My Old Grey Mare She Ain’t What She Used to Be

Added by Laura Brooke

The notion of identity is still a disputed concept in philosophy. Indeed, the idea of ‘identity’ is in the same boat as the idea of ‘concept’ – everyone is sure there are concepts, it’s just that no-one agree exactly what they are. Similarly, it’s intuitive that certain things preserve identity over time – but what exactly constitutes that identity? There is of course, a famous moment in Only Fools and Horses where Trigger states that he’s had the same broom for twenty years, only to then reveal that it’s had 14 new heads and 17 new handles. Is it still the same broom or not? The question of identity is particularly pertinent on the birthdays of two companies: PROGRESS and Ring of Honor, who celebrated their seventh and seventeenth birthdays respectively. Both companies are different beasts from what they were at the start; and not in a good way.

Let’s look at PROGRESS first, as it can be dealt with more quickly. If ever a wrestling promotion has undergone an identity change, its Jim John and Glenn’s ‘little company’. It began as a self-styled punk rock promotion; a desperately needed adult alternative for fans who were turned off by the kid-friendly cartoonish of WWE. It quickly picked up a following, and indeed fans of the promotion quickly labelled themselves as “ultras”, in order to denote their hardcore loyalty to the company (although there are significant differences between the Italian football ultras and the PROGRESS ones; for instance, Genoa Ultras once forced the players to change into their away kit when the side went 4-0 to Siena, as they were disgracing the home shirt. It’s hard to imagine the PROGRESS ‘ultras’ ordering Joseph Connors out of the ring for putting on a bad match). Nontheless: PROGRESS was something different, and was an integral part of the post 2010 Brit-wres boom. 

Fast forward seven years, and PROGRESS is little more than a satellite of the WWE. JJG all have jobs with the company, and PROGRESS works hand in glove with the corporation: shifting shows to midweek to avoid clashing with NXT UK events, as well as acting as general cheerleaders for the WWE in general. Understandably, PROGRESS no longer advertises itself as “punk rock wrestling” anymore; the companies’ official Twitter account describes itself as “alternative” – an anodyne, meaningless predicate if there ever was one – Shed Seven can be described as alternative, and there’s nothing particularly exciting about them.  At the end of the final Sex Pistols concert (well, with the original line-up anyway), Johnny Rotten said “ever feel like you’ve been cheated?” I won’t comment upon the attendant irony here.  

To be fair to PROGRESS, once WWE decided to extend their tentacles into the UK wrestling scene, it could be argued that they didn’t have much of a choice. Bill Watts used to use a metaphor to describe his dealings with Vince Snr that summed it up (although now it’s somewhat politically incorrect): Vince Snr was going to have his way with you whether you liked it or not: but if you co-operated, you might get a bit of foreplay beforehand before you got penetrated. To have to tried to fight against the McMahon machine would have surely resulted in PROGRESS being flattened by the WWE juggernaut. Therefore to co-oparate was JJG’s only sensible option. 

However, it has to be said that the way the company went along with WWE’s wishes with an alacrity that raised a few eyebrows along the way. For in truth – like a majority of wrestling fans one suspects – at heart JJG were WWE marks, and it didn’t take long for those ‘punk rock principles’ to become quickly compromised. Ironically, Smallman attained more “fame” (for lack of a better word) as the owner of PROGRESS than he ever did as a comedian: could we really expect him to give that up? Is it really fair to expect Glen to go back to being Buddy? Is it really fair to expect John to…do whatever it was he did before PROGRESS? [He was a talent agent – Ed] Probably not. But then there’s surely no point in pretending that PROGRESS is the same company that it was even three years ago.

Turning to ROH. The recent show in Madison Square Garden should have been a high point in the companies’ history. Who would have thought that a company that started out running in front of 400 people at the Murphy Rec centre would end up running a card in Vince’s personal fiefdom? And yet, from a creative point of view, the show was a disaster – well, the ROH portion that is. More recent fans of wrestling would surely be staggered to learn that in its early years, ROH was the cutting edge wrestling promotion in the U.S: putting on a Japanese-style product at a time when both WWE and TNA were still trying to flog some life into the by that point dead horse that was the Attitude era. By contrast, the MSG show featured the former Bubba-Ray Dudley, the Beautiful People, and a run-in from Enzo and Cass.

