Even amidst the turmoil of Trump’s trade war, with no end in sight, and the Huawei situation in Canada, the future of Chinese Pro Wrestling still lies in international collaboration ― a fact that the myriad promoters in the region are well aware of. Before the start of 2019 I had opined, numerous times and in various ways, that the scene’s greatest need was an injection of seasoned foreign talent, and opportunities for Chinese talent to work abroad and develop their skills in front of audiences familiar with the art form. As if answering my pleas, the first half of this year has been replete with announcements of collaboration and international expeditions.
Of course, the news that kick started the boom in international coverage of Chinese Pro Wrestling this year was the announcement from All Elite Wrestling that they would be working with Oriental Wrestling Entertainment ―news which I’ve covered in detail previously. Since then there has been a cavalcade of collaborative efforts issued forth from the scene, from almost every company presently active in the mainland. Herein we will look at what is on the table, who is involved, what has happened and where the struggles and successes of these efforts have been.
Oriental Wrestling Entertainment
OWE’s flagship partnership is, without a shadow of a doubt, their alliance with All Elite Wrestling. AEW’s “hot new thing” status in the global wrestling fandom zeitgeist has exploded interest in their Chinese partner. There is so much interest that my own Beginner’s Guide to OWE’s roster saw more views in the week of the announcement than it did in the entirety of 2018, and has continued to receive far more regular daily views than all my other content.
This kind of international attention is seen as integral by OWE to their future success, as it increases their face value in China. In short, foreign recognition validates OWE in the eyes of many of their potential local customers. Beyond that, however, is also the simple fact that, financially speaking, the market in China cannot support the long-term operations, at the scale desired, of OWE yet. Without first making efforts abroad to make money, and increase their recognizability and perceived global prestige back home, there may simply be no future for their Kung-Fu Pro Wrestling ― the loss of which, I think it would be safe to say, would be a great disservice to pro wrestling as a whole.
But what has really come of this relationship, thus far? Beyond the international attention, and their video content finding its way more reliably onto western-accessible platforms, the biggest boon OWE have actually received so far has been the visit to Shanghai that SoCal Uncensored made. With trainers like CIMA and Jorge “Skayde” Rivera having been part of OWE’s world-class pro wrestling education already, it cannot be said that their students have been wanting for quality education. Nevertheless, the value of lessons from long-time veterans Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian, and Scorpio Sky cannot be understated. A look at the latest SCU training vignette will show you that Daniels, in particular, spent a good amount of time working with the young men in OWE’s roster. They also provided some of OWE’s top talent the opportunity to work a full match, in front of a live audience, with long-standing veterans ― an opportunity not commonly found in the Chinese mainland.
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5 Subscribers will be chosen to win their choice of hat or shirt pic.twitter.com/RjqmWC2vct
— ORIENTAL WRESTLING ENTERTAINMENT (@ORIENTALWRESTL1) May 19, 2019
Regrettably, this wasn’t supposed to be the biggest splash their alliance would have made by the end of May 2019. That splash was supposed to be having their Chinese roster members team with CIMA at AEW’s Double or Nothing event in Las Vegas, Nevada on May 25th. While some hope remains that last minute visas may have come through for a handful of their kids, the spots alongside CIMA have already been dedicated to his Japanese #STRONGHEARTS cohorts, El Lindaman and T-Hawk. Don’t get me wrong; #STRONGHEARTS are still representatives of OWE, and bill themselves as such everywhere they go, but at this point, any hope of a spotlight match in front of a western audience for the Chinese talent has disappeared. At best, if any last minute visas have materialized, Chinese talent will find themselves booked amidst the participants in the Casino Battle Royale.
It should be noted that visa issues have not only negatively impacted Chinese performers in 2019, they’ve also kept members of Dragon Gate and, more notably, PAC out of Wrestlemania weekend’s WrestleCon events. The trade war between China and the United States cannot be helping matters any, but the general stricter border policies of the current government are having detrimental impacts across the pro wrestling landscape.
