If you’re a regular reader of this blog (do I even have any regular readers anymore? Ah what does it matter) or you follow me on Twitter, you should know that I’m a huge geek for pro wrestling. Have been for 25-odd years, in fact; a bit longer than The Undertaker‘s been around. They told me I’d grow out of it, but despite my interest waning here and there, it hasn’t happened yet. I might never have been a hardcore tape-trader or a dirt sheet subscriber, but I’m a lifer nonetheless.
And in 2015, it’s really never been a better time to be a wrestling geek. There’s the WWE Network, of course: every major show live in HD, no sports channel subscription, dodgy stream or next-day torrenting required. But in the last couple of years especially, the whole wrestling world beyond WWE has become accessible to those who wish to explore. Just a glance at YouTube shows indie promotions like Ring of Honor and CHIKARA making the most of online streaming to get their goods out there.
In fact, there’s now so much quality wrestling available to any fan with a decent internet connection that it’s virtually impossible to keep up with everything. Nor would one want to, because the sheer variety of what’s out there simply reflects that we don’t all like the same kind of stuff. Maybe you’re a fan of garbage wrestling, or five-star technical masterpieces, or aerial spot-fests. Whatever it is, you can tailor your wrestling diet to your own needs.
That’s what I’m trying to do at the moment, rekindling my love for this crazy thing called wrestling (or sports entertainment, as Vince McMahon would have it) by switching my interests around and picking out what appeals to me. If WWE’s not floating my boat in any given week, well, the WWE Network itself has decades’ worth of PPVs and TV specials from its own history to watch, let alone the video libraries of WCW and ECW. If I want something a bit more hard-hitting, or more irreverent, I don’t have to look far online to find it.
But the starting point for me, day in and day out, is what’s going on behind the curtain. Because I’m a ‘smart mark’: I can suspend disbelief to enjoy the storylines and the action in the ring, just like I would watching TV or a movie, but I’m also deeply interested in the industry behind it all, the mechanics of how it works, the politics and juicy stories, the whole kit and caboodle. Power Slam magazine broke kayfabe for me not long after I became a wrestling fan, but it made me a wrestling geek with an even deeper interest and appreciation.
I think ‘smart mark’ or ‘smark’ is the camp the majority of wrestling geeks fall into. The Internet Wrestling Community might give the impression that workrate trumps all, but that seems to forget wrestling is performance art; it shares more DNA with Cirque du Soleil than other combat sports. I don’t label myself as a smart mark or a smark, as ‘wrestling geek’ suffices for me, lacking the negative connotations of the former. But by definition, we all want the same thing: the backstage gossip and an entertaining story.
So that’s what I get when I check my preferred wrestling news sites (usually 411 Wrestling, because I followed Hyatte there; that’s a long story) or, as happens more lately, see tweets from Wrestling Twitter in my timeline. Those tweets — and wrestling podcasts, so many podcasts! — are particularly useful for gauging whether this or that week’s Raw or SmackDown is worth a watch, because that’s five hours a week out of one’s life right there.
I have to admit, I stopped watching Raw regularly some time ago, and only bother grabbing it when the IWC consensus is overwhelmingly positive. I haven’t bothered watching SmackDown in forever, but I haven’t felt any great loss; WWE tends to save the best for PPVs. (Though not always: the Survivor Series is tonight, and only a handful of bouts have been determined for the card — none of them being a traditional elimination tag match — so I can only hope they’ll pull something good out of the bag with that severe lack of build-up.)
Besides, I prefer the ‘developmental’ league NXT over the main weekly shows: it’s on the WWE Network, it’s only an hour a week, with compelling storylines, impressive action and more entertaining personalities. And if I miss a week or two, no big deal; I can catch up once a fortnight or longer in a single evening. I can honestly say it’s been the main spark in rekindling my romance with wrestling this year.
The Network is also where I go for shows like the new documentary-style Breaking Ground and Table for 3, which as the name suggests sits three current or former WWE personalities down for dinner to share stories in and out of the ring — and to pick PPVs or shows of yesteryear to watch for all sorts of reasons: the nostalgia value (I had most of the WWF ones on VHS), the match quality or general aura of excitement, or because I’ve never seen them before. That goes for most of WCW for me: I was a fan back in the day, when it was difficult to be one (random episodes of WorldWide on UTV, usually in the middle of the night on a Thursday), and then had to follow along via magazines from about mid-1995 till the company’s demise as we didn’t have the satellite-only channels WCW’s shows were on over here.
One thing I’ve been doing lately is watching Monday Nitro for the first time. I started a couple of months ago, choosing the beginning of the nWo era in the summer of 1996 as my starting point, as that’s when WCW took over the WWF as the dominant wrestling promotion in the United States. You may have noticed my obscure tweets about it here and there. It’s been an experience so far, I’ll say, and not always a positive one; I’ll have more on this another time, as I’m not even a third of the way into the project (I’m at February 1997 now, and I’m aiming to watch up till about April 1998, when WCW’s Monday night ratings streak ended).
Another deep-diving project I’ve got going on is re-watching WWF’s In Your House PPVs. I’m not alone in revisiting that time before the Attitude Era kicked off (the New Generation Project podcast is all about it) but I’ve found the contrast with today quite refreshing and revealing, not least in realising that a time considered a nadir for wrestling really wasn’t all that bad (I was a fan at the time, so that must mean something).