What went wrong? It’s a long story, and one that deserves a column to itself. But briefly: Sinclair buying ROH in 2011 undoubtedly saved the company from going out of business, but it did so at a (figurative) price. Cornette’s booking quickly saw the promotion gain the well-deserved appellation of Smokey Mountain of Honor. (It’s ironic that in his various interviews about his time with the promotion, Cornette insisted that “the booking was as good as it ever was”, given that long-time fans may struggle to recall a previous time in the company’s history where the tag titles changed hands by one team using an ether-soaked rag.) However, when Cornette was given the boot in late 2012, Delirious’ sole booking of the company proved to be, if anything, slightly worse than that of his predecessor. It’s always been a mystery how Delirious got the job in the first place: by all accounts it came down to the fact he was always polite to Cary Silkin whenever the latter came round to the ROH wrestling school. By 2013 ROH’s reputation was at rock-bottom, due to it’s unexciting product combined with several iPPV fiascos.

What picked the promotion up off the floor was a partnership with New Japan, which was just starting to kick into top gear again after a fairly indifferent start to the 2000s. However, ROH ended up becoming completely parasitic on New Japan for any kind of buzz; shows which didn’t feature any NJPW took on the air of B-shows. Key talent left through being indifferently booked: ACH and Cedric Alexander being two prime examples. The ROH title, which in the 2000s was a (relatively) big deal, had lost much of its shine, with lengthily reigns by Jay Lethal and Jay Briscoe, not to mention the farcical circumstances in which Michael Elgin was stripped of the belt, diminishing the title’s lustre (In fairness, even before then the belt had lost its lustre. But the likes of Jay Lethal wearing his “heel-fedora” for the best part of a year certainly didn’t help). A promotion which once prided itself on athleticism welcomed the Beer City Bruiser as a regular roster. And finally, at a time when women’s wrestling is flourishing, the ageing Sumi Sakai has been the spearhead of the ROH women’s division.

What ties both ROH and PROGRESS together at the moment is that the independence of both has been vastly compromised, on the basis that both are now reliant on a larger entity: PROGRESS is hamstrung by the fact it’s owners need an income from the WWE, while ROH relies on NJPW for any sort of buzz whatsoever surrounding the product. The trade-off is that neither company’s bottom line should be particularly affected by bad booking. As long ROH have Sinclair behind them, money isn’t an issue, while PROGRESS are still drawing well, even if shows don’t consistently sell out like they used to. (There’s something to Meltzer’s assertion that booking doesn’t matter anymore, but that’s another argument for another day). In each case, to describe either ROH or PROGRESS as an independent promotion is tax the conventional meaning of the world ‘independent.’

As a friend of mine pointed out to me, what’s sad about the decline of PROGRESS isn’t so much the punk-rock thing, which was arguably a massive work in the first place: it’s the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much point to the company anymore. The whole ethos of PROGRESS was that it was a promotion that cultivated British-based talent: but their recent attempts to build up guys as top-liners to replace the likes of Scurll/Ospreay/Sabre etc have largely been failures: the less said about Jack Sexsmith’s push the better, while a stable featuring Chuck Mambo and William Eaver is never going to amount to much. The whole reason the company still seems to be in existence is that the founders are in denial that the majority of their energy these days is focused on NXT UK.

As for ROH, any potential renaissance needs to begin with Delirious’ sacking. Ten years is a long time to be booker for any promotion, even if you were a great creative mid to start with – which Johnno never was. The question is, who replaces him? From what I gather, Blubber-Ray and Joey Matthews have their finger deep into the ROH creative pie, which can’t be a good thing.

Then again, it could be argued that what has happened to ROH and PROGRESS is a symptom of a vaster issue; the black hole at the centre of the wrestling universe that is the WWE. The metaphor is deliberate: black holes of course, exert a near inescapable gravitational pull. WWE for the past two years has been signing indie wrestlers like they’re going out of fashion – I believe “warehousing” is the phrase. Like an ocean that has been overfished, the indies have become depleted of talent without time to replenish the stocks. Companies like PROGRESS and Evolve decided that if you couldn’t beat ‘em, join em – and you can’t necessarily blame them for this, but the state of both at the moment is nothing to shout about, even if the owners of those companies are better off. (It must be irritating for fans to Gabe posting pictures of himself at Royal Rumble like a massive mark, while fans struggle to navigate WWN’s incomprehensible website)

In 2019 both ROH and PROGRESS bear the same names that they started out with. But the companies which they designate have changed vastly: and not necessarily for the better.