Robin Reid | Jun 20, 2018 | 0
Context is King: Looking at China’s Rapidly Evolving Wrestling Marketplace
When I first wrote my article detailing the history of Chinese Pro Wrestling I saw a groundswell developing in the mainland for the art in 2018. Things were primed for there to be a busy year. While Oriental Wrestling Entertainment have, distinctly and understandably, captured the vast majority of international wrestling fans’ attention, it is important to understand that they do not exist in a vacuum and that they were by far not first, they’ve just made the most noise. If you look past OWE, you’ll see a scene that’s been growing steadily, with new groups entering the fray and new fires lit in mainstays.
I find it hilarious that we can find Fortune 500 co’s to sponsor @CWFHollywood internationally and not in the #USA. Just got potential China return dates and possible @UnitedWNetwork multi city tours 🇨🇳🤼♂️🇺🇸
— David Marquez (@CWFHMarquez) June 2, 2018
Foreign brands, such as WWE and WWN, and more recently the NWA, have long wanted to make inroads into China. None, however, have made the moves that Oriental Heroes Legend have. Formerly known as Antonio Inoki’s IGF, this company has separated themselves from Inoki’s vision and have refocused, and restructured, themselves around their already existing Shanghai dojo students, with an aim to becoming a brand that thrives within Chinese borders.
In my article I didn’t focus too much attention on this group. Earlier this year there was no indication that their presence in the Chinese mainland was anything more than a satellite office and training facility to recruit Chinese talent for use in their Japanese productions.
— 東方英雄伝 (@chinaheroes2018) May 25, 2018
What a difference a few months can make, though.
Before the announcement of their alliance with NOAH was made in late May their students had already been receiving some training in Japan, and now that looks to be doubled down upon, as their students will be given regular time in NOAH’s famed dojo. The Shanghai efforts of the IGF were, from what information is available, Simon Inoki’s pet project and he seems to have a lot of confidence in the talent he has found in China, predicting they will one day take the GHC Heavyweight championship.
This confidence in Chinese-born talent is tremendous to see, and the formerly IGF’s new focus on the Chinese mainland is exciting. There are, however, concerns that must be addressed. Simon Inoki has shown little-to-no respect for previously established Chinese pro wrestling companies, and for all the talent, who have done the hard work of creating a grassroots fandom for live Pro Wrestling in China. This is particularly infuriating when some of the talent he boasts about in his cadre of Chinese performers were initially trained by The Slam, father of Chinese Pro Wrestling.
Learn more about The Slam and the leading figures behind the emergent Chinese pro wrestling scene through this great article https://t.co/W0KzOasu1V written by the wonderful @NuclearConvoy #DiscoveringWrestling #CWE #MKW #CWF #HKWF pic.twitter.com/4RRP7wXclW
— ShiningWizardDesigns (@ShiningWizardDs) March 16, 2018
Furthermore, with his company’s strong roots in Puroresu, and the talent exchange and training partnership with NOAH, there are concerns to be had about how successful they can truly be in the Chinese marketplace. When they were running exhibitions as the IGF Shanghai dojo the feedback that came my way about their product was that it was boring to the local audiences, focusing heavily on a worked-shoot style and investing very little in characters. For an audience whose fomenting love for Pro Wrestling was birthed out of WWE’s product, a focus on worked-shoots and stiffness without character is detrimental. There’s also a further concern, which Michael Nee, VP of OWE, elaborated upon in an interview with the South China Morning Post, saying “Typical wrestling can be a little too violent. If we try to copy the Japanese way and put that into the Chinese market, our product will be killed by the government.” If his assessments are accurate, and I’ve a strong feeling that they are, then there may be a hard cap on what Oriental Heroes Legend can achieve in the mainland.
— Ryan Chen (@KOPWrestling) May 28, 2018
King of Pro Wrestling (KOPW), whose product straddles a line between their performers Puroresu influences and the Chinese audience’s desire for character and story, successfully ran their first ever event on March 17 2018, debuting shortly after OWE’s own debut, and have recently announced their second event for August. While they haven’t gotten off the ground with as many shows as OWE have, and the Shaolin Kung Fu element is entirely lacking, there are noticeable comparisons to be drawn between the two groups. They both offer high production values, and are backed by wealthy investors. They also both aim to introduce themselves to the global pro wrestling community early into their existence.
Where OWE has a partnership with FSW to broadcast on Twitch, KOPW has their own YouTube channel. At the moment it is fairly sparse, but they have made efforts in some of it to subtitle the promos and commentary to assist an English speaking audience in engaging with the product. This is something that OWE has yet to do, outside of FSW’s one attempt at live commentary over the twitch stream. Ho Ho Lun, who is both KOPW’s inaugural champion and involved in producing the shows, has made it clear to me that they wish to better engage the western audience with their product, indicating that they’d like to take cues from how NJPW are continually bettering their English language presence.
