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Major League Wrestling Makes Its Move

The little promotion that could is ready for the big time

MLW/Ringer illustration

It’s a Tuesday in late July. In less than a day and a half, Court Bauer will be manning gorilla position at the Melrose Ballroom in Queens, New York, ensuring talent make their way down the entrance ramp on time and calling audibles into referees’ ear pieces as the action unfolds, all in the hopes that an edited-down version of the evening’s matches makes for a memorable hour of television. Every Saturday night at 9 p.m., Major League Wrestling—the company Bauer founded in 2002, shuttered two years later, and relaunched in earnest circa 2017—broadcasts the latest episode of its 60-minute MLW Fusion show on cable network beIN SPORTS. The in-ring action comes from live events but the fights are framed and contextualized by pretaped interviews and vignettes.

That’s why, with barely more than 24 hours till Melrose Ballroom’s opening bell, Bauer is directing traffic inside a spare, dimly lit room on the seventh floor of a Radisson Hotel in suburban New Rochelle, just off I-95 about 20 miles northeast of Manhattan. Opposite him are current MLW world heavyweight champion Jacob Fatu (yes, he is related to Rikishi, the Usos, and the rest of the Samoan pro wrestling clan) and his comrade, the cigar-chomping Josef Samael. Along with onetime WWE Vaudevillain Simon Gotch and new recruit Ikuro Kwon—who is present at the Radisson and readying for his first company promo—they comprise the villainous faction Contra Unit, which functions like an international consortium of renegades and thieves and is everything WWE’s ill-fated League of Nations hoped to be. Bauer, who could be mistaken for a retired middle linebacker, puffs up his chest to comic proportions, fans out his arms as if they were inflatable, and implores Fatu to ready for the “Andre shot” (named for legendary Andre the Giant), an upward angle tracked in such a way as to make a big man even more imposing.

Court Bauer
MLW/Harry Aaron

Despite playing the snarling, nostril-flaring heel for the cameras and paying audiences, Fatu is in reality rather genial. He stops for a break between takes to pack in a couple slices of pizza—the preferred meal of in-ring villains. “This is all I got, and I do this for my family, for my children, for my wife,” says the father of six, leaving the persona behind but still catching his breath from barking dialogue. “It’s good for us young cats to be a part of what Court’s got going on.”

Bauer knows that Fatu and the rest of his roster— veterans including Austin Aries and Low Ki, buzzing young legacy talents like Davey Boy Smith Jr. and Marshall and Ross Von Erich, elite luchadores Pentagón Jr. and LA Park, and hopeful under-21 recruits such as upstate New York–bred hothead Jordan Oliver—are looking to him not only for opportunity but stability. Bauer can sympathize. At 40, his résumé includes both iterations of MLW (and founding the popular MLW podcast network that launched in between) as well as stints as a writer and/or producer for WWE, Ring of Honor, AAA, and UFC programming. He can claim deeper experience and wider connections than almost anyone in the business, but has yet to prove he can oversee a lasting promotion.

“When you’re running a company and responsible for your crew and talent and 40-some-odd families, that’s a lot of pressure on your shoulders and this thing you’re building,” Bauer acknowledges a few days after the Queens date. “You have to have perspective that gives you that confidence and know-how to chart your course. And so far, so good for us. The pressure to deliver a great product to the fans is always the most pressure I feel. That is our duty, our call. That’s the most stressful part, because there are so many variables that come into play. That’s an issue no matter what size company.”

Still, that raises the question of exactly what kind of wrestling company MLW is or aspires to be. Aspects of its operation—e.g., the all-hands-on-deck run-and-gun of its pretape days—harken to the period when Paul Heyman ran ECW by being more resourceful than flush with resources. (Incidentally, Bauer’s longtime cameraman at live events, Charlie Bruzzese, was the man behind the lens during ECW’s influential era.) But MLW does have its financial benefactors, and some of them occupy seats on a board of directors that Bauer assures is “not ceremonial.”

MLW/Harry Aaron

“It’s helped professionalize [MLW],” he says unapologetically of his board. “It’s a very challenging business to manage. Any business is at a certain level, and we’re certainly at that point now.” An article in Albany Business Review created the impression that there was a singular, regional investor group, but Bauer clarifies that those individuals represent “a pocket of our investor pool,” and MLW is not “geographically anchored anywhere,” the New Rochelle office notwithstanding.

