Best For The Business: 2019’s Most Influential People, Promotions and Brands In Pro Wrestling
Best for business—wrestling fans have heard that particular phrase many times in recent years, especially on WWE television as a tagline for The Authority. While it was used as a storyline device, there are a lot of things that have changed since that phrase was first linked to professional wrestling a few years ago—much has radically changed in the past twelve months.
We’re highlighting the business of the (wrestling) business and how the professional wrestling landscape changed in the past year—fans saw the emergence of a new promotion, the return to weekly broadcasting for another legendary one, and a number of changes for the better. In addition, we’re also highlighting some of the names behind the scenes doing some positive things with their roles, whether it’s charity work, fan events or bringing wrestling to new markets.
“Best For The Business” is Wrestlezone’s look back at some of the most influential people, promotions and brands that changed the wrestling business in a positive way in the past year.
All Elite Wrestling
You can’t talk about the year 2019 and professional wrestling without talking about All Elite Wrestling.
Before the letters “AEW” ever came to fruition, WWE was the only mainstream wrestling product that fans could latch onto for nearly two decades. NXT got fans talking about the WWE product in a good way, but RAW and SmackDown let a lot to be desired. Other promotions tried over the years, no one could quite reach the levels of success and mainstream access that WWE had—until now.
If there was no All Elite Wrestling, the wrestling world would look much different. It’s fine if AEW Dynamite is not your cup of tea but you can’t deny the impact the upstart company had on not only WWE, and wrestling in general.
Credit The Elite for having the ambition and experience (and Dave Meltzer for betting Cody in the first place), but this wouldn’t be possible without a strong partner in President and CEO Tony Khan. Coming from the world of football, Khan has provided a new platform for wrestlers and fans as well as opening the door to wrestling’s next boom period.
Jon Moxley and Chris Jericho are just two of the names that saw what AEW was setting out to do and they bought into the company’s plans. AEW has already excelled, beating viewership and ratings predictions, and they were rewarded with a contract extension on TNT after only four months. AEW is sticking around for the foreseeable future, building more stars and getting ready to start a second weekly program.
If AEW became the mainstream alternative to WWE, then NWA became an alternative not only with viewing methods (6:05 PM EST every Tuesday on YouTube), but especially in the art of presentation. Gone are the massive arenas, entryways and theme music in exchange for a couple hundred seats in a famed Atlanta television studio with a black curtain and the velvety-voiced David Marquez introducing talent all with a classic-cool retro backdrop.
Watching on any device you want isn’t a new idea, but NWA Powerrr presented a very new way to watch wrestling with their format. With only an hour (at most) to spare and very tight confines to work in, the main focus of the program is what it truly should be for all wrestling: the personalities. Familiar faces such as Nick Aldis, James Storm, Aron Stevens and Colt Cabana all compliment new stars like Ricky Starks, The Question Mark & Thunder Rosa. Both get “the rub” from one another and everyone, even “enhancement talent” gets their moment to shine in front of the 100 fans. Even a long time veteran like Tim Storm has found new, reinvigorated life under the infamous three letters.
Promos are paramount in the NWA and with the only exception being NXT, Powerrr does the best job at showcasing women’s wrestling. The NWA did have a slight hiccup with the much buzzed-about Jim Cornette-controversy, but as the company looks ahead to 2020, there are so many positives that can be said for the company and it won’t slow them down. The NWA added Stu Bennett and Sean Mooney to the broadcast team, and put on two strong pay-per-view events with their debut, Into The Fire, and last month’s Hard Times.
The one thing Billy Corgan and Dave Lagana can hang their hats on most? Fans and talent are enjoying the retro vibe and it’s a refreshing blast to watch.
Jimmy’s Famous Seafood
Jimmy’s Famous Seafood has become a wrestling pilgrimage for fans and talent when they visit Baltimore. “The Famous” has been in business for nearly five decades; the restaurant was founded by Demetrios “Jimmy” Minadakis and his sons Tony and John took over operations after his passing. They’ve kept the same traditions and standards as their father but now attract the wrestling world with their food, hospitality and charitable efforts. You can regularly find WWE and All Elite Wrestling talent posting on social media about their visits to the restaurant, and fans can enjoy monthly pay-per-view parties on-site too.
