Professional wrestling styles have historically been categorized geographically. Despite a global reach for much of its existence and a rather constant dissemination among cultures pro wrestling spent much of its history developing unique region-specific styles. Traditional Japanese pro wrestling looks far different than traditional lucha libre because the unique attributes of the Japanese and Mexican cultures shaped pro wrestling in those countries in different ways. On an even more local level, Memphis wrestling looked different than New York wrestling for similar reasons. As technology continually makes the exchange of pro wrestling ideas and concepts more fluid and attainable, the geographic boundaries that once defined various pro wrestling styles are starting to fade. Never before has pro wrestling looked so similar no matter the location.
As is the case with any “globalization” issue, a key is discovering the balance between positive cultural exchange and maintaining important cultural identities. What are the benefits and drawbacks from a pro wrestling universe where the in-ring style is increasingly homogenous?
Although largely an American creation, professional wrestling held a strong presence in other parts of the world even prior to World War II. Early pro wrestling champions including George Hackenschmidt and Stanislaus Zbyszko made their marks in Europe and the United Kingdom before also rising to prominence in the United States. Upon his personal introduction to pro wrestling on the American side of the U.S. and Mexico border, Salvador Lutteroth formed Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre (“EMLL”) in 1933, which is considered to be the birth of lucha libre. During the occupation and reconstruction era of Japan’s history that followed World War II, pro wrestling was introduced to Japan.
Despite the fact that pro wrestling is generally considered an American creation, it would be misleading to discuss pro wrestling as a straight American export. The concept of pro wrestling might have been exported form the United States; the product of American style pro wrestling was not, however. In each geographic location pro wrestling was introduced to, it was molded and shaped by the customs and culture of the region. Different parts of the world – and even different parts of a single country – developed their own unique in-ring styles and presentations as a result.
Few pro wrestling regions, if any, kept themselves completely isolated from other regions during the period of pro wrestling history that was defined by the U.S. territory system (roughly 1948 to 1984). Wrestlers traveled outside of their geographic homes – on a global and regional scale – exchanging styles, moves, and philosophies along the way. We can pick a certain well-traveled wrestler, a certain promotion, or a certain move and see how it was impacted by pro wrestling’s rather impressive global reach during that period.
Therefore, there has almost always been some level of style blending going on, driven by wrestlers who were fortunate enough to obtain that exposure. However, this was very much a low key process globally during those years. Wrestlers like Gran Hamada and the original Tiger Mask, who adopted a blended Japanse and lucha libre style, for example, were very much the exception. I think if you look at wrestling during the 1970’s and 1980’s, the cultural dissemination was happening on a small scale – a move or concept here or there with only a few notable exceptions. For the purposes of this article, the reasons for that are mostly irrelevant but certainly included technological barriers, a resistance to change by local fans and promotors, as well as logistical barriers. There were exchanges amongst regions but for the most part regions cultivated and maintained their own unique stylistic concepts.
We tend to view the WWF’s U.S. national expansion in 1984 as a watershed moment where wrestling in the United States – and soon other parts of the world – went from being a regional pursuit to a global one. That is overly simplistic, but it was a milestone and technological advances occurring at the same time (the rise of cable television among them) opened the doors for national and global expansion. We can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was around this time the majority of the U.S. population viewed pro wrestling stylistically as whatever WWF and (to a lesser extent) WCW were doing. WWF shortly thereafter became the wrestling promotion of choice and style trendsetter in the UK and much of Europe as well.
Even after the WWF’s expansion, individual geographic styles continued to persist in a meaningful way, particularly on a global scale and particularly with respect to Mexico and Japan. The cultural elements of pro wrestling in those countries were far too engrained and unique for in-ring styles to dramatically shift overnight. Even in the U.S., while WCW and WWF shared similar stylistic qualities during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, they were also different in significant ways including usage of blood, violence, and attention paid to the in-ring component. Any standardization of wrestling styles that might have begun with WWF’s expansion was a slow and not all-encompassing process.
