One year ago today, a random Twitter user tweeted at Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer to ask if he thought that Ring of Honor, the number two pro wrestling promotion in the United States, could sell out a 10,000 seat arena. Meltzer didn’t think so, but Cody Rhodes, a regular in the promotion, called him on it. “I’ll take that bet Dave,” he wrote. “I already gave them their biggest [pay-per-view] buyrate.”
Rhodes figured that he and The Young Bucks (Nick and Matt Jackson) were the company’s biggest draws and felt that, given what he knew about the trends in ROH’s business, three months of promotion would be sufficient to sell out such a show. Six months later, that show became official, albeit with Cody and the Bucks promoting it on their own. In March, it was announced that the show, dubbed All In, would be at Sears Centre in the Chicago suburbs on September 1; the show would now have proximity to the Pro Wrestling Tees store that has been a big part of their success.
Tickets went on sale this past Sunday on Sears Centre’s website, which seemed ill-prepared for the crush of demand that followed; fans were shunted into a “virtual waiting room” before they could make an order. You can probably see where this is going by now—the show sold out right away, with Cody tweeting that the official time was 29 minutes and 36 seconds. Which means that it’s official: All In is the first non-WWE professional wrestling card in the United States to sell 10,000 tickets since 1999. If you take WCW, Turner Broadcasting’s WWE competitor that folded in 2001, out of the mix, All in is the first 10,000-plus show since 1994, and the first marketed to English-speaking fans—that is, not lucha libre shows—since 1986. It hit that mark without a single actual match being announced.
Well, that last bit may not technically be true. During the press conference just before tickets went on sale, it was announced that not only would Rey Mysterio be on the card, but that Cody would be getting a shot at the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. The NWA, formerly a group of promoters, is currently the branding for Billy Corgan’s YouTube-based wrestling programming. Its champion is Nick Aldis, better known as Magnus in Impact Wrestling and Oblivion in the rebooted U.K. version of American Gladiators. He’s a charismatic guy and has been tabbed as a future star for years, but he’s never quite gotten over the hump. He’s also not the type of guy that the Cody/Bucks fanbase cares about, which makes it seem inevitable that Aldis is losing the title before Labor Day weekend. It may or may not be a coincidence that on the Bucks’ YouTube series, Being The Elite, ROH and independent wrestler Flip Gordon has been in a months-long storyline about finding a way to get on All In.
Like much of the ROH roster, Gordon does not have an exclusive deal. Instead, the Sinclair Broadcasting-owned promotion gets first dibs on those wrestlers’ dates and the exclusive rights to use them on TV. Top stars like Cody and the Bucks have exclusive deals with the promotion, with the only exceptions being groups that ROH has working agreements with—New Japan Pro Wrestling is the most notable—and the southern California-based boutique indie Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. Because of all that, and because this show’s promoters and stars are full-time ROH wrestlers—they’re getting an assist from ROH employee/former WCW live event promoter Gary Juster—a new question surfaced after that giddy rush to 10,000 tickets. What is this show going to be, anyway?
Does it qualify as independent wrestling, and thus the biggest indie wrestling show in the history of the United States? Or is it effectively a super-successful ROH show that happened not to be promoted on the weekly ROH TV show?
There are precedents for All In, but none of them are quite a perfect fit. Contract wrestlers having their own independent promotions is not a new phenomenon, but none has ever run a show with this kind of scale; in the U.S., they also couldn’t usually appear on them. We’ve seen similar shows, some even bigger than All In, from explicitly independent promotions in Japan: FMW’s annual Kawasaki Stadium spectacular in the 1990s or, more recently, DDT’s Peter Pan, their annual major arena show. DDT, which found a corporate buyer last year, even made a habit of bringing in bigger names from promotions like New Japan Pro Wrestling. Hell, Genichiro Tenryu promoted his own retirement show at Sumo Hall in 2015 and faced NJPW’s top star, Kazuchika Okada, in the main event. But as long as Cody and the Bucks are telling the truth about putting up their own money—and there’s no compelling reason to doubt that right now—then calling this an independent wrestling show seems perfectly fair.
This leads to another question: if All In is really not an ROH or even NJPW branded show, what does its success say for those two promotions?
ROH recently hit their all-time record attendance of about 6,000 for their WrestleMania weekend show in New Orleans. The previous record was about 3,500 a year earlier for a 2017 WrestleMania weekend show that ran an hour away from most of the weekend’s other shows. Exclude ’Mania weekend and the promotion’s biggest show was the Chicago stop on the Global Wars tour in Chicago, which quickly sold out after a non-ROH wrestler, NJPW’s Kenny Omega, was announced. Otherwise, the biggest ROH crowds are usually New York shows that do in the 1,800 to 2,000 range, albeit usually as advance sellouts in a market with no mid-sized arena. ROH is clearly growing, but still very much a low four figure crowd company most of the time.
NJPW, for its part, scored a few quick sellouts in Long Beach, California, peaking just under 5,000 in March, but has seen tickets for July’s San Francisco debut stall out around 3,000. That could just be bad timing for traveling fans since that event lands in the middle of All In, SummerSlam weekend, and Omega’s NJPW-affiliated show at the CEO video game tournament in June, but the sales figure still sticks out like a sore thumb. There’s a very legitimate argument that the Bullet Club stable, which includes the Bucks, Cody, and Omega, are the real reason these promotion’s sell tickets and do such massive t-shirt sales at Hot Topic. That’s good for ROH right now, but it could be a very bad thing if their tentpole stars were to leave.
For now, though, the boom in non-WWE wrestling is pretty much the biggest story in American wrestling. The ticket sales for All In already mark it as a triumph; the question now is whether this all amounts to more than one singular, historic, destination event. If it does, it will be time to ask a larger and faintly revolutionary question—do indie stars like these they really need a legacy promotion behind them at all?
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