Week in Wrestling: Triple H tops rankings; Coach brings WWE to ESPN
SI.com’s Wrestling Week in Review is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
News of the Week
The Royal Rumble was infuriating in the way its storytelling lacked logic.
For starters, why place Roman Reigns as the number one entry when he simply is not talented enough to endure the match in its entirety?
Rusev slammed Reigns through the Spanish announce table two hours and nineteen minutes into the Rumble match, and Reigns finally reappeared twenty-eight–28!–minutes later. Compounding matters even further was that Reigns came flying back to the ring, miraculously healed from the brutal beatdown he received from the League of Nations. Maybe Reigns had his eyes closed when Kevin Owens came out limping to the ring, selling his injuries from earlier in the evening? And how could the LON neglect to actually eliminate Reigns from the Rumble?
Also, the WWE’s philosophy of changing the rules whenever it benefits the storyline does more harm than good. If the match is “No Holds Barred,” which was explained on the broadcast, why even bother having referees at ringside? If any wrestler can re-enter after being eliminated, then wouldn’t this create a scenario where every single eliminated wrestler would simply re-enter the match? Why didn’t Reigns help Ambrose win the match after he was tossed by Triple H? Of course, the only ones to re-enter the ring were the Wyatt Family, who eventually had their way with a completely disinterested Brock Lesnar.
The booking of the Rumble leads us to our next major issue, which is WrestleMania 32. Anyone who believes this Rumble finish was an effective set-up for a main event between Reigns and Triple H is in for a rude awakening. Reigns defeating Triple H to capture the belt is not the story WWE fans want to see, nor is a match between Lesnar and Wyatt. There is still time to include Lesnar in the main event and have him clobber both Triple H and Reigns, but that clearly is not the current plan.
Also, Austin Aries debuted with WWE’s NXT this past Friday night. The timing was peculiar, as the NXT show was in Orlando–so the WWE consciously made the decision to have the former world champion debut in NXT instead of at the Rumble, which was also in Orlando. The appearance will air on the WWE Network on March 2, so the Aries debut was a missed opportunity to make an even bigger impact.
In other news…
• Vince McMahon, Triple H, and Stephanie McMahon spent the entire opening segment on Raw discussing Roman Reigns. There is zero reason to believe Brock Lesnar or Dean Ambrose will win the triple threat match against Reigns at Fast Lane, but the WWE is trying to appease its fans short-term–like with the Reigns-Daniel Bryan match last February–to deliver the story they so desperately want to sell. Reigns is more comfortable speaking, but his character and story–not to mention work rate–are so manufactured that it is extremely hard to become genuinely interested.
• I’m a fan of EC3, but TNA’s decision to crown Matt Hardy as champion is the right call. The chase for the title is the most compelling storyline in the industry. If you look at “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s six reigns as champ in WWE, only one run went over 100 days. McMahon and WWE creative are firm believers that the thrill is in the chase, and TNA is following suit.
• The TNA/AJ Styles saga took an unfortunate turn this past Friday when failed contract negotiations were revealed by TNA. Outside of cheap hits, why post this story? Does TNA want fans to be bitter toward Styles for accepting a better offer, even after sacrificing his body for years for the company? A far classier gesture would have been to congratulate Styles and post his top ten matches with the company.
• Fantastic to see Sasha Banks reappear at the Rumble and insert herself into the women’s title picture, but I’m wondering how the WWE will keep Becky Lynch relevant. She’s been the most pleasant surprise among the Divas, finally building momentum in the ring and delivering some passion on the mic. Here’s hoping she isn’t lost in the shuffle as the WWE continues to build a women’s division worth watching.
• Did the WWE bring the Dudleys back for no other reason than to bury them? Last year’s Rumble was in Philadelphia, but the reaction Bubba received from the crowd was genuine. Since their return, the Dudleys were out-smarted by the New Day, fed to the Wyatt Family on two hundred different occasions, and now have no creative direction. Bubba could have a great singles feud as a heel against Dean Ambrose, but where does that leave D-Von?
