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Pro Wrestling Hits Its Palance Phase

For the better part of a year, the world of indie wrestling has been swinging its fists WWE and Vince McMahon —and as of Wednesday October 2nd, their shots are landing.

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Pro Wrestling Hits Its Palance Phase


Estimated Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Since wrestling is, at its best, tremendous theater here’s one of my favorite acting stories.

Jack Palance was Marlon Brando’s understudy for the Broadway bow of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” And Brando, a known abuser, treated Palance like utter horseshit. The actor made Palance spar with him nightly, claiming the bouts were part of his tireless character prep. As Palance was a noted professional boxer, this wasn’t a wise decision.

Legend has it that Palance, fed-up and fuming, pushed a backstage punching bag into Brando’s precious moneymaker, bruising the matinee idol’s face and clearing Parlance’s path to on-stage glory. It’s a fun tale of both come-up and comeuppance, but its moral is ice-cold: act a fool too long and someone will take a swing at you. 

Which brings us to the last few weeks in wrestling and the boos heard round the world:

For the better part of a year, the world of indie wrestling has been swinging its fists WWE and Vince McMahon —and as of Wednesday October 2nd, their shots are landing.

AEW’s Dynamite was the biggest TNT broadcast premiere in five years; WWE NXT, Dynamite’s Wednesday Night Wars competitor, netted half its rival audience. And then there was last Sunday’s Hell In A Cell, a hotly touted Pay Per View which should have seen WWE’s most exciting male character in years, The Fiend, go over permanently.  

It didn’t. It really didn’t.  

Despite some impassioned and intelligent defenses of the creative decision to end Rollins and The Fiend’s match in a DQ, fans weren’t having it. Both the crowd at Sacramento’s Golden1Center and Wrestling Twitter all but rained hell upon any WWE employee in earshot. How did Monday Night Raw address the misstep 24 hours later? With… cuckolding. 

So indie kept throwing punches. Tuesday the 8th saw the debut of two shows which functioned as a balm for viewers tired of obligations to Saudi princes and cut-rate soap opera. What’s more: both were free. 

NXT Power

Please watch this promo and try not to laugh happily:

Is that not the Channel Five news team’s fever dream? You can practically smell wood chips on Eli Drake’s breath as you watch him pontificate, and his real man vibes carried all the way through a match that was simple, brutal, and clean.

In general, simple and clean was Power’s vibe. The broadcast wears its 80s influence on its sleeve, from the VHS-tinged credits to its public broadcast aesthetics. It was also goofy as hell. During an extended run of threat-mongering between Josephus and James Storm, the former — who resembles “deeply rageful Nick Offerman” —  giggle-broke kayfabe and, no, I barely minded. You can see Power’s seams by design and while its uber-retro approach and matches aren’t appointment viewing for me moving, you needed only purse the comments section to see its product going over. To quote one take that rushed by within the chant: “I’m sick of sports entertainment! NWA Power is pro wrestling!!!” Or put another way:

That there is a market for Power isn’t surprising; that its being lapped up like a man going to town on so much ice cream is.  It speaks to the relative staleness of WWE. Both it and NWA are prone to retro gestures (NWA is practically made of them), but only the latter’s feel consequential and necessary. While it was fun to watch The Rock all but coronate Becky Lynch on Smackdown, it was more pomp that circumstance. And a recent Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair appearance was too disjointed and disappointing to be either. WWE is both looking backward and navel gazing – the combo doesn’t work.

AEW

AEW Dynamite And Dark, by contrast, have clear eyes set on the horizon. Despite a roster loaded with veteran talent, the TNT and YouTube programs are doing the damndest to put newer acts over in deeply organic ways. Last night’s Dynamite is evidence. Despite a world-class promo from Jericho and Dusty Rhodes looking smooth as ever, the evening’s real highlights were youth-driven: 

It would take a fool not to see Private Party are stars; but it would also take a fool to not make them earn in. Last night, the New York duo made more than good against The Young Bucks, going spot for spot with them in a match that was both electrifying and a potential passing of the torch. Yes, their victory was surprising — it was also sneaky smart. Ditto setting Darby Allin up to face Jericho next week and testing MJF’s loyalty in a gorgeous end-of-ep free for all. Each was a lovely bit of storytelling; each nurtured new, exciting faces. (Which is to say nothing of The Inner Circle, whose on-air merch launch crashes Shop AEW for hours and who’s youngest member was only put over by Jericho last week.)

No, this isn’t the end of WWE. Brando also did just fine after Palance bowed in Streetcar. But Palance seized his opportunity and rode it all the way to an Oscar-winning career. You only get so many openings when competition is fierce and, if the last seven days is indication, AEW and NXT have well and taken theirs. Which means it’s time for WWE to stop punching down and get back in the proverbial gym. 

Stray Observations:

Brandon Stroud, who covers wrestling for Uproxx and who I read religiously, tweeted that the Darbi Allen and CIMA bout left the crowd tre thirsty for Dynamite last Wednesday and now it’s obvious why: it’s nothing but spots. From Darbi’s triple topés to a mid-match chop competition, every single highlight soared. After this and All Out, I’m increasingly Team Darbi Allen. 

Say it with me: Orange Cassidy is a superstar.

Scott Thomas is a former AAU National Karate champion who now acts Off-Broadway. He can be seen in A24’s Skin this summer; as importantly, he’s a Bulls fan. Should you crave his Marvel Cinematic Universe takes, he co-hosts THE INFINITY PODCAST with Patrick Willems and Rachel “Quirky” Schenk. Should you wish to debate how clutch Russ is or Mitch Trubisky with him, you can do so on Twitter or Instagram at @OGScottieT. Current cast member of Ten Bones “Entirely From Memory” series at Littlefield, former ringer for the War Horse softball team. BEAR DOWN.

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