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Can Indie Wrestling Survive in WWE?

A brief history of the indie scene, plus an interview with Chris Hero, the wrestler who almost became the next CM Punk

Last Monday, John Cena (the actual face of WWE) interrupted an in-ring conversation between Randy Orton (the story line “face of WWE”) and Triple H (the actual and story line front-office figure). In trying to make sense of the crowd’s seeming revolt of late — incessantly invoking Daniel Bryan’s “Yes!” chant, not shelling out for PPVs, ignoring Randy Orton — Cena posited: “You wanna know why they cheer for Daniel Bryan? You wanna know why they chant ‘Yes’? It’s because they’re sick of the administrative B.S.”

Pro wrestling is an art that works in broad strokes, a form with simplicity at its core, so when trying to figure out an answer, Occam’s razor usually does the trick. It could be that fans are disappointed that Bryan got shuffled ungraciously from the main event picture, only to be replaced by the Big Show, who usurped Bryan’s “Yes!” chant and who, combined with Orton, sucked all the air out of the arena at Survivor Series. Bryan, meanwhile, was paired with CM Punk to take on a group of evil newcomers named the Wyatt Family. As compelling as the Wyatts may be, the feud was widely seen as a demotion for Bryan and Punk. Not everybody can be in the main event every month (except Cena), and the Wyatt feud was good for what it was — and even better for the joy of seeing Punk and Bryan together in the ring and in interviews. The real problem wasn’t their absence in the main event — it was the absence of dynamism in the Orton-Show story line. WWE sensed this and ended the Survivor Series main event with John Cena — who had concluded his own milquetoast feud with Alberto Del Rio earlier in the night — storming to the ring and holding up his World Heavyweight Championship belt as Orton held the WWE Championship belt, making the universal sign for a champion-vs.-champion match.1

It was a noteworthy change of course, not least for the implication that the main-event match we’d just watched (and paid for) was to be immediately shoved down the memory hole. But even that didn’t feel satisfactory to many fans. Despite their fame, merchandise sales, and immaculate physiques, Cena and Orton rankle a hearty segment of the WWE fan base because they represent WWE’s inclination to award hard-body grimacing over actual wrestling ability. Sure, some fans chant “Yes!” because they’re sick of administrative B.S., but usually when they feel that way they just chant “Cena sucks!”2 It’s a chasm paralleled by the wrestlers’ origins: Cena and Orton are homegrown WWE talents, while Punk and Bryan rose through the ranks after making their names on the indie scene. Both indie stars helped to change the face of WWE over the last few years, and they helped awaken the company from a years-long malaise. (To be sure, they made Cena and Orton more compelling in the process.) One would think that this experience would be informative for WWE, but with Punk and Bryan toiling in the midcard, it’s hard not to suspect a return to form for WWE. Ratings dipped, so the business rejected indie wrestling and its ethos and sought refuge in the comfortable routines of Cena and Orton.

There are other WWE wrestlers with indie pedigrees — Antonio Cesaro, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose — and the WWE developmental program has a number of former indie studs. But the most noteworthy of that developmental crew was a guy named Kassius Ohno — known on the indie scene as Chris Hero — and he was released by WWE just a few weeks ago. It’s a good time to ask whether indie wrestling will ever have a comfortable place in WWE.

The last 50 years of wrestling history in America look something like this: In the Territorial Era, beginning in the mid–20th century, several dozen distinct regional promotions operated all over the country under the banner of the National Wrestling Alliance. There were non-NWA troupes as well — “outlaw promotions,” as they were known — but the NWA encompassed most of the industry. In the 1980s, the advent of cable television networks — TBS and USA, most notably — that broadcast wrestling shows nationwide without regard for territorial borders, along with Vince McMahon’s decision to take his father’s promotion national, spelled the death knell for the territorial era. Within a few years, there were basically two wrestling companies left with national clout: McMahon’s WWF and “The NWA,” which was no longer a group of promotions but a consolidated syndicate based in North Carolina. NWA eventually collapsed under the weight of national expansion (and financial mismanagement). It was then bought, more or less, by Ted Turner and repurposed as WCW. The other players of the day were regional acts that had splintered off from the NWA, like the AWA in Minneapolis, WCCW in Texas, and the CWA in Memphis. They tried to stay relevant in the cable TV era,3 even forming alliances at times to exert influence as major third-party players, but those efforts failed and left what remained of the “territories” in the hands of leftover NWA promoters and small-time hucksters. There were still local shows scattered throughout the country, but their esteem had bottomed out — no longer could a show in St. Louis or New Orleans claim to matter in the wrestling world without the WWF or WCW mantles attached.

