For a company to last 15 years is an achievement. It is to be commended, and maybe even celebrated.
For an independent wrestling company to last 15 years is nothing short of a minor miracle.
But somehow, someway, Combat Zone Wrestling will be celebrating its 15th anniversary Saturday, Feb. 8 at the Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, N.J.
CZW recognizes the near divine nature of its milestone and is pulling out a lot of stops to make Saturday’s show special.
Among the special attractions for the weekend is a show from Women Superstars Uncensored, bumped up production values and the announcement of a new member of the CZW Hall of Fame.
Last but certainly not least is the chance to see former TNA Wrestling star A.J. Styles perform in the main event.
Dozens of independent wrestling companies have come and go — some in as little time as one show — since John Zandig started the promotion back in 1999, but CZW, with ultra violence and all, has managed to stand the test of time.
So how does an independent wrestling promotion last a decade and a half? There are a number of factors, according to current owner DJ Hyde.
Finding and developing talent
One of the biggest aspects of CZW Hyde likes to tout the most is how much name talent has gone through CZW and its wrestling school.
A couple of names that have graced a CZW ring in the past include CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and Dean Ambrose — all of which are stars on WWE television on a weekly basis.
Performers of that caliber don’t stay on the independent scene forever, which means CZW has to constantly find new talent to replace the performers that move on to greener pastures.
“We develop talent probably better than anybody in the business right now,” Hyde said. “It just shows with our guys that WWE is looking at or has taken already.”
Forming partnerships with other promotions
According to Hyde, CZW is the only wrestling promotion in the United States besides World Wrestling Entertainment and TNA Wrestling that runs shows outside of the country.
The promotion’s two main international stops are Germany and Japan. A major reason for these shows is the promotion’s relationships with Westside Xtreme Wrestling in Germany and Big Japan Pro Wrestling in Japan.
These relationships didn’t always exist and are few and far between in the world of professional wrestling, but Hyde believes they are essential to growing the brand of all three promotions.
“We have formed through our triangle of unity with WXW in Germany and Big Japan Pro Wrestling in Japan, to where we literally have developed a business deal and relationship that is successful for everyone, to where every company makes money, every company does well, all of the wrestlers get exposure, get experienced and not just wrestling in the same area, in the same town every single month,” he said.
“We all can succeed together,” he added. “The problem with the [wrestling] business is that there’s too many people in it that don’t belong in it, so the people at the top have to make sure that they’re doing good business and that things are coming out the right way.”
A relationship that is on the horizon for 2014 is Lucha POP in Mexico, as CZW will venture south of the border for the first time March 23.
“We literally have grown so big that we have international DVD distribution, running shows all across the United States, all across the world,” Hyde said. “This year it’s actually going to get bigger where we’re looking at running events in Japan. I recently announced that CZW would be coming to Mexico, on top of that, we do Europe every single year. The expansion is underway.”
Keeping up with the times
CZW has always prided itself on keeping up with the times, and in a lot of cases, innovating something brand new from scratch.
“For 15 years, we’ve been doing that,” Hyde said. “We always know how to innovate, make things special and deliver. I think that’s the biggest key. When it’s time for us to deliver, we always do. I think that’s why we’ve been around for 15 years.”
An example of the promotion keeping up with the times is its web-based subscription service that will be similar to the WWE Network. WSU, which is also owned by Hyde, already has a site like this up and running called StreamWSU.com.
“It’s exactly what World Wrestling Entertainment just announced and we’ve been doing it for a couple of years now,” Hyde said. “Considering that we’re kind of ahead of that curve, it really, really plays well for us and that’s something I’m really looking to do in the future. As long as we stay ahead of the curve, that’s a good thing.”
As much as Saturday is a coronation for lasting this long, it did not come without its share of roadblocks and hurdles for the promotion.
Despite lasting 15 years, CZW is still barely keeping its head above water in many ways, according to Hyde, and there are many obstacles standing in the way of the company taking a significant step forward.
