Originally published on Fanbyte on June 1, 2021

Featured image by Jon Washer

It’s another day on the road for Wheeler YUTA.

On the day of our interview, he’s seated in his car the morning before another match.

“Had a match last night, another one tonight,” YUTA tells me. “Tonight, I’m wrestling Owen Knight at PWX in Rock Hill, South Carolina.”

Another busy set of dates just one week after winning the IWTV Independent Wrestling Championship in the biggest match of his career.

At only 24-years-old, Wheeler YUTA has already spent years building his name in independent promotions across the country. Stints in major independent companies like Beyond Wrestling, CZW, and CHIKARA, have given him a reputation as one of the most promising young technical wrestlers in America today. It’s a reputation that’s landed him bookings with MLW, ROH, and NJPW Strong.

Now he stands as the IWTV Independent Wrestling Champion, a title that embodies the grind that every indie wrestler faces in their career. It’s a path that YUTA knows well, one that started long before he ever set foot in a wrestling ring.

The Art of Wrestling

It started with Colt Cabana.

“When I was in middle school, I had a Facebook page and I found the NWA on Facebook. I liked the page thinking it was a historical wrestling page or something like that. I didn’t even know the NWA was around still.”

Instead of old Harley Race and Ric Flair matches, a young Wheeler YUTA had stumbled upon the modern remnants of the NWA. Through the Facebook page, he discovered the Championship Wrestling from Hollywood program at the height of the Colt Cabana vs. Adam Pearce rivalry.

“I remember Cabana was out because he had just taken the piledriver off the ring through a table.”

YUTA soon became an avid listener of Cabana’s The Art of Wrestling podcast. Each episode introduced him to a new name from the world of independent wrestling. Through the podcast and the infinite reach of the internet, a whole new side of professional wrestling was opened to YUTA. The highly acclaimed classics from 2000s ROH, the monthly supercards of early 2010s PWG, the bright characters and lucha-influenced wrestling of CHIKARA, all stood in stark contrast to weekly episodes of Raw and Smackdown.

What YUTA was witnessing at the time was the rise of a style and ethos of professional wrestling that would come to define the industry. The tireless work of wrestlers like Bryan Danielson, Claudio Castagnoli, and The Young Bucks became the foundation of the predominant style of professional wrestling in North America. The style of what YUTA terms “the modern wrestling match”—a combination of styles from North America, Mexico, and Japan—was perfected through the sheer force of will and talent of a generation of legendary workers who went on to reach the highest levels of the industry.

“It was definitely a group of guys that had a singular focus, a mindset of ‘We want to prove that we are the best pro wrestling out there in the world.’”

By the time Wheeler YUTA became a professional wrestler, the independent scene had changed. With the internet making content more accessible than ever, the entire landscape of the independents—and the larger wrestling industry as a whole—had shifted.

These days it’s a simple thing to access independent wrestling through streaming services like FiteTV or IWTV. At the same time, the barrier between wrestlers and fans continues to dissolve with the rise of social media.
For independent wrestlers today, things move faster than ever before.

“I think the added visibility of the internet makes it both good and bad. Because on the one hand, you have such a better chance of being seen, being noticed, getting in front of the right eyes. Someone sees a clip of you wrestling in front of five people somewhere and there’s no way that that’s getting noticed in the early 2000s. But it can get noticed here because someone can film it, put it online, and everyone can see it.”

With social media becoming one of the most important tools for an independent pro wrestler to market themselves and further their careers, the type of content that fans gravitate to has changed as well.

“Now you see a lot of different character wrestling. You see a lot of different short online vignettes. Micro-content is very important,” says YUTA. “It’s a very different way that you get noticed. It sort of rewards the short form.”

Where once independent wrestlers depended on the slow turnover of VHS tapes and DVDs released months after a live show, now a single GIF or piece of fancam footage could go viral in an instant. It has provided opportunities to a wide variety of performers to reach a diverse pool of fans early in their careers.