Jimmy’s is involved with a number of fundraisers and charities that benefit their local community, and raise awareness for leukemia and pediatric cancer too. They hosted a ‘Celebration Of Hope’ event in January in honor of Roman Reigns after he announced his leukemia diagnosis in 2018, and 100% of the proceeds went to “The Believe In Tomorrow Children’s Foundation”, which provides hospital and respite housing services to critically ill children and their families. The restaurant also recently introduced the Roman Reigns sushi roll, with the profits from that menu item going to Connor’s Cure. John Minadakis told Sports Illustrated that he and Reigns had become friends over the years, and he wanted to do something good and show the WWE Superstar the “power of the community” and do something positive for someone that had already done so much for others.
Some of their other efforts include an annual golf tournament, bowling tournament, Toys For Tots event and other charitable activities each year, many of them featuring participation from local celebrities, pro athletes and some of wrestling’s biggest stars.
Conrad Thompson owns and operates 1st Family Mortgage in Huntsville, Alabama, but wrestling fans know him for his impact on the podcast and (now) the convention scene because of his successful Starrcast weekends. Fan fests are nothing new, with many popular regionalized events and WWE’s WrestleMania Axxess sessions being held annually. But Thompson brought new energy to the convention circuit with Starrcast, hosting three major events in 2019.
Running in conjunction with All Elite Wrestling’s major pay-per-view events of the year, fans from around the country (and world) flocked to Las Vegas, Chicago and Baltimore to join in on the festivities. Those that couldn’t make it in person were able to stream the weekend’s premiere panels live on FITE TV, giving fans access they haven’t had in years past. Thompson has been able to give fans well-rounded talent lineups featuring today’s stars and wrestling legends, and made big waves by booking some rare appearances with names such as The Great Muta and Tom Magee. In one of the biggest moves of the year, Starrcast even got CM Punk for his first wrestling-related appearance in several years when the former WWE Champion took part in Starrcast III in Chicago.
A fifth Starrcast is not currently planned at this time, but the brand has left a lasting impression on the wrestling world and fans are still waiting in anticipation to see how the brand will roll (tide) on.
They’ve been called many things by “traditional” wrestling supporters—including “outlaw mud show” wrestlers—but GCW is literally changing the game in professional wrestling and putting on some of the best events of the year.
Formerly known as Jersey Championship Wrestling, the new “Game Changer Wrestling” debuted in 2015 and the re-branding allowed the promotion to draw in an older audience as well as expand outside of New Jersey. GCW has continued to grow each year, getting national recognition with the first Joey Janela’s Spring Break event in Orlando. That card featured a wide range of talent and match types that highlighted what GCW was trying to accomplish. Fans were treated to technical matchups like Matt Riddle vs. Dan Severn and Lio Rush vs. Keith Lee, which were complemented by the hardcore “Anything Goes” Match featuring Matt Tremont and Eddie Kingston and the Clusterfuck Battle Royal.
Promoter Brett Lauderdale has taken GCW to new heights—and new countries—to showcase GCW’s appeal. In the past year, GCW hosted events in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Nashville and Japan, just to name a venue new markets, with a return trip to Japan in February and a new date in Mexico this May on the horizon.
Janela and Nick Gage are the most notable examples of GCW’s ability to make stars, but they are constantly bringing new names into the fold to give fans a unique show. Spring Break is back for a fourth time in April as is Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport, both of which have become WrestleMania weekend highlights. New themed shows like ‘For The Culture’ and ‘Effy’s Big Gay Brunch’ (under GCW’s The Collective banner) are signs that the promotion won’t stop innovating or slow down any time soon.
Pro Wrestling Tees
If you recently bought new merchandise from your favorite wrestler, there’s a good chance it was created by Chicago’s Pro Wrestling Tees. Started by owner Ryan Barkan, Pro Wrestling Tees was created as an extension of his existing custom t-shirt business, One Hour Tees. Fellow Chicagoan Colt Cabana first linked up with Barkan in 2010 to create CM Punk’s infamous “I Broke Big Show’s Hand” shirt and soon after that a number of wrestlers got involved. ProWrestlingTees.com officially launched in 2013 with Cabana, The Young Bucks, Joey Ryan, Kevin Steen (Owens) and others opening their own stores on the site.
