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Meet the Pro-Wrestling Pair That’s Building a Small-Business Empire

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October 19, 2020 11 min read

Investors, take note: Current and former pro wrestlers are making moves across media and commerce. No, not just The Rock (though he’s certainly doing fine for himself). Whether it’s Stone Cold Steve Austin’s successful segue into craft brewing and reality TV, Cody Rhodes and Frankie Kazarian’s boutique line of cigars or Brie and Nikki Bella’s femme-centric clothing line, there is money to be made buoying the branding efforts of sports entertainers. 

That’s what veteran grapplers Karl Anderson (real name: Chad Allegra) and Doc Gallows (real name: Drew Hankinson) are banking on. After they were released by industry powerhouse WWE amid Covid-related cuts earlier this year, they made two immediate calculations: Sign with a competing company that has their backs, and create a small empire of media and merchandising leveraging their personalities (think blue-collar prankster) and decades-long rapport with fans across the world. 

Image credit: Impact Wrestling

In the five months since parting ways with WWE, the duo made waves by joining the ranks of rival Impact Wrestling (which airs its namesake, flagship show on AXS TV every Tuesday at 8 p.m.), in addition to re-launching their popular Talk ‘N’Shop podcast with co-host (and fellow wrestler) Rocky Romero. They aired a successful, satirical PPV event called Talk ‘N Shop A Mania (a sequel is already confirned for November 13). They collaborated on Talk ‘N Shop beer with Kentucky-based craft brewer Jarfly and a Talk ‘N Shop bourbon with Tennessee-based Leatherwood Distillery and a line of red and white wines with Wine Savage. And finally, they’re cooking up an animated series and a variety special titled Talk ‘N Shop: Full Keg that’s airing on AXS this Tuesday at 10 p.m. 

Related: All Elite Wrestling’s Brandi Rhodes Flexes Her Entrepreneurial Muscle

So, how did this duo of career combatants make the quick switch to becoming serial entrepreneurs? We caught up with them over a recent Zoom chat  — Anderson (we’ll stick with their onscreen surnames for the duration) from his home studio in Tampa and Gallows from his residence outside Atlanta — to get answers, along with a bit of insight into what any aspiring self-made maven can learn from their refusal to say, “I quit.” 

If there’s one thing wrestlers understand, it’s reinvention. Was this more broadly applicable to branching out in business?

Anderson: I don’t know how much of it was reinvention or how much of it was becoming more true to our personal selves.

Gallows: The day of that [WWE] release, I was sitting in my sauna, and I hung up the phone and I went, “Well, being bitter is what everybody expects, and I don’t feel bitterness in my heart.” You have to find the humor, and you have to express it through entertainment and through art. And that’s where Talk ‘N Shop A Mania came from, because we lost this amazing multimillion-dollar deal, so why not turn it into something that’s positive for our brand? Why not make it brand-building and generate some revenue for ourselves and our company? And I’m damn proud that we were able to do that.

Anderson: That call was probably the greatest call I ever got in my life, because [we were] able to reinvent and create Talk ‘N Shop A Mania and and go to Impact. And we’ve got Talk ‘N Shop: Full Keg about to come out, and that’s something that we’d been pitching to the WWE network since we started there, and they just would go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Now the businessman stuff is really coming out because we got Talk ‘N Shop LLC, and we’re getting big checks coming in for this and that, and we’ve got to figure out the taxes from this stuff. That’s all some real shit that we’ve got to learn, but the business side of these last six months has been a lot of fun.

There’s something to be said for not resting on one’s laurels, but do you worry about pacing yourself given the learning curve?

Gallows: I don’t believe you pace yourself. I believe you run at it head-on. I’ve watched my dad. When I was born, he was a hot-tar roofer making $8 an hour, and he’s the most self-made man I’ve ever seen. Now he owns five businesses. And that’s what they always say: “I don’t know how we got here, but we’ll figure out how to get out of it” when something shows up that you don’t understand. We like to have a drink, but now we’re in the alcohol business, and we’re figuring all this out. We’re figuring out liquor laws and, you know, can we ship this stuff here? And how does this work? We knew nothing about any of this. We just went, “Well, we want to have a whiskey, and we have a cool brand, and we know we’re great.” So there’s a lot of flying by the seat of your pants. It’s not always gonna be perfect, but you can’t take no for an answer. No’s just another question.

What made Impact the obvious choice for your “day job,” as it were?

Gallows: They put together a beautiful deal for us. To sit there as performers on a show with no script when we go to the ring, and then watch a commercial for a pay-per-view that we thought up out of the blue and shot in my backyard, and they’re running television commercials for us for that — that’s a team I’ll hitch my wagon to all day.

To your point, they’ve given you wide latitude to work on outside projects. How do you know when you have that kind of negotiating leverage?

Gallows: I don’t think it was a leverage play. It was pretty open-ended on both sides because I think they saw that we’re go-getters. We want to be Impact stars Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson doing all this stuff. Let’s co-brand, let’s see how big and badass we can get Impact. It’s an exciting time for us wrestling-wise, but it’s such an exciting time business-wise as well.

Anderson: We always were confident in our abilities over in WWE, and that was with the rug constantly being fucking pulled out. We knew that we could do what we’re doing now, and Impact put trust in us. We like when people put trust in us, cause we know that we can deliver.

Wrestling also takes a hell of a cumulative toll on your body. Is a lot of this brand-building with an eye toward retiring from the ring?

Gallows: We are not counting down the days until then. We want to be out there when we’re 50 if we can be. There’s a chance our bodies don’t hold up, so we want this brand that we’re creating now to be the thing that carries us into the next thing. I have a ton of respect for guys who had to leave the business before there was social media. With all the platforms we have today, if you can really get out there and express yourself, you can build a brand. Without any internet or anything like that, a guy would get let go or he’d get hurt and drift out of the business, and there was no way to see who he was or what he was doing or for them to build a brand. These poor guys, there was no more wrestling money coming in. So you go work in a car lot or do whatever you have to do to get by, to feed your family. But I think we have a real opportunity in this generation, and for all the guys younger than us, to build your brand while you’re hot, and we’re going to keep pushing, keep grinding. 

Anderson: We’re more than wrestlers. If you walk into the Impact locker room, you’d think that we just were there to hang out with the boys and try to make them laugh. We like to entertain. We want to have a radio show, like Howard Stern-esque. That’s the ultimate goal. You can do that until you’re 80, right? Fuck it.

People point to The Rock or John Cena as a model for crossing over from wrestling, but in your case I think of Steve Austin, who specifically legitimized himself in the beverage space and has a robust podcast presence.

Gallows: We had a great time when we did his podcast when we were in WWE, but it would be a much different conversation now. I bet he went through what we’re going through. We’re on the road less than we’ve ever been on the road in our 18 years, but my day is full of Zoom calls and meetings with everybody from the government to liquor distributors to cartoon creators to merchandise creators, to movie producers — whatever we can come up with to push this brand further. We went from bumping and feeding four days a week to being businessmen. I just get to do it from my own house and I don’t have to wear a tie, but I feel like I’ve got the schedule of my dad now. [Laughs.]  

Anderson: I’m like a stay-at-home dad that makes pretty fucking good money.

Related: How a Mid-Size Wrestling Company Made Major Adjustments in the Empty-Arena Era

Is there nuance to the business side of wrestling that the layperson may not appreciate?
Anderson: When we recorded Talk ‘N Shop A Mania 2, you’ve gotta book all these flights, you’ve gotta produce every single segment. Gallows knows about all this.

Gallows: Well, it’s negotiation. [We’re] on the other side of the negotiation, because now you play the role of the promoter. It’s how do we market this? It’s OK, this budget is growing, so how do we offset that with a [PPV] buy rate? Part of my Impact deal was I have an independent promotion here in Georgia, and we put shows on [digital-subscription service] Impact Plus. And we’ve been running these socially distance shows around here through the pandemic. We follow CDC guidelines, and there’s temperature checks and the questionnaire, so you have to manage all that, but then you have a full talent budget. There a lot of things that are different on the level of pretty much every other company in wrestling other than WWE, because WWE’s not a live-event company anymore. They’re a media company. But anybody who’s not reached that level, the live-event portion is a lot of it. If I don’t have a gate here, then I’m probably not gonna run the show. I love our sponsors and they help out, but that’s the other end of it. So it’s managing a budget more than anything and figuring out how to market that with what you have to yield the biggest return. It’s not like you can go to wrestling-promoter college, so it’s been a lot of fun figuring that stuff out.

You mentioned before that nothing’s perfect. Are you prepared for the fact that one or more of your ideas may not sustain?

Gallows: It’s inevitable that’s going to happen. All you do is you adapt and move on and find the next thing. I think the good thing about us is we have so many irons in the fire. If something falls off, the rest of it’s gonna pick it right back up. 

Anderson: I’m not gonna lie: I was kind of ready to rest on my laurels and just collect that massive check from WWE. And so when we finally did leave it gave me a nice slap in the face and got me ready to jump back into this business world. 

Gallows: There’s a lot to what we’ve got going on, and hopefully those of you who aren’t wrestling fans will know of us sooner rather than later.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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