By Chuck Carroll
(CBSMiami/CBS Local) — The year is 2005. After years of unprecedented popularity, the pro wrestling landscape is undergoing a massive seismic shift. Two of the big three promotions have crumbled, leaving only World Wrestling Entertainment standing in their ashes.
A barely 20-something Court Bauer finds himself embedded with top executives from lone survivor, including WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon. Rubbing elbows with the biggest name in professional wrestling wasn’t just encouraged, it was an essential part of his role there. He was a whiz kid in the wrestling industry and the creative force behind some of the biggest storylines of the time.
You could say his success parallels NFL wonder boy Sean McVay, who became the youngest head coach in modern history, when he was hired by Los Angeles Rams two weeks shy of his 31st birthday. But still, in his early 20s, Bauer easily had him beat. He was younger than most of the talent he was writing for, often by a decade or more.
As a lifelong wrestling fan, Bauer thought he was on top of the world. How could he think any different? The show that he was part of was appointment television for millions every week. Many strive their entire lives for an opportunity such as that. And here he was at the pinnacle of wrestling and barely a quarter-century old.
Flashback to 2002. The birth of Major League Wrestling.
Bauer had already spent four years learning the business under the wing of WWE Hall of Famer Afa The Wild Samoan and his Pennsylvania-based promotion. The youngster pestered the wrestling legend into giving him an internship and quickly grew to become one of his most trusted confidants. It was here that Bauer learned not just the creative, but also the business side of wrestling.
And with the iconic World Championship Wrestling and Extreme Championship Wrestling brands having recently been bought out by WWE and promptly put on the shelf, the entrepreneur side of Bauer saw an opportunity to go out on his own and fill the void.
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It wasn’t long before MLW was carving out a name for itself among ECW fans who were searching for a new home after their beloved Paul Heyman-led promotion folded. Bauer stacked the roster with hardcore castoffs, including Sabu, Simon Diamond, Steve Corino as well as an up-and-comer by the name of CM Punk. The voice of ECW, Joey Styles, was also tapped to host MLW Underground TV, the promotion’s weekly television show.
But alas, as the popularity of wrestling began to wane in 2004, business began to slow and MLW went the way of its predecessor — out of business. Those are the ebbs and flows of wrestling. Those who have earned their living inside the squared circle will tell you that it is a roller coaster. Sometimes you’re performing in front of tens of thousands, and other times you’re lucky to have a hundred people in the seats.
But Bauer wouldn’t be sidelined for long. WWE would be calling in short order, and by 2005 he would be among the top writers in the company.
Still, even at that spry age the burnout and churn of delivering 52 weeks of live programming every year took a toll. The last-minute character changes and script rewrites were a constant, with many decisions continuing to flip-flop until the shows went off the air. The travel schedule was dizzying, a blur of hotel rooms — some nicer than others — and constant flights. It all became too much.
Bauer was done with WWE, but by no means was he done with wrestling. Despite the mental fatigue, the over-the-top antics and larger-than-life characters still pulsed through his veins. He just needed to find a new outlet.
Although there were no more live shows, Bauer refused to let the MLW name die. He eventually pivoted his business plan and focused on building what to that point would be his biggest success to date, the MLW Radio Network.
The podcast hub became must-listen ear candy for the rabid online wrestling community. Downloads quickly surpassed the million-mark. Even longtime World Championship Wrestling announcer Tony Schiavone, who had sworn off wrestling following the demise of WCW, dipped his toes back in the wrestling waters to host a show on Bauer’s platform. To say the network was a success would be an understatement as it boasts of having up to six of the iTunes 100 most downloaded sports podcasts each day.
But the wrestling bug is fierce. It’s like a little pest that bites down with a Herculean vice grip and never lets go.
He never planned on running live events again, but it happened. And once the ball got rolling it only picked up steam. The action side of the MLW brand was about to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes.
The wiz kid was about to strike again in a big way and at breakneck speed.
According to Bauer, the original business plan was to be on TV within three years. MLW: Fusion premiered on national television within four months. He and his partners weren’t expecting to run live broadcasts until year four, but just had their first last week. And more are expected in the new year.
Bauer says plans are accelerating because the MLW Fusion is often the most-watched show on beIN Sports’ Friday night lineup.
“I like to call MLW the fastest growing American promotion,” he said. “If you look at the last year, we live up to that statement. I can only imagine what 2019 will bring.”
Interestingly, some think the timing of the first live broadcast was a shot at fellow WWE competitor Ring of Honor. The show went head-to-head with ROH’s Final Battle pay-per-view, which featured the exodus of The Elite (The Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, and Hangman Page) as well as a few others.
But according to Bauer, any belief that MLW is trying to start a wrestling war is misguided, as the show aired at its normal 8 p.m. ET time slot and had been on the schedule long before Final Battle was put on the calendar. Still, it’s hard to think that in some way this isn’t a strike in some fashion, even if just by chance. After all, this is wrestling and Bauer continues an aggressive growth strategy by expanding touring horizons. After initially running primarily in Florida, the promotion is now holding shows in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and other markets that traditionally favor wrestling.
So what makes this time different? For one, the still-young Bauer is older and wiser and has attracted the attention of big-money investors who are helping to push things along. At a time when live sports are generating record television revenue, the wrestling company can be viewed as an attractive venture.
The promising future for MLW is made potentially even brighter given an enormous cloud of uncertainty swirling over the industry once again. WWE’s live event attendance and television ratings are both down significantly, with the latter flirting with all-time lows. Both have left the Stamford, Connecticut-based company with an uneasy feeling and brought about promises to shake up the status quo in an effort to right the ship. Meanwhile, 2019 will be a rebuilding year to say the least for Ring of Honor.
All the while, MLW continues a rapid upward trajectory and appears poised to capitalize on the misfortunes of its competitors.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.