Then came ECW — it started out as a lame attempt to reboot the NWA and morphed into a legitimate third party in pro wrestling, but more importantly it was proof that small-time operations could be viable in the Internet age. Of course, ECW was trying to act like a national operation on a shoestring budget, and eventually it went belly-up and was bought by the WWF, but the point was made. Before long, an unholy alliance was formed: The leftover scraps of the territories, many of which operated wrestling schools, merged with a newly post-pubescent backyard wrestling movement, a fad that saw punk teenagers suplexing their friends through plywood and left neighborhood moms clutching their pearls. By the time the backyard crew came of age, the old-school territorial types were hungry for any opportunity. The two groups united in their love of wrestling and followed the lessons learned from ECW’s business model. What emerged was indie wrestling.

It consisted mostly of small shows in gyms and VFW halls, and there wasn’t much money to be made, so the top indie performers traveled around the country and the world. They became emissaries to Japan and Europe and other wrestling strongholds that WWE doesn’t regularly visit. A small army made their name on the indie scene — TNA mainstays AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, Austin Aries, and Samoa Joe, to name a few — but for the most part the indie world remained separate from WWE, either because WWE preferred to ignore its unseemly little cousin, or because most of the indie standouts were too small (or unmuscled or unpretty) to hack it in the Hollywood world of WWE.

At that time the indies had morphed into their own thing.” That’s Chris Hero, with whom I spoke on Monday. I figured if anybody could have a valuable perspective on the state of indie wrestling in WWE, it would have to be him. We talked about his 21 months in WWE developmental and his recent return to the indie scene as a conquering, ahem, hero.

Hero says: “They had big shows like the King of the Indies Tournament and Super 8, where they took guys with a little buzz, or no buzz sometimes, and let them go out there and tear it down. It put a spotlight on these guys. The success they had with that and the entertaining matches these guys put on made other independent companies go, ‘Oh, we can make our own stars? We don’t have to have Honky Tonk Man and Nikolai Volkoff in the main event every show?’ It changed the landscape of the indies, but now these guys were never seen in comparison to WWE superstars. It was its own thing. Once Punk broke through, we saw that we could follow in his footsteps — you get people to like you, you perform in the ring and on the microphone, and you can start breaking those stereotypes.”

But more than a breeding ground for future WWE talent, the indies were known for being open to undersized and/or underutilized former WWE talents like Spanky Kendrick and Colt Cabana, or to unreliable hotheads like Teddy Hart. Indies also became the American home for Japanese standouts like KENTA and Go Shiozaki, as well as the last respite for a brutal hardcore wrestling movement that included companies like Combat Zone Wrestling finding increasingly gruesome ways to crucify its stars. Becoming too entrenched in the indie scene could be a black mark on your career, and you see it in wrestlers like Adam Pearce or Christopher Daniels or even AJ Styles — being the biggest star in the indies makes it seem as if you missed your moment, like a 30-year-old playing Triple-A ball.

And yet Punk and Bryan made their way to WWE. Punk was almost a filler in the ill-fated ECW reboot, but he caught the fancy of Paul Heyman, who pushed Punk despite the WWE home office’s lack of enthusiasm for him.4 Hero says: “When Punk popped up on ECW, people were like: ‘Oh shit, it’s possible.'”

Bryan broke through via NXT, WWE’s talent-scouting show. As such things tend to go in pro wrestling, Bryan’s NXT cast joined forces and started a villainous faction of invaders, except that during one of their invasions, Bryan (fake) choked ring announcer Justin Roberts with his tie, an act of violence deemed a step too far for the kids watching at home. Bryan was released and returned to the indies. He had a victory lap, coasting off his raised profile and perceived unjust treatment by WWE. He headlined cards for Chikara, Dragon Gate USA, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, and other “big” indie feds before being brought back to WWE after a short hiatus. It was the beginning of the meta story line that culminated in his SummerSlam win over Cena and played out in the ensuing feud against Orton and Triple H — the real-life underdog overcoming not just his small stature but resistance from WWE’s higher-ups.

