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Week in Wrestling: How to Save WrestleMania; Kevin Owens is No. 1

Zack Sabre Jr. doesn't need Wrestlemania

PROGRESS Wrestling star Zack Sabre Jr. opens up about his personal style, performing overseas, and how the evolution of pro wrestling has leveled the playing field among promotions.

News of the Week

WrestleMania can be saved with one simple fix – Brock Lesnar.

The “Beast Incarnate” needs to be in the main event.

Triple H defending his WWE championship against Lesnar is the money match for WrestleMania. Lesnar is the company’s biggest star, his history with the UFC adds instant credibility to WWE (especially with their working relationship with ESPN), and has the brilliant, eloquent and erudite Paul Heyman in his corner.

Lesnar winning the triple threat match at Fast Lane will add so much more excitement to the buildup to ‘Mania, and will also serve as a chance for redemption for Lesnar and Triple H after their lackluster WrestleMania 29 encounter. Triple H won the match, but he would have been forced to retire had he lost, which can also be worked into the storyline. The Heyman promos–whether individually, with Lesnar bouncing around behind him, or face-to-face with Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, and Vince McMahon–will all be must-see television.

A match between Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns would add a lot of fire power to the undercard, and both men can easily be reinserted into the title picture after WrestleMania. There are still plenty of other intriguing possibilities for the rest of the card, including the Undertaker, Kevin Owens, AJ Styles, and Chris Jericho. Instead of working with Lesnar, Bray Wyatt could give the New Day a taste of their own medicine with his Wyatt Family (and think of the contrast of interview style between the New Day and the Wyatts). Continue to pray to the wrestling gods that The Undertaker is nowhere near Braun Strowman at WrestleMania.

Also, will the Titus O’Neil push amount to anything of substance? The University of Florida alum is a wonderful spokesman for WWE, but his feuds with Stardust and Tyler Breeze haven’t exactly set the world on fire. He is determined to win the WWE championship, but WCW–which was last seen on Turner-owned network in 2001–had more African-Americans champions (two) in a 10-year span than the WWE has had in its entire history. Hard to believe, especially since the title dates back to 1963, but only one African-American–The Rock, who is championed on WWE programming as Samoan–has ever won the WWE world heavyweight championship. Unsurprisingly, this fact was not highlighted during WWE’s “Black History Month” promos.

In other news…

Shinsuke Nakamura is officially a part of the upcoming NXT TakeOver: Dallas show two nights before WrestleMania. The card is absolutely loaded, with Finn Bálor defending the NXT championship against Samoa Joe in a no holds barred affair, Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn, and Bayley against Asuka. I would have preferred a different opening opponent, but Austin Aries is also set to wrestle Baron Corbin. TNA’s former stars will have quite an impact on WrestleMania weekend, as Sting, AJ Styles, Joe, Aries and the Dudley’s are some of the company’s all-time greats.

• If Daniel Bryan does not wrestle at WrestleMania, he will not wrestle for the WWE at any point in 2016. The company desperately wants to fill over 100,000 seats, and Bryan’s name on the card would sell tickets. Due to lingering concussion lawsuits, however, do not expect to see Bryan in a WWE ring any time soon.

• Jeff Hardy re-upped with TNA, ending speculation that he would be appearing in a TLC match at WrestleMania. He is still seeking a clean bill of health, as the 38-year-old admitted on Ric Flair’s podcast that he will likely need knee surgery and miss a good chunk of 2016.

• Ring of Honor’s 14th Anniversary Show on Friday, February 26 will feature Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kenny Omega. Tanahashi is dealing with a dislocated shoulder, but he is still confirmed to tag with Michael Elgin against the Briscoes. I would have loved to watch Okada wrestle Jay Lethal in a title-for-title match (Ring of Honor and New Japan meet again for a show in May), but it is already confirmed that match will not take place.

• There were a couple segments from this past week’s Raw where I felt like I was watching old school Prime Time Wrestling programming. I enjoyed the Miz-AJ Styles “interview.” Credit the Miz for spending time watching old Piper’s Pit segments, as his work was reminiscent of the Hot Rod interviewing Hillbilly Jim. I also liked the idea of matching up Charlotte Flair with Brie Bella–which I mistakenly assumed was a glorified squash match. Why is Bella defeating Charlotte? The “Nature Girl” should look as strong as possible on the road to WrestleMania.

• Speaking of the Divas, let’s keep Sasha Banks as far away as possible from Naomi and Tamina. The segment was choppy and scripted, and Naomi and Tamina were still working on their lines. Becky Lynch, however, continues to attract attention for all the right reasons. I’m still in favor of a triple threat ladder match–let the ladies work!–at WrestleMania between Banks, Lynch, and Flair.


Weekly Top 10

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1.) Kevin Owens, WWE

Even in defeat, Owens is the most entertaining wrestler in the WWE. Does the loss to Dolph Ziggler indicate that Owens will not be built up to wrestle the Undertaker at WrestleMania?

2.) Triple H, WWE

“The Game” stood face-to-face with Brock Lesnar on Raw. I know that the goal is to keep Triple H’s matches rare and must-see, but a couple of squash matches on Raw could be entertaining.

3.) Brock Lesnar, WWE

Looking forward to see if Dean Ambrose can bring out the best of Lesnar at Fast Lane. Also hoping that the Wyatt Family does not interfere in the encounter.

4.) AJ Styles, WWE

Styles was repeatedly disrespected on Monday by the Miz, but I imagine the program will run until at least next Monday. Chris Jericho also cut a good promo on Raw, so it’s likely the two will square off at Fast Lane.

5.) Dean Ambrose, WWE

Ambrose was given a chance to shine in his interview with Brock Lesnar. Would WWE ever again consider a four-way title match at WrestleMania between Reigns, Lesnar, Ambrose, and Triple H?

6.) Kazuchika Okada, New Japan Pro Wrestling

Okada teamed up with Tomohiro Ishii and Shinsuke Nakamura, and literally carried Nakamura out of the Korakuen Hall in Tokyo after the match.

7.) Roman Reigns, WWE

Despite different intentions from the WWE, Reigns has the least amount of interest from the fans in his upcoming triple threat match with Lesnar and Ambrose. Naturally, he is scheduled to win.

8.) Finn Bálor, NXT

Bálor matches up in a non-title affair tonight with Apollo Crews. Curious how well the two work together, but Bálor has the ability to make any opponent shine.

9.) Zack Sabre, Jr.

The “Technical Wizard” enjoyed a productive weekend, defeating Chris Hero on Saturday night with Limitless Wrestling, and then gained the upper-hand on Brian Fury on Sunday for a sold-out Beyond Wrestling show.

10.) Jay Lethal, Ring of Honor

Lethal will defend his world title in a triple-threat match at Ring of Honor’s 14th Anniversary show on February 26 in Las Vegas against Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reilly.


Five Questions with… Jim Ross

The new voice of New Japan Pro Wrestling on AXS TV spoke with Sports Illustrated to discuss his broadcast debut on March 4, goals moