The world of wrestling in 2016 is unlike any era the business has ever seen. There's more access to wrestling content, a wide variety of styles and programming to choose from and more opportunity to interact with wrestlers than there's ever been.
In 2016, being a wrestling fan is fun.
With events like the WWE Cruiserweight Classic, fans are more aware than ever of the kinds of top-level competition available in the world of independent wrestling, more aware of the next generation of up-and-coming-talent. Streaming networks like the WWE Network and New Japan World, plus numerous other wrestling services that have popped up in the past couple of years to provide live streaming, pay-per-views and on-demand content, have created an overwhelming amount of wrestling at everyone's fingertips.
WWE's 'third brand', NXT, has thrived in this environment, for many of the same reasons that organizations like Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro Wrestling and a number of other companies are doing so well and have for some time: NXT has stripped the product down to focus on the in-ring wrestling, using performers who are more than capable of showcasing charisma when called upon to wield a microphone.
While NXT has piggybacked on a style forged by these long-standing independent giants and absorbed some of the wrestlers from these companies, there's not much in the way of bad blood among the performers. In fact, it's quite the opposite, as the more eyes that end up watching a product like NXT, the more likely that some of the audience is going to dig deeper about the wrestlers, their origins and their styles.
"The more popular a thing like NXT or WWE gets with that style, the more popular Ring of Honor will get," said Adam Cole, the reigning Ring of Honor world champion, during a recent visit to ESPN's campus in Bristol, Connecticut. "They all kind of feed off of each other -- it's a great time to be a wrestler."
The modern era of wrestling is also a great time to be an ROH talent, in particular. ROH has held a unique position within the world of wrestling for much of the past 14 years by being consistently ahead of the curve, producing matches and casting a spotlight on wrestlers who have consistently gone on to the highest levels of the business. Of the 20 men to hold the ROH world championship, nine have spent significant time in the WWE (three have held world titles in the WWE and another won the NXT championship).
Things are unquestionably also great for Cole, who's joined two unique fraternities in the past few months. Firstly, after defeating Jay Lethal, he's one of only three wrestlers to become a two-time ROH world champion. Just as importantly, he's joined the ranks of the most wildly popular factions in all of professional wrestling -- the Bullet Club.
No single entity in wrestling better embodies how much fun wrestling is, and how much fun the wrestlers themselves can have, than the Bullet Club. Its current iteration features the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, Cole, Adam Page, Yujiro Takahashi, Bad Luck Fale, The Guerillas of Destiny and Scott Hall's son Cody, among others. Past members include Finn Balor, AJ Styles, Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows who, perhaps not coincidentally, have been associated with factions and catchphrases like "The Club" and "Balor Club" since joining the WWE.
The Young Bucks and Omega (collectively known as The Elite, a subfaction of The Bullet Club) have done more to break down the long-standing imaginary walls that used to stand between wrestlers working in competing organizations. They unapologetically called out The New Day and challenged them on Twitter, enthralling wide swaths of wrestling fandom who salivate the same way about a New Day vs. Elite interpromotional showdown as fans of a different era dreamed of a Steve Austin vs. Goldberg or Sting vs. Undertaker match in the "Monday Night Wars" era.
While the likelihood of an actual match between the two factions while each is under contracts to different organizations is unlikely, Omega made a seemingly unlikely series of appearances on Xavier Woods' Twitter account competing in a series of arcade video game challenges. The pair even made a very public appearance at CEO 2016, where they played "Street Fighter V" onstage in front of a sizeable audience.
These kinds of interactions help reinforce that wrestlers are real people -- and that many of them are wrestling fans who got into the business because of how much they loved wrestling at a young age. The Elite takes things one step further, in fact -- they have their own show on YouTube, in which they talk about their travels all over Japan, North America and all over the globe.
That social media presence and interaction isn't entirely altruistic, though, most of them tend to be genuine. Each of these interactions that fans can see could have easily happened behind closed doors or in a text message, but in 2016, being a big deal and "getting over" with fans on Twitter can have a real world impact on your popularity and standing within the wrestling business. It's another tool in the belt for guys who are going out there every night to try to earn for their families -- and fans get to be the beneficiaries.
"In 2016, pro wrestling isn't just great for the fans," said Cole. "Years ago, the only place you were ever able to make a living in pro wrestling was the WWE, or if you got really lucky, maybe if you moved to Japan and you were able to get a top spot in New Japan. Now that so many companies are doing well and succeeding, and now that there are more places to work, it gives guys a choice to be creative, to pursue different things and to look for new challenges. As long as there are places where guys can work and make a good living outside of WWE, it creates this cool back-and-forth competition."
Like "normal people", those wrestlers have friends throughout their line of work, and a wide variety of social media accounts. Even as some of those friends move on and start working for other companies, the act of tweeting out congratulations for particularly momentous occasions or sending out photos of reunions has become fairly commonplace.
We live in a modern era in which long-time friends, who just so happen to be the top champions in two of the most prominent wrestling organizations in the world, can take a photo of each of them holding their title belts next to each other and cause a virtual meltdown in the world of social media.
It's just another in a long list of ways that independent wrestlers are able to help themselves in ways that didn't even exist a decade ago. While being unconventional or taking an unconventional approach to the business of wrestling used to get a lot of performers pigeonholed or limited their appeal, the world is much different in 2016.
We live in a world where independent wrestlers can have a lot of fun, do things their own way and still advance their careers at the same time.
"For example, for a guy like Cody Rhodes to leave the WWE to come to the independents and try to make a name for himself, it shows you how much wrestling has changed this year," said Cole. "You now have a better chance of making it in a company like the WWE if you have 'indy credibility'. I never, ever thought I would say that."