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Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins Loves Indie Wrestling (Interview)
Although Billy Corgan is best known as the enigmatic frontman of Smashing Pumpkins, lately he has turned his creative energy toward smashing of a different variety: flying elbow smashes, for example.
A lifelong fan of professional wrestling, Corgan decided to throw himself into the ring, so to speak, as creative director of the Chicago-based independent wrestling promotion Resistance Pro. Corgan and his partners Jacques and Gabriel Baron debuted the new league in November 2011 at the legendary Excalibur night club in Chicago. And while the Smashing Pumpkins have sold more than 30 million albums worldwide, running a wrestling promotion is uncharted showbiz territory for Corgan.
In celebration of Resistance Pro’s one-year anniversary, Rock Cellar Magazine sent music journalist (and wrestling guru) Marshall Ward to talk to Billy Corgan about the art of pro wrestling, and why old-school is cool.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Congratulations on Resistance Pro’s one-year anniversary. How has your first year in the wrestling world been?
Billy Corgan: It’s been great. You learn a lot about the wrestling business (laughs) — particularly the independent wrestling business. My status in the world helps to a point, but at the end of the day we’re appealing to wrestling fans.
Obviously, we have a little bit of a different vision than most indie companies, so we’ve been working on that. But we’re feeling good and we’ve learned a lot and we’re in a good place. The talent keeps coming back and telling us that they like working for us, so it’s all positive. I would compare my experience in wrestling with building a band in the world: you have to kind of find your own identity, find your own strengths and go with those strengths. And don’t take the short cuts. Taking the long term approach is what’s going to make the company successful and last, really.
RCM: Resistance Pro’s storylines have an old-school feel, like what you’d see back in the ’70s and ’80s.
BC: Yeah, we’re sort of modeled on the old territorial consciousness. The WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) is the dominant name, obviously, and they’re not going anywhere. They’ve created something that’s meant to last, and it should. We don’t see ourselves as competition, we just see ourselves as having a vision that will be complimentary to other companies. We think we can build something that will attract a different kind of fan base. One that would be more attracted to a different kind of pace and storylines – like the old AWA (American Wrestling Association) mentality.
RCM: Did you grow up watching AWA?
BC: I did, during the AWA’s glory years. But my earliest memories date back to a promotion out of Chicago which was run by Bob Luce. A few guys who remember Bob Luce and knew him told me he was AWA-affiliated, so I think what happened was a lot of the talent would come down from Minnesota and work. I saw a lot of guys from Minnesota, but then we had our mainstays like Dick the Bruiser, Crusher, Bobo Brazil, and Baron Von Raschke, who worked a lot. There were a lot of these guys who were at the end of their career in Chicago, then they’d bring down fresh blood from the AWA and from (AWA promoter) Verne Gagne.
RCM: The appearance of Resistance Pro is a bit of throwback to the original Sheik’s Big Time Wrestling out of Detroit in the ’70s, with your simple lighting and red ring apron. You even have a wrestler called The Sheik. Was that nostalgic feel intentional?
BC: It’s semi-conscious. I mean, some things are economic and some things are just the reality of what we’re trying to do. We place a lot of emphasis on character-building and the in-ring product that’s probably more traditional than the modern style. I’m a fan of a lot of the other independents, but a lot of time the guys are doing a lot of crazy stuff in the ring. Which is fine, but we’re trying to think about what is going to happen to our talent tomorrow, even if they’re not working for us.
We’re just taking a much different position and I think it hurts us maybe here and there in the short term, but in the long term I think we’re going to build something that’s going to really stick out.
I built my band the Pumpkins on traditional rock and roll values and classic rock values. And maybe in that way we build Resistance Pro on classic wrestling values.
RCM: So Resistance Pro is about bridging the past with the present?
BC: There’s a certain pace that the old-school guys worked that I still think can be effective in the modern world. And part of it is just how the storylines played out back then. A lot of those great feuds — Valentine and Piper, the Iron Sheik and Sgt. Slaughter, the Freebirds and the Von Erichs — were built over time. It’s actually funny, when you look back now, how things were very contained in the pre-internet era.
