Twenty years ago, when wrestling was in the midst of the “Monday Night Wars”, part of the allure of the ongoing WWF vs. WCW battle was to see just who was jumping ship. Last night, hours after New Japan’s WrestleKingdom 10 show, we had 2016’s version of this, with news breaking of WWE “signing” the quartet of AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Doc Gallows and “Machine Gun” Karl Anderson.
Of course, back in the mid 90s, the internet was nowhere near as prevalent as it is today. Back then, the majority of reliable news came from paid-for newsletters, or from people who regurgitated the words of Meltzer, Keller et. al onto newsgroups. Fast forward to 2016, and while newsgroups still (barely) exist, and as long as you follow the right people, Twitter has become some people’s main source of breaking news.
With the internet being more commonplace, it’s easier for rumours to start and spread, which makes finding the truth harder to find amongst the noise. However, the news of the WWE’s “raid” on New Japan was shocking for the fact that there was virtually no rumblings of this beforehand. As I write this, WWE have yet to confirm this, and aside from the initial reports from Court Bauer (of MLW Radio), with the follow-up reports from Dave Meltzer on the Wrestling Observer/F4WOnline website effectively crediting the same source. Of course, WWE are unlikely to make the announcements just yet, given that the foursome still have dates to finish up with New Japan and/or Ring of Honor.
So, what happens next? Well, out of the four, I’ll admit that I’m only familiar with the work of two of them (and therein lies the reason for my “watch more wrestling” resolution for this year!)
Starting with a guy who was famously “missed” by Jim Ross when he was head of WWE’s recruitment back in the day, and a guy who has already had a run in the company but never as a forerunner. AJ Styles started in WCW in their dying days, but following WWE’s buyout, Styles turned down a developmental deal and went on to make a name for himself in Ring of Honor and later became the face of TNA. Styles would finish his televised run in TNA in January 2014 following a career that saw him portrayed as one of the company’s top stars, but also one of the first guys to be pushed to the back burner when a slightly bigger name arrived (see: AJ’s run as the second coming of Ric Flair, robe and all!) Most recently, Styles had an injury scare which saw him gut through a ROH pay-per-view main event with Jay Lethal on December 18, 2015, and ultimately his match on January 4.
As for Nakamura, he’ll not be moving to WWE anytime soon, as his victory over Styles earlier this week ensured that he retained his IWGP Intercontinental title. This isn’t the first time that Nakamura’s name has been mentioned in conjunction with WWE – ten years ago, shortly after a losing effort against Brock Lesnar for the IWGP Heavyweight title, no less, there were rumblings of Nakamura doing a tour of North America in order to gain experience. That never came to pass, and instead remained in New Japan.
WWE reportedly finished off their gutting of the Bullet Club with the hires of Doc/Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson. Gallows is no stranger to WWE, having originally tried out for Tough Enough back in 2004 (when the $1m Tough Enough was held primarily through segments on SmackDown). Gallows didn’t make the cut, but did get a developmental contract, and had a very brief run (like, a month long) in May/June 2006 as the Fake Kane. A year later, after time in WWE’s then-developmental groups Deep South Wrestling and Ohio Valley Wrestling, Gallows returned as Festus – the mentally-challenged half of a tag team with Jesse (aka Ray Gordy, son of the late Terry Gordy). The Festus character was fairly one-dimensional, with the act of “docile monster snapping whenever he hears a bell ring” playing out fairly quickly, with the act dying off after Jesse and Festus found themselves on separate shows following WWE’s then-annual roster drafts.
With Festus killed off, the man behind the character returned in November 2009 as Luke Gallows, with the entire Festus character being explained away as alcoholism. Hey, it worked, particularly as Gallows formed a part of CM Punk’s Straight Edge Society stable, but the character didn’t last long without Punk, and by the end of 2010, Gallows was released from the company. The years that followed saw Gallows spend time in TNA as part of their “please forget about us” Aces and Eights storyline, before moving to New Japan Pro Wrestling to form a part of the Bullet Club stable, primarily tagging with Karl Anderson.
Speaking of Anderson, in the eight years since he made his debut in New Japan, he’s managed to carve out quite the niche for himself, becoming the number one regular gaijin in the promotion. Albeit the majority of his career in Japan has been as part of a tag team – initially with Giant Bernard (formerly Albert/A-Train/Tensai – now just plain “Matt Bloom, head coach of NXT”), and then with Doc Gallows, Anderson has built his career in Japan, with only small runs in Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla to speak of since his ‘08 debut for NJPW.
So, if Messrs Bauer and Meltzer are correct, what happens next? Well, as far as New Japan goes, the entire Bullet Club concept will need to be rebooted (or perhaps killed off), given that they’ve lost three of the groups’ leaders (after losing Prince Devitt/Finn Balor when he signed with WWE in 2014). As for the four new arrivals, WWE will be in something of a quandry – historically, the company has rarely debuted someone immediately after signing them, instead choosing to “season” them with a spell in developmental. Particularly following the flop that was Sin Cara in 2011, WWE has made a habit of sending everyone through NXT, regardless of their prior background.
However, given the age of the four new signings, I find it hard to believe that NXT will be anything more than a stopping point for these guys. Nakamura will be 36 by the time he lands in WWE, as will Anderson, whilst Styles is approaching his 39th birthday, and at the age of 32, Gallows is the youngest. Gallows is also the only one of the four with experience in the “WWE style”, and therein lies the potential problem – does WWE go down the Sin Cara route and risk some high profile failures, or do they follow the Kevin Owens path of a brief run in NXT (likely with new names) and a fast track to the main roster? Either way, WWE needs to have a clear path for all four guys, but particularly in the stereotypical “Land of the Giants”, care will be needed to avoid the smaller pair of Nakamura and Styles from becoming the latest incarnations of Daniel Bryan.
I’ll take a look in the coming days at what WWE should (and should not) do with their new signings – and to nobody’s surprise, the Balor Club will be a part of my fantasy booking.