Will They Stay or Will They Go? The Elite’s impact on independent wrestling



One thing is for sure: 2019 is shaping up to be an exciting year for wrestling.

Humans are inherently drawn to taking sides, picking a team and defending it in a predatorial manner. Why should the world of wrestling be any different? A line has been drawn in the sand between the independent wrestling scene and WWE, the monolithic corporate machine that never seems to stop, continuously plowing ahead while threatening to “steal” talent from the “indies.” Over the past few years, the landscape has changed, and the natural trajectory for a wrestler has skewed. In the past, a wrestler would work the independent scene in hopes of reaching WWE with its promise of instant fame and alluring compensation. Today, remaining “independent” has become a viable career. However, World Wrestling Entertainment will always remain a tempting option.

Enter The Elite, a sub-faction of Bullet Club comprised of six of the world’s greatest wrestling talents: Cody (don’t say Rhodes), The Young Bucks (Nick and Matt Jackson), “The Villain” Marty Scurll, Adam “Hangman” Page, and Kenny Omega. The crew splits their time between American wrestling promotion Ring of Honor (ROH) and Japan’s most prolific organization, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW).

Much to the dismay of the hardcore fans everywhere, rumors have made the rounds that WWE has a growing interest in signing select members of the group, or the entirety of The Elite. It is also well known that the Elite’s contracts expire at the end of 2018. Dare I say it, the best thing for The Elite is to remain as far away from WWE as possible, for both their sake and the independent scene. There is still so much more to do — let’s consider all the ways The Elite has changed the face of independent wrestling as we know it.

Freedom of Expression

Being The Elite table read

Wrestlers today must strike a balance between appeasing the promotion they are working for and maintaining their identity.  The most significant contribution The Elite have made for wrestling is setting a new norm for being your own boss. Placing your own bookings, making your own hours, selling your own merchandise, connecting with fans, using social media, but most importantly deciding your own fate. Many have done it before, but the members of The Elite have taken self-management to new heights.

For outsiders looking in, wrestling appears outlandish; a modern-day carny act. Nevertheless, to the initiated, wrestling is physical theatre. Men and women have become legends in fictitious battles of good vs. evil — or “face” vs. “heel.” These stories are told on varying levels: through the characters wrestlers portray, the build-up to a match, and the physical story being told throughout a match. Wrestlers thrive on embodying larger-than-life characters that provoke a reaction. Kenny is a pop-culture villain come to life, Cody is the embodiment of a heel, the Young Bucks are feisty brothers looking for a rib, Marty is the villain — if somewhat comedic, and Adam Page is the no-nonsense Hangman.

WWE, on the other hand, has become a victim of its own success. Gone are the days when a wrestler can try something new or cut a promo off the cuff. Every word is scripted, seasoned pros are fed to “Superstars,” and fan opinion has limited sway. Navigating through the myriad of “suits” to gain dominion with Vince McMahon can be a minefield. Consider the bevy of indie darlings that thrived in NXT but were mismanaged when they reached the main roster. Recent reports indicate that Vince McMahon has never seen an NXT taping. The Elite’s Cody Rhodes was among the talent mishandled.

Failure is Just the Beginning

WWE Network – Kenny Omega 2006

If there is one notable trend among Bullet Club, it’s their reluctance to accept defeat. The life of an entertainer is an ebb and flow of popularity. If nothing else, the history of the members of the Elite is influential in and of itself. Personally and professionally, the group has managed to overcome obstacles and redefine the modern wrestling scene. They have all reached new heights in the business, with more on the horizon.

The Elite have taken chances and are reaping the rewards of their decisions. The most notable example is Cody Rhodes. His tenure in WWE was tenuous, and the Stardust gimmick was the breaking point. When Cody opted out of his WWE contract, the general consensus was that he made the biggest mistake of his career. After all, wrestlers chase WWE, they don’t bail on it. Jump to October 2018, and the decision couldn’t have proven to be better. Cody hit the independent scene and built a new character, The American Nightmare — a classic cocky heel that works the crowd into a frenzy. His growth in the industry had not gone unnoticed. Cody joined Bullet Club, a stable on the mend after losing Prince Devitt (Finn Balor) and AJ Styles to WWE. Looking back, Cody’s initiation to Bullet Club seems almost serendipitous.

The Young Bucks nearly quit the business. During an interview on Chris Jericho’s podcast, the Bucks discussed their story. Years ago Matt Jackson was broke, he could barely make rent on his apartment, and he felt his time was nearly up. They had left TNA and their second stint with ROH was failing. Nick had convinced Matt to give it one more go — wrestling was their dream.

Kenny Omega had dropped out of college to pursue his dream of wrestling in 2001. For the next several years he worked the independent circuit as a journeyman worker, in PCW, NWA, TNA, and Pro Wrestling Noah. He finally reached the “promised land” when he joined Deep South Wrestling, one of WWE’s developmental territories, obtaining a developmental contract. Omega has since openly criticized his time in WWE, notably his treatment from trainer Bill Demott. Omega continued to accrue experience through several other promotions, finally landing in NJPW. It was here that Omega would solidify his legendary status. For some, a bad experience at your dream job could hurt your sense of hope. For Kenny, it meant the journey had just begun.

