The look on Matt Jackson’s face lasted only for a moment, a raindrop in the ocean to come. It wasn’t meant to be remembered, or perhaps even noticed. I’m not even sure he was aware it was happening as he stood at the top of the Sears Centre Arena’s entrance ramp just after five o’clock CST, live on WGN America.
Before him were more than 10,000 people chanting “All In,” the name of the largest independent professional wrestling show in history, which Jackson founded, promoted, and funded alongside his younger brother Nick and their friend Cody Rhodes. They stood to his right, beaming and acknowledging the crowd the way exuberant promoters do. But Matt, the charismatic core of the bunch, was frozen with his hands on his head, elbows flared out like he was trying to catch his breath after a long run.
Seven years earlier, Matt was broke with a baby on the way. He wasn’t sure he could make rent on the apartment he shared with his wife, Dana. He had his credit card declined in an airport Popeye’s when he tried to buy a $1.99 biscuit sandwich. He told Nick that he might quit. He loved professional wrestling and the work they did together in the tag team called the Young Bucks, but he couldn’t starve anymore.
In the weeks leading up to All In, Rhodes would frequently characterize the show in media events as serendipitous. That there would be no record crowd, or astonishing sellout time, or all-star lineup, or accompanying mega-convention had countless moments not slid precisely into place. One of them—perhaps the most important of all—was Matt Jackson’s decision to ultimately press on in the hope that things would someday get better.
Over the next five hours, All In would deliver one of the best wrestling shows in recent memory. Every single type of fan would return home happy. There was a first-time dream match for the purists (Kenny Omega–Pentagon Jr.), a thermonuclear spotfest for lucha libre enthusiasts (the six-man main event, which featured the Young Bucks and Rey Mysterio), nostalgia for the historically inclined (a clutch of wrestling legends plus Jay Lethal reprising his Black Machismo gimmick with the Macho Man’s brother, Lanny Poffo, in his corner), surprises (Chris Jericho sighting!), a superbly worked four-way women’s match, outright violence (can someone check on Joey Janela?), a healthy smattering of laughs, and a powerful testament to the impact of a well-told story (more on that later).
But on a night bursting with big moments, one of the smallest resonated most. The look on Matt Jackson’s face was that of a man grasping in real time that he had just made history. It was the look of someone who had shattered every reasonable expectation wrestlers have been told to have.
All In will change professional wrestling. That much was obvious well before the first bell tolled. It was on the lips of everyone I spoke to in suburban Chicago this week, from promoters to wrestlers to everyone adjacent. It represents the greatest hope a historically exploited workforce has ever had at leveling the playing field in their favor, for one thing. It’s also the culmination of a two-year crawl toward collaboration among non-WWE promotions, a move at least implicitly rooted in beginning to see wrestlers as partners more than strictly employees. It is a titanic victory for wrestling labor.
The questions concern the particulars. How did we get here? What form will that change take and how long will it ultimately last? And, perhaps most importantly, what impact will it have on the futures of the men who spearheaded everything?
By now, All In’s origin story is codified into wrestling lore.
On May 16, 2017, wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer was asked on Twitter whether he thought Ring of Honor, the company the Young Bucks and Rhodes are contracted to, would ever sell out a 10,000-seat arena.
It was a monumental task. No one outside of World Wrestling Entertainment had drawn a crowd that big in the United States since World Championship Wrestling went under in 2001—a span of 17 years. Ring of Honor was on the upswing but still well short of where WCW was even in its dying breaths, to say nothing of present-day WWE.
So Meltzer replied with the only thing that seemed reasonable: “Not any time soon.”
Eleven minutes later, Rhodes fired off the tweet that would set everyone on a course toward history: “I’ll take that bet Dave.”
In reality, the idea had already germinated for a month and a half, since the Young Bucks main-evented against the Hardy Boyz in a ladder match in front of 3,500 people on April 1. It was the hottest independent tag-team feud of the year and made for an easy sellout. It left Rhodes wondering just how much higher the ceiling could go.
”His line was, ‘You guys would have put even more people in the building but there weren’t enough seats available,’” Matt Jackson recalled when I spoke to him in February. “‘Why wouldn’t there have been 10,000 people? We can do it.’”