• Does it drive anyone else crazy when the champion is introduced before the challenger? It happened again and again at the Rumble, as Intercontinental champion Dean Ambrose entered before Kevin Owens, the New Day were introduced before the Usos, and then again when Alberto Del Rio came out before Kalisto. Naturally, challenger Becky Lynch entered her match first, while Diva’s champion Charlotte came out second. A lack of continuity is synonymous with WWE booking.
1.) Triple H, WWE
Remember when Triple H and DX claimed that WCW had all the old, past-their-prime champions? It’s OK if you don’t, because it occurred eighteen years ago in 1998. And it doesn’t matter if The Rock and Ronda Rousey are ringside at WrestleMania–the only way the crowd will pop for Roman Reigns going over Triple H is if the match is held in front of a classroom of second graders.
2.) Kevin Owens, WWE
Owens and Dean Ambrose put on a clinic in their ‘Last Man Standing’ match (loved how Owens rolled out of the ring and onto his feet to avoid a ten-count, as well as the logic behind his limping toward the ring for his Rumble entrance). Here’s hoping for twenty minutes of Owens-AJ Styles at WrestleMania 32.
3.) AJ Styles, WWE
Styles catapults his way up this list after the perfect debut in the Rumble. He held his own with every WWE superstar, but the only regret was we didn’t see a Styles Clash. Perfect decision to have Owens–the company’s best heel–eliminate him, and he put together a solid match in his singles debut on Monday against Chris Jericho. Also liked how Jericho cut off Styles as he was starting to give his background–odd call to project an air of mystery about “The Phenomenal One.”
4.) Brock Lesnar, WWE
Why has the WWE decided to make Lesnar look so ordinary? And is anyone looking forward to a Lesnar-Bray Wyatt match at ‘Mania? We are in January and the outcome of that match isn’t in any doubt, which is a complete waste of Lesnar.
5.) Dean Ambrose, WWE
Ambrose shined in his IC title defense over Owens, as well as set up a feud with Chris Jericho. Just for a moment at the end of the Rumble, I thought Ambrose was set to join The Authority and Triple H would hand him the WWE title. Instead of enhancing new talent and changing the direction of the company, the belt was placed around the waist of a 46-year-old.
6.) Kazuchika Okada, New Japan Pro Wrestling
Okada successfully defended his IWGP title during “Fantastica Mania 2016,” and Jim Ross will be speaking next week in this very column about the IWGP world champion.
7.) Roman Reigns, WWE
Reigns did not win anyone over with his performance at the Rumble. The storyline of forcing him to enter at number one made sense, but it is a flat-out insult to an extremely talented, hard-working locker room that Reigns cannot even last the entire match. And we are supposed to believe that Reigns is the face of the company?
8.) Finn Bálor, NXT
Unlike Sami Zayn, Bálor did not make an appearance in the Rumble. After years of seeing too much of the same wrestlers–Sheamus, Big Show, Kane and Alberto Del Rio, just to name a handful–Bálor desperately needs to add a breath of fresh air to the main roster.
9.) Ethan Carter III, TNA
How will EC3 define his character as a babyface?
10.) Jay Lethal, Ring of Honor
As we inch closer to Ring of Honor’s Fourteenth Anniversary show in February, Lethal needs to be involved in a feud that will grab viewers’ attention. And will he wrestle any of the New Japan talent coming to the ROH promotion next month?
Five Questions with … Johnny Mundo
Once known as John Morrison, the former WWE superstar is now a major force in Lucha Underground–whose first episode of season two premieres tonight on El Rey Network.
SI.com: What worked so well about the first season of Lucha Underground? And will season two be even more compelling?
Johnny Mundo: Lucha had the balls to be different.
Lucha Underground got some of the best talent in the industry, and the creative is set up so the storylines are followed to fruition–they are completed and don’t just change every week. Lucha Underground also put a lot of power in the hands of the talent. When you’re dealing with the top talent in the wrestling business, that’s often how you get the best results.
