Wrestling 101: Introduction to the 2019 Wrestling Landscape by Jerry Whitworth
Professional wrestling, a staged live combat-based performance dating back two centuries, has seen its popularity rise and fall over the years. Reaching mainstream media in the 1980s with the rise of Hulkamania, pro wrestling hit its pinnacle in the ’90s during the so-called Monday Night Wars and the World Wrestling Federation’s Attitude Era. After WWF, known today as WWE (E for Entertainment), crushed and consumed its competition in World Championship Wrestling and Extreme Championship Wrestling, the industry in many ways collapsed. The territories that largely fed companies like WWF/E and WCW died and gave way to a circuit that elder statesmen of wrestling consider “backyard wrestling” while WWE reverted back to its kid-friendlier days where Hulk Hogan reigned. Independent promotions such as Total Nonstop Action and Ring of Honor arose to try and fill the void left by the loss of WCW and ECW but they lacked the funding, fanbase, and reach of their predecessors. For nearly two decades, WWE has largely been the end-all, be-all of pro wrestling, though they have abandoned that description in favor of being instead “sports entertainment.” Now, with the emergence of All Elite Wrestling on TNT and its live weekly television series Dynamite, the paradigm is shifting as WWE has its first legitimate competition since the Monday Night Wars. What more, the largest portion of AEW’s audience is made up of new fans, children of fans, and returning fans that gave up on wrestling after the deaths of WCW and ECW. With so many new people and lapsed returning fans, we wanted to offer some insight into what content is readily available to consume.
The undisputed king of sports entertainment, World Wrestling Entertainment survived the Monday Night Wars to become the king of the mountain and, for many people, the only readily available form of pro wrestling they could consume. Vincent Kennedy McMahon, who spearheaded the push to bring the industry to the mainstream with Hulkamania in the ’80s, is still in control of the company. 74 years old and running two weekly live television shows with a monthly live event who is currently in the process of resurrecting his failed football league in the XFL (partly in response to NFL players kneeling), McMahon micromanages much of his content where he’s known for completely rewriting his shows only hours before they’re set to air. Featuring a massive roster with performers from all around the world, McMahon’s WWE is larger and with more talented wrestlers than it has ever had before in its history. With the likes of Becky Lynch, Daniel Bryan, Brock Lesnar, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Bray Wyatt, AJ Styles, New Day, Shinsuke Nakamura, Kevin Owens, Samoa Joe, Bayley, Ember Moon, and the Kabuki Warriors among its ranks, WWE is well-equipped to lead the industry, and yet, its failed to find the kind of fervor it enjoyed in the 1990s. In recent years, the company has made an effort to try and bring back performers from its past but the returns have been diminishing as time and history has not been kind to their bodies. WWE has struggled and in the face of emerging competition, its seemingly collapsed that much faster and further. Recently, WWE’s live television series SmackDown has moved to Fox and while having access to the largest audience it could attract in over a decade, it has under-performed even conservative estimates. WWE has the greatest potential to dominate this latest uptick in interest in pro wrestling but thus far has maintained a status quo that saw it rest on the laurels of the Monday Night Wars.
Hot, fresh, and young, All Elite Wrestling is the new bad boy of pro wrestling. Viewed as being a revolution in the industry by its founders, AEW is largely built on the backs of the fame of the Bullet Club. Founded in New Japan Pro Wrestling and paying homage to the New World Order and D-Generation X, Prince Devitt (WWE/NXT’s Finn Balor) lead a group of non-Japanese wrestlers on a tear across the establishment stamping on the rules and norms of the company. As performers like the Young Bucks, AJ Styles, Kenny Omega, Adam Cole, Adam Page, Cody Rhodes, Marty Scurll, and Kenta (WWE’s Hideo Itami) joined Bullet Club, the brand continued to grow inevitably gaining the attention of retailer Hot Topic who brought what was largely an underground market for the group’s “bone soldier” symbol t-shirts to the masses. Perhaps comparable to Ultimate Warrior’s face paint or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s skull logo, people were drawn into the symbolism with many becoming fans of the group. Bullet Club and its top stars in the Bucks, Omega, and Cody became a gateway for the Japanese company into the lucrative American market but disagreements between the parties lead to the superstars to leave and form their own company in AEW. One would expect the quartet to bring their friends to form the spine of the company (which has certainly seen many friends join the promotion), AEW has focused largely on bringing in young talent that even hardcore wrestling fans weren’t necessarily familiar with beforehand. Combining timeless tried and true storytelling with an eye to a real sports feel while staying true to its roots featuring nigh-superhuman athleticism, AEW has been a buffet to appeal to fans new and old. Despite having a roster considerably smaller than WWE, AEW has nonetheless struggled to feature its diverse ranks of performers where even the development of a YouTube exclusive program in AEW Dark has still left many wrestlers with little to no exposure. Further, in an effort to feature its stars in its weekly two hours of live television on TNT, providing context for its performers has stumbled giving new fans great matches but not necessarily being given a reason to care about its players. Still, even those like women’s champion Riho or the sloth-like Orange Cassidy who have had little-to-any context of their character are thus far popular with the crowds nonetheless. Some of AEW’s stars include Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley (WWE’s Dean Ambrose), Pac (WWE’s Neville), MJF, Adam Page, Darby Allin, Private Party, Lucha Bros (Rey Fenix/Pentagon Jr), SCU, Proud and Powerful, Nyla Rose, Best Friends, Jurassic Express, Joey Janela, Allie, Jimmy Havoc, and Awesome Kong (WWE’s Kharma, GLOW’s Welfare Queen).
