This past weekend, I attended the hottest wrestling ticket of the last decade, Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks megashow, All In. I was able to purchase tickets during the incredibly short initial sales window, but traded those in to sit in the luxury suites with some strangers from the West Coast for a few more bucks (big ups to https://twitter.com/xIAMHOLLYWOODx for being awesome and coming through 1000%). The original seats were better viewing-wise but the new ones allowed for a nearly completely uninterrupted experience that was probably superior in the long run.
I wanted to take some time to sit down and work out some thoughts and feelings from a truly momentous event. I’m not going to spend much time with the weekend at large (two lit-as-fuck AAW shows, Starrcast, etc) because the important part for the art of pro wrestling is the big show itself. I’ve no doubt Starrcast was highly profitable for many—both for wrestlers and for carnie Conrad Thompson, who basically didn’t have to pay most of the staff. It was a shitshow that had a lot of cool moments—go elsewhere for stories on that—but surely it was massively profitable for the workers which is always desperately needed in our late capitalist hellscape.
There’s no question that the Elite as a whole have led a symbiotic relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling (and to a lesser extent, Ring of Honor), playing off the prestige and excellence of the promotion to fuel their own rise as a marketing and social media entity. Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks now hold the IWGP Heavyweight and IWGP Heavyweight Tag belts, Marty Scurll is a perennial threat for the Light Heavyweight belt, Adam Page just completed his first G1 to widespread acclaim, and Cody is arguably the ace of ROH and a rising star in Japan, holding a long stint as the ROH World Champion for half of 2017. The thing that makes NJPW cool to fans is its singular focus on the best matches it can possibly assemble. All In had great matches and a banger card, absolutely, but it was not New Japan. It was not PWG, where a lot of the participants have starred in recent years. This was a big Vince-style sports entertainment show to the bone.
For all its successes artistically and sometimes commercially, the thing indie wrestling has never managed to deliver is a big show experience that could be considered on par with your average Monday Night Raw or the NJPW megatons like Wrestle Kingdom. That makes sense given how much money it obviously takes to put on a big stadium show. Even Ring of Honor, with their largest show in history in Supercard of Honor this past April cannot compare to it. All In is finally that show. All In had huge, brilliant stadium production, matching and even surpassing WWE in some ways (pyro, not lighting the goddamn audience).
As much as I and many wrestling fans love New Japan, I don’t think you could probably pop a casual fan into the best event this year, Dominion, and have them truly get everything they could out of it. All In was a perfect casual show. Yes, there was fanservice for Being the Elite (Joey’s dick druids being the most obvious), but overall you didn’t need to watch BTE to get hyped about this presentation. The television presentation needs some work but it wasn’t bad at all. In fact the commentary was fantastic. The in-arena experience, however was as good as any WWE show outside Wrestlemania I’ve been to.
A big reason why I think the show was really good for casual fans is that the stories were great if you were a watcher of BTE, but they were actually quite simple and told mostly in-ring. You didn’r really need to know that the story of Okada v Scurll was big guy v little guy, it was extremely obvious. Janela v Page started with batshit spots so you knew immediately that both of those guys are insane. Omega v Pentagon started out with those two blasting each other with anime-level strikes. You don’t need to know much about wrestling to find the main event impressive. If you do invest in BTE though, the matches paid off nearly a year of bits from the show. It was impressive committment to story on a few different levels.
Pair this with an extremely well-booked and entertaining card, and you have the core of a really solid event but what turned it into a brilliant one was definitely the last three matches. Okada v Penta, Okada v Scurll, and Golden Bucks v Mysterio/Bandido/Fenix were all 4.5 matches. That really helped bring the night to an emotional climax. Unfortunately, the Bucks’ match was cut short due to media time, and that was clearly headed towards being a 5+ match, but even without the absolute all-time classic, there really wasn’t a match on the card that wasn’t entertaining and that includes the Daniels vAmell match.
The cool thing about wrestling though is that a hot-as-shit crowd makes all the difference. Tell me that you could at all focus on the match itself with the crowd revolt during Reigns v Lesnar at WrestleMania. Now Cody v Aldis was not an amazing technical match, in fact it was an old-school NWA tribute match that still had a ton of flaws. However, the crowd sold it like the NWA title was the most important belt in the world. The card was absolutely predictable but it didn’t really matter because the crowd was hot for it. They couldn’t do this every time if this was a quadrinneal event, but WWE is almost hostlile at this point regarding pleasing the crowd. The crowd has been trained for disappointment and they react in a way to force themselves to be heard. Not lighting them, as may have requested the Product to stop doing for years, was a smart move.
Most people in the houre surely had some passing familiarity with BTE and the reaction to the Joey Ryan dick druids was really good. It might seem stupid on the surface but you can sell almost anything if you show committment to it. You might think it was dumb, and it was, but it wasn’t as dumb as it initially seemed; Ryan was of course, not actually dead, and he staged an Undertaker scene to exploit Page’s guilt driving him insane. You can argue about the material but the story was extremely reasonable and most importantly, committed to for months.
The biggest takeaway I had was this show was vaguely akin to the wrestler-curated shows that New Japan runs but on a feature PPV level. On one level, it’s kind of amazing that a promotion would let their wrestlers do this but the cold reality is that the promotions had bad leverage. New Japan doesn’t care what the Elite do in the States and ROH had to make their guys happy. Being the Elite is 100% controlled by the Young Bucks and NJPW and ROH both mine it for stories and let those folks book a lot of their own stories to a large degree. It would be incredibly naive to say we are entering a post-promotion era but we are seeing wrestlers have unprecedented dominant leverage by controlling their image and stories outside of promotional control. Is All In replicable? By these guys it is—they’ve not only amassed some money but now have the faith of sponsors and fans and most importantly, a solid revenue stream.
I wonder where we’re going from here. The Elite have the leverage to leave ROH full-time and still wrestle there. Cody could truly be the NWA champ and wrestle in every promotion in the US. I, like everyone, thought the money Billy Corgan spent what amounted to some devalued IP and a YouTube channel seemed mad but now seems like potentially a smart long play. WWE’s top down model that mostly serves to piss off fans in 2018 seems lame and dated. In the face of an event the quality of All In, it increasingly seems unsustainable. Dick druids and a gay couple tag team is the hot shit. If you ask fans who is the most important wrestler in WWE, they might tell you Cena or Reigns but it’s actually Nikki Bella. It was her idea to create Total Divas, which has been a wedge into wrestling for countless fans. What’s going on outside the ring is just as important as what’s going on inside.
It would be naive and ridiculous to declare WWE dead or even injured right now, but we did see the potential of what’s going to happen the more wrestlers gain leverage. The Elite may be a singular phenomenon but if you don’t think other young wrestlers are paying attention to what they are doing then you’re the one who is being naive. We’ve seen a small flash of a post-promotion world and it turns out it looks hella good. The Elite will become extremely rich, no question, but what I’m hoping to see is that they’re willing to bet on themselves and flip the table over entirely.