Rumours abound about OWE, but where does the truth lie?

Shortly after my last article detailing the shifting approach to business OWE are undertaking to adapt to their circumstances was published, in direct response to one set of criticism and rumors that had begun to circulate online, another round of criticism and rumors was brought to light by someone posting on Facebook.

See the text in question, captured as a screencap, in these images.

I was initially taken aback by the claims the poster made about the Canadian shows being cancelled. While it is true that the shows did not happen exactly as originally intended, they nevertheless did occur and are available for free on FiteTV at present. This incongruity with reality led me to be skeptical of the claims made throughout the rest of the posted diatribe.

This time, however, the comments were being presented from the perspective of a wrestler in China who had been offered a job with the company, and not simply an anonymous friend-of-a-friend. A wrestler who distinguished himself as separate from the Chinese talent. This gave me a clear angle of approach to the comments in question, so I reached out to as many western workers who had performed for OWE as I could, in search of their insight into the comments made. Most of them agreed to disclose their opinions on these issues under the condition that I kept their feedback anonymous.

Section One: Statements Concerning CIMA

For those who closely follow the evolving news surrounding Japan’s #2 promotion, Dragon Gate, it is no secret that CIMA’s departure was not an amicable one. The bad blood is indeed, presently, still an issue. While former stars such as Akira Tozawa and Shingo Takagi, both now employed elsewhere, sent in video packages in celebration of the company’s 20th anniversary, CIMA has been scrubbed from video. Mike Spears, co-host of the Dragon Gate centric Open the Voice Gate podcast explained the relationship to me, saying “I believe the best way to describe the current relationship is that there is a clear separation without any indication of a reconciliation coming soon.”

In my interactions with Michael Nee and Huayang Fu it is clear to me that both of them are aware of NJPW as a brand, and of the position it holds in the Japanese wrestling landscape. Additionally, none of the people I spoke with could offer up any evidence or corroboration for the claims that CIMA lied to OWE about the level of importance of Dragon Gate in the Japanese marketplace. They did, however, have a lot to say about the claims that CIMA hates Americans, and that he was absent for much of the time OWE has been around.

One of them, who even explained to me that he had had disagreements with CIMA during their interactions, told me “There’s no proof that I know of that CIMA doesn’t like Americans.” Another illustrated it as such “CIMA didn’t entirely hate us but he does hate American wrestling. That he’s said so himself. But he does like anyone that can do the fast pace, highspot, super indy style.” A third told me “I don’t really know about any of the CIMA stuff, he certainly didn’t care to help any of the foreigners though.” Meanwhile, Jay Cafe told me that he “enjoyed the opportunity to train with CIMA the times he was there to train.”

Unexpectedly, one of the men I spoke with also shed some light on the situation described between CIMA and one of his students. “the story about CIMA and the student was very exaggerated” he told me, “one of his students getting drunk is true but he didn’t stay with the Americans out of fear of CIMA, he went with them because he was very drunk and they offered to take him back home to rest. I nor anyone else that was there never saw or heard of CIMA “verbally destroying him” and he still travels by CIMA to this day.”

It seems that, overall, there are a variety of different experiences performers have had with CIMA while in OWE. The less-than-favorable reactions CIMA may have given towards some performers may very well have been due to stylistic disagreements. CIMA has been long known to have been influential in the careers of many very successful western performers such as the Young Bucks, Ricochet, and PAC. With that in mind,  it is hard to believe that he simply dislikes Americans as a rule, particularly in the light of what has been said above.

However, with regards to his involvement levels in OWE’s training regime, the statements made had more uniform responses. On that matter, one performer indicated that he “agrees about every word on CIMA.” Another, more elaborately, told me “he was hardly there and hardly trained the Chinese wrestlers after a certain point, around last summer. THawk and Lindaman would train when they were around but it was also not often. Although there was always Americans around after a few months the decision was made to end all training by Americans leaving us with nothing to do.”