But AEW hasn’t been OWE’s only international collaborators in 2019. The year has also seen them work with New Taiwan Entertainment Wrestling (NTW,) which led to a successful event in Taipei and several high-quality Taiwanese performers joining up with OWE full time. While mainland China and Taiwan may not have the most amicable of relationships, visas have come through with more certainty than they have in the west.
OWE’s cross-promoted show in Taiwan with NTW allowed their talent to gain exposure in front of crowds who not only speak their language but who also have wrestling knowledge. Taiwan presently has a strong, rapidly developing local scene replete with remarkable young talent and, in recognizing this, OWE has crafted strong business ties with NTW. They, furthermore, look to make NTW an integral part of their future plans. Realistically, however, Taiwan doesn’t grant the same kind of international clout the brand needs as shows in the west would have given them. Taiwan is, frankly, not seen as international to a mainland Chinese audience.
The massive success of #STRONGHEARTS’ Japanese indie goodwill tours has led to a groundswell of support for the Dragon Gate alumni, and has fed directly into the sell outs of three very well received OWE shows in Japan. Another two shows have been announced and, from what I have seen, are well on their way to selling out as well. Beyond that, the future is looking bright as well, with the number of shows planned for Japan hitting double digits through the rest of 2019. In 2020 I anticipate we will see even more shows in Japan happen than the final tally will be for 2019.
Japan’s strong puroresu fandom, openness to numerous styles, and willingness to support new brands and rookie performers has led to these shows in Japan being remarkably lucrative for Oriental Wrestling Entertainment. Not only has the demand for tickets been beyond their expectations, they also sold almost every bit of merchandise they brought with them on that first tour. This trial run they did in Tokyo and Osaka has led to Japanese shows likely being considered as a cornerstone of OWE’s future financial success, and will be used as a bulwark as they build up a local, mainland Chinese audience from scratch. Thankfully, visa issues seem to be a complete non-factor in their dealings with Japan.
We are very happy to announce that through recent talks we have entered a partnerships with China’s Oriental Wrestling Entertainment @ORIENTALWRESTL1 that we expect to be mutually beneficial. We look forward to announcing more on this partnership soon! pic.twitter.com/QZGwXEtBrM
— Smash Wrestling (@smashwrestling) May 8, 2019
While OWE has, most assuredly, found most of their successes with international ventures coming from nearby Asian markets, that does not mean they have turned their backs on their goal of getting into the North American wrestling scene. While visa issues have kept them out of the spotlight in the United States of America for now, their recently announced partnership with Toronto-based Smash Wrestling shows their dedication to getting into the “prestigious” western wrestling market.
“But why Canada?” you may ask. Well, there are a few good reasons, really. First, and foremost, is that Canada does not require foreign performing artists to have a work permit to enter the country and perform for limited engagements. This has long made it remarkably easy for Canadian promoters to bring in international guest stars, and citizens of many countries are not even required to have a visitor’s visa of any kind. Unfortunately, China is not one of those countries.
A visitor’s visa is, by far, easier to acquire than a full work permit, and from all of my research, the Canadian visa application process is an easier one to go through than that of the United States of America. It is not a foolproof situation, however, as tensions between Canada and China have never been hotter in my lifetime. However, if OWE indeed are able to work out getting their talent into Canada, there is an added boon in the fact that one of the factors considered by US visa officers when reviewing applications for these kind of performers is what kind of travel history they have. Having a visa from Canada in the passport of an applicant for a US visa will, invariably, only help them along and prove a track record of visiting western nations and returning home.
While casting their eyes outside of their borders for opportunities to send their talent abroad, OWE has not forgotten the need to bring international talent into the Chinese mainland. Their roster needs new, physically and stylistically diverse talent to work with, one way or another. One of the best side effects of this has been that these international talents have found themselves working extra dates for other Chinese promotions, such as MKW and Gao Yuan’s We Love Wrestling. The latter of which has been more frequent, as Gao Yuan is ostensibly a roster member with OWE, at least part-time, and his WLW shows have recently featured not only foreign talent brought in by OWE but their Chinese roster as well. The more opportunities to perform in front of live audiences they have, the better they will grow to be.
