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The Globalization and Homogenization of Pro Wrestling; or, Star Ratings Without Variation

A look at how the evolution of professional wrestling has created a formula and stifled unique styles.

Kenny Omega wins the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship.
Esther Lin for SBNation

Like many other forms of entertainment over the years, professional wrestling has been slowly but steadily evolving. What was originally a carny sideshow to grift people out of money somehow evolved into an entertaining spectator sport that slowly shifted its focus from realism to brute entertainment. Bright lights, colorful characters, rock anthems, deception and high drama became the norm and what helped to push wrestling forward. Wrestling varied in style, feel and intent from region-to-region, country-to-country over the years. Yet, modern wrestling has evolved to a point where the once vibrant and varying styles have all blended together to fit a very narrow taste profile and mold.

One of the key concepts that has helped to fuel our modern political, economic and cultural discourse has been that of globalization. Globalization relies on an interconnected world where ideas and resources are freely exchanged. Sometimes -- as critics claim -- at the cost of diversity and freedom. Movements like the UK's Brexit and the American conservatives who have supported nationalist Donald Trump have rallied against globalization, looking instead to hearken back to an age when great nations could support themselves and spread their own influence, as opposed to letting attrition sculpt how we live.

Pro wrestling has not been immune to these movements, either. What was once an incredibly regional or nationalistic form of entertainment all around the globe has shifted gears multiple times to appeal to broader audiences. Regional styles that once felt so starkly different have slowly morphed and transmuted thanks to the sharing of ideas, styles and concepts, leading to what I call the globalization of professional wrestling. Gone are the days when Hulk Hogan stomped around waving an American flag after defeating a dastardly foreigner, or where Rikidozan defended Japan against westerners in a post-World War II Japan. In fact, it has gone farther than that, bleeding into the product that we consume on a regular basis.

Wrestling has always varied stylistically by region, with southern wrestling looking different than midwestern wrestling and different than northeastern wrestling or even Texas wrestling. Mexico's lucha libre became a style of its own, a product of Mexico's culture and heritage. The same could be said for Japan, with Shohei Baba and Antonio Inoki branching off from Rikidozan to form two unique styles of wrestling in Baba's King's Road and Inoki's Strong Style, each one featuring different nuance. Little splinters like this occurred everywhere, with British wrestling taking on more of a grappling, showmanship style, American wrestling focusing on high drama, bright lights and all of the American excess. All Japan's King's Road was based on slower built matches, leading up to toughman style high drama and, of course, later on, head drops. New Japan's "Strong Style" was essentially whatever the leader of the promotion was doing at the time, from Inoki "Strong Style" to Choshu, Hashimoto, Chono and Tanahashi's own take on the style over time.

The kid that grew up trading tapes, chatting in IRC and obsessing over forums looking for the best wrestling in the world should look at the wrestling landscape of today and not only be excited, but elated that my hopes and dreams for wrestling came true. Sure, WWE is still pretty damned ridiculous, but there are more long TV matches now than ever. There's even shoulder programming like NXT, 205 Live and the WWE Network tournaments that help make WWE a strange workrate dream. Don't even get me started on their roster, because it's nothing short of jaw-dropping, featuring the very best-of-the-best from around the world (with a few, notable exceptions). New Japan dragged itself out of the gutter to reimagine what Japanese pro wrestling should be while racking up Dave Meltzer snowflakes along the way, culminating in this weekend's pair of G1 Special shows. Yet, that kid feels a sense of malaise with modern wrestling.

On top of that, there isn't even a need to tape trade, buy DVDs from shady guys in IRC chats or even torrent anymore. It's all just out there. Streaming networks bring to the comfort of our homes virtually everything in the world, from the best in Japan to every indie promotion in the US or UK that can afford an HD camera and an internet connection with stuff like NJPW World, DDT Universe, Stardom World, and FloSlam.

Yet, something feels off.