With CIMA’s international obligations having remained at a high volume after he signed on with OWE, it isn’t much of a surprise to learn that he hasn’t been the primary trainer after the initial set-up was completed and a baseline of quality and expectations established. Obligations being what they are, he has spent much of his time in Japan, Europe, Mexico, the United States, and even Canada. As I’ve reported before, the company has brought in Skayde for a training stint previously, and the advanced students are presently handling a lot of the day-to-day training. While not as experienced as CIMA, I’d wager that their development is still in good hands from an athletic, moves oriented perspective. Time will tell how well they tell stories.

Section Two: Statements Concerning Pay and Chinese Management

The situation regarding pay for western workers is presented as fairly bleak by the writer of these comments, he explains that not only is the pay lower than that which was agreed upon before talents arrived in China, but that additionally “they [OWE] are illegally taxing your salary.”

These statements, amongst those I spoke with, were met with wildly varying levels of agreement. For some performers, like Jay Cafe, the situation played out in exactly the opposite way, as he explained that  the”First tour [he] did from [the] end of April to the middle of June [he] wasn’t making a lot. When [he] came back in August [he] had a meeting in which they raised [his] salary.” Another echoed this sentiment, saying ” My money was always right, in fact they paid me more than they said.” A third expressed that ” they have always stood by their word with me”

This is, however, not where the story ends. One particular performer told me ” We wouldn’t know when we would be paid or had to go through long all day ordeals to get paid and at one point they cut all of our pay in half without notice. Myself, I was always paid the agreed upon amount although sometimes it was like I said; a confusing and frustrating all day ordeal. But I also saw [someone else] not get the money… originally agreed to before coming to China” these thoughts were echoed by Remy Marcel, who said ” They also made tons of promises then upon getting there for said tour it would change. While our money was always paid out it wasn’t as much as the conditions that were set prior to tour.” He also indicated that ” they paid us and took care of us but it was def[initely] under the table”

While money issues may not have held entirely true to his statements, the writer of this post is correct when he attests that “wrestling is still VERY new” in China, with less than twenty years of existence in the country and no complex history of training and psychology being built up yet. Without a doubt, foreign talent are at any given point the most experienced performers with the most pedigree to their background ― whether they hail from the west or from Japan, this holds true.

The post accuses OWE’s management of being arrogant, thinking that their budget would guarantee fans, and most importantly indicates that OWE “dismissed all of the information the foreign talent tried to pass on to them.” On this matter I would find universal agreement from the western talent who worked there.  One wrestler told me that American talent “would make suggestions at length about training, advertising, merchandise, stories, characters, and almost all of it was ignored. In the end we were just kind of there.”

Jay Cafe confirmed this sentiment, saying ” The office would pull the Americans into a meeting and ask us what they could do better and then not do anything we suggested.” Another echoed this, saying “most of them don’t understand professional wrestling… they don’t really understand the psychology of the business.” While yet another would state “the Chinese writers were very arrogant and wouldn’t listen us about anything despite them not knowing anything about wrestling.” One told me, specifically, that he “decided to leave because it was clear that Mr. Fu, the owner, had no direction or clue what he was doing. All he cared about was making money but had no idea how and invested very little time or interest in OWE.”

Additionally there are concerns raised about the cancellation of shows. I’ve reported previously that plans have been delayed, pushing dates back several times when the brand was gearing up for weekly shows in Shanghai. Government regulation, red tape, and securing a venue are major obstructive elements in China, which is why it can take months to settle on a date for a show, even for promotions operating on a smaller scale. While a smaller promotion may not catch any flack for delays in securing venues or last minute shuffles caused by governmental oversight, due to the smaller number of eyes on the brand, a lot of attention has been cast upon OWE since its intentionally bombastic beginnings.

Depending on the time period talent were abroad in China, the response to claims about the frequency of cancellations has been wildly varied. Earlier, as the brand was establishing itself, talent indicated to me that “canceled shows did happen frequently and without much notice, that and our venues would seemingly change on a whim.” While talent there more recently have told me “the only time one was cancelled was because of the typhoon.”