“Right now, there’s a lot of positivity. Independent wrestling seems to be a very positive place. No matter who you are, there’s a place, there’s a way for someone to help you find your way.”

The speed with which wrestlers can garner hype in their careers has not gone unnoticed by the biggest players in the industry. With the likes of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan opening the floodgates to independent talents reaching the mainstream, the rate at which independent wrestlers get signed to long-term contracts with the WWE or AEW has rapidly increased.

“You have one blow away performance and then you’re gone.”

This year alone, major names on the independents such as Anthony Henry, Christian Casanova, Blake Christian, and Alex Zayne have all been snapped up by the WWE. Any veteran who’s spent long enough building their name gets snapped up. Most hot young prospects don’t stay unsigned for too long either. What’s left is an independent wrestling landscape lacking in veterans to lend a guiding hand to the new crop of rising talent.
In this regard, YUTA’s been lucky to have shared locker rooms with so many legends at the tail end of their runs for the independents. Whether it’s his trainer Drew Gulak, former tag team partner “Hot Sauce” Tracy Williams, Orange Cassidy, or Eddie Kingston, YUTA has had the privilege of learning from some of the very best the indies ever had to offer.

“There’s just fewer veterans in [independent] wrestling these days,” says YUTA. “Seeking them out to get their knowledge, to talk to them is always very important.”

For YUTA, dealing with the reduced veteran presence on the independents just means taking the initiative to learn and improve on his own. Whether that means remaining in contact with mentors like Gulak or simply devoting himself to studying footage from the past, YUTA points out that these days information is never too far from those who need it.

“Anything in the history of anything is on the internet. You can find every match ever pretty much so there’s no excuse not to then soak in that knowledge through other means.”

Part of the beauty of independent wrestling for Wheeler YUTA is having the chance to explore one’s own boundaries as a performer without limits. A career in indie wrestling is a continuous process of self-discovery and self-improvement.

“Being an independent wrestler to me means I’m on a journey,” he says. “I like being able to control my own schedule, go to all the places that I want to go, do the things that I want to do. Just having the freedom to do anything that I want is really what draws me to independent wrestling. Having all those things allows me to become the best wrestler I can be.”

The Independent Wrestling Championship

The first time Wheeler YUTA challenged for the IWTV Independent Wrestling Championship, the man holding the belt was tag team partner and mentor “Hot Sauce” Tracy Williams. The title match was a featured attraction on Beyond Wrestling’s biggest annual event, Americanrana 2018. While presenting YUTA with a major opportunity on a big stage, the match only served to show the young wrestler that he had a long journey ahead of him still.

“I really enjoy watching it back because I remember thinking how ready I was. How fired up I was outside. Like this is my chance to really prove myself and how not ready I was when I watch it back. I just wasn’t ready for that stage, that opportunity.”

“Things were going okay, it wasn’t a bad match by any means. But the whole time, I’m really just following Tracy’s lead. I’m wrestling his match, I’m not wrestling my match. I was just thinking, ‘Wow, he’s the champion for a reason and I don’t think I’m quite there yet.’”

YUTA would get another shot at the title a year later at Beyond Wrestling’s All Hands on Deck, in a beachside three-way match against DL Hurst and defending champion WARHORSE.

“It was for the IWTV Championship but it didn’t feel like this is the big moment the same way that the first one did. It just felt like a fast paced, frantic environment, and my goal was just if I can get the title, I can get the title. But it wasn’t so much the big landmark the way that the other one was.”

YUTA’s journey to his third shot at the title started at Beyond Wrestling’s Two Weeks Notice in the summer of 2020. On that card, he wrestled a newcomer to Beyond Wrestling: Lee Moriarty, a skilled technician riding a wave of hype from an acclaimed trilogy of matches against Alex Shelley. It was up to YUTA to stand his ground as the much more tenured worker against the hot young upstart entering the promotion. The 10-minute match served as a respectful and competitive showcase of both men’s technical mastery. In the end, YUTA stood victorious after submitting Moriarty with the Yu-Tap.

“I don’t think we even scratched the surface of what we could do.”

