Dispatches from the Wrestling Underground: The Promoter as Star

Wrestling has always been about the promoter.

From its earliest days as a fixed contest being billed as a legitimate sport, promoters have always been the driving force behind the wrestling industry. While innovative talents would come and go, it would take a dedicated promoter to help push that innovation on to a wider audience – without the dedication of a Bill Watts African American wrestlers might not have been given a chance at the top of the card, and without a Fritz Von Erich the modern television set-up for wrestling would not have been introduced. But while the promotion itself was about the promoter, the on-screen product was about the talent. Very few wrestling fans ever truly knew who was running the show, and if they did, it didn’t necessarily make a difference. Today, that dichotomy has shifted.

Starting in the mid ’90s, wrestling, both on-screen and off, became focused on the men creating the shows. Men like Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff started to become as important as the talents they promoted. In the case of Vince McMahon, he actually ended up becoming a bigger star than everyone else on his roster save for only a few. Even today this extends to the independent wrestling scene where the likes of Gabe Sapolsky garners more attention than many of the men he’s booking.

The question to ask is, does this obsession with the man behind the curtain hinder the fan’s perspective?

The simple answer should be no. It shouldn’t matter who’s actually creating the product, as they should be transparent and the focus should be on the product itself. This argument tends to falter, though, as many fans, especially on the Internet, place an unhealthy amount of (dis)trust in promoters based solely on prior accomplishments/failures. Specifically, the canonization of bookers by fans should be a glaring criticism of the community that unfortunately goes unnoticed.

With Eric Bischoff’s recent jump to TNA, many fans immediately began jumping with joy in anticipation that this would reignite the Monday Night wars without any real excuse to have such visions. Bischoff is a man who in the past helped to create one of wrestling’s brightest periods, but he was also a man that helped lead that same company to its demise. And the hoopla surrounding Bischoff’s arrival also helped to detract attention from the actual talent employed by TNA, causing many to pushed off to the side in the frenzy. To many fans, though, this was fine as it allowed for another conflict to be created between Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon, a feud that seems to be more interesting to many than the feuds those two promoters are responsible for creating.

As has been noted, this kind of drama isn’t limited specifically to wrestling’s biggest promotions. In October of 2008, many fans were distressed to find that Ring of Honor and long-time booker Gabe Sapolsky had parted ways. After a replacement was named (wrestler Adam Pearce), bickering set forth between fans over the split, with many outright ignoring the promotion as a form of protest in tribute to Sapolsky before even giving the new regime a chance. The feud reached new heights when Sapolsky helped establish an American spin-off to popular cult Japanese promotion Dragon Gate. Before its first shows were even held, hyperbole once reserved solely for ROH shows was rained upon Dragon Gate USA helping to establish a buzz that likely wouldn’t have otherwise existed (or not on the scale that it did).

It’s not hard to understand why this canonization has taken place. For many wrestling fans there exists a reality wherein they acknowledge that they’ll never be a part of the industry due to the fact that they don’t have the required physical attributes, be it because they’re too small, aren’t eloquent speakers, or just don’t have the dedication to spend hours in the gym. This leads many to ponder other avenues that could allow them a way in with few options readily available. The existence of men like Bischoff and especially Heyman and Sapolsky allows many to hold out hope they too could eventually book for a promotion as it presents rags-to-riches stories of men either on the ancillary of the industry (Bischoff, Heyman) or with little actual experience in it (Sapolsky) becoming stars through their storytelling.

Unfortunately, this sort of dream creates a negative environment where the men running the show end up being their own most prized talent, in turn harming the product. Many associate WWE with Vince McMahon to such an extent that when it eventually comes time for him to step aside it will be hard for many fans to accept his successor (even knowing its from within his own family). This has already proved true with Ring of Honor where the internal struggle in the wake of Sapolsky’s departure almost derailed the company entirely where it should have been a quiet transition.

As a simple rule of thumb, it should be acknowledged that promoters should not be bigger stars than their talent. If such a time exists, it means the promoter has failed at his one job: to create stars out of his talent. In an industry that is increasingly having trouble attracting new fans because of a lack of new stars, shouldn’t this notion of the promoter-as-star begin to evaporate?

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