Bruiseday is Ian Williams' weekly column discussing the biggest cultural stories in pro wrestling.
There's a very simple story about pro wrestling history which runs like this: In the 1990s, World Championship Wrestling and WWE were locked in a blood feud over pro wrestling supremacy. Each company kept trying to one-up the other, first with the WCW turning Hulk Hogan heel as part of the nWo's formation, then with WWE launching the Attitude Era, a raunchy reboot of pro wrestling cribbed largely from ECW, a small promotion out of Philadelphia which leaned on sex and violence (and an awful lot of really, really good wrestling) as a means to differentiate itself from the scattered remains of the defunct pro wrestling territories of the old days.
Only one promotion could win and it was, obviously, WWE. WCW closed in 2001, sold for pennies on the dollar to WWE as owner Time Warner looked to shed dead weight. ECW closed a few days later, leaving WWE to pick up what wrestlers they were interested in from both companies. Vince McMahon ruled the entire pro wrestling landscape.
This made pro wrestling suck, or so the story goes, because McMahon can only thrive on competition. He is, depending on which version of the story you're getting, naturally lazy, insane, prone to comfort, or extraordinarily vindictive to anyone who might challenge WWE's place at the top of pro wrestling.
Once WCW—and to a much lesser extent ECW—were gone, there was no reason to really try anymore. The raunchiness was scaled back as social mores shifted, the greatest stars of the era—Steve Austin and The Rock—moved on, and what we were left with was over a decade of the same John Cena and Randy Orton matches. It's never let up; the WWE post-WCW formula of predictable booking and fickleness over who to push still holds strong and shows no sign of letting up, even as the actual match quality is arguably better than it's ever been.
If there were just a little competition, says this version of the story, this could all be different. And because that's the belief, there's always another wrestling promotion ready to be anointed as the great hope, the one which can provide real competition to WWE and rid us of the vast, empty expanse of sameness which WWE represents.
It was Ring of Honor coupled with the host of Gen X staffed indie promotions in the mid-00s. Then it was TNA, first when Kurt Angle made the jump from WWE, then again when former WCW head Eric Bischoff and Hulk Hogan launched TNA's short-lived head to head assault on WWE's Monday Night Raw. Lucha Underground was going to revolutionize the way pro wrestling is filmed and experienced with its action show framing, at least forcing WWE to do something different with its aesthetics. Through all of those ebbs and flows, WWE barely felt a dent in its business.
The latest great hope is New Japan Pro Wrestling, Japan's biggest, coolest wrestling company and the second largest wrestling promotion in the world. NJPW is in the midst of a four year long renaissance, with no signs of slowing its momentum. This summer saw its annual G1 Climax, a multi-month long round robin tournament, do record numbers. It runs a weekly show (albeit a delayed one, due to the time difference) on AXS TV and it made its most serious sojourn into the American wrestling consciousness by running a G1 preliminary event in California this past July; they inaugurated a new United States title at the event, with burgeoning international phenomenon Kenny Omega crowned the first champion.
NJPW's prospects look bright. Business is booming. And none of it comes close to WWE's global dominance of pro wrestling.
"Last year, New Japan brought in about 28 million dollars," says Chris Harrington, co-host of the Wrestlenomics Radio podcast. "This year is probably going to be bigger, maybe about 35 million. On the flip side, of course, is WWE, a 600 to 700 million dollar company. So an order of 20 magnitude, and of course a much more diversified stream of revenue. New Japan is big, but nothing compared to the size of WWE."
This is the cold truth of today's wrestling scene: WWE is so impossibly large that comparisons with other wrestling promotions, even the one in second place, aren't even worth making. This isn't like 1996, when WCW picked up steam backed by a billionaire in Ted Turner and with a built in fanbase which brought in ratings which were at least more than a blip. This is Apple versus your buddy's transistor radio home business in the garage. The gulf is staggeringly large across the board. According to Harrington, NJPW's streaming service, New Japan World, has about 60 thousand subscribers in total, another number which is dwarfed by WWE's streaming service, which hovers around 1.5 million subscribers. And as he points out, nobody's selling out a 10 thousand seat arena in the United States except UFC and WWE, and gate receipts are still king for the non-WWE promotions.
So if direct competition with WWE is out the window, what does success in the United States look like for New Japan? There's a whiff of the old video game arguments over massively multiplayer online games and what constitutes success or failure. Back in the glory days of the form, constant debates would break out over whether this game or that game was a "failure" if it didn't get World of Warcraft level subscriptions. The debates always missed the point—an MMO could be extremely successful with enough revenue to cover costs and bank a little extra, even if it looked like an abject failure from the outside. Anarchy Online is still running and making money. So is Lord of the Rings Online and a host of other creaky games which were left for dead years ago.
"To challenge in the US means that you're fighting against whoever number two is," explains Harrington. "And that's a huge gap, right? Maybe it's Ring of Honor, maybe it's TNA, probably Ring of Honor. And if you think about what ROH has done, they've somewhat kept themselves afloat by using New Japan talent. [Note: ROH and NJPW have a talent sharing deal] At this point in the relationship, ROH is getting a lot more out of it than NJPW is… I think NJPW is uniquely positioned because they have the Bullet Club and others who are marketable in this country. The fact that they're able to market those guys in Hot Topic and whatnot says a lot about how you can move merchandise and things via underground buzz."
NJPW is well-positioned, then, to be the number two player, but that's light years off from challenging WWE hegemony, even if it grows steadily and you toss in all the other smaller promotions like ROH.
Never forget: WWE will buy people up the second they feel remotely uneasy about non-WWE wrestling getting popular someplace—Harrington points to their mass contracting of British wrestlers just as pro wrestling was about to experience a broad revival in the UK. There are wrestlers like Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, and (yes) Shinsuke Nakamura who simply got snatched up by the promise of decent money and a chance to be part of the cultural enormity of WWE's brand of pro wrestling.
So if you're sick of WWE, if you're wanting the return of competition to make Vince McMahon sharp (if that ever really mattered at all), you'll have to wait a bit longer. In the meantime, New Japan is stuck walking a tightrope. There is a very real chance that if they expand too quickly, they'll overextend, leading to belt tightening and the same sort of death spiral which has befallen so many other promotions. Or worse, they'll get just big enough to rouse the ire of WWE's monopoly and bled of its roster. Vince McMahon doesn't like competition that much.