a force to be reckoned with, and is taking the fight to a company that didn’t believe it would ever have a rival like this again.
Wrestling fans, it’s obvious.
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