Kevin Owens knows about independent wrestling. So does AJ Styles and Austin Aries. They know about travelling from town to town, night after night to the cheers of a few hundred fans – if that – in small towns across the country.
They know about wrestling for peanuts, performing in social halls, school gymnasiums and hotel ballrooms, where conditions are less than accommodating.
And if you asked them about it, they would tell you they wouldn’t change it for the world. Independent wrestling may be as strong as it has been since the days of the NWA and the concept of territorial wrestling – where Ric Flair, Harley Race and Fritz Von Erich would drive the back roads in the country to get to their next payday.
Flair spoke often of travelling with Dusty Rhodes, Dick Murdoch and Blackjack Mulligan as he was paying his dues in the business, taking it all in as a performer and eventually taking what he learned from them and becoming a star.
He was as close to being an independent performer as he could have been back then when Kayfabe ruled the 1970s. Those days are gone forever with the changes in marketing, the need for internet advertising and a website for every wrestling outlet there is.
Fans love WWE, ROH and TNA, but they also have an affinity for those small town venues where anything and everything is possible. WWE is such a dominant force in this business, at times it engulfs everything around it.
While Vince McMahon makes no bones about the fact he offers “sports entertainment,” fans like me long for the days of the “Loser Leaves Town” match and the man from “Parts Unknown.”
In my opinion, that is what real wrestling is all about. That’s why George South and Dory Funk, Jr. have wrestling academies. That’s why independent operations are thriving – offering the fans an alternative to what they see weekly on television under the big top circus that the McMahons have to offer.
While the notion of what WWE wants and what an independent wrestling promotion have to offer may clash in theory – both are catering to the fans’ who want to see something new, something challenging.
Wrestlers like Owens, Styles and Austin have succeeded on the next level because of the independent experience. It’s the reason wrestlers like Drew Gulak are now on television, after spending years perfecting his craft and the reason why cruiserweights are now the “in thing” in WWE.
It’s the reason wrestlers like Flair, Race and Hulk Hogan can reflect with fond memories of their time in Pensacola or Memphis, and how fans would party with their heroes into the early hours of the night in the 1970s.
When you look at WWE’s marketing machine, you see a company that takes a concept and thinks four and five steps ahead. Smaller promotions cannot do that. Wrestlers are more or less independent contractors and aren’t obligated to long-term deals. They have more freedom. Fans follow them from venue to venue like nomads with groupies.
The concept behind independent wrestling is for neophytes to get the chance to get started, to build a resume and to take a chance on potential success. You see more women coming out of the woodwork to pursue their dream. You see the “average Joe” stepping into a ring after his 8-5 job, to earn an extra buck or two.
There aren’t flashy lights, there aren’t 100 cameras at ringside. Just skill, hope and a wish for better things. WWE is the pinnacle of this dream, not the beginning. Independent wrestling is an operation where performers sell their own merchandise, stick around for autographs like minor league baseball and take their time to get to know their fans.
WWE has figureheads to do that kind of business. Selling 10 t-shirts a week is a good thing for the independent scene. Selling 10 John Cena shirts per minute via the internet is the norm.
Ultimately, the independent circuit is about lessons learned, the training ground for the future and the history one creates for their self.
WWE might be able to market itself better because big business dictates its ability. But it cannot create the closeness of the independent scene with its fans. Bigger might be better in most cases.
Where independent wrestling is concerned, the memories created by small business and big dreams of actual wrestling cannot be touched by power and greed of a bigger, more aggressive entertainment.
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