The fatal flaw of most promotions is trying to be WWE, but there is no way you can be WWE. Lucha Underground is a TV show in the way that it’s produced far more so than any other wrestling promotion out there. Lucha was also really smart about the wrestlers. A lot of the guys from Mexico have so much raw talent and creative energy, and a different set of moves and psychology that you wouldn’t see outside of Mexico. Giving Pentagon, Fenix, [King] Cuerno and Mil Muertes the keys to the Corvette and letting them drive is one of the reasons this is so cool and so different.
SI.com: Will you work with Rey Mysterio in the ‘Temple’ during season two of Lucha Underground? Also, how has your own work evolved?
Johnny Mundo: Yes, frequently. Rey is one of the best people in the business I’ve had the honor of meeting, hanging out with, and working with. He can still go, he’s humble and treats everyone with respect, and he’s ridiculously talented. I think he’ll go down in history as the most famous Luchador ever. It’s an absolute honor to work with him.
I have a singular focus, I’m a perfectionist, and I always want to prove I am the best and the best version of myself. The opportunity to work with AAA arose from working with Lucha Underground. Lucha is faster paced, harder hitting, and more acrobatic than any other style of wrestling. It’s definitely been seeping into mainstream more and more–look at the super hero movies. Every Avengers movie has some kind of hurricanrana or flying head scissors or Lucha arm drag, which is evidence that people like the moves and see how cool it is. My favorite part of working with Lucha Underground is learning more Lucha, combining that with my WWE psychology, and taking wrestling to a place we’ve never seen before in the evolution of wrestling.
SI.com: You changed the way people view the Royal Rumble with your high spot off the guard rail during the pay per view in 2011. How did that sequence come together? Do you take offense to the WWE never mentioning or showing it in the current Rumble highlight packages?
Johnny Mundo: The first Rumble spot where I jumped onto the barricade was the first one of its kind, and made people think, ‘Holy s---, we need to do this every year.’ But I always try to be careful not to take things too seriously. WWE is a business and looking out for their own best interests. It wouldn’t make sense for them to talk about how great my Rumble spot was when I’m not with their company any more.
Dean Malenko approached me and asked me to think of something like that. I was thinking of different ideas – jumping off someone’s back and back in or off the announce table. The guard rail ended up being the coolest I could do, and it was a 50-50 shot. I was fairly certain I would nail it, unless there was a fan with popcorn or a big Coke sitting on the guardrail that might make me fall. It ended up working out perfectly.
SI.com: Are you content with your decision to leave the WWE? There are appealing parts to working with the superpower of the industry, yet it must also be satisfying to control your own destiny.
Johnny Mundo: I wouldn’t be the man I am today if I stayed in WWE, so I don’t regret leaving at all. When you leave, you trade security and money for freedom and sanity.
I was injured and I wasn’t very happy when I left. Working with Lucha and Mexico and all the independent wrestling I’ve done has made me an exponentially better performer. Had I stayed, I would have been stagnant. Now I’ve been exposed to all these different styles and people. If you wrestle in Japan or the UK with WWE, you’re not experiencing that country’s kind of wrestling. You’re bringing WWE to them. I am now a legitimate professional wrestler. I didn’t have that feeling with WWE leaving Tough Enough and going straight through the system.
I’m still close with Tyson Kidd, Miz, Zack Ryder. I saw all the guys at Miz’s New Year’s party. We caught up and I heard how the road was going. It was kind of cool–after hearing it, I did not miss WWE at all.
SI.com: You have achieved an amazing amount of success in the past fourteen years, yet you are only 36. What is the next step in your career?
Johnny Mundo: Of course my goal is to become world champion. I also want to push the envelope with new creative moves integrating hardcore with Lucha and American pro wrestling–I want to do moves that have never been done before, but do them in a way that makes sense and helps tell the story we’re trying to tell.
You know, Seth Rollins–back in like 2010–said he could wrestle circles around me. Then we met and talked, and it was nothing personal, but it would be nice to wrestle him one day so I could prove that I am way better than him. But for that to happen, he might have to leave and come to Lucha Underground.
Outside of Lucha season two, I want to keep growing as an actor and entertainer in film and TV. I’m working on a movie called “Boone: The Bounty Hunter,” and it’s written, produced, and starring me. It’s not going to be out for a couple months, but I’m really excited for people to see that, and I want to keep growing–raising the bar and evolving as a pro wrestler and a performer.
