A few days ago, it was reported that current PROGRESS Wrestling Champion WALTER had signed a contract with WWE for their NXT UK brand. The signing caused quite the stir as WALTER is undeniably one of the most sought after, premier wrestling talents in the world. He’s had a slew of incredible matches these past few years in a variety of promotions across the globe, including PROGRESS, PWG, wXw, RevPro, EVOLVE, OTT, Defiant, and countless others. WALTER has become a name wrestling fans clamor to see at their shows. Soon those shows will be under the exclusive banner of World Wrestling Entertainment.
I’m sure if you’re an ardent WWE fan and you’re familiar with WALTER’s work, your reaction to his signing was something like “Oh wow, that’s cool. I can’t wait until WALTER debuts.” If you’re like me and you’re not the biggest WWE fan around, your reaction was probably more like “Fuck! They got another one.”
It’s a reasonable reaction to have. WWE has been on a signing frenzy the past two or three years, feverishly grabbing as many high-profile independent or international wrestling stars as they can. Since January 2016, WWE has signed the following wrestlers to a contract: AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Johnny Gargano, Tommaso Ciampa, Undisputed ERA, Ricochet, Mark Andrews, Pete Dunne, Candice LeRae, Akira Tozawa, Io Shirai, Toni Storm, Matt Riddle, Keith Lee, Aleister Black, War Raiders, and Lio Rush. And there’s A LOT more where that came from. I don’t blame those wrestlers for signing on the dotted line, but as someone who wants to see other wrestling companies prosper and to see the wrestling industry as a whole thrive, I do not like the idea of WWE hoarding all the best talent that money can buy. Of course, wanting to see the wrestling industry thrive is where WWE and wrestling fans part ways.
To borrow a line from Breaking Bad, WWE is not in the wrestling business; they’re in the empire business, and there is nothing an empire fears more than its own collapse. So to keep itself propped up as the number one wrestling game in town, they need to make sure that other wrestling companies don’t rise up and take the throne. And what better way to win the war than to buy the other side’s best soldiers?
It’s a smart strategy, one that WWE has been employing for decades as its modus operandi. The only thing that’s really changed are the talent pools. In the 80s, it was rival territories like AWA, WCCW, and Mid-South Wrestling. In the 90s, it was WCW and ECW. These days, it really doesn’t matter where you come from; WWE talent scouts are keen to sign people from any number of promotions around the world if they’re hot enough to their liking.
We’ve seen this play out time and time again. Did you just have match of the weekend at this year’s BOLA? William Regal would like to have a friendly chat backstage. Is New Japan interested in bringing you over? Expect a phone call from Triple H real soon, bro. Gee, this UK wrestling scene is really heating up, isn’t it? Oh, look at that, WWE signed a bunch of wrestlers to UK contracts. What a coincidence.
Keep in mind that WWE is not signing every wrestler under the sun. They just want the ones who can make a difference elsewhere. The stars. Companies big and small around the world are always looking for stars to help them succeed. And when those wrestlers become big enough stars or have enough buzz on the indie scene, WWE comes swooping in with a contract and a pen. Once signed, those high-profile wrestlers move on and then the next class of top stars rises up to fill the void. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But what happens when WWE signs indie wrestling stars faster than the indie wrestling scene can replenish them? What happens when Ring of Honor lets up-and-coming wrestlers like ACH, Tommaso Ciampa, Keith Lee, Donovan Dijak, and Lio Rush slip through their fingers? What happens when “independent” companies like EVOLVE and PROGRESS form partnerships with WWE, giving them easy access to scout talent and pluck whomever they want?
You get what we have now, which is a top-level independent wrestling pool (I’m referring primarily to the United States, but you can lump the UK in there as well thanks to recent contract updates) that is getting shallower by the day. I’m not saying that the wrestling stars of the future are not out there; they are, and it just takes a keen eye to find those future stars and the fortitude to push them. But at the rate WWE is signing guys, that’s easier said than done. Some wrestling companies don’t have the time to build up new stars because they relied on the older ones for too long. WWE, as massive as it is, has all the time in the world.
So congratulations WWE, you’ve amassed the largest collection of wrestling talent the world has ever seen. And if certain rumors are to be believed, then that collection is about to become even larger in January 2019 with the next group of signings. I just have one question to ask you, a question that one would ask when their significant other buys way too many tchotchkes on the Home Shopping Network:
Where the hell are you gonna put all this shit?
WWE has the largest roster on the planet, but lord knows they don’t have enough programming to feature all of it. In a given week, WWE puts out three hours of RAW, two hours of SmackDown Live, an hour of NXT, an hour of 205 Live, two hours of NXT UK, and an hour of Main Event. Then you add in the four hours minimum for a main roster PPV (plus the kickoff show) and another three hours for an NXT TakeOver. And you can’t forget special events like the Mixed Match Challenge, Mae Young Classic, and the Saudi Arabia shows. But even with all that programming, it’s still not enough to showcase all the talent available.
Let me give you an example from NXT, which is where the majority of WWE’s big signees have gone in recent years. You have wrestlers like Adam Cole, Matt Riddle, Keith Lee, Ricochet, War Raiders, and others who signed with WWE, reported to the Performance Center, and debuted on NXT TV within two or three months at most. Then there’s Donovan Dijak. Dijak joined WWE in August 2017 and has since appeared on NXT TV only twice, both of them quick losses. It took him almost eighteen months to even get a proper hype vignette (under his new moniker Dominik Dijakovic).
It’s no secret that if you’re coming into NXT with a lot of indie buzz, you’re gonna get on NXT TV in quick fashion (see: wrestlers featured above), but it’s not like Dijak is a performance center rookie. He’s a former indie guy who had a good amount of buzz when he signed thanks to standout performances in PWG and Beyond Wrestling. And it still took him over a year to get a spot on NXT TV!
Now imagine you’re someone like Jeet Rama or Brennan Williams, guys who have been in the Performance Center for years and years and haven’t seen a second of screen time. What are their futures going to look like as the roster becomes more and more bloated with indie darlings? Grim, I imagine.
In any event, be on the lookout for WALTER showing up in the coming months on the award-winning WWE Network. I don’t know what plans WWE has for him, but given he’s signed to NXT UK, I can see imagine a big feud between him and Pete Dunne for the WWE UK Championship. Maybe they’ll also reunite him with Marcel Barthel (a.k.a. Axel Dieter Jr., another signee who was MIA for months on end) in NXT UK’s version of Ringkampf. That would be awesome. Then again, I can also imagine Vince taking one look at him and saying “Goddamn pal, we’re gonna call you Gunter von Schwanzkopf and put you in lederhosen. I hope you know how to yodel.”
Ultimately it doesn’t matter what WALTER does in WWE; the only thing that matters is that WALTER is in WWE. They’ve got him now and with the amount of money at their disposal, they’re not gonna let him go anytime soon.
That’s the way empires are built, after all. They seize as much as they can while capitulating as little as they can. And until WWE suffers a blow devastating enough to put them out of commission, this empire is going to keep conquering until there are no more worlds to conquer.