Dallas Hosts Wrestling Cup Thanks to Billy Corgan | Dallas Observer

Billy Corgan (Yes, That One) Brings Wrestling to Dallas

The Pumpkins singer has a new project: making wrestling great again.
Smashing Pumpkins' singer Billy Corgan wants to entertain you through wrestling.
Smashing Pumpkins' singer Billy Corgan wants to entertain you through wrestling. Edward Daniel Simons
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Anyone who’s been even mildly lucid through the past few decades knows Billy Corgan as the frontman of the Smashing Pumpkins — the dress-coat-wearing, nasal-voiced alt-rocker behind undying hits such as “1979” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.”

But for those who haven’t kept up with Corgan-centric headlines (obligatory love-and-hate public displays with Courtney Love, the erratic lineup changes in his band and becoming a voice in poetry and politics) for the past six years, Corgan has taken on a monster project: buying, resurrecting and repackaging the National Wrestling Alliance, the association founded in the 1940s that dominated the world of wrestling before the WWE captivated the collective imagination of American families.

The artist spoke to us via Zoom from his native Chicago a week before the NWA’s Crockett Cup competition makes its Dallas debut.

“Well, I do run the company from the top down, and so every day is a complete make-it-up-as-you-go-along thing,” he says of his daily operations. “We have the reality show coming out on May 14th, and so we're working up promotional activities for that. We're obviously promoting the event in Dallas.”

The Crockett Cup, which will take place Saturday, May 18, at Forney's OC Theatre, offers dozens of NWA wrestlers with scripted feuds and storylines as they engage in showy theatrics while dirty-fighting for the win.

Vampire Diaries

He’s also starring in a CW reality show, Adventures in Carnyland, which debuts Tuesday, May 14. The series, which Corgan executive produces and narrates, has a bordering-on-camp, early 2000s VH1 reality show feel and follows the musician’s efforts to bring the NWA back to its '80s glory while managing life as a rock star, cafe owner and father of two. It also shows the lead-up to his wedding to longtime partner Chloe Mendel.

Despite an ocean of naysayers criticizing his move into wrestling, Corgan asserts that the worlds of the sport and music aren’t dissimilar, as they're both part of the broader world of entertainment. The biggest obstacle he’s had to overcome, he says, “Honestly, it's doubt.”

“Wrestling, much like rock ’n’ roll, it's just kind of a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ business. I've certainly experienced that many times in my musical life where people are like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, you were good before, but now I don't know. I'm not so sure.’ You almost have to win people back, and in many ways, winning them back is twice as hard as winning them the first time because they've already made up their minds."

It wasn’t only outsiders whom Corgan had to convince that rebuilding a wrestling brand was a worthwhile effort.

“Many people in wrestling have very narrow minds,” he says. “I bought the NWA about six years ago, and for about five years, I was continually treated like I was crazy, not only by people in wrestling, but also by people in rock ’n’ roll, because they're like, ‘Why would you even bother with that? You have such a great life in music.’ Once WWE sold for $9 billion to William Morris, that was the end of people thinking I was crazy.”

For him, the rise in popularity of women's basketball thanks to players like Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese is indicative of the fact that the “biggest growth in digital broadcasting is going to be sports.”

“Sports is something, you get that FOMO, you want to go see it live, or you want to be there to watch the game on television like the Super Bowl, right?” he says. “The growth of sports in the digital realm is on an upward trajectory, so professional wrestling falls within that realm of live event sports. So suddenly, I don't seem so crazy to be in the live event sports business as an entertainment product.”

Corgan is fresh off a concert in Chicago, and the band, which reunites him with longtime Pumpkins players James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin, is gearing up to tour with Green Day. Needless to say, Corgan wears more wildly varying hats than a Dr. Seuss character.

“Every day, it's like ‘What wrestlers? Who's flying from where?’ I booked the cards as well,” he says of the upcoming competition. “I'm putting together who's going to fight each other. We're also producing weekly television. I was up at 6 this morning watching a screener of a [wrestling] television show [NWA Powerrr] that's going to be on CW here in a few weeks. So every day is just this constant ball of activity.”

His major responsibilities, Corgan says, include the fact that he funds “everything.”

“Everything's out of pocket,” he says. “There's no other investors. I'm in charge of who we hire along with our head of talent relations. So I mean basically … think of the CEO of a company. I have to make every major decision. And I'm working on a new album, so literally between every available moment in the studio, I'm looking at my phone because somebody has a question. I was literally, just before we got on, I was rewriting copy for some ads that are going to go out.”

Though Corgan is in good company with past rock star reality TV stars from Ozzy Osbourne to Travis Barker, he never imagined joining in that lineage until he met the owner of production company Nacelle, which made Netflix series The Toys That Made Us. The company, which also makes toys, initially met Corgan with the plan to make wrestling toys for the NWA.

“By the end of the meeting he was off the toy idea and he was pitching me on a reality show and I said, ‘I don't want to do a reality show. I never want to do a reality show,’” Corgan says. “But he talked me into it. It took a year. We became friends on the side, and he talked to me and he had a good vision for it. And ultimately convincing fans to watch wrestling is always a difficult thing. It's not for everyone.”

Leveraging Musical Fame

Going against the WWE isn’t easy for Corgan, but he has some unmistakable leverage as one of the most recognizable names in modern music.

“Of course, in the American market, you're dealing with two very large companies in terms of competition,” he says. “WWE obviously is now with the UFC parent company that's, I think, combined they're a $23 billion company. So to compete at some point you look around and say, what can you compete with? Well, in terms of the NWA, my celebrity is part of what we used to compete.”

When he bought the NWA, “it was like three worthless letters,” Corgan says in the series. His plans for those letters are now wildly ambitious. The singer wants to see wrestling return to its status as an American pastime.

“I was born in 1967, so wrestling in terms of how it was voiced in the 1970s was very family-oriented,” he says. “You wanted a kid to enjoy the product, and you wanted Grandma to enjoy the product. Literally, the first time I watched wrestling in my life, I was 4 years old with my 81-year-old great-grandmother who didn't even speak English. So I grew up believing that wrestling was very much a family entertainment, much like going to the circus or a county fair, and that is the root of professional wrestling. Now, not everyone agrees in the 21st first century, but the NWA’s voice is a family product. So my argument would be, who doesn't want to be entertained? I guarantee you, even if you're not a wrestling fan, you come see the NWA in Dallas, you're just going to have a good time.”

Another myth Corgan wants to end is the idea that wrestling is not for women.

“One of the greatest compliments we receive is a lot of times a guy who's totally into wrestling will bring his wife or his partner to a show, and the partner ends up having a better time than the person who brought them,” he says. “They love the way that the women are presented as strong and independent. We try to avoid the sexist tropes that plagued wrestling in the past 50 years. So that's sort of what we're trying to sell. We're trying to sell like, look, you want to go have a unique time out. It's like, why would you go see the circus? It's like you go to see something you can only see at the circus. So wrestling provides that sort of hyperreality, and at the end of the day, it's supposed to be fun.”

For Corgan, the feminist plight in wrestling parallels his experience in the music industry, when bassist D’arcy Wretzky joined the lineup of male players.

“And so this is a little bit personal, but when we started the band in the late '80s, the Pumpkins, people would ask us, ‘Why is there a girl in the band?’” he says. “And we used to shake our heads. What does that even mean? Why wouldn't there be a girl in the band? So we grew up in that age where people were still wrestling with the idea of like, ‘Do girls play rock?’ Let me tell you, the women in wrestling are some of the toughest wrestlers in the world, not just female wrestlers but some of the toughest wrestlers in the world. And we present very, very tough-minded and independent products as far as it goes from the female side.”

Ultimately, the entertainment industry will still favor some cliches, but Corgan wants his wrestling world to reflect reality.

“Of course, we play with those sort of probes at different times because that's part of the entertainment,” he says. “But at the end of the day, if wrestling is a morality play, you want the strongest and best people on both sides of the aisle, whether male, female, or in our case we have Max who's a superstar, who's a non-binary, and wrestles as a non-binary person, wrestles both men and females. We want to present the best foot forward and something that represents American culture very strongly in the 21st century.”

There’s also a pragmatic business focus to his line of thinking.

“Speaking as a promoter, why would you not want to attract 50% of the country to come see your product, whether it's on television or live?” he says. “So presenting women in the best light is the same reason I would present men in the best light. I want men and women to come and enjoy the show, and I want women dragging their husbands just as I want husbands dragging their wives and their girlfriends.”

He brought the Crockett Cup to DFW, Corgan says, because of the history of “very strong NWA ties in Dallas.” He points to the legendary Von Erich wrestling family and says he wanted the event to return to places where the NWA was once prominent. He recently bought at an auction a “Von Erich-era” wrestling belt from the late '70s.

While Corgan loves “the history, and bringing the modern NWA back into those old NWA strongholds,” he’s ready to put in the work to build up the organization.

“We're not delusional. We don't think we can just flip a switch and all the old fans come back out,” he says. “We have to rebuild trust and confidence in what the NWA represents. But I think certainly if you're a fan of the old NWA product, which obviously the Von Erich family certainly represented — and what a great promotion that was back in the day — well, I think those fans would see that the modern NWA is very much in the same lineage.”

Besides the Von Erichs, who are having a bit of a resurgence after being recently depicted by stars Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White in the film The Iron Claw, another bit of wrestling lore of which Corgan is a fan is the story of Mildred Burke, whose belt he has also purchased as a collectible.

“When Mildred Burke became the female champion, I think in 1937 or so, women couldn't wrestle legally in many states in the United States,” he says. “... I love that the modern NWA is part of telling that story and reclaiming Mildred's legacy. And telling that story becomes part of how we identify what we represent in essence, in honoring her sacrifice and how she built the modern wrestling business, that's a way that we sort of both honor that, but also say, this is also what we want to represent. We want to represent opportunity.”

But while he’s steadfastly committed to his new project, Corgan wrestles himself with keeping his vision unclouded.

“I question myself in wrestling every day,” he says. “It's a very difficult business to navigate. For example, when we're there in Dallas for the Crockett Cup, we'll probably have something like 70 wrestlers in the building. Convincing 70 wrestlers, on any given day, that you're going the right way as a company, that you have the vision to take this company to a greater thing. … Of course, I have to navigate my own world, whether it's my band, my wife, my friends who sit there and shake their head and say, ‘Why would you want to go into this den of vipers?’ But I really do love professional wrestling.”

He recently took his son to work at a wrestling show in Chicago. They stayed from 5 to 11 p.m., watching matches and interacting with the wrestlers.

“It's those experiences that are very ephemeral," Corgan says. "I think in many ways it's easier for my son to understand my life in professional wrestling than it is for him to understand my life in music. He comes with me to my musical life and Daddy's playing in front of 10,000 people. It's kind of confusing to him. I mean, he knows that I do music, but he doesn't understand why 10,000 people are there. He goes to a local wrestling show, he gets to meet the wrestlers, he gets to sit there and enjoy the product himself. It's an easier translation for him.”

But Corgan isn’t cramming Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness down his kids’ ears.

“What we try to do as a family is just include our kids in everything,” he says, before outlining his family’s various endeavors. His wife is in the fashion business and has a clothing brand, House of Gilles, with her designer father, Gilles Mendel. The couple also run a vegan tea house called Madam Zuzu’s in northern Chicago.

“Our message to our kids is, Mommy and Daddy are living their dreams,” Corgan says. “It's very hard. It's a lot of work, it's a lot of sacrifice. But as long as we hang together as a family, we'll have a good time. And so we feel that's a really good way to sort of send the message that everything comes with a sacrifice. But if you love what you do, it's not as much of a sacrifice, as my father would say, digging a ditch. And that's what I was trying to do. ... Working in wrestling somehow was some kind of a weird dream. I didn't know when I was watching wrestling at 4 years old, I'd be working in the same business that I was watching on television, but here I am.”

Corgan has conquered, or at the very least dipped into, many dream projects. Keeping with modern times, he is soon to be hosting a podcast on Bill Maher’s new network.

“I can't talk about the show yet, but being kind of a bigger sort of voice in that world is kind of the next hill to conquer,” he says.