Prior to this, most indie wrestler merchandise was bulk ordered and only sold at shows, and this allowed fans to directly support talent. Wrestlers are not only part of the creative process for their merchandise designs, but they are directly paid royalties for their merchandise. PWTees has featured stores from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, CM Punk and Chris Jericho, along with other legends like “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Andre The Giant, who have officially licensed apparel from their respective estates. Pro Wrestling Tees has grown every year, boasting more than 1,000 wrestler stores, along with paying out more than $5 million in royalties to talent or their families as of August 2019.
PWTees is an on-demand print shop that produces direct-to-garment clothing, and the business has grown enough where the online retailer has a physical storefront location in Chicago. Fans can now pick up their merchandise in person and the venue has been home to a number of meet and greet sessions and fan events. The website does a lot more than t-shirts today, adding action figures, hats, and custom sneakers to the lineup. They also supply Hot Topic and All Elite Wrestling with official merchandise, making it even easier for fans to get their favorite wrestling gear.
Progress Wrestling was started in 2011 by Jim Smallman and Jon Briley (with Glen Joseph joining a few months later) and it was a chance to promote British wrestlers on the rising UK scene. Putting on their first event on March 25, 2012, the new promotion was (punk) rock ’n’ wrestling and became very popular early on. They’ve moved to larger venues and produced international shows, including spots at Download Festival and their own event “Hello Wembley” at the SSE Arena, which ended up being the largest indie wrestling show in England in 30 years.
Some of today’s biggest stars in WWE, New Japan and Ring Of Honor came from PROGRESS, including Marty Scurll, Jimmy Havoc, WALTER, Toni Storm and Will Ospreay. Each event serves as a “Chapter” in the promotion’s history, touting fun and unorthodox show names like We Heart Violence, When Men Throw Men At Men, Cheer Up Juice and Unboxing Live. The ‘Unboxing’ show was not only Chapter 100, but Smallman’s final event as part of management, as he joined WWE under the NXT UK brand and took on a larger role as producer, in addition to citing he wanted to slow down and have more family time. PROGRESS is now run by Briley, Joseph and Matt Richards, who also took over as ring announcer upon Smallman’s departure in January.
PROGRESS has made an impression domestically and internationally, co-promoting events with Germany’s WXW, Canada’s Smash Wrestling, and the United States’ WWNLive and Defy Wrestling. In the past few years, they’ve established a working relationship with WWE and have remained in a strong position in a changing UK wrestling landscape. While some promotions (Defiant, Southside Wrestling, IPW) have closed or been absorbed into other companies, PROGRESS has remained healthy and looks to the future with events like this weekend’s Bang Tidy. The promotion currently has 17 events planned for 2020, including a trip to Tampa for WRESTLExpo as well as the return of Super Strong Style 16 in May.
Masked Republic is one of the premiere brands in Lucha libre merchandise and looks to make the Mexican wrestling culture more accessible to fans in the United States.
Co-founder Kevin Kleinrock has been part of the wrestling world for more than 20 years and alongside Ruben Zamora and their team, Masked Republic has brought the Lucha libre culture to the United States and made it more accessible than ever before. MR is headquartered in San Diego, CA but they also have offices in San Francisco, Mexico City and London and have a hand in creating live events, merchandise and content distribution deals.
Kleinrock has said Masked Republic wants to bridge the gap with their brands, not only entering a market that’s lacking in products, but to help the wrestlers navigate the business world themselves. The company represents a number of Lucha libre’s top names like the Lucha Bros, Rey Mysterio, Tinieblas Jr and Blue Demon Jr , helping them create officially licensed products and navigate the business side of professional wrestling branding. In addition, MR has created their own intellectual property brands like The Luchaverse (comic books), Lucha Loot (merchandise crates), Lucha Central (Lucha Libre news) and Saints & Rudos Streetwear.
Masked Republic launched a number of new products in 2019, and previewed some more things to come like their new Legends of Lucha Libre action figure line from Boss Fight Studio. Three waves of the highly-detailed figures and accessories are already confirmed, and in what will be their third year this August, Expo Lucha is set to visit Philadelphia for their fan festival highlighting Lucha’s past and present. After two successful events in Las Vegas in 2018 and San Diego in 2019, Expo Lucha makes the journey to the famed 2300 (ECW) Arena, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the arrival of the luchadores in ECW back in 1995.