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Billy Corgan on the Future of Wrestling and Why He Likes Wrestling Fans

The Smashing Pumpkins front man—and owner of the NWA—discusses his foray into the squared circle

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Last year Billy Corgan—most famous for being the creative force behind Smashing Pumpkins—bought and revived—the National Wrestling Alliance, the most storied brand in pro wrestling. On October 21, the NWA will hold its 70th-anniversary show in Nashville, Tennessee. This week, Corgan sat down with David Shoemaker on The Masked Man Show to discuss the upcoming show, the future of the pro wrestling business, and whether he can ever see himself working with Vince McMahon.

On how the pro wrestling world has evolved in the past year:

I don’t want to say I predicted that you would have this turnaround in, say, one year, but I certainly saw what was coming. Let’s walk it back a few steps. When I was at TNA and involved in the conception of what we would call the Broken Universe—working with Matt and Jeff [Hardy] and of course David Lagana and Matt Conway and Jeremy Borash and everybody else who was involved in sort of building this thing—it started from an idea I had in booking where I kept saying, why can’t we do stuff out of the building? The general backstory being TNA Wrestling was underwater financially. And we were spending so much money shooting segments, I started saying, why can’t we shoot stuff off-grid? Why can’t wrestling be more of a 24/7 universe as opposed to a once-a-week, here-we-are-in-the-building type of thing?

And that cracked the door open to allow us to start doing stuff off the grid, which led, of course, to the Broken Universe stuff. And the reaction to that sort of told me that the future of wrestling lay more in a combination of fantasy and reality. And all you need to do is look at something like the growth of wizard cons and comic cons and stuff like that. People are very comfortable now with sort of going deep into the fantasy side of a show, of the characters, but at the same point, they’re very interested in the people who are behind the scenes. Not just talent, but also as the creators. The people who do the animations or whatever.

So you see this sort of burgeoning world coming out that I would call more of a 24/7 approach to content where you can have the show, but also the show behind the show is almost just as interesting as the show. So how do you balance that? And then of course you look around the world, and you look at models like the UFC and how they produce their content, where one minute Dana White’s a showman and one minute he’s a comedian and he’s sharing funny meme videos. You know what I mean? You don’t have to be anything traditional anymore. You can be whoever you are, and you kind of work with the public and you kind of find a space that they work towards.

So we saw that coming. Now, the emergence—to answer your question faithfully—the emergence of people like Cody [Rhodes] and the [Young] Bucks and their ability to take their personal brand and flip them into actual ticket-selling beyond the realm of a promotion, or in support with a promotion like Ring of Honor, and that sort of emerging world of, let’s call it, the non-WWE universe, which is this kind of Wild West of all these promotions, talents. And everybody’s starting to align because they realize there’s so much power there.

That’s where we find ourselves now with the NWA. We’re in this sort of glue position where we can bring disparate parties together. And through the history and legacy of the NWA, we can create events.

On whether he could see himself working with WWE someday:

You know, I think you can’t rule it out. And people would laugh at that and scratch their heads at that. But the point is that at the end of the day, if you build something that has value, then why wouldn’t it be? If it’s lucrative to everybody involved, I mean, look. If you had said 20 years ago that the UFC and WWE would work together and do co-promotion, you would’ve laughed your ass off. You wouldn’t have believed it. Why? Who? What? Huh? The fact that there’s been talent exchanges and co-promotions shows that if you can build something, that has vitality. Now, you’ve got a long, long way to go before you’d even be in Vince’s rearview mirror.

So I’m always the first to raise my hand and say I’m not delusional. But you can look at what the McMahons have built and say, “There’s this whole other thing out there.” Even if you’re standing in their shadow, there’s this whole other thing out there. And All In is now the proof. You have literal proof. Talents themselves put on a show. The fans back them up and said, “This is something we want.”

And having stood there at the dawn of the grunge revolution, I know that feeling, where the fans come up and say, “Yeah, we get what you’re doing over here. But you know, there’s this whole other thing that we’re interested in too. And we’re gonna build this market ourselves.” That’s coming. It’s just, who wants to be on board? Who wants to play nice?

And look, we’ve had plenty of discussions with WWE as well over the past year. The door’s open to them. I mean, we’re more than willing to try to hook up what we’re trying to do with what they’re trying to do. ‘Cause at the end of the day, they’ve now built a network. And we look at them as a network like you would look at Turner or ESPN. If they want more content, let’s call it third-party content. Not under the WWE umbrella, but third-party content that you would lease to them. I mean, we’re more than willing to talk about those things, ‘cause as far as we’re concerned, they’re in the wrestling business. And they’re a network.

On what the NWA will look like a year from now:

I think the simple picture I would draw in everyone’s mind is, to me, the WWE is like this massive star ship. And it’s what happens around that star ship that’s gonna determine the next sort of three to five years. In my case, I’m independent. I don’t need anybody’s financing. I don’t need anybody’s TV network. I can operate on my own and do exactly as I please. And so that gives me sort of a different ability on a street level to pursue what I think is the coming market.

The question is as simple as this: This alternate kind of universe, this 24/7 collection of disparate forces that now exist, non-WWE in the world, they are going to come together at some point. Because the market will dictate it. Cody and the Bucks have already proven that that’s there. And I feel pretty strongly in saying that I think everybody in the business, including WWE, is aware that that’s coming. The question is, who’s going to write the check to decide which direction it’s going to go in?

And once that happens, it’ll either be co-opted back into typical corporate stuff or it’ll be a free-reign type of thing where everybody will get to run forward into the new 21st-century version of wrestling and entertainment and how fans would receive it and how they would connect with the talent and everything like that.

Obviously, I’m on the side that is gonna remain independent and not have to sort of get sold out to sort of the corporate interests. Because at the end of the day, having been in some of those meetings with those corporate interests, the minute they start sort of steering you back towards traditional kind of wrestling, we just kind of shrug.

And I think that surprises those people, because obviously, they’re the ones that are holding the bigger check. And we basically say, we don’t think that’s where this world is going. So we’d rather stay independent for another year. So in a year from now, when we have more evidence to prove it to you guys, you guys might be more willing to write that check. But that’s why we don’t necessarily go into these meetings saying, yeah, we want the 50-week-a-year TV deal, like Impact has with Pop. We think that that model is absolutely outmoded and broken.

On talking wrestling with Rick Rubin, the producer of the Smashing Pumpkins’ new LP Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun:

When we record, that’s literally all we talk about. In between takes, when we’re just kind of sitting for five minutes, just catch your breath, that’s what Rick wants to talk about. He wants to talk about wrestling.

He’s very interested in where the business is going and the behind the scenes, it’s called water-cooler gossip. … He certainly has some deep sources, so he’ll occasionally show up with something that sort of surprises me. He knows certain people. But no, he definitely follows what’s going on and he’s aware. But I think he’s more interested in sort of how it all fits together. To him, it’s a wild world, and so he has a good laugh about how crazy that world is.

On whether he feels like he knows somebody more intimately when he finds out they’re a wrestling fan:

I generally have more respect for people when I find out that they’re wrestling fans. Because what that tells me is that they’re into life, they’re into having a good time, and they’re not gonna let somebody else tell them what to think. Wrestling fans, by and large, they’re very independent-minded people. If the guy next door telling you, “Why do you watch that stuff? It’s all fake, whatever”—if that’s gonna knock you out as a wrestling fan, then you don’t really have any guts for it.