It’s a Saturday night in Rahway, New Jersey and there’s a wrestling show at the Rec Center. That is not unique, of course, but tonight’s main event is. These days, many matches are advertised as dream matches: matchups between two performers who you always loved but who never worked in the same promotion at the same time. But tonight, you’ll see something more than a dream match; you’ll see a match you couldn’t have ever dreamed would happen. One of the men responsible for kickstarting the so-called workrate indies, Low-Ki, across the ring from one of the men who brought lucha libre to the United States mainstream and turned himself into a megastar, Rey Mysterio. Hell, you might have never even realized you wanted to see this match. But Low-Ki versus Rey Mysterio is the perfect distillation of the current era of professional wrestling, an era in which WWE has never been less necessary.
First Time Ever Dream Match, Rey Mysterio Jr. vs Low Ki, just 5 weeks away!! 11/14 Rahway, NJ pic.twitter.com/o5wIDqRLOq
— JAPW Wrestling (@japwrestling) October 10, 2015
Local indies have long brought in former WWE stars to try to pop a house. I remember going to the state fair as a kid just so I could see Demolition in action. It was a hot summer day in rural southwestern Virginia and Demolition’s face paint was already sliding down their faces as I hung over the railing trying with all my might to just touch their hands on their way to the ring. I had their action figures at home and couldn’t believe they were right in front of my eyes. Undoubtedly, Demolition was well past their prime by the time they headlined the Virginia State Fair. To the extent they were ever good workers, time and/or circumstance had chiseled away their ability. But they were larger than life superstars to me, in the real world sense of the word, and that was enough to spend my allowance to make sure I was there to see them.
Plenty of promotions still use similar tactics and book performers not for their work but instead in reliance on the nostalgia factor. Their hope is that people will see a wrestler’s face on the poster and buy a ticket because there was a time in their life when watching him on television made them happy. The wrestlers don’t have much choice in the matter. WWE doesn’t call them anymore. The lives these guys lead were well illustrated in films like Beyond the Mat and The Wrestler. They are going to wring every possible dollar out of their time at the top of the business and local promoters are more than happy to ride those coattails to whatever profit is available.
But the rise of tape trading and, eventually, the internet led to a different gimmick that local promoters could use to a draw a house. This rise led wrestling fans to consume wrestling from all over the globe and at every level of the business. As a result, their tastes began to change. Wrestling fans cared less about size or strength or superhero personas, the kinds of things they had been fed by every major wrestling promotion on earth to that point, and began to value the quality of the work inside the ring above nearly everything else. They wanted to see more athletic wrestlers having more exciting matches at faster speeds. Promotions sprang up that were built around this idea. Many of the wrestlers at the center of this movement would later be hired by WCW and WWE as they tried to capitalize on the trend and compete with each other. Promoters eventually figured out that they could take two of the wrestlers who came up in that era but, for whatever reason, never worked a match together, and there would be more than enough interest to make a buck.
Before the style became truly en vogue, Rey Mysterio showed up in WCW. He was among several Mexican luchadors that were brought in to hook the fans in WCW Monday Nitro’s first hour.
Nearly by accident, Mysterio really caught on with the crowd but, as was usual, WCW had little idea how to maximize Mysterio’s value and never catapulted him to his potential ceiling. Much of the inability to properly push Mysterio was due to his size. Old school style wrestling promoters could not see the generously listed 5’6” high flyer as a legitimate drawing star. Not only did WCW fail to position Rey as a draw, they unmasked him in 1999, taking away one of the things that made him so valuable, particularly among children.
When WCW closed down in 2001, WWE did not even immediately bring in Rey. It would be 2002 before Rey debuted in WWE. But, again, he caught fire with the fans. By 2006, Mysterio was the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, though it was an undistinguished reign.
Despite the fact that neither company really got behind him, Rey became an absolute megastar, who sold tons of merchandise, especially masks. But starting around 2011, Rey’s body started breaking down. From 2011 to 2015, Rey’s runs were continually cut short by various injuries. In a controversial split, Rey left WWE in 2015 and has worked primarily in AAA ever since.
In 2001, when Rey was wrestling in Mexico while waiting for WWE to call, it seemed like Low-Ki might be on a similar path to the big leagues. Low-Ki started wrestling in 1998 and by 2000, he was doing enhancement matches on WWF C-shows.
But in 2001, Low-Ki appeared well on his way to becoming a star. In March of that year, WCW had closed its doors. In October, a small company put on a tournament that is often credited with kickstarting the phenomenon of the workrate indie promotion. That tournament, All Pro Wrestling’s King of the Indies, culminated in a final match between Low-Ki and Bryan Danielson. Danielson won the match and the tournament but he came out no bigger a star than did Low-Ki.