Hyde is not shy about the financial state of CZW. He readily admits that the promotion is not turning a huge profit and is actually barely making money altogether.
“Financially, we have a lot of hurdles,” he said. “Money wise, we’re surviving. We’re not making money. We’re not growing financially and I think that’s the biggest hurdle.”
According to him, the promotion is doing well enough to pay the bills and spends some weeks unsure of whether it’s going to be able to make payroll.
“We are a very large independent, but we don’t have thousands of dollars,” Hyde said. “We’re paying the bills. That’s about where we are. That’s about where most independent companies are. Most of them aren’t paying the bills, to be honest.”
Constant struggles with state athletic commissions and state laws
This seems to be the biggest thorn in the side of Hyde and CZW and is one of the main reasons for its financial problems.
Before one ticket is sold for a particular show, Hyde and CZW have to get a number of things in order with the athletic commission/laws of the specific state it’s producing a show in.
The three states in particular that Hyde has the most trouble with are Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware — the states that CZW runs the most.
CZW’s main issue with the commissions/laws is convincing them it is not a sport, but instead sports entertainment where the wrestlers are portraying characters and the outcomes are predetermined. However, the commissions govern the promotion as a normal sport.
This has proven to be a constant struggle for Hyde and his promotion throughout the years.
“As WWE classified it, it’s sports entertainment. It’s not a sport. We’re being governed as a sport,” he said. “We’re being made to do things by different commissions that realistically you would never have actors or stuntman or anybody else do because we are doing certain things and we are viewed as a sport, but we’re not a sport. We’re entertainment value.”
“At the end of the day, we’re story tellers. We’re physical story tellers,” he added. “They would never govern another company or another business that way because they can’t legally.”
In Delaware, Hyde claimed he has to go as far as to hand over the results to every single match on the show along with all of the other paperwork the company has to turn in.
“The only thing that is fake about wrestling is the outcome of a match,” he said. “Honestly, everybody out there knows that sports entertainment is fake. We’re doing exactly what movies do. That is our job. We create characters that go out and tell a physical story.”
“This is a business. Guys make their money that way and not that I’m trying to expose it, but when you talk about an athletic commission, you got to understand it’s not a competition. Pin me. Pay me. I don’t care.”
According to Jean Betley, a license investigator for the Delaware Department of State Division of Professional Regulation, the procedure of acquiring the match results is done to prove that a show is indeed a choreographed event where the people involved are not exerting their best efforts — part of proving that it's Hyde turning in the results to all of the matches.
If this isn’t proven, the commission is led to believe that the event is about competition. Then, the combatants would have to be matched up according to skill levels and weight classes — something that is not common practice on a wrestling show.
[Here's an example of a form where promotions must fill in each wrestler's real name, stage name and the result of every match HERE]
Another thing Hyde was forced to do came before Cage of Death XV late last year. The show itself was an overall success, according to Hyde, but said the state of New Jersey, which has a set of laws instead of a commission, stepped in and ordered the company to pay a sales tax of $9,870 before the show even started.
“Ten-thousand dollars is not in the grand scheme a large amount of money when it comes down to it, but at the end of the day, for a company like us, $10,000 is huge,” Hyde said. “What we can do with that money to grow our business or to pay bills or buy necessities or things along those lines is huge.”
Hyde said that CZW is scheduled to get a refund from the state, but that won’t come until June.
Hyde said that he was also forced to a 7 percent sales tax by the state of New Jersey on tickets sold. Hyde claimed that he shouldn’t have to based on the fact that CZW is based out of Delaware and pays its taxes there.
Hyde’s claim fell on deaf ears and he was forced to pay the tax.
In Pennsylvania, Hyde is forced to cough up a 6 percent sales tax off the live gate (tickets sales) alone.
