Not all bands want to be as big as U2. Not all actors need to work for Disney. Not all artists need to be in the Museum of Modern Art. Not all wrestlers need to work for the WWE. If wrestling is an art, trust the artist in their journey. They’ll get to exactly where they want to. And while for decades, the WWE always seemed the end game for most professional wrestlers, the recent rise of indie wrestling as a sustainable industry that can pay wrestlers accordingly and allow the talents to create their own schedules, has opened up a healthy alternative option for pro wrestlers rising in the ranks (or who are burned out by the WWE grind) or veterans who have toiled for years. A report by The Wrestling Observer Newsletter early this year stated that the average salary of a worker in NXT was approximately $65,000 USD a year. Now while NXT employees don’t have to pay for travel or road accommodations like their main roster counterparts, that’s approximately $5400 USD a month. A veteran indie wrestler, with the proper gimmick, could make close to that (or in many cases, much more), with a much larger profit margin on merch – they would make more of having a ProWrestlingTees store than they would merch percentage in the WWE in most cases.
It’s with that mentality of choosing creative freedom to sink or swim on your own creation, with a comfortable life style, doing what you love to do with your friends, that has lead to Bullet Club member Adam “Hangman” Page allegedly turning to the WWE for a deal, presumably for NXT. Page is sitting in the driver’s seat – or at least in the same car as the other Bullet Club Elite members about to become free agents – in that they are a commodity stronger as a package deal. Page is probably making more on merch than an NXT deal would pay him. But that kind of play in the indie world only strengthens the desire to stay in promotions outside of the WWE Universe and help them grow to more competitive levels. While it’s unlikely any promotion will ever get to be WCW level of opposition for the mainstream buck, there’s a good chance that a good chunk of them can achieve greater success than ECW (financially speaking). And stars turning down calls from Connecticut is becoming a healthy reality. He even poked fun of the turndown on the newest edition of Being The Elite (around the 11 minute mark) when Page receives a package from “a mark” named H, who gifts Page a new set of boots. Enclosed is a note that says “If you want to be an assassin, be more cerebral.”
In 2016, half of the field of 32 competitors of the Cruiserweight Classic ended up stocking the WWE’s new Cruiserweight division, but there were two that turned down offers from the WWE to remain where the were – NJPW star Kota Ibushi and UK star Zack Sabre Jr. For years, the other members of The Elite, Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks, have either turned down WWE offers or not even called to negotiate. In 2015, Bad Luck Fale claims he was offered a WWE contract as Bullet Club’s momentum was gaining, but he chose to remain loyal to New Japan. Joey Ryan recently mentioned on Twitter that the WWE “couldn’t afford him”, which is probably true. As one of the most popular characters on the indie circuit, Ryan is one of the merch leaders and is clearly making substantially more than the NXT pay cut. And considering that his gimmick is a man with the most powerful penis in the world, it’s nearly 100% probably that the WWE would neuter that gimmick (no pun intended). In a recent video interview with Chris Van Vliet, Joey Ryan discussed the odd stigma of “failure” that some indie wrestlers get for not heading to the WWE. “It’s weird because pretty much in every business, the goal and the dream is to be your own boss, set your own schedule, be successful on your own terms. In wrestling, a lot of wrestling fans want you to give all that up and sign your future to someone else’s hands and have a boss and have a schedule that you’re required to keep,” Ryan told Van Vliet. “So it’s kind of weird that in just about any other business, the dream is to do what I’m doing now but in wrestling everyone thinks you’re not successful until you have a boss which is kind of bizarre. But that’s the way it is and I’m pretty confident and really enjoy what I’m doing.”
Older stars are doing it as well. Last year when the WWE was prepping its brand split, they offered Tommy Dreamer a chance to come back full time. But Dreamer declined, opting to remain an indie soldier and maintain his own promotion, House of Hardcore. PCO is more relevant now than he was at any point of his career – including his three runs as WWF World Tag Team Champion – and he recently admitted he’s made more money so far in 2018 than he did in any one year he worked for either WWF or WCW. Chris Jericho has gone from a being a “WWE only” loyalist to someone who has now worked for NJPW, appeared at All In, and is rumored to appear at IMPACT’s Bound For Glory at the end of this month.