For what it is worth, even amidst complaints and requests for anonymity, wrestlers who agreed to speak with me expressed that they were grateful for the opportunity and that they were well taken care of while living abroad. Professional wrestling has a very strong culture associated with it, one which seems to have been rubbed the wrong way in some cases by being forced into a Chinese-dominant context, wherein expectations and norms cannot reasonably be predicted to remain steady. Many foreign businesses have tried to make their business model work in China, only to fail and have to adapt to the realities of Chinese culture, politics, and market forces. It seems unreasonable to expect that western experience in wrestling would succeed where others have failed, just because it is wrestling.

Section Three: Statements Concerning the Chinese Wrestlers

The writer comments that “they basically get paid circus peanuts, and the way that wrestling works [in OWE] is like an MLM scheme.”  And further illustrates this point by stating that the Chinese talent “sign a contract for 8 years, yes 8, then if you try to leave you forfeit the money they owe” to these performers. While it seems a shocking statement, one should not be surprised by learning, at this point, that there are eight years left that these talent remain under contract for, as it has been reported both by myself and elsewhere that these talent, two years ago, signed ten year long contracts.

These contracts, as have been known for a while, are idol style contracts for idol performers, destined to be stars not only in professional wrestling but wider Chinese pop culture as well. This explains why the writer critiques the OWE by claiming that the kids were overworked and laments that “they had to learn literal dancing, acting for stage plays, and occasionally wrestling.” Pretty much without exception, the foreign workers who have been employed by OWE agree with these concerns, and I received further elaboration from some of them.

One of them spoke at length on the matter, stating “The Chinese wrestlers in almost normal fashion in China were indeed severely overworked and criminally underpaid. We would see them have to rehearse for hours into the night long after us or any foreigners got to leave and then have to get up early to take down and/or setup elsewhere. They had to learn new routines all the time and did in fact spend little time actually training for wrestling”

Jay Cafe would further critique OWE on this matter, saying “[the] kids were definitely over worked and because of that never got more ring time to become better and then the office would be like why aren’t they better. It was ridiculous.”

Realistically, I find it hard to feel surprised at learning that the contracts and salaries offered by a Chinese startup company to its Chinese employees is considered subpar for the expectations of a westerner, in light of what is readily available about the Chinese labor market and wages. Trying to measure the wages-to-work-hours ratio of the fledgling Chinese pro wrestling business from a western wrestler’s perspective seems inherently culturally biased, and crucially flawed. While I cannot attest to the details of the OWE rosters’ contracts, I can say that on top of providing every wrestler with a monthly wage, they also provide food, lodging, training, opportunities for international travel, medical care, and numerous other benefits that don’t seem to be factored into the equation when claiming they are worked too hard and paid too little.

It’s not much of a surprise that the writer of this post indicated that “they spent more time outside of the ring, than inside, which shows if you’ve ever seen a live event,” if this is the prevailing opinion from many of the western workers who have passed through the promotion. However, I have seen video of many of the kids, and I have seen one of them live in person, and know those who have seen many more live performances from OWE’s Chinese roster and, frankly, it’s a mixed bag.

Some of OWE’s Chinese roster have taken up the art far better than others, and ring time is far more regularly handed to them than to their weaker peers ―which exacerbates the problem. This particular problem is already known to the management in OWE, and will be addressed by the impending onslaught of daily shows to be had out of their OWE Asia Fight Club Show & Pub.

Furthermore, while wrestling is at the core of OWE’s product, from the very beginning they have not shied away from the fact that they aim to produce a unique and varied product, with roots in both wrestling and Idol culture. From their very first press release, and their very first show, their dance routines, acrobatic displays, and martial arts exhibitions have been centre stage alongside their in-ring performances. In order to put on such a wildly varied array of performances, it must necessitate time spent away from the ring, even if this is unfortunately an element slowing the development of some of their talent as wrestlers.

In regards to the difficulties in getting Chinese talent over to the USA for AEW shows, I have long reported that visa issues have been afoot, fouling up their ability to work there. Outside of this one post, I have never heard anyone from OWE or AEW claim the talent are not ready, it has always been a visas issue and, as Remy Marcel would put it, “the Chinese/American trade stuff made… for a hairy situation.”

Cambodia, he writes, is “compar[ed]… to hell” and that the kids are trapped there. However, as I’ve discussed before, this is not a wholly accurate representation of the situation. Wang Jin has been spending time at his family home to take care of personal matters there, a cadre of talent have been in China for promotional obligations, and the roster will still be travelling for shows in Japan and China come December.

