Gabe Sapolsky began his professional wrestling career in 1993, working behind the scenes for ECW. He was a large part of the day-to-day operations of ECW until the company closed in 2001. Having experienced so much of the day-to-day operations of an independent wrestling promotion, Gabe co-founded Ring of Honor in 2002 as head booker.
Under Gabe's guiding hand, Ring of Honor quickly rose to prominence in 2002 and 2003 as an independent promotion that specialized in "dream matches" and a focus on the wrestling-as-sport aesthetic. In 2004 the company began to shift to a focus on more in-depth storytelling and serialized booking. 2004 in Ring of Honor was largely defined by the three-match series between CM Punk and Samoa Joe, the second match being given a five-star rating by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer (the first match in North America to have received the rating since 1997). As a result, in 2004, Sapolsky won Booker of the Year honors from the Wrestling Observer, an honor that he would receive for four straight years.
Gabe parted ways with Ring of Honor in 2008 and has begun a new venture, working with Japan's Dragon Gate promotion in launching Dragon Gate USA. Dragon Gate USA's first event airs this Friday, September 4th on pay-per-view.
Cageside Seats spoke with Gabe to get his thoughts on DGUSA, ROH, and the current state of independent wrestling.
Cageside Seats: How did your involvement with Dragon Gate USA come about?
Gabe Sapolsky: I have been working with the Dragon Gate office and wrestlers since 2005 when they first came to ROH and we have built a strong relationship and a lot of trust. They approached me about running a show after I was fired from ROH. We then developed the idea to become a full fledged promotion with pay-per-view.
The launch of DGUSA is already receiving rave reviews. What are Dragon Gate’s immediate goals for their US branch?
Our goal is to be the premium brand of pro wrestling. We are the Ferrari of pro wrestling. I believe the reviews of our first event mean that we have already established ourselves as that premium brand. This doesn't just mean that we have great, athletic wrestling, but it means the fans receive first class treatment. We are also aware that these are hard times for a lot of people so we want to keep things affordable. Since our plan is to only run about six shows a year, this means that for only a little more than $150 over the course of an entire year that you can see every DGUSA event on pay-per-view or own every DVD and attend the two live events in your area if you live in Chicago or the Northeast. When you look at it that's only $150 or so to see every match, every angle, follow the episodic series and see the best, athletic wrestling on the planet live and not miss one single thing. I don't know where else in any form of entertainment that you can find a deal like that.
The first few announced rosters for DGUSA shows feature many of the most popular wrestlers from Dragon Gate, but there are many DG wrestlers who have never performed for an American audience. Are there any DG wrestlers that you are hoping to bring in for their American debut in the future?
You worked with Brian Kendrick, as Spanky, on two separate occasions, in 2002 and in 2004-2005. How does it feel to be working with him again? How is it different this time?
We are both a little older and a little more mature. We are also both better at what we do, smarter and more experienced. I really feel very lucky to be able to not only work with Brian Kendrick again, but be able to watch him perform free from restraints and politics. He will really thrive in the DGUSA environment.
You’re also presenting Bryan Danielson in one of his last matches before he goes to WWE. Tell us a little bit about your long working relationship with Danielson, and how it feels to have him moving to a larger stage.
Bryan is a franchise athlete. He knows how to lead in the locker room, he sets great examples and he truly is the "best in the world" in the ring. I am happy for Bryan and I hope he makes lots of money and I'm sure he will.
How did DGUSA come to be working with Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler? How familiar are they with the Dragon Gate product?
DGUSA isn't working with Ross and Lawler, but we are thrilled to have them at our September 6th Chicago show. Highspots set up the autograph signing and they are guests of Highspots at their vendor table at our show. You can go to www.Highspots.com for more info.
The November DGUSA event will feature a tournament for Dragon Gate’s American title. Will this belt only be defended at DGUSA events?
CHIKARA wrestlers are also featuring heavily on the DGUSA events so far. What is the working relationship like between CHIKARA and Dragon Gate?
It is a great relationship and CHIKARA has been instrumental in DGUSA's success so far. They have really created an exciting and unique product and their wrestlers mesh perfectly with the Dragon Gate talent. CHIKARA has put on some great events this year and everyone should check out a DVD. I really enjoyed the "King Of Trios" tournament myself. I'm looking forward to more of what CHIKARA and DGUSA can do together.
Are there any independent wrestlers that you’re hoping to bring into DGUSA in the future?
Yes, we are always looking for new talent.
CIMA, Shingo, BxB Hulk, Naruki Doi and Dragon Kid are well-known to many American fans and extremely popular. Who do you feel is going to be the next breakout Dragon Gate star for American audiences?
I think just about anyone on their roster can really break out. YAMATO got over great on our first event and just oozes charisma. Ryo Saito & Genki Horiguchi are an amazing tag team and I'm looking forward to what they can do in Chicago against The Young Bucks on September 6th. Mochizuki could really shine in America too. They have a wealth of great talent and there will never be a shortage of potential breakout stars.
