For the last couple decades, wrestling fans have been used to a wrestling universe divided into two categories of promotions: (1) the so-called “indies” (or “independent wrestling” or the “indie circuit”); and (2) the nameless other category, which is not really a category at all since it only includes a single promotion, the WWE.

So that’s the wrestling universe: every wrestling promotion that exists – minus one – versus that single exception. Now, if the former category consisted solely of those generally well-known, kind-of-WWE-competitors – New Japan, Ring of Honor, Impact, Lucha Underground, and now All Elite – then maybe it would make sense to divide the wrestling universe this way.

This classification system would be a way of setting apart the most well-known, biggest revenue-generating (by far) wrestling mega-corporation from the handful of rival wrestling companies, which, if you combined them all into one might in some ways be a more-or-less competitor to the WWE for global wrestling predominance.

You could even include in this latter, non-WWE category the next-level-down wrestling promotions – what I’ll call for now the WrestleMania week promotions. These are wrestling companies beloved by wrestling aficionados; they have some degree national exposure, but they operate on smaller scale than the previously mentioned kind-of-WWE-rivals. Examples of such WrestleMania week promotions include CHIKARA, Combat Zone, SHIMMER, EVOLVE, Shine, Full Impact Pro, wXw, and so on – any promotion whose show is listed in the schedule of WrestleMania week events. In this way of dividing the wrestling universe, “the indies” would be shorthand for the 30ish most prominent wrestling companies not named “WWE.”

The problem with this method of divvying up the wrestling universe is that the indie side of the divide has vastly more than 30ish promotions in it. In actuality, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of indies – a reality that became especially apparent to me when I moved to North Carolina about 15 years ago, and stumbled upon a prevalent form of small-time, small town, extremely local professional wrestling I hadn’t really known existed prior to that point. This type of indie wrestling generally features local, completely normal-sized wrestlers with modest levels of skill, who perform in periodic shows for extremely small audiences in rented spaces like church gyms or National Guard Armories, or in outdoor locations like parking lots or state fairgrounds. These promotions tend to have a minimal online presence – perhaps a Facebook page – and therefore almost no national or even regional exposure. In fact, local indie promotions are barely known outside of the town in which they operate.

Over the last fifteen years, I have made a concerted effort to identify the local indie promotions that operate within a two-hour drive (roughly) of my home in Charlotte, NC. I have come across dozens. Most of them pop up suddenly in a small town, run periodic shows for a couple of years, and then disappear as quickly as they emerged (promotions like New Life Wrestling, Lynx Wrestling Alliance, New Millennial Championship Wrestling, Wrestling for a Reason, and so forth). Others have longer staying power – like Eastern Wrestling Federation, American Pro Wrestling, and perhaps Xtreme World Wrestling (it disappeared for a few years, but has now come back).

The dozens and dozens of local indie promotions in my area aren’t all equal, however; they’re organized in a kind of informal hierarchy. The most short-lived of the promotions also tend to be the smallest – smallest crowds, smallest venues, smallest wrestlers, lowest ticket prices, smallest payouts to wrestlers, and so forth. The best wrestlers of these short-lived promotions get bookings in the next level up – at the local indies with more staying power – while the best wrestlers at these more stable local indies hope to get bookings in the top promotions in the region: Palmetto Championship Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Turbo, and especially AML Wrestling and Premiere Wrestling Xperience. The latter two sit at the top of the pyramid of indie promotions in the geographic region that includes western North Carolina and upstate South Carolina.

From the top of this local pyramid, the best wrestlers hope to get bookings at top-of-the-pyramid promotions in other Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states, or, even better, at the next level up – the WrestleMania week promotions. And from the WrestleMania week promotions, the top talent sometimes make it to the next rung — Ring of Honor, Impact, Lucha Underground – and then from there, a precious few might make it to WWE NXT, and then maybe, finally, to the WWE.

For most wrestlers, however, the journey from local wrestling to the wrestling big time is not as linear as I’m making it sound. Most bounce up and down between levels for many years. A smaller number ascend quickly, skipping levels along the way. A precious few begin their wrestling careers at the top, as fully-formed superstars in the WWE, with little time toiling in the indies (Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey).

The overwhelming majority of professional wrestlers, however, never leave the local level. They have neither the talent nor the desire to do so. Most are content to stay where they are, performing periodically in small-time productions for tiny crowds of appreciative locals.

