Picture Credit: Ray Urner of Dakota Maverick Photos with thanks to ECCW
People have ask me about the origins of independent wrestling and the history behind them. It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the start of independent wrestling as it is the very back-bone of professional wrestling and is as old as the sport. For many years independent promoters and wrestlers were simply called “outlaws.” Usually they were the promoters and wrestlers who were working opposition to the established promoter in a territory. Often these promoters and wrestlers were working against a larger group like the National Wrestling Alliance and promoting an event in a region where the established group felt like they held an ownership over that area or the rights to book their chosen talent to.
More often than not the routine would go as follows, the outlaw promoter would move into town book a group of disgruntled or disenfranchised wrestlers. Makes some waves by promoting a local town that a promoter with the NWA felt they owned. The National Wrestling Alliance would then send in wrestlers or bookers from around the country to load up the cards of the local NWA promoter and support them as much as possible, even resorting to dirty or illegal tactics to battle them for ownership of the territory until one promoter was left standing. In some cases these battles could become highly political with members of the NWA taking opposing sides or even the NWA at times taking the side of non-NWA members. Some of these non-members would later become card carrying, dues paying members of the National Wrestling Alliance after all was said and done.
A few of the famous “outlaw” promotions were former Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox owner Eddie Einhorn’s International Wrestling Alliance. His attempt to run a national promotion years before Vincent Kennedy McMahonchose to make his move. Then there was Ann Gunkel’spromotion she inherited from her deceased husband and member of the National Wrestling Alliance Ray Gunkel. She became an “outlaw” when the NWA turned on her by booting her out of her husband’s company which started one of wrestling dirtiest wrestling wars in recent history. “Macho Man” Randy Savage’s father Angelo Poffo ran opposition to Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler for years throughout the Memphis territory which sparked some crazy stories in and out of the ring. And in the Pacific Northwest former office assistant and promoter Dean Silverstone was called an “outlaw” when he landed his own television contract and started promoting in the state of Washington when Don Owen and Sandor Kovacs allowed it to go dark. They felt they had ownership over the state despite no longer promoting events on a regular basis in towns that for decades had hosted weekly cards.
When national promotions such as World Wrestling Federation and Jim Crockett Promotions started their attempts to control the wrestling world. Less established promoters began popping up, some of whom at times had worked with or were even employed by established promotions. One of the early promoters to do this was Angelo Savoldi with his International Championship Wrestling company. For many years the Savoldi family were a local promoters for Vince McMahon Seniors Capitol Sports and handled programs throughout the states of Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire. However when McMahon’s son started expanding his company pulled out of many small towns and arenas leaving an opening for promoters like the Savoldi’s. More regional territories started going by the wayside leaving a lot of wrestlers and promoters without jobs and hundreds of buildings across the world that were accustomed to hosting a regular schedule of wrestling events to go empty.
The independent wrestling scene as we know it now could be compared to independent promotions that rose up and became prolific during the mid-1980s. Many of the independent wrestlers that broke in during Angelo Savoldi’s ICW or what it was called later, IWCCW went on to compete for Joel Goodhart’s Tri-State Wrestling Alliance, then in turn went on to wrestle for Tod Gordon’s Eastern Championship Wrestling which Paul Heyman transformed into Extreme Championship Wrestling.
Jerry Jarrett promoted for decades with matches every Monday at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis Tennessee and at times a dozen events each week or more throughout his territory. At one time Jarrett was considered an “outlaw” himself breaking away from the established NWA promoters Nick Gulasand Roy Welch who controlled much of the south. Jarrett along with his partner Jerry Lawler quickly overtook Gulas to became the most popular promotion and went on to not only to steal the territory but his National Wrestling Alliance membership as well! After leaving the NWA and the emergence of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation Jerry began beingclassified by fans as an independent promoter despite running a full time promotion that presented cards five nights a week or more to go along with his live Saturday morning television time slot.
In 1991 when Jim Cornette quit Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling he left with the intentions of opening up his own territory. He called it Smokey Mountain Wrestling with its base of operations coming out of Knoxville Tennessee and promoting events across Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. SMW may not have been promoting cards five nights a week but they did provide a regular schedule of events usually three to four nights a week and offered most of their crew full time employment.
Across the world you would have promoters and wrestlers looking for opportunities that were not part of the established promotion. In Japan Antonio Inoki’s New Japan Pro Wrestling along with Giant Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling were the established promotions with nationwide television contracts. Major stars like Akira Maeda, Atsushi Onita, Nobuhiko Takada and Genichiro Tenryu would branch out from their former employers and start their own companies. At times these were called independents despite some of the companies running full time rosters and bringing in huge sums of revenue.