There are struggles, however, that they must overcome. While their first show is fully available on QQ Video, their YouTube channel hosts a grand total of two matches thus far. KOPW have found themselves in possession of a nice Catch-22. While they have the benefit of Shuaijiao backing, it isn’t in and of itself enough to draw an audience domestically. To ensure that they capture the interests of WWE-hungry Chinese crowds they’ve tapped WWE UK talents such as Sam Gradwell and Zack Gibson, who’ve had previous experience touring China. While this is distinctly beneficial for their domestic drawing power, the WWE UK talent contracts prevent their matches from being streamed on services such as Youtube. With Sam Gradwell being involved in both their first and upcoming second main events, this forces KOPW into a position where their most important matches must remain sequestered on Chinese streaming sites, where much of their potential international audience dare not tread (a fear I can say from personal experience is quite unfounded.)
— MKWchina (@MKWwrestling) May 10, 2018
Meanwhile, Middle Kingdom Wrestling (MKW), whose focus has become increasingly character driven, have been having a barnburner start to 2018. They’ve run increasingly bigger and more daring events this year, striving to have big firsts for the Chinese scene, such as the first Battle Royale in the country. In 2018 they’ve had likely their biggest coups.
First they introduced Pro Wrestling to the audience of Mars Martial Championship (MMC), a Chinese MMA group who’ve subsequently financed and produced a full pro wrestling card. They then formed an alliance with independent Japanese company Pro Wrestling Alive, which has seen talent travel between the two countries and the MKW championship defended in Japan. They’ve also successfully found a way to capture the hearts of those who hold the WWE up as the pinnacle of wrestling by booking James Ellsworth for their upcoming show. All this while they have been regularly releasing content on their Youtube channel, often with dual audio options, and look to draw a lot of curiosity views when Ellsworth’s upcoming intergender championship Fatal Four Way from Harbin, China drops.
Most importantly, however, is how they have pushed forward in making their company feel like it is relevant and keeping up with the developing modernization of China as the country increases its influence globally. Towards this aim MKW have introduced a new title, which will be competed for at their next event, the “Belt & Road Championship.” This championship is conceptually, and practically, tied in to modern Chinese international relationships and government policy. Drawing its name from the One Belt One Road initiative put forth by the Chinese government, only persons holding a passport from one of the member countries of the initiative may compete for the title. Thus far, I have been advised, MKW have seen applicant submissions from countries such as Russia, Poland, India, Singapore, Malaysia, and New Zealand. Of particular interest here is that many of these countries have recently seen their own groundswells in pro wrestling development as well.
— NuclearConvoy (@NuclearConvoy) June 5, 2018
While Oriental Heroes Legend, King of Pro Wrestling, and Middle Kingdom Wrestling may have had the most newsworthy stories to tell, outside of Oriental Wrestling Entertainment, in the mainland Chinese landscape, they aren’t the only ones to have benefitted from the domestic spike in interest that pro wrestling has received.
We Love Wrestling (WLW), normally an events booked company running at festivals and mall openings, was given a big budget stage when MMC decided to use them to test the waters of running its own pro wrestling events, which turned out to be one of the better shows I’ve seen come out of the Chinese mainland. Even the long dormant Chinese Wrestling Federation (CWF), founded by a different Shuaijiao executive than KOPW, has sprung back to life and is running an odd mixed event featuring a beauty contest and HEMA fights as well as their pro wrestling.
The domestic mainland Chinese fanbase for Pro Wrestling is presently rather small compared to the general entertainment audience the country possesses. Oriental Wrestling Entertainment’s idol-culture based strategy seeks to drastically expand that market share, introducing their unique vision of pro wrestling to the mainstream audience and educating them on the norms and tropes of the art. All of these companies are vying for a piece of that small, but growing, pie. Few entities in the scene are specifically trying to create a new audience in the same way that OWE are, but each one must find their own ways to make new fans for their iteration of pro wrestling if they, and the art, are to thrive in China. The good news is that China’s growing middle class, and the distance between major cities, means that there’s plenty of room, and money, for them to grow into as this fire burns bright. It will be interesting to see how these companies move forward in the wake being left by OWE’s big moves, and where they will stand in five years time. OWE’s long term vision looks to place them at the top of the heap, both domestically and where international attention is concerned, but with the right moves made I can easily envision a future where that spot is hotly contested.