The mid to late 1990’s saw an influx of notable wrestlers – several of whom were considered among the best workers in the world – that compensated for lack of size by fusing various international styles together into one package. Wrestlers such as Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Sean Waltman, Negro Casas, Jushin Liger, Rey Mysterio Jr., Juventud Guerrera, and Ultimo Dragon were not the first to fuse several global styles. However, it was those wrestlers – and others from that period – that shaped that era’s view on what makes a quality worker. This is a precept that exists in some form to this day.
What all of those wrestlers had in common is that they were undersized and compensated by working a multi-dimensional style. Some – Benoit for example – were able to appropriately adjust the style they employed depending on the style of the wrestler they were working with. Just as Hamada and Tiger Mask stood out a decade earlier for the way they blended styles, so too did these wrestlers. The major difference between the two eras was that these wrestlers gained exposure on broader platforms, particularly in the U.S. Benoit, Guerrero, Mysterio, Liger, Waltman, and others had a far wider platform and therefore define the characteristic of a good worker for a far greater number of people. The main takeaway for fans and aspiring wrestlers was that diversity – combining elements of lucha libre, American pro style, Japanese heavyweight and junior heavyweight styles, and traditional British styles into one package the way the Benoits and Guerreros of that era did – was a hallmark of a great worker.
The fusion of lucha libre and Japanese styles that began with Japanese junior heavyweights of the late 1970’s and 1980’s and Gran Hamda’s UWF went to another level in terms of exposure with the rise of Michinoku Pro Wrestling in the mid-1990’s. That promotion in turn led to the creation of the first – and maybe the only – wrestling term coined exclusively to describe a combination style. The term lucharesu was coined in the 1990’s with the explicit purpose of describing a style that was viewed as a combination of two regional styles. Like the names listed above, many Michinoku Pro wrestlers were held in high esteem by fans in the United States and their ability to blend previously region-specific styles was viewed as a major positive attribute.
The precedent set in the mid to late 1990’s carried over into the next century. The 2001 – 2002 series of matches between Low Ki and Bryan Danielson offer a prime example of wrestlers incorporating worldwide styles into a single package. Without much in the way of hyperbole, it can be written that Danielson and Low Ki combined a half-dozen or so match elements that, in decades prior, had been largely region specific into a captivating style all their own. Given that those two wrestlers were essentially the founding fathers of the 2000’s-era U.S. indie wrestling boom it should come as no surprise that the 2000’s indie scene was defined by cross trained wrestlers and fans who valued that quality in wrestlers. Over the years, different stylistic match elements that were once region specific have plucked out, combined together, and the end result is a universally used blended style.
The early days of MMA contain many examples of practitioners of one particular style overcoming the competition simply by mastering a more effective style. As MMA progressed, it was no longer good enough for a fighter to be a master of a single style; he had to be proficient in all of the important styles and techniques. Pro Wrestling underwent a similar shift at roughly the same time when being adept at a one style or technique was no longer viewed as sufficient by many fans (and wrestlers). By the end of the 2000’s for example, it was not just the best U.S. indie workers who were cross trained in multiple styles but the vast majority of those in major promotions that were. Into the present day, more and more wrestlers utilize a blend of previously region-specific styles. Not only that, but many wrestlers are diversifying their repertoires in very similar ways as their peers.
What began in earnest as an attempt to stand out via diversification eventually led to diversification becoming the new standard. The most recent significant step forward on this road to homogenization has been the relatively recent influx of longtime indie workers into the WWE. WWE asks their workers to do certain things – the uncreative use of chin locks to slow the match down, working the hard camera, match layouts built around commercial breaks – that are unique to them, but the nuts and bolts of the offense and bumping in 2016 WWE are not all that dissimilar from other promotions.