Social Media

Bullet Club – Being The Elite

The group initially started as a trio — The Bucks and Omega. The three formed a perfect bond and began filming themselves away from the ring and sharing it with the fans via social media and a behind-the-scenes YouTube channel dedicated to the crew’s experiences. The beginning of Being The Elite was humble; the original concept was a behind the scenes look at the life of a wrestler; characterized by lousy camera work, novice editing, and honestly, low entertainment value. Eventually, Nick Jackson grew more proficient in creating the product both technically and creatively.

Everything changed when the lines between reality and in-ring fantasy began to blur, similar to the essence of wrestling itself. Being The Elite became a platform for the Bucks and Kenny Omega to develop their characters beyond the constraints of any one promotion. The idea culminated when Marty Scurll joined the team. In ROH, Adam Cole was ousted from Bullet Club by the Young Bucks who were joined by their newest member, Marty Scurll. Those who tuned in to Being The Elite were privy to the additional backstory that was fueling the story reminiscent of a television series. Views for the channel were on the rise.

Over the next few years, the plots thickened: Kenny Omega battled Cody over supremacy of Bullet Club, Hangman Page was haunted by memories of Joey Ryan (dick druids — nuff said), Marty Scurll had left the group for a career in music, SCU established their hate for every town they visit, and Matt and Nick had formed an alliance with Chris Jericho (Is it Y2Jackson or The Bucks of Jericho?).

NWA’s Ten Pounds of Gold followed the path laid down by Being The Elite. Initially, the prospect of Cody Rhodes vs. Nick Aldis didn’t garner much of a response. Over the four months leading to ALL IN, however, NWA’s channel built a narrative of a champion chasing respect against a son at odds with own legacy. In the middle stood a world title mired in historical significance. By the time Nick Aldis and Cody Rhodes met in the ring at ALL IN, the bout had a prize fight feel surrounding it. Being The Elite’s fingerprints was all over the buildup.

The Elite has also built themselves up through social media. Many wrestlers utilize social media, but The Elite connects with fans personally, relating to audiences (and talent) with wrestling related content and personal content. Need proof? Cody Rhodes’ dog, Pharaoh, received one the biggest pops during ALL IN. A dog.

Once again, the use of social media isn’t a new occurrence. It’s the level at which The Elite does so; whether they are promoting themselves, endorsing their fellow wrestlers, or bringing attention to an event, The Elite have cornered the market on reaching the marks, not to mention defending themselves. Internet trolls will turn any occasion into an argument — members of The Elite (Cody and Omega in particular) do not shy away from putting someone in their place. SCU has followed suit, building an online presence that has allowed their respective stable to flourish. Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian, and Scorpio Sky have benefitted more from their association with The Elite than ROH.

The Merch

Wrestling is an art, but that doesn’t mean the men and women who sacrifice their bodies shouldn’t earn a good living. Many independent wrestlers make a large portion of their money from selling merchandise. The best seller for any wrestler is a graphic t-shirt. Any fan who attends a show is familiar with the “gimmick table,” the table adorned with merchandise being hocked to attendees. No surprise here, The Elite has changed the face of merchandising as well.

The tipping point for The Elite began with the Young Bucks. Taking cues from other sources (cough, Colt Cabana, cough), the Bucks negotiated a deal with Hot Topic to sell Bullet Club t-shirts in select stores on a trial basis. The products quickly sold out, and the game has changed. Today their connections to Hot Topic and Pro Wrestling Tees is one of the group’s most successful business outlets. Every wrestler of note has a t-shirt for fans to show their appreciation. Recently, Cody and the Bucks have announced their final Bullet Club t-shirts. No, they aren’t leaving Bullet Club. Plans are for the group to have shirts with copyrights that are entirely their own, with all percentage of the revenue going to the boys.

Wrestling Your Way

A wrestling gimmick and cutting promos can be as varied as the people who utilize them. An in-ring style can be equally as distinguishableAny wrestler of merit has an ability to wrestle that connects with fans. Therein lies the beauty of The Elite — their wrestling styles vary greatly, proving that success in wrestling can take many shapes.

Kenny Omega is arguably the greatest wrestler in the world, consistently racking up five star (or more) matches on “Uncle” Dave Meltzer’s rating system. Regardless of wrestling critics, any fan can watch Omega and easily recognize his ring psychology. Omega combines Japanese Strong Style with high flying, technical prowess, stamina, and an innate ability to sell moves.

Cody Rhodes’ style is of a classic heel, feeding off the crowd. Cody is a product of being brought up by Dusty Rhodes, a legend who valued a well-timed elbow drop as much as a leap off a ladder. Older wrestlers often criticize the current generation for being unable to tell a story, to feed into the histrionics of a match. Cody does it better than most. At Manhattan Mayhem, Cody found himself outside the ring. A fan slaps him on the back, Cody responds by spitting water into the fan’s face as the audience cheered.