Summary: OWE has hitched their wagon to the horse of international recognition in the hopes that getting their talent famous across the globe, and their brand by extension, will help make them a more attractive sell to their rapidly growing but, thus far, not financially meaningful local fan base. They have the guts and daring to make this work, and are rapidly adjusting to each opportunity as it presents itself, but some of the biggest determining factors are out of their hands and in the hands of the worst possible people at this time: foreign government agents from countries presently not on the best of terms with China.
Middle Kingdom Wrestling
MKW has had dalliances with international partnerships in the past. They’ve worked with Kingdom Wrestling Federation to promote a show in Thailand, and almost had a show in South Korea come together in concert with their then local partner Professional Live Action. These efforts, in the end, did not prove to be as successful or invigorating as one would have hoped, for numerous reasons, but MKW’s expat owner Adrian Gomez has been undeterred, forging onward with new international collaborative efforts, and a unique idea on how to brand them.
The first of these newer partnerships was actually born in 2018, as MKW allied itself with the Japanese indie Pro Wrestling Alive (PWA,) with each brand sending two men to perform on a show held by the other in an exchange of exhibition matches. Their partnership has progressed slowly since, but has in more recent months led to opportunities for MKW’s Chinese talent to work with Journeymen Japanese performers.
Six Man #tagteam set for #MKW #dragonroar in #Harbin #china ! Ash Silva from #TheStable teaming up with fujiwara&taisuke from #prowrestlingalive going up against former #beltandroad champion #BlackMamba, the #panda loving #bamboocrusher , and “American Thunder” @TheDickyMayer! pic.twitter.com/ADBpfiKxY7
— MKWchina (@MKWwrestling) May 17, 2019
While it is never a bad thing for Chinese talent to get to work with those trained in different styles, and with more experience than they have, one fact comes to mind every time PWA is brought up by MKW: PWA is so small scale that, outside of MKW’s events, it is nearly impossible to find footage of them. They, frankly, don’t attract name value attention. The talent exchange has, also, remained almost unilateral. Beyond the first exhibition exchange, I have not heard of PWA providing any Chinese talent the opportunity to work one of their shows in Japan… but this may be well within Gomez’s changing vision for his company’s international partnerships.
That new vision for MKW’s international partnerships can be seen coming into full effect with MKW’s first international “Belt and Road Tournament” show held in Kathmandu, Nepal in conjunction with the Nepal Ring Wrestling Association (NRWA.) This partnership arose explicitly from the creation of MKW’s Belt and Road Championship, and the tournament to decide its first holder.
This alliance has, thus far, only resulted in one show being held. However, what is most notable, is that the show featured talent from several Belt and Road Initiative countries, as well as allowed Chinese talent to get high profile exposure in front of crowds with a different level of connection to Pro Wrestling than their native audience. The event looked to be very well produced and the partnership, based on the branded title changing hands to a Nepalese competitor, looks to be a fruitful one. In all likeliness, we will soon see more Nepalese talent appearing on Chinese shows.
— MKWchina (@MKWwrestling) May 12, 2019
Unlike the small, relatively unheard of promotions I’ve mentioned above, Middle Kingdom Wrestling’s latest partnership is a recognizable western promotion with a television deal and connections to both the NWA and China; Championship Wrestling from Hollywood (CWFH.) The first thrust of this partnership will see American wrestler Dicky Meyer spend two months in China, working for MKW at shows and, in all likeliness, helping to train their growing roster. Two months is the maximum amount of time one can stay in China on a business visa without having to leave and re-enter, so this all seems pretty standard. The visa also allows, typically, for re-entry for business over a span of upwards of ten years, so anyone who has already obtained one has an easy in to re-engage with the Chinese Pro Wrestling scene as they wish, and many have done so already.
