What a night!
Get the replay of Take No Prisoners now at @FiteTV
— AAW Wrestling (@AAWPro) May 8, 2021
When veteran grappler Danny Daniels and his partner, Jim Lynam, purchased the Chicago independent promotion AAW in 2005, he thought it’d be the perfect opportunity to give back to the professional wrestling business he’s loved since childhood. He never expected to have to shepherd the company through a worldwide pandemic. Instead, COVID-19 leveled the state of independent wrestling in the US, and with AAW, it was no different. After spending the better part of a year in limbo, Daniels and the crew at AAW returned to their familiar stomping ground on 115 Bourbon Street. The bar in south suburban Marionette Park borders Chicago’s Southwest Side, played host to the company’s first iPPV since the onset of the pandemic.
“(Before the pandemic) business was good. In 2019, we did shows in Texas and in Milwaukee, along with our home base in Chicago. Then COVID came. Then it was what it was,” says Daniels, the mild-mannered indy impresario.
Due to Illinois’s restrictive COVID-19 protocols, the company came to an abrupt halt in early 2020. They tried to run shows within the state’s restrictive measures of only 25–50 people. But as the virus strengthened, Chicago’s top independent promotion played by the rules and stopped. The company tried to run again in October, but the state of Illinois pulled back its opening planned as positive cases rose. Unfortunately for Daniels, AAW isn’t a company that can fall back on television money or DVD sales. The lifeblood of AAW, and independent wrestling in general, is ticket sales. Without shows to promote, the promotion was effectively dead.
“We were doing the history posts (on social media), ‘This day in AAW History’ and stuff just to keep the name out there, but without fresh content, it was hard. This has always been my passion. I’ve wrestled since I was twenty-one. I’m forty-five, so for the past twenty-five years, I’ve either wrestled or promoted. When your passion’s gone, and you can’t do anything with it, it starts to bother you.”
For the past decade and a half, AAW have been the premier indy group in the midwest, regularly helping build the next generation of elite talent. Its heavyweight championship lineage is a who’s who of television talent. With names like Tyler Black (WWE’s Seth Rollins), Kevin Steen (Owens), Sami Callihan, Ethan Page, Pentagon Jr., Rey Fenix, and current Impact Wrestling X-Division Champion Josh Alexander, who dropped the AAW title to the current champion, Mance Warner, formerly of MLW, in December of 2019. The promotion has long utilized some of the best names on the indies but eschews some of the sillier staples that have become hallmarks of the scene in recent years. Instead, Daniels’s company creates an environment focusing on in-ring action that mixes some of the best modern workrate with wild brawling. The influence from ECW and Ring of Honor are clear.
When the state of Illinois began to loosen restrictions this spring, Daniels enacted a plan to rebuild his company. Existing outside of the GCW Collective mega-shows, AAW decided to focus on what many would consider a rather traditional approach. In the territory days, promoters would work with local television stations to provide a television program that built anticipation toward the next big show. The goal of territorial wrestling televise was to convert viewers into ticket-buying customers. Daniels is doing the same.
With the idea of regional television dead, especially for wrestling, Daniels modified this approach. Instead of the local UHF station, AAW’s Twitch feed offers a weekly program called AAW ALIVE, which streams Saturday evenings at 7:05 p.m. CT. Rather than just holding a super-show with the biggest names on the indy scene, ALIVE gives AAW’s younger talent a platform. The show creating storylines and feuds which can evolve and build on ALIVE and lead to iPPV shows. It’s similar to how the Jerry Jarrett territory would use its Saturday morning Memphis TV shows to promote its Monday night Mid-South Coliseum cards. The central storyline has involved Champion Mance Warner and indy stalwart Fred Yehi’s feud over the AAW Title for the last month. Like old-school pro wrestling TV, each ALIVE episode is a chapter building toward the Take No Prisoners show.
Existing outside of the GCW Collective mega-shows, AAW decided to focus on what many would consider a rather traditional approach.
While the primary and undercard stories have grown on ALIVE, AAW is smart enough to utilize the “indy mega-show” mode that’s proved successful. While the promotion has revolved around Warner and Yehi, the undercard featured a plethora of performers familiar to fans of the indies and hardcore wrestling fans who follow televised promotions across the country. This best-of-both-worlds approach has allowed AAW to embrace what works in today’s indy scene without abandoning the traditional pro wrestling approach toward generating ticket sales.
