Like many people who’re reading this, I was a huge fan of BULLET CLUB in 2016. I bought the shirts, I watched their web-series, I followed every move they made throughout ROH and NJPW because for the first time in my life there was a relatable alternative to WWE with no barrier to entry. I love New Japan and have always had an affinity towards their presentation, but to say they were hard to follow before the arrival of the Elite Crew would be a gross understatement. New Japan World was a service directly from the days of dial-up, and at many points made me yearn for the good old days of tape trading due to the inept design of the service, but none of that really mattered. New Japan was just a platform for the real draw of the promotion to anti-federation eyes, the Elite.
Sure, the Elite wasn’t the same as it is now, but I think it’s plain to see that Kenny and the Bucks were always a separate entity from the rest of the group. BULLET CLUB had always seemingly coasted on some level of anti-WWE sentiment to garner popularity, but It wasn’t truly leaned into heavily until Kenny and the Bucks took over. The business-savvy Bucks had found their money-making angle, the counterculture was the new in-thing and they were smart enough to capitalize on this sentiment. Ironically, the Elite represented all the things people hated about WWE’s presentation of wrestling, but they told stories with dick jokes and had really great spot-heavy matches that appeal to our demographic, so it was completely fine. The HUNG Bucks, get it? The Elite has a history of dick jokes and Adam Page is the Hangman, so if two plus two is four then that must certainly equal continuity.
Continuity is in general word I hear thrown around a lot in reference to storylines created by the Elite, and I guess when you exist within the confines of your own universe which consists of roughly 20 people and five main characters that’s pretty easy. Sure, we can talk about how everyone stills refers to Adam Cole as if he’s dead when speaking about continuity, but he’s wrestling on NXT every week! Can we say the same about Katie Vick? Would we really say that WWE has continuity in that instance, or would we say the storyline was fucking stupid even in spite of the fact that it was self-contained? Most reasonable fans of the product would usually avoid these storylines, writing them off as goofy fodder for a web-series so long as we continued to be able to watch them perform within the confines of a NJPW or ROH and story structure. After all, it would never bleed into the main show on those brands, the presentation of both brands simply wasn’t going to allow for it, right?
Around this same time, WWE’s presentation was beginning to become noticeably watered down. We were still far removed from the dregs of the 2018 and 2019 main roster product, but sans Daniel Bryan and CM Punk the main roster product had certainly lost a lot of its edge and intrigue for most of the hardcore audience. Many western fans were looking for anything they could latch onto; they were so desperate for something to enjoy they actually thought Ring of Honor was a worthwhile product to consume. This sentiment was brought to the fold in large part due to new star Cody [Redacted], a man who fled WWE after having been paid more money than any of us will see in our lives while there. Cody is a smart businessman, and I’d have a hard time believing he didn’t see the anti-WWE sentiment spreading before asking for his release, and that is why he promptly latched onto the Elite to boost his brand. They had the vibe he was looking for, and it was very clearly profitable.
Ring of Honor was the short-term benefactors of Cody’s rise to fame, they sold out shows left and right as the three-star general rose to prominence. I think by this point even the most fervent Cody supporters would admit he’s nothing special in the ring, in fact, he’s patently below average compared to his other main-event contemporaries yet Cody had one thing going for him. Many people would claim it was his name, but I don’t think my dad is Cody’s core audience. The modern audience doesn’t care that Cody’s last name is Runnels, they finally found their guy who stuck it to the man, their counter-culture icon who left the cushy satin sheets of WWE, to even cushier satin sheets as their hero. Even I had some level of reverence for Cody for taking a chance and leaving the money behind, but in retrospect, he wasn’t taking much of a risk at all. The Young Bucks had shown the ability to monetize this sentiment already, and Cody had made a lateral jump from one money train to the next.
Coinciding with these events, New Japan began to take a new interest in the US market. They had expressed interest in the past, but they didn’t have anything they could truly market to the mass audience until the Elite began to hit their stride. Finally, New Japan had a bunch of marketable acts and matches to throw at the western audience, and they were going to capitalize on it. Periodically, quality of life changes to New Japan World began to occur and while it’s still not perfect, it was much easier to invest in as a fan of the product. The legend of Kenny Omega’s 6-star classics led to international acclaim, every match he had was a star-making performance and the profiles of anyone proximal to him were boosted by association. Make no mistake about it, the International profile of New Japan and its performers were all boosted by Kenny Omega, but this was at least in the beginning a symbiotic relationship. The Elite were getting rich off the corporate platforms provided by New Japan and Ring of Honor, and these corporate entities were growing because of it. It was a win-win for everyone, or at least that’s how it seemed.
Any time you have major stars that are bigger than the promotion itself to a specific portion of the fanbase, you run the risk of those stars having control of the product. The Elite may not have had Creative Control etched into their contracts in 2018, but anyone with eyes could see that Gedo and Delirious were holding hands over the same barrel called US Market Share. The Ring of Honor product suffered as it became a playground for the Bucks and Cody, and New Japan’s booking didn’t appear to be doing much better since the bulk of the year revolved around Kenny Omega and his ideas for what wrestling should be. As of 2018, I truly believe the Elite was going to have to change course if they wanted to maintain the good-will they had garnered to this point, and with that came the miracle of All In.
All In’s significance cannot be understated when looking at the current wrestling landscape. It was the perfect counterculture event, and it confirmed suspicions for everyone involved that the Elite were, in fact, bigger than the brands they represented to a US audience. New Japan in America nor ROH can claim to have drawn as well as All In did, even though it was basically a glorified ROH Supercard featuring a couple of independent guys who aren’t ticket movers. The draw was the Elite, and the success of All In gave the Elite Crew all the leverage they needed over ROH and NJPW, and once you factor in a young son of a billionaire trying to start his own wrestling promotion? Well, you get AEW.
In hindsight, everyone who disliked the New Japan and ROH products of 2018 should’ve known that they wouldn’t like AEW. Anyone who had questions about the content of Being the Elite should’ve known many of those components were going to bleed into the show in some way shape or form, because why wouldn’t they? The Elite had built their name off of being subversive to wrestling at large, and there was no reason to think that they were going to stop now that they had control over an entire company with a national platform. I think deep down, many of us were secretly optimistic that it would be New Japan in America, but to think that was to ignore the previous signs that would say otherwise. We were never going to get that sports presentation we were promised with the current people involved, because that was never really their interest. If they wanted New Japan, they would’ve stayed in New Japan. This was always a vanity project so that they could push their real creative goals on us, and public opinion would imply that many people are rejecting that vision.
In our quest to subvert WWE and find an alternative product we missed the signs. The Elite had more in common with WWE than anyone wanted to admit, and whether or not you agree with the current state of ROH and NJPW it’s hard to think they would’ve been better off embracing WWE-Lite style the Elite are seeming to push to the forefront. The Elite and WWE are more alike than they are different, and they represent many of the issues we as fans were trying to get away from. The Elite are great wrestlers, but in changing the world they just wanted to make it more of the same.