An emerging brand within WWE, NXT has run the gamut of a competition show to developmental territory to gaining a national platform like WWE’s Raw and SmackDown. WWE has long employed developmental territories to create the stars of tomorrow but as it sought content for its streaming service WWE Network and the independent wrestling market was seeing a surge in interest, NXT became a weekly show that many feel was WWE’s answer to the indies. Today, NXT is home to stars such as Finn Balor, Undisputed Era (including the aforementioned Adam Cole), Velveteen Dream, Matt Riddle, Shayna Baszler, Tommaso Ciampa, Johnny Gargano, Io Shirai, Candice LeRae, Rhea Ripley, Bianca Belair, and Pete Dunne as it’s likely since its recent move to the USA Network, it may gain more stars from Raw and SmackDown. If WWE is sports entertainment, NXT is largely instead seen as pro wrestling, featuring matches as its primary focus and using traditional storytelling of the medium. Chosen to go head-to-head by WWE with AEW, NXT has floundered as AEW is a touring brand booking arenas whereas NXT has largely remained within the small, dark confines of its home base of operations. Many argue that NXT’s wrestling content is superior to AEW, but AEW has gained buzz over its story building especially in regards to that of AEW champion Chris Jericho and his Inner Circle.
Founded in 1972, New Japan Pro-Wrestling is Japan’s most dominant wrestling promotion and is the second largest wrestling promotion on Earth (a distant second to WWE). Built upon blurring the lines between pro wrestling and what is today known as mixed martial arts, New Japan was largely introduced to the American audience through their alliances with WCW, TNA, and ROH. Its ebbs and flows mirroring that of the American market, Hulk Hogan (student of New Japan’s Hiro Matsuda) became a huge star in Japan prior to the rise of Hulkamania as foreign wrestlers like Stan Hansen, Vader, Dynamite Kid, and Bruiser Brody were big at that time. However, when you talk about New Japan, you’re generally talking about the New Japan Dojo class of 1984 with its Three Musketeers (Keiji Mutoh/Great Muta, Masahiro Chono, and Shinya Hashimoto) and Jushin Thunder Liger. Students of NJPW founder Antonio Inoki and legends like Matsuda, Tatsumi Fujinami, and Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Liger and the Musketeers ushered in an age of prosperity that largely culminated in 1996 when the UWFi (a promotion built by New Japan’s earliest stars including Fujiwara training the next generation) challenged New Japan (inspiring the creation of the nWo invasion in WCW). Just as popularity in wrestling dipped in America following the end of the Monday Night Wars, so did it in Japan. However, as with the OVW class of 2002 of John Cena, Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, and Batista reinvigorated WWE, the 1999 New Japan Dojo class of Hiroshi Tanahashi and Katsuyori Shibata are credited with helping save New Japan from ruin. With the addition of 2002 dojo graduate Shinsuke Nakamura, the trio set the Japanese wrestling scene on fire (the men coming to be called the new Three Musketeers). Noted earlier, Bullet Club changed the game as it laid the tracks for NJPW to make headway into the American market. Recently, the company announced the formation of New Japan Pro-Wrestling of America, a touring brand in the United States where seemingly for the first time, the Japanese company will not rely upon an American promotion to tour the US market. Some of NJPW’s stars include Kazuchika Okada, Kota Ibushi, Tetsuya Naito and his Los Ingobernables de Japon, Tanahashi, Will Ospreay, Bullet Club (including the aforementioned Kenta), Minoru Suzuki, Zack Sabre Jr, and Juice Robinson (NXT’s CJ Parker). New Japan’s parent company Bushi Road recently acquired Stardom, Japan’s most dominant female wrestling promotion, but there’s no indication at this time that the companies will cross-promote.
Compared at times to being a myth or fable, Impact Wrestling is the promotion that refuses to die. Formed in 2002 by Jeff and Jerry Jarrett to fill the void left by WCW’s demise, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling built itself up as something of an underground movement comparable to ECW to looking as though it might be legitimate competition to WWE when it emerged on Spike TV (today known as the Paramount Network) in 2005. However, TNA failed to put a dent in the vast machine that is WWE and spiraled for years as it left Spike in 2014 for Destination America until 2016 where it moved to Pop and then to Pursuit in 2019. Dropping to networks with lesser and lesser audiences, it seemed like the company was only stalling the inevitable until last month when its parent company Anthem acquired AXS TV. Already home to New Japan in America and WOW – Women of Wrestling Superheroes, AXS was finally a step up rather than down for the promotion (now called Impact) which recently debuted its first episode. The death of TNA/Impact has been exaggerated for several years and many argue the current product is equal to if not superior to the brand’s heyday when it was on Spike. Some of Impact’s stars include Tessa Blanchard, Jordynne Grace, Taya Valkyrie, Joey Ryan, Brian Cage, Sami Callahan (NXT’s Solomon Crowe/LU’s Jeremiah Crane/Snake), Kylie Rae, Tenille Dashwood (WWE’s Emma), Rosemary, The North, Su Yung, Rich Swann, Willie Mack, and Jessicka Havok.
In the ashes of ECW’s demise, ECW founder Paul Heyman’s protege Gabe Sapolsky aligned with ECW’s video distributor Rob Feinstein to form a new company when the latter couldn’t make a deal with CZW, a promotion that largely took up ECW’s flag. Called Ring of Honor, the company recruited some of the hottest independent wrestlers of the time in Christopher Daniels (who had competed in WWF, ECW, and WCW), Bryan Danielson (WWE’s Daniel Bryan), and Low Ki. The trio coming to be called the “founding fathers of ROH,” ROH helped create many of the future stars of TNA, NJPW, and WWE like Austin Aries, AJ Styles, Homicide, Samoa Joe, Jay Lethal, and CM Punk. In 2011, ROH went from being an independent promotion to being purchased by Sinclair Broadcasting, the second largest television station operator in the US. However, despite having access to such a vast array of outlets, Sinclair has largely chosen to limit the company’s exposure. When TNA angered New Japan over their treatment of its performer Kazuchika Okada, NJPW pulled its arrangement with the American company and gave it instead to ROH. As Bullet Club gained steam in Japan and began to bleed into the American market, ROH took full advantage of the situation and used it to bring eyes to its brand. For a time, Sinclair seemed to take an interest in this new popularity and made the product available nationwide on its sci-fi channel Comet. Sadly, that arrangement ended after two years in 2017 when Sinclair moved it to its burgeoning action/adventure channel Charge! which services considerably less households. The founding of AEW was a major blow to ROH, losing not just its Bullet Club stars in the Young Bucks, Cody, and Adam Page (and to a lesser extent, Kenny Omega who mostly remained in Japan) but also the trio of SCU. NXT would also swoop in to snatch a number of its stars, as well. To some degree, the promotion has yet to recover but its arrangement with New Japan seems to be helping to keep it afloat (though, with NJPW forming its own American brand, doubt has been cast on the continuation of that partnership). Still, ROH remains one of the most accessible promotions with a talented roster that hopefully will start to get some more aid from its parent company to take advantage of this boom period. Some of ROH’s stars include Marty Scurll, Flip Gordon, Jeff Cobb (LU’s Matanza), Jay Lethal, Rush, Dalton Castle, Briscoe Brothers, Bandido, Mayu Iwatani, Brody King, PCO (WWF’s Jean-Pierre LaFitte), Jon Gresham, PJ Black (WWE’s Justin Gabriel), Kenny King, Silas Young, Shane Taylor, Kelly Klein, and Tracy Williams.