Beyond that quantifiable information, Bauer leaves any tidy classifications up to outside observers. “Even if we were an independent, I wouldn’t like that term,” he says, agonizing somewhat to even broach the subject. “Every league at every level should just be what they are. I hate categorizing wrestling. Independent wrestling, to me, is kind of a label that came post-2001. Now I don’t know what you’d call it. It’s not territories. What are the benchmarks to not being independent? Once you start trying to categorize it, it’s a real mindfuck.”

MLW’s existential crisis is distinguishing itself from the multitude of competitors—ROH, New Japan Pro-Wrestling, Billy Corgan and David Lagana’s revived NWA, Impact, and, of course, WWE—with national TV deals or enterprising new programming. The wrestling landscape hasn’t been this revitalized and democratized since at least the late ’90s, when ECW and Ted Turner’s WCW were putting the screws to Vince McMahon and WWE, and possibly as far back as the territorial times Bauer cites.

NWA vice president Dave Lagana, who worked as a writer at WWE concurrently with Bauer and has also had stints behind the scenes with Impact (when it was still known as TNA) and Ring of Honor, confirms: “I follow along with what Court and them do. He’s very passionate about his brand of wrestling.” And in Lagana’s view, MLW’s success will live and die by Bauer’s singular vision, which boils down to a marriage of time-tested storytelling techniques and adaptation to modern audiences’ tastes for more dynamic physicality. Fusion is that philosophy distilled, displaying myriad fighting styles—from new-school acrobatic cruiserweight contests and six-man melees to recent-vintage hardcore clashes and classic technical two-ways—and developing internecine conflicts enhanced with stylized promos and gritty backstage skirmishes. (“Southern Psycho” Mance Warner may be wrestling’s most underappreciated freestyle mic assassin.) Blood is shed, emotions run high, and there’s rarely a minute of wasted charisma in its allotted 60. It is not just good wrestling, but great TV.

The real bogeyman that companies like NWA and MLW have to contend with is the marketplace. Lagana says of Bauer, “I think his company is trying to find a way to drive brand awareness and get as much attention for as long as possible, and hopefully it translates into dollars. You have to decide at a certain point, ‘How much can I lose?’ Everyone’s goals are different. I think MLW’s success will be judged on adding fans and becoming a part of the conversation on a weekly basis.”

The crowded field was already a concern when MLW first relaunched, let alone before a cohort of wrestling’s biggest names—specifically Cody and Brandi Rhodes, the Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega—teamed up with billionaire Jacksonville Jaguars co-owner Tony Khan and formalized All Elite Wrestling this past New Year’s Day. In merely seven months, the upstart has put on several well-attended (and mostly well-regarded) live events, announced a prime-time cable series starting October 2 on TNT, and made headlines by snagging any talent who’s not tied down to exclusive deals to freelance for them or sign on full time. MLW has not been immune. Pentagón, Maxwell Jacob Friedman (a.k.a. MJF), and Jimmy Havoc are a few of Bauer’s go-to main-eventers who’ve already appeared on an AEW PPV or free-streaming card via B/R Live. (MLW’s first-ever PPV, Saturday Night Super Fight, arrives November 2.) For now, there’s mutual benefit to this magnanimous talent share, but as both promotions put pedal to the metal, it’s a matter of time until the zero-sum tug-of-war over exclusivity commences.

AEW play-by-play man and senior adviser Jim Ross, who also got to know Bauer when their paths overlapped at WWE, draws a distinction between dueling for national dominance and simply surviving. As to whether MLW can muscle onto a level playing field with WWE and AEW in coming months, Ross opines, “Anything’s possible, but it’s unlikely. Doesn’t mean that they can’t be profitable.” The one sure thing, he reasons, is that “2020 looks to be a pivotal [year] for Court and his team, but content is king in today’s crazy media world.”

This is where Bauer’s relative youth as an owner pays dividends. He and his staff, such as co-executive producer Sean O’Heir, who was on board with MLW’s original incarnation, understand multimedia intuitively. Fusion gets posted to YouTube after its initial beIN airing; the company’s busy Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram pages have a combined 100,000-plus followers as of this writing; and its aforementioned November PPV bow has already been teased with anticipation by tastemaker sites like Fightful, Pro Wrestling Sheet, Sports Illustrated online, and Fansided. Apart from an in-house PR person and deeper pockets than pure mom-and-pops, MLW runs mostly on piss, vinegar, and purpose. For Bauer, MLW exists less because there’s an obvious fit for it in the grand scheme than because it’s a reflection of what Bauer, as a fan, wants available as an option for diehards like himself.