We went from a pro wrestling landscape of 25 or 30 years ago where region specific styles were the standard and multidisciplinary wrestlers stood out, to an environment where those in the latter group are now the majority. Wrestling in Mexico looks far more like wrestling in the UK than ever before. Wrestling in the UK looks more like wrestling in Japan than ever before. Wrestling in Japan looks more like wrestling in the U.S. than ever before.
I would hypothesize that the reverence paid to the world-traveled wrestlers of the 1990’s made it more attractive to combine styles – particularly for undersized wrestlers – which has been aided by the continual technological process. Wrestlers and fans alike no longer need to track down hard copies of matches from around the globe or travel internationally to see them when matches are available in short order – often free of charge – on YouTube and other digital services. Whereas two or three decades ago only some wrestlers were afforded the opportunity to study other styles in-depth, the information is now available for most anyone to do so. Naturally, wrestlers have gravitated towards the same constructs, which has led to matches worldwide looking more similar than ever.
Regardless of the exact path that led to this point (and there are many, many other factors, not just the simplistic narrative described above), from a stylistic standpoint, the wrestling world is more homogenous than it has ever been. There is not one worldwide style, of course, nor will there ever be. It is nearly impossible to imagine wrestling ever becoming that uniform. There are, however, universal style standards when it comes to offense, pacing, finishing stretches and other key match components that are very widespread. Japanese style striking – in type, utilization, and selling – pervades no matter what country or promotion. Wrestlers perform dives up and down cards, even in WWE. Innovative offense is held in high esteem. A large volume of kick outs is a standard dramatic device.
In theory, this might not seem like much of an issue. If there is a free worldwide exchange of ideas then it might stand to reason that a natural selection process will ensue where the best ideas are incorporated and the bad ideas die out. What is “good” or “bad” in wrestling is ultimately subjective however, so rather than inching towards some utopian style, what could be happening is that the pool of people that are inclined to enjoy modern wrestling is shrinking. In the past fans might have been forced by geographic boundaries to enjoy a particular style or else not watch. Now we can watch wrestling from all over the globe but much of it – particularly the workers that many consider to be the best in the world right now – wrestle far similar styles than they did twenty or thirty years ago.
It does not necessarily demonstrate a resistance towards change to suggest that a potential worldwide homogenization of styles is problematic. A fan that does not care for Japanese style striking or a fan that at least does not care to see it infiltrate other historic styles has fewer options than he did years ago. There is a trade-off. People who wouldn’t have been inclined to watch a certain promotion or region – lucha libre for example – in the past now watch because the style differences are not as great as they once were. A fan of a more traditional lucha libre style has to dig far deeper to find his preferred style of lucha libre. One group gains in wrestling that fits their tastes, while another group loses.
In the end, this is probably the main source of disconnect between those who believe that wrestling has never been better and those who feel differently. A fan that enjoys the stylistic elements that have taken hold on a worldwide basis would likely hold the former opinion while those who do not like some or all of those elements or value a greater stylistic diversity would fall within the former group. Wrestling in 2016 could use visible promotions who cultivate a unique presentation and style that appeal to be fans that are not being catered to now.
One of the joys of wrestling for me has always been the ability to watch a handful of lucha matches, watch some Japanese heavyweight matches when I got tired of lucha, watch southern tags when I got tired of that, and then maybe switch over to some traditional “World of Sport” British style wrestling after all of it. It is becoming increasing difficult to find that sort of diversity in 2016 wrestling. Constant evolution and exchanging of styles globally is generally a good thing, but when it comes at the expense of diversification it becomes a far more complex issue.
Paul runs the pro-wrestling review site, crossarmbreaker.com, at which you can find his match reviews as well as his match guides sorted by region and time period. Paul is also the co-founder of the Orioles Observer. You can follow Paul on Twitter @stomperspc!
[EDITORS NOTE: Pro-Wrestling Only’s Loss wrote an outstanding complementary piece to this article in 2015, looking at the role of tape trading and newsletters on the merging of pro-wrestling styles, and the business in general.