WrestleMania has been American wrestling’s marquee event for decades, and over the past few years, it’s also morphed into a special showcase weekend for indie wrestling. 

In 2004, a then-independent Ring of Honor capitalized off of the huge influx of wrestling fans in the NYC tristate area for WrestleMania XX by running their At Our Best supercard show the night before Mania, approximately one hour away from the venue. Since then, other indie promotions have followed suit by booking splashy cards in the same area on the same weekend as WrestleMania. 

In the past ten or so years, a number of indie shows have emerged as consistent pillars of indie WM weekend – GCW’s The Collective shows (especially Joey Janela’s Spring Break, and Bloodsport) and Wrestlecon’s Mark Hitchcock Memorial Super Show, in particular, have become almost institutional parts of WM weekend. These shows made their reputation by consistently featuring a mix of high-quality talent, and creative bookings that ultimately create a wrestling environment that feels fun and different from your standard fare.

Coming into the 2024 WrestleMania Weekend, many fans were concerned that the indie scene had become relatively “dried up,” with much of the premier talent signed to big league promotions, and a relative dearth of high-profile rising stars stepping up to instantly take their spots. Indeed, many WrestleMania weekend indie mainstays – the likes of MJF, Pentagon Jr., Walter/Gunther, Orange Cassidy, etc., are now featured TV talent for AEW and WWE. This was already largely the case last year, but a few distinct high-profile bookings, such as the Japanese wrestling legend Kota Ibushi, and the rapidly ascending Lucha Libre star El Hijo del Vikingo (both now signed to AEW), helped compensate for the other departures. This year’s cards didn’t really feature any such “must see” stars or truly exotic bookings whose individual presence alone would justify fans going out of their way to watch (thanks in part to visa issues that kept 19 CMLL wrestlers, including Volador Jr., Hechicero, Mascara Dorada, and Blue Panther, out of the US). 

Regardless, plenty of fans (including this writer) converged on Philadelphia for WrestleMania weekend with no aspirations of attending any WWE events. And when it was all said and done, for the most part, this year’s top indie shows of WrestleMania weekend were just as fun and memorable as past iterations, and well worth attending live. 

GCW’s Bloodsport show, promoted as Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport ever since original namesake Matt Riddle previously left the indies for NXT/WWE, stands out from the pack regardless of the particular matchups on the card due to its unique ruleset and presentation. A throwback to UWFI shoot-style pro wrestling, Bloodsport shows allow the audience to suspend disbelief to a greater extent than usual by grounding matches in a sense of martial arts-inspired realism. As a result, the best performances are more likely to feature wrestlers with some set of shoot fighting skills than those with big names or fancy arsenals of signature moves. 

GCW did an excellent job of using the dynamic of shoot-style setting to get the most out of their talent this year. For example, for years pro wrestling fans have heard about the legendary collegiate wrestling career of Nic Nemeth, but a career working WWE-style matches never gave Nemeth much of a chance to showcase it. In his Bloodsport X matchup with “Speedball” Mike Bailey, Nemeth got to work a match centered around his shoot wrestling skills clashing with Speedball’s tae kwan do. The result was a fast-paced and short match; a quick sprint of non-stop, mostly realistic action – a description that applies equally to virtually any good match in the Bloodsport format. Other wrestlers with shoot-style backgrounds flourished similarly and helped carry another enjoyable entry for Bloodsport, ranging from legends and Bloodsport mainstays such as current namesake Josh Barnett and Minoru Suzuki, to WWE’s former MMA-fighter Shayna Baszler, and GCW regular Masha Slamovich.

However, the best match on Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport X diverged from the tried and true formula – instead featuring a battle between tag team partners, pitting the Astronauts Fuminori Abe and Takuya Nomura against each other. Neither wrestler has a particularly strong shoot background, and in fact, they didn’t really go for a true shoot-style match here. What they did deliver was a stiff match that felt like it landed somewhere between shoot style and old school kings road hard-hitting wrestling. This match was heavy on hard headbutts, to the extent that Nomura was hard way cut by one. More than any other match on the card, and maybe any other match on the “big” indie shows of the weekend, this match didn’t just entertain; it left fans hungry to see more of Abe and Nomura. 

