Pro wrestling has become a popular staple of the streaming scene as streaming has become an authentic challenge to broadcast television, but never truly in a way that varied from how wrestling has worked on TV in the past. Streaming wrestling content has, to this point, generally played out as traditional television episodes with end-to-end cards—if it wasn’t a weekly television show with commercial breaks intact, it was usually a lengthy pay-per-view event or a similar style card from a smaller promotion. There hadn’t really been anything released in and produced for the binge-watch format that has helped make Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon into streaming juggernauts. WWE came closer with last year’s Mae Young Classic women’s tournament, but only a few episodes of that were released at a time and were decidedly traditional; the finals of the eponymous tournament were broken off as a separate live special. It wasn’t until Dojo Pro launched on Amazon for Prime subscribers last week that wrestling got a streaming show that fits the streaming era.
Released as a 12-episode season, with each episode running between 18 and 30 minutes, Dojo Pro features an eclectic mix of unsigned wrestlers seeded in a ladder/gauntlet-style tournament that recalls the Mortal Kombat video games. “For me, the concept, it was clearly made up by nerds for nerds,” said number three seed Maxwell Jacob Friedman, a.k.a. MJF. Friedman, as you can see, is quite protective of his wrestling persona in public. “Video games are for fat, pimpled-up losers. I prefer croquet, and I’m also a fan of luge.” (Asked how exactly someone can prepare for both wrestling and luge at the same time, the normally dismissive villain perked up. “I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me this question,” he said. Not only is the dieting and training similar, he said, but “I’m always oiled up, I’m always ready to go, and I’m always hairless.”) As you can infer from MJF’s comments, this show is fun, and fun in a way that a lot of nationally televised wrestling isn’t.
Dojo Pro is a really easy watch, with each episode opening with personality profiles of the wrestlers in that episode’s match. The profiles, whether they’re of an MJF-type villain or one of the inspirational good guys, are helpful in setting up the wrestler’s character and/or real background. Featured talent includes nationally known independent stars that some fans may already be familiar with, like Joey Janela, MJF, Shane Strickland, Jeff Cobb, and former Impact Wrestling star James Storm, but they don’t make up the whole cast. With the show being shot in Nashville, southern fixtures Kerry Awful, Kevin Ku, Gunner Miller, and Corey Hollis all make appearances, but they’re joined by wrestlers from different corners of the country. Only the midwest scene doesn’t have a stalwart or two in the mix.
Early reaction to the series on social media and in the Amazon reviews has been largely positive—certainly much more so than MJF was. There is one criticism that keeps coming up, though: The winner of the season not only gets the Dojo Pro Black Belt, but also a shot at the Ring of Honor Television Championship in the near future. The issue isn’t working with ROH, a promotion that director Logan Sekulow clearly admires. “They took a risk on our show and I am beyond appreciative to work with them,” he said. The negative is that if the show is going to have any kind of external stakes, making one of those a shot at an existing promotion’s secondary title makes Dojo Pro feel less important and more stunt-adjacent than it could. (It also doesn’t help that ROH programming is already a bit heavy on wrestlers getting TV Title shots by interrupting the champion to cut promos on him.) Perhaps when the Dojo Pro title shot comes about, the TV Champion could end up being someone with enough cache to make the achievement feel more significant, as when New Japan Pro Wrestling star KUSHIDA held the title last year. This is a secondary matter, though, as the show is primarily focused on the Dojo Pro Black Belt as the end goal.
Set that aside, and there’s a whole lot of good to be found not just in the writing, the production, and the performances, but also the diversity of the casting and how it shines through in the show. The stable of compelling wrestlers from different regions is a great help, but the Dojo Pro cast is also much more ethnically diverse than on the average wrestling show. “I found it really great to be a part of such a diverse roster,” cast member Wheeler Yuta, a Japanese-American wrestler from Philadelphia, told Deadspin. “I think that generally, independent wrestling has taken great strides recently in terms of inclusion for all groups, regardless of race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, or any other differences that others may try to use to divide us. As a person of color, wrestling was something I used to bond with my childhood friends and create my own community. To be a part of a roster that celebrated this was truly wonderful. Everyone should be able to enjoy this thing that we love, and hopefully this roster allowed more people to do that.” Sekulow echoed Yuta’s comments, saying that “we are proud of the diversity showcased in our first season, and I feel like it is representative of the global wrestling audience.”
The show itself isn’t shy about this, either: Korean-American Ku, in the first interview clip of the whole series, expresses frustration that people often pre-judge him and his wrestling style because he’s a wrestler of Asian descent who wears kickpads. “It is really cool to see not the same cookie cutter people on a televised product, and I think it makes it cooler for people who were thinking about getting into wrestling that it’s true for anyone and everyone,” Ku told Deadspin. “I guess I’ve never really thought about [Dojo Pro being more diverse] like that, but I do carry my culture with me with pride and I don’t try to hide the fact that I’m South Korean at all. I have the flag proudly on my gear.”
Ricky Starks, meanwhile, introduces himself to the audience by explaining how a childhood of being different fuels him in the ring. “My style comes from my background, and my life, and the things that I’ve gone through, and that all traces back to me growing up in New Orleans as a kid,” he tells the camera. “I went to a school where I was pretty much different from everybody as far as skin color goes, so there’s a lot of times that I was getting into fights, that I was being picked on or had to defend myself, so I think that translates into the ring as far as being the scrappy one.” In a business that doesn’t exactly have a sterling history with racial issues on or off-camera, the both the casting and the presentation mark a noticeable shift forward.
“It’s great that the show addresses it,” said Yuta. “Talking about it is the first step to improving it.”
For such a comparatively forward-looking show, though, the look is something of a throwback. Shot in a sparse television studio like the weekly television shows of regional promotions from years gone by, Dojo Pro has a familiar feel but notably state-of-the-art production values. Aesthetically, the show is pretty slick and clearly trying some new things—most visibly comic book-style banners for each wrestler and no ring apron skirt around the traditional wrestling surface—that help it look fresh. The overall design language of the show would not be out of place on a children’s network, but the finished product really works well for all ages.
At least as much as pro wrestling can be, Dojo Pro’s content is perfectly appropriate for kids, and the storylines are replete with positive (but not forceful, cheesy, or condescending) messaging about things like bullying and sportsmanship. But while it’s bright and positive and big in the familiar wrestling ways, it’s decidedly not a “kids’ show” per se. Most attempts at explicitly “family-friendly” wrestling—which Dojo Pro’s promotional material suggests is at least part of the goal, here—wind up overly sanitized and talk down to the audience. Dojo Pro does neither, and generally is much more American Gladiators than Legends of the Hidden Temple. The in-ring style, meanwhile, hews to the more athletic mode currently prominent on the indie scene, albeit with some TV-style flourishes added.
Pro wrestling, in its purest form, is a unique and uniquely populist entertainment—something that people of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy together as a community. Dojo Pro celebrates that in a way that never feels corny or pedantic, and is never anything less than fun. It’s not just a fresh idea in terms of how to produce television in a business that badly needs some fresh ideas, although it is that. It also moves the genre forward in ways that have been needed for a very long time. Dojo Pro’s streaming format is novel, but it’s not nearly the most revolutionary thing about it.
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.