Last week, Ryan Satin of Pro Wrestling Sheet broke the news that WWE was in talks with Sinclair Broadcasting about buying Ring of Honor. The buyout speculation centered on Ring of Honor’s tape library more than anything; many of WWE’s best, most popular stars were in ROH, including Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, and Seth Rollins. Without the tape libraries, the pasts of these wrestlers are inaccessible to WWE without having to pay rights fees; the CM Punk biographical DVD has some Ring of Honor footage in it, for example, but it didn’t come free. ROH’s libraries represent an important part of wrestling history, which remains tantalizingly out of WWE’s circle of control.
The details about WWE’s talks remain sparse; they’ve been clarified by wrestling reporting doyen Dave Meltzer, who explicitly claimed that WWE wants no competition, before being muddied again by CBS’ Chuck Carroll, who relayed claims that no deal is imminent. Details are always murky in pro wrestling and denials come with following it. What’s important is that there have clearly been talks of some sort by WWE officials, formal or informal.
In a very real sense, the details of a potential deal don’t matter. What matters is that WWE is clearly angling to set itself up as a sort of parent company in charge of pro wrestling. This is essentially already the case in the United States, where the platonic ideal of a pro wrestling career is clear: start out young, learn in the indies, and get to WWE for your payday. No matter what, it always ends in WWE’s orbit, and increasingly wrestlers seem to suggest that they haven’t “made it” until they get a WWE run.
The indies are as vibrant as ever, but it’s a delicate situation. WWE can’t afford to kill the smaller promotions entirely because they’re simply too useful as a training ground. It can, however, afford to pick up the best talent, which it’s doing at a rapid pace. There’s enormous pressure on the indies to keep up with the WWE-driven rate of churn—people will pack the local civic center to see AJ Styles, but they’re less likely to when the talent level diminishes. The current situation is one that is very good for WWE, all right for the best pro wrestlers, and increasingly precarious for everyone else.
But to assume that WWE will be content to grab those who pass muster without buying the indies outright ignores how WWE has operated since Vince McMahon took over the company.
WWE’s history is largely a history of buying out the competition. In its early days, after McMahon took over from his father, a large influx of big stars was brought in on exclusive contracts. Hulk Hogan was set to be the AWA’s ticket to the future; instead, he was offered a boatload of cash to skip AWA shows on his way out the door to WWE. Roddy Piper, Randy Savage, Kerry Von Erich, Ricky Steamboat, and a slew of others made their way to WWE on the back of McMahon ruthlessly targeting talent or undercutting the competition.
In the face of McMahon’s onslaught, the territories ceased to exist, but even that didn’t stop WWE’s shopping spree. In 2001, WWE bought out World Championship Wrestling and Extreme Championship Wrestling, signaling a functional monopoly in the sport. American pro wrestling outside WWE in the early 2000s was limited to high school gymnasiums and mostly empty minor league ballparks. Your local fed still put on intimate events, and the forerunners of the modern indie promotions like ROH and IWA Mid-South had some scintillating shows, but it all felt diminished compared to the wild days of earlier decades, when wrestling was on every other channel at any hour of the day.
McMahon had won, but what was the prize? No territories, no Ted Turner taking aim at him with WCW, no threat. In their place, a decade’s worth of the same John Cena story told and retold until we all became sick of a perfectly good pro wrestler. Lower ratings, lower pay-per-view buy rates.
The turnaround for WWE, at least creatively and critically (the ratings are still down), came from the indies, whose wrestlers wound up carrying WWE into the 2010s. CM Punk yielded to Daniel Bryan, who yielded to Kevin Owens and AJ Styles. All of them came through the smaller promotions left in the smoldering wake of WCW and ECW. They were hungry and different, and eventually they broke through and changed a calcified WWE.
The indies are still around and, maybe more importantly, their history is theirs. WWE sees itself as the guardian and interpreter of pro wrestling’s history, and has laid claim to the sport’s various archives accordingly. The WCW and ECW tape libraries came with their respective buyouts, and WWE went on to cut deals with the scions of the old territories to get more or less all the extant tape libraries in the United States. WWE tells a story: Vince McMahon is more shrewd than ruthless, more eccentric than weird, and if those wrestlers who crossed him and the defunct promotions are consigned to the status of perennial losers, well, that’s obviously deserved. WCW was real competition, nearly beating WWE in the late 1990s; now WWE-produced video packages make out WCW to have been a minor inconvenience to the McMahons’ march toward dominance. Chris Benoit’s chapter in the company’s history, with its ugly end, is scrubbed away. All at the behest of WWE’s video acquisition and editing teams. We’re not talking wholesale work, but tweaks and cuts substantively change the way wrestling history flows when WWE gets done with it. And WWE is left with the proof that it’s right. Look at the videos. Look at the history.
McMahon senses a world he can’t control out in the indies. That’s why the rumors keep bubbling up and why they carry so much weight with those who are familiar with how the promotion operates. WWE will end up buying the video libraries it wants or turning an indie fed it likes into a training ground (like it did with Evolve). The need to keep pro wrestling in WWE’s control, more than anything else that may drive Vince McMahon, is essential to the way the promotion operates. The ROH buyout whispers—just like the earlier TNA buyout rumors, the WWE UK Championship running opposite British indie shows, and the luring of New Japan’s biggest stars last year—point to a restless McMahon.
To trust that WWE is going to be forever content to just take in the best wrestlers from the smaller outlets is to forget its entire history. Vince McMahon is not pro wrestling’s benign grandfather, shepherding the next generation through WWE doors to the promised land. He’s a cutthroat carnie who wants to make sure that nobody’s going to challenge him. Does McMahon run the risk of strangling the business just as the vibrancy of it is returning fully to mainstream visibility? Of course. But McMahon has strangled wrestling twice before, and he is still here.
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