Independent Pride by Marc Madison

For those of us that follow wrestlers on social media, we are often exposed to a blend of both fantasy and reality in what they say. A retired wrestler that is as intelligent in other aspects of life as he is in wrestling is one John Bradshaw Layfield. He has been there and done that in wrestling, has been a Tag Team, Intercontinental and World Champion. He definitely is entitled to his opinion, and when he does so has a widespread reaction to what he says. It isn’t my place to speculate on what he may or may not have done; when it comes to alleged bullying behind the scenes, it is a discussion best left for another day and another time. What I AM wondering about is something else he said, something that had me considering its value because it may not be an opinion shared by wrestling fans, whether they are fans of WWE or other parts of the business. His comments were directed towards one person in AJStyles, but really could apply to anyone else on the roster.

First off, what I am alluding to started with a recent edition of Bring it to the Table (which airs on WWE Network) with Corey Graves, JBL and Peter Rosenberg. As usual, a number of different topics were discussed; the program generally taps into items of interest to the internet wrestling community that is expressed on social media and explores those topics either in a genuine manner or in a manner that plays into kayfabe. They generally blend the two pretty seamlessly, so it can be difficult to decipher if they are expressing how they actually feel about a topic. In any event, the topic that caused me to raise a Spockian eyebrow was the expressed sentiment of why any wrestler would be proud of being on the independent circuit for such a long time. The discussion generally centered on AJ Styles and the belief that he didn’t actually ‘make it’ until he arrived in WWE. I’m paraphrasing here, but the belief being stated was that Styles, for all his previous achievements around the world, didn’t matter until now.

Well, in suggesting that, all that Styles achieved in TNA, where he earned a name and reputation for himself, plus all he accomplished afterward in Japan and with Ring of Honor was negated. JBL suggesting that talent shouldn’t be proud of those past accomplishment insults grassroots independent wrestling which aspiring wrestlers need to go through in order to be given that opportunity in a company such as the WWE. Styles was considered at one time to be the best wrestler not in WWE. In several interviews, he has noted that that in previous years the time wasn’t right, the offer wasn’t right, or it didn’t work for his family. Competing in the ‘minor leagues’ meant looking at the whole picture, including the personal.

Fans often hear about the ‘WWE style.’ The term refers to the fact that the company presents itself, and constructs matches, differently than what is seen in other companies. It’s how they present their product. In the case of AJ Styles, he came into WWE without going through NXT and didn’t have a delayed build before one day appearing on either Raw or Smackdown Live. The same happened with Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows, as all three men were immediately brought to the company’s flagship program Raw in early 2016.

JBL’s comments can be viewed in one of two lights. He isn’t one to insult Japan, as WWE has a strong fan base there, but at the same time, he is not giving just due to wrestlers honing their craft in other promotions. It’s a risky argument to be talking about because of these companies, while small, are necessary for WWE. While WWE has a Performance Center that helps young aspiring talent and already established talent, it isn’t the sole place the company leans on for recruiting and elevating their men and women. When we see the likes of SamiZayn, Kevin Owens, Austin Aries, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Roderick Strong, KassiusOhno,HideoItami, Finn Balor, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, Bayley,ShinsukeNakamura,Tye Dillinger and so on as part of Raw and Smackdown Live, we must realize a great deal of time and effort went into the development of these men and women before they were in the Performance Center. While their ages suggest that they are young, they aren’t when it comes to time left to give to wrestling. We once identified a wrestler’s personal bump card, and how many they have left before their time in the ring is up. The likes of Nakamura, Strong, Balor,Itami,Ohno, and Aries are all approaching (or past) their mid-thirties. If they could have been in WWE earlier, does JBL not think that they would have been? We can’t suggest that we know what is going on, both personally and professionally that leads to a delay in a wrestler’s signing with the company. Another thing that must be taken into consideration is where that wrestler is at mentally at that time.

The criticism is about whether or not someone should be proud of being in the minor leagues, but don’t forget that they may be proud while probably being a bit frustrated as well. What pride could they honestly be feeling if they question if it is really all worth it? How many times in our day to day lives are we challenged by someone we meet or have to work with, and simply work to avoid it? Let’s consider the risk of injury for a wrestler. JBL, do you feel they are proud of having to answer questions about their professional future? The sacrifices made during that period of time should make us appreciate if someone is willing to do that in front of a crowd of 200, what will they do for a crowd of 20,000?

In fact, we would be hard pressed to find any wrestler that says they are proud of being in what JBL deemed the ‘minor leagues’. However, it is during that time, making those sacrifices that they acquire a following that appreciates what they did to get where they are. Whenever a wrestler has said they have been all over the world, they are proud of the fact that they have competed in different countries, making the choice to be away from their families to learn different styles, taking risks while having no knowledge of the local language, in hopes of one day being on a stage where their chance to excel is there for everyone to see.

We may be taking JBL’s comments all too literally, but they do a disservice to those men and women working to have their names heard and their reputations built. We have seen recent on-screen additions to the WWE’s NXT roster such as Ruby Riot and Kimberly Franklee, who built a name for themselves on the independent scene as Heidi Lovelace and Kimber Lee respectively. There comes a time when pride in being on the independent circuit isn’t necessarily seen as a negative either. If they didn’t compete for the companies they did, building their reputations, then they wouldn’t be where they are today. Bayley often discusses her dream as a child of wanting to become a wrestler. If she didn’t compete in promotions such as Shimmer, fans wouldn’t have come to love watching her in the ring, those same fans who have loved seeing her ascend to the top of the women’s division on Raw. She has become the great female protagonist that fans want to stand behind.

It should also be noted how ShinsukeNakamura is identified in a different light. He had to start somewhere and had to challenge himself. Some may recall that at one time, a young Nakamura faced a much larger Brock Lesnar while they were in New Japan Pro Wrestling. If Nakamura didn’t build this name, reputation and the mystique around him, creating a buzz organically, then would he even be a consideration in the WWE today?

JBL is aware there are a number of quality men and women not in the promotion that still aspires to get in. Whether they have voiced it publicly or not, the idea has probably crossed the minds of those that are in different promotions in the UK, Japan, Mexico, or North America. And if they don’t want to compete for WWE, that should be valued as well. The problem is it seemed dismissive of everything these men and women worked to achieve because it was done in the ‘minor leagues’.

To anyone that supports independent wrestling, continue to support your local promotions because the talent you watch develop today could easily become the stars you watch tomorrow. That badge of honor should be worn by these men and women that continue to aspire to be great. Don’t let time be a consideration, focus on yourself. Wear your own personal convictions as your badge of honor because it is something to be proud of.

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