It has become a familiar image leading into the show which the WWE has dubbed ‘The Showcase of the Immortals’. A featured star set to make history at WrestleMania, standing over a vanquished foe, and pointing to the logo for the WWE’s flagship pay per view like baseball legend Babe Ruth calling his shot from home plate. The soundtrack that plays behind the image is that of the animated broadcast team excitedly declaring “He’s going to WrestleMania!”
For many who aspire to a career in professional wrestling, the lofty goal of wrestling for the WWE and adding their name to the all time roster of ring greats to make it on the WrestleMania card is among their short list of goals. But it’s not the goal for all, and in fact many wrestlers have enjoyed stellar careers internationally without the spotlight of World Wrestling Entertainment. They’ll never appear on American wrestling’s grandest stage – and they have no regrets about it.
San Antonio, Texas native Billy Two Eagles got his start in 1978 after being trained by Terry Funk. Two Eagles enjoyed regional success, claiming titles in Texas, Oregon, Kansas, and the Canadian Pacific Coast during his career. The charismatic native American enjoyed an active schedule during the territory days of wrestling and was able to maintain his visibility on the independents, but in twenty five years, his career never included a run with the WWE.
“When I started, working for New York was considered to be a big man’s territory. They were never going to have an opportunity for a guy like me, so I never took a shot,” says Two Eagles. “I have no regrets. I have been able to dictate my own schedule and never have anyone dictate to me how to get over.”
Even wrestlers who did enjoy some attention from the WWE, particularly during their initial international expansion in the mid-1980’s, didn’t find themselves particularly enamored with the bright lights and fame that the then-World Wrestling Federation had to offer. One such wrestler was Gama Singh. Gama was a stand out with the Stampede Wrestling circuit in addition to a solid track record in territories across North America and around the world. When his peers Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart, Davey Boy Smith and Dynamite Kid were snapped up, an offer was extended to Gama as well to ascend to a higher earning potential.
“Their schedule was so hectic, I said ‘I’ll do the overseas trip for you, but to wrestle here … ‘ I had just gotten married. My wife wasn’t too happy with me being on the road and newborn baby and all that,” said Gama in an interview with Slam! Wrestling. As he watched his peers start to ascend to become household names, Gama never aspired to re-open the door. Still, his career didn’t suffer.
Particularly in South Africa, Gama Singh was revered as a national hero. In addition to wrestling, Gama was able to invest his wrestling earnings into other business interests and create long term financial security for his family, while also evading the pitfalls that some of his colleagues succumbed to after becoming worldwide stars.
There was an old school mindset that may have prevented some wrestlers from reaching out for an opportunity. If an independent wrestler was featured on a regional television show, perhaps campaigning as the circuit’s champion, he would be dissuaded from putting his name forward when the WWE’s touring television crews came to town. It was believed that if the fans saw the wrestler featured in any manner other than as a champion, particularly if the wrestler was disposed of in short fashion as an enhancement talent on national TV that they could not have their credibility re-built locally. While thousands of wrestlers lined up for the television appearance that might be the biggest of their career, even on the losing end, many instead enjoyed their status as the big fit in the small pond. Veteran wrestler and promoter Tony Condello defends that philosophy.
“You need to understand. You take a guy like I had in the 70’s … Mad Dog Freddy. This guy was a good little wrestler, he looked like Mad Dog Vachon, so we took him out on the road, featured him on all the posters as “Mad Dog” and we’d pack the house everywhere we went. But [our success] was a threat to Verne Gagne’s monopoly on Manitoba. So he booked Freddy on TV to do jobs … I told Freddy not to do it, but he said ‘Ah Tony, it’s just a pay day’. So I tune in to watch the show and Gagne fixed him. Right there, in big letters under his face he called him ‘Puppy Dog Peloquin’ … meaning to say to the fans, this isn’t a mad dog, he’s just a puppy dog. We were dead in all of those towns after that.”
Condello’s feelings on the matter were well communicated when the WWE arrived in Winnipeg in 1992 to tape episodes of their Superstars and Cavalcade TV programs. Cautioned about the consequences, some of his featured stars didn’t attend the Winnipeg Arena for their shot at TV time. Some would, making their first and last appearances for the syndicated wrestling franchise.
Over the past decade, there has been a varied attitude from the WWE about independent talent. At one point, it was almost an unwritten rule that wrestlers from the independent scene wouldn’t be considered, feeling that these athletes had picked up too many bad habits appearing in the “bush leagues” that they could never be polished enough for national television. Instead, the WWE chose to recruit on their own – drawing in wrestlers from off the street based on their aesthetic appeal. Shows such as Tough Enough documented the process of trying to build wrestlers from scratch and more often than not, failing to produce a star that could headline their own events.
During this period, many wrestlers lost interest and simply stopped trying to attract the attention of the WWE Talent Relations department, focusing on their own careers on the independents. In some cases, it became a matter of outliving their life expectancy for an opportunity.
“You have to face facts”, said Jim Ross while addressing a standing room only crowd at the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion in Las Vegas in 2012. “If you’re 35 years old and you haven’t been signed to a contract yet, it’s time to resign yourself to the fact that it’s not going to happen.”
However, while the WWE was narrowly looking to acquire talent that could expect to have a ten year career under their banner, a number of experienced pros may have slipped through their fingers, finding opportunities for competitive interests, or contributing to the sport as veteran influences in the locker room to mentor those wrestlers who still did aspire to a contract with Vince McMahon and had a chance to make it.
In recent years, the importance of dues paid on the independents has been recognized by the WWE and is reflected in many of the stars to achieve success at wrestling’s top tier. C.M. Punk, Daniel Bryan, Cesaro, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Tyson Kidd and more spent years honing their craft on the independents to earn their opportunity. Still, among these wrestlers to find themselves adored by the internet wrestling community, one of the brightest stars has risen to the top of the sport despite a lack of WWE ring time.
Kenny Omega was scouted by John Laurinaitis while attending Harley Race’s wrestling camp several years ago. Omega reminded Laurinaitis of Brian Pillman and he was signed to a developmental deal and assigned to Deep South Wrestling to develop his abilities. After months in Georgia, Omega requested his release, feeling that the WWE was only looking for a “cookie cutter” model of wrestlers and he would never fit that mold. Instead, he forged out on his own, opening the door to opportunities in Ring of Honor and in the years since, becoming one of the biggest foreign stars in Japan.
In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated online, Omega was dismissive and glib about what many of his North American peers would identify as the pinnacle of wrestling success. With gross indifference, he seems more content to antagonize the WWE, then measure his words in a manner that would inspire a contract offer.
“I had it in my mind that I’d be headlining WrestleMania 30 because it’s a nice, big, round number. But I don’t even know what WrestleMania we are on. What WrestleMania are we on?”
While it is encouraging to see wrestlers excelling in the sport on their own terms, the one long term risk is this: With the WWE seemingly re-writing history with a WWE-centric spin in all that they do, will we lose track of these wrestlers to not migrate to Vince McMahon’s stable over time? What will become of the legacies of Billy Two Eagles, Gama Singh and so many more wrestlers whose ring exploits are responsible for drawing us in as fans to begin with? They may not be going to WrestleMania, but we hope that choice hasn’t sentenced them to be lost to the ravages of time.