Who on the independent level do you feel has the potential to be the next big indie star?
I think if you pay attention to FRAY!, our "bonus match" for Golden Ringside ticket holders, you'll see some great talent and guys just waiting for the next platform to fine tune and show off their skills. We will also include this match as a DVD bonus when the live events come out on DVD so everyone will get to see it and then determine the next big indie star.
What is it like to see CM Punk headlining WWE pay-per-views as a three-time World Heavyweight Champion?
Well, there is a reason I did everything I could to keep Punk in ROH and he has proved it on Smackdown. The entire show is built around him now and he's responded like a world champion should and made the most of the spotlight. I'm not surprised in the least that he's had this kind of success. I think this is just the beginning for him too.
Which indie wrestlers do you feel have the potential to achieve the level of success that CM Punk has attained?
Honestly, I don't know if there is anyone on that level right now. There are lots of great, exciting talent out there, so don't get me wrong, but I don't want to go so far as to say that one of them will reach the same level of stardom as Punk.
How does your role in Dragon Gate USA differ from the role you had in Ring of Honor?
There are a lot of differences. In ROH I was just the booker. I had a completely different mentality with how I interacted with the fans and how I conducted myself. Now I don't want to be known as a booker. I'd rather be known as a customer service guy. My job now involves just about every aspect of Dragon Gate USA. Now I'm booking buildings, handling tickets, working on merchandise, promoting, making various deals and lots of other things. I am having much more fun with everything as I really like the DIY feel of it. I am also having a lot more fun doing all these different things. As far as how I conduct myself, I feel much less distant from the fans and am much more open with things. I think the fact that I am completely refreshed and having fun is reflected in how I approach my job with DGUSA.
What are your thoughts on the ROH on HDNet television show?
If it leads to their survival I think it's great. I haven't actually seen the show though so I can't comment on the actual show.
What are your thoughts on the Jerry Lynn ROH title reign, and on Austin Aries’ new character and role as ROH champion?
I would not have gone in the Jerry Lynn direction as ROH World Champion and that might have been one of the reasons I was fired. Whether I was right or wrong with that I don't know. I don't know the numbers there so maybe they did great business with him as champion. I haven't seen any of the new Austin Aries character so I can't comment, but obviously you can tell from my past booking that I am a big Austin Aries fan.
During your time in Ring of Honor, you saw a lot of scary moments like the Steen and Generico vs. Briscoes ladder match at Man Up, and some serious concussions and injuries with the likes of Nigel McGuinness. Chris Nowinski also came to ROH and visited with the wrestlers, talking about the dangers of concussions. Do you feel like independent wrestlers should be taking fewer risks?
Everyone feels that way and I think wrestlers are taking fewer risks and working smarter now. Everyone is more educated on when injuries occur and the proper way to treat them. I think there have been lots of positive changes in recent years.
What one moment or match do you consider to be the "high-water mark" of Ring of Honor? Was there a moment where you thought to yourself, "It will never get this good again"?
There was never a moment where I thought to myself that "it will never get this good again" because when I was booking ROH I always thought we could top or maintain what we are doing. Looking back now I guess you can say the pinnacle of my time there was Cage Of Death, but I could change that answer with some more thought.
Who are your favorite wrestlers to work with?
I've really enjoyed working with just about everyone. It is hard for me to pick favorites.
If you watch their product, I’d like to get your thoughts on some other US promotions:
CHIKARA: Unique, entertaining, exciting and worth giving a shot.
PWG: Don't see much, but they put together some great matches.
CZW: Havent seen it in years, but I'm interested to see where things go with the ownership change.
IWA-MS: No comment.
What is your favorite match that you’ve ever booked, promoted or been involved with?
Again, hard for me to pick a favorite since there are so many. Right now I would really have to say it was the first Dragon Gate USA show that will air on pay-per-view starting on September 4th. It might have been the best top to bottom card I have ever been associated with and that covers a lot of ground. That just isn't hype either or me trying to get buys. I really feel that way and I think you will to after you see it. Personally, it was a night of redemption for me and I'm very proud of the fact that we packed The Arena and everything went so smoothly for the fans. I guess this is more my favorite event than match, but the first DGUSA show is what comes to mind right now.
What is your favorite match (or matches) as a wrestling fan?
I was there when Randy Savage defeated Tito Santana for the IC Title in the Boston Garden and that is one of my favorite moments as a fan. I remember being stunned when it happened.
When all is said and done, what will you hope to have accomplished in the world of professional wrestling?
Well, I guess I'm already accomplished everything I want to in the world of professional wrestling. I was involved with two special promotions in ECW and ROH and now I am able to take what I learned there and apply it to Dragon Gate USA and provide a premium product there. I've been very lucky and fortunate to be a part of these things.
What milestones do you see yourself reaching in 2010?
I don't really look at things as milestones, I just strive everyday to help create a high quality product and my goal would be to continue that in 2010.
Check out the Dragon Gate USA website, which includes information on the upcoming PPV, at www.DGUSA.tv