What about WWE’s competition? Well, I stopped regularly watching TNA Wrestling last year, though my interest dissipated not long after Hulk Hogan got rid of the six-sided ring in 2010. I stopped watching altogether at the beginning of this year when their weekly flagship Impact Wrestling moved networks, replete with a crappy new logo and a depressingly cheap presentation reportedly devised by former WWE TV director ‘Big’ John Gaburick, made even worse by frenetic crash-zoom camera shots over the usual wide-angle hard-camera views that make the action almost impossible to follow. It’s unwatchable for me, so I stopped watching.
In its place, I’ve been revisiting New Japan Pro Wrestling, which I first got into in the early to mid ’90s thanks to their working agreement with WCW — and the Ring Warriors show on Eurosport, which featured everyone from The Great Muta and Masahiro Chono to Dave Finlay, Eddie Guerrero and [REDACTED]. New Japan is the home of my favourite wrestler, Jushin Thunder Liger — who I finally got to see wrestling live at York Hall in London a couple of years ago — but has also developed incredible talents such as Ireland’s own Finn Bálor, and is headlined today by entertaining all-rounders like Kazuchika Okada and Shinsuke Nakamura.
I lost touch with the company in the early 2000s, following along solely in the pages of Power Slam, but that was for the best in hindsight, as the bookers at the time were obsessed with MMA and made a hames of the product in the process. Long-time midcarders Gedo and Jado took over the booking towards the end of the decade and since then it’s been something of a renaissance for New Japan, with a deep and talented roster to draw from and long-term, logical storylines to match the tough-guy realism and superlative, language-barrier-transcending ring psychology of the action in the squared circle.
If you need an introduction, try to get your eyes on New Japan Pro-Wrestling on AXS TV; this adaption of the weekly World Pro Wrestling show with English-language commentary is about a year behind what’s currently happening in the promotion, but it will get you up to speed before delving into the NJPW World streaming service, which has all the major televised events, many of them multi-card tournaments unlike US wrestling’s focus on single shows and matches. You could also do worse than have a gander at Voices of Wrestling’s NJPW Year in Review ebook for 2014 for an overview of the big angles and happenings, something I’m doing myself at the moment to get prepared for the upcoming New Year’s supershow Wrestle Kingdom 10. (For further reading, another book ready to go on my Kindle is Lion’s Pride, NJPW fan Chris Charlton’s history of the promotion from its 1972 inception to the present.)
As far as American indie wrestling goes, I’ve been repping for CHIKARA for a number of years now. Co-founder Mike Quackenbush has been flying his geek flag high since 2002 with this low-budget but high-yield blend of sports entertainment, Japanese puroresu and Mexican lucha libre combined with 1980s nostalgia, comic book and otaku influences, plus lashings of absurdist humour. Imagine Adventure Time as a wrestling show; that’s CHIKARA.
Sadly I’ve been a bit out of touch with the promotion since its sudden ‘closure’ in the summer of 2013. They haven’t done any live internet PPVs since their comeback show in May 2014 and their year-end event in December that year, almost a year ago; rather, they’ve been pushing paid streaming of their events after the fact (a little on the expensive side at $11.99 each) and their own on-demand service Chikaratopia, which is much better value but lags about eight months behind. To be fair, though, CHIKARA’s universe exists in its own bubble and that lends very well to timeshifting. It’s about time I subscribed for a month-long CHIKARA binge.
One company I really should be watching is Ring of Honor, established in the early 2000s to fill the void left by ECW and today arguably the preeminent indie promotion in the US, with high production values and a heavy emphasis on match quality but with the necessary backstories to back it up, very much like New Japan. All that being said, I’ve only started watching here and there in the last couple of years, since it’s been easier to get ahold of their shows online. They do produce a weekly programme that’s available to steam on their website, so I should probably start making that a part of my regular wrestling diet.
That’s just the tip of the wrestling iceberg. Others will rave about Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (I’ve only seen a bit) or Dragon Gate (ditto) or Evolve (nada). I’ve never even seen All Japan or NOAH. Joshi puroresu is a genre unto itself. And look at what’s happening closer to home! Independent wrestling in Britain is at its peak: quality promotions everywhere, with Scotland’s Insane Championship Wrestling at the top selling out 4,000-seat arenas on the strength of its regular roster alone, without relying on big names flown in for the night (not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Revolution Pro Wrestling does a fantastic job pitting American and Japanese stars against local talents).
We don’t have quite the same culture of indie wrestling here in Ireland. There was Irish Whip Wrestling in the 2000s (I was at their debut card in Tallaght, and a few years later saw AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels headline an Irish Whip show at the old SFX). Today there’s Over the Top Wrestling, Ireland’s answer to ICW, and I’ll be sampling their wares for the first time at their Outer Space Odyssey II event next weekend.
I hope it’s a good show, as I’m pretty excited at the prospect of having a ‘home’ promotion to support. And I hope it spells bigger things for grassroots wrestling in Ireland in general. How about a CHIKARA-style family-friendly promotion, anyone? I’d be in the front row every month, chuffed to bits that this thing I lived and breathed when I was 12 years old is everywhere today, and never going away.