Now that I’m older, I’ll read about how guys would go to one territory and run a whole program and feud, then go to the next territory and run the exact same program all over again. That’s unfathomable today that you can do that! (laughs) And we realize now looking back how the Apter Mags (Pro Wrestling Illustrated and sister publications) were all in on the work too, which is pretty funny.
RCM: What other ways do you think the internet has changed professional wrestling?
BC: (Wrestling matchmaker and writer) Vince Russo, when he was working for TNA (Total Non-Stop Action) talked publicly about the pressure of the internet culture on wrestling. I personally have been in public life for over 20 years and I have seen, in my career, where there are trendy things you can do to bump up audiences. And certainly, I’m not running a billion-dollar company here, but we feel that there is an audience that wants that longer-term build up to the big feuds.
They want to be emotionally invested, and you don’t have to spend a zillion dollars to do that. That’s just creativity. And we feel we can be creative enough, as there’s certainly a vast history of knowledge there that’s sitting no longer used. The way to build feuds, the way to build people up through tag team divisions and stuff like that. That’s all just sitting there, this wealth of knowledge that has really been discarded in the rush towards modern wrestling on television. I remain a fan, so it’s not like I’m critical of it. I just believe that there’s this other way that it can still work.
RCM: The emphasis on old-school ring psychology over high-flying stunts also goes hand-in-hand with Resistance Pro’s efforts to promote concussion awareness.
BC: Right, we still believe that old AWA mentality is still very effective, particularly when it comes to safety. You know, there was a reason a lot of those guys worked the way they did back in the day. They had to work 300 nights a year. Today, wrestler safety has become a big issue and when you look at things going on in the NFL now, it’s only going to become a bigger issue. I’m talking about the effects of concussions and the long-term health of wrestlers.
We want to encourage a safer in-ring product that balances athleticism with storytelling. In my opinion, it’s time that the long-term health of the wrestlers themselves is placed as a stated top priority, and it is in our company.
It’s something we talk about as we want to make sure these guys and girls, if they’re taking bumps, aren’t doing stuff just to get over for 200 people in a small place. We have to figure out how to get over in ways that are safer too. That’s why we spend so much time looking back on the old stuff to see how it all worked.
RCM: Thanks to WWE and channels like Classics on Demand, there’s been a wealth of old-school footage made available in recent years from wrestling territories like Georgia, Florida, and Texas.
BC: That’s a great thing as we now have so much access to all this amazing footage. My friend Jeremy Borash of TNA gave me a hard drive full of World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) stuff that I had never seen. I had only heard the legend of it all, and to actually be able to see full shows from the ’80s, and the whole build towards unforgettable feuds in whatever arena they were trying to fill, is fascinating to see it now. Michael Hayes and hearing him speak really makes you miss that era where you could see that kind of level of intensity between the talent and the fans.
I’ve gotten to know and befriend some of the greatest minds in the wrestling business, and I’ve learned a lot about the incredible sacrifices that everyone makes to entertain the fans.
I think it’s exciting to try to find new ways to make the old-school things work. I’ve been pitching this reality show we’re trying to get made around Resistance Pro and that’s going really well. So we still have our fingers crossed because if we can get that show made, I think it will be a really interesting way to build a brand name.
RCM: What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned running a wrestling promotion this past year?
BC: I think the biggest is we found that you’ve got to have a core group of people that you can trust, that you build your company around. And once you have that you can bring in different people and either they’ll fit into the mix and they grow with the mix, or they don’t. And that way they can take the highs and lows as they come.
And there’s a lot of great indie talent. You know, some are in business for themselves and you can’t blame them. That’s their gig and that’s what they do. I mean, I was just as mercenary in my career as some of these indie guys are, but at the end of the day the people we’re really building our company around are those people who really believe in the vision of Resistance Pro.
RCM: Watching Resistance Pro, you can almost imagine legends like Dick Murdoch, The Funks, or Ole and Gene Anderson fitting in perfectly with your vision and current roster.
BC: I think where Resistance Pro can be really attractive to a lot of people is we’re looking for those Jerry Blackwells and those Adrian Adonis-type people who wouldn’t necessarily have a place in, let’s call it the “modern” version of what a wrestler’s supposed to look like or act like or talk like. We want people who will have an imprint and a distinct talent. We don’t want cookie-cutter jacked up guys and we don’t want your typical divas. We want people who are individuals.