At a time when people are sensitive to conflict, Corgan doesn’t find it difficult to promote a fighting sport.

“We're never far away from what people are really going through,” he says. “The economy isn't great. Obviously, it's a political season and there's an intense politics going on right now in terms of world politics, both with Ukraine and what's going on in Israel and Gaza. So I guess the simple answer is just we're escapist fare. When I go on stage to sing a song and something is going on in the world and my heart is heavy from what's going on in the world, sometimes it's hard to go on stage. But then you realize that's kind of your job. Your job is to let people have that two hours of feeling something more intensely or getting away from it.

“And that's what wrestling is really good at. Like I said, it's supposed to just be a lot of fun. It's make-believe, and that's the best part of it. But we're not unaware of what's going on in the world. It’s not an antidote. It's just a temporary potion to kind of make it feel a little better for a little while.”

After decades of touring with the Pumpkins, Corgan’s relationship with his band and fans changed as the group has aged gracefully from an innovative force in alt-rock to becoming a legacy band.

'But You Cannot Destroy the Heart'

“Well, you go through really weird times. You start by having this incredible success in the early part of your musical life and then at some point it sort of inverts,” he says. “Your fans, they start having a life, they start having children, they start getting that second job or whatever, and you're not the center of their focus. And you go through this period of like, am I going the wrong way? Am I supposed to keep doing what I'm doing? And if you can get past that, in our case, put the band back together after so many years and go out, I think we've had about five successful years now in a row since James [Iha] came back.”

The musician seems incredibly grateful that his music is finding new audiences among younger generations.

“Then you start seeing this incredible other thing happen where people start bringing their kids to the shows where I meet teenagers who found us on Spotify, and they don't know anything about the glory days of the ‘90s,” he says. “All they know is they like your new song that they heard on the radio. So you get into this multi-generational thing, and that becomes really pleasurable because you start to realize that your music has survived, and it means something to people past, let's say, one generation.”

After the many ups and downs, exits, returns, arrests and public sparring among the band members, Corgan says this is a harmonious time for the group.

“Right now, it's probably the best time that the band's ever had in terms of just feeling good inside,” he says. “We're having a lot of fun. I think we're playing some 50 shows in the next five months. We're touring with Green Day — big stadium tour, which is quite an honor. We're about to do a full tour of Europe for the first time, I think in five years. So just crazy busy, just crazy, crazy, crazy. And right now I'm trying to finish a new record before I go on tour, so I'm literally coming up to talk to you and I go right back down to work.”

Something’s gotta give, though, as they say. For Corgan, it's not having the time to relax.

“I'm actually really lazy, which is belied by my lifestyle, which is not lazy,” he says. “But my greatest pleasure in life is just to hang out with my kids and my wife and read a good book. So I was up about 6 this morning reading a new book by Werner Herzog, a great film director.”

Though he may struggle to find time to enjoy the literature of New German Cinema pioneers, Corgan is grateful for the opportunities he’s afforded.

“I mean, that's the crazy thing is I have a really beautiful life,” he says. “I thank my wife all the time. She's given me the life I never thought I would have. I mean, I certainly had a lot of success in life, and I've gotten a lot of crazy things, professional wrestling being one of them. But just having great family time is probably the greatest joy in life. And all I can do at times when I'm away from my family is just to point to the fact that I am living my dream out.”

His own experiences with a heroin-addicted musician father had a deep influence on his parenting style, as he says.

“When I had my first kid, or at least my wife had our first kid eight years ago, I realized pretty quickly that I didn't want my son growing up with a father who was looking backwards in the mirror at his life,” Corgan says. “ I dealt with that a lot with my own father who was a musician. So when I was growing up, I kept hearing about what should have happened, what didn't happen, and hearing his bitterness about the way his life had turned out. So that's been a great source of inspiration to me to keep going, to keep striving so that when my son looks at me, even if I'm not there every moment that he would want me to be, and my daughter as well, [they] can at least be proud of me that I'm doing something that I believe in.”

The Crockett Cup takes place at 7 p.m., May 18, at OC Theatre, 680 Innovation Blvd., Forney. Tickets are still available.
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