Meltzer’s tweet wasn’t the spark so much as lighter fluid atop an already crackling fire. According to Jackson, Cody reached out later that same day, resolute that the show now needed to happen. The brothers agreed.
“It became an actual thing in that moment,” Jackson said. “That was day one.”
But instead of working alongside ROH, they decided to go it alone. It would mean self-financing the entire show—a fair exchange, they decided, if it meant retaining control of every detail.
What those details were, exactly, remained to be seen. All they knew was that each decision needed to be unanimous—a true partnership. Among the first was ratifying the name suggested by Cody’s older sister, Teil: All In, at once a catchall for the level of commitment the trio poured into the show, as well as easy branding when it came time to announce talent.
The decisions flowed from there. They stationed the show in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, a suburb 30 miles northwest of Chicago, where the local Sears Centre Arena boasted a capacity of more than 10,000. They filled out the card with a core of themselves as well as Omega, Hangman Page and “The Villain” Marty Scurll, their close friends and stablemates in the Bullet Club, the faction they all wrestled under in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Slowly, they rolled out other talent to augment it, from global stars such as Kazuchika Okada to up-and-comers like MJF, taking care never to announce a full match. They secured a deal to broadcast the show via pay-per-view. They kept corporate sponsorships to a minimum.
Tickets went on sale on May 13, 2018, almost one year to the day after the bet with Meltzer was placed. The Bullet Club crew, sans Omega, convened in downtown Chicago to hold a press conference to help drum up ticket buys. They arrived carrying a trump card in their pocket—the announcement of Mysterio, perhaps the biggest free agent in wrestling. If nothing else, they figured it would juice ticket sales over the ensuing three and a half months. After all, it would be foolish to expect a show this large to sell out in a few hours.
They were right. It took 29 minutes and 36 seconds.
Immediately, everything had changed. Their personal aspirations had inadvertently tapped into something far more significant. It confirmed something Rhodes had suspected for months: “Wrestling needs this,” he said during a conversation in February. Fans were tired of the WWE and its inevitability. They were wary of seeing names like Roman Reigns and Charlotte Flair anchored to the top of the card, no matter how loudly they shouted for something else. They were fed up with the WWE snapping up more talent than it knows what to do with, leaving some of the best wrestlers in the world to languish like baubles collecting dust on a shelf. They wanted, Jackson said, “a true alternative.” And they believed in All In and the men behind it enough to gobble up every ticket without knowing a single match.
The show kept ballooning. WGN America offered up an hour of airtime, and a gateway into more than 80 million homes on basic cable. They filled it by booking 20 more wrestlers to compete in the aptly named Over Budget Battle Royal, a match which deep-sixed any dwindling hopes the trio held for fiscal restraint.
A wrestling podcast convention sprouted up at the show’s official hotel in neighboring Schaumburg. They called it Starrcast in honor of Starrcade, the signature wrestling event crafted by Cody’s deceased father, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, and it delivered four days’ worth of shows, appearances and autograph signings. Just like All In, Starrcast blew past even its founder Conrad Thompson’s expectations.
“Originally we were hoping we could sell 800 tickets,” Thompson said. “[It wound up] over 8,000. … It’s a multiple of everything we ever hoped [for].”
Two days before the show, the Hyatt Regency Schaumburg had been transformed into an infomercial for All In weekend. Hotel staffers were outfitted in purple Starrcast shirts, while the restaurant and bar menus offered items like the Bullet Club Sandwich and the Villain rum and coke. The hallways were a maze of podcasts recording episodes and wrestlers hawking their wares, navigated by hundreds—if not a couple thousand—of eager fans dressed in a full kaleidoscope of Bullet Club shirts. All it took was a glimpse of someone on the All In card to burst into cheers and chanting, a dress rehearsal for everything to come on Saturday night.
Multiple wrestlers remarked that the scene was reminiscent of WrestleCon, the annual grassroots convention that pops up each year in the shadow of WWE’s WrestleMania elsewhere in the host city. Which in itself represents a watershed moment: Independent wrestling had replicated the same event without the need for WWE at all, in effect crafting a monoculture out of a subculture. It no longer needed to settle for being a planet orbiting WrestleMania’s star. In Chicago, All In proved that independent wrestling could function as the entire solar system.