RCM: One of a kind, like Rob Van Dam?
BC: Exactly. To me, and I know this from music, the biggest stars are always one of a kind. There’s only ever going to be one Stone Cold Steve Austin, one Rock, one Mick Foley, or one Samoa Joe. And we believe there are so few opportunities to get to that top level for the indie guys and girls, just because they’re two inches too short or 20 pounds too fat.
If we can get Resistance Pro to the point of being a national company, there will be so much talent to choose from because there are so many wrestlers on the independent scene that the major companies are never going to use. So a wrestler’s charisma or their inherent understanding of the psychology of wrestling is what we’re really interested in.
RCM: You’re talking about indie staples like Colt Cabana and El Generico?
BC: There’s always going to be room in our company for people with that kind of charisma. At the end of the day, I’m a promo guy first. What do I remember about Rowdy Roddy Piper when I was a kid? You know, you look back and see that Piper was very, very solid in the ring – a legend obviously – but what do I remember most vividly about him? His promos. That’s what drew me in. Hulk Hogan – he had an electric charisma.
People still argue against Hulk’s abilities in the ring, but at the end of the day it’s all a work, and if you get people enthralled and entranced in what you’re doing, then the real talent will step forward and the biggest superstars are the ones who can put all those important pieces together.
RCM: Do you find it also takes time for many young wrestlers to build up the confidence needed to deliver a great promo?
BC: Oh yeah, and I completely understand that. I mean, I know what it’s like to stand on a stage and play for a bunch of people who aren’t interested in what you’re doing. It doesn’t mean you’re not good, it just means you haven’t found that click point. And sometimes wrestlers need encouragement. They need someone from the outside to come in and say, “I know what you’re capable of achieving.”
We have Harry Smith working for us, and when Harry went heel, suddenly I saw this side to Harry Smith that I had never seen. And he was tremendous as a heel. I mean, unbelievable, and people would come up to me after the shows and go, “How is this guy not working for a major company?” He’s 27 years old, he looks like a god, and he’s a Hart! He’s killing it on the mic and people are coming up and saying, “That’s what a wrestler is supposed to look and talk and feel like.”
And to me, Harry is money for 20 years. Harry’s not money for two years, Harry’s money for 20 years. I’m interested in a guy who’s going to work for 20 years. That’s why I believe in somebody like Harry.
RCM: Harry Smith is a third-generation wrestler and the grandson of the legendary Stu Hart. Have you met other members of the famous Hart dynasty?
BC: I have, and the Harts have really put their arms around me and made me feel like an extended member of the family. I’ve got so many memories, I wouldn’t even know where to start. But recently, we just played a show at the Saddledome in Calgary and we had Bret there, Ross was there, and Diana was there. I just really appreciate the spirit of that family, their Stampede Wrestling promotion they ran, and I can’t help but think that somewhere the late, great Stu Hart is smiling on a wrestling promotion that’s trying to run the old-fashioned way.
RCM: Harry Smith had a classic match against Jay Bradley this summer in Resistance Pro. Tell us about Jay Bradley.
BC: Like Harry Smith, Jay Bradley is somebody I’m interested in as he looks unbelievable – 6’6″, 240 pounds – and he can talk. He gets the psychology and helps in the back, pitches in, and believes in the company. I hope Jay’s with us forever and if Jay gets hired by a major company, he deserves to get hired. But if he’s with us forever, great, because that’s the kind of guy I want to go in the trench with.
RCM: It must be inspiring for some of these up-and-coming wrestlers to see longtime indie warriors like Daniel Bryan and CM Punk finally make it big in the WWE.
BC: There’s sort of an evolutionary spirit where, just when you think that it can’t change or wrestling won’t change, somebody comes along and kind of changes the rules on their own.
Look at the way CM Punk has gotten over. He’s gotten over with a different kind of attitude. His rebelliousness is that of a straight-edge individual. I mean, if Stone Cold was a beer drinking hell raiser, then Punk is the opposite. He wants to sit there and sip his Pepsi (laughs).
