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WWE vs. The World: A look at the state of wrestling around the globe

Tears for Fears said it (sang it) best, “Everybody wants to rule the world.”

WWE may not have its sights set on the entire world, not yet anyway, but they are making very aggressive moves to take over the wrestling world. But don’t lock yourself in your panic room just yet. WWE isn’t the only one with global domination on its mind (Also, have fun reading the rest of this with the sweet 80s pop of Tears for Fears in your head).

It started with NXT. WWE built a brand within a brand under the veil of a “developmental” territory. While they have produced a handful of big stars from the ground up, NXT has always been carried by the star power brought in from independents and promotions around the world. Rollins, Zayn, Owens, Balor, Roode, Joe, Nakamura. All of NXT’s biggest names have been outside signings.

That’s not to mention the signees that went straight to the main roster, like Styles, Gallows, and Anderson. As NXT, and WWE as a whole has grown, other promotions have lost their top stars, but fans have been awarded with the opportunity to see their favorite independent wrestlers on a bigger, more accessible stage.

Then there was the Cruiserweight Classic. A tournament which led to a new cruiserweight division in the WWE and a weekly show on the Network entirely devoted to the division, 205 Live. With the addition of the cruiserweight division, WWE went on a signing spree, again bringing in names from around the world. Tozawa, Gallagher, Mascara Dorada, EVOLVE (an independent promotion with whom WWE has a working relationship) regulars Nese and Gulak, and more. The Raw and SmackDown brand split also opened the door for more outside talent to be brought in, and a new division to be created.

From there, WWE took its plans for world domination to the next level. Simply signing international talent and bringing them in was no longer sufficient for WWE.

They started making moves internationally. A new type of deal is now being offered which allows talent, particularly UK talent, to continue working for certain promotions while being under contract with WWE. This came along with the announcement of the first ever WWE UK Championship, and a tournament held in the UK to crown the inaugural champion.

The tournament at first glance looks to have been a success. The shows sold out (according to Michael Cole at least), the crowds were hot, talent got over, the wrestling went from pretty good on the first night to pretty great on the second. But now that there’s a WWE UK Champion, where will the title be defended? Will WWE allow title defenses to take place in UK promotions? After the success and positive feedback from the tournament, the next logical step would be for WWE to start a new brand based in the UK.

Obviously, WWE has its wide-reaching finger on pro wrestling’s pulse. The UK scene has recently been experiencing a boom period which has not gone unnoticed. RevPro, PROGRESS, ICW, WCPW, and more have all been doing great things, but the most notable movement in the UK is the possibility of World of Sport returning to regular programming on ITV.

Pro wrestling on a major station and during prime time is a rarity anywhere in the world today. WoS could change that, but not if WWE scoops up all the top talent and starts its own Network-exclusive Brit wrestling program before WoS can get off its feet.

And once WWE establishes a UK brand, what’s next? Or should I say, where’s next? Or if I’m Goldberg, who’s next? An Asian brand, a European championship, un WWE campeón de sudamérica? The world of wrestling is WWE’s oyster, and nobody can stop them. Well, almost nobody.

The League of Nations

That’s right, Sheamus, Del Rio, Rusev, and Barrett are going to fight the good fight. Actually, who I mean by League of Nations is New Japan Pro Wrestling and its international partners in crime (though now that I mention it, Del Rio does seem to be at war with the world at the moment). In 2015, NJPW announced several global partnerships, with the key promotions being ROH, CMLL, and RevPro. While other promotions are content with just existing, NJPW and its global partners are the only ones taking the fight to WWE.

WWE isn’t the only one paying attention to the UK scene. With the NJPW/RevPro partnership, NJPW talent has been sent to major RevPro shows. NJPW’s own Katsuyori Shibata is even the current RevPro British Heavyweight Champion.

The CMLL partnership has provided NJPW with a location to send talent on excursions, like the awesome Sho Tanaka and Yohei Komatsu. Kamaitachi/Hiromu Takahashi recently returned from a lengthy excursion in CMLL and instantly made noise by winning the IWGP Junior Championship from KUSHIDA. But it’s not a one-sided partnership. CMLL also benefits with the annual Fantasticamania joint shows in Japan. And of course, there’s the always enjoyable NJPW/ROH co-branded shows.

NJPW’s international partnerships have led to many talent exchanges and joint shows that have benefited all the companies involved. Most importantly, they’ve benefited fans of pro wrestling who are looking for something more “substantial” than what WWE has to serve up. It's also allowed for some unique deals for talent, like The Young Bucks, whose contract allows them to work ROH and NJPW, as well as other indies like PWG, plus they can run their own merch shop on PWTees.