A Conversation with The Coach
Jonathan Coachman has fought nonstop to bring the WWE to ESPN, and his hand is currently raised in victory. He interviews WWE superstars every Tuesday during his “Off The Tope Rope” segment on SportsCenter, but admits that this project could not have been accomplished without support from “The Worldwide Leader.”
“The biggest challenge before [was that] we never had the right people in charge,” said Coachman. “But right now, we’ve got tremendous leadership with [Senior Vice President, SportsCenter and news] Rob King and [Vice President, SportsCenter] Mike McQuade on the SportsCenter side. We’re starting to understand that the ‘E’ in ESPN stands for entertainment. For the longest time, we got caught up in thinking, ‘It’s got to be in this box, or it doesn’t belong on ESPN.’
“I pitched this latest project in July, but the new leadership really took over about fifteen months ago. Before that, any time I would pitch going to SummerSlam or WrestleMania was always met with, ‘We don’t do that.’ That was without even looking at the numbers, or the amount of fans, or the venue. It was just a cold no. So it was infuriating when I knew, as a talent and a person who loves to produce content, this was going to work. We met in July and came together for SummerSlam, and that was a big success, and then the green light was given for our Tuesday night ‘Off the Top Rope’ sometime in September, and we started our first one at the end of October. We’re going on four months now, and the numbers have been really, really good, and we’re hoping to expand what we do as the year goes along.”
Bill Simmons was a proponent of connecting ESPN’s now defunct Grantland site with the WWE, and he even did guest commentary on Raw. Simmons’ departure from the network, Coachman stated, did not impact the relationship between WWE and ESPN.
“Bill Simmons leaving had nothing to do with what we were doing,” said Coachman. “He liked wrestling, but the difference between Bill liking wrestling and us understanding what it could do for ESPN are two completely different things.
“I like Bill personally. How I operate is, I’m an ESPN guy and I’m always looking out for what is best for ESPN. If it happens to be fun for me, too, then that’s an added bonus. I don’t know what happened with him, but at no point did I ever have one conversation with Bill Simmons about having wrestling on the air.”
While Coachman wants to continue to expand his weekly segments, he is pleased thus far with the execution of the programming. The WWE wrestlers continue to thank him for the exposure.
“I just went to one of the house shows in Hartford on December 27, and I took my whole team that works on this project at ESPN with me,” said Coachman. “We were backstage talking to a bunch of the guys, and that was John Cena’s return that weekend. To a man, [all the wrestlers] were saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this.’ Tommy Dreamer was on the week before going through a table as part of the highlight package, and he said that hearing his name on SportsCenter was something he’d been dreaming about since he was a kid. They don’t see this as only wrestling–they see this as being on SportsCenter, and that’s exactly what we want.”
The interviews allow the wrestlers to reveal a different side of their personalities, and Coach was mesmerized during his SummerSlam weekend interview with Randy Orton.
“I worked there for so long, so I knew all these guys, but I will say that Randy Orton was the biggest surprise simply because he was a loose cannon,” said Coachman. “Day to day, you never knew what kind of mood he was going to be in. He’s a perfect example of somebody growing and moving away from one attitude and one way of living, and being a WWE superstar and also being very respectful of the venue he’s in.”
Still as big a fan of the product as ever, Coachman has watched with interest as Roman Reigns remains unable to win over a healthy portion of wrestling fans.
“We always tweet out the interviews after we’re done on SportsCenter, and the most watched interview so far–and it hasn’t been close–has been Roman Reigns,” revealed Coachman. “This is a good dude who is starting to find out what fits him. I think you’re going to see the negativity surrounding him switch and turn, and he’ll turn into one of the biggest stars in the world.”
In the extremely competitive world of sports and entertainment, Coachman fully understands that injuries create opportunity. He also knows that there will be complaints that this year’s card at WrestleMania will be barren because of so many injured stars, yet he remains optimistic.