The oldest wrestling promotion in the United States (after CMLL, the oldest in the world), the National Wrestling Alliance throughout its history has been aligned with the WWF, CMLL, WCW, ECW, AJPW, NJPW, TNA, CWFH, and ROH. Originally an affiliation of various promotions used to circulate stars across those promotions to keep storylines fresh, the NWA had to evolve with the death of the territory system and emergence of what has been called the “backyard wrestling” independent scene. Recently, with the new boom in interest in pro wrestling, the NWA has resurrected trying to capitalize in its YouTube series NWA Power. A studio series reminiscent of yesteryear, the company has attracted a number of performers (several of whom are free agents able to work for NWA as well as other promotions). Some of NWA’s stars include Nick Aldis (TNA’s Magnus), James Storm, Allysin Kay (TNA’s Sienna), Eddie Kingston, Homicide, Colt Cabana (WWE’s Scotty Goldman), Eli Drake, Aron Stevens (WWE’s Damien Sandow), Thomas Latimer (NXT’s Kenneth Cameron, TNA’s Bram), Tim Storm, Mr. Anderson (WWE’s Mr. Kennedy), and Thunder Rosa (LU’s Kobra Moon, WOW’s Serpentine).
Following the success of GLOW on Netflix (loosely based on the 1980s female wrestling promotion of the same name), the women’s revolution in WWE that saw the rise of the Four Horsewomen, and a general interest in female athletes like Ronda Rousey and Megan Rapinoe, the female wrestling promotion Women of Wrestling (founded by David McLane, who also founded the original GLOW, and Los Angeles Lakers owner and president Jeanie Buss) was picked up for national television on AXS TV in 2018. Reminiscent of GLOW in that many of the characters are named after whatever profession or title they have, stereotypes are throw out as the roster of performers include some of the best wrestlers today, seemingly with WOW able to pull women from multiple promotions for its ranks. Counted among them are Tessa Blanchard, Beast, Jungle Grrrl, Jessicka Havok, Fire (Impact’s Kiera Hogan), Faith the Lioness, Serpentine, Holidead, Beverly Hills Babe (ROH’s Amber O’Neal, NJPW’s Amber Gallows), and the Temptress (WWE’s Katie Lea Burchill, Impact’s Katarina).
Founded in 2002 by former WWE writer Court Bauer, Major League Wrestling closed down after only two years but returned in 2017 to become maybe the fastest growing independent wrestling promotion in the United States. Drawing comparisons to ECW, MLW acquired a television deal with beIN Sports and began airing MLW Fusion last year where the show would subsequently be uploaded to YouTube to be watched for free. As TNA/Impact and ROH fought for ground while NJPW and AEW blew up in the United States, MLW has surprisingly held its own with compelling storylines and by hiring some of the best talent today to exclusive deals. Some of MLW’s stars include Low Ki, Austin Aries, Jacob Fatu, Timothy Thatcher, Hart Foundation, Marshall and Ross Von Erich, Dynasty (including AEW’s MJF), Promociones Dorado (including AEW’s Jimmy Havoc), Tom Lawlor, Mance Warner, and Zenshi.
Likely canceled but without any official confirmation, Lucha Underground was a television series created for Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network by Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice) in 2014. Made through a partnership with Lucha Libre AAA Worldwide, some of the United States and Mexico’s best wrestlers competed in what many felt was the best pro wrestling television series in America of its time. Intermingling high speed acrobatics with storylines involving magic, aliens, time travel, monsters, and the apocalypse, allegedly WWE even tried to hire most to all of its talent to kill it. After four seasons on the air, however, several companies gobbled up its stars as El Rey seemingly dragged its feet renewing its seasons as its performers were forced to wait while opportunities arose they couldn’t act upon. Today, virtually its entire roster has signed with the above companies as a year has passed since its fourth season finished. All four seasons are available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon Prime while the first three seasons are available for free with ads on Tubi.
In addition to above listed companies with television deals, there are many promotions available to view online. Some notable ones include Game Changer Wrestling (GCW), World Wrestling Network Live (WWNLive: Evolve, Shine, FIP/Full Impact Pro), Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG), Chikara, All American Wrestling (AAW), Beyond, House of Hardcore (HOH), Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW), Kaiju Big Battel (KBB), Absolute Intense Wrestling (AIW), Bar, House of Glory (HOG), Championship Wrestling from Hollywood (CWFH), Shimmer, Hoodslam, F1rst, Independent Wrestling Association Mid-South (IWA-MS), Rise, Lucha VaVoom, Black Label Pro, and Pro Wrestling Revolver (PWRevolver).