There’s a strong case to be made that the success of All In isn’t really about wrestling at all. As impressive as the actual matches were, the depth of professional wrestling in 2018 is such that it’s easier than ever to find great work and more difficult to stand out for it.
“There’s so much good wrestling now,” Scurll said. “And it gets to the point where good wrestling is just not enough.”
Perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence in support of that idea occurred at 7 p.m. on Thursday night, when Scurll hosted Elite Karaoke in one of the Hyatt’s two largest ballrooms.
Scurll, it should be noted, is not a singer. The closest he gets is his rather brutal portrayal of one in a YouTube series, something which under normal circumstances would not inspire dozens of people to pay hard-earned money for the opportunity to perform alongside him as Scurll belted out wobbly renditions of Celine Dion, Backstreet Boys, and Avril Lavigne tunes.
These were not normal circumstances. Elite Karaoke was one of the hits of All In weekend, to the surprise of absolutely no one—except, that is, Scurll himself.
“I was like, ‘Damn, this is just shit,’” he said with a laugh. “And everyone was like, ‘Oh, this was amazing, it was so much fun.’ I was like”—he pauses to suck air through his teeth—‘OK, well, if you say so.’”
Truth be told, the idea was gold-plated from the very beginning, blessed by the Midas Touch that is Being the Elite, the Young Bucks’ weekly YouTube show whose channel to date boasts almost 240,000 subscribers. Among the innumerable groundbreaking things that happened in Chicago, the most important was the pivotal role that a show featuring maybe 20 seconds of wrestling per week played in creating the most culturally significant wrestling event this decade.
”Being the Elite is the reason why this is happening,” said Scorpio Sky, who wrestled on the All In preshow and is a BTE series regular as part of the stable SoCal Uncensored, or SCU.
Being the Elite began in May 2016 as a docuseries chronicling the lives of the Jacksons and Kenny Omega, collectively known as The Elite. It was pro-wrestling cinema verite, all shaky camera angles and choppy edits, with shockingly little schtick. Viewers spent long stretches of time in hotel rooms and rental cars, affording them an unvarnished window into lives of Matt and Nick Massie and Tyson Smith during the hours in between playing the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega. It was as honest as professional wrestling content got. It also wasn’t terribly interesting.
The show began to take a turn about 30 episodes in. Output became more consistent. Nick Jackson, who edits the series, grew more technically proficient and smoothed out the production’s rougher edges. More characters were added. And, in the tradition of all great reality-television programming, the lines began to blur. The travel sequences remained but now they stood in service to a new, larger conceit—a platform for the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega to develop their characters on their own terms, free from whatever creative shackles a wrestling promoter could place upon them.
That alchemy was fully realized by the show’s first birthday, just in time for Scurll to join the Bullet Club at a Ring of Honor show by helping the Young Bucks turn on their longtime stablemate Adam Cole. The in-ring story line was straightforward enough to follow without ever watching a BTE episode, but those who kept up with the show were privy to weeks of backstory, the sort of time and attention that promotions simply cannot afford to budget for one angle. The ensuing episode, “The Bullet Club Gets a Villain,” unspooled weeks’ worth of behind-the-scenes subterfuge in a way more reminiscent of a television season finale than a wrestling show. It logged more than 405,000 views—or 100,000 more than the average number who tuned in weekly to watch Impact Wrestling in 2017 and dwarfing Lucha Underground’s 2016 numbers in its well-received second season.
That was 65 episodes ago. Today, the show operates as an even more exaggerated portrayal of its origins, with upwards of a dozen recurring characters and story lines that range from Page murdering series regular Joey Ryan in the world’s deadliest case of penis envy to Scurll getting signed to a record label and temporarily quitting the show in pursuit of a pop career. Within wrestling, it’s evolved into a sort of companion reader, a product so intertwined with Ring of Honor and New Japan story lines that Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer devotes a segment toward breaking it down each week. It’s elevated an undercard talent like Page into an indie mainstay and a solid hand like Scurll into a star. The trickle-down effect spills down to the non–Bullet Club members, too, like Sky and his stablemates, whose every movement at the Hyatt could be tracked by random passersby hooting “SCU!”
“The power behind that show, if you just look at us and how our careers have grown even in the last few months … it’s up there, if not the biggest thing I’ve ever even done in my wrestling career,” Sky said.
