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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.
The masked Ring of Honor wrestler Bandido flies down onto Marty Scurll. They fought during a show by wrestling promotion Ring of Honor on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019 at Center Stage Theater in Atlanta. (Ben Brasch/AJC)
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.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 15: Cody Rhodes and Tony Khan of TNTâs All Elite Wrestling attend the WarnerMedia Upfront 2019 arrivals on the red carpet at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 15, 2019 in New York City. 602140 (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for WarnerMedia)
Credit: Mike Coppola
Credit: Mike Coppola
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.
Vince McMahon made an announcement Jan. 25 amid speculation of the launch of a new pro football league.
Credit: Ethan Miller
Credit: Ethan Miller
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.
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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.”
This Sept. 22, 2012 file photo shows Billy Corgan promoting The Smashing Pumpkins album “Oceania” during a news conference in Mexico City. The captions in part read: “Corgan is in the mood to write some more hits. Only this time, think flying elbows to the chest, steel chairs to the back and wicked clotheslines rather than alt rock chart toppers. Corgan, the longtime Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman, is set to make his debut as the behind-the-scenes brainchild for TNA Wrestling.” (Christian Palma/AP Photo)
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.
Diamond Dallas Page, a three-time WCW champion, poses for a photo at DDP Yoga Performance Center in Smyrna on Tuesday, August 20, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
“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.
Ring of Honor wrestler Matt Taven (real name Matthew Marinelli) boasts directly to the camera while holding his world champion belt high. He performed in 3-on-3 match that was part of a show by wrestling promotion Ring of Honor on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019 at Center Stage Theater in Atlanta. (Ben Brasch/AJC)
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.”
‘But it’s faaaake!’
But what is reality? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked the nearly 20 people interviewed for this story how they respond to those who say wrestling is fake. Here are their straight-shooting answers:
Billy Corgan, owner of the National Wrestling Alliance and Smashing Pumpkins frontman: "It's an offensive question. It's like saying acting is fake … You're criticizing someone for something they are really good at."
Jonnie Chizzolin, 11-year-old wrestling fan: "Who wins is fake, but not them getting hit."
David Lagana, vice president of the National Wrestling Alliance and long-time wrestling writer: "Everything's fake in television. It's as real as the real world."
Diamond Dallas Page, three-time WCW champ and owner of DDP Yoga Performance Center in Smyrna: "When people tell me it's fake, I go, 'Baby, it ain't fake, it's fixed.' And you can't fake gravity."
Brett Weitz, general manager of TBS and TNT, the latter of which will air All Elite Wrestling in October: "It may be constructed, but that doesn't take away someone flying 20 feet off a turnbuckle."
Nick Dolby, of Atlanta, 34-year-old fan: "I tell them it's scripted, not fake."
Cody Rhodes, executive vice president of AEW and raised in Marietta with his legendary father Dusty Rhodes: "I haven't had anyone tell me wrestling was fake since middle school … It'd be like going to the Avengers, standing up in the theater and saying, 'Guys, Chris Hemsworth is not Thor.'"
Gary Juster, operations manager for Ring of Honor: "It's not fake, it's a performance, just as the Globetrotters are a performance, just as the circus is a performance."
Brandi Rhodes, branding officer for AEW, wrestler and wife of Cody Rhodes: "I just kind of chuckle any time someone brings it up," adding that anyone can call the doctor who treated her clavicle that broke in two places to ask if that was fake.
Hugo Moreno, of Lilburn, 26-year-old wrestling fan: "Go in there then to do it yourself."
8 p.m. Wednesdays on USA
All Elite Wrestling
Matches to air 8 p.m. Wednesday on TNT starting Oct. 2.