In the United Kingdom you had Joint Promotions which ran dozens and dozens of cards a week, had national television drawing huge ratings that featured household names. Yet there were promoters that ran independently of Joint promotions and some like Brian Dixon who ran All Star Wrestling were successful and operated a full time schedules promoting dozens of cards a month, yet to some they were still considered independent promotions. Many wrestlers would work for whomever was willing to book them or who would pay them the highest wage or offer the most work.
Over the past few decades wrestlers from around the world have been able to take the fame that they built off of the exposure they got on national television and turn that into very successful and lucrative careers on the independent market. Some of these wrestlers will tell you that coming fresh off of mainstream television programs like Monday Night Raw they can make a better income at least for a period of time booking themselves to independent promoters than they were able to make working for WWE. There are some wrestlers like Terry Funk or Abdullah the Butcher who have enjoyed very long careers booking themselves independently even though both at times would flirt with national promotions to keep their respective names viable. Other veterans of the independent wrestling scene like Honkytonk Man have been able to take the exposure he got from wrestling on shows that attracted huge television ratings such as Saturday Night’s Main Event and have turn that into a very profitable part time job 25 years later taking bookings and selling their merchandise across the world!
We can also look at the example of someone like Sabu who built his name on the independent scene years before anyone heard of internet darlings like CM Punk, Bryan Danielson or the Young Bucks. Sabu who may have been the internet’s first “darling” was so unique as a wrestler that he became an attraction during the 1990’s that lead to him getting booked all across the globe leaving a sea of broken tables along the way. He was so exciting that his popularity grew through word of mouth and tapes being traded among wrestling fans from the exposure he gained with the increased popularity of wrestling newsletters and a very primitive internet. It was off of Sabu’s initial popularity that allowed Eastern Championship Wrestlingto grow from a very small independent promotion drawing a few hundred fans to the nationally known Extreme Championship Wrestling brand that was capable of attracting thousands of fans to their events and still marketed to this day.
The independent spirit of Sabu and ECW influenced the growth of today’s modern independent promotions like Ring of Honor and other groups like Pro Wrestling Guerilla and EVOLVE. It can be argued whether a promotion like Ring of Honor who has a nationwide television outlet and runs consistent yet not full time events should be labeled an independent promotion or not?If Ring of Honor is an independent promotion with wrestlers under contract do we also call Total Nonstop Action an independent as well? While at times they have a larger television audience they are not capable of attracting the same number of paying customers. I don’t have an answer for these questions but can offer something that may help clear up these discussions.
Clarifying what constitutes an independent wrestler or independent promotion has changed over the years. Virtually every single wrestler in the world is an independent wrestler, regardless of whether they have a contract or not. They are still classified as an “independent contractor” with very little to zero job security. Having a contract does not secure their future employment as a promoter can chose to terminate the contract anytime they desire. As a professional wrestler you are solely responsible for your ability to make money in this industry, no one else. If you don’t like how you are being used you have the ability to go and ply your trade with another company. Promoters are rightfully looking out for their bottom line and as a professional wrestler you should be doing the same. We’ve seen a growth in the ability of the independent wrestler to take control of their careers and build their brand to sustain a living. Great examples of this is guys like Matt and Nick Jackson the Young Bucks, Colt Cabana and AJ Styles. These men have carved out a niche for themselves and has opened the eyes of many young wrestlers showing them that they do not have to rely on a national promotion to make a good living as a professional wrestling.
Independent wrestlers and promoters is more of a spirit than anything. Very much in tune with the DIY culture, the Do It Yourself lifestyle. It’s a spirit of doing something on your own, building a business of your own and creating something that has no restrictions. Whether that takes you to an international company like New Japan Pro Wrestling or a world-wide company like World Wrestling Entertainment. Or you continue taking booking to wrestle in front of 500 people at a community center you can maintain the spirit of DIY. Even when you takethe paychecks from larger companies the lifestyle of an independent minded person should not change. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper once gave me a great piece of advice. As a wrestler you should think of yourself as Real Estate, what he meant by that is you are responsible for maintaining and improving the value of your property, your property being yourself. No one else is going to come to your house and make repairs and improvements unless you take the effort to do so.
If you are a wrestler or promoter and take anything away from this piece besides a brief history lesson it’s that everyone that steps into the world of professional wrestling should carry the independent spirit with them. Some will chose to build upon it and succeed, other will not but at the end of the day professional wrestling the independent wrestler’s world.
Check out my weekly podcast on MLWRadio.com indyriffic. Each week we have a guest from the world of independent wrestling in hopes of spreading the word.