Later that year, Wheeler YUTA, wrestling under a mask as Wyldkat, would reach the finals of IWTV’s The Masked Wrestler. The winner of the tournament would receive a shot at the IWTV Independent Wrestling Champion. Unfortunately, YUTA would go on to lose the match to his opponent Genkai. After unmasking as a result of the loss, YUTA unleashed a vicious attack on Genkai. Filming that angle, YUTA realized the growing potential of this budding rivalry.

“Even before it was released I was like, ‘Okay, now we got something. This is going to be good.’”

This past March, Genkai received his title shot against WARHORSE and revealed himself to be Lee Moriarty. Moriarty went on to defeat WARHORSE, ending his 532-day reign as champion.

After turning heel in his final match for Beyond Wrestling’s Greatest Rivals Round Robin, YUTA went on to earn his own title shot at IWTV Family Reunion during WrestleMania weekend. That same night, Moriarty made his first successful defense of the title before being brutally attacked by YUTA dressed in his Wyldkat gear from The Masked Wrestler.

The stage was set for what would be the most ambitious match in the IWTV Independent Wrestling Championship’s history.

Putting On a Classic

A month before the show, YUTA was told that the plan was for the match to go long, more than double the runtime of the longest match in the title’s history to that point. A 50 plus minute clash, the likes of which the championship had yet to see. The match would push YUTA unlike ever before in his career.

Physically, it meant switching up his workout regimen to put a stronger emphasis on endurance and cardiovascular strength. Creatively, it meant studying how the all-time greats approached matches of this length and figuring out a match layout that could keep a crowd captivated for close to an hour.

“This was a lot of trying to see how can I draw from all these influences and how can I mix them in a cohesive, intelligent manner. So making all that fit together was really creatively taxing.”

From the famed series of Flair/Steamboat matches, YUTA noted the extended back and forth nature of their matches that maintained the tension before entering extended periods of control. From the King’s Road classics of the 90s, he took the sense of exhaustion and struggle that falls on the performers in the deep waters of the match. One thing remained the same across every era of wrestling that YUTA studied though. Technical wrestling always laid the foundation.

“Everything was very fundamentally sound. All that little transition stuff and all of the holds really were important. All of those have to really mean something.”

On May 6th, just hours before the bell rang, YUTA and Moriarty began crafting this modern epic. Pulling from their shared history and the decades of wrestling that influenced them both, they laid down the structure for that night’s main event. YUTA describes the process as a “very collaborative” back and forth as the two worked to plot out their fifty plus minute runtime.

“Both of us had sort of a vision in our head of how we wanted to do it,” says YUTA. “Luckily our visions really aligned very well.”

The nerves only hit as YUTA stands behind the curtain about to make his entrance.

“All at once, there was just a big ball of anxiety.”

He steps through the curtain. The crowd bursts into a chorus of boos.

“I just start laughing.”

The bell rings. YUTA and Moriarty engage in a back and forth, struggling for dominance on the mat. Momentum flows from one man to the next as both men dig deep into their bag of tricks to gain an edge over the other. It’s a give and take not just between the two men in the ring but between them and the crowd.

“We had these sort of checkpoints in our head but then we would listen to the crowd and be like, ‘Hey I think we should keep going, I think we should move onto this, I think we should move onto this, I think we should slow down here,’” says YUTA of the performance. “I think it was more so the crowd that dictated how we continued to wrestle.”

It’s not a thing that any wrestler can learn by watching tape. Pure experience and instinct dictates that heat of the moment negotiation between expectation and reality in the ring.

After over 50 minutes of intense action ranging from technical exchanges on the mat, brutal bumps on the apron and the floor, and high risk maneuvers off the top, YUTA is able to lock Moriarty into his signature Yu-tap submission hold. The champion endures, however, refusing to tap out. YUTA converts the hold into a modified Tombstone Piledriver instead.

The referee counts three. A new champion is crowned.

