Over the last year or so I’ve found pro wrestling to be a hobby that is increasingly fun to dive into. While it’s still not the most socially-acceptable hobby, I feel like it’s making headway back into the mainstream as fans of its boom period from 1997-2001 grow older, and alternatives to the WWE become more accessible.
With the Internet, it’s really easy to find something that scratches a certain itch, and with enough diligence, you can sacrifice your sleep schedule to keep up with companies no matter where they are.
The thing, though, is that I’ve come to realize that what resonates most about it is the constant possibility of rebirth, and the results of a positive work ethic. At an independent level, success is determined by the amount of work put into promoting a company, or yourself: the do-it-yourself aesthetic, typically found in punk and hardcore music is huge here, mostly because it follows the same pattern. Wrestlers who want to become big need to travel, and one match that goes especially well and explodes online can make a career grow overnight.
What goes along with that, though, is the years of performers not finding their groove, and having to try multiple different characters or gimmicks to truly reach their potential. That is what interests me: following someone who you know can be great and finally seeing them reach that point after so much struggle.
Akira Tozawa is a Japanese wrestler I came across in 2010, when he was making his first trip to the United States and creating major buzz wherever he went. His history is detailed a little more in-depth in this Voices of Wrestling piece but I’ll summarize:
A guy starts off in 2005 with a “punk student” gimmick that fails to get him anywhere, gains a boatload of weight to see if being fat and funny will work, loses the weight, goes to North America in 2010, finds his stride, gains a lot of buzz for what he can do, and eventually leaves his home promotion to join the WWE in 2016.
After enough persistence, he is recognized for how good he is, despite not being able to find his groove for years. It can take some time, but that hard work and willingness to persevere pays off.
This kind of thing also happens with the companies themselves. One of the key lines that’s stuck with me from watching interviews within the sport is the need to “accentuate the positives, and hide the negatives” in order to avoid comparisons between what a larger company can do compared to a smaller one.
This is exemplary in Dragon Gate, a Japanese company that realized what they had to work with and made it their emphasis: characters developing personalities over long periods of time, factions growing, dissolving and clashing, and emphasizing a style that can be a mix of comedic, high-flying or hard-hitting as needed.
All of the wrestlers give off the impression that they are an authentic, tight-knit family, willing to make sure that everyone (not just the big stars) grows together; the company thrives off this, and is arguably the second-biggest promotion in Japan.
Another company, Big Japan Pro Wrestling, contrasts its ultra-violent and bloody matches by putting on special one-night Shakespeare recreations, like King Lear (warning, blood). These people have a story or show they believe in, and doing it from a genuine place seems to work well.
When it comes to this persistence, wrestling’s biggest story in the past year has been Kenny Omega. Omega has declined working with the WWE in the past; for many, this is unthinkable, as the potential for more money and exposure doesn’t get much bigger than that company. To him, the WWE cannot offer him what he wants: a venue to showcase his vision.
To many performers, this is a very tough choice. You can make more money with the biggest wrestling company in the world, but what you get to do depends on how they view you: performers sometimes find themselves misused, hamstrung or just plain forgotten. The financial security might be nice, but the artistry suffers.
Kenny has chosen to pursue his own path, which has meant expanding the potential of what wrestling can be. He’s the guy that wrestled a 9-year-old girl. He’s the guy that’s wrestled a blow-up doll. He’s the guy that’s wrestled in a campground. For a long time his finishing move was a double palm strike called a Hadoken (after a Street Fighter video game move).
For a long time, he caught a lot of flack for this. To a lot of traditionalists, these kinds of spectacles degrade the performance and how it’s perceived. For a long time, he was seen as “the weird gimmick” guy: regularly booked on the indies, but not quite taken seriously.
Kenny’s peak happened at the beginning of this 2017 when he performed in the main event of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest show of the year. The match was received so well that it broke the traditional five-star rating system of the industry’s most notable journalist: he gave it a six. Kenny and his opponent, Kazuchika Okada, went above and beyond what a match usually is, and it perfectly encapsulated what people seeking an alternative to the WWE want: an athletic spectacle that isn’t dumbed down.
This video is a great example of his mindset, taken while chronicling his life in Japan working for New Japan.
These are things I’ve always wanted to do because I hated wrestling. I hated was wrestling was; I loved the idea of pro wrestling, but wrestling can be anything. If you can imagine it, it can happen in the world of pro wrestling. Not many people understand that.
So in this world I created in my mind… I want to show it to everyone. Even if it’s just one idea, one new, special, idea, I want to show it to the world, and this year alone, I’ve been showing so many ideas.
What struck me most was that Kenny earned the acclaim for the match. He pushed and worked so hard to go from those campground matches to convince people that he could work any style he was given, and put on a great match with just about anyone. He didn’t compromise on his vision, and it paid off well in the long run. It was hard, and no one said it wouldn’t be, but it didn’t matter — because Kenny loved and believed in it, he made it work.
When I consider what I’m trying to say or make, that self-doubt — the “what if this falls flat?” — is usually one of the loudest in my brain. There’s that anxiety that this will be “it;” it has to work, because otherwise it’s evidence that I suck. It’s only been recently that it’s started to click that that isn’t true. Through learning more about these guys’ stories, I’ve been able to believe that having ambitions and trusting in them can lead you to great places.
This “be so good they can’t ignore you” is something I want to take more to heart; if anything, less stress about the context of the work and more effort towards making it represent me can only result in better stuff.
Here’s hoping, at least.