That motivation has evidently endeared him to his wrestlers. Back at the Radisson during Fusion pretapes, MLW standout and national openweight champion Alexander Hammerstone is idling in a minimally furnished conference room that doubles as a production studio until he and his Dynasty stable partners—MJF, Richard Holliday, and Aria Blake—are beckoned to film interstitial bits at a nearby Porsche dealership. On the subject of watching performers around him getting called up to other companies, Hammerstone insists he’s “happy where I’m at.”

MLW/Harry Aaron

There are those who will approach MLW as a springboard to more prominent opportunities, Hammerstone knows. “Some people probably do think about it that way. That’s just a realistic way to be in pro wrestling. But I’ve been doing this for close to 10 years, and this is the first [company] to invest this hard in me, so my brain isn’t [thinking], ‘How can I parlay this into the next venture?’ It’s that by the time the contract is up, that this place is the place people from other places want to go.”

Seven floors down in the hotel lobby’s business center, the one-time WCW staple and nWo member Konnan is jotting down notes in a memo pad and typing intently on a desktop PC. He’s a wanted man these days, multitasking on- and offscreen roles with both MLW and Mexican fed AAA. He’s seen it all in his three decades in the sport. He understands that “big companies are waiting for smaller companies to foster talent so they can cherry-pick whoever they want.”

Both Konnan and Bauer note optimistically that MLW has been putting more men and women under contract over the past several months. And Bauer is determined to restructure and renew contracts rather than function as a glorified farm system for WWE or anyone else. Still, they both know there’s only so much you can do to prevent your promotion from becoming the Oakland A’s of pro wrestling—i.e., an organization with premiere scouting that competes at the margins of larger markets and serves unwittingly as a pipeline for top guys destined to cash in on their upside somewhere else.

“We definitely play Moneyball,” Bauer allows. “And we find undiscovered or undervalued talent or potential partnerships and try to find ways to leverage them into great opportunities for everyone involved.” Which is to say, MLW wants to maximize everyone’s reach and revenue generation before they walk out the door. Or as Konnan states matter-of-factly, “I don’t care what anybody says; all wrestlers, they’re loyal so long as it’s convenient. And promotions too. It goes both ways.”

Make no mistake: Bauer is mindful of the bigger picture. MLW may not have a weekly prime-time slot on Fox or TNT, but aside from its beIN time slot and emerging PPV presence, the company has very recently completed a TV deal to air Fusion in more than 10 African nations (a meaningful niche carved in the age of WWE’s never-ending march to global expansion) and entered into a talent-sharing alliance with preeminent Japanese promotion NOAH.

“We definitely have a strategy for markets that some of our competitors are in that makes us distinctly different,” he insists. “We have several phases in our business plan, and this is Phase 3, and that’s growing our global footprint. That’s the TV deals and the rights fees that come along with it. That’s forming strategic alliances with international federations. You want a unified global system to help introduce MLW to new markets and collaborate on content and so on. For us, it’s what market needs what, and in terms of strategic alliances, what the benefits are coming and going.”

There’s also a none-too-subtle statement of intent behind teaming up with NOAH. It’s a move that winks at both ROH and its longstanding arrangement with New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and AEW, whose core talent recently decamped from NJPW themselves.

“You’re not in the hospitality business,” Bauer says with a laugh when asked about any perceived aggressiveness. “If you start to become too concerned with that, it’s a two-way street. When they do something, are you gonna be paralyzed by it? We’re all in different lanes on the same highway. There’s always going to be jockeying, and fandom loves that. To me, the best thing for wrestling is variety.”

Whatever one wants to label MLW, competition underestimates it at their own risk, and wrestling fans dismiss it to their detriment. Its fingerprints are already all over the sport’s present-day gold rush, and it’s poised to possibly leapfrog companies presumed to have a leg up. Even if the intensity of his undertaking brings him to his knees, Bauer will be damned if MLW isn’t still standing.

“I’ve loved wrestling since I was a child,” he reminisces. “You have to love it to be successful. Will I always be in pro wrestling? We shall see. But my hope is that whether I’m in it or not, Major League Wrestling continues to grow. My legacy is Major League Wrestling, and we’re just starting that voyage.”

Kenny Herzog has covered everything from wrestling and television to politics and pop music for outlets including Rolling Stone, New York magazine, Esquire, Paste, Bleacher Report, Slate, ESPN, Nylon, Mic, and many more for nearly 20 years. You can find him on Twitter @kennyherzog.

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