A huge part of my wrestling journey growing up was WCW. Sure, WCW was a big, hot mess and we all know that, yet there was something about WCW that offered up a glimpse into the wide world of pro wrestling. For a lot of us that was the first place that we got to see someone like Jushin Liger, Eddie Guerrero, something resembling lucha libre and the British "brawler" styles emphasized by guys like Regal and Finlay. There wasn't a strict adherence to one style, but instead the disarray of the company led to a lot of different kinds of wrestling making it on air. As long as you were willing to ignore the commentary making exclamations about Hulk Hogan or the Macho Man, you could see some pretty interesting stuff. It made for an interesting gateway into a wider realm of wrestling.

It's that sort of variety that feels missing from today's wrestling.

Watching current WWE, PWG, EVOLVE, Progress or even wide swaths of New Japan you'll be hard-pressed to see a lot of these different styles anymore. Modern wrestling has become the ultimate pastiche, with hardcore fans becoming wrestlers and taking their fandom in with them. In the early 00's there was the rise of the "super indies" with the likes of Low Ki, Bryan Danielson, Samoa Joe, CM Punk, Christopher Daniels and others carving out a place for themselves by working a more pronounced, Japanese-influenced style. While previous generations had exchanged paper newsletters and magazines, with only a select few doing tours of other nations, now this generation was trading tapes, playing imported video games, participating in forums and reading critical breakdowns of matches.

The matches at the time felt like homages or carbon copies as opposed to unique, original takes on pro wrestling, but they were popping live audiences and lighting the highly-influential internet on fire. Tapes, then DVDs became the norm, with international tape trading switching to burned DVDRs of events and comps, making them cheaper and more accessible than ever. This generation then started to spread out, to work in Mexico, the UK and Japan more and more. Some had more success than others, but each was able to hone their craft and serve as a sponge, bringing back what they learned and folding it into the whole.

Now when you watch WWE, the style that is presented is a far cry from what American wrestling was before, instead looking more like a 2007 Ring of Honor DVD than one of Vince's old PPVs. Following in the footsteps of world travelers like Chris Jericho, Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit and others, this generation was blending their styles together, sampling the coolest new moves and making them their own. This new generation of indie wrestlers were helping to mold the next generation, all while they themselves were growing more polished and would soon find themselves in more prominent positions than traveling from town-to-town for $50 a night.

The Internet's influence on professional wrestling only grew and grew. Gone are the days of any wrestling being obscure, instead we have an era where everything is available within seconds. But also gone is the diversity in pro wrestling styles. The idea of New Japan's "Strong Style" became an indie darling talking point, with Americans adapting the phrase for their own hybrid style, fusing together the mid-90's high flying with the stiff strikes of New Japan and the head drop high drama of All Japan and NOAH into one homogeneous style.

If you tune into WWE Monday Night Raw now, that's the style that you'll see on display. If you watch one of the bigger indie shows around right now, that's the style that you'll see. If you watch modern New Japan that's the style that you'll see. Why WWE felt the need to create its own cruiserweight division is beyond me, considering none of them are doing anything that different from the rest of the roster, anyway. Kevin Owens is doing swantons and frog splashes alongside his slams and powerbombs, Sami Zayn is flying with crossbodies, dives and moonsaults, Luke Harper is hitting dives as often as he is taking heads off with lariats and so forth and so on. Someone like The Miz feels so different because in a world of Dolph Zigglers and Dean Ambroses he actually is different.

The most buzzed-about matches from the New Japan G1 Special shows in Long Beach have by-and-large been the ones featuring Kenny Omega. Omega is an interesting case of a kid from Canada who worked hard, went to Japan and toiled in the indies where he carved out a niche for himself as a comedy worker before he earned the respect of his peers. Now he's currently sitting at the top of the New Japan food chain as one of the marquee names in the number two promotion in the world, which is quite a departure. On top of that, he's been heralded as one of, if not the very best in the world right now.

A word I've seen bandied about in regards to Omega is "unique," which certainly stands out all things considered. While Omega is incredibly good at the style that he works, that style is well within line with what a good percentage of wrestlers today are doing, he's simply better at it. When he's forced to slow down or work a different style things don't click as easily and that same smooth sense of frenetic energy isn't there.

