***Warning! This article courtesy of JimCornette.com may contain language not suitable for all ages.***
In 1980, legendary pro wrestler Sputnik Monroe was brought into the Tennessee wrestling territory, where he had set box office records 20+ years before, this time to serve as a manager. Sputnik remarked to then-rookie Jimmy Hart, “Kid, here’s where age and experience overcome youth and exuberance!”
Six weeks later, Sputnik was gone, and Jimmy Hart went on to become one of the greatest managers of all time, proving two things at once–no matter how big the “star”, fans always want something new, and if you don’t give the young talent a chance at the top, you’ll never know whether they could have succeeded or not.
Professional wrestling today, as a whole, does the worst job of finding, developing and promoting new young stars of any sport in the world. In many cases the glass ceiling the newcomers are expected to break through is made of lead. And I, for one, am damn sick and tired of it. I don’t mean to turn this into a propaganda piece for Ring of Honor, but since it’s the only company I have direct influence on, and I feel this way, it would be pretty stupid of me to write this column if ROH was making the same mistakes as everyone else. So, let’s look at the facts, shall we?
In my experience working on the creative team in WWE, as an agent/match producer for TNA, and as the booker/talent co-ordinator for Ohio Valley Wrestling, the only successful developmental program the WWE has ever had, I can testify the problems are myriad, and this column will only scratch the surface.
Finding new talent? The important figures in the major promotions seldom watch other wrestling or have contact with independent wrestlers and promoters–that job is left to lower level office employees lacking the pull needed to draw a greasy string out of a cat’s bum. In OVW, Danny Davis and I conducted tryout camps to find the best independent wrestlers or qualified prospects, young men (and women) that had the love of the sport and the desire necessary to be a success in it, while the WWE’s John Laurinitis searched bodybuilding contests and lingerie catalogs searching for people with the “look” that anyone named McMahon would like, then tried to talk them INTO being wrestlers, with no regard for the individuals’ respect FOR or dedication TO wrestling, or sometimes even their desire to be in it. That resulted in a lot of people who wanted to be movie stars, “reality TV” celebrities or “entertainers” instead of great pro wrestlers getting spots aspiring grapplers should have been given. It’s a lot easier to get a break if you have a famous father or name in the sport, but for every home run (Randy Orton), there’s a strikeout (Tiger Ali Singh).
The WWE under Jim Ross had the only successful developmental program in the industry, but under Laurinitis and Hunter Hearst Helmsley-McMahon, it’s been decimated, reduced to a storage closet in Tampa, Florida named FCW, where every new signee regardless of their level of talent or experience is sent to be “retrained” the WWE way. This has generally resulted in the talent having all their passion for wrestling being beaten out of them, being mentally broken by being told all the things that made them stand out in the first place are bad, and being given ridiculous names that they’re ashamed to carry around. The bland presentation and lack of knowledge of how to run a regional territory promotion, or lack of permission to do same, makes for small, dead crowds for FCW, a sameness to all the athletes, and no ability for the talent to be presented as, and gain experience from, being “stars” in their own environment.
FCW has been distinguished only for having more DUI cases per capita than any promotion in history, a result of having a group of 20-something pro athletes in a party atmosphere like Florida, most of them depressed about their professional status or prospects, with too much time on their hands and no proper leadership or structure. The few who make the main roster, generally because they have the right “look”, then encounter their own set of problems. Most are forced to play political games which sees them further disenchanted–dozens of top prospects from 2000-2005 who would have been today’s stars have quit the sport entirely–and all hear the main event “stars” say “What do they know, they’ve never drawn any money?”
In TNA, the same results have been gained through almost opposite methods. For years, TNA’s younger talents have been the workhorses, the ones that provided action on the cards–think AJ Styles, Bobby Roode, James Storm, Alex Shelley, Chris Sabin and more–some of whom are still there, many more of whom have quit in frustration (The Young Bucks) or, even more incredibly, been let go (Jay Lethal) to make room for future superstars like Garrett Bischoff. TNA was for years seen as the over-the-hill gang, a seniors tour with Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Sting, even my old friend Ric Flair bought up at big prices because of their names, along with ex-WWE’ers like the Hardys, Rob Van Dam, ad nauseum, many of whom had their various issues and all of whom WWE would have never let go if they were still valuable or trustworthy enough to carry a promotion on a regular basis. While these folks were, and still are, paid vast sums to work part time, the young lions were kept in cages at the bottom of the cards doing all the work for vastly less pay.
Only in the last year or so, after Hogan and Eric Bischoff’s disastrous takeover of the company resulted in a massive spending spree for geriatric and used-up talent and cronies and ratings plummeted concurrently has there been a real effort to push the youngsters, but that horse has long since left the barn as 6 straight years of Vince Russo’s booking has left TNA pretty much incapable of washing the bad taste out of fans’ mouths to become a truly successful enterprise. Even when I was there in 2006-2009, I would hear the “veterans” constantly remark about the youngsters, guess what? “What do they know, they’ve never drawn any money?” How in the bloody cabbage CAN they ever draw money if they’re not given a chance, or they are undermined by the worst creative mind in the sports’ history?
What if the same had been said about Jerry Lawler when he first main evented Memphis at 24? Or Ric Flair, when he was given the ball in the Carolinas at 25? Or, for Gotch’s sake, Lou Thesz when he first won the World Title at 21? I’m the last person to discount the value of experience and maturity, but who wants to see a PPV main event between two 50+ year olds with artificial body parts?
Give the young guys the ball–some will score, some will fumble, some will gain only a few yards–but sooner or later, all will be better pros because of the opportunity. In Ring of Honor, we are committed to finding and promoting the best young talent in the industry, those who can continue to advance the in-ring style for the future while respecting the traditions of the past, those who are determined, driven, and young enough to perform at a high athletic level today while developing their unique personalities to connect with the fans the way the veterans do and still be in their athletic primes to do both. Most importantly, we look for those who want to be pro wrestlers, not “entertainers”, because as Bill Watts once remarked to his dastardly Russian heel, Nikolai Volkoff, after he dropped a one-liner into his promo to tickle the other wrestlers, “There’s 10,000 comedians out of work, and you’re telling jokes”. If we continue to strive to do that, maybe the future of pro wrestling is brighter than it looks.
by Jim Cornette