For the last decade or so, it has felt like professional wrestling has been ‘bowling alone.’ That wonderful term was invented by Robert Putnam when he wanted to shake his fist at the sky and declare the ruination of mankind, chiefly blaming the lack of cohesion and conversation between people to build up a resource called ‘social capital.’ Put simply, people who talk and build relationships together can call on those relationships in times of need and achieve things that they couldn’t achieve alone.
There is, however, one corner of wrestling that has maintained this spirit of cohesion and community. NJPW has had associate promotions all over the globe – currently CMLL, ROH and Rev Pro – from which they can benefit. Two of those relationships seem ideal. ROH was the perfect partner to test the waters of a US expansion and the dynamic Mexican audience of CMLL seems ideal for young highfliers to hone their craft.
However, for me, the most interesting relationship has been with Rev Pro.
There doesn’t seem to be the obvious benefit from working with the British promotion in the same way that there is with the other two. Rev Pro is big in relation to other European indies, but they certainly don’t share the same heights in terms of business. They can’t offer a foothold into infrastructure like ROH can and they certainly can’t ship over a dynamic roster of technicolor movement like CMLL can every January.
Social capital, however, isn’t just about the benefits of business and acquisitions. It’s not simply a line that moves from red to black on a graph. It’s a shared vision and a common outlook. It’s an ethos that binds two people (or groups) together because they look at things the same way.
It’s, traditionally at least, the respect of the craft of professional wrestling that seems to have bound the two organizations together. Rev Pro is the nearest the UK has to a ‘super indie,’ scouring the globe to present dream matches where the goal is advancing the art and showing an audience things they have never seen before. There is a bank of matches with a cast of esoteric masters of the art—Keith Lee, Shibata, Riddle, Ishii, Okada, Scurll, Ospreay—giving the company a resume that sets them apart from almost every other company in the country. They bring matches to the UK, through their relationship with NJPW, that nobody else can.
Social capital has to be reciprocated, however. New Japan needs to benefit from the relationship, and it goes much deeper than it would first appear. The respect and shared cultural values are there. Even in the last two or three years, it is not uncommon to hear the wonderful katakana-rich Japanisation of ‘Billy Robinson’ or ‘Wigan Snakepit’ that shows a deep knowledge of the heritage of the British scene. It’s a detail that may fly past many, but a New Japan announcer recognizing the technical skill of a wrestler and understanding the provenance of those skills speaks volumes.
This relationship seemed to peak in 2018. A superb series of matches between Ishii and Suzuki fought over the Undisputed British Heavyweight title brought new eyes and cavalcades of star ratings from all over the wrestling world. Rev Pro ran two Strong Style Evolved shows that sprinkled the aesthetics of the genuine article in smoky British towns; there were blue rings and wide aprons to help convince us we were seeing the real thing.
It wasn’t all good, however. The booking seemed to be dominated by New Japan talent, with hardly a thought for continuity or for any concept of life outside Rev Pro. The Starr/Phantasmo feud seemed to stop and start and the J-Cup was rife with over-politicized, light-fingered booking. The tag team titles were missing and felt like the next crop of stars – Bodom, Ridgeway, ELP – were stunted in the shadow of the outsiders.
But, suddenly, it all seemed worth it.
The gift of a featured match at Wrestle Kingdom was a shining light on the garbage take that WWE UK is validation for the scene. Validation for the scene isn’t behaving like a virus; it’s putting a spotlight on it on a massive stage and bringing eyes to it. That’s exactly what the Wrestle Kingdom match was. Rev Pro had infused that title with the shared ethos of the two companies – innovative and exciting wrestling that was grounded in heritage. New Japan saw enough value and importance in that to put it on a show where many of their own key players were wrestling in a bright, half-empty arena on the preshow. That social capital, the resource that its participants can draw on, meant featured players of New Japan’s future could have a meaningful story on the biggest show of the year.
The aesthetics of the match were perfect. ZSJ’s white trunks seemed to hint at a fresh start. Finally, the next chapter of Rev Pro would begin with a homegrown champion. The fact that he is British is almost immaterial; it’s the fact that his style is so entrenched in British wrestling heritage whilst still being innovative and new that mattered. Chris Roberts was there to officiate the violent, compact sprint to give an air of authenticity. If the British title is to be defended, the match should be overseen by an official familiar with the company. It felt like one of those lovely wrinkles of kayfabe that makes pro wrestling breathe.
ZSJ went over, but it was more the idea of him as champion that seemed to be given weight. The match was a celebration of his style and his ability to outsmart his stronger, stockier opponent. He was able to avoid damaging strikes with intelligent reversals and even mocked Ishii into an attempted a strike before reversing it, almost with a mocking laugh. I’m not naïve enough to think that this match made many people in the audience seek of Rev Pro. But for those of us who follow the company, it felt like a point. 2019 was here and we could see forward to a renewed company with many of the odd booking decisions of 2018 in the rear view.
Unfortunately, odd booking decisions seem to permeate 2019 as well. This bizarre booking has been so pronounced that it dominated the discourse around Rev Pro for the entire month. The Cockpit should be the British Legion Hall – the intimate venue where wrestling transcends the medium into something magical – or even a proving ground for the upcoming talent before being promoted to the Rev Pro show. It’s a wonderful, enclosed space filled with only the most passionate fans.
They got ZSJ vs PAC in the Cockpit and booked that dream match like a McMahon-esque muddle that left the wrestling purist scratching their head. The match, which was a middling effort from both men throughout, was doomed from the start. They had insulted the audience right from the start of the show by attempting a surreptitious announcement of time limits for every match. They couldn’t sneak that past the Rev Pro fan who’d never heard that before. There was going to be a draw at some point this weekend and it was going to be the main event.
Except it wasn’t a draw. It was worse. There were some glorious moments in the match, with ZSJ outwrestling the faster man who had to revert to power and guile to even the score. But overall, a muddiness permeated the action. There was that disgusting air of “this feud must continue” in the Cockpit where there should have been a magnificent buzz.
ZSJ hit the ref and he ended it by disqualifying him. I’ve written and deleted a million ways to describe the ending to this match, but it seemed to leap out of the ether and slap me in the face leaving me bereft of any skill to describe it. The dream match had come and gone and it was an inconsequential waste of everybody’s time.
So, social capital between wrestling companies is important but it’s the social capital between fans and the company that must take precedent. There have to be shared values between the fans and the company should speak to those values to create cohesion between the two. The entire weekend of Rev Pro was plagued with this sort of mainstream, nonsense booking. McKinnon vs Bodom was ruined by a run in, and the Yuu vs Sammi Jayne match ended with the most egregious wrestling sin of them all: the distraction. The shock of another wrestler walking to ringside being so captivating and confusing for their rival that all sense of professionalism and skill gets thrown out of the window.
Rev Pro fans, traditionally, enjoy the exhibition of skill and that is the social capital and shared values that Rev Pro need to showcase. There are mounds of opportunity for fans to see screwball finishes with distractions and ref bumps and there aren’t the values shared by the majority of the fans. In New Japan, referees wave on transgressions when the match feels important enough. Disqualifications are rare and there are certainly very few distractions. This is because sport is heralded as king, the competition is the prize that the competitors seek. This is the vision that Rev Pro is losing and it’s something the fans want to see.
This nonsense reached its peak at High Stakes. It was Ospreay vs PAC, possibly the most anticipated match since PAC’s return to the independent scene. I completely understand that Rev Pro was in a challenging position. They had booked two champions from rival companies against each other and neither man could take the pin. It’s certainly a predicament, but t you don’t burn the house down if you have a rat. There is such a thing as proportionality. The ending of the match was such epic nonsense, even the most die-hard Attitude Era podcast would have trouble justifying the overbooked nonsense we were subjected to.
Again, it was clear the trust between Rev Pro and the fans was being compromised. York Hall was filled with boos and jeers at every mention of a time limit throughout the night. The nonsense from the Cockpit has made these fans expect to be screwed over. It’s not the feeling that makes fans want to drive across the country and pay for hotels.
PAC goes through half an hour of grueling action, only to hit the low blow and beg for disqualification. There’s absolutely no reasonable justification for this. If it was for heat, it would have been nonsensical. Tybalt believed he was fighting for the honor of his family, Scar things he should have been king and the Sticky Bandits just want to make ends meet. Why did PAC The Bastard hit Ospreay in the dick? I have no idea.
Then, for him to have the match in the palm of his hands and be ready to hit the Black Arrow, only for him to wait and allow the time to run out… again there’s no justification other than he wanted to be really, really bad. Villains don’t work like that. Villains act because they think they are doing the right thing.
I can be sympathetic to the political booking predicament, but as a ticket buyer promised a dream match that isn’t my problem. I feel cheated if I pay to see a wrestler and he doesn’t take a single bump. In the same way, I feel cheated if a booker puts together a nonsense mess.
The talk of Brit Wres Twitter has been how embarrassing the booking is and how disappointing the results are. They can book all the dream names they want, but Rev Pro is quickly building a reputation of a company that doesn’t deliver.