Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Samoa Joe: Independent Contractor, and How WWE Should Use that Label Going Forward

Joe's gonna change the biz. Joe's gonna... y'know, that chant doesn't roll off the tongue, but you  know
Photo Credit: Lee South/ImpactWrestling.com
Samoa Joe appeared at NXT Takeover: Unstoppable last Wednesday, sending shockwaves through the industry for several reasons. The biggest one undoubtedly came from the fact that yet another one of WWE's white whale signings has come home to roost, leaving perhaps AJ Styles as the only notable American wrestler yet to appear for the company. However, the nature of Joe's deal with the company may end up being the most important factor going forward. Writers and analysts had cast doubts on his WWE status before Unstoppable because he'd taken independent dates well into June. Even more shocking, Joe was announced for the June 20 Ring of Honor show, Aftershock (where he'll team with AJ Styles to take on Frankie Kazarian and Christopher Daniels, snicker snicker), which is unprecedented given that TNA's slow and hilarious demise has left the top-indie-turned-corporate-TV-property the number two promotion in the land.

WWE has always claimed its workers were independent contractors even though they could never work for anyone else but Titan Sports and have been kept slavishly on the road for the company as if they were employees. Joe is not the first wrestler to achieve true independent contractor status on Titan's watch. Rhino and Brian Kendrick have worked dates for NXT as marquee talent while being able to work elsewhere, and the American Wolves and Leva "Blue Pants" Bates have worked on similar levels, even though they also weren't presented as more than enhancement talent. However, Joe could very well be the most important since he's right now programmed against the NXT Champion, you know, the guy who in five days will be wrestling John Cena. Joe himself said on Twitter that he will be "rewriting the way people do business," and even if he's the only one who is the benefit of this rewrite, it will be huge.

But should Joe be the only guy who should be a true independent contractor under WWE's employ? I could see WWE not wanting its prime pieces like Brock Lesnar, Cena, Owens, any of the ex-Shield guys, or Sasha Banks as emissaries into the wide world of sports entertainment (or in Lesnar's case, sports). But WWE has this massive roster whose utilization rate is below average at best, and as seen in the case of Dean Ambrose, a guy can go from spinning wheels to being in a main event program at one of Vince McMahon's crazy-ass whims. Also, not everyone is as continually polished as Ambrose is.

Take for example Zack Ryder. Everyone saw him last night challenge Cena for the United States Championship in his hometown, and while the nostalgia/native pop he got was big, it wasn't nearly as big as it could have been. Plus, while he wasn't terrible in the ring, his rust showed. He's a guy who could definitely have used a few reps before getting tossed back into the game, especially if he wasn't getting squashed like an ant crawling on an arm. Of course, WWE has a perfectly cromulent in-house solution in NXT. Tyson Kidd rehabbed his career there, but at the same time, not everyone can go into NXT and make it their own while also allowing the sizable number of rookies/indie transitioners to get their time in and either get ready for the main roster or to shoulder the burden of being stars tasked with selling The Network.

So, what other options remain besides spamming the Broski on Superstars or Main Event, i.e. shows which barely anyone cares about? It just so happens that the independent scene is full of promotions which small groups of core fans who consume WWE the most vocally care a lot about. Imagine him headlining a New York Wrestling Connection show at the Deer Park Sportatorium against best friend and former Z! True Long Island Stories co-star The Big O or heading to Fete Music to battle Chris Dickinson? Working in front of a hostile or charged environment matters. I think the results show since all the guys working at the top of NXT and who graduated from NXT to become big deals in WWE have mostly worked in tense atmospheres, whether it be ROH, Combat Zone Wrestling, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Pro Wrestling NOAH, or any other various hot indie/foreign company.

Of course, that kind of agreement would fly in the face of WWE's current suspected model of wiping out the indie scene and replacing it with branches of NXT. Sending even Ryder out on a NJPW-like "young boy" excursion would be a financial boon for everyone but WWE, but at the same time, that supposed mindset would be terrible for WWE because it would wreck the most proven feeder system it has. When all wrestling promotions can make money, it means more money gets spread around, and if it doesn't start with the people who have the most money to spend, then the rest of the system gets choked.

It's the reason why artificially keeping the minimum wage low is a terrible idea. If the people who have the money don't spread it to labor, then what the fuck are they doing with it? Clearly, if the economy is so bad, they're not spending it. Raising the minimum wage, however, gives money to those who will spread it around. Wages go up, and the economy rises with it. It's not a hard concept to perceive.

So then it should follow that if WWE "loans" wrestlers it doesn't currently have plans for to other indies or niche televised promotions (and believe you me, ROH/Lucha Underground/et al. aren't indies, but they are not competition to WWE either), it can help those promotions make more money by giving them a feeder draw. When those companies make money, they can help develop wrestling by putting more production value into their shows, paying for better wrestlers/paying its current wrestlers more. When those wrestlers get more money, they have more incentive to stay in wrestling, and they can take care of themselves better. They stay in better health, get better care when they get hurt, can afford better food and supplements, and so on and so forth. The cycle is bolstered, and everyone wins.

It's hard to imagine change in wrestling being enacted from the top down, because in a capitalist society, the biggest companies get to where they get from stealing mercilessly from the bottom and then shutting them out of business. However, wrestling is not an essential product in any society, so in order for it to continue without being driven naturally to extinction, it has to adapt and evolve. Vince McMahon may never see that, but hopefully Triple H and the next generation up can. Again, it's not easy to see, especially since the NXT model has also shown signs of the same destructive tendencies that McMahon displayed when he brought the then-WWF national in the early '80s.

Honoring the term "independent contractor" more faithfully for more than just the returning legends, name jobbers, and Samoa Joe would certainly be a step in good faith towards rebuilding a wrestling ecosystem ravaged by McMahon and then nearly paved over completely thanks to the Monday Night Wars. It would be a win for everyone, not just WWE, but also especially WWE, which is why the attitude needs implementation immediately.