While, undoubtedly, there is a necessity and a distinct benefit in having capable foreign talent visit China, helping to establish and elevate the scene in the mainland, the real benefit of a partnership of this nature would be to have select, top-tier Chinese talent go on excursion to the United States. This would give them the needed opportunity to improve while working more regularly and in a system with more veteran:rookie balance.
— MKWchina (@MKWwrestling) May 7, 2019
With CWFH’s previous experience producing a show, in collaboration with the NWA, in Wenzhou, China, one would think that the CWFH management team would be excited by this element of their alliance. I, however, am skeptical of this. The CWFH show taped in China featured only two Chinese performers, and when the episodes were eventually broadcast, both of their matches were edited out entirely. The only traces of them I could find were on Chinese video hosting services, and had been ripped from the domestic Chinese live stream of the event.
Summary: Adrian Gomez’s MKW has its own vision of international collaboration, one formed around the idea that China is, indeed, the Middle Kingdom. The ethos of the Belt and Road Championship focuses MKW’s international collaboration in a more China-centric way, building it off of the heels of the BRI and using international collaboration thus far as, primarily, a way to bring talent from abroad into China. Current, and future, Belt and Road themed shows in Nepal, and wherever else they may happen, give talent much-needed exposure to different performers and in front of different audiences. However, they still focus the attention generated by MKW abroad back to China through branding it under the Belt and Road Initiative theme, which cannot be disconnected from its geopolitical goals of shifting China back to the center of the international economy.
Now, I feel it must be noted that, while I do not believe I have misrepresented the course of action taken by MKW, another element to consider regarding the fact that their talent isn’t likely to be getting opportunities abroad is the dreaded “visa issues” problem. OWE has, unfortunately, been made to look bad by visa troubles several times since their inception and, in branding their products as they have, MKW simply avoids the issue altogether. If your plan to avoid visa troubles also allows you to take advantage of a Chinese government initiative, with a lot of support from the Chinese population, and gives you the opportunity to be seen as a good cultural citizen to China then it is a very clever strategy indeed.
Hong Kong Wrestling Federation and Ultimate Wrestling Asia
Ho Ho Lun’s HKWF is the prototypical Chinese pro wrestling success story and, through the exquisite talent of fellow Hong Konger Jason Lee, the promotion has formed deep ties with Dragon Gate in Japan. Several times a year they hold several nights of big shows in conjunction with the legendary Japanese brand. Herein many of the Hong Kong-based talent, and other talent based out of China and South East Asia, get the opportunity to work with masters. This leads, sometimes, to people looking out-classed, but also has the far more beneficial outcomes of having people step-up to the plate and prove that they can take their game to the next level. This has star-making potential built right into it.
Unfortunately, even though Dragon Gate now has a streaming platform accessible to audiences around the world, and all of the matches at these events are typically filmed in some way, the level of exposure offered to Hong Kong-based talent off of the back of this partnership is less than ideal. The only notable Hong Kong talent regularly given opportunities in Japan is Jason Lee ― who has, in no uncertain terms, absolutely earned it. Bitman was given a tour of Japan, but had very few opportunities to shine and most of his matches never made tape. Furthermore, the opening bouts of the Dragon Gate shows in Hong Kong are typically chopped off when the shows land on the network, invariably casting aside several rising local stars in the process.
While the level of exposure that Dragon Gate directly offers HKWF talent is lower than I’d like to see it be, the curious nature of Hong Kong’s status within China makes it far easier for people from abroad to get in to the island city than the mainland and, as such, international talent scouts have recently been seen attending these shows, sent by the WWE. With WWE’s failure to make anything out of their recruits from the mainland, they seem to be shifting their focus to the more westernized Hong Kong as a place to recruit Chinese stars. As numerous wrestlers from throughout South East Asia often work these shows, or attend them, they also give talent scouts an easy one-stop-shop for talent from Singapore, the Philippines, and beyond. But, I have to question, is WWE the right place for Chinese/South East Asian talent right now?
