The Free Agent Effect

On the heels of CM Punk’s monumental AEW debut, and the impending arrival of Bryan Danielson in a few weeks, the latter half of 2021, besides being known as some return to normal from the pandemic, will be a memorable time for free agents. As we know, WWE stockpiled talent over the past few years, particular with the launch of the All Elite Wrestling, attempting to limit the upstart group’s selection of competitors. Not only did WWE brass sign a decent amount of wrestlers to bolster NXT during that time, they also arguably overpaid talent to stay under the WWE umbrella before the world shut down. Names like Gallows and Anderson, a team that was rumored to have signed $750,000 deals before the pandemic to prevent a jump to All Elite ahead of the debut edition of Dynamite, were cut to trim the budget when the industry was almost completely shuttered. Of course, since Nick Khan joined the sports entertainment empire, budget cuts across the board, including dozens of wrestlers, mostly recently a slew of NXT talent, padded an already record-setting profit margin on conference calls.

The fact that this was all done in the interest of the stockholders, not the wrestling fans, is a much more complex topic for another discussion at another time. The point being, in order to maximize the bottom line, the WWE cut high-priced talent, a few of them that might be make a difference elsewhere.

I discussed some of the possibilities for certain talent at the time the releases made headlines, but a few recent hints were dropped about the potential landing spot for a some of these talents, as well as some of the other free agents on the market.

Buddy Murphy, a talented athlete that just didn’t quite find a place within the WWE, looks to be going to Impact Wrestling soon, based on comments made by the EVP of the company, Scott D’Amore during a Twitch stream. Granted, Twitch seems to be a point of contention within the wrestling business on a continuous basis, but the EVP’s comments seemed rather plain. There’s no reason to mention such information unless it was to create some hype ahead of this week’s episode so I’d say that it’s more or less confirmed that Murphy, now known as Buddy Matthews, will be on the roster. In truth, as talented as he is inside the ring ropes, Murphy never really had a character that set him apart from any other athletic wrestlers in the business. That’s not meant as a knock against him, but rather to point out that with the crowded wrestling landscape, it takes more than just solid in-ring skills to make a name. That being said, Impact Wrestling seems to be the perfect place for Matthews to get a chance to develop as an overall performer, and it gives the organization a solid addition to the roster so it’s a win-win for everyone.

Another name that is around the rumor mill for Impact is Braun Strowman, a former WWE Universal champion that was surprisingly released just a few months ago. At 37, Strowman got a later start than most in the business because he competed in strongman competitions prior to signing a WWE developmental deal. Reportedly, the reason for Strowman’s release was his $1.2 million contract. Braun is an example of how WWE management had a stop and then start philosophy with his push during his tenure in the company. When he was at his most popular, he wasn’t given the top spot because the organization was in the midst of the failed Roman Reigns baby face push, but when he finally won the title during the pandemic, it was done in an empty building. Along with that, Braun was booked in goofy scenarios that didn’t exactly emphasize his star power, including the infamous swamp fight last year.

Strowman had his share of injuries, and with the amount of ridiculous segments he was booked for in WWE, I’m not sure how much of a boost he would bring to Impact at this point in his career. All things considered, with his age, injuries, and the hindered star power, you have to wonder if his best days as a performer are behind him? That said, Braun is another competitor on the market that could use Impact to rejuvenate his career, and prehaps the company can recapture the aura that made him so popular in the WWE a few years ago. Depending on the how it goes, this could potentially be another win-win scenario.

As far as Impact as a company, you have to give credit to Anthem and D’Amore for not only keeping the company afloat after they purchased the organization from the brink of collapse five years ago, but for also giving the fans an entertaining secondary option. I use the word secondary not as a jab, but rather to point out the difference within the wrestling landscape. Let’s be honest here, All Elite Wrestling has a mega buzz right now and in some respects, dictates the direction of the industry so it’s not a negative to be just a rung underneath that. I would guess that even Anthem management would acknowledge that Impact is designed to be on a smaller scale than some of the other major groups in the United States. For example, Anthem, the parent company of the Fight Network in Canada, is a television company, and the main reason for them to own Impact is for original programming on its network, not necessarily to compete for the top spot in the sports entertainment business. There’s nothing wrong with that ideology either because one way or nothing, regardless of Anthem’s primary goal with the ownership of Impact, the organization gives talented wrestlers a place to work full-time. Surprisingly, the working agreement with AEW, Impact, and New Japan is booked in such a way that everyone benefits, a situation that some might’ve thought was impossible based on working agreements throughout history. A quick search of Pro Wrestling USA or the World Class/AWA crossover can provide some proof of that.

The addition of Christian Cage to Impact is a big acquisition for them, both in terms of star power and in-ring quality. Christian can still go bell-to-bell and ultimately, his involvement in Impact gives viewers another reason to tune into the show. Granted, AXS, the network that broadcasts the Impact show, doesn’t have the clearance of other channels, but we’ve already discussed that Impact is based on a smaller scale. Basically, Impact knows its role within the current pro wrestling climate and the working agreements between the organization gives each company something unique to promote. Magazines (remember them?) touted for years about who would win if champions battled it on covers, and at the All Out pay-per-view next weekend, a champion vs. champion match is promoted as one of the featured bouts of the events.

Finally, the former Ruby Riot, known as Ruby Soho now, appears to be set to land in another promotion soon. As I said during the releases, Ruby is a quality athlete that would be a great addition to any organization. If I had to guess, I would still say that AEW is the best place for her, specifically because it would add depth to the women’s division, the the unpredictability of the delta variant might make it more difficult for some of the Japanese women to travel to the United States so adding Ruby makes sure the division has another potential title contender. Obviously, the signings discussed here aren’t on the level of CM Punk or Bryan Danielson, but that’s not a fair comparison since those two are the two biggest free agents that were realistically possible for AEW.That said, how the situation develops with the different talents available on the market, it might spotlight some of the mistakes WWE management made when they released certain talent. I discussed Bray Wyatt’s release previously, but as an example, if Punk, Danielson, Wyatt, and potentially Adam Cole are on the AEW roster, it could shift the industry in a similar fashion to The Outsider’s debut on Nitro 25 years ago. If enough talented performers get underutilized and then get a chance to showcase their skills to their full potential elsewhere, it will allow for more competition in the industry.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta
E mail | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta