Wrestling has a long history of epic, game-changing rivalries. In fact, it’s what this business was built on. From the early days of Frank Gotch VS George Hackenschmidt and Bruno Sammartino VS Larry Zbysyko, all the way to the modern-day classics of Okada and Omega or Gargano and Ciampa; rivalries are the foundation of which professional wrestling was created and has exploded. It’s a funny thing, however, that the biggest rivalry in wrestling history is one that doesn’t even touch the ring. Despite a near symbiotic relationship for almost 100 years, pro wrestling’s biggest clash has become between the wrestling fans and wrestling professionals, a.k.a bookers and creative departments. WM30 Undertaker Wrestling Fan
The state of wresting is drastically different now than it was in it’s inception. Wrestling was derived from old timey carnival and circus shows, deriving from strong men giving legit competitions of strength. Eventually, the idea was born to portray the competitions under the guise of reality, yet have the outcomes scripted in the promoter’s favor. This new wrinkle, coupled with the newly added drama of storylines and the pomp and circumstance of the wrestling spectacle, led to pro wrestling becoming one of the biggest draws in the world from the 30s to the 70s. Bruno Sammartino became one of the biggest stars in the world due to his dominance as the WWWF Champion. At this point, fans weren’t in on the fact that what they were seeing was in fact scripted.
With the rise of Vincent K. McMahon and his acquisition of the territories, the newly christened WWF became the major game in the country. Led by transcendent stars like Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, “The Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase, and the incomparable Andre the Giant, Vince grew wrestling to heights nobody thought was ever attainable. But this new-found popularity eventually led to two things – the admission that wrestling was scripted and the sharp analysis of the business by fans. With the advent of the internet and the rise of a new generation of “attitude”, led by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, Bret Hart, and D-Generation-X, WWE was able to reach a mainstream level in society, and was able to overtake their biggest competitors in WCW and ECW, leading to what would be come a near monopoly in sports entertainment.
Since 2001, WWE has essentially become the only game in town. There have been other companies to not only exist in that time, but to thrive – Ring of Honor and TNA Impact come to mind. Unfortunately, all of these other companies have been clear number twos to WWE, barely even becoming viable enough to cause WWE to notice them as possible competition. With this lack of conflict between wrestling companies, and WWE’s insistence on an entertainment-based product, wrestling fans have become the conflict to WWE. Dirt sheets and shoot interviews have taught us about the inner workings of the business, journalists like Dave Meltzer and Wade Keller have essentially given us an “in” into the creative decisions made, and WWE themselves have pulled back the “veil” to let us in on the secret. Now, more than ever, there is a strength in being a fan that has made WWE and all wrestling companies take notice.
Which leads us to New Japan Pro Wrestling. Founded in 1972 by Antonio Inoki, the Japanese federation was always a critical and cultural darling. Wrestling in Japan is almost sacred. It is treated akin to sport, and there is a ceremonial nature to it, with anybody bred from that system being taught a very strong sense of honor and respect. New Japan has flirted with the wrestling mainstream, having a popular talent exchange with WCW in the past, but it has never been as close to being viable competition to the juggernaut that is the WWE until recent years. With fans being spurned with WWE’s product, and the very noticeable rise of critically acclaimed matches in New Japan, there has been a revolution of sorts. Thanks to entities such as Bullet Club, Los Ingobernables de Japon, and the significant contributions of wrestlers such as Shinsuke Nakamura, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, and Kenny Omega, NJPW has started to creep into America as it is starting to challenge WWE’s domination of the market share.
So, what does this have to do with wrestling fans, and in particular, the conflict between wrestling fans and booking? Well, there has been a saying in wrestling that the most powerful entity in all of wrestling is the pen, surmising that due to the scripted nature of the business, a booker can change anything on a whim. Because of this, the continuation of learned backstage dealings by fans, the overwhelming sense of entitlement of fans, and WWE’s notion to double down on their style, there is a very real disconnect that has been bred. And for a large group of fans, New Japan fills that void.
But, lets get back to that disconnect for a minute. As fans, we pay our hard-earned money and spend our precious time supporting a habit that often feels like it doesn’t care about you. Wrestling has become a billion-dollar industry, that makes companies like the WWE cater to the masses, most notably casual fans. WWE follows the money; fans only care about the wrestling. So, what do you do when the company that we all grew up loving and supporting isn’t doing the things that fans seem to want on a regular basis? And what does the WWE do when it’s gotten to the point that it has by staying it’s course for 20 years? The conversation is an interesting one, especially when you consider the issue that the fans have in particular.
One of the main points of contention that WWE fans have, that New Japan fans don’t seem to, is how their favorite wresters are pushed. WWE often gives opportunities to wrestlers that many diehards don’t want to have, with Roman Reigns coming to mind. NXT, the critically-acclaimed developmental system turned 3rd brand, has also had this issue. Wrestlers are essentially given the time, resources, and opportunities to do the things that diehard fans seem to want, clearly due to the nature of the brand and what it’s purpose is. Once the NXT wrestlers inevitably get called up, fans feel that WWE misuses them, not pushing them to the level that they were in NXT nor using them in the same manner. Fans will mention Bayley, Tyler Breeze, and Apollo Crews (to name a few) when they talk about this. Interestingly enough, and extremely relevant to this conversation, Triple H recently talked about this in an NXT Takeover: Chicago media call. He stated:
“I think that comes down to anything right? You try to prep them, you try to give them the tools, you try to give them everything you can so they can succeed on the main roster. But the truth is if you believe that everyone who gets called up will become ‘the guy’ or ‘the girl’ or the next big thing it’s kind of an unrealistic expectation.