Additionally, “hell” is hardly the words used to describe Cambodia by those I’ve spoken to who have been on the ground in Siem Reap with the kids, explaining to me that “The wrestlers don’t seem upset to be here. They enjoy shopping here as things are so inexpensive.” In fact, the only real negative I’ve heard about their time in Cambodia is that “OWE has now been training the kids to do Cambodian fighting, which most of them don’t want to do.”

Valid concerns were raised, however, about the long-term health of these kids with such a rigorous, diverse training and performance  schedule ahead of them. One individual told me “I do believe the kids are over worked at times. OWE wants to have shows every day. I believe that is too much. And these guys will need a break.. also they do so much in some of their training with high spots that it’s very dangerous.”

It’s been no secret that a star performer for the brand, Gao Jingjia, has suffered more than one injury in his short career as a pro wrestler. As one of OWE’s most routinely put-on-display and high caliber performers he has been out of action for more time than anyone would like to see. In light of this, it seems believable that with daily training and daily performing that talent could wind up racking up a slew of injuries. The fact that those from abroad who have been there share in some of these concerns is, indeed, disconcerting.

While I am always going to lean on the side of performers health, there are ways that this kind of daily performance and training schedule can be structured to minimize the chance of injury. In discussion with local Toronto wrestlers on this matter, namely Buck Gunderson who has experience with the Chinese wrestling landscape himself, it was made evident to me that with a roster as large as OWE’s is, it would not be hard to rotate performing duties between blocks of talent and give them off days to allow them to recuperate.

Section Four: OWE’s Response to Questions + Concerns from Western talent

After numerous interviews with former OWE western talent, much time ruminating on what they had to say in response to the posts made by this anonymous wrestler about OWE, and writing this article itself in more than one draft, I compiled for myself a list of questions that I thought needed answers and reached out to OWE’s VP Michael Nee seeking answers. As has been the norm, he was open to the opportunity to share information about, and perspective from, OWE.

For the sake of transparency, I will admit to having very mildly edited the responses he provided in an effort to improve the clarity of some of the statements being made. I strived to do this as little as possible, and make it as evident as possible by using square brackets.

NC: Several of the western wrestlers who worked for OWE in the past have expressed to me that they were not paid what was agreed upon for their work with the company. Others have said that it was difficult to get the money they were owed, having to go through many difficulties to get paid. Can you explain why this would be how many feel?

MN: We never owe any one of them any money.  They all get their pay and sign on paper when [they] get the money. OWE is a company in China and has its own financial department. We pay all employees on the 10th of every month. Some people might have problems (let’s say from FSW) since they don’t understand the China payment date and they insisted about they should get paid every 30 days, like I arrive on 25, and leave on 25 and I want my whole month salary when the date I leave… but in China we don’t do this way, we pay you on the next 10th for what you are [owed for] your working days from last month, but eventually they all get their payment, that is something for sure.

And there might be once it is better for them to apply local bank debit card, something might be not go that smooth, but again, none of them got no pay before they go home, it is 100% for sure.

NC: Are there any pay disputes you are personally aware of?        

MN: OWE is not a American company, it is in China, sometimes misunderstanding or process might be issued, but all solved. If they all got the money, where is the dispute?

NC: You’ve previously expressed to me that one of OWE’s primary goals in the near future is to gain international recognition and build a global fan base while you slowly build the domestic Chinese market for professional wrestling. Why is it then that all of the western talent I have spoken with say that OWE’s writers and decision makers ignored all of their advice and insight into the business of professional wrestling?

MN: You do know CIMA was the one who helped up to build the whole training system from zero to now, and you do know [that the] Japan[ese] wrestling method and training system is totally different from US or any other places. I was trying to combine both cultures together by communication,  if there were conflicts at the time, and we have to respect CIMA more since he is our general coach.

About OWE writers, I have to tell you the truth , they don’t understand wrestling, but they understand Chinese market, well, even [if] there is no market.  And most important thing that is we are on YouKu and Chin[ese] local TV, please remember that “we are in China,” we have to obey to Chin[ese] rules, and once if we ever made any mistake, OWE will be closed by the government. And of course we were trying to respect every opinions. For the decision maker, to protect OWE not be closed by China’s government is the first priority.  And I have to tell you even we do this way, we still find no market in China so far, and none of any wrestling business can be in China if they all think the western way. Anyway , I have to tell you this is the fact that was happening, some of them might not be 100% happy, but I always explained and meeting with them. I cannot satisfy all of them. But since we offer them the best we can , please also respect us instead of criticizing.

NC: I was told that all of the training led by American talent while they were in China, and drawing a salary from OWE, was cancelled a long time ago? Why did that happen?

MN : From 2017 to most of the 2018, besides CIMA, we had 2 American coaches and we paid pretty high salary to them. Why cancelled ? – too expensive , and that is the only reason. and we told them in advance.

NC: What is OWE’s training like now that it seems that the #Stronghearts wrestlers will not be leading instruction? If it’s just senior OWE roster members leading training, is there a set system or schedule?

MN: After almost 3 years training, OWE’s senior roster team [is] pretty strong, and by the way, CIMA and his team now represent OWE to explore [the] Japan[ese] market. Our Chinese OWE [roster are] now in Cambodia to make living. To find a way to let OWE make living is the first priority. We can’t just spend all away and don’t find the way to make some.

NC: People have raised concerns over the contracts that OWE’s Chinese talent are under,. Specifically, that they are restrictive and that unless the wrestlers pay fees they cannot leave OWE and are, in essence, stuck in Cambodia against their will. We have long known that the roster are under long term contracts, but if they wanted to leave would there be any contractual mechanism in place to prevent their leaving?

MN: 1, OWE Cambodia center has not opened, there is not job now, there is no matches now, how to get overwork??

2, OWE talents, unlike other  independent wrestlers in other countries, they were chosen and contract signed from the very beginning back to 2017. OWE provide everything, OWE spent over millions and millions of money to make them to what they are today. OWE has long term contract with them like any other TV talents or singers for show business. It is much too unfair to say this way. If any people don’t understand about whole story, they cannot criticize OWE like this…. [after I asked for elaboration and clarification, this comment would be elaborated upon, adding the following]

Back to 2017 while OWE selected the talents from martial art schools, all contract deal were signed legally and their parents also involved too. All contracts are protected by law , too many items to support both parties and of course there are some penalties for breaking contract , you cannot just ask me for one single item.

Let me put this way, any company or organization If they have contract from employer and employees, if one party break the contract, it’s protected by the regional laws. And all OWE contract[s are] based on legal laws in China. And of course the contract deal like this should be international common sense. Anyone who break the contract by individual issues or reasons, should they take their own responsibility? It’s not the issue of money, it’s the issue of the sense of law. OWE now have many talents and staffs and the company still running day by day, that proves OWE is not the company that rumors are talking about

3, About Cambodia,  now this might be a chance to make OWE continue the business. OWE signed contract with them from 2017 and now OWE is trying to find a way out, should they support OWE?… [after I asked for elaboration and clarification, this comment would be elaborated upon, adding the following]

We all realize that It’s [going to] take much more time for China[‘s] Market to accept wrestling. OWE we take the responsibility for all crews and the expectation from investors, we now are finding more efficient way out for developing [the brand]. For all the contracted talents after mutually communication and opinions discussion, all talents and staffs want OWE [to] make better [financial success], and support OWE‘s direction. That’s w[h]y all talents are so excited about our South Asia training + show center open on 11/9.

4 , Have you ever came to Cambodia ? If not , you should come . We provide much better place to stay  and everything, and most of all, we provide them the opportunity to make money.  That is why now they all really exciting about this new place, I have no idea who says hell of here, and this is a rumour too unfair to us .

5, We just announce the new salary structure, they will make much more than before, you know why?  Because we can make money here to pay them more.

NC: With these long contracts, how is OWE helping the Chinese roster prepare for their future post-wrestling? Is there an insurance or liability taken out for each student in case they have a severe injury that could endanger their life after wrestling? 

MN: Once again  we provide everything, includ[ing] insurance, and again, the long contract is there total contract package includes show business, they are the key for OWE.

And I have to say something, among those western wrestlers, I don’t see anyone give them any insurance and liability.

NC: Concerns have been raised about the Chinese roster being pushed too hard, training for far too many hours per day and, now, being expected to perform nightly in Cambodia on top of their training. People are worried that this schedule will lead to injuries. Does OWE have a plan in place to make certain its performers have enough rest to stay healthy amidst this rigorous schedule? If so, how will it function?

MN: 1) The daily show will be start[ing] soon, and none of them will be over working,  and till I officially open day, now they rest and gym and train and [get] ready to perform.

2) This is a tourist place, we will not ask them to do something too dangerous, we are much more afraid of they got injured than anybody, however, we invested too much money [than] people can ever imag[ine] to those talents. If you were me, you would just don’t care of them or [would you]try to protect them[?]

3, Now we plan to have each one of them do shows every 2 days, and more shows and less hard core wrestling, as long as the tourist like us , and they are not hard core wrestling fans. we will treat this as training match and also make some money.

NC: Injuries in wrestling are a very real possibility. What kind of plans are in place to provide medical care for wrestlers who are injured?

MN : Insurance.

[At the end of our exchange, outside of the scope of a specific question, Michael Nee would add the following comment:]

MN: At last, OWE is not easy, we got money from investors and the goal is to make money and famous. Now OWE has a little name, and now it’s time to make money, and it is the most important things.  OWE still there, these young talents can make living and maybe be more famous in the future. OWE not there, there will be no any opportunity for in China for wrestling. OWE is the only one who still go for this road. We need support, not rumours.

My Final Thoughts

While one former OWE western employee told me the comments made are “100% accurate! These are [things] I wanted to say publicly, but I stayed tight lipped,” as I’ve laid out above, opinions and experiences are far more nuanced and varied than the picture painted by one man who has not actually worked for the company. Indeed, he stated in his own post that “they offered [him] a job once,” but that he never accepted it.

Remy Marcel told me that “[his] take is mismanagement will be the downfall of the company [if it] doesn’t bounce back.” Many of the people who worked there still hope for the brand to do well, even when factoring in the perceived negatives that they experienced. Everyone who responded to me had positive things to say alongside the concerns they raised. I still want to see the company succeed, and see its promising young Chinese roster become international stars. Without OWE being there to fund and train them, that seems a highly improbable outcome. Indeed, this sentiment is echoed by Remy Marcel as well, who said “[the] reason I stay[ed] for as long was [because of] my love for the Chinese students as they will always be the heart and soul of that company.”

For me, this anonymous post situation speaks to the overwhelming pervasiveness of negativity getting more traction online than positivity, as OWE have continued to churn out content online that rarely gets talked about while numerous people flocked to me asking about this titillating new set of rumours. This element of online behaviour, in this instance, was married to the cultural divide between Western sensibilities and Chinese practices and, well, the news has been filled with those kinds of conflicts lately hasn’t it?

We’re all well aware of how different the measuring stick is for wages and work hours, for what kind of ideas are acceptable or not, between the global west and China. Sensationalizing it from an outsiders perspective seems folly. It is doubtless that, at this particular time, from a strictly western perspective, the hours worked and wages earned may not seem satisfactory. But has anyone seen the figures in comparison to other Chinese labour markets these kids could have ended up in? Everything must be viewed in context. What we may see as being overworked can also be seen as the kids having nothing to worry about other than training, as no day jobs wait on the sidelines for weekend warriors in OWE.

It is clear to me that OWE aims to make these kids in to stars. As a company with less than three full years under its belt, there have been some bumps in the road, some issues with finding direction, focus, and financial success. But if they can right their ship, realistically the sky is the limit. Michael Nee seems absolutely confident that the company’s new venture in Cambodia is that corrective action needed to right their ship and set it back on course to global wrestling phenomenon, now with added Southeast Asian flair. The online fandom have torn apart the idea of Cambodia being a viable financial windfall for the company. Me? I’m going to say this: OWE have surprised me with their big moves in the past, and I hope they continue to do so for many years to come.

 

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