“They’ve never really seen anything like us,” said Paul Levesque, W.W.E.’s executive in charge of talent and live events, who is also a partly retired wrestler better known as Triple H. “The athleticism is very real. The story lines and the theater part of it is where they had a hard time with the blurred line of that.”
To friends unfamiliar with wrestling, “I find that the shortest way to tell them is to say it’s an American version — a global version — of the kung fu novel,” said Jay Li, a longtime executive at multinational companies in China who in April joined W.W.E. as its general manager for greater China. “They get it immediately, because they immediately have a cultural connection and a mental image of what this is about.”
While a lot of attention has been placed in recent years on the expansion into Hollywood of Chinese companies like Dalian Wanda, most foreign entertainment firms struggle to make comparable inroads in China. For some, like Disney, penetrating China has meant giving the Communist Party greater say over its business on the mainland.
Sports — or something that looks like a sport — might be different. Sports enjoys thematic support from the government, which is big on hosting international events like the Olympics and promoting sports like soccer. China’s push to get soccer into schools and make the country a power in the sport has led companies to pay big sums for broadcast rights.
“Sports has historically been underdeveloped in China and online, and a lot of players are looking for ways to monetize that,” said Vivek Couto, a founder and a director at Media Partners Asia, an industry research consultant.
Professional wrestling could use the eyeballs. Like other media companies, W.W.E. is grappling with the new world of cord-cutting, in which viewers drop their cable subscriptions and order shows, à la carte, via the internet.
International viewers offer one potential growth area. They make up only about a quarter of the paid subscribers on W.W.E.’s digital subscription service, which is one of the biggest contributors to the company’s bottom line.
As China shows, international growth isn’t always easy. In October, W.W.E. told investors it was still waiting to offer subscriptions directly to Chinese viewers.
For now it works with a Chinese video company service called PPTV, which streams the company’s weekly flagship shows, called “SmackDown” and “RAW,” with real-time Mandarin commentary. (Suplex, in case you were wondering, translates as deshi beishuai, or “German-style back throw.”) PPTV subscriptions start at less than $3 per month, roughly a third of what W.W.E.’s own subscription service costs outside China, and include movies and other shows.
Much rides on Mr. Wang, W.W.E.’s first mainland wrestler. The company’s social media team works to make him a star — his verified account on the Weibo social media service recently featured videos of him training at W.W.E.’s huge facility in Orlando, Fla. Seven other mainlanders, six men and one woman, will relocate to Orlando in January.
Mr. Wang, a 22-year-old native of eastern Anhui Province, was an athlete after middle school, a member of the provincial rowing team. He later moved to Shanghai and took up sparring, and caught the attention of representatives from Inoki Genome Federation, a big Japanese wrestling and mixed martial arts promotion.
Mr. Wang spent three years in Japan before he was noticed by W.W.E. He signed a three-year development deal with the American company and started training in Orlando over the summer in preparation for his China debut.
When the moment finally arrived in Shanghai in September, Mr. Wang entered the arena to modern Chinese music. He gave the crowd a traditional Chinese, kung fu-style greeting, pressing his right fist into his left palm.
His opponent, a wrestler named Bo Dallas, was booed by the Shanghai crowd before Mr. Wang tossed him to the mat, pinning him in a three-count on the second try.
Mr. Wang doesn’t yet have a defined act or character, or even a flashy name. One of the oldest such personas in W.W.E.-style wrestling is the foreign heel, or bad guy; those include personas like Mr. Fuji, a Japanese villain played by Harry Fujiwara.
In an interview, Mr. Wang said he wasn’t a big believer in appealing to such nationalistic tropes.
“People shouldn’t see you for your nationality or ethnic group,” he said. “It’s less about that and more about what you can do, personally, as a warrior and a figure in the ring.”