Having competed in a number of sports growing up—judo, basketball, football, boxing, baseball, martial arts—I soon realized that everyone has their own particular way in which they visualize their performances in a match. Artificially weaving a narrative within a match always made the games more interesting. But I soon realized that those narratives and dramatic moments were never found in the actual matches, which often turned out to be fairly boring or by the numbers. Enter pro-wrestling.
Pro wrestling is seen by many as “fake,” and thus unworthy of attention. What those people fail to see is the glorious drama expressed through dynamic and hard hitting action. Not often do we get to see an actual battle of David vs Goliath, as most combat sports have weight classes. In pro-wrestling, however, this is absolutely possible and often leads to great action, with tense drama and emotional comebacks. It’s like watching a masterfully choreographed fight in a movie. With pro-wrestling, you can develop an even deeper emotional investment in specific wrestlers, and it’s through your support and their effort that they grow to possibly become champions in their promotion.
But with so much wrestling out there, where to even begin? To get you started, here is our breakdown of the major wrestling promotions running today.
US Based Promotions
Let’s get this one out of the way first, as they obviously have the biggest name recognition. Currently everyone’s least favorite promotion, they are still a home for hundreds of amazing pro wrestlers who will have great matches here and there.
WWE is divided into 4 main brands (there are more but you can skip them):
- Monday Night RAW: the big show from WWE, runs for 3 hours every Monday on the USA Network.
- Friday Night Smackdown: the 2 hour show on FOX. Currently seems to have better matches than RAW despite the “smaller” name wrestlers.
- NXT – probably their best match to match wrestling shows on the WWE Network. Big independent wrestlers often will land on NXT. Although successful in its own right, it has been in a TV war against another promotion on Wednesdays, and has therefore recently been moved to Tuesdays, avoiding the head to head.
- NXT UK – Composed almost exclusively of talent from the United Kingdom and some other European countries, NXT UK has provided a number of “match of the year” contenders, same as NXT.
PROS AND CONS
- Lots of content.
- Largest roster of big name wrestlers.
- Easily found on your TV.
- Best women’s roster in pro wrestling.
- The WWE Network (currently being moved to Peacock) has the best back catalog of matches from the times of Hulk Hogan until today, as well as WCW).
- Too much content
- Their Network being sold to Peacock means it’s harder to get your hands on all of it without a VPN.
- Many terrific wrestlers get no TV time on account of the bloated roster. Many inexplicable recent releases may be alleviating thisVince McMahon still commands everything, but is out of touch with the modern day audience and will ridicule a wrestler on a whim if he doesn’t like him.
- Wrestlers at the top of the roster are seldom there by fan support. Instead, they tend to tell whom to like, even if you don’t.
- The stories and characters are often cookie-cutter or really damn stupid (no need for so much supernatural stuff going on, seriously)
AEW (All Elite Wrestling)
Currently, possibly the best promotion in the US—and arguably the world. Started by a group of wrestlers named The Elite, they started out by creating a Youtube series showcasing the travels and behind-the-scenes of life on the road of pro wrestlers. Their success was such that they decided to accept a (non) challenge by Dave Meltzer (the God of pro wrestling journalism) to run a 10.000 seat arena for a pro wrestling show. This was a number impossible for all US promotions, with the single exception of WWE. They sold out in 30 minutes.
From the success of this show, called All In, a new promotion was born called All Elite Wrestling. With the financial backing of Tony Khan as the owner and President (owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL and Fulham F.C. in the Premier League) and with four of the most accomplished and acclaimed pro wrestlers in as their Executive Vice Presidents, their shows have picked up considerable speed over their seocnd year in activity. They are currently hitting the best demo numbers in pro wrestling by far, selling out the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, NY, and growing their fanbase now that live crowds are back.
- AEW Dynamite: running every Wednesday night on TNT, it has won the Wrestling Observer award for best Weekly Pro Wrestling TV Show. Running two hours with a real mix of modern and old school pro wrestling, it’s worth a watch every week.
- AEW Dark: this the show where most of the newer, greener talent cut their teeth. Airing live every week on Youtube, it is a fantastic place to see the future talent develop, as well as keeping an eye on your favorite pro wrestler if he’s not showing up on Dynamite.
