A wrestling show may take place in front of a dozen fans in a tiny studio, or in front of 75,000 fans in a football stadium, but the one thing that the shows have in common is that they have been heavily influenced by independent wrestling.
For the last two decades, independent wrestling in the United States has shaped the overall wrestling industry, whether as a breeding ground for new moves and experimental styles, or as a training ground for the biggest stars in the world, independent wrestling has been the incubator for professional wrestling in the United States.
Since its humble beginnings in the mid-1990s, modern independent wrestling has evolved over the years to consistently fill a void in the wrestling universe. This three part series will explore how independent wrestling has changed over the years, from increasing fan interest to the influence of social media and the eventual competition from national promotions. We will start by looking at the promotions who started the independent revolution, then look at how life has changed for independent wrestlers, and wrap up by looking at the new-age independent promotions that find themselves competing in an increasingly crowded market.
Mike Quackenbush began his professional wrestling career in the mid 1990s as an untrained teenager working on the smallest of independent shows. Eventually Quackenbush would gain more experience and training to become one of the most notable independent wrestlers by the start of the new millennium.
"In 1998 and 1999 (Reckless Youth and I) might have been two of the most heavily traveling American independent wrestlers out there. What we saw as we traveled was this extraordinary monotony to everything, there were no flavors. Everyone would just try and make vanilla ice cream," Quackenbush said. "The independent shows we performed in Pennsylvania were not substantially different than the shows we worked in Georgia or the shows in Michigan. They were all the same."
In the 1990s, wrestling in the US was dominated by what fans could see on cable television, most notably the WWF and WCW. Covered in the shadows of those major promotions, smaller indie units had to do the best they could with their limited resources. Most shows would be built around one "star" who was someone with some form of name recognition from being on television with either the WWF or WCW, and filled out with unknown names, often teenagers like Quackenbush just looking to catch a break.
For fans seeking an alternative, there was ECW, the rebellious Philadelphia promotion that would shape modern independent wrestling with its aggression and low-budget charm. While it lacked the major cable outlet that WWF and WCW enjoyed, ECW was syndicated in most major markets, giving the Northeast-based promotion a national following.
In 2001, both ECW and WCW would close down. The death of ECW would have a critical role in the development of independent wrestling in the US, as it created a chasm between the tiny independent companies and the industry leader, the WWF. With that company off of the board, smaller promotions rushed to attempt to fill in the void.
"At that time there were a handful of companies that were desperately competing to be named the 'next ECW' by fans. They would run one show in the ECW Arena and re-name it the XPW Arena or whatever," Quackenbush said. "That always seemed like a fool's errand; cover bands don't change the world and if you want to be an ECW cover band, then you are resigning yourself to never having an original thought."
When Quackenbush first began his career, wrestling schools were not as prevalent as they are today, where one can be found in almost every major metropolitan area. During the beginning of his career, Quackenbush had no formal training and the result was he was hurting himself constantly, most memorably fracturing his skull in March 1995.
Today, Quackenbush noted that the atmosphere around professional wrestling, particularly at the entry level, is much more welcoming to new talent and the profession is much safer than it was 25 years ago,
"Wrestling has transformed so much. Drug culture has been largely pushed out and now it is just such a safer outlet to pursue. There was a time when it would not be that unusual to watch somebody do a line of cocaine and then walk to the ring," Quackenbush said. "The idea that you would see that anywhere in wrestling now and it would be acceptable is laughable. No wrestler today who wants to have a successful career would behave like that."
In 2002, Quackenbush and his business partner, Reckless Youth, would start their own independent promotion, CHIKARA. Based in Philadelphia and aligned with Quackenbush's wrestling school, The Wrestle Factory, CHIKARA was an original promotion centered around long-term storylines told in a comic book-style with a plethora of colorful masked characters. Stylistically, the promotion passed on gratuitous blood and high spots that ECW had popularized, instead opting for a more family friendly approach that mixed Lucha Libre with Japanese strong style and traditional, British technical wrestling.
CHIKARA would join a series of other notable independent promotions that formed over that time period, including Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerilla. While none of those companies would be able to quite match the cult success of ECW, the new approach to independent wrestling would prove sustainable for the nearly two decades since. Over that time period, those independent promotions have formed the proving ground for nearly every top name in wrestling today, including Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, Jon Moxley, The Young Bucks, Ricochet, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Ricochet, Kenny Omega and countless others.
As a generation of talent was shaped by working in that kind of environment, the independent style of wrestling would eventually seep into other promotions, including mainstream promotions on cable television. CHIKARA, which particularly utilized a lot of comedy and absurdist angles that almost parodied the traditional storytelling of professional wrestling, would see its creative influence used in other promotions.
"I think in many ways CHIKARA gave permission to a generation of promoters and their creative output, to be wacky. It was inherent in our marketing, it was out-of-the-box sense of humor and the different kinds of characters and storytelling," Quackenbush said. "We used to be more distinct, with what we did, but we have inspired so many promoters that that is no longer the case. When the guy who was tasked with putting together Lucha Underground, he was basically told before he wrote the series to watch CHIKARA and make an R-rated version of that for Lucha Underground. The first time I ever worked at the WWE Performance Center, I walked into the office of the head writer for NXT, in his office he had two shelves of DVDs; one was all WWE DVDs and the second shelf was all CHIKARA DVDs."
Drew Cordeiro is part of a second wave of new independent promoters who came of age during the early rise of those independent promotions. After graduating college, Cordeiro spent time working with Quackenbush and CHIKARA before launching his own promotion, Beyond Wrestling, in 2009.
When Beyond Wrestling first started, the company wanted to mimic other indie promotions such as CHIKARA and Dragon Gate USA, by touring around the country and having shows in major markets. However, that didn't prove feasible for the company and instead adopted a model of running the show out of one venue, first in Providence, RI and later in Worcester, MA.
"In order for independent wrestling to continue to be successful, it needs to be able to dictate the trends," Cordeiro said. "We dictate the trends that eventually end up on mainstream shows. Independent wrestling is about finding what there is a need for and filling that void in the wrestling world."
Make sure to check back next Monday for the part two of the series, looking at how independent wrestling has impacted the lives of wrestlers