Just #scoutingfortalent for #UWA at the @dragongate_pro #DragonStorm香港 Show in #HongKong with @NXTMattBloom ! #NXTHK #UWAtalentscout #Atrain #Albert #AsianWrestlingRevolution pic.twitter.com/6PpvQsDE5Z
— UWA (@UWA34354104) May 17, 2019
Ultimate Wrestling Asia (UWA) are looking to forge the most ambitious inter-promotional collaboration effort South East Asian wrestling has ever seen. Technically based out of Hong Kong, and still scouting talent and locations for their first events, this upstart group is looking to put together an entire television show. Little has come to light about when this will happen, but the show will likely be filmed in Manila, and is set to feature talent from pretty much every country in the region that has pro wrestling. The UWA is, in essence, looking to turn one of the region’s weaknesses ―that it has a remarkable pool of talent but not enough fans in any one place to financially fuel growth ―into its strength, by bringing them together and connecting them under an NWA-esque banner.
Imagine if there was an #Ultimate promotion that could bring together #Wrestling companies @MYProWrestling @GrappleMAX @HKWF_Wrestling @MKWwrestling @SgProWrestling @dragongate_pro @pwrofficial @ntwwrestling under one banner in #Asia ?!?! #UWA #UltimateWrestlingAsia #ComingSoon pic.twitter.com/QbQXaQsiuE
— UWA (@UWA34354104) March 26, 2019
On paper, this project looks to check off all the boxes and grant, very potentially, equal exposure to talent from all regions. Unfortunately, so far, it has talked a big talk and has yet to have anything concrete be announced. But it does go to highlight the idea that, even when starting from scratch, people in the region are seeing the necessity of interconnectivity.
Summary: Hong Kong’s unique status allows it to be a central hub for international inter-promotional cooperation. While the foundations are in place to make something truly remarkable happen out of the region, no one has, as of yet, properly converted it into a true success story. It’s the proverbial powder keg waiting for a spark. Dragon Gate could be that spark, if they committed to it. Ultimate Wrestling Asia could be the spark, if they can get their project off of the ground. Menacingly, the WWE could be a bucket of water that ruins its explosive capability, if they poach all the best talent before the region can ignite. No matter how you look at it, though, it’s an international game.
A year ago, I’d have called China an untested market for professional wrestling. Six months ago, I’d have said the same thing. Now, however, I truly see it as a market being tested. One of the strongest tools in the testing kit is international collaboration. Each promotion I have discussed in this article has taken a vastly different approach to how, exactly, they aim to use this tool, and towards what end goal.
OWE are looking outward, to establish their reputation abroad and prove to those back home that they are the ones to pay attention to. Meanwhile, MKW are increasingly focused on aligning themselves with the most positive elements of the Belt and Road ideology, aiming to build themselves a reputation within China as ambassadors of Chinese culture through the initiative. Both brands aim to tug at the heartstrings, and wallets, of the mainland Chinese population in different ways.
Then there is Hong Kong, just waiting to see who can capitalize on its deep potential first. Could it be the international star making power of the HKWF’s alliance, the Pan-Asian Dream Matches of the UWA, or the corporate machinations of the WWE looking to gain footing in the region? Of interesting note is, however, that Hong Kong culture is different enough from the mainland Chinese culture that there tends to be far less penetration into the mainland market than one would expect these events to have.
It remains unclear to me which path forward will be the way to success, and there may indeed be multiple paths forward. Nevertheless, one thing for certain is clear to me: There is a boom in non-Japanese East Asian, South East Asian, and South Asian wrestling coming. It is likely within the next five to ten years, and those who find success will do so not only on the back of quality in-ring performances, but off of the careful management of international partnerships to establish brands and stars that have global reach.