There's no inherent problem with working that style or being very good at it, but in a world that has adhered more and more to that style, it's difficult for him to truly stand out compared to wrestlers who work vastly different styles. Performers like Tomohiro Ishii, Shinsuke Nakamura, Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kento Miyahara and Katsuyori Shibata work different styles than Omega and most other wrestlers and do it exceptionally well. Take Okada's performance against Cody Rhodes for example. Cody has always been a solid hand, but never a blow away performer, yet the match with Okada was an inherently different style than Okada's two Omega matches in 2017 with a more slow, deliberate pacing that it actually felt fresh.

Somewhere along the line the idea that every match had to be amazing has helped wrestling to look for a formula, so-to-speak, to allow them to put on what has been deemed a "great match" every time said performers step between the ropes for a bigger match. What it has produced is a wrestling match cheat sheet that adheres to a standard, three-act format. The opening act is the feeling out process, the second act is both guys beating the snot out of each other while the final act is where the pace has reached fevered levels and there are finisher and pinfall exchanges until one ultimately is victorious. In a way it reminds me of Hollywood's stagnation following the discovery of the "Save the Cat" format helped to churn out nothing but movies that beat-by-beat followed a formula to create good, but not remarkable films, most of which are of the superhero or comic book persuasion.

Once again, there's nothing really wrong with this style, because everyone is entitled to junk food occasionally just like we're entitled to see a fun, all-action popcorn flick and walk away happy. The problem is when the proliferation of this style or formula leads to a lack of innovation and risk. A risk was New Japan putting Hiromu Takahashi over KUSHIDA in one minute instead of just continuing a series of 20+ minute matches happening at breakneck speeds. It paid off. A risk has been WWE's traditional monster push of Braun Strowman who went from a punchline to someone fans actually kinda want to see.

The rise of this homogeneous style shouldn't be a surprise, either, considering that there are very few critical voices in professional wrestling that carry the weight of Dave Meltzer's. Meltzer was an advocate for a certain style of wrestling and the current generation of wrestlers that are top stars watched his favorite matches, learning from them and adapting their own styles accordingly. From there, a new generation spawned and saw this style solidified itself to fit into this taste profile. The fact that one of the products of this in Kenny Omega was able to force Meltzer to break his own match-ranking scale is hardly surprising at all: those two matches with Okada were Meltzer bait like many of the films released in the early winter are Oscar bait.

While certainly not Meltzer's fault for the sheer reach or impact of his influence, that influence is undeniable when watching modern wrestling. Now, knowingly or not, wrestlers are trying to live up to the standards of his critical preferences while fans continue to be excited by this style. The safety net of this style has crept its way all around the world, with even the most traditional lucha libre promotions being less and less traditional.

If this was inevitable or not is up for debate, perhaps the globalization of wrestling was always going to happen to keep up with technology. The problem is while wrestlers of today have found a style that works, many other styles have fallen to the wayside. You won't see a lot of matches like Shin'ya Hashimoto used to put on, or anything like the classics between the Rock and Stone Cold. The early Michinoku Pro, Osaka Pro, Toryumon and Dragon Gate stuff at one point felt new and exciting, now the style has just been folded over into the mainstream and left the pure lucharesu style as an artifact. It's easy to see how the ultra hard-hitting Misawa and Kawada matches led to emulation, just like the classic Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask matches helped to spark a fire under lighter wrestlers, but the merging of these styles has left a gaping hole that I for one can feel, I'm not sure if you do.

I'm not sure that there is a way to turn back, or if there is a way to diversify wrestling again. New Japan is as popular as ever and while a part of me would like to think it was just accessibility, the proliferation of Bullet Club t-shirts and how the company has evolved seems to tell a different story. Perhaps this will be cyclical and even itself out, or maybe it gets even more homogenous. There will always be holdouts, though. I've found solace in modern Big Japan and All Japan, who both feel like a stark contrast to much of today's wrestling. CMLL and other lucha libre promotions might be evolving, but it's a lot slower and less noticeable than elsewhere.

Truthfully, it's on us, as fans, to find this stuff that grabs our attention and tell others about it, just like it's on us to watch, enjoy and find whatever joy we can in our chosen form of entertainment.

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