We had to wait nearly 50 weeks for the biggest wrestling story of 2017, and it’s only sort of a wrestling story. The most dramatic development in the sport this year was Vince McMahon selling almost $100 million worth of WWE stock to fund what appears to be his new, private company’s XFL revival, but that news came in the last couple weeks of the year. This is at least partially a football story, but its potential wrestling ramifications are huge. With the new league being outside of WWE, will McMahon be stepping down from running the company so that Paul “Triple H” Levesque can take his place? There is also the sense, when something like this happens, that it is the action of a company priming itself for acquisition, which McMahon has been against in the past. However, in light of the XFL story breaking, Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer intimated that the UFC selling for such an inflated price has made McMahon less averse to such a move than he had been before. This is one of the stories to watch in 2018, and one that might not need to be watched long: we could have more answers soon if McMahon’s rumored January 25th press conference happens.
But enough of that, which has dominated the last two weeks. What else happened this year?
Bad news, for one, and way too much of it. In Japan, three notable names were seemingly retired by catastrophic injuries. New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Katsuyori Shibata suffering a brain bleed in a match designed to make him a top star, while undercard wrestler Tomoaki Honma is slowly recovering from a spinal injury sustained during a match. Even worse, Yoshihiro Takayama, known for taking legendary punishment in both worked pro wrestling matches and real MMA fights, became a quadriplegic in a freak accident. The sport’s death toll was both vast and deeply felt, even if the sheer number not really sinking in until the Charleston Post and Courier’s Mike Mooneyham inventoried the losses in his year-end wrestling column. As bad as 2015 felt with how many gigantic stars died—Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper, Verne Gagne, Nick Bockwinkel, and Perro Aguayo Jr.—2017 was considerably more brutal in sheer numbers. Most of the wrestling personalities who died this year were known quantities to longtime fans, with Bobby Heenan, accused murderer Jimmy Snuka. and George “The Animal” Steele being the biggest names. Personally, 2017 hit me harder, as well, with the deaths of both independent promoter Chris “Chandler Biggins” Bryan and the all-time great announcer Lance Russell, both of whom I had the privilege of knowing.
The most positive story of the year was the continuing boom in independent wrestling. Thanks to a huge variety of factors, not the least of which are social media and a tremendous uptick in the baseline skill level, indie wrestling continued to become bigger business in 2017. An absurd number of different shows during WrestleMania weekend got a lot of eyeballs on a lot of wrestlers, with Texas’s Keith Lee being the consensus MVP. Lee and various others, like New Jersey’s Joey Janela, who headlined and produced a midnight “Spring Break” show, parlayed their exposure into greater stability as full-time wrestlers. Former WWE talent who proved themselves as quality main event caliber performers in the indies continued to thrive, with Cody Rhodes becoming the biggest indie draw before eventually signing a contract with Ring of Honor. He and the Young Bucks—the other big indie draws turned ROH contract talent—are planning to run some kind of self-funded, self-produced show in a ~10,000 seat arena in 2018, which may be the ultimate test of the current boom. It remains to be seen just how that’s going to pan out, but if they wait on the expiration of Daniel Bryan’s WWE contract, his first match back after being sidelined for three years should be about as big an attraction as anyone could imagine. Only CM Punk returning to pro wrestling would be bigger, especially if the show was in Chicago (which feels like the best market for such an event), but that’s not at all likely.
In late 2016, the launch of FloSlam, FloSports’ pro wrestling streaming service, looked like a story to watch. Privately, some big numbers were being touted, and it was well-known within wrestling that FloSports had signed a deal worth $3.14 million over five years with World Wrestling Network, the parent company of several promotions that, as it happened, didn’t have the fan base to warrant such an investment. The relationship quickly went south, as the first weekend of WWN’s Evolve shows reportedly brought in just 150 subscribers. Other indies, some going through WWN and some dealing directly with Flo, were getting badly lowballed. In July, Flo reportedly stopped paying WWN’s monthly invoices, leading to a September lawsuit in which they accused the wrestling company of providing falsified data about the number of buys on its internet pay-per-view events.
At first, the sentiment in the wrestling community was largely pro-FloSports; I count myself among those who initially felt that way. In the grand scheme of things, it seemed as if a wrestling promoter doing what Flo was alleging WWN did—basically, fleecing a venture capital-funded startup—was more likely than said startup making such an allegation up. That changed a month ago, when, as exhibits to a motion in federal court, Flo filed their WWN contract and a spreadsheet of WWN-provided internet PPV buy data. The contract confirmed that rumored dollar figure, but the sales numbers did not look suspect to most familiar with how similarly situated promotions did. Suddenly, the response was a 180: it looked like Flo was pressuring a much smaller company in hopes of getting out of a bad contract. A few hours after I reported this, FloSports killed FloSlam, laying off the wrestling-specific employees—after those employees had already heard about it on Twitter. The only winner, here, was rival streaming service Powerslam.tv, which, after a “soft launch,” happened to be completing its proper rollout right as FloSlam imploded. Oh, and long after I pulled and archived those court exhibits, Flo had them sealed from the public.
Impact Wrestling, the former TNA Wrestling, had a weird, disastrous year that included the launch of their own streaming service, the Global Wrestling Network. The hope was that they’d be able to do what FloSports couldn’t; the reality is that it doesn’t appear to have made much of a dent. Impact was under brand new ownership—Anthem Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of Canada’s Fight Network—and if only for that reason it seemed as if things had to get better after a 2016 littered like lawsuits over unpaid debts. If it did get better, it wasn’t by much. Some indie talent managed to sign with Impact for good money—especially from a company that only required them to work a week of tapings every quarter—but those contracts fell by the wayside as the year went on. It turned out that Anthem had misread the situation so badly that even though it had acquired Impact to save some of Fight Network’s most popular programming, they wound up losing so much money that they had to gut Fight Network.
Two rounds of layoffs, one just weeks after the purchase was finalized, devastated the company’s journalists and on-air talent, the backbone that made them more than a random niche Canadian cable channel. Thankfully, John Pollock and Wai Ting, the most popular of the network’s laid off hosts, appear to be rebounding strongly, as their rebranded POST Wrestling podcast launched as number one in sports shows on iTunes and picked up backers on Patreon with a quickness. As for Impact, their latest move is attempting to attract wrestlers by letting them keep any intellectual property developed on company programming as part of their personas. Oh, and the company rebranded as Global Force Wrestling, a name they didn’t own, only to change back a few weeks later. Don’t ask. It’s Impact.
As for WWE, the industry leader... well, they just kind of kept doing their thing. The most notable on-screen development, news-wise, was the attempt to make Canadian-born wrestler Jinder Mahal a top star to boost business in India. It didn’t work, despite WWE’s protestations that India is on the verge of exploding based on social media numbers; there is something fitting, and extremely 2017, about WWE falling for a fake renaissance driven by bots and click farms.
In the Spring, backstage bullying at WWE seemed poised to become a big story until planned investigative piece by Newsweek seemingly disappeared. Announcer Mauro Ranallo, who was widely perceived as the catalyst for the story after years on-air abuse by colleague John Layfield, issued a statement saying otherwise, and that was that. On a similar front, while #MeToo coverage didn’t quite permeate WWE, victimization of women did still become a story, with widespread phone-hack photo leaks and two different domestic violence cases. In an industry with an irredeemably terrible history with regards to how it treats women, it feels inevitable that this will become a bigger story in 2018. But it’s not anything to look forward to.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.