But all of that runs secondary to a newer, wider audience that transcends wrestling. Suddenly, the BTE crew are YouTube stars.
“I’ve had, many times, people [approach me and] say, ‘I’m a big fan of you. I’ve never seen you wrestle before. Just seeing you on this show,’” Scurll said with an incredulous chuckle.
It comes with unparalleled trappings. Partly thanks to Being the Elite, Hot Topic began selling Bullet Club shirts last June June, purportedly moving more than 415,000 units in the first four months they were on shelves. TGI Friday’s called, after the Bucks lovingly referred to it as their favorite Japanese cuisine during a BTE episode in Tokyo. Ditto Cracker Barrel, following a series of posed shots from the BTE crew on the breakfast chain’s famous rocking chairs. On Saturday, they catered the wrestlers’ meal and scattered 500 Biscuit Party hats throughout the arena as an homage to the Bucks’ Superkick Party brand.
That kind of attention places both the BTE crew and the industry as a whole in unchartered waters. There was, at least in the broad strokes, a corollary for everything else that happened this weekend at All In. But there is no precedent whatsoever for independent wrestlers, as individual entities, carrying the type of corporate sponsors that even the WWE would make time for.
”It made all the sense in the world to kind of run your own super show, because you would see these YouTube stars [say] ... ‘Hey, we’re meeting at the mall in an hour,’” said Colt Cabana, a 19-year indie veteran whose podcast and documentary helped birth the indie-wrestling internet movement, and who wrestled the preshow battle royal. “It’s the same idea.”
Pro wrestling is a copycat business, which makes it a safe bet that other wrestlers or companies will try and piggyback off the YouTube model. It’s the best chance talent has to divorce their futures from those of companies they cannot control.
Not all of them will succeed. The progenitor of wrestling YouTube, WWE’s Zack Ryder, saw his show’s momentum peter out years ago, his career plateauing along with it.
But some already are. The National Wrestling Alliance, for one, has resuscitated its brand over the last year in large part due to its Ten Pounds of Gold docuseries, which constructs stories around the company’s champion in the spirit of an HBO boxing documentary.
”It’s all part of this revolution that you don’t need to have a billion-dollar company behind you, if you want to do it,” says NWA vice president David Lagana. “You have to understand what an audience wants. It’s not money. They will support you to the end of the fucking earth if they believe in your message.”
And on Saturday night, Lagana proved his point with a match which, after months of buildup, demonstrated that sometimes, good wrestling is still more than enough on its own.
As a rule, super shows draw more on names and matches than story, and that mostly held true at All In.
The narratives that did exist were funneled through Being the Elite and largely rooted in circumstances that were tongue-in-cheek at a minimum, if not outright winking at the show’s smart audience: murder; being framed for murder; one wrestler insinuating that the other should be buried on WWE’s cruiserweight show; a untreatable case of multiple personality disorder; and a seemingly doomed quest to merely get booked on the card at all.
Cody Rhodes versus Nick Aldis was the great exception. It was an old-school match nestled in a new-school card, underpinned by the most traditional motivation in combat sports: One man wanted the championship belt that the other had.
The belt in question was the NWA world’s championship, the oldest surviving world title in pro wrestling. It has rested on the waist of legends for 70 years, from Ric Flair to Harley Race to Lou Thesz and, most crucially for the story line, Cody’s father, Dusty Rhodes. Now it belonged to Aldis, a former TNA stalwart who was mostly adrift until signing with the NWA shortly after Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan purchased the company’s assets in 2017. His nine months as champion were an elixir for both his career and the company at large. He gave the title credibility and the title gave him purpose.
Still, the initial reaction was tepid when the match was announced at the show’s press conference in May. It was hardly the most glamorous booking for one of the show’s driving forces.
“A year ago, Cody versus Nick Aldis was not a match anyone wanted to see, knew they wanted to see, nor did they think the NWA would be involved in,” Lagana said.
So all parties involved devoted the next four months toward making people care. They stripped the narrative down to the studs until all that remained was the truth: a champion in search of respect, a challenger who can’t distinguish his motivations as a wrestler from those as a son, and a brand thirsting for a relevant moment on the national stage. Then they mashed those ingredients together and promoted it like a boxing match. They gave the match the full Ten Pounds of Gold treatment, and punctuated it with a Friday night weigh-in, skivvies and all. Each man walked to the ring on Saturday with a full entourage in tow. The referee, Earl Hebner, butted in after introductions to issue final instructions over the microphone.