“This could be a launch point,” said Coachman. “Make no mistake about it–performing at WrestleMania is unlike having a match anywhere else. Throw an NXT match in there–you have four hours, can you give them eight minutes? There are going to be times when your big stars are all hurt at once, but this could be a launch point to make new stars. Then those guys come back and you can pile on with the new stars you’ve created, so I hope people see the positive instead of focusing on what we’re not going to have. Let’s focus on who is going to be at WrestleMania.”
As for future guests, Coachman would love to Paul Heyman on the air, as well as the Undertaker.
“Believe me, he’s on our very short wish list,” said Coachman. “Paul Heyman and Triple H are at the top, too, and people would love to see the boss, Vince McMahon. I control a lot of what we do on ‘Off the Top Rope,’ but I don’t always control who we’re going to have on. I can guarantee you that my vision is that this is going to continue to grow for the next several years, and if that’s the case–we’ll do our best to have the Undertaker on.
“‘Off the Top Rope’ is a venue for not only WWE wrestlers. We plan on having celebrities who love wrestling. We plan on having legends that were former wrestlers. This is an entertainment venue. If Adam Sandler is on Monday Night Raw, and we can get him on ‘Off the Top Rope,’ that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Paul Heyman is as exciting as there has ever been on the mic, and there’s no question we’ll put him on–it’s just a question of when makes the most sense.”
Coachman was asked if he could make McMahon perspire if he is a future guest.
“If you were worth $700 million, your legacy is cemented, and you still have size 22-inch arms, would anything make you sweat?” asked Coachman. “I doubt it, but I’ll certainly try.
“Vince is an absolute freak of nature. There are certain people on this earth who were made to do certain things, and nothing he does surprises me. Vince is one of the biggest stars of all time, so it made sense for him to come back, especially with all of the injuries. It didn’t surprise me, and it only would have surprised me if we never would have seen him again.”
Coachman once wrestled a match on a 2006 Raw against John Cena, but he is having too much fun in his current role to call for a rematch.
“We once had a match in the Quad Cities,” recalled Coachman. “It may be the drunkest I’ve ever been after the match with Jack Daniels, because Cena wanted to congratulate me on hanging with him toe-to-toe.”
Coachman is grateful for the opportunity to help push the WWE stars into the mainstream.
“This is a passion project, but a lot of people at ESPN want to be involved with it, too. I’m the face of it, so it’s easy for me to get gratification, but I want everyone to know they’re a part of it.”
Tweet of the Week
Shane “Hurricane” Helms appeared to fire a shot at Paul “Triple H” Levesque on Twitter this past weekend, but Helms clarified and explained that simply was not the case.
“That tweet wasn’t a jab at anybody,” said Helms. “Triple H knows me, and he wasn’t even in Talent Relations at the time, so it definitely wasn’t a jab at him. ‘Just Sayin’ was a slogan I would say in WWE when they did the ‘Hurrapops’ gimmick, which was like Pop Up Video. I would pop up in a little bubble, make a smart a-- comment, then say, ‘I’m just sayin!’ That’s all that was.”
Helms, however, did make it clear that he is a fan of the work of AJ Styles, Austin Aries and Sami Zayn (El Generico), but added that the wrestling landscape changed during the past decade.
“There has definitely been a change in styles,” explained Helms. “Omega and I were really pioneers of this hybrid style of wrestling that combined the European style with the American style and Lucha style with the Japanese style. That hybrid style is now becoming really dominant in the business, but back in the day, it just wasn’t. Those are three guys that are pretty good at that style. That style is much more popular now, so even if they did hire those guys back in that day, it might not have been a good fit for them at the time.”
Currently an agent and producer with TNA, Helms also sees a parallel between the combination of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick with the legendary duo of “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair and J.J. Dillon.
“Brady is just like Flair was in his prime with the Horsemen. He’s a good looking guy, he’s got the good looking woman, he’s got all the money, he’s winning championships here and there, and there is that little hint of ‘the dirtiest player in the game’ type thing because of Deflategate and Spygate. He is the Ric Flair of the NFL, and Belichick’s constant grumpy cat look just entertains the hell out of me. He’s such a classic heel.”