Ask hardcore wrestling fans to name the industry's biggest villain, and you will not hear the names of the cowardly heel Seth Rollins or the creepy cult leader Bray Wyatt. They are only written as bad guys. World Wrestling Entertainment is not playing a part—it acts like a ruthless, expansionist global media company because that is what it is. There is no kayfabe to break here.
This Saturday, the WWE will stage its latest heel move when it stacks its big-budget, indie-style division NXT against Ring of Honor, a small but scrappy promotion that, given the dearth of genuine alternatives over the past decade and a half, has become the WWE's chief competitor by default. The two brands will run shows head-to-head in Brooklyn: NXT at the Barclays Center and ROH at Coney Island's MCU Park. It's the latest in a series of developments that can be interpreted as either savvy business maneuvering by the WWE or an all-out assault on ROH's admittedly limited market share.
For wrestling fans, the whole ordeal presents an unfortunate Catch-22. NXT is by far the best product WWE has put out in years, and that's something to celebrate. Its continued growth, however, may pose a significant threat to the long-term prospects of ROH, a company that has for years presented a strong alternative to the WWE's frequently monotonous Monday Night Raw. More than that, though, the conflict raises a peculiar question: How does a mainstream, multinational, billion-dollar juggernaut successfully manufacture its own indie-wrestling product?
"In music, the mainstream can absorb the underground, and the same thing happens in wrestling," said Tom Breihan, a senior editor at the music site Stereogum who also writes a wrestling column for Deadspin. "But it's not like Elektra Records is trying to put Sub Pop Records out of business."
The whole kerfuffle allegedly began in May, when ROH revealed that it would be releasing an action figure of Kevin Owens, a WWE standout who had previously starred for ROH; the doll is being billed as a "throwback" to Owens's days in ROH, when he was known as Kevin Steen. Though the doll's sales will likely be spit in the bucket when compared with the $543 million in revenue that WWE made in 2014, it's easy to see how the industry giant might be annoyed by ROH releasing a Kevin Owens doll before it had its own. The move could be seen as ROH capitalizing off the ubiquity that Owens gained thanks to WWE introducing him to a massive global audience. An image-conscious company like WWE would be very much inclined to see it this way, and as a potentially dangerous precedent for how savvy companies could eat into its revenues.
The WWE's response was swift, and it could prove devastating. In July, it announced it would be holding an NXT event at Barclays Center on the same night as Ring of Honor's planned MCU Park show. Next came the bombshell that the Brooklyn NXT show would feature the legendary New Japan Pro Wrestling star Jushin "Thunder" Liger, opening up what Dave Meltzer, of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, called a "political hornet's nest," because ROH has a longstanding talent-swapping agreement with NJPW. Meltzer's report also alleged that WWE was putting the word out to top indie stars that they would do well to avoid ROH if they hoped to make it to the big leagues one day. Meltzer also reported that the WWE had contacted the managers of at least one building that runs ROH shows, offering the chance to book an NXT show if they agreed to stop working with ROH.
After all this, WWE announced it was booking an NXT show for September that will again go head-to-head against ROH, this time in San Antonio.
In all likelihood, the WWE is not worried about losing too much of its market share to a promotion that counts something called "Super Beta Prostate" as one of its chief advertisers and can barely keep paid streams of its own events online. It's easier, and probably more correct, to chalk this up to reflex. This is simply how WWE does business.
When owner Vince McMahon purchased his father's northeastern wrestling company—then known as the World Wrestling Federation—in 1982, the wrestling landscape was still divided into regional fiefdoms called territories, all of which were overseen by the cartel-like National Wrestling Alliance. Not content to merely rule the turf between Maine and Washington, D.C., McMahon blindsided his fellow promoters by paying TV stations in other territories to air WWF programming, poaching top talent like the Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association's Hulk Hogan, and purchasing other promotions outright as necessary. The coup de grace came in 1987, when the WWF torpedoed the pay-per-view debut of rival Jim Crockett Promotions by running its Survivor Series show on the same day and telling cable companies that if they chose to air the JCP show, they would not be allowed to carry the WWF's WrestleMania extravaganza the following year.
This approach to the business—total war would seem an apt term for it, although it sounds somehow too wrestling-ish—eventually cleared the field for the WWE. It also created resentment among fans who yearned for a viable major-league alternative, which has been missing since the WWE secured a virtual monopoly over the business in 2001 by purchasing Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling.
Ring of Honor is nothing like WCW, which, due to its affiliation with Turner's TV empire, had the capital to release video games, maintain a steady television presence, and steal the WWE's stars. Though ROH has been owned by the broadcast television company Sinclair Broadcast Group since 2011, the brand runs on a notoriously small budget and generally draws attendance figures in the 1,000-spectator range. It airs in syndication across a smattering of Sinclair-owned broadcast television stations, as well as on the D-list cable network Destination America, home to such programming as BBQ Pitmasters and A Haunting.
This puts the promotion light-years behind WWE, but since its inception, in 2002, ROH has grown by winning wrestling junkies through a combination of exciting in-ring action, no-frills production, and an intimate live atmosphere. Not unlike the indie scenes in the music or film industries, its influence has permeated the mainstream through the ascension of a handful of former ROH stars who became WWE champions. Most notably, this group has included the tattooed iconoclast CM Punk and everyman beardo Daniel Bryan. Though not nearly as big, bright, or loud as WWE, ROH is strange and uncompromising and unique and good.
NXT debuted in 2012 as a developmental territory to hone the skills of future WWE prospects, but it only really started appealing to ROH's base of hardcore fans this past year. It achieved this popularity by hiring former indie stars like Adrian Neville and Sami Zayn, and showcasing them on its weekly television show and in quarterly live specials. Though it originally held court only in Florida, WWE began touring NXT in March of this year.
While ROH boasts a faster, more athletic in-ring and a tag-team division that is frankly unfuckwithable, NXT's true appeal lies in its ability to present fully formed, sympathetic characters like Zayn, Finn Balor, and Becky Lynch. Their overwhelming sincerity recalls early ROH stars like the aforementioned Bryan and Paul London, an eminently likable and decidedly "out there" performer who, according to this review, told ROH fans on his departure that he would one day return with milk and cookies to share with them.
Between NXT becoming a touring entity, this summer's Great Kevin Owens Action Figure Controversy, and the promotion's aggressive moves against Ring of Honor, it seems that the WWE has the means, motive, and opportunity to weaken ROH.
Yet ROH appears intent to take the high road. On the phone, ROH chief operating officer Joe Koff was steadfast in saying that he didn't think WWE was targeting his company, pointing out that ROH booked its Brooklyn show with the knowledge that WWE would be running its big SummerSlam event in New York the following evening, also at Barclays. He went so far as to say he was happy that NXT had sold out the 13,000-seat arena, because it meant that fans who weren't able to get tickets would be able to come to his event at MCU Park instead.
Koff similarly brushed off speculation that the WWE might be horning in on ROH's market by recruiting NJPW's Liger, or that the wrestling giant might be trying to squeeze them out. "I don't really want to believe that it's them versus us," Koff said. "We're two distinct products."
"Truth be told, I think it's just their business doing business," Koff continued, adding, "If we present a of wrestling that the fans want to see, and we present stars that the fans can't see except through Ring of Honor, then we're doing what we're supposed to be doing."
The WWE did not respond to a request for comment, but on a conference call Wednesday the former wrestler turned NXT head honcho Paul "Triple H" Levesque also denied that his company was targeting any of its competitors.
"I don't want to see anybody fail, but I also want to do what is right for our business, and that's how we're going to do business," Levesque said. "If it interferes with somebody else's business plan, I can't concern myself with that because it's about my business plan."
Bruce Mitchell, a senior columnist at Pro Wrestling Torch, doesn't quite see it that way. "I think what Joe Koff said [about the NXT sellout benefitting ROH] was whistling past the graveyard," he said. "WWE is pushing back against Ring of Honor, and they're going to continue. I just think it's a habit that Vince McMahon has of competing. You can't be a bully if you don't have a victim."
Koff was adamant that ROH and NXT are distinct products, and in some sense he's right. I've been going to Ring of Honor shows in New York City on and off for about a decade, and there's a certain comfort in seeing the same people at events that I've been running into since I was in high school. These are wrestling fans, but more to the point they are Ring of Honor fans.
Among them is Greg Habeeb, a former money manager who says he was drawn to ROH in large part due to the relationships he was able to form with company management, other fans, and the wrestlers themselves. Since seeing his first ROH show in a community center gymnasium in 2002, Habeeb estimates that he has spent between $250,000 and $500,000 on ROH tickets and attended upwards of 150 events.
Over time, the shows became fixtures in his social life, and he began throwing post-show parties for wrestlers and fans, as well as booking blocks of hotel rooms so that his gang of grappling enthusiasts could travel to shows together.
"The extent of my involvement with ROH has been pretty profound," Habeeb reflected. "If it were bigger, I don't know if that would have happened. I think the size of the company and the family-like intimacy of it all had a lot to do with it."
Bruce Mitchell thinks that ultimately fans will choose the promotion whose product they like best, regardless of their relationship with its parent company. "I think that even the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week wrestling fan that Pro Wrestling Torch services is going to go with the indie promotion that they see as cool," Mitchell said. "And right now, it's definitely NXT."
Though Ring of Honor isn't about to go out of business anytime soon—Sinclair Broadcast Group isn't going anywhere, either—Mitchell thinks the WWE can do real damage to the company's business, particularly if it establishes its own relationship with New Japan and continues to book NXT shows against ROH.
Even Habeeb, the ROH superfan, is unsentimental. To him, this is a simple case of a business doing what a business should: improving its product to reach more customers and increase its profits.
"ROH might be worried. I would think that there would be some concern because, yeah, that's competition. That's the way it is selling hot dogs, or cars, for that matter. You've got a good product and somebody's going to copy it and compete with you," Habeeb said. "But that's capitalism."