Fingerprints All Over Wrestling: How Alex Shelley Influenced a Generation

“You want to talk about how you’re King Switch? I’m the king of a generation, so when you go back to New Japan Pro Wrestling and you tangle with The Rainmaker, you remember that my fingerprints are on him. He wouldn’t have become what he did unless it was for me. When you go to AEW, the company that the Young Bucks started, you remember that my fingerprints are on them too. I shaped this industry and my fingerprints are on you. You want to talk about how everything in pro wrestling happens because of you? Little brother, you happen because of me.”

Alex Shelley to Jay White. IMPACT, March 11 2022

Often the most important people in an industry aren’t the ones at the front and centre. If you were to ask “who are the most influential wrestlers of the past twenty years”, your mind would likely go to the big names that main evented WrestleMania and Wrestle Kingdoms; the John Cenas and Hiroshi Tanahashis of the industry.

They certainly belong. However, when you dive a little deeper and look beyond the glitz and glamour to the very fundamentals of modern pro wrestling, there’s a name that should be held in reverence.

Alex Shelley might not be the biggest name in wrestling but, as he put it on IMPACT when talking to Jay White, his fingerprints are all over this industry. Professional wrestling in 2022 would not look as it does if it were not for his wizardry within the ropes. His influence and style can be seen from the biggest global companies to the smallest independents; in the tense one-on-one chain wrestling, in the high-paced sprints, in moments of true comedic brilliance and the beautiful madness of tag team wrestling.

Shelley might not have the biggest list of championship accolades, but there are few wrestlers who have influenced the scene quite like him. Long after he retires, there will be people emulating Shelley, whether they’re aware of it or not.

Alex Shelley’s legacy is one of an innovator, as both a singles wrestler and a tag team performer. A twenty year veteran, he first really began to rise to prominence as one of the many young talents at the forefront of the TNA X-Division during its heyday of the mid 00s. The division was an evolution of the WCW Cruiserweights that revolutionised American wrestling a decade prior, and Shelley was there showing fans what wrestling could be if let off its chains.

Alex Shelley entering the ring at Sacrifice 2022. Credit: IMPACT

Like the Cruiserweights that came before them, at first glance it would be easy to only focus on the phenomenal displays of athleticism and death-defying stunts pioneered by legends like AJ Styles. But, the division was more than just that, and Shelley was the perfect example of it. Sure, Alex could get hangtime (and did), but he was more focused on putting on a technical showcase, serving as a counterpoint to the flashier opponents he went against.

He didn’t get overshadowed by said opponents either. In an interview with Sean Ross Sapp, Lee Moriarty put it simply and effectively – Alex Shelley made technical wrestling ‘cool’. Under Shelley’s personal guidance, he has also become more of a thinking man’s wrestler, continuing the trend of cool technical wrestling. Moriarty is just one of many who grew up watching the X-Division and saw something special in how Shelley operated. Well before people were watching in awe as Zack Sabre Jr. wrapped up New Japan’s best in submission chains with fancy names, Shelley was showcasing it in America. ‘The Technical Messiah’ wasn’t just a fun nickname, it was a fitting commentary on his skill.

Re-watch his matches from this period and you’ll realise just how ahead of the game he was. There were other technical wrestlers back then, this was the same period Bryan Danielson was dominating Ring of Honor after all, but few could hope to match the kind of pace and ingenuity on display whenever Alex Shelley hit the ring. These X-Division matches were fast, and he kept that pace while on the mat, bringing down opponents with unique holds and transitions, all the while doing so with an air of swagger and smoothness that commanded your attention.

Alex Shelley is not someone who could only get over because he was clinical between the ropes. He could have made it purely on his technical acumen, but some of his very best work sits outside the ring. Paparazzi Productions took his real world love of studying wrestling and turned it into a lasting gimmick. The idea evolved alongside Kevin Nash, and together the two produced some of the funniest moments in wrestling, leading to the Paparrazzi Championship series that off of their shoulders highlighted the personalities of many within the X-Division.

