With the departure of Paul Heyman from the wrestling scene a year and a half ago, exciting and innovative booking has for the most part become a thing of the past, with one exception: the work of Gabe Sapolsky. This is no surprise, as Sapolsky learned booking from Heyman while he worked for the legendary ECW owner from 1993 until the promotion’s ultimate demise.
Just as his mentor’s name was associated with the most original wrestling shows of the ’90s, one can be sure that Sapolsky has been involved with the most talked about wrestling shows in America in the 21st century. It was Sapolsky’s visionary booking that put Ring of Honor (ROH) on the map, and on every true wrestling fan’s lips, and today, it is a new project that is generating a buzz amongst this same audience: Dragon Gate USA. SLAM! Wrestling spoke with Sapolsky about his newest project.
What is most interesting about Sapolsky’s latest venture is what it is not: another purely American wrestling promotion. With pay-per-views available from WWE, TNA, and ROH, American wrestling is already well represented on the North American scene. Dragon Gate is a Japanese wrestling promotion and makes no bones about what it is. “Rather than place Japanese wrestlers in exhibition matches, we are making them the central focus of our promotion,” Sapolsky explains. Yet, one should not simply expect a “remake” of the Japanese parent company storylines. “We are making Dragon Gate USA storylines different, and not dependent upon the continuity of [its Japanese parent].” Speaking with him, it sounds like this will be a reboot of sorts, just as recent reboots of Star Trek and James Bond have opened up new audiences to older franchises.
Yet Sapolsky is no new convert to the different world of Japanese wrestling. He has been following it since the early ’90s. “I saw a classified ad of some guy in New York selling some bootleg Japanese wrestling tapes and started checking them out. The most influential promotion on me was All Japan, though I did watch and appreciate what other Japanese promotions brought to the table.” The wrestlers that most interested him were Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada, and the late Mitsuharu Misawa, who fascinated him with a style of wrestling that he had never seen before.
In ROH, it is well known that he developed relationships with Pro Wrestling NOAH and Dragon Gate, just as his mentor brought in Japanese wrestlers to his ECW promotion to much acclaim. “Paul E. did not use the Japanese wrestlers in a stereotypical way, as the [then] WWF did, and instead gave them big pushes,” Sapolsky points out. “The WWE plays up stereotypes, and I don’t know why. Nor do they give Japanese wrestlers big pushes. In the WWE, Tajiri only had a mid-card push. I don’t recall anyone in the main event mix of the WWE since 2000 being Japanese. There’s a pretty big glass ceiling there [if you’re Japanese], and that’s very unfortunate.”
In continuing the conversation with Sapolsky, one is surprised to find one of the humblest people one would ever meet in the wrestling business. His demeanour is calm and he is soft-spoken, and one might think they are listening to a professor or teacher, as opposed to a traditional loud wrestling booker.
FANS TO HELP BOOK DRAGON GATE USA
He refuses to take all the credit for what his new Dragon Gate USA promotion will become. “The fans have had a great say in the matches,” he reveals. In fact, Sapolsky encourages them to contribute ideas. “In ROH, the idea was to swerve the fans and stay one step ahead of them at all times; in Dragon Gate USA, I’m looking to do the exact opposite. Everyone is welcome to send me ideas. SLAM! readers especially!” For this purpose, Sapolsky has set up a website for fans to submit ideas: www.dgusa.tv.
“It’s not like how other companies work, which treat the people on the other side of the guardrail with disrespect. We respect the fans and their input.”
He thanks the fans, as well, for helping him through his darkest days: after being unceremoniously released by ROH. “When I was sitting there, through the cold and brutal winter, I started writing my blog, which was an escape for me. I thought only a few people would read it. But when I saw how many people were reading it, and commenting on it, it helped me through that very tough time. And now I feel an obligation to give back to all the fans who supported me.” Indeed, Sapolsky’s MySpace blog has had over 100,000 hits, a number that wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows the rabid following he has — but it does surprise the humble man himself. “I still can’t believe I get that many hits,” he says with astonishment.
Sapolsky does not intend for Dragon Gate USA to be a fly-by-night promotion. He has implemented a marketing plan to tap into the alternative music and fashion culture of Philadelphia, for a start, and hoping its message spreads virally. “We have made a strategic partnership with R5 Productions in Philadelphia, that specialize in punk rock and death metal videos, and they will be promoting Dragon Gate, and help us get that market. We have a similar deal with Ferrett Music, who allowed us to use their bands’ music for our promotional videos. And Jinxed Clothing in Philadelphia will be selling Dragon Gate clothing in a hip area to attract a new audience. It’s a symbiotic relationship: our fans might get into the music from Ferrett, for example.” His knowledge of the latest trends of today’s 20-somethings seem to set him apart from the other companies which are still appealing to the 20-somethings of the ’90s.
PAUL HEYMAN’S CONTINUED GUIDANCE OF SAPOLSKY
But Sapolsky does maintain a tie with the older generation of bookers: Paul Heyman. Heyman was the most bold of the American promoters in recent memory, and his pushing of Japanese wrestlers was no exception, even putting his franchise’s heavyweight title on FMW powerhouse Masato Tanaka. Sapolsky has taken things a notch up from his teacher, where not only the Heavyweight champion is Japanese, but the majority of his Dragon Gate USA roster.
For fans who have been clamouring for Heyman to return as a booker, they will be happy to hear that he gave a few suggestions to Sapolsky for the Dragon Gate USA show. In an exclusive bit of information, Sapolsky reveals that his selection of one of the most important recurring characters in the upcoming Dragon Gate USA shows was thanks to a recommendation from Heyman.
“I had an idea of a live event hostess, taking the idea of ring announcer, and evolving her for the 21st century. This will be a role where the person has to think on their feet. There would have to be some improvisation and playing off the crowd reactions, unlike the traditional ring announcer who simply reads cue cards or sings national anthems,” Sapolsky explains. “I thought long and hard about who to hire for this, and only one name came to mind: Dawn Marie. I turned to who I always ask for sage advice in these situations, so I called Paul E. and he re-affirmed my belief in her. He could not stop praising her and unreservedly thought she would be the perfect person for this role.”
Sapolsky’s blog also revealed that he spoke to Heyman about Ken Doane, who was also hired for the Dragon Gate USA show. Sapolsky is glowing in his praise for his former boss and mentor, and gives much of the credit for his success today to the host of The Heyman Hustle. To this day, Sapolsky takes it as a personal affront if someone questions Paul E.’s integrity in his presence. “Hearing wrestlers or other figures in the wrestling business talking about him this way offends me greatly!” Sapolsky says in a loud voice. “In 1993, when I started with ECW, Paul E. and I just had a handshake agreement in terms of my salary and employment there. There was no written contract. From Sept. 1993 through to the last show in ECW’s history, he kept his handshake agreement with me. He honoured it happily from day one, and paid me whether business was good or bad.” Not even Jim Cornette, a Heyman enemy who Sapolsky praised in a recent blog entry, has dared to attack him in Sapolsky’s presence.
When asked about how he goes about booking his shows, from ROH to Dragon Gate USA, one feels like one is speaking with Heyman. Sapolsky is highly critical of the WWE style of writing shows, with its excessive formatting and forcing fantastic promo cutters to memorize uninspired lines: “Be it when I booked ROH or Dragon Gate USA, I respect my wrestlers. They know what they’re doing in the ring and they know how to cut promos. They are just some structure things I give them, so there is no repetition in the show. Other than that, the wrestlers deserve all the credit for my shows.”
Sapolsky is also critical of the use of agents, and he has never used agents; Heyman didn’t in ECW either. To Sapolsky, the use of agents should be limited to choreographing the underwear models and bodybuilders with no wrestling experience that certain sports entertainment companies hire. Otherwise, he feels they have no place to direct traffic in the ring with experienced pros. As Sapolsky says, “Wrestlers don’t need a lot of direction. They know what’s going on in the ring a lot better than what I do. It is an insult to give wrestlers of this calibre a long list of orders and directions. You have to let them loose and let them do their things. I was never a big believer in agents. When I was in ROH, I never believed in agents. When you have agents, the agents give different instructions, and the guys get confused. I view them as nothing but a hindrance.” Again, one can see Heyman’s philosophy in the young Sapolsky’s vision.
If there is one area where Sapolsky seems to differ from Heyman, it is that he does have a good words to say about TNA, rather than having a knee-jerk reaction and burying them to no end. “Say what you will about TNA, but they have let [Alex] Shelley and [Chris] Sabin do their thing and give them a big spotlight. WWE would have held them back, unquestionably! And their X Division is just tremendous.”
Aside from that, it is striking how similar Sapolsky’s booking style is to his mentor from ECW, and if a student’s success is any measure, Heyman has turned out to be an exceptional teacher. While other wrestling companies are known for choosing their successors by blood relationships alone, Heyman seems to have anointed a successor outside of his family, but one who has made brilliant decisions in his tenure as a booker.
THE PHILADELPHIA (PPV) STORY
When one listens to Sapolsky speaking about Dragon Gate USA, one feels an electricity in the air, akin to hearing Quentin Tarantino talk about his latest projects: it sounds nothing less than revolutionary. It is a brave venture to create a new American promotion out of mainly Japanese wrestlers; but one suspects that if anyone could pull it off, it would be this man from Philadelphia.
Other than ECW and ROH, wrestling in America has been in a stasis, for the most part. Perhaps it is time for some international investors to combine with some American visionaries to take the wrestling industry to new levels. One could argue that the established American wrestling companies are slowly going the way of Chrysler and GM; it is Sapolsky who has seen that some Japanese innovation is needed in the American wrestling world, just as it is needed in the American automobile industry. Sapolsky declares, “Japanese wrestling companies are more forward thinking and open to new ideas than the major American wrestling companies, particularly the WWE.” Honda or Sony would agree, one suspects, as would most experts in the history of international innovation.
There are two big wrestling events taking place in Philadelphia in the last weekend of July: one, his Dragon Gate USA show, “Enter the Dragon,” and the other, the WWE’s Night of Champions PPV. During a recession, the question was posed to him that if one could only afford to go to one wrestling show that weekend, why should one choose an unknown entity like Dragon Gate USA, versus an established brand like the WWE. Sapolsky concluded without hesitation, “If you want to see TV stars like Donald Trump or women from The View, and pyro and explosions and big screens … and very little wrestling, go to the WWE show, and you’ll be very happy there. But if you want to see great athletic wrestling unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, in a place with an underground feel, an alternative vibe, and the future evolution of wrestling, come to Enter the Dragon.”