”[Floyd] Mayweather–[Conor] McGregor showed you that anything is possible and that is the build to this,” Lagana said. Forget the over-the-top story lines and inside-baseball winking. “Call this a fight between two people.”
The thing about prize fights, though, is that they only really work if the crowd buys in. That also happens to be Cody’s foremost theory of wrestling. Time and again, he has gone on record caping for Hulk Hogan versus the Rock at WrestleMania 18 as the greatest match of all time, for the way it whipped nearly 70,000 people into the sort of pandemonium that topples governments. A skeptic would point out that the ring work was lacking. But what is a wrestling ring if not a conduit to make people feel things?
On Saturday night, people felt things.
They wanted Cody Rhodes to win and they wanted Nick Aldis to lose and they wanted those things with an urgency that felt like it was ripped from an era long passed. It was evident in the volume, but more so their itchy trigger finger, how they erupted at seven separate inflection points during Cody’s ring entrance, from when he first appeared on the Jumbotron through him kissing the center of the ring in longstanding homage to Dusty. And, just in case he didn’t get the message, they unleashed a sonic boom as the match started with its first collar-and-elbow tie-up, a roar that rolled through the building loud enough to make Cody recoil.
The match was witch’s brew of WrestleMania 18, a Rocky film and old southern style wrestling. It was physical more than technical, built on pacing and sustained by rest holds. The high-impact spots—a simple top rope splash, a pile driver, the figure-four leglock—had a distinct ’80s sheen to them. Naturally, someone got busted open.
It was no one’s idea of a technical masterpiece, not that it mattered. Rhodes’s greatest strength as a performer has always been his emotional intelligence, how he probes his character for exactly the right look or gesture and hammers it home for maximum pathos. In this case, that meant playing off his wife, Brandi, the person whom he says succeeded Dusty as his best friend following his father’s death.
She carried the biggest moment of the match, draping herself over him to take the brunt of an Aldis flying elbow drop. But she aced the small gestures, too, like the way she clutched her husband’s wrists midway through the match as he lay face down in the ring, beaten half to death. Or, when Cody gutted out a roll-up victory to win the title, how she cupped her hands over her mouth as he pressed his forehead against the belt’s center plate and fell to the mat, shoulders heaving.
The last one—the final moment of validation—felt like more than simple theater. It probably was. Even the best-scripted medium can’t force authenticity, and watching Rhodes, with blood streaked through his blond hair, raise the same title belt that he saw on his father’s desk as a child, was nothing short of magnetizing.
The crowd exploded, of course; how couldn’t they? It had gotten exactly what it wanted only a few months removed from not knowing they wanted it at all, which is about as perfect as professional wrestling gets. It was the culmination of a wrestling story as old as time, the good guy defeating the bad guy to win the title. That’s what made it timeless.
There was, though, one unavoidably new-age wrinkle in that throwback match—the fact that it was even taking place at all.
On one side, Rhodes is a contracted Ring of Honor talent. Aldis, meanwhile, is a contracted NWA talent. Every in-person interaction ahead of the match—including a previous title defense by Aldis two months ago against ROH star Flip Gordon—took place at ROH events. And the whole feud came to a head on a third-party show.
As recently as two years ago, it would have been deeply unlikely to see any of this happen. Two years before that, it would have been unfathomable. Yet in 2018, cooperation between federations outside the WWE has become fashionable, just in time for All In to cull its dream lineup from whatever non-WWE corner of the wrestling world it chose. Every major American promotion was represented on the card, from ROH to Impact to Evolve to Lucha Underground. So was top talent from Japan, Mexico, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
This could have involved far more red tape than it did. Cody and the Young Bucks, for instance, are on deals that make them exclusive to ROH in the United States and required permission from company brass to pursue the show. A simple no and All In weekend never happens.
Instead, everyone not only played nice, but went out of their way to usher the process along. Ring of Honor assisted in All In’s production, while New Japan will provide on-demand replay of the show via its online streaming network. Other companies like Impact and Evolve openly applauded—and in Impact’s case, borderline promoted—the show on social media.
