SI.com’s Wrestling Week in Review is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business broken into five sections: News of the Week; Weekly Top 10; Five Questions with WWE Hall of Famer Scott Hall; This Week in Wrestling History; and Tweet of the Week.
News of the Week
Wrestling is the single most misunderstood sport in the world.
Wait a minute–I nearly forgot. Wrestling can’t be a sport because its results are pre-determined, so wrestlers are “sports-entertainers” and not true professional athletes. But if wrestlers are actors instead of athletes, then why don’t they receive insurance and protection from the Screen Actors Guild? I suppose that means wrestlers aren’t actors, either.
Wrestling is a work, I’m always reminded, so the wrestlers cannot be true athletes, at least not like professional football, baseball, or basketball players. I suppose that makes sense, yet unlike pro football, where teams play one game per week over the course of sixteen weeks, wrestlers perform all year. Even though WrestleMania is the “Super Bowl of Wrestling,” the WWE still airs a brand new edition of Raw the following night.
John Cena is the most recent casualty to a serious injury, proving that he is human in an inhumane business. The best wrestlers–Cena, Daniel Bryan, Randy Orton, Cesaro, Seth Rollins, and New Japan’s Kota Ibushi–are all dealing with long-term injuries because they perform at an extremely high level at an abnormally high rate.
Scott Hall, who is featured in this week’s “Five Questions with…” section, represents the best and worst to ever enter the business. Hall was a physical specimen, bulging with muscles and athleticism at 6’5”. Talent alone did not lead to success, as Hall’s hard work brought him to the top of the business. His timing in the ring, connection with the crowd, and the genuine emotion he carried in his matches are incredibly difficult to duplicate. Hall has also dealt with drug and alcohol demons for the better half of four decades, problems only exacerbated by his time in wrestling.
“It’s a tough business,” said Hall. “If you’re talking about the lifestyle when I broke in, the guys who preceded me were drinking and taking pills. Those were the guys I looked up to, so it was a different time. The 90’s were different for everybody, and things are different now. If you get hurt now, they have trainers right there at ringside. If you’re injured, they stop the match. Now they have concussion protocol.
“Back then, if you had a concussion, you weren’t even thinking about taking time off ‘cause you’re in the middle of a storyline that’s paying you and you’re going to affect your opponent’s family. I remember Randy Savage said to me, ‘Never take yourself out of the game.’ If you drop out of a story, it impacts the other guy’s family, too.”
The best wrestlers in the world are the one-hundred-mile-per-hour wrestlers who have wrestled nonstop for the past decade–which doubles as the reason why they are the best in the world, as well as why they are currently rehabbing serious injuries. Though the landscape has improved slightly, the wrestlers–just like the ones from Hall’s generation–have no choice but to work are as often as possible.
“This was no guaranteed money until I left [for World Championship Wrestling in 1996],” explained Hall. “If you weren’t working, you weren’t getting paid. I was willing to stay with Vince [McMahon] for less but I just wanted it guaranteed, and he wasn’t doing it.”
Hall explained the WWE’s payment system, which was as ludicrous for the wrestlers as it was profitable for the promotion.
“When you signed with Vince–and this lasted until I left–it was a one-year contract that guaranteed you ten matches at a minimum of $150 a match,” said Hall. “So that’s $1,500 a year you’re guaranteed. In exchange, you gave up everything. You can’t do interviews for anyone, you can’t appear for anyone, you can’t do anything. You gave everything to Vince for $1,500.”
Most professional athletes are protected by a union, but wrestlers are not extended that benefit. So the wrestlers are forced to accept what they are given.
“The thing is, that’s all that was being offered, so I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I’ll take it,’” said Hall. “And the checks were great, but you never knew what they were. I would get my paycheck, I’d open it and look at the amount and go, ‘Yea!’ Or I’d said, ‘Hey, wait a minute,’ and I’d flip it over and look at the amount they paid me for each town. There were only four pay per views when I started, so you only got those checks once a quarter. Then they held them for 90 days–I think they were rolling them over in short-term bonds, so you got your pay-off months later. I’d be on the road, talking to my old lady and ask, ‘Did the Survivor Series check come?’ And she’d said yes, it was for $75,000, then I’d say, ‘Damnit, I was expecting $100,000.’ You’d open your check, and that’s what you got. You just never knew.”