The Young Bucks utilize a high-flying luchador style along with ironic wrestling. Matches are fast-paced with high spots that keep audiences guessing. They enjoy using props or taking things to the brink of absurdity, reeling it in just enough to get a laugh. I’ve yet to witness a Young Bucks match I didn’t enjoy.

Marty Scurll is the smallest of the bunch. His style entails striking and grappling that is associated with the British style of wrestling joined with American style wrestling moves. He has a penchant for grappling and is best known for silencing a crowd moments before snapping an opponent’s fingers.

Hangman Page is the youngest of the crew but he also has the potential to be a huge star. He has the size for power wrestling but has proven to be as agile as Bucks at times. If he can conquer the microphone, the sky is the limit.

We’re All Friends Here

Being The Elite – SCU!

The Elite is known for their selflessness. They easily could have limited Being The Elite to the core group, feeding their own egos. However, they continue to welcome fellow wrestlers into the fold. Each new episode is like a television show, with guest stars from across the wrestling world: Flip Gordon, SCU, and “Famous Dick Wrestler” Joey Ryan have all benefitted from their own respective storylines or vignettes featured on YouTube.

Rocky Romero, Hurricane Helms, Okada, Juice Robinson, and even Chris Jericho have joined in on the fun. Being The Elite has become a sandbox for everyone to play in. On Chris Jericho’s podcast, the Bucks mentioned how when it all began fellow wrestlers would be confused by their filming. Slowly but surely success bred curiosity and people started asking questions, watching as they filmed, and wanted in on the action. But if The Elite’s sense of altruism can be defined by one moment, it is ALL IN

ALL IN: Wrestling History

The long road trips, the toll on their bodies, the confidence in their abilities, and the artistic endeavors The Elite endured culminated in one monumental event: ALL IN. We all know the story by now. On May 16, 2017, wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer was asked on Twitter whether he thought Ring of Honor would ever sell out a 10,000-seat arena. “Not any time soon.” The gauntlet was thrown, and Cody took up the bet. But that’s the lore — reportedly the idea was planted earlier than that. Like all their past endeavors, Cody and the Bucks took up the task alone. No ROH, No outside funding — it was all them.

ALL IN marked an epoch in wrestling. On September 1st, 2018, more than 10,000 people chanted “ALL IN” with collective jubilation. It was the largest independent professional wrestling show in history; founded, promoted, and funded by Cody Rhodes in tandem with Nick and Matt Jackson. It was a who’s who of indie wrestling and a testament to fans that there is more out there. The show sold out in less than 30 minutes. Several plot threads from Being The Elite were tied off with a bow, and it took weeks for excitement to die down.

The show catered to every fan with matches that covered the wrestling spectrum. A wonderfully executed four-way women’s match, a battle royale that showcased each participant with a spot worthy of a highlight reel, Flip Gordon getting a much-deserved pop from the crowd and an ROH title match, a dream match for purists (Pentagon Jr vs. Kenny Omega), and classic story of redemption with Cody obtaining the NWA title, a hardcore match (Joey Janela is insane), and a luchador-style spot fest. Emotions ran high, and the audience soaked up every minute.

Rhodes summed it up during a promotional conversation: “Wrestling needs this.” They wanted a genuine alternative to WWE, a chance to showcase just how much talent is outside of the machine. Cody is often cited as likening his work to music. He wants to play his own song. WrestleMania week is often surrounded by independent promotions working the host city in the shadow of WWE. In Chicago, All In made a case for independent wrestling’s ability to stand alone.

Setting an Example

ALL IN’s post show

Lead by example. A simple platitude if there ever was one, but that doesn’t make it any less profound. It’s hard to say what’s on the horizon for The Elite. Pro wrestling is a business of impersonation; other wrestlers and companies will try to recreate Being The Elite’s model. Many will fail, but some will succeed. If those success stories took their cue from The Elite, then job well done.

What’s Next?

Current episodes of Being The Elite have foreshadowed a change on the horizon. An unseen clock has been ticking in the minds of the Young Bucks. Hangman Page and Kenny Omega have been receiving notes from a mysterious stranger (WWE) luring them to new possibilities. Chances are the boys are having fun with fans — their contract expiration is public knowledge and has become the source of new material on the channel. We can only watch and wait.

Should The Elite decide to join WWE, it would be sad for fans. However, we shouldn’t hate them for their decision. Wrestlers have a limited window of time to secure their financial well being before Father Time rears his ugly head. Financially, WWE could be a viable option for them. We can only appreciate all they’ve done for wrestling thus far, and hope they don’t get mishandled in WWE’s system. During an interview with Rolling Stone, Matt Jackson summed up the situation best: “I really want to have a case to go there, but we’ve built a case to not go there so strongly.” He continued, “That’ll always be in the back of our minds: Is it worth the gamble?”

But hope remains! Business has been good for The Elite, and there is still work to be done with independent wrestling. Possibly their own promotion (a man can dream), or ALL IN 2. There’s plenty of talent that didn’t make the cut for the first ALL IN. One thing is for sure: 2019 is shaping up to be an exciting year for wrestling.

“I think it gives them hope, too. They’re seeing that things are still well outside the walls.”

-Matt Jackson