The blue-collar suburb of Marionette Park borders the southwest corner of the city of Chicago. The expansive bar is fifteen miles away from the site of the former International Amphitheater. The Amphitheater home to Verne Gagne’s AWA shows in the ’60s and ’70s before giving way to Sam Dicero’s Windy City Pro Wrestling group in the ’80s and ’90s. The old Amphitheater is long gone, but the bar across the street from Marist Catholic High School has become a spiritual successor.
Due to Illinois’ current COVID restrictions, Take No Prisoners could only offer 25% of 115 Bourbon Street’s average capacity. Offering iPPV on FITE.tv, Daniels knew he needed to find eyeballs who don’t follow his product on Twitch. AAW presented a card featuring wrestlers from IMPACT (Jake Something, Hakim Zane aka Rohit Raju), MLW (Myron Reed and Gringo Loco), NWA (Allison Kaye and Skye Blue), and GCW (Warner, Matthew Justice, and Manders). A match between local tag team inFAMy (Joeasa & Deonn Rusman) and the Manders/Justice team went all over the building and between the audience. Anyone who follows the SGC unit would expect that result. This match stood in stark contrast to the evening’s best workrate showcase between Lio Rush and AAA’s Laredo Kid. AAW Tag Team Champions Ace Austin and Madman Fulton are Impact wrestling mainstays, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when Trey Miguel showed up as a mystery partner for MLW regular Gringo Loco.
The evening’s main event, the program that dominated the ALIVE show, featured top challenger and aforementioned indy vet Fred Yehi challenging for the championship. The Waterloo, Iowa native, one of the best independent workers who fans don’t talk enough about, made his way to the ring with more “heel heat” than one might expect on an indy supercard.
When the opening chords of Shinedown’s cover of the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic “Simple Man” played, the crowd knew the champ was ready. Over the last two years, Mance Warner has become one of the top stars in the indy-sphere, with his appearances on the GCW supershows. Warner spent some time in MLW in 2019, before a rumored debut in AEW, which didn’t materialize. While the jump to Jacksonville may have been delayed by Warner’s MLW deal (hence the #FREEMANCEWARNER movement), the man billed from Bucksnort, Tennessee walked to the ring with his title and the cheers of the Chicago faithful. What transpired was a wild brawl reminiscent of the madness in ECW.
Warner received a vicious beating from Yehi, taking a smashed beer bottle to the face. For more than twenty minutes, the challenger rained fury on the champion. Like all good old-school babyfaces, Warner fought back without dying, providing just enough hope for the crowd that when Warner pulled off the upset win, the audience erupted. The victorious yet abused Warner raised his hands over his blood-stained face, looking like something straight out of an early-80’s Apter magazine. Mance Warner has the fire of a traditional southern babyface with a modern presentation. He’s one of the most unique performers on the scene.
Warner’s victory stood as a nice parallel to AAW’s return. Like its champ, the promotion seemed at its end. But, with renewed hope and despite an international pandemic, the company has roared back. Not that everything is perfect. As the crew tore down the ring and stagging after wrapping the show on FITE, Daniels said he hopes the show broke even. Between the expense of renting the venue, flying in, and housing the talent and the costs incurred from running the iPPV, little, if anything, is left over in profit. Daniels understands that running independent wrestling shows in the post-COVID-19 world takes significant patience.
“The hardest part right now is getting people comfortable with coming back out. A lot of folks think opening back up means people are just gonna rush back like everything is the same as it was (pre-COVID-19). It’s not that easy. We can only run at twenty-five percent capacity right now, and honestly, I don’t we could fill much more. It’s gonna take some time to rebuild.”
Rebuilding is Daniels’s entire focus. The company will return to the Galli Arena, an abandoned shopping center in west suburban Villa Park, to shoot another month’s worth of ALIVE programming for Twitch. AAW returns to 115 Bourbon Street next month, where Jake Something will challenge Warner for his Championship. Daniels plans to stick with the formula, as the state of Illinois and the rest of the country slowly find their way into the new normal. No matter what becomes of this new reality, independent wrestling and AAW will continue to fight back and kick out at two-and-a-half.
Catch AAW ALIVE on Saturday nights at 7:05 p.m. CT on Twitch. AAW returns to FITE on June 11.