Until they are in the ring, wrestlers do not have the security of knowing what is coming next. This is an aspect which makes it extremely unique, and unquestionably puts its athletes in precarious situations now and later in life. Not pure sport, with far too much athleticism to be solely entertainment, wrestling is full of gray areas used to take advantage of the wrestlers.
The most notable exception are Jonathan Coachman’s exceptional WWE interviews on ESPN, but the fact that the men and women in wrestling are so overlooked and misunderstood is beyond my comprehension. Far from “fake,” wrestling is so uniquely compelling because of the sacrifices made by those in the ring. The mainstream’s reluctance to recognize that is infuriating, but also makes me extremely grateful to be a wrestling fan.
1.) Brock Lesnar, WWE
The “Beast Incarnate” is the premiere must-see attraction in wrestling.
Lesnar’s return to Raw this past Monday catapults him to the number one spot atop the list. His bruising style would entertain anywhere in the world, and it was a viewing pleasure to watch Lesnar give out tours of Suplex City. Though it is frustrating when Lesnar is world champ and does not appear at every pay per view, his limited appearances do have a very special feel.
Also, the McMahon-Heyman exchange on Monday was perfect. McMahon shared his ingenious idea, Heyman countered with Lesnar facing the winner of the Royal Rumble at WrestleMania 32, and the two agreed to disagree. I am not sure what it means that two of WWE’s most compelling characters are its 70-year-old CEO and Heyman, but I’m really glad they decided to interconnect their storylines.
2.) Roman Reigns, WWE
A pastime for all wrestling fans is criticizing the WWE’s booking, but the Reigns storyline has been extremely well-developed.
Vince McMahon’s revelation that Reigns will have to defend the title against 29 other superstars in the Royal Rumble adds another component of suspense to the most exciting pay-per-view of the year (WrestleMania may be the most anticipated, but the Rumble is the only other can’t-miss show).
The belt has not been on the line in the Royal Rumble since the 1992, which was the greatest Rumble of all time. Ric Flair captured the WWF title after Sid Justice turned on his friend, Hulk Hogan, and Hogan then inadvertently assisted Flair by helping to eliminate Justice. Look for the past to once again become the present, as Dean Ambrose–Reigns’ brother-in-arms–will be the one who “accidentally” costs Reigns his title. This is the perfect opportunity for Reigns to drop the belt while gaining sympathy and support from the crowd.
3.) Kazuchika Okada, New Japan Pro Wrestling
Okada is one of the primary reasons why New Japan can withstand the loss of AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows. The IWGP champion is preparing for a busy stretch, teaming up on Sunday with Gedo and Ultimo Guerrero against Jushin Thunder Liger, Tanahashi, and Mistico, then wrestling again the following Tuesday. His next title defense is a rematch with Tanahashi one week from today at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium.
4.) Kevin Owens, WWE
Owens continued his feud with Dean Ambrose by main eventing this past Thursday on Smackdown. I also enjoyed seeing Owens blindside Ambrose on Raw and need to be restrained by five officials. It was especially encouraging to see KO chosen to have the majority of the main event on Monday against Reigns, and he gave the champ all he could handle. The Royal Rumble is going to need singles matches, and Ambrose/Owens for the IC title is an appealing option.
5.) Dean Ambrose, WWE
Despite John Cena’s work with the United States championship, the Intercontinental title always served as the title for the WWE’s best worker. Even without the premise of an “Open Challenge,” it would be great if WWE booked Ambrose in title matches with some extended lengths (The Authority could always set up the matches due to his friendship with Reigns). Ideally we would see this against an opponent not named Sheamus.