And you know, it’s funny because we’re talking about two guys from two different eras who have gotten over in completely different ways. Yet, at the end of the day, they are some reflection of our culture.
RCM: It must be fascinating to see different eras merge, in a sense, when you attend the Cauliflower Alley Club (a fraternal organization for retired wrestlers) each year in Las Vegas.
BC: I’ve had so many cool experiences at the Cauliflower Alley Club. I’ve met Stone Cold a bunch of time along with JR (Jim Ross) who I know pretty well personally. But when you’re standing at the Cauliflower event with Stone Cold and JR and you’re talking about the history of wrestling, it’s a totally different atmosphere than, say, backstage at a show. I have a great memory of meeting Dick Beyer (The Destroyer) for five minutes.
Meeting J.J. Dillon, I got to speak to for about five minutes also. When I walked up to buy a copy of his book, he knew who I was and thanked me for what I’m doing with Resistance Pro.
I mean, that find of fraternity where you feel like you’re part of it, that’s a thrill for someone like me who grew up a fan. Coming from where I’m coming from, I’m always right on the edge with making sure I’m not just a mark hanging out backstage.
RCM: How does it feel seeing some of your childhood wrestling heroes struggling physically and, in some cases, financially?
BC: It breaks my heart to see some of the legends broken down and struggling. I mean, there are real stories behind the scenes. And the Cauliflower Alley really brings that together where you can see the real heart of wrestling. It’s a place where people really care for one another and reach out, and there’s a level of benevolence where people want to make sure that people can pay their rent.
And I know this feeling, because at some point the fans go away when they get bored with you, and it’s hard to cycle your life back down into something normal.
You know, my real contribution ultimately, hopefully, will be my passion and my willingness to step forward and try to change the business that I love and appreciate. I really want everybody around us to be safe or be able to walk when they’re 70.
I had a guy come backstage last night who’s the manager of the Iron Sheik, who I was a tremendous fan of as a kid. And we were just talking about how the Sheik’s doing – how’s his health, how’s his mood. And that’s kind of the inner working of wrestling where people reach out to one another, or send messages to just check in on one another.
There’s something really heartfelt there that, honestly, rock and roll is missing. And that’s one of my great attractions to the world of wrestling, there’s really a heart at the middle of it. It’s really about relationships and friendships and I really appreciate that part of it.
RCM: With Resistance Pro, you’re honoring wrestlers like the Iron Sheik, JJ Dillon, and Stone Cold Steve Austin who paved the way for wrestling today.
BC: We can have a territorial mindset without being old-school Luddites and going back to a couple guys in tights and saying, “You disrespected me!” You have to take into account the modern fan, and whether or not we can run at the top level remains to be seen. But I do believe there’s a lot of fans out there who still want that different kind of emotional engagement.
I see it in rock and roll every night, and I see it in wrestling. I see over the course of a year where fans have come up to me and say, “You know, I’m really starting to get what you’re trying to do. I’m starting to really understand how this is different.” And sometimes if you go to too many wrestling shows, it all starts to kind of seem the same. But at the end of the day, the best wrestlers are real artists.
Because when you think about it, if you put a ring in the middle of the room and you put two guys in there, somehow they draw you in and that’s where the magic happens.
That’s the part where people who don’t understand professional wrestling and the art behind it, will never see the fun and the joy of it. They don’t get it.
RCM: It’s about losing yourself in the moment…
BC: Right. It goes back to something like Little Rascals where they put up a theater in the backyard and make a show. There’s something sort of beautiful about the simplicity, and how wrestlers can draw you in with not a lot – through mannerisms and through playing the role of the heel or babyface. I think that part will never get old. I mean, that goes back to Greek tragedy, and the real artists know what to do when you put them in there. They just light up. It’s like something clicks behind their eyes.
And I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it at a Ring of Honor show where two guys go out there and blow your mind, for whatever reason. And then I’ve seen it at WrestleMania with 72,000 fans, where it just clicks. That’s the beauty of it, it doesn’t have to be one way or another. It doesn’t have to be my vision versus your vision, because everybody can find their place.
It’s this inclusiveness world like no other that I call the land of lost toys. And that’s what I love about wrestling.
October 30, 2020