Some of the leaders of the indie boom are also rejecting WWE spurns as well. Will Ospreay, one of the most gifted and athletic wrestlers not named Ricochet, was offered a contract with EVOLVE in 2016, shortly before he signed with Ring of Honor. It was expected it was more of a preparatory deal before he was sent to NXT. But Ospreay rejected it. Earlier this year, WWE came straight to the man himself, but as Ospreay explained on a recent episode of Talk is Jericho, he had no desire to even consider it. “As a kid you’d always want your WrestleMania, you always wanted to be like yourself (Jericho), John Cena or any of those guys,” Ospreay told Chris Jericho. “It’s always been in the back of my mind but as I’ve come here (NJPW) I’ve grown up more. I had a phone call the other day actually asking about my contacts and stuff like that. I appreciate it but I’m happy here and I love being a part of Japan.”
The UK indie scene’s tag team may eventually lose Moustache Mountain (Trent Seven & Tyler Bate) and Grizzled Young Vets (Zack Gibson & James Drake) sooner than later, but for now, CCK seem to be safe. The charismatic Chris Brookes turned down a WWE deal to be a part of the NXT UK brand earlier this year, choosing to remain autonomous in his dealings with the UK indies – and that includes WWE no-fly zones like Revolution Pro (RevPro). Alongside Kid Lykos, Brookes is the current Fight Club: PRO Tag Team Champion, and the duo are 3x PROGRESS Tag Team Champions, 4x ATTACK! Tag Team Champions, and tag champs with HOPE and Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW). CCK’s third member, Travis Banks, however, won’t be able to compete with Brookes to regain their RevPro British Tag Team titles back.
One of the most popular units in the non-WWE Universe is the Lucha Brothers, consisting of two incredibly talented brothers who are equally successful individually as they are as a tag team. Pentagon Jr. (also known as Penta El 0M) is a former IMPACT World Champion, Lucha Underground Champion, 2x PCW ULTRA Heavyweight Champion and more, while Fenix is the reigning AAA Mega Champion. As rumors of WWE courting the duo began to hit fevered pitches, Major League Wrestling (MLW) broke the tension with a chainsaw, announcing they had signed the pair through 2019.
Arguably one of the biggest stars in wrestling right now is Austria’s WALTER, a juggernaut of a brute who has brawled his way into the fevered hearts of fans around the world. Reportedly, WWE offered him a contract earlier this year (around the same time as Keith Lee), but he turned it down. In a recent interview with the Daily Mirror in the UK, WALTER stated “being a part of the Raw or SmackDown roster is nothing I am interested in. I don’t want to live in the US,” he told the Mirror. “I really like NXT though, I think it’s a great product, filled with the best talent in the world and is focused on competition in the ring, which is something I enjoy. I don’t want to say it will never happen because in wrestling things change so quick.” Those last words are interesting, considering there’s been reports WWE has re-approached the reigning PROGRESS and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG) World Champion with an offer to join the NXT UK brand, which would still give WALTER the ability to work his home promotion, Westside Xtreme Wrestling (wXw), in Germany, as well as the UK indies he’s a regular feature with, like PROGRESS and Ireland’s Over The Top (OTT) Wrestling.
With more and more promotions working together, from the IWGP Inception (NJPW, ROH, Mexico’s CMLL and RevPro) to the IMPACT Alliance (AAA, Lucha Underground, and multiple indies) to Game Changer Wrestling‘s Collective, the indie circuit and alternative options like NJPW are becoming the new territories. Regional indies are grooming local stars, who then catch on to major regional indies, and beyond, creating a system healthier than it’s been perhaps ever. And during this entire indie explosion, the men and women who are building it are no longer as enamoured to join the WWE Universe as previous generations. For many, they’d rather be All In than part of the Be All.