6.) Finn Bálor, NXT
Bálor set the internet on fire over the past week with a series of tweets regarding his brethren from New Japan Pro Wrestling. The NXT champion also gave a revealing interview to WWE.com on Friday that explained the origin of his friendships with the “New Japan Four,” particularly Karl “Machine Gun” Anderson. Bálor admitted to me this past August that the WWE was holding off on his debut partially because he was not ready to work a live mic every week on Raw. Is it possible that his arrival is booked–similar to the rebirth of the Triple H-led DX on the Monday after WrestleMania 14–with Anderson, Luke Gallows, and Shinsuke Nakamura on the Raw after WrestleMania 32?
7.) Ethan Carter III, TNA
The beauty is in the chase, right? At least that is what TNA is hoping.
EC3’s title reign will be short-lived. TNA taped Impact this past Friday night, and booked a double turn between Matt Hardy and EC3. Hardy turns heel and wins the championship with an assist from Tyrus (formerly Brodus Clay).
While dropping the title so soon is definitely a questionable decision, TNA desperately needs Carter to lead the company. The decision was cast to have him lead as a babyface, and there are far more formidable opponents in the heel locker room. Once EC3 reclaims the belt from Hardy, he can now have storylines with Tyrus, Bram, Eric Young, and newly debuted Michael Bennett.
8.) Jay Lethal, Ring of Honor
Jay Lethal is not afraid to defend his world title anywhere on the globe.
A week after defending his Ring of Honor world championship in Tokyo, Lethal headlines tonight’s 5 Star Wrestling show in Newcastle, England against Rey Mysterio. Then, on Friday, Lethal will wrestle AJ Styles in Liverpool, which will likely serve as the final match between the two rivals for a prolonged period of time.
ROH is hinting that Kyle O’Reilly or Adam Cole–or both–will be challenging Lethal at the upcoming February 26 pay per view, so stay tuned for more information.
9.) Kenny Omega, New Japan Pro Wrestling
Omega has his sights set on the newly vacated IWGP intercontinental title. The former title holder–Shinsuke Nakamura–is bound for the WWE, but he will not be doing the honors for Omega. Regardless of who he defeats, the belt should fit snugly around Omega’s waist within the next month. The title will mark a major accomplishment for Omega as he jumps from the light heavyweight division to the heavyweights.
Omega turned on former Bullet Club leader AJ Styles last week and claimed the group as his own, foreshadowing what should be a very eventful 2016 for the 32-year-old.
10.) Zack Sabre, Jr., Pro Wrestling Guerrila
Sabre claims the final spot over AJ Styles, and rightfully so: the 28-year-old British star makes the ordinary look extraordinary. His cross arm breaker, dragon suplex and soccer kick are just a few of the signature moves in his wheelhouse.
Sabre won the PWG’s “Battle of Los Angeles” this past August, which is a prestigious accomplishment for any pro wrestler. The PWG BOLA victory signifies a major milestone, as Sabre won four matches in three days, including a three-way final over Chris Hero and Mike Bailey.
Five Questions with… WWE Hall of Famer Scott Hall
Wrestling legend Scott Hall was the driving force behind the New World Order, as well as wildly successful as Razor Ramon. He joins the “Wrestling Week in Review” to discuss certain aspects of the business, beginning with the current world champion.
SI.com: What do you think of Roman Reigns as WWE champion?
Scott Hall: He’s getting a big push, but I just wish his work supported it. I don’t know, but I saw him commit to it and really go old-school and earn it in the fans’ eyes. The building that he won the Rumble in last year in Philly was the same building where he won the title and was cheered. In a year’s time, that’s pretty good.
SI.com: Do you regret that you were never world champion in WCW or WWE?
Hall: I never really thought about the fact I wasn’t world champion. It’s all fake, so having a belt really means having extra weight in your luggage. It means bag check at every airport scan because everyone wants to look at the belt. But if it means I’m better than you, then I’ll take one. One time in WCW, I was the U.S. champ, tag champ, and the TV champ. I had three belts and I wore them all. I just think it’s hilarious, and I never really got caught up in the world title thing.
SI.com:How is your son, Cody Hall, progressing in New Japan Pro Wrestling? As one of the best ever in the business, has it helped that you are his father? And, considering you have years of experience wrestling in Japan, is there a pronounced difference between Japanese and American wrestling?
Hall: Cody’s really frustrated. He decided to go to New Japan Pro Wrestling in their dojo to train and learn, which was a great move. Two days in, he gets invited to be in their Bullet Club storyline, and that’s their top storyline. The Bullet Club is kind of like an NWO tribute band. Basically, they’re doing us, just fifteen years later, but it’s getting over big. Now to the fans he’s in an elevated position, but the reality of it is he’d rather be out there working with another young guy where, if he does stuff to him, the guy’s not going to whine. When he goes out there with the top guys, they’ve got the breaks on. They don’t want to be around Cody. He’s 6’8”, 260, big, strong, and young. The top stars don’t do anything with him, so he’s a little frustrated, but it will pass.
I guess there is a lot of baggage that comes with [being my son], and I wasn’t the most popular guy in the locker room, but I never really cared about, either. That’s why I refer him to other second generation guys, and he reaches out to Cody Rhodes a lot. I can’t help him there. If I’d have worked in carpentry, I would have tried to hook him up in carpentry. I never had a straight job. I worked in strip clubs and I was a wrestler. That’s all I have to offer. I encouraged him to go to college, but he’s not school-driven. My daughter is on academic scholarship at the University of Central Florida. I feel so blessed. The marriage thing was a little dodgy, but the dad thing is working out pretty good.
When you go to Japan, most guys say ‘Work strong.’ But the guys that I went there with for a long time, like Dick Murdoch–who has since passed away–was on top there for years. In my first tour, he said to me, ‘Kid, you want to know how I’ve been coming here for twenty years?’ I said, ‘Yes, please.’ And he said, ‘I sell for these guys.’ I don’t work any different in Japan than I do in the U.S. Some guys do, but if you’re entertaining, you’re entertaining, and if you’re not, you’re not, and that plays worldwide.
SI.com: Ladder matches are now an accepted part of wrestling, but your WrestleMania X ladder match for the intercontinental title with Shawn Michaels was one of those rare matches that sparked an evolution in the business. Looking back, what do you remember most about the match?
Hall: We didn’t have a backup ladder. People don’t realize that but the match was so new to wrestling, so there wasn’t even a backup. If we’d have bent the ladder and it broke, we’d still be standing in Madison Square Garden trying to get the belt back.
SI.com: Career-wise, what is your next goal?
Hall: Career-wise, I’d love to be working with the young guys at NXT. But I’m not going to sweat that–if it’s meant to happen, it’s meant to happen. I’ve been invited to go down there twice, but I wouldn’t mind a full time gig there.
This Week in Wrestling History
We turn back the hands of time for an entire week for “This Week in Wrestling History” to review New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom 10.
Matt Striker, Michael Elgin and Cheeseburger were all part of Wrestle Kingdom’s historic tenth anniversary on January 4 at the Tokyo Dome. Striker provided color commentary on the broadcast, Elgin challenged Ring of Honor champion Jay Lethal, and the lovable Cheeseburger wrestled among a myriad of legends in the opening New Japan Rumble match.
“I found out back in October that I was going to be a surprise entrance for the New Japan Rumble,” said Ring of Honor’s Cheeseburger. “I’m actually surprised it was kept a secret for so long. Secrets in pro wrestling are definitely a lost art.”
The 22-year-old Cheeseburger was amazed that he received such a positive reaction from the crowd.
“It caught me completely off-guard,” said Cheeseburger. “I think some of the people were asking, ‘Who is this skinny guy called Cheeseburger, and why is he in this Rumble?’ But by the end of the match, I think they took a liking to me. The next night, at Korakuen [Hall], there were several chants for me throughout the match, and that meant a lot to me. I’ve got a lot of respect for Japanese culture and the Japanese fans.”