NJPW is leading the fight against WWE’s global domination. Like WWE is trying to break into the UK market, NJPW is doing the same with the US. They already have their foot in the door with a show on AXS TV, but 2017 looks to be the year they step things up. NJPW has already announced two G1 specials that will be held in California. Last year, NJPW stars went to New Zealand, and other international tours are rumored for 2017.

But it’s tough for a Japanese promotion to expand internationally, and NJPW knows it. That’s why they‘ve done such a great job of building international stars. They made AJ Styles such a big star that after being ignored his entire TNA career, WWE snatched him up from NJPW the first chance they got.

In 2016, Kenny Omega stepped up and became the top international star for the company, culminating in one of the greatest Tokyo Dome matches in history at Wrestle Kingdom 11. And history might repeat itself as he too is on WWE’s radar, with rumors currently swirling of a jump to the grandest stage of all. Losing Omega now would be a major blow for NJPW in their battle for the world.

But what about other promotions like TNA and Lucha Underground? Where do they fit in this war? As Dave Meltzer has said, and I’m paraphrasing, TNA merely exists. Lucha Underground seems to have peaked. PWG, probably the hottest indie promotion in the world, has a business model that doesn’t enable growth. If anyone is going to stop WWE from taking over like an NXT special, it’s New Japan. And the key seems to be something as simple as cooperation. It’s WWE vs. The World after all. And the world doesn’t stand a chance unless countries (promotions) work together.

Aftermath

So what if WWE wins the war? And what does winning in this case even mean anyway? When WWE has a foothold in all the major markets both locally and internationally? When they’ve signed every talent in the world worth signing? What’s the endgame? If WWE has its main brands, Raw and SmackDown, and “developmental” brand, NXT, in the US, plus international brands in the UK, Asia, and South America, will that be the nail in the coffin for other promotions? Or would it be a positive for wrestling, a new golden era?

If history is anything to go by, a win for WWE could be disastrous. The last time WWE won a major war, pro wrestling suffered greatly. When WCW disappeared, so did a large percentage of pro wrestling viewers, and the popularity of the genre dropped greatly. But this is a different kind of battle. This war actually promotes growth and expansion. WWE’s global expansion should ideally lead to more content, more stars, and more Network subscribers.

Also, in an ideal world, WWE’s expansion should create more variety for viewers. Fans of British wrestling will have a British show, Japanese fans will have a Japanese show. Each brand should have its own unique feel and style.

That’s what I was expecting with 205 Live, but it’s been a bit of a disappointment on that front. Besides the new faces, and the awesomeness that is Neville and Jack Gallagher, 205 does very little to differentiate itself from WWE’s main brands. The wrestling is basically the same, except the guys are smaller, and the stories are equally cringeworthy (love triangles already!). Hopefully, the debut of Akira Tozawa and Mascara Dorada will be the spark the show needs.

But that’s the biggest danger of WWE’s expansion. Sameness. The worst possible outcome is if WWE has all these different brands, but they all feel the same. I think it was Kenny Omega who compared WWE to McDonald's. Whoever it was, they’re completely right. WWE is the McDonald’s of wrestling. And that’s okay. McDonald’s is great, in moderation. But more to the point, McDonald’s is consistent.

Whether it’s Australia, USA, Japan, Spain, Sweden (I’m just listing all the places I’ve eaten McDonald’s. Oh also Italy), you always know what you’re getting when you go to McDonald’s. There are minor differences, but they’re all basically the same. That’s great if you’re hungry and lost in another country and need you need free Wi-Fi, but when it comes to wrestling, variety is key.

For the viewer, more WWE brands could be a great thing. I would watch the heck out of a weekly WWE UK show on the Network. I could finally get to see all these incredible UK stars I hear so much about but rarely get the opportunity to see. But it could also be the worst thing if all these brands adopt the “WWE” style.

That’s why I’m rooting for the League of Nations. Even in a single New Japan show, there’s a wider variety of styles than all of WWE’s brands put together (minus women’s wrestling). NJPW isn’t going to defeat the WWE. Oh, sorry if that’s a spoiler. But seriously, nobody beats WWE.

What’s important is New Japan and its global partners continue to fight, continue to expand, and continue to provide an alternative. But don’t be the Burger King to WWE’s McDonald’s. That’s what TNA’s for. Be a real alternative. Be something different. Be like pizza.