“This isn’t really competition to anything,” said Ring of Honor general manager Greg Gilleland. “It’s its own show. This is a unification of the industry—of many, many pieces of the industry. It’s a great festival. It’s a great celebration. So why not let it happen?”
Well, the entire history of the professional wrestling, for starters. One of the bedrocks of the industry since its inception was promoters cultivating talent and exclusively showcasing it on their terms for however long a wrestler remained under contract. Talent has always been the draw but the promoters have traditionally held the leverage, and so things went for the better part of 100 years. The house always won.
The first seeds of change were sewn in 2016, if for no other reason than the right confluence of circumstances had never existed until then. The indie scene was healthy enough to support a cluster of companies that offered a national platform and reasonable pay, and the internet had made them all accessible to anyone with broadband. Meanwhile, a new generation of performers had emerged, ones savvy enough to diversify their revenue streams and cultivate audiences loyal to them, not the places they worked. The consumer had choice and the wrestlers had options.
“The world keeps getting smaller and smaller,” Rhodes said in February. “All the bubbles are burst. People can see other wrestling besides WWE now. They can see everything—meaning, the best in the world isn’t defined by the company. It’s defined by the talent.”
That year, names like Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa freelanced for WWE’s NXT brand while still taking indie bookings. Impact (then still known as TNA) and Evolve wrestlers ran an unofficial invasion angle centered on EC3, arguably TNA’s biggest star, aiding Drew Galloway, who regularly worked for both. All four are now fully contracted to WWE, along with numerous other indie stalwarts from the same period. The marketplace for established independent talent shrunk in a matter of months, but instead of seeing the indie territories dry up, it gifted even more leverage to the draws who stuck around. There were now more places to work than there were big names to see.
Gradually, the promotions began to play ball. If 2016 was marked by the talent showing up in unexpected places, then the story of 2018 is their respective promotions’ eagerness to expedite sending them there. Impact and Lucha Underground have authored a widespread talent share agreement, while Ring of Honor continued to broaden longstanding ties with New Japan and Mexico’s CMLL—to say nothing of its burgeoning relationship with NWA, which Gilleland believes has “so much potential to grow it into something else.” Lagana, meanwhile, describes his own company as entirely “agnostic” about whom it does business with.
“We’ll work with literally anyone,” Lagana said. “If Triple H called tomorrow and wanted to book Triple H versus Nick Aldis for the NWA title, OK. ... We’re open to doing anything as long as we can have creative input and freedom in what we’re doing.”
The endgame is relative. Neither All In nor the wider spirit it’s constructed upon is anywhere close to challenging the WWE’s hegemony over the wrestling business at large. “None of this is dinging them one bit,” Gilleland confirmed. “They’re going to take whatever talent that they want, whenever they want, because they can make millions of dollars.” But it’s made the rest of the world a more exciting, more profitable place. Saturday was simply the most obvious flashpoint, and a roadmap for where it can all lead.
“It’s this amazing ballgame where we’re all playing,” said Chelsea Green, who wrestled in the women’s four-way match. “We can’t beat WWE, so why not all of us try as hard as we can to come together and do whatever we can to elevate each other and get at as high as we possibly can, get the most viewers that we possibly can together? Why are we separating each other, and we’re putting a little bit of the best talent here and a little bit of the best talent there, when we can have a show like this?
“This is the show that proves it: Collaboration is the future.”
Something else is on the horizon, too.
At the end of this calendar year, the Young Bucks’ and Cody Rhodes’s contracts will expire with Ring of Honor, while Kenny Omega’s New Japan deal expires in January 2019. Rhodes is already on record as saying the group will stick together wherever they wind up next. The WWE is expected to make an aggressive push, while Gilleland confirmed that ROH will “make every effort to retain them.”
Beyond that, the possibilities are seemingly endless now that they’re able to draft off All In’s success on top of Being the Elite. Lagana wonders whether All In could revolutionize the independents by allowing the BTE crew to branch off as full-time soldiers of fortune, ones who can promote their own shows and wrestle elsewhere only when they want to.