In 2002, Low-Ki and Danielson met again in the main event at Ring of Honor’s first show. Christopher Daniels joined them in a triple threat match. Low-Ki emerged victorious and was crowned Ring of Honor’s first ever World Champion. That match was my first exposure to Low-Ki. I was just starting to get into the indies as a young teenager and Low-Ki immediately became my favorite wrestler. I scoured the internet for his matches. I hoped I would eventually see him on television. Low-Ki rarely stuck around in any one company. He would leave a company unceremoniously, show up in a new company and receive a major push, and disappear just as he had from the previous company. Between 2002 and 2008, Low-Ki appeared in Ring of Honor, TNA, Zero-One, NOAH, and New Japan Pro Wrestling, and often left a promotion only to reappear and leave all over again.
He did get a shot in WWE, reporting to FCW in 2008. He showed up on television in 2010, as part of Season 2 of the original incarnation of NXT, but with the name Kaval. Hilariously, Kaval’s mentors on NXT were Team Lay-Cool!
Despite their sure-handed mentorship, Kaval won the season of NXT but was released later that year. After WWE, Low-Ki continued doing Low-Ki things. He appeared in and left New Japan and TNA. Currently, he again works for TNA and does appearances on the indies.
The indies Rey and Low-Ki are working aren’t like the indies Demolition and wrestlers from their era worked. Mysterio, Low-Ki, and a whole generation of professional wrestlers have found an independent scene where they are the stars. In most cases, it has nothing to do with whether they ever appeared in WWE. The fans that grew up during the congealment of the American indie scene are still here and they have disposable income. Moreover, some of those fans are now wrestling against and in place of the movement’s forefathers. Together, they have created an era where performers don’t have to take a lowball offer to report to NXT because they can do as well or better as a freelancer. The Young Bucks are two of the biggest stars in wrestling and none of their prime has been spent in WWE. Samoa Joe, who did not have the marketing benefit of ever having spent a day in WWE, sold so much merchandise as a non-contract NXT performer that WWE scrambled to sign him to an exclusive deal.
At the same time we are experiencing a luxury of quality and quantity of work available throughout the American wrestling scene, the quality of WWE’s current product has reached lows not seen since the early 1990s. That poor quality is often attributed to the lack of competition; there is no legitimate number two promotion after WWE. WCW is dead and TNA never broke through to that level. But it’s not true that there isn’t a legitimate number two promotion. It’s just that the number two promotion is the American indies.
A drawing main event of Rey Mysterio vs. Low-Ki is evidence of that. They are two men who no major promotion ever valued appropriately. In this space, in this era, they are legitimate stars. It isn’t nostalgia alone that sold nearly 2,000 tickets to this event. Both men can still work. Both men still appeal to that fan that became the foundation for the explosion of the type of wrestling that Rey brought to a Monday night audience and Low-Ki nurtured, both of which paved the way for what is modern professional wrestling. They paved the way that stops, for tonight, to see them work against each other.
The buzz in the building is palpable. As they wait for Rey Mysterio to enter, the crowd clearly realizes they are about to be in the presence of greatness. And when he enters, Rey shows that he, too, understands why these people have paid relatively high ticket prices to see him. He works the crowd and refuses to treat this night like Demolition might have viewed an appearance at the Rec Center.
Unfortunately, despite the grind it took Low-Ki to make the career he has, he carries himself like a Mysterio-level performer. He enters the ring second, even though he’s facing a legend. And, for long-time Low-Ki observers, it’s clear Low-Ki dictates how the match is going to go. The match segments are not generally built to Rey’s strengths but instead, regrettably, to the kind of sequences Low-Ki likes. Regardless, even Low-Ki knows what the crowd came to see. Ultimately, he and Rey build the match around the fans’ anticipation of seeing the masked superstar hit his signature spot, the 619. The combatants tease the spot early and the Rec Center nearly explodes, though the smiles on their faces as Rey misses the move show that they know the time was not right. It is twenty-one minutes into the match before Rey unsuccessfully attempts the 619 again. Of course, the second missed 619 only confirms that a third is coming. It does, Rey follows it up with a frog splash, and the Rahway, New Jersey Rec Center is awash in Eddie chants and the delight of fulfilled expectations.
The match itself tries to disprove my theory. It essentially is that Demolition match I saw at the Virginia State Fair: a big entrance, stalling between the signature spots, and an ending that sent the crowd home with a smile. But Rey and Low-Ki is a dream match not because they never wrestled each other when they were at the height of their powers. It’s a dream match because they are two performers who were integral parts in creating a reality for wrestlers in which they can make their own way. They have helped create a reality in which they make a living without ever having to earn money outside of the ring. That’s the dream. And it doesn’t have to only come true in the WWE Universe. The dream still lives on a Saturday night in the Rec Center in Rahway, New Jersey.