For YUTA, a great responsibility comes with carrying that title. Etched into the side panels of the title, the names of champions past look back at him as he holds the belt for the first time. Among them, current ROH Pure Champion Jonathan Gresham, YUTA’s former tag partner Tracy Williams, Orange Cassidy, and more.
“I don’t want to let them down,” says YUTA. “When I won [the title] I got all these congratulations and this praise and the interviews and stuff. And I know that’s all based on the work that the past champions did.”

The View from the Top

The independent scene that Wheeler YUTA reigns over as champion is entirely different from the one he grew up watching. Despite that, YUTA’s plans for the future reflect his love for independent wrestling’s history. His rivalry with Lee Moriarty—steadily built up over the course of several months before culminating in a match of epic proportions—harkens back to a time when wrestlers could stick around on the indies long enough to have signature rivalries to their names.

“I think that’s what winds up defining you. Those signature moments, those signature rivalries,” says YUTA, speaking on his recent feud with Moriarty. “I think if you don’t have that signature rivalry, it’s harder for me to be like, ‘That’s the match that made you. That’s the match that made me a fan of you.’ And I always enjoyed people for that as opposed to other things that draw people into wrestling.”

YUTA’s hopes for the IWTV Title’s future remain rooted in the legacies that independent wrestlers before him left behind.

“I think of how long Danielson held the [ROH World] title for,” he says. “Just the amount of stellar matches that he put in during that time with a lot of different people was really cool. I think he put in quite a body of work in that time. That’s really what my goal would be.”

Much like Danielson’s run of epic style ROH World Title defenses, YUTA looks forward to hopefully showcasing the same grand approach to wrestling on a more regular basis with the IWTV Title. In the world of micro-content and short form wrestling, YUTA wants to stand out as a flagbearer for the long form.

“I think that a good thing that will differentiate the Independent Wrestling Championship is guys having longer matches,” he says. “Having those matches that maybe people aren’t seeing in America. Those long form 50 something matches.”

With companies like New Japan showcasing 30 plus minute title main events on the regular, YUTA’s optimistic that the diverse range of wrestlers and styles on the American independent scene can distinguish the IWTV Title from other prestigious championships in the world.

Outside of having longer and grander title matches, YUTA also hopes to add prestige to the championship by taking it around the world in the style of travelling champions of the past. His recent bookings with Mexican indie Lucha Memes could see the IWTV Title make its way south of the border some time down the line.

YUTA’s passion fuels his ambition to see the IWTV Title grow in prestige through his reign. Every day as an independent wrestler represents another step on his journey to be the best that he can be. Now, with the IWTV Title in tow, he has the chance to help shape what independent wrestling can be for generations of wrestlers to come.

“My goal is to have people say that, ‘Yeah, Wheeler YUTA did something with this belt. He left the independent scene better than he found it as the champion.’”

Things move faster in indie wrestling than ever before.

A week after our interview, YUTA was one of multiple names reported to be present at a recent WWE tryout. With Beyond Wrestling actively hyping up Lee Moriarty potentially getting an IWTV Title rematch as soon as June 3rd, the rumor mill is already abuzz about the future of the championship.

“You never know until the piece of paper is in front of you,” said YUTA, when I asked him about the likelihood of him signing for a major promotion. “But I will say that I always envisioned having that kind of long legendary independent run. Like that cool independent street cred that [guys like Joe and Bryan] have.”

A WWE tryout is no guarantee of a contract offer. Even a contract offer can’t account for what a pro wrestler chooses to do with their career. One look at The Young Bucks, who spent years indulging WWE tryouts and rejecting contract offers, proves that. Easy as it may be for a fan like myself to root for the challenging path of independent wrestling though, there simply is no accounting for how a wrestler feels when confronted by a lucrative offer in the middle of a pandemic.

There is every chance that YUTA’s hopes for the title become a reality. Just as there’s every chance that he’ll soon be wrestling matches in a WWE ring. Either way, only time will tell what legacy YUTA leaves behind for the IWTV Independent Wrestling Championship.

It will either be a legacy of what was or what could have been.

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