For instance, if CZW made $10,000 off tickets sales, it would have to pay Pennsylvania $600 before anything else happens. Add to that the company needs a $10,000 bond just to put on the show. The company needs insurances. The company needs a licensed physician.
According to Hyde, if the commissioner himself does as much as to show up to the event, it costs the promotion $200. That’s more than what a lot of the wrestlers are earning on an independent show.
Not to mention the essentials such as renting a venue and getting a quality ring for the wrestlers to roll around in. And all of this is before the show starts.
During the show, Hyde said that if the promotion does something that the commission deems as against the rules, it reserves the right to revoke the $10,000 bond.
“Then when you do something wrong, they fine you,” he said. “If you do something they deem isn’t exactly how it’s supposed to be, they fine you. I’ve been fined three or four times that’s like, ‘Are you kidding?’”
Pennsylvania’s commission could not be reached for comment at this time.
However, Hyde’s home state of Delaware seems to cause him the most grief.
Among the grief is that the state of Delaware requires every wrestler to get blood tested. Having these blood tests conducted are not free, according to Hyde. According to Betley, the going rate for these tests in Delaware is $99 per contestant. Hyde estimates that one expense alone to add up to $3,000.
According to Part E, rule 2.1 of Delaware’s Combative Sports Entertainment Rules and Regulations, the promoter must make it clear that the show will include real blood. In that case, the promoter must let the state know of the exact wrestlers that will be bleeding.
Those particular wrestlers will then be subject to the blood tests. According to rule 2.0, if the promoter does not intend on using blood, but someone bleeds on accident, the match must be halted so that the area can be cleaned and sanitized.
“That’s a huge investment that you have to have up front because you’re not going to make any money up front. You’re going to make it all on the back end. That’s where you make you’re money in our business,” Hyde said. “You need to have the show [first] to get the live gate or do the iPPV or the DVDs or Blu-rays or whatever it is. You have to have the show to do that and you need that in order to put on the show.”
“You never know whether you’re going to make that investment back,” he added. “That’s one of the down sides to it.”
Another episode with his home state included a time where he was nearly fined $1,000 because a wrestler spelled his address differently on a form turned into the state than he did on his identification card.
“A thousand dollars!” Hyde said. “Things like that are a little ridiculous.”
No matter how big CZW gets, these problems will not go away. They will persist and the only way the promotion will be able to overcome them is if it grows on a larger scale during the next 15 years.
Growing the company, getting the word out and getting sponsors
One of the ways to solve its financial hardships is to gain some form of financial backing or corporate sponsorships.
“We need to develop some more business relationships,” Hyde said. “Maybe just locally. Maybe it’s just with the Mom and Pop places or maybe with somebody who’s a bigger chain.”
One of the ways to get corporate sponsors on board is to expand the promotion’s reach in the wrestling industry, but there a couple of things standing in the way of that.
Firstly, it costs money to advertise and grow — money that CZW simply doesn’t have yet. Simply put, it costs money to make money.
Secondly, the nature of the product hinders the promotion from being able to reach out to as many corporations as possible.
Most corporations do not want to attach its name to an extreme show where blood and barbed wire is the norm. Fairly or unfairly, CZW carries the reputation of a “blood and guts” promotion.
Although Hyde insists that people look beyond the reputation that precedes the company, it still could be a bad look for a company that isn’t trying to portray that image.
“It does hinder us quite a bit,” Hyde said. “It doesn’t scare people, it just hinders what we do and I don’t think that it’s a problem sometimes, but other times it’s a major issue. “It’s one of those things that when they hear ‘Cage of Death’ and they’re like, ‘Cage of Death? What the hell is that?’”
CZW lives on the edge in the kayfabe world that takes place in front of the camera and in the real world we all live in when the camera is off.
Despite its 15-year history, CZW still walks the same tightrope that other independent promotions that don’t posses the history or notoriety they do.
But somehow, some way, CZW has managed to avoid falling completely off the cliff and into the independent wrestling abyss, where so many other promotions have gone.