But for those who do ascend through ranks of indies, the journey can be both thrilling and grueling. In my own little part of the Carolinas, I witnessed my friend Josh Powers become a star about a decade ago in American Pro Wrestling – a level above the smallest of the small-time promotions. He’s now a fixture in the area’s top promotions and, over the last couple of years, has begun to break in to Premiere Wrestling Xperience, the top of pyramid in this region.

I have also witnessed JD Drake (previously known as James Drake…until that became confusing) ascend from the smallest of the small-time promotions (like New Millennium Championship Wrestling), through next-level-up promotions like APW, through regional promotions like PWX, eventually ascending to the WrestleMania week level and becoming EVOLVE’s WWN Champion.

Another local example I’ve seen is Cedric Alexander, who followed a similar trajectory as JD Drake, though Alexander he has reached a higher level, WWE main roster, in a shorter amount of time. 

What I’m describing here is what wrestling fans know as the “indie circuit,” a term that both designates all the wrestling promotions that fall on the indie side of the of the indie-vs.-WWE ledger, and the circuitous path through the indies that most wrestlers take as they attempt to ascend to the wrestling bigtime.

The term, “indie circuit,” however, is incredibly imprecise. The two words that make up the phrase don’t have obvious referents. First of all, “indie,” short for “independent,” begs the question: independent from what, exactly? The WWE? Is that it? Nothing more? Again, we’re back to the problem of divvying up the wrestling universe into two stupendously lopsided categories.

Now, the term “independent” may have had meaning in the 1990s and early 2000s as a few small promotions began to pop up in the wrestling vacuum created when several aspiring wrestling monopolies began consolidating the old wrestling territories. Would-be monopolies included the AWA, UWF, Jim Crockett Promotions (NWA), WCW, and the WWF, which eventually emerged the winner.

Independent promotions that emerged during this time period included Eastern/Extreme Championship Wrestling, Xcitement Wrestling Federation, World Wrestling Allstars, and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. Though these indies were few in number, they certainly were independent of the emerging wrestling behemoths – though their independence was neither as radical nor as dangerous as was the independence of the so-called “outlaw” promotions during the Territory Era.

Setting apart the handful of 1990s-era indie promotions from the handful of aspiring wrestling monopolies, and distinguishing these two categories of promotions from the handful of promotions clinging to the moribund NWA – this was a sensible way of dividing up the wrestling landscape at the end of the last century. It is a less sensible way today when “indie” means everything minus one.

The “circuit” part of “indie circuit” is equally puzzling – if “circuit” is meant to suggest a kind of order or pattern or established relationship. No such circuit of indies exists beyond the informal hierarchy I described earlier — with certain small exceptions like the WWNLive and maybe the remnant of the old National Wrestling Alliance (though, truthfully, I’m not entirely sure I understand what the NWA consists of anymore).

Another kind of semi-formal relationship in today’s pro wrestling is the parallel agreement where indies of the same tier enter into agreements to share talent and co-promote shows (so, for example, ROH and New Japan, or PWX and Fest Wrestling, or the general cooperation during WrestleMania week).

Aside from these few examples, indie wrestling promotions are solo entities — private, autonomous companies, each pursuing its own path.

Wrestling’s indie circuit is not at all comparable to baseball’s minor league system, though that analogy is often made. In contrast to wrestling, baseball actually does have a formal minor league circuit. Or, rather, it has a series of circuits, or leagues, that are hierarchically organized, with formal relationships between clubs at different levels, all of which are grooming and filtering talent from the lower levels to the highest level (Triple-A), and from there to Major League Baseball. The only such formal organizational ties in today’s world of pro wrestling that I’m aware of are the developmental promotions that sometimes attach themselves to a next-level-up promotions: WWE NXT to WWE, for example (though that’s an in-house developmental promotion); or, from a few years back, Ohio Valley to WWE or to TNA. Perhaps EVOLVE is developing this kind of formal relationship with the WWE right now.

The pro wrestling world parallels the world of live theatre much more so than it does the world of organized sports. Broadway, of course, is the pinnacle of live theatre, but there are numerous tiers underneath – from Off Broadway all the way down to small town community theatre and local high school theatre. Live theatre, like wrestling, varies by venue size; talent of the performers; whether or not the performers are paid, and if so, how much; production value; ticket price; and so forth. Moreover, the vast majority of actors, like the vast majority of wresters, work other non-theatre/wrestling jobs to support themselves, and only small percentage actively pursue acting or wrestling as a full-time career.

