After months of speculation, one of the year’s biggest pro wrestling stories fully took shape on Monday night. All In, a hotly anticipated independent wrestling show produced by Cody Rhodes and The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson), had its location announced as Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates, Illinois; the September 1st show’s goal is drawing 10,000 fans. What started out as a cross between a dream and a dare is now something much closer to reality.
As we noted in November, the idea for this show first came into being after Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer tweeted in May that he didn’t think Ring of Honor, the wrestlers’ home promotion, could draw 10,000 fans to an event. Rhodes saw it as a challenge, and got to work.
“Perfect storm,” Rhodes told Deadspin when asked how the Chicago market became the home for All In. “Great fans. Great airports. Multiple airports at that, which helps with any international talent we contract.” He added that Pro Wrestling Tees, which handles their apparel sales, being located in Chicago doesn’t hurt. “I could see there being some outside activities at the store during All In weekend.”
Since the show was first announced in November it has become progressively more clear that the idea has legs. Being The Elite, the Bucks’ YouTube show that also features Rhodes, Kenny Omega, and some of their friends, has become a good bit more popular, growing its audience about 50 percent and routinely topping 200,000 views. In addition, Supercard of Honor, ROH’s WrestleMania weekend show, has already blown away company attendance records, with well over 4,500 tickets sold, while New Japan Pro Wrestling’s return to California two weeks earlier instantly sold out a 5,000 seat building. There is no longer a question about whether there is a sizable and passionate audience for non-WWE wrestling in the United States, and increasingly little doubt that the right show could draw the type of crowd that Rhodes and the Bucks are seeking for All In.
Still, this is an incredibly tall order. It’s clear that the audience for independent wrestling is bigger and better than in years past. Rhodes’s gamble has everything to do with how big it actually is. Excluding WWE shows and cards from WCW, its now defunct competitor, the last wrestling shows in the continental United States to top 10,000 fans were held almost a quarter century ago.
Those shows were promoted by the IWC, a promotion run by music industry lawyer Ron Skoler with an assist from concert promoter Darryll Brooks. Skoler caught some lucha libre on Galavision one day while channel surfing and was hooked by the colorful costumes and high flying action; he quickly got in touch with AAA, then the leading promotion in Mexico, about partnering up. With AAA having split from their previous local promoter in Los Angeles, the timing was perfect. Their first combined effort, La Revancha at the L.A. Sports Arena, drew about 17,500 fans and earned $243,000; thousands more fans were turned away. La Revancha was promoted entirely on the top local Spanish-language radio station and the local version of the AAA TV show, and drew the biggest American wrestling crowd of 1993. In what was quite possibly the worst year ever for the American wrestling business, the only show to draw a bigger gate was WrestleMania, where 15,045 fans paid $1,100,000 to watch the show at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Three of the four subsequent AAA/IWC joint promotions in Los Angeles would top the 10,000 fan mark, as well.
If you take out lucha libre shows, you have to look back even further—as in, before Turner Broadcasting bought Jim Crockett Promotions and started WCW—to find crowds that topped 10,000 without being promoted by the “big two” promotions. The best candidates here appear to be a pair of stadium shows from 1986: AWA WrestleRock on April 20, which drew about 23,000 fans to the Metrodome in Minneapolis and WCCW Parade of Champions on May 4, which drew about 24,000 to Texas Stadium in Arlington. Each wound up being a last hurrah for promotions that were about to fall off a cliff, with WCCW in particular being decimated after its matchmaker and of the roster leaving for the rival UWF weeks later. A few weeks earlier, on March 10, the CWA in Memphis sold out the Mid-South Coliseum for the last time, for Jerry Lawler’s return after dropping a loser leaves town match in December. The TV show two days earlier that hyped it was quite possibly the greatest single episode of wrestling television in the history of the medium, with Lawler having to be enlisted after heels attacked teenage referee Jeff Jarrett and tried to take out his father’s good eye.
Memphis was also the home of the last two non-WWE/WCW/lucha libre cards to come close to 10,000 fans. A May 1987 card in which Austin Idol promised to refund the fans if he lost a cage match to Jerry Lawler drew about 9,000 fans, while Lawler’s AWA World Heavyweight Title victory over Curt Hennig a year later brought in about 8,000. But even those hooks—Lawler’s world title win was made exceedingly obvious in the buildup—were not enough to match the results of the heated storyline from 1986.
While your mileage may vary as to how much television matters in 2018, it’s worth pointing out that all of these other groups had weekly television to draw fans in with; even NJPW has weekly TV in the U.S. on AXS TV. The last time a promotion hit 10,000 or came close without TV was likely in the 1960s, when there were stretches during which WWE had no television in New York but still drew 10,000 fans to Madison Square Garden fairly routinely. Of course, that’s a different world from now, where All In is being marketed off of a fairly popular YouTube series. Rhodes is not sure yet if ROH will be pushing the show on its weekly television show, which airs on parent company Sinclair Broadcast Group’s stations across the country. Rhodes did stress, though, that ROH has been very supportive of All In.
“ROH management—Greg [Gilleland] and Joe [Koff], who are such forward thinkers—have been so good to us and we in turn work very very hard for them,” Rhodes said. “They’ve offered us resources, insight, and are likely gonna facilitate merchandise. The sentiment of this happening stems from me and Dave’s banter about ROH, but this show isn’t about a brand. It’s about individuals.” That said, the sentiment after the major NJPW and ROH shows in the next few weeks could give everyone a better sense of how All In will do. And while the card is unquestionably a happening—a symbolic showing of the strength of indie wrestling and, for some fans, a middle finger pointed at WWE—Cody is aware that the show needs to be more than that.
“The card has to deliver,” he said. “The card will deliver. I’m very braggadocious and it rubs some the wrong way, but the reality is when I say I’m gonna do something, I do it. Matt and Nick are the same and it’s why we instantly clicked. Perception used to be reality with wrestling. Now that every wrestler can be seen by fans just at the touch of the button with social media, reality is reality. We are aiming to genuinely please.” Rhodes does also see the value in the symbolic nature of the event, though. “I grew up on wrestling. I liked He-Man and stuff, but wrestlers were my heroes. [My dad,] Dusty [Rhodes] and [Ric] Flair, Sting, Shawn [Michaels], [Hulk] Hogan—you get it. I just want to bring somebody the same excitement over this that I was given as a kiddo. It takes balls to do this, yes—but it takes balls to support this. The fans have created this movement, not us.”
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