- AEW Dark: Elevation: the latest addition to the AEW brand, little is known as of yet, but will seemingly seek to further provide opportunities for the newer talent to grow and develop with an increased focus on the individual wrestlers’ backstories and journeys.
- Being The Elite: though not a wrestling show, per se, this comedic behind the scenes look at the wrestlers in AEW is chock full of skits and further plot points developing the main storylines on Dynamite. A number of wrestlers have obtained better chances on the main show thanks to their popularity on this series. It tied for 1st place as the Best Weekly Pro Wrestling TV Show in the Observer Awards.
PROS AND CONS
- Best weekly pro wrestling TV show at this time.
- Young promotion provides ample opportunities to start watching.
- Best young talent.
- Burgeoning women’s division with a number of Japanese joshi wrestlers coming in when possible.
- Stories that make sense and don’t insult the audience’s intelligence.
- Rewards you for paying attention and watching all the content – but doesn’t require it
- Has won a number of Best Matches of the Year polls on TV and PPV.
- AEW Dark can sometimes be a chore to watch, so you might end up having to skip it.
- Fewer big name wrestlers at this time.
- The women’s division is still not up to par and is under-represented on Dynamite.
Formerly known as TNA this promotion has had a lot of ups and downs but currently seems to have hit its stride under the management of Don Callis and Scott D’Amore. The roster is full of big indie wrestler names and has recently entered a partnership with AEW, seeing some talent crossover for matches and storylines.
- IMPACT!: their show runs on Thursday nights via Axs TV and on Twitch, garnering a decent amount of praise for their matches and PPVs in recent times. The show airs for about 2 hours. The AEW partnership has also brought a number of new watchers, so it’s a perfect time to jump on board along with the new fans. They most recently have gained increased partnership with NJPW, bringing over tag teams and big names like Jay White.
PROS AND CONS
- The women’s division, called the Knockouts Division, is second only to WWE’s in the US
- The Impact Tag Team Division is full of great veteran tag teams that are well worth watching
- The X-Division is never one to disappoint, this is the fast, athletic and acrobatic section of the roster and it’s always fun. Also counts some of the bigger names in the promotion
- The presentation of the show in the pandemic era leaves much to be desired
- Smaller roster
- Fewer household names for new watchers to latch onto
OTHER US PROMOTIONS TO LOOK OUT FOR
- MLW Fusion
- NWA (National Wrestling Alliance)
- ROH (Ring of Honor)
JAPANESE BASED PROMOTIONS
NJPW (New Japan Pro Wrestling)
The big dog of Japanese pro wrestling. Until the emergence of AEW in the US, they were the biggest and main opposing force against the WWE.
Running since 1972 and founded by Antonio Inoki, NJPW has often had a prominent focus on what they call Strong Style. This is a more sports-mma-realistic centered form of pro wrestling. They did (thankfully) depart from the MMA style matches and have since reworked the house style into something more akin to the All Japan 90’s King’s Road style.
Big, fast, hard hitting, dramatic and technically sound, they have dominated the past decade in terms of match quality. Not to count the number of legendary names that now occupy a seat in the Pro Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame. Their Wrestle Kingdom shows held at the Tokyo Dome every year are some of the best Pro Wrestling ever.
They also run a round robin tournament in the summer that always delivers and is fascinating is a little grueling to watch. It’s called the G1 Climax. The winner of the tournament earns a title shot at Wrestle Kingdom. Another 2 important tournaments alongside the Best of the Super Juniors and the G1 Climax are the World Tag Team League and the New Japan Cup.
Their tag line is “NJPW The King Of Sports”. And it’s for a reason.
NJPW, and all of the Japanese promotions for that matter, don’t run weekly TV shows. They instead operate on a Tour basis, where they go around Japan (and sometimes the US) with Road To shows leading to their big shows such as Dominion (now called Castle Attack I believe), King of Pro Wrestling, Destruction, Hinokuni, The New Beginning etc.
If you don’t have time to watch almost 4 hours of pro wrestling daily, you can skip the Road To Shows and jump in for thos main shows.
You can register at their subscription based NJPW World website (they also have some free matches) to have access to everything live and on demand; as well as having access to the entire backlog of shows and matches.
PROS AND CONS
- One of the best rosters ever
- They sort of wrapped up their current era and are heading into a new one with new names at the top of the card – worth jumping in to be there as new stars are made.
- The presentation is excellent and feels like a real sports event. The camera work is sublime.
