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Territorial: Wrestling's future may lie in its past

Pro Wrestling

Territorial: Wrestling’s future may lie in its past

WWE defeated the territory model in the 1980s. Now, in 2021, a modern version led by AEW may be the only way to take them head on.

The year is 1948. Six regional wrestling promoters realize that, in order to preserve their places in the grander professional wrestling scene, they’re going to have to work together. Led by Paul “Pinkie” George, the National Wrestling Alliance is founded, and it becomes a breeding ground for every major wrestling promotion in America for the next five decades.

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Traveling ahead to 2018, the WWWF is now “WWE,” and executive vice-president Paul “Triple H” Levesque explains his new plan for “global localization” at the WWE’s 2018 Business Partner Summit. Any wrestling historian who listens to Levesque’s ideas for placing NXT promotions in the UK, Mexico, Japan, and elsewhere realizes that he’s plotting out a sort of worldwide territory system, this time with WWE as the head honcho.

At that same time, the NWA is no longer a governing body over other promotions, having long lost their rule over the likes of WCW, ECW, WWE, and even TNA/IMPACT and New Japan Pro Wrestling. NWA exists almost in name only, a fraction of the size they once were.

The Revolution Will Be Televised — Live on PPV

Instead of working above the rest, the NWA is hitching their wagon to the biggest American wrestling show outside of the WWE since WCW folded in 2001: All In. It’s a supercard from the minds of Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks, and it features wrestlers from IMPACT, NJPW, NWA, and the independent scene at large. It’s a celebration of professional wrestling — and a more-than-subtle proclamation that wrestling can thrive outside of McMahonLand.

And now it’s 2021. Rhodes, the Young Bucks, and their partner Kenny Omega have been positioned as the executive vice presidents of Tony Khan’s All Elite Wrestling. They’ve already overseen AEW through its freshman and sophomore years, and 2020 even ended with a huge shocker: Omega cheated to win the AEW Championship, then fled to IMPACT Wrestling to give his inaugural speech.

AEW had been working with other promotions since its inception, partnering with AAA in Mexico, showcasing talents from Stardom and TJPW in Japan, giving a platform to fledgling Chinese promotion OWE, and even featuring the NWA World Women’sChampion in a champion vs champion match at All Out 2020, the spiritual successor to All In.

But IMPACT’s arrival in AEW felt different, as they were situated directly into the top storyline on Dynamite, and it sent shockwaves throughout the wrestling fandom.

We’re wrestling fans, though. We fantasy booked much more than the AEW vs IMPACT feud that was given to us. We wanted to see the Forbidden Door get opened.

On the February 3, 2020, edition of AEW Dynamite, we got just that when NJPW’s KENTA attacked AEW’s Jon Moxley at the close of the show. It was the bridge everyone wanted to see be crossed: a relationship between the top promotion in Japan and the American promotion built on a few of their former (and current) top draws.

Social media quickly exploded with questions, fantasy match-ups, and unintelligible keyboard smashes, but Twitch streamer GrandPooBear perhaps put it best: “I seriously am so stupid excited about this. Collaboration is the future of everything.”

Collaboration is the Future of Everything

Without a doubt, we’re entering a new age of wrestling, and the name of the game is certainly collaboration. The thing that trips us up, however, is that large-scale collaboration between wrestling promotions has been done a ton in the past, and it had its ups and its downs and its further downs.

The NWA worked for a long time, but it didn’t grow with the times and eventually became stifling to those whose audiences grew at record paces. WWE and WCW both left to further solidify themselves as the biggest names in wrestling, and ECW’s exit from the NWA came with an explosive tirade at NWA’s expense, outwardly calling the promotion a “dying brand.”

And though there is some irony in the fact that WCW, ECW, WCCW, and the AWA all folded post-NWA while the NWA is still here to stay, the fact remains that they’re here to stay. GrandPooBear is no stranger to wrestling collaboration — he may be best known for speed running super hard Super Mario ROM hacks, but he’s streamed alongside the likes of Adam Cole (Bay Bay), and recently played Among Us on stream with WWE’s Paige and Ronda Rousey, and WWE alum Thea Trinidad. So I asked him to expound upon his ideas and compare the future of wrestling to its territorial past.

“I get that people want to harken [back], and it does have similarities to the territory days, but I think it’s a new form,” Poo said. “In entertainment in general, I think we’re seeing that a lot of power is shifting away from the companies and is being given to the talent, the people that the fans actually pay to see.”

What Poo is getting at is that rather than building up the wrestling company first and working solely within an enclosed ecosystem, a lot of pro wrestling is giving a platform to wrestlers who don’t exactly benefit the brand in the most obvious of ways. For example, AEW Dark has featured dozens of independent wrestlers throughout the pandemic — from Warhorse to Lady Frost — but the percentage of those people that AEW has signed to any kind of contract is a lot smaller than one would assume given how frequently certain wrestlers appear on the roster. Remember Pineapple Pete?

But in giving these folks a platform, it’s raising wrestling as a whole. It ensures that indie wrestlers don’t have to quit their profession because of the pandemic, while also giving those wrestlers TV training; it acts as a scouting mechanism for the likes of The Acclaimed and Will Hobbs, and it just builds good will for AEW at large.