“These guys have leverage to create for themselves,” he said. “They [could] go, ‘Hm, I could make this much doing autographs. We do six shows a year and we put it on our YouTube channel and charge for it as pay-per-view [and] I don’t have to give anybody a cut.’”
Even in the absence of a company, there is still a brand. In some sense, Being the Elite and All In have become a new promotion unto themselves, one that does business with larger companies instead of merely working for them. It’s a beacon for anyone seeking to carve out a career on the indies instead of flee to the WWE. It may even coax a few names to go the other direction and emulate Rhodes, who requested his release in 2016 after a 10-year career in WWE.
”The biggest impact of all these guys has been actually on all the talent that is not on the show,” said Chris Harrington, cohost of the podcast Wrestlenomics, which analyzes the business of pro wrestling. “There are guys in WWE who are thinking, ‘Maybe I should walk away from this and go on the indies, because I’m that level of a marketer and a talent.’”
Or perhaps the inverse happens, creating an unprecedented vacuum. The mantra of indie wrestling is there’s always someone to take up the mantle whenever a main eventer signs with the WWE, but no one’s ever had to replace YouTube stars before. No one else is presently equipped to do it, either.
”If a handful or most of these guys decide to leave our world, if you will, it would obviously put a dent in it,” Cabana said. “Someone will take that spot, but it won’t happen within 30 days. It might be a year, it might be two years, it might be five years, it might be 10 years. Just like, first [Hulk] Hogan, then [much later, Stone Cold Steve] Austin.”
Regardless of what they decide to do, the genie is out of the bottle. Already, independent wrestling is thinking bigger than it ever has. Ring of Honor and New Japan have sold out Madison Square Garden for a show during WrestleMania weekend 2019, a move that several wrestlers believe was a direct byproduct of All In’s success. It’s a popular refrain that may not be grounded in reality—Gilleland says the idea to go for Madison Square Garden was actually hatched after the promotion packed in 6,100 fans at New Orleans’s UNO Lakefront Arena at this year’s WrestleMania weekend—but, as is often the case in wrestling, the idea matters far more than the actual truth: On Friday night, Joey Janela sauntered into the All In prematch press conference to proclaim that his critically acclaimed Spring Break shows “will be the next motherfuckers to draw 10,000 people.”
SCU’s Christopher Daniels, meanwhile, expects a new wave of outside investors to roll in after All In achieved so much with so little.
”The iron is hot and so they’ll think, ‘This is the time to strike,’” he says. “You’re going to see people taking a chance on independent professional wrestling because they see now ‘Oh, there’s an interest, there’s a fan base and we can capitalize on that.’
This is the wrestling business, though, which means that a catastrophe is always looming. It’s not hard to envision a reckless promoter overleveraging and sinking his company in an arena-show arms race. It’s even easier to imagine someone disrupting the fragile peace the larger indies are brokering, the way the uneasy alliance between the AWA, WCCW, and CWA at Superclash III dissolved after they banded together to take on Vince McMahon’s WWF.
”Eventually somebody’s going to come along and ruin a good thing,” Thompson said. “It does feel like there are different eras in everything, and peaks and valleys. And I do expect at some point for somebody to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘We’re not doing that anymore and here’s why.’
But for now, there’s hope, the sort that Matt Jackson could never dream of all those years ago. His night ended in the main event, when he scored the final pin of the show and helped take All In off pay-per-view with just three seconds to spare. Now he stood as it swelled with family and friends. This time, he was ready to entertain.
He snatched the microphone from his brother and regaled the crowd with the story Cody approaching Matt and Nick with the idea for All In. Then he passed out plaudits—to everyone in the ring, those in the back and, finally, to the 10,000-plus people who believed.
He knows what the crowd wants, he assured them. They want good pro wrestling. They want good entertainment. And for the better part of five hours, the crowd experienced three men’s vision for what professional wrestling could be.
Then he stopped telling and started asking the one question on everyone’s mind.
“Do you want more of this?” he bellowed, jabbing his pointer finger with each word.
He pulled the microphone down and began to pace. And then, he heard more than 10,000 strong chanting once again:
“ALL IN 2!”
“ALL IN 2!”
“ALL IN 2!”
You could call it a moment. This time, it wasn’t a small one.
An earlier version of this story misstated Colt Cabana’s years in the industry. He has 19 years of experience, not 16.