Around the Loop: Lighting Out for the Territories

Whenever a popular wrestler leaves a company for whatever reason, you can count on a segment of fans to start calling for another company to sign them up. We’ve seen it happen time and again, most recently with Mercedes Mone. It’s happening again with the Japanese wrestling legend, Kota Ibushi.

After his contentious final months with New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ibushi announced his free agency in January, setting the hearts and imaginations of fans around the world on fire. Would he appear in AEW and reform the Golden Lovers tag team with Kenny Omega? Could he make a grand surprise entrance on WWE RAW?

No one had to wait long to find out what Ibushi’s next move would be. Within two minutes of the expiration of Ibushi’s contract with NJPW, Ibushi’s appearances at Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport and Joey Janela’s Spring Break. Ibushi working for GCW, an independent wrestling company, for some of his first post-NJPW gigs? What a beautifully strange set of bookings for Ibushi to take.

Ibushi’s decision to accept the gigs during WrestleMania week with the Collective feels like an old-school move. There was a time when wrestlers moved from regional company to regional company, making towns all over the country. They called it “working the territories.” It was a great time for wrestling fans. Wrestlers you had only heard of in random conversation or seen Bill Apter action photos of in some gas station magazine were suddenly in your area, like hot singles or lonely MILFs.

Guys like Harley Race. Dusty Rhodes. Verne Gagne. The Von Erichs. Superstar Billy Graham. They made their names in the territories, as did legendary performers like Ric Flair. Suddenly, these mythical characters were on your television screen, doing promos for local shows, and beating each other bloody for TV time remaining.

Those glory days are pretty much gone now, and you can blame one company for that.

Under the leadership of Vince McMahon, WWE bought those smaller wrestling companies and folded them into his giant sports entertainment corporation. Even its strongest competitors, like WCW and Extreme Championship Wrestling, were gobbled up and shat out by the unstoppable WWE. The result was the death of the territory system, giving WWE a monopoly on the wrestling business. With few exceptions, WWE became the only game in town. WWE’s stranglehold on the business meant that if a wrestler wanted to become a star, get television exposure and move a ton of merchandise, they had to work for WWE.

For the first time since the final episode of WCW Monday Nitro, that is no longer the case.

“There are always going to be free agents and big names that become available over time in pro wrestling, and I think that’s one of the reasons that the launch of AEW was so exciting,” AEW owner Tony Khan said in a February interview with Uproxx. “That was actually part of my presentation to Warner executives five years ago, was that we would be creating the first truly competitive free agent market in pro wrestling in two decades. I felt like there was a disparity, the choices available to a wrestler, as far as which promotions they’d want to work with.

“And I think now,” Khan continued, “with the rise of AEW, it’s provided better choices and an alternative for the wrestling fans, but also for the pro wrestlers. And historically, particularly in the cable TV era, that free agent market and the excitement around it can generate a lot of buzz for a wrestling company, and sometimes for multiple wrestling companies as wrestlers go back and forth.”

To his credit, Khan hasn’t absorbed his competitors like some kind of alien parasite blob that has no reason for existence except to consume. He purchased Ring of Honor Wrestling for approximately the price of a cup of coffee. Khan’s friendly relationship with NJPW has resulted in multiple guest appearances from Japanese wrestlers on AEW shows Dynamite and Rampage, not to mention the wildly successful joint pay-per-view with NJPW, Forbidden Door.

WWE, more profitable than ever, is on the market. They want to sell as fast as possible. WWE CEO Nick Khan said in a February interview with CNBC that they’re trying to move the company “quick, and I’m not trying to be obtuse in saying that. But I think it’s going to be a pretty fast process, maybe three months.”

The list of WWE’s potential buyers, mostly populated by the rumor mill and the usual List of Likely Suspects, is as long (allegedly) as Dave Bautista’s schlong. Could WWE’s potential new owner — whether it be Comcast, the Saudis, or some other business entity — be savvy enough to know the kind of business someone like Ibushi could drum up? If so, what kind of cash would they offer Ibushi to stand on the middle rope and point at the WrestleMania sign?

Those questions, while valid, reveal an odd bias among some wrestling fans. We expect performers like Ibushi and Mone to make grand appearances on big stages. It kind of feels weird when they don’t. But thanks to social media, a savvy worker can make a splash outside of the big two promotions. Smaller companies like PWG, ROH, NWA, GCW, DEFY, and other promotions I’m not thinking of right now, have their own fan bases. You can find great matches on the internet or on streaming channels. Those outlets are the equivalent of tape trading. Twitter and Reddit are the new magazines with glossy covers and weird anecdotes about wrestlers and their backstage habits. If you’re of the opinion that good wrestling, real wrestling, no longer exists, you’re not looking in the right places.

It feels like we’ve come full circle. WWE is not the only place where a wrestler can become a star. Neither is AEW, to be honest. From the backyards to the bars to the Sunday afternoon VFW halls, the territories are returning, and giving wrestlers more places to hone their craft, lay their shit in and build up audiences can only help the business in general.

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