In those same ways, AEW working with other promotions enacts the old saying that both Cody Rhodes and IMPACT Wrestling’s Scott D’Amore have bandied about: a rising tide raises all ships.

“When you have AEW’s Matt Hardy go on IMPACT,” GrandPooBear said, “that’s more important than having IMPACT’s Matt Hardy go on IMPACT, which is so weird to think about. I think the way you can call in someone and say, ‘Hey, we have kind of a Bullet Club storyline going on — who on your roster was formerly in Bullet Club? Send them over to us; we’ll loan you Private Party and Matt Hardy’ — I think they’re only good things.”

AEW gets their big Bullet Club storyline while IMPACT gets to have Kenny Omega and “Hardy Party” on their show. While they’re at it, they can tease Omega becoming a belt collector (instantly bringing Mexico’s AAA into the storyline as Omega already has their top title alongside his AEW Championship), have Omega make IMPACT’s Moose look strong, further the heel turn of AEW’s Private Party, and do so much more good for one another.

NJPW gets involved and not only is everyone talking about both companies, but AEW gets a huge draw in the form of a New Japan star in their Dynamite main event, while NJPW furthers their United States Championship storyline and advertises it on TNT for a wide audience to see.

All the while, all three of these promotions are doing their own things because no one is in charge the way that the NWA’s board of directors was for the old territories. IMPACT can do intergender wrestling even if Tony Khan doesn’t like it. NJPW can use KENTA and Moxley in an intense-yet-still-sports-based feud while AEW instantly puts them in an arena-wide brawl that sees KENTA get hit over the head with a potato sack by Lance Archer.

Change The World

The reason why I focused on NXT’s global expansion early on is that, at the end of the day, Vince McMahon and Triple H are still in charge with “NXT: Anywhere.” Even if the NXT brand is absolute money and does only pump out quality TV (heck, WALTER works in NXT: UK and is arguably the performer I want to see wrestle the most in all of wrestling), it’s going to get tiresome seeing that black and yellow NXT logo and ring all over the place, seeing wrestling all around the world through the same WWE filter.

On the flip side, AEW, IMPACT, NWA, and NJPW all feel totally different. The downside is that there’s a chance you just won’t like all of them (it personally took me a while to get into the IMPACT style and I’ve still yet to do so for NWA), but this does open your eyes to new programming. I never would have watched the stellar IMPACT Hard to Kill and AAA Triplemanía XXVIII if not for AEW pointing me there using Kenny Omega as the carrot for my metaphorical horse.

And for that final reason, perhaps it wouldn’t be too big of a risk to have AEW position itself as a sort of “ring-leader” among the others, if not in a stylistic sense, then at least in a figurehead role. One thing the NWA did well was use a top star and top championship to put over local guys, so using Omega as the Ric Flair and the AEW World Championship as the star of the show going forward can give these other companies a great draw and guaranteed great matches on top of the other benefits.

Am I just saying this because I want Omega to fight Kota Ibushi, Rush, and somehow the Great Muta? Yes.

But regardless of who is in charge, we’ve already seen unexpected matches that could only happen due to these world-wide partnerships. Emi Sakura recently mentioned in an interview that her amazing match with Yuka Sakazaki was the first time the two have ever wrestled each other, and barring another match in AEW, it will be the last. Sakura runs Ice Ribbon and Gatoh Move; Sakazaki is a homer for and the arguable ace of TJPW. I’m not sure how many Western fans were clamoring for them to fight each other, but now we’ve had it and it was great. Imagine how many more of these matches we can get because of AEW and their connections. (Real talk, I never thought I wanted Omega vs. Moose until I saw them together at IMPACT’s Hard to Kill in January; now I’ll cry out in pain if it never happens.)

“The number one thing that is exciting for me is getting to see wrestlers that I am a fan of or wrestlers that I should be a fan of in an easy-to-watch show for me,” GrandPooBear added. “Being an American who digs New Japan, I can’t say that I follow it as strongly as I follow other promotions because it airs at 2 in the morning. The big conversations that happen about it usually happen while I’m asleep. It’s very difficult, so number one, the very potential to get to experience these things that you only hear about — you know, the legend of Okada. Don’t get me wrong, I catch the main matches, but to get to experience that for a month run or a three-month run, the potential for that is extremely exciting for me.”

The wrestling world going forward will see the collaborative pros of the old territory system without any of the constraints that made companies want to leave. And even if they’re not getting involved anytime soon (just ask Jon Moxley), WWE is still slowly opening up to the idea that wrestling can exist outside of them. GrandPooBear pointed to the Timesplitters reunion in NXT as an example of this; WWE didn’t have to glow about the history of Alex Shelley and call back to his and KUSHIDA’s history in New Japan, but they did because it made the match better. Then, after it ended, Shelley left and wasn’t beholden to WWE going forward.

AEW didn’t invent cross-promotion — in fact, every promotion they’re working with right now has worked with multiple other promotions, including each other. But AEW was built off of the success of All In, and All In was never about building any one brand: it was about the wrestling world at large. It’s that very spirit that led to AEW’s early pushing of the slogan “Change the World.”

And if we’re about to see a wrestling world where nearly every promotion is interconnected in some way, then not only have they already been successful, but the change that they’ve brought into the world will also bring the business into a bright future — one where we can clearly see a link to its past.

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