- Best Junior heavyweight division also has its own dedicated tour in the Best of the Super Juniors, bringing in talent from multiple companies and continents.
- The wrestler’s gimmicks are often very simple and come down to people fighting to become the champion. Plain. Simple. Effective
- Some of the absolute best matches and hard hitting in pro wrestling
- No women’s roster can be a detriment to some.
- Language barrier, despite english commentary and press conferences posted to Youtube with subtitles.
- Schedules can be a little too packed grueling to keep up with everything.
- Live shows air during inconvenient time slots for US fans.
- Decades of history can be daunting to delve in
- In the current pandemic they are only allowing fans in attendance to clap and not vocalize their support etc. hurting the atmosphere around the matches
Dragon Gate is a fascinating promotion. Born from the remnant of the Toryumon promotion under the teachings of Ultimo Dragon, Dragon Gate presents a style that is a mixture of Mexican Lucha Libre and traditional Japanese pro wrestling, called Lucharesu. This stuff is fast. And I mean blink and you’ll miss it. Yet somehow it is never sloppy. Their multi-man matches work like clockwork yet are not often repetitive enough to bore.
Many legends are currently mentoring the younger generations as they operate in a faction based system, pitting groups of wrestlers against others. Often enough the quality of the product will depend on the quality of the Heel (bad guys) faction.
With the newer generation currently carrying the promotions with names such as Shun Skywalker, Ben-K and Kzy it is an exciting watch every show you can get your hands on.
You can watch their shows on their Dragon Gate Live website.
Same as NJPW they operate on tours. Their big show is called Kobe World. And is likely the second biggest wrestling PPV in Japan after Wrestle Kingdom.
The rest of the big shows are called: Dead or Alive, Dangerous Gate, Final Gate and Gate of Destiny. They also run two major tournaments called: King of Gate and Summer Adventure Tag League.
PROS AND CONS
- Lots of fun wrestlers
- Different style from any other promotion in Japan and the US
- Some of the best Tag team and Trios matches ever
- Factions make for very interesting power dynamics and storylines (AEW is even beginning to copy this)
- It can be harder to register to their streaming service
- Not all matches land on their website and it can take weeks or months for a show to appear anywhere online if you don’t know where to look
- Although there is English commentary since not long ago, it’s still not up to par for some fans
- A lot of comedy shenanigans that isn’t for everybody
OTHER MAJOR JAPANESE PROMOTIONS TO LOOK OUT FOR
- Pro Wrestling NOAH– This is one of the biggest promotions behind the two detailed above, but I know too little about them to properly instruct you on them. Absolutely worth watching even if it’s just random matches here and there. Many legendary wrestlers emerged from here, and many have returned (Great Mutah anyone?)
- DDT (Dramatic Dream Team) – very weird and zany yet often presenting some really good and fun matches
- Stardom – female only promotion that have exported most of the top Japanese joshi wrestlers in the US
- All Japan Pro Wrestling – the old school promotion that gave birth to the Four Pillars of Heaven (Kobashi, Misawa, Kawada and Taue) and to Pro Wrestling NOAH once Misawa left the promotion in the late 90’s. They have fewer big names and are struggling financially but are the real OGs of Japanese pro-wrestling. Kento Miyahara is the ace of the promotion and he delivers in every match he’s in
- Tokyo Joshi Pro – the all female sub-promotion of DDT. Currently exporting tonnes of good talent mainly to AEW.
SPECIAL MENTIONS FOR OTHER REGIONS
Europe is at a bit of a crossroads at the moment. A lot of promotions have been heavily affected by the Speaking Out movement where women spoke out against sexual abuses and harassments from the part of important names in the indy pro wrestling scene. There is still a lot of good out there, even if the UK scene (by far the more prominent) has been pillaged of its talent by WWE.
- Wrestling Society X (WSX)
- Over The Top Wrestling (OTT)
- Wrestling Xtreme Wrestling (WXW)
- Fight Club Pro
Mexico has a long and storied history of Lucha Libre. Although if one doesn’t delve deep into its history they make little effort to render it available to the average wrestling fan.
- CMLL (Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre)- the oldest wrestling promotion in the world. Has a partnership with NJPW
- AAA (Asistencia, Asesoría y Administración)- probably the larger Mexican promotion, the crows (pre-covid) can get insane in their fervor