The latest iteration of the Mark Hitchcock Memorial Wrestlecon Supershow had a starkly different atmosphere than GCW’s Bloodsport show. GCW, running at a catering hall for the weekend, had a definite indie feel; the sort of punk rock feeling of being part of a “scene” that others might not even know to look for. For Wrestlecon Supershow, the audience skewed a bit older, and definitely felt more like a crowd that was in town for a convention (duh), or to kill time before WrestleMania proper, compared to the GCW crowd that felt more dedicated to showing up specifically for GCW. 

Unfortunately, the Wrestlecon Supershow had fewer tricks to pad out its card, and the show was probably the least memorable iteration in years, if not ever. Over the years, Wrestlecon Supershow has made its name by booking a mix of nostalgic names from the past, and legitimate top-tier talent to create a number of “dream match” type events. With less truly tippy-top tier names on the indies, this left Wrestlecon Supershow mostly booking nostalgia this year. To their credit, emanating from the former “ECW Arena” (now the 2300 Arena) definitely made the nostalgia hit that much harder, especially for fans in the building. The show featured six ECW acts across four of the eight matches on the card. The match that came closest to the “special” feeling of Supershows in the past was probably Josh Alexander vs. Masato Tanaka, another hard-hitting, quick match that was stiff enough to draw some hardway blood. The card’s other nostalgia matches were about par for the course. The rest of the card never managed to really shift into gear; Michel Oku vs. Titan was simply unremarkable, and the CMLL vs. Dragongate 10-man tag was a slow, long match with little heat or momentum, despite featuring rising stars such as Shun Skywalker and Barbaro Cavernario. Without access to master in-ring talents like Will Ospreay and Bandido (or to some of the international cream of the crop due to visa issues), Wrestlecon Supershow struggled to find its footing this year.

Joey Janela’s Spring Break 8 had to cope with some of the same visa-caused booking issues that Wrestlecon did, but as usual, this show found a way to be fun as hell regardless of who is booked. Sure, a few matches on the card dragged or otherwise didn’t meet their potential, but it’s hard to imagine any fan walking away from the show with those matches in mind. Spring Break 8 delivered another self-aware, post-ironic celebration of everything that makes wrestling entertaining – the violence, the ceremoniousness, the melodrama, and the silliness. What other indie could get so much mileage out of an anonymous comedy act like Blue Kane, or out of intergender bouts featuring straight-faced wrestling badasses like Tanaka, Suzuki, and Nick Gage? 

For those not interested in pure wrestling irony and goofy sports entertainment, GCW’s roster is pretty packed with athletic young names who flashed plenty of promise as the next generation of indie wrestling stars – Jordan Oliver, Philly local Marcus Mathers, and Alec Price may not be draws yet, but they are all exciting prospects who should be monitored for more good things in the near future.

Of course, there was plenty of great indie wrestling outside of WM weekend’s “big 3” indie shows. To many indie fans, the weekend highlights were the TJPW shows hosted as part of GCW’s Collective. Perhaps the most buzzed-about show of the weekend was ACTION Wrestling’s DEAN~!!!, which featured a variety of ironic fun and wrestling ultraviolence not unlike a JJSB show, including a standout Dog Collar match with Mad Dog Connelly vs. Demus El Demonio. Even shows like PROGRESS: Freedom Walks Again had “diamonds in the rough” like Pro Wrestling NOAH’s YOICHI vs. British rising prospect Ricky Knight Jr. in a hard-hitting title match.

Clearly, the indie wrestling world does not begin or end with GCW Bloodsport, Wrestlecon Supershow, and Joey Janela’s Spring Break, but it remains true that fans can effectively survey the general state of indie wrestling by assessing the quality of these three cards.

While few fans would probably pick any of this year’s WrestleMania Weekend indie shows as the best iteration ever, there was a major disparity between the quality of the GCW shows and the Wrestlecon show. Fans, wrestlers, and promoters might note that creative presentation is a good way to compensate when big names are unavailable.

GCW did a superb job of cultivating an atmosphere that makes its shows impossible to resist, no matter what’s on the card.

VOW’s Top 10 Matches & Top 3 Shows of WrestleMania Weekend 2024