While the rest of the sports world is deep in a summer lull, independent wrestling is in the middle of a hectic 10 days of notable shows. Last weekend, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, everyone’s favorite all-star indie, ran their usual buzzy, action-packed show in Los Angeles; DEFY, the top group in the pacific northwest, had a packed house in Seattle. Several time zones east, Japanese indie standout Daisuke Sekimoto was in for a four-day run across four different promotions, culminating with a standout match at Beyond Wrestling’s biggest show of the year, Americanrana, at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut. This weekend, fans from across the country and even the world will converge on Chattanooga for the Scenic City Invitational tournament. The combination of quality and quantity when it comes to big-ticket events across the indie wrestling scene make a strong case that the ongoing “indie boom” isn’t going away anytime soon. The question is where it’s going.
Because no boom lasts forever, it’s tempting to look for reasons why this all might dissipate sooner than later. The rise of All Elite Wrestling, plus WWE’s plans for global domination, have taken a number of key indie wrestling talents off the board; a number of AEW’s key signings will say farewell to the indies before AEW’s weekly television debut on October 2. The current AEW roster includes top indie name Joey Janela, who is doing a “Curtain Call” show for home promotion Game Changer Wrestling just two nights before AEW’s debut on TNT; traveling indie attractions like Darby Allin and Maxwell Jacob Friedman will be following Janela to the startup promotion, as are recent breakout stars like Marko Stunt, Jungle Boy, Kylie Ray, and Sadie Gibbs. Even for a scene as rich in star power as indie wrestling currently is, that’s a lot of talent to lose.
WWE has contributed to this talent drain, mostly by continuing to sign more indie wrestlers than they have any idea what to do with. The glut has reached the point that a whopping seven of those wrestlers (and one in-house Chinese trainee) were introduced en masse at the “Breakout Tournament” that concludes next weekend at NXT TakeOver: Toronto. That lineup includes the former Trevor Lee, ACH, Jonah Rock, Shane Strickland, and DJZ, all of whom were in-demand indie stars, plus third generation lucha libre prospect Garza Jr. and former Impact Wrestling standout Sam Shaw; because this is WWE, all have been given new ring names. Ring of Honor, which is rebuilding after multiple top names bolted to form AEW, has signed a bunch of indie standouts to exclusive deals this year, as well: PCO, Brody King, Bandido, Jeff Cobb, and Tracy Williams, to name a few.
So that’s a lot of wrestlers removed from the indie scene, several of them—notably AEW’s signings of Stunt, Jungle Boy, Ray, and Gibbs—seemingly right as they began to pick up buzz. Kris Statlander, another of the year’s breakout indie stars, has been fairly overt in recent promos about being on the radar for contract offers. None of that is surprising given that since she’s done extra work for WWE, and all of it is deserved because she keeps improving at an alarmingly fast rate. But, as with those AEW signees, she’s only been on the radar for even super hardcore fans for less than a year. All of this suggests that anyone who gets real buzz is going to be fielding contract offers pretty quickly. That would feel more like a bubble if the baseline talent level for indie wrestling wasn’t at an all-time high, which it absolutely is. New stars can be created by promoters who know what they’re doing, even as the old ones graduate to the big (or bigger) time faster than ever before.
Statlander broke out in September at an event put on by New England’s Beyond Wrestling. That show, “Please Come Back,” was named after the common chant at indie shows when a newcomer impresses in their promotional debut, and the conceit of the show was that every match featured at least one Beyond newcomer, usually against a Beyond regular. Statlander, who wrestled John Silver at Please Come Back, was the most impressive of the bunch. Since then, her rise is plain to see: According to CageMatch.net, Statlander has had 71 matches in the 10 months since then, compared to 51 in the first 17 months of her career. It’s happening.
Beyond promoter Drew Cordeiro has always been good at finding and developing new talent, which is just about the best talent an indie promoter can have. But ideas like “Please Come Back” and the “Discovery Gauntlet” tournament—newcomer vs. newcomer, loser leaves, winner comes back the next week—on his weekly “Uncharted Territory” shows both prove why his is one promotion that won’t be damaged by the contract war and demonstrate the kind of ingenuity indie promoting requires. Stunt and Jungle Boy, for their part, both broke out after high-profile bookings on supershows that Joey Janela booked for Game Changer Wrestling, a promotion that has been able to “make” performers more consistently than just about any other indie. Some GCW stars got over the hump with singular breakout performances, but Tony Deppen, who’s gotten himself booked on PWG’s all-star cards in Los Angeles, has broken through mainly by being a consistent workhouse. There’s more than one way to do all this.
And the talent is out there, provided promoters know where to look and how to package it. Sekimoto’s four-day whirlwind tour is another example of how the current indie economy can be leveraged. Beyond’s weekend-capping Americanrana show aside, Sekimoto’s bookings were in smaller buildings that fit maybe 250-300 fans. Bringing in a Japanese star—not a huge one, but one that hardcore fans respect—didn’t require some big special occasion to cover the travel costs and booking fees. It was just a matter of four friendly promotions—Beyond, GCW, Cleveland’s Absolute Intense Wrestling, and NYC’s Impact Championship Wrestling—working together on splitting the travel costs. It worked, with the smaller shows more or less at capacity and the Beyond match delivering for their small-scale equivalent to WrestleMania. Sekimoto get a great reception, too, putting on exciting, hard-hitting matches across the board; at the ICW show, which I attended, he won a standing ovation after his main event with Eddie Kingston.
Bringing in someone from Japan isn’t something every promotion can do on every show, of course. But it’s the sort of move that’s within the reach of many promotions, provided they’re willing to take the risk; Japanese wrestlers are becoming legit attractions stateside, are relatively contract-proof, and easier than ever to get. This wasn’t the first time it’s happened recently, as GCW and AIW brought in Japanese legend Masato Tanaka for a pair of shows in December, but it was probably scaled the best.
Given the scope and size of the change that’s coming in October and the increasing pace of indie signings in general, it’s remarkable that every notable independent promotion I can think of seems prepared for the future. Beyond and GCW have their respective strong histories of talent development, with the latter routinely turning virtual unknowns into in-demand names overnight. AIW’s foundation is heavy on local attractions from their wrestling school, augmented by a reliable mix of indie veterans. While some of those imported stars, like Janela and Williams, have since signed exclusive contracts, the promotion appears to be riding out the storm just fine. PWG has focused more on previously undiscovered talent and international stars since they started losing talent at a quicker pace a few years ago, and they’re also buoyed by being the only indie allowed to book wrestlers that are otherwise exclusive to Ring Of Honor. Chicago’s AAW, which has a similar all-star appeal at the top of its cards, has long excelled at building up the lesser-known wrestlers it used as support. The northwest’s DEFY has seamlessly blended homegrown locals with outside names. These are all good promotions, and seem likely to stay good.
Big change is coming, and everyone knows it. But right now, promoters that know what they’re doing should be able not just to survive but thrive in wrestling’s fast-arriving future.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.