You could be forgiven for feeling confused if you stumbled upon the news last week that Billy Corgan, frontman of the Smashing Pumpkins, had purchased the National Wrestling Alliance. As a story, it had the vibe of madness and the possibility of hallucination: reclusive and at least slightly eccentric rock legend buys moribund pro-wrestling organization.
We know few details of the deal, even a week out. Corgan has bought the NWA name, but no tape libraries or wrestlers' contracts come with it. It is, essentially, an expensive deal for three letters that haven't been truly relevant since the turn of the 21st century, and probably longer. Since that's the case, a question hangs over Corgan's new business: Why the hell did he buy it?
Founded in 1948 as sort of an umbrella organization for pro wrestling, the NWA's original animating principle was to maintain the status quo between the often-feuding regional promoters who created it. These were wrestling's famed territories, and they carved up the United States and Canada to look like a diagram of cuts of meat on a cow—the WWWF (precursor to the WWE) got the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic reigned in the Carolinas and Virginia, the AWA ran things in the Upper Midwest, and so on.
In exchange for its members ceding the right to expand their territories, the NWA facilitated talent exchanges between them and set up a single world champion to be recognized by everyone. The champion was the biggest touring talent of all: he'd go from place to place, local fans would stream into arenas in the hopes that their guy would win (he usually wouldn't), and everyone would go home happy.
Except, of course, that wasn't the case. The NWA was a cartel, with all the attendant abuses that brings: squashing of promotions independent from the NWA, wage fixing, drug pushing. Labor was getting screwed, hard. Meanwhile, at the management end, by the 1980s individual promoters like Vince McMahon started figuring that they could bust out of the system while keeping the low wages and threat of a blacklist if they could just get big enough. So they left the NWA—Texas-based World Class Championship Wrestling, the WWF, and, once Ted Turner merged them into WCW, Mid-Atlantic and Georgia Championship Wrestling all split to become their own distinct promotions.
You'd think that this would've been enough for the NWA to fold up shop, but inexplicably it stuck around, a steadily putrefying zombie insisting it was still relevant even as the WWF was claiming the mantle of greatest pro wrestling organization, and WCW had glommed onto the remnants of the Southern, old school style. In 1994, the NWA champion salted the wounds by throwing down the title, dumping on its lineage, and giving rhetorical birth to Extreme Championship Wrestling. The alliance barely reacted. What could they do? They had no money or influence once WCW took over the South. Most NWA promotions didn't even have local TV deals.
From the mid 1990s on, the NWA was largely a prepended acronym to a host of tiny local promotions scrapping for some bygone, half-remembered glory. There was a brief spark when TNA was founded as a NWA affiliate in 2002, but even that guttered and died when TNA withdrew from the organization two years later. It's hard to say what the requirements were for getting an NWA membership after the diaspora, but it couldn't have been much; I've seen too many NWA-Something shows in front of 50 people in high school gyms to think the territories were in good shape. Today, a quick perusal of the NWA's website—whose design, perhaps not surprisingly, is fairly dated—shows 20 promotions, all small, all founded this century.
Which brings us to the latest update in the NWA's drawn-out history: if there's not much to buy, why did Corgan buy it? The answer might just be that he really likes wrestling and he's rich enough to do something with his passion.
Billy Corgan has become the object of gentle ridicule over the past decade-plus, with his local cat magazine photos, Disney World sadness rides, and Alex Jones interview crankery. He is, if not strange, at least unaware of how some of his particular interests and foibles look to the rest of us.
But he isn't weird for liking wrestling. People enjoy wrestling. Even when it's not especially popular—as it hasn't been since 2003 or so—it's still really popular. It's a cultural touchstone for millions. It makes perfect sense that, yes, famous people like pro wrestling, just like Vin Diesel likes Dungeons & Dragons and Robin Williams and Billy Crystal used to show up at hobby shops to play Warhammer.
Toss in rock-star levels of disposable income, and Corgan's lifelong obsession with wrestling translates into what seems like a sincere desire to get into the promotional end of things. He used to show up on ECW before it folded. He later opened his own promotion, Resistance Pro Wrestling, and tried very hard to buy TNA, which led to some nastiness between him and then TNA Chairwoman Dixie Carter.
Corgan, simply, wants in. For fans of a certain age—and both Corgan and myself certainly qualify—the NWA acronym still holds a mystique. It stands for "real" wrestling, Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes as its standard bearers in the face of an onslaught by Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon. It was the convergence of local and national, the way you could touch the champ's robe as he walked by you in the local civic center, or how the local strongman might go toe to toe with Flair or Rhodes or Harley Race, 60 minutes, leaving you with the vicarious thrill of seeing him on the street the next day, making it all real.
We know better now, of course. We know that this thing we love in pro wrestling eats its young, and maybe never more than it did in the territory era. But there's still a shine that sometimes blinds you to all of that, at least in the moment. That's pro wrestling's greatest magic and its worst illusion.
Even a passing familiarity with Corgan's body of work reveals a pervasive grappling with his childhood and all its accompanying anxieties. He is both attracted to and repelled by the stuff of adolescence: nostalgia, the dual regret and anger of abuse, the feeling of neglect and loss as you leave things behind. And perhaps the NWA is part of that, a busted memory from Corgan's past, the one always creeping up on him, the one he lets catch him in the studio so he can grapple with it, one song at a time.
We don't know what he'll do with it, but it's going to be something. Perhaps a new, single promotion with the NWA moniker, at odds with its original purpose. Perhaps a historical recap. Perhaps a seeding ground for new local promotions. Whatever it ends up being, it will, at the very least, be sincere. And it may just be that the NWA and Billy Corgan, two icons from another time, need each other.
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