With gray in his beard and a cartoonishly fit female wrestler on his shirt, David Beck gabbed with two other professional wrestling fans by the bar.
They had traveled 50 miles from outside Flowery Branch to join about 700 others at Center Stage Theater in Midtown for a Saturday night of wrestling. This has been a big part of Beck’s life since he was 12 years old, when he started listening to Gordon Solie call Georgia Championship Wrestling on Ted Turner’s burgeoning Superstation, Channel 17.
The decades of local passion for wrestling were obvious Saturday. The crowd chanted and hollered with delight at a 300-pound monster of a man bleeding from a gash above his right eye that’d later earn him 17 stitches.
There’s no fighting it: Atlanta is again at the center of professional wrestling.
Two wrestling organizations with deep roots in Atlanta are set to go head-to-head on national television broadcasts. It amounts to a return of the “Monday Night Wars” of the late 90s when Turner’s Smyrna-based World Championship Wrestling fought with Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) for ratings supremacy.
When WCW closed, smaller wrestling groups grew in popularity all over the world. And McMahon’s company cruised along as champ for 18 years without a true challenger. Until now.
Now, something else out of metro Atlanta is squaring up against WWE: Cody Rhodes, two-time state champion wrestler at Lassiter High School — whose father happens to be a wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes, “The American Dream” — is executive vice president of All Elite Wrestling. The company, backed by an NFL owner, is a new outfit that promises to give wrestling fans another option. AEW announced in July that it would broadcast matches Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. on TNT starting Oct. 2.
And the same week wrestling returns to Turner airwaves, the 71-year-old National Wrestling Alliance will begin filming studio wrestling again in Atlanta, this time at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studios. The National Wrestling Alliance is owned by Smashing Pumpkins frontman William “Billy” Corgan.
Wrestling fan Beck, 53, recalls watching WCW win the Monday night ratings battle for 84 straight weeks. Back then, it seemed like everyone had on a wrestling shirt. One of Beck’s buddies, 45-year-old Kris Graham, said he hopes competition will force WWE to develop better storylines and generally improve their product. He’s hoping the fresh competition will make wrestling better.
“You can feel something’s happening,” Graham said.
Big fight feel
Scene-setting announcers in every combat sport love to say there’s a big-fight feel in the air when titans are set to clash. A few weeks after the upstart All Elite Wrestling announced its Wednesday night shows, McMahon’s WWE announced it was moving what many feel is its best show to Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. on USA network starting this week.
The president and bankroller of AEW is Tony Khan, co-owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and son of billionaire Shahid Khan. Over time, AEW has signed some of the best talent, a few from WWE.
So not only will the shows be broadcast on the same networks as the Monday Night Wars, but another billionaire family — the Kahns — will take on WWE, a publicly traded company that reported to the government having annual net revenues of $930.2 million in 2018.
There are lots of reasons the stage is set for WWE to receive a challenger, but it starts and ends with fans.
“It’s just been the same thing the last 20 years,” said Hugo Moreno, a 26-year-old Lilburn resident and wrestling fan since age 7.
Moreno spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution while attending the show at Center Stage put on by Ring of Honor, a touring wrestling company owned by one of America’s largest local TV companies, Sinclair Broadcast.
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Moreno said he thinks Cody Rhodes’ All Elite Wrestling, which formed this year, will eventually outgrow WWE but that it’ll take several years. He knows that not all fans want a war, some just want entertaining wrestling, but he feels there’s no ducking it.
“They’re going to make it a war, you can’t avoid it,” Moreno said.
Ring of Honor’s chief operating officer Joe Koff, who helped get wrestling on national television during the 80s, agrees the ground is fertile for an upstart like AEW to challenge WWE.
“When a company gets too big, (another company) always thinks they have a better story,” he said.
One constant in the world of wrestling is the money.
The WWE said in 2011 a study found that WrestleMania XXVII at the Georgia Dome generated $62.1 million of economic impact for Atlanta. There were 71,617 fans: three-quarters were from outside the metro area and most stayed three or more nights.
While WWE remains the standard for sports-entertainment, young bucks see the champ limping.
The publicly traded company’s revenues were down 5% from $281.6 million in last year’s second quarter to $268.9 million this year’s second quarter, according an investor summary published in July. WWE’s stock price has been down about 30% from an all-time high of $99.25 a share in April. Television ratings have been on the decline, and first-quarter live event attendance in North America was down 12% year over year.
The WWE declined the AJC’s request for comment.
William “Billy” Corgan, head of the well-established National Wrestling Alliance and the Smashing Pumpkins, said he wants to be a smaller fish in the growing ocean of wrestling, and Atlanta will be his domain.
Corgan’s NWA used to be the umbrella organization over all the geographic wrestling companies, which originally were divided into a territory system. But then the McMahon family started buying up the separate companies until all that was left was NWA and Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, which held the tradition of southern wrestling.
“We want something that feels a little more rough around the edges, kind of like how I like my rock and roll,” Corgan said. “… We want to bring back the chaos and anarchy into the wrestling product.”
Corgan said Atlanta is great place to do that for lots of reasons.
“If you look at Atlanta’s location, Atlanta’s history and then the (state entertainment) tax credit on top of that, it makes Atlanta an extremely attractive place to do business,” Corgan told the AJC.
As a businessman, he isn’t going to wade into an AEW-WWE war. As a fan, he said he doesn’t think the conditions are there for a war. But Corgan and everyone else in the industry who spoke with the AJC encouraged AEW because battling with WWE for ratings on a national platform promotes professional wrestling as a whole.
For some reason, groups of muscled dudes in spandex with painted faces have typically struggled to get respect from the mainstream media, but ratings wars are catnip to news outlets.
“Hell yeah, everybody always wants war. We don’t want anybody to get killed, but they want war,” said “Diamond” Dallas Page, a three-time WCW champ who now owns the DDP Yoga Performance Center in Smyrna.
Page lived through the Monday Night Wars and he said the battle between the two wrestling organizations to win fans improved the actual wrestling.
“When there’s no competition, things (and) fans get dull,” he said.
Page, who has attended multiple AEW wrestling events, said he hasn’t felt that type of energy in the crowd since the days of the Monday Night Wars.
“When wrestling really works is when you blur the lines and reality — you don’t know what is reality,” he said.
Coming to the ring
Cody Rhodes is not only the son of wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes, but he is a child of the WCW era. He sees parallels between now and then: Both companies want to focus on the wrestling instead of gimmicks.
“When other things lack in our industry, the first thing you look back toward is the ring itself” he told the AJC. If the fights and storylines aren’t compelling, fans won’t come.
Brands like AEW are buoyed by the wrestling leagues that are independent of corporations, where fans say creativity reigns supreme. The independent leagues offer young wrestlers a new place to go, another way for them to get on national television.
“The indie boom turned into the AEW boom,” Rhodes said.
Marshalling troops from other leagues has been key for Rhodes and his wife Brandi, the first black female wrestling executive. That type of recruitment wasn’t as possible during the Monday Night Wars when it was only the monolith of the WWE.
This version of the war is different in part because Rhodes and AEW, for public relations reasons, deny the notion of a war. That’s a key lesson learned from when when both sides of the Monday Night War gave the other side credit by acknowledging them on their broadcast.
“They want to compete with WWE. As much as they say they don’t, they obviously are,” said David Lagana, vice president of Corgan’s National Wrestling Alliance and a long-time wrestling writer.
Lagana said no matter who says what, the fight will be good for business.
“Pro-wrestling allows big personalities to have disagreements and settle it in a fight,” Lagana said, “which the real world never does.”