Punk, for his part, might not have been as small as Bryan, but he was “skinny-fat,” as Triple H memorably called him on the air, and heavily tattooed — not exactly the WWE ideal. When his contract came up in 2011, he threatened to walk and return to the indies, and they parlayed that into an art-imitates-life story line in which Punk conducted his infamous worked shoot promo, then beat Cena for the title and walked out of the company (for a little while, anyway). In that “pipe bomb” promo, he famously said that he was “leaving with the WWE championship on July 17 and, hell, who knows, maybe I’ll go defend it in New Japan Pro Wrestling … Maybe I’ll go back to Ring of Honor … The reason I’m leaving you people is because after I’m gone you’re still going to pour money into this company — I’m just a spoke on the wheel — the wheel’s gonna keep turning.” It was the first time that indie wrestling had actually been an onscreen character in WWE, and with Punk ascendant, it was the first time since ECW that indie wrestling had felt legitimate in the mainstream, even if its products sometimes felt like cogs there.

Suddenly, WWE was an achievable goal for indie wrestlers everywhere. Hero, for his part, had a hard time reconciling this reality with the scene in which he’d come up. “I think it was a goal in the back of my head,” he says. “It was never a thing where I had to do it or my career wouldn’t be justified. Honestly, I didn’t really think it was a possibility. I had a different look, I was touring with Insane Clown Posse, and WWE seemed so far away. It wasn’t until Punk started doing his thing that I could see myself in that situation.”

I talked with Hero for a while about his recent return to his old life, about his time in the WWE fold, and about the future of indie wrestlers in the mainstream. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

On the pressure of going back to the indies:

I’m the prettiest girl at the dance for the moment. I know it’s not going to last forever. I have to be on my toes. One very real thing is people asking, “Does he still have it in him? Can he bring to the table what he brought to the table years ago?” It’s inspiring for me. I want to show people that I have as much to offer as anyone in the history of wrestling. That sounds a little grandiose, but I feel like I have something different.

On his role in returning to the indie circuit:

I think I serve that level of importance on the independent scene, because a lot of the guys — Punk, Bryan, Generico, Samoa Joe — are gone. I’m more than happy to assist and guide and be the glue that keeps the companies together.

If you watch a Dragon Gate show, you see a match and you think, Wow, these guys are crazy athletic. Then two and a half hours later you don’t want to still be thinking, These guys are … crazy athletic. You have to have someone you can identify with. The wrestling nerds, and I’m one, we pick up on little things and appreciate them, but who are they going to connect with? I’m familiar because I’ve been around. You Google Punk or Cesaro or Bryan and matches with me come up. And now when people see guys who they’re maybe not familiar with, they can establish a connection with them based on their interaction with me.

On whether WWE prefers homegrown talent to hiring wrestlers with indie buzz:

I don’t think they give a shit about buzz. They only care about their own buzz, which makes sense. You can’t solely cater to the niche fan base — it’s a tricky demographic to deal with. But you can see somebody get over with those fans and think maybe they can do it in WWE, too. And they see someone who has the passion to chase the dream, traveling around the world. If you have passion, if you’re a good performer, those are two of the most important things in wrestling, and they’re things you can’t manufacture. Some people are naturals. Take Big E Langston; he has such a perfect match of athleticism and charisma, and he looks like an action figure.

On being released by WWE:

I’d been employed for 21 months. They knew what I was. They had a certain perception of what I brought to the table, and I guess they thought I wasn’t going to be called up anytime soon. They had a pecking order, and certain guys who were going to be the next ones called up, and I wasn’t in that group. It was a little vague, but I was told, “This isn’t good-bye forever; this is good-bye for now.”