Alex Shelley was cool, and he made a potentially uncool style of wrestling equally cool. However neither are his greatest lasting impact on wrestling.

As good as Shelley was on his own, he always seemed to shine a little brighter as a pair. Beyond just his work with Big Sexy, he would go on to form two revolutionary tag teams in the Motor City Machine Guns (with Chris Sabin) and Time Splitters (with KUSHIDA). These two pairings would create the blueprint for the kind of tag team wrestling we regularly see today.

Tag team wrestling evolves through its greatest teams, as new teams draw influence from those that came before them. The Alex Shelley led pairings saw what earlier teams did with double team moves and evolved it, they revolutionised tandem offence in a way their synchronicity would overwhelm opponents. Before the Machine Guns and Time Splitters you didn’t see the kind of tag team wrestling you see today.

MCMG with a double team move on Chris Bey. Credit: IMPACT

Sure, you had double team moves. You even had some moves that set up another, a Matt Hardy Twist of Fate into a Jeff Hardy Swanton for example. But, Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin would combo five or six moves in succession, and do so effortlessly. Even by today’s standards their work is elite, but back then it was so revolutionary it blew minds.

They didn’t just rely on doing cool stuff. They were excellent storytellers inside the ring. The seven match series between the Machine Guns and Beer Money is some of the best tag team work out there, and the narratives woven through both individual matches and the larger series still shines brightly.

Tag team wrestling has enjoyed a new boom off the backs of the revolutionary style of MCMG: The NXT wars between #DIY and The Revival, and then AEW putting tag team wrestling on an even higher platform with the Young Bucks (who first got into TNA thanks in part to Shelley) and the Lucha Bros. When watching these teams wrestle, you can see where the style of the Guns and Time Splitters have left their mark. It’s hard not to see more than a little bit of Alex Shelley in the ring with them.

All this only encompasses what we’ve seen from Alex Shelley on camera over the years. When he talks about leaving his mark on Kazuchika Okada, or being the catalyst behind Jay White, he’s referring to all the time spent beyond the ring. Like going to management when a young Okada was on excursion and offering to look out for him. Or the year and a half Jay White spent living in Shelley’s home watching matches together while on excursion in ROH. He’s talking about helping the Young Lions that would become YOH and SHO while living at the New Japan Dojo, and working with the Bucks as they were starting to rise through the ranks.

Alex Shelley with Kendrick, Okada and The Bucks back in 2010

Switchblade will keep character on screen and insist he did it all himself, but off camera he’ll pay tribute to his former mentor:

“[I learned] as much as I can [from Alex Shelley]. He was a very influential person on my career in terms of just learning, especially at the shows as well for Ring of Honor because we would often be teaming so just being able to learn from him when he’s in that leadership role and all sorts of stuff whether it’s at home, whether it’s talking about wrestling, whether it’s watching anything or it’s just things I’m — ideas I’m coming up with. I’d always ask his opinion and defer to his judgement because that guy knows what he’s talking about. So often, he would give me a piece of advice for a desired outcome and you do what he says and that exact outcome will happen exactly how you want it to as well so, yeah, he knows his stuff.”

Jay White on Alex Shelley, interview with Chris Van Vliet

Two decades into his career and Shelley is still guiding the next generation of wrestlers, ensuring that pro wrestling will be in a better place after he’s done. He doesn’t need to still be involved, he has a job as a physiotherapist. However, when he does step in the ring he can still go with the best of them, as we’ve seen with his most recent feud with Jay White.

Alex Shelley’s legacy will continue on long after his boots are finally hung up for good, though it might not always be clear at first glance. For every wrestler like White, Okada, and Moriarty, whom he mentored, there will be twenty more who are learning the kind of wrestling Shelley popularised and not even realise it. Whether it be the beautiful technical game or the frenetic tag team mastery that was born in the Motor City.

These aren’t stats you can look up on Cagematch and quickly forget about like a bad championship reign. Instead, they’re the foundations that were built by his hands, and the fingerprints left behind never fade. Whether people realise it or not, the wrestling they love in 2022 has Alex Shelley’s fingerprints all over it.