It was 2004 or so and my friend, Metal Jeff, had brought over some wrestling tapes from an independent federation called IWA Mid-South. I’d finally gotten sick of wrestling in the immediate post-Attitude Era, post-Invasion, post-ECW years; no mean feat, as pro wrestling was near and dear to my heart since the 1980s golden era of Southern wrestling.
In 2004 WWE was in a state of flux. The Attitude Era stars had faded, moving on to retirement, other ventures, or lingering on in embarrassing fashion to shoehorn faux 1990s edge into a decade where that didn’t play. It was transitioning to John Cena and Randy Orton and Batista, men who had gimmicks that flatly rubbed me the wrong way. I’ll play Cena hipster; I hated him the second I saw him and the thought of suffering through his original rapper gimmick was intolerable to me. Metal Jeff insisted I watch the tapes and DVDs he brought over, telling me that there were great wrestlers busting their asses far away from the stale gasps of WWE of the time.
What I saw was stunning: ultraviolence mixed with top notch ring work. Scintillating promos. Genuine interactions with the audience. Basically, everything that I’d loved about the defunct ECW with smaller crowds and venues. It was a blueprint for the resurgent indies we have today and I fell hard for these men and women busting their asses in Indiana gyms.
Those wrestlers would, mostly, go on to have long careers. CM Punk. Colt Cabana. Jimmy Jacobs. Nate “Spyder” Webb. Chris Hero. Nigel McGuiness. Lacey. Becky Bayless. Sara Del Rey.
I could list more. It was a star studded roll call of indie stars just beginning their careers, all roughly my age cohort: born in the late 70s or early 80s. I would never become a wrestler, but guys like CM Punk reminded me of the people I knew. There was a swirl and color to IWA-MS which nothing else had at the time. These people would, I thought, go on to be stars. That was the big game among indie fans at the time. Who would become the next Flair? The next Austin?
One of those wrestlers is flirting with retirement. On the May 11th RAW, Daniel Bryan said he wasn’t sure if he was going to wrestle ever again. Sure, he put a good face on it, leaving plenty of light for a comeback, and everyone’s trying to be optimistic, but I’m not quite buying it. He’s in bad shape, he’s been in bad shape for a while, and he’ll be the first to tell you that he could walk away tomorrow and be happy.
In the wake of his in-ring announcement, I’ve seen and heard a lot of talk about what his legacy will be, which is fair. But I think it’s not just his legacy that has to be reconsidered but the collective legacy of that entire generation of stars who came up through IWA-MS and Ring of Honor’s early days.
Here’s what I’m not saying: They’re not bad wrestlers. That entire group is made up of some of the greatest technical performers I’ve ever seen. They’ve not wasted their careers or been busts. Most of the promising ones went on to have fruitful careers, either moving onto WWE or carving out niches in the indies.
But as these wrestlers creep toward 40 and their careers begin to wind down, that question of who would be their Flair or Austin has to be answered honestly: nobody. Much as it hurts me to look back at this generation of wrestlers as Bryan looks set to retire, I just don’t see that icon out there. The most talented of them have stopped short of immortality.
CM Punk came closest. The Summer of Punk, which saw the start of his lengthy reign as WWE champion, was great, but it didn’t define anything. It worked within the tight restrictions which WWE enforced. I’m not even sure if there was a single truly memorable match from that period, save maybe the piledriver match with Cena. And, of course, he’s done now, aged 36 and swearing never to return.
Bryan’s best was too short-lived, his Wrestlemania moment kept to a fleeting one night of glory. McGuiness was too devastated by injury to fulfill his potential. Jacobs has opted to take his mastery of storytelling to the writer’s room. Del Rey is a trainer. Samoa Joe languished in a terrible TNA. Chris Hero’s talking about focusing on training others.
Go down the list. There’s no Hogan slamming Andre, no Austin and the beer truck, no Flair-Steamboat, no Dusty doing Hard Times. Instead, it’s a list of folks whose best work and happiest days played out in gyms filled with 200 people at a time. Worthy careers, certainly, but not the stuff of legend wrestling made its name on.
Even Cena and Orton, wholly products of WWE, seem lacking something to put them in the discussion with the greats. They’ve presided over an era without a boom, perhaps the only such period in wrestling history. Rightly or wrongly, one of the marks of a great pro wrestler is how much they can trigger a broader spike in the form’s popularity. Cena, for all his title reigns and the respect from the hardcore fans his current US title run is gaining, will forever be associated with the longest mainstream fallow period in pro wrestling history.
Maybe the real collective legacy of this group is the resurgence of the indies. Without the level of talent you could go see in ROH and IWA-MS, I doubt we’d have CHIKARA or PWG doing as well as they are today, or even NJPW and other Japanese imports making real inroads into the American wrestling consciousness. The indies proved to be perfect for the new internet age, equal parts open and insular, willing to usher people in while also offering a wink and nudge as something secret just for the fans.
It’s not the rebirth of the territories, when wrestling was on every channel and you could see Ric Flair on half of them, but it’s good. As stale as WWE’s gotten—and I think it’s hard to argue that, outside of Wrestlemania season, it’s not—the indies are as vibrant as ever. That’s largely due to a group of wrestlers in the early 2000s proving that small scale, risk taking pro wrestling will always be viable.
Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.