The New Japan Rumble included a myriad of wrestling legends, including Jushin Thunder Liger, the Great Kabuki, and former WWE tag team champion Haku.
The 51-year-old Liger–who fought at NXT’s “TakeOver: Brooklyn” this past August–shares a connection with Cheeseburger from their time together in Ring of Honor.
“He’s taken me under his wing, and I’m very appreciative of that,” said Cheeseburger. He’s taught me about making things mean something and making things into a fight–the emotion and bringing out the drama in what we do.”
Longtime NJPW stalwart Jado captured the Rumble, and Cheeseburger thought the match delivered a strong opening–filled with just enough nostalgia–to set the table for the rest of the night.
“The match definitely hit its mark,” he said. “It kept the crowd up and engaged. Listening to the crowd react to several of the legends coming back–like [Shiro] Koshinaka, [Yoshiaki] Fujiwara, Kabuki, and Haku–were great moments to get that crowd hyped up for the rest of the show.”
The Young Bucks also captured the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles in a four-way match against an amazing array of talent in reDRagon (Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish), Aerial Dogfight (Matt Sydal and Ricochet), and Roppongi Vice (Baretta and Rocky Romero), which was a match in which Striker felt an extremely close connection calling.
“Some of the other guys–Bobby Fish, Kyle O’Reilly, Rocky Romero, and Matt Sydal–I came up with these guys and there is a part of me that wants to be in the ring with him,” said Striker. “I see the smiles on their faces when they hit a big move, and I’m pulling for my boys. I’m not as athletically gifted or talented as those guys, but I landed in a different position.”
The Bucks’ Matt and Nick Jackson are proud Bullet Club members who just inked a year-long deal with Ring of Honor, which allows for the opportunity to wrestle with New Japan.
“They represent the twenty-first century athlete, especially in sports and entertainment, which is a phrase Vince McMahon coined,” said Striker. “They are paving the way for how athletes negotiate.”
Despite the fact that the Bucks are incredible sports entertainers, they are not employed by McMahon. Striker paused when asked if the Bucks’ style would succeed in the WWE.
“It’s a question of the schedule,” said Striker. “The pace would be very difficult, but the Bucks have this young, hot style, and it shows.”
Striker now provides color commentary for Lucha Underground, and this marked his second consecutive year calling the action at Wrestle Kingdom. He explained that the call is delicate, looking to deliver information for newer viewers as well as longtime New Japan supporters.
“I really want to walk that fine line and show that respect to the long-time Japanese viewer,” said Striker. “There are certain things you have to mention about a character’s development or a fighter’s style, and the newer fan may not need it, but the old guard is shouting for it.”
Striker explained that New Japan is treated as sport, and bases its competition on weight classes. The junior heavyweights are 220 pounds and under. There are openings for heavyweight stars, however, and the crowd popped for heavyweight Michael Elgin, who wrestled Jay Lethal for the Ring of Honor title.
“Not only is it a huge opportunity, but it’s also a dream come true,” said Elgin. “Anyone who’s followed me or knows my past with professional wrestling knows that I started watching Japanese wrestling at a young age. It’s always been a goal of mine to compete in Japan, and it was definitely a huge goal of mine to compete in the biggest show Japan offers. To be part of the tenth anniversary of Wrestle Kingdom was surreal and absolutely a dream come true.”
Elgin’s stock has soared in Japan in the last six-months from his success in a grueling month-long tournament in the G1 Climax, earned the respect of the New Japan fans.
“When the relationship with New Japan and Ring of Honor started, I’d won the Ring of Honor world title, so I couldn’t miss TV taping to go and be part of the G1 Climax last year. So when they wanted a Ring of Honor guy for the G1 Climax this year, they asked for me and I went over. I’m such a fan of wrestling in Japan, and I knew what I brought to the table, so I truly felt that what I did in the ring would truly amaze the fans in Japan. I was lucky enough that it did, and I’m fortunate to have such a following after such a short time in Japan.”