Getting fired sucks for anybody, even if it’s a job you hate. So the gut instinct is to be mad, but none of that will serve me. None of that will put any money in my bank account. It’s not hard to be positive because I do what I love. When I was 8 or 9 years old my mom would take me to Hara Arena in Dayton, Ohio, to see Ultimate Warrior versus Andre the Giant or to watch Demolition versus the Rockers or to see the very first Survivor Series in Richfield. It would be completely different if I landed on my head and got injured so I couldn’t wrestle anymore — that would be hard to deal with. But what was taken from me? A weekly paycheck?

On what advice he’d give a young indie wrestler about going to WWE:

It has to be what you really want. If you judge your career based on whether you go to WWE, that’s not a good perspective. It’s like trying to be a successful guy so you’ll get a trophy wife. Then what if the trophy wife sucks? Being a WWE superstar won’t solve everything in your life. And if you sign that contract, there are still so many hurdles before you’re in the main event with John Cena.

On his fellow developmental wrestlers:

The guys in NXT now — Sami Zayn, Adrian Neville, Tyler Breeze, Scott Dawson — when they get called up, they could set the world on fire just like Daniel Bryan did. But Bryan did more than that — he set the locker room on fire. He was in the ring in the main event every week with so much intensity that everybody else realized they had to step things up. Randy Orton, for instance. He looks like he’s wrestling with a new inspiration, and he doesn’t need to do that.

On what he learned during his time working with the trainers and show producers in WWE:

I’ve got my own internal producer now. If the fans like the match, the promoter’s happy. There are a lot of ways to put on a good match. Wrestling is art, and art is subjective, but if more people like a match than don’t like it, that’s a good match. I have the opportunity now to mature, to watch the matches and see what the fans are liking. You never really know until you do it, because a lot of wrestling is trial and error, and you learn from that — either you’re doing your art for yourself or you’re doing it for other people. I’m on a quest to always have the best match on the card.

Also, because I’m such a wrestling nerd, I can think myself out of a match. That’s not good. It might be good for the guys watching the monitor in the back, but if it’s not good for the fans, I’ve done a bad job. So I’ve learned to base things on what is going to get the best reaction out of the most amount of people. I did some things in the Dragon Gate match that won’t work when I wrestle in CZW [Combat Zone Wrestling].

Wrestling is a game with the crowd. There are two forces — one wants to give the fans what they want and the other one wants to take it away. It’s the heel cutting off the babyface. And then you give them what they want and if you do it right, it’s better than they even imagined, and then it’s over.

A funny thing happened on Raw this Monday. CM Punk opened the show, and even though he and Bryan won’t be in the main event at the upcoming Tables, Ladders & Chairs pay-per-view (there are still a lot of hurdles before you’re back in the ring with Cena, after all), it sure felt like WWE was giving them as much screen time as it could. It was as if the company realized the show was missing a spark and that these indie guys were the biggest sparks it has had in years. And Chris Hero, a month removed from being Kassius Ohno, a guy with neon-green tights and a flashy page on the WWE website, a guy this close to being a full-fledged WWE superstar, is busy reinventing himself. His time in WWE made him indie wrestling’s biggest star without his even making it onto an episode of Raw. In some ways, getting released was the best thing that could have happened for him. Just like Bryan’s reputation grew from being unfairly dismissed, and just like Punk became a megastar because he felt undervalued, Hero immediately became an indie icon by being unwanted in WWE.

I saw Hero wrestle at a Dragon Gate show a couple of weeks ago. After the match — which he lost to DGUSA champ Johnny Gargano — he cut a promo in the ring asking fans to join him on his strange odyssey back into the world of indie wrestling. It’s an interesting request that underscores a pro wrestling story line that exists outside the ring and beyond the script. Indie wrestlers are the industry’s underdogs; they’re the beaten-down Ricky Mortons of the Reality Era story line. WWE could use a Chris Hero or two, but perversely, the drama in seeing him leave the company, just like Bryan and Punk before him, is almost worth the real-life disappointment.

Reality cuts both ways — in getting fired, Chris Hero became an indie luminary and a mainstream also-ran. He might make it back to WWE someday like Bryan did. He might enjoy a long reign as champ like Punk did. And he might be just another indie wrestler who never quite got famous.

Filed Under: Sports, Wrestling, WWE

David Shoemaker , also known as “The Masked Man,” is the author of the The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan