Much as WWE tries to define pro wrestling as largely static outside the confines of its shows, things move in smaller promotions and with independent wrestlers. TNA is still kicking as Impact Pro Wrestling, there are a host of indies with solid shows, and we all know about New Japan’s renaissance. Somewhere in the middle of all of that, yet to fully cohere, something big is brewing. It’s going to change the way outlets like Ring of Honor and Impact work, shake NJPW to its core, and may end up turning into the first legitimate contender to WWE’s dominance in the United States since WCW folded.
It’s all still hazy and not a little complicated, but the possibility of a new, well-financed wrestling promotion goes back to All In, Cody Rhodes's and the Young Bucks’ one-off indie mega-show. It was a roaring success, the first non-WWE show to pull 10,000 fans in 20 years. It would’ve been natural for the minds behind that show to consider what more could be done with that sort of momentum.
In November, rumors began to swirl that it wasn’t just another All In show, but a brand new promotion, with monthly pay-per-views and a possible television deal. At almost the same time, parallel rumors started up that Chris Jericho and Jim Ross were looking at starting something of their own, with the backing of Shahid Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham F.C. in the Premier League.
Both Jericho and Ross played coy with the rumors, with Ross hilariously sneering that there’s no way either of them would take the money they’ve earned and put it back into the pro wrestling business, but it didn’t matter. Through whispers, momentum, and a few confirmable tidbits (like Cody and Brandi Rhodes appearing in Khan’s owner’s box at a Jags game the other week), it became clear that it wasn’t just nonsense; Rhodes and the Bucks were up to something, there was real money involved, and the Jericho/Ross connection may not be made up. Toss in some trademark filings by the Bucks on terms like “All Elite Wresting” and “Tuesday Night Dynamite” and it seemed all but confirmed.
Because of that, there’s no way to behave other than to act as though a major new pro wrestling promotion, with a non-passive billionaire’s backing and established names throughout, is imminent. There’s simply too much noise around this for it to be nothing, and the ramifications extend well beyond simply WWE getting some competition.
One of the quirks of this process is that all three of the primary actors—the Bucks and Cody—are under some sort of contract with NJPW until after Wrestle Kingdom 13 on January 4th. Which is fine, but if they’re splitting as soon as the show is done, we know who’s winning the matches they’re in. That lessens the intrigue surrounding a third of the matches on NJPW’s biggest show of the year, and a show which has been a devastatingly good watch for five years.
That includes lessening the intrigue around the biggest match of the show, between IWGP Heavyweight champion Kenny Omega and Hiroshi Tanahashi, because Kenny Omega’s contract is also up and he’s rumored to be heading out, too. Toss in Chris Jericho’s Intercontinental title match and a significant portion of the show is guys who are very likely to not be there a scant few days after it’s done.
If you’re confused as to why Omega would leave a top of the card career and sustained flirtation with icon status, you’re not alone. Omega is an amazing talent, but there’s something about his sublimated, anime-tinged goofiness which feels like it may not play week after week in front of a North American audience, at least not in the superstar fashion it does in NJPW and the bite-sized chunks we get in the US.
But there’s also a sense of unease about just how prominent The Elite (Omega, The Bucks, Rhodes, Marty Scurll, Kota Ibushi, and Adam Page) have become in NJPW. Their YouTube series, Being The Elite, is a genre-changing production, offering quasi-real backstage glimpses at a group of men deeply into irony and each other’s camaraderie. It’s great stuff. It also often feels as though it’s taking place in a parallel universe from everything else in NJPW (and the other promotions, like ROH, the wrestlers show up in) and that The Elite are working for themselves more than anything.
The Elite leaving en masse to form a promotion informed by the web series would confirm that and would rankle a bit. NJPW may end up being better off in the long run, but there would have to be a sense of betrayal, given that the gaiijin champions were a key part of a plan for global appeal.
WWE, for its part, has been snatching up exclusive contracts as much as they can. This has happened primarily in the UK, where NXT UK wrestlers were given new contracts with WWE exclusivity. This is obviously worth looking at with a primarily UK-centered lens, with WWE slowly strangling the thriving British indie scene, but it’s hard not to see an edge of WWE locking down even regional wrestlers in the hopes of preventing a nascent AEW from fleshing out their rosters. WWE’s reported signing of WALTER, an Austrian big man who’s a superstar on the European circuit, seems less about using him—he’s only going to be on NXT UK, and everything from his mannerisms to his body type scream that Vince McMahon would unjustly bury him if he ever made it to the main roster—and more about keeping anyone else from using him.
That’s going to continue. As AEW creeps toward a possible debut, expect WWE to accelerate tossing NXT contracts to anyone who might remotely get over. With WWE’s television at genuinely unprecedented levels of awfulness and some of the worst ratings in its history, the promotion is going to do what most big corporations do, which is try to strangle competition in the crib rather than improve.
The current state of WWE (outside its pay-per-views, which have been nearly as good the past four months as its television has been bad) might create an unexpected problem for AEW: its television has been so bad, with such abysmal ratings, that it might make any prospective home for AEW skittish. If WWE can’t pull ratings, and if Sinclair won’t throw its full weight behind an already established ROH, what hope does a brand new promotion have, big backing or not?
All of that is even if it happens. Maybe this is all a clever ploy to make an unbelievably convoluted angle for Being The Elite, which would be simultaneously amazing, overly indulgent, and kind of shitty. The base truth is that the wrestlers in The Elite have an indisputably good knack of figuring out what gets the postmodern pro wrestling fan buzzing. However this shakes out, pro wrestling will never quite be the same again, and the first half of 2019 should be fascinating.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.