So what, in the end, is wrong with “indie wrestling” and “the indie circuit”? They are terms that do not adequately reflect the on-the-ground reality of professional wrestling at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century. In the place of a binary method of categorizing all of contemporary wrestling promotions – indies vs. WWE – I propose a five-tiered system that more adequately represents the complicated hierarchy of wrestling promotions discussed above. A few points about the tiers before I list them.

  1. Tiers are distinguished by the scope of a promotion’s reach; the size of its fan base; the size, quality, and frequency of live shows; overall revenue generated; and so forth
  2. As one descends from top to bottom, the tiers become vastly larger. In other words, there are precious few promotions at the top, and an enormously large number at the bottom
  3. Within a given tier, there are often sub-tiers (based on the criteria articulated above)
  4. Promotions can ascend or descend levels over time
  5. Casual wrestling fans will likely have only heard of the promotions on the top two tiers
  6. Ardent wrestling fans will have heard of the promotions on the first three tiers; they will likely only know a handful of promotions on the fourth tier
  7. The only people who know of the existence of promotions on the bottom tier are the ardent wrestling fans who comprise that promotion’s local fanbase
  8. Even though I just invented the five-tier system (below), I don’t know where to put several well-known promotions (New Japan, CMLL). I also don’t really know which promotions outside of my own region ought to populate the bottom two tiers

Tier 1: International Promotions (1 or 2)

WWE, New Japan(?)

Tier 2: National Promotions (5-6?)

New Japan (?), All-Elite, Ring of Honor, Impact, Lucha Underground, CMLL(?)

Tier 3: Trans-Regional Promotions (20ish?)

CMLL(?), EVOLVE, Combat Zone, CHIKARA, Dragon Gate, Full Impact-Pro, SHIMMER, Shine, Westside Xtreme, International Pro (UK), Game Changer, Absolute Intense, or any other promotion that appears on the WrestleMania week schedule

Tier 4: Regional Promotions (75-100ish?)

In Western North Carolina & Upstate South Carolina: Premiere Wrestling Xperience, AML

Tier 5: Local Promotions (multiple 100s)

In Charlotte, NC and surrounding area (up to 20): Xtreme World Wrestling, American Pro Wrestling, Eastern Wrestling Federation, Pro Wrestling Turbo, Palmetto Championship, Exodus Wrestling Alliance, Ring Wars, United Christian Championship, Classic Pro, etc.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem with “Indie Wrestling” (hint: it’s not the wrestling)

  1. I love this post, but want to push it further — misread, it could be reduced to “geography” and “audience size” as the criteria for distinguishing the levels you’ve established. I know it’s more nuanced than that, but those do seem to be driving forces in your categorization.

    But…

    It presupposes that the organizations serve the same function… That the local promotion is doing the same thing that the regional promotion is doing, that the WWE is doing, but with differences in geographic reach and audience size.

    But I’m not sure that the dude assembling a ring in a VFW Hall is doing the same work that Vince McMahon is doing, or even that the large regional performers are doing. And I will say, right up front: I happily and enthusiastically attend indy shows, without any interest at all in participating in the WWE or WWE NXT cultures/activities.

    What I expect in that un-air-conditioned American Legion on a Saturday Night is different from a WWE show, and I think the promoter knows that, and they have agreed to do something else, too.

    What, in other words, the difference between indies and the majors and the regionals between was not of size or scale, but of kind? How would we talk about that?

    Like

    1. Thanks for the comment and the push back.

      I don’t know. I can’t see how it’s a difference of kind. The wrestlers in the VRW Hall have learned the exact same wrestling vernacular (i.e., moves & sequences) as the WWE wrestlers, and they’re engaging in the same kind of embodied storytelling on the same dramatic stage (the ring) when they perform. The only real differences I see are the ones I list in the article. (If geography and audience size are two big categories, I’d also add performer’s skill-level as a third.) As for the local promoter, you’re right that he’s not exactly the equivalent of McMahon, but that’s mostly because he’s performing several roles at the same time (promoter, booker, writer, set up crew, sales, etc.) — roles that get split up when the company is as large as the WWE.

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