The Death of Niche Wrestling

by Trent Anderson

Not since Vince McMahon tore back the curtain on the sport as a means of sidestepping athletic commissions, and the regulations that would be implemented through which, has wrestling been considered anything more than a grand show full of fanfare and fractured fans. The fallout from which has been minimal from a business standpoint as Network buys have hit the 1.5 million mark, but as is the way with the WWE, where Vince's hubris leads him, destruction is soon to follow.

Right now Japanese, Mexican, and UK based wrestling each are experiencing a much needed renaissance while American based wrestling continues to wane both in ratings and ticket sales. As a means of rectifying the situation, the WWE has branched out into markets that perhaps they dare not venture. Examples of which would be the new cruiser weight division '205 live,' a soon to be named UK based show, and an upcoming woman’s tournament in the same vain as the UK tournament which was moderately successful.

There are a variety of reasons as to why such ventures will fail, but at the center of these is over saturation. Where a year ago the WWE network was scrambling to create new content to increase the network buys, it now has too much content and not enough staffing to consistently contend with, which leavs fans of each sub-genre within the sport disenchanted. Granted, this is uncharted waters, where no one has complete foresight on the direction or the pitfalls that will arise, as the WWE struggles to maintain its global dominance. That alone, however, doesn't grant Vince free license in further watering down a sport that he has a monopoly over.

No, the sands are shifting as both New Japan Pro Wrestling and World of Sports are building to compete internationally. NJPW is looking to begin tours abroad with extended tours in the United States over the next couple years where Sky Sport is working to create a basic cable show featuring local talents that fans will be able to watch for free rather than having to pay ten dollars a month for the WWE Network. Both of which has left Vince scrambling to keep his hand in the proverbial cookie jar with such new content. However, where the WWE was late to the table in trying to capture the upsurge in British based wrestling, or that of the ever growing Indy scene, Vince McMahon had to fend for whatever leftovers he could slap a developmental contract on.

The big gets for the WWE are clearly those fleeing from the sinking ship that is TNA, and then also Nigel McGuinness, but otherwise the talent remains very green, lacking charisma, all the while leaving Smackdown, rather than NXT, to be the post graduate schooling for those that have completed Wrestling 101. And both Smackdown and NXT have far more shades of the indies than the traditional WWE style of wrestling that has further sent non millennial fans elsewhere for their particular wrestling fix.

Less is always more when applying wrestling's trade craft. One of the most recent examples of which could be garnered from NXT Takeover San Antonio. It had all the trappings of a Ring of Honor show but with a larger production budget. Most of the matches where spot fests leaving a forgettable response from its diehard counter culture fans. It wasn't until the main event that fans were treated to a classic match featuring two shining stars -- Bobby Roode and Shinsuke Nakamura -- in a traditional heel versus face fight. It was everything that a wrestling match should be -- featuring great psychology, good pacing, and all the trade craft that one would expect to illicit a visceral response from the crowd.

There was no need for a lot of high spots where both competitors knew how to gauge the raucous crowd, draw them into the story that they wanted to tell, and sell the believability of a full on fight. But as the match began, without a word being said, you instinctively knew who was the good guy and who wasn't. There was no need for a video package setting up the fight, nor a back story leading up to the here and now. No, this was a fight for the NXT championship by two athletes that were diametrically opposed in culture, in styles, and every other way imaginable. And this was achieved simply enough by utilizing the time honored traditions and trade craft that has worked for over a hundred years.

Arguably, two of the best in-ring workers in the modern age are John Cena and Roman Reigns. Both of whom are consistently booed by supposed smart fans who wouldn't know a great wrestling match, or the very machinations that makes one such because they grew up within the sport after the territorial days. Such a fact is regrettable, but forgivable nevertheless where the culture has strayed so far, and has since adopted this Indy scene mentality that spot fests equal paychecks.

Because of which, 205 Live has failed in its efforts thus far to appeal to a ready made fan base. The reasons for which are varied –
Issues for WWE's Cruiser weight Division that will ultimate lead to the same painful end as the Light Heavyweight Division during the Monday Night Wars are man, but lets address the top three:
  1. No recognizable top guys (face or heel) to build the franchise around. Austin Aries, having been cleared to wrestle recently, has yet to do anything more than announcing. But once he returns to the ring, he would fill that top heel spot, potentially carrying the title for awhile, thus lending credibility to the division. The question remains who can step into that top baby face spot … Jack Gallagher? For all of his antics, the show needs credibility and not campiness.
  2. To date, everything on 205 Live is a carbon copy of what you would either see on Smackdown or Raw – conventional, plodding in ring work by athletes that aren't necessarily ready for prime time. 205 Live should be its own thing .. in brand and in production values, but it hasn't achieved that mark. If anything, 205 Live should have the look, the feel, and the grit of a Ring Of Honor show because ultimately that's the type of niche wrestling crowd that you are wanting to appeal to with this gimmick.
  3. Perception is everything, and 205 Live lacks it in glaringly unimpressive ways. The bulk of the roster fall well short of the 205 mark which, combined with the aforementioned issues surrounding this failed venture, lowers the ceiling on how far this show can go from this point forward.
    If the WWE were serious about making 205 Live a legitimate presence on the Network, and something that would appeal to a niche audience – Progress, Lucha Underground, Chikara – it has get those stars like Ricochet, Osprey, Rey Mysterio, that can shoulder this tumultuous burden long enough to groom the rest of the roster as NXT has done. Until the WWE makes this transition, 205 Live has no longevity nor appeal … niche or otherwise.
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