Ring of Honor returns to Japan in February, so the title match at Wrestle Kingdom offered fans a taste of the ROH product.
“People saw the importance of the Ring of Honor title,” said Elgin. “You can never guarantee that a Japanese audience is watching wrestling stateside, but now I think they’ll be more familiar with our product.”
Lethal and Elgin delivered a twelve-minute match, which saw Lethal retain his title. Elgin would have preferred more time, as well as the gold, but he was happy with the finished product.
“We told a story and did the key spots that both of us bring to the table, but you always wish–especially on a show like that–that you could have twenty or twenty-five minutes, because the best matches I can have go longer to build the match and add a little more flavor to it,” admitted Elgin. “But there were so many big time matches, so you go in knowing you’re only going to have ten or twelve minutes. I enjoyed the match very much, and hope the fans enjoyed it as much as I did.”
The 29-year-old Elgin revealed he wants to spend the entire year with New Japan.
“I’d like to be a year exclusive with New Japan,” said Elgin. “I want to hold gold in Japan.”
Elgin was paying close attention to the Okada-Tanahashi main event. He has a connection with both, as he has tag teamed with Tanahashi on multiple occasions, and first connected with Okada eight years ago.
“I ran into him in Canada around 2007,” said Elgin. “He spent some time with a group called UWA Hardcore and was originally trained by the Ultimo Dragon before he went to the New Japan dojo.”
Elgin shared that New Japan wrestlers are WWE fans, and Tanahashi was inspired by the work of Shawn Michaels.
“I spent a lot of time with Tanahashi, and he told me one of his favorite wrestlers is Shawn Michaels,” said Elgin. “We were talking about matches we enjoyed, and we liked a lot of the same matches from Japan and the States, so I would say that most would follow suit and pay attention to the U.S., and I know, first-hand, that Tanahashi does.”
The pace of the main event struck Elgin the hardest.
“There is an art form to wrestling, even more so than with the moves. It is when to engage the fans and when to let them appreciate what you just did. Those two are at the top of their game, and that’s something everyone in pro wrestling needs to work on. They know when to take their time, they know when to get their camera shots, they know when to get the crowd focused on them instead of their opponent. That’s the true art of professional wrestling. It doesn’t really matter which moves you do, it matters what you do before and after the moves. Okada and Tanahashi are phenomenal at all of that.”
Scott Hall on Sting-HHH Match
JBL formally announced on Monday that Sting will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame’s class of 2016. The “Nature Boy” Ric Flair is the safe choice to induct the Stinger, and most of the career highlights will focus on Sting’s greatness in WCW. Scott Hall was asked about Sting’s tenure with the WWE, and he expressed disappointment that Sting never found a comfort zone.
“I was there and obviously involved in his match at WrestleMania last year,” said Hall. “We’re rehearsing the match in Cali last year at Levi Stadium, and it’s the Kliq and the New Age Outlaws out there, and we all know each other. And then there’s Sting, who doesn’t know anybody. He’s an outsider. I just think he never felt comfortable there. Being hurt was answered prayer for him–just let it end.
“You need to remember that Vince is never going to go with something he didn’t create. But we didn’t get anything done at the rehearsal the night before, so WrestleMania day, there were tents in the parking lot set up with rings for rehearsal. So we’re all in there again, and I’m next to Hulk on the ring apron and Triple H is going over the match and then he goes, ‘OK, he’ll break the sledgehammer, then I’ll hit him with the sledgehammer, and cover him, 1-2-3.’ I looked at Hulk, and Hulk looked at me, and I was thinking, ‘Sting, what kind of lawyer do you have, bro? You’re coming in the door doing a job? You weren’t even guaranteed to go over?’ That’s Vince just reminding you who won, even if he’s going to make money the other way.”
Tweet of the Week
The best heel in the business does not alter his style–or offer any apologies–on social media.
To the kid who hit me in the arm tonight: I could beat up your dad in a second. To the dad: Raise your kid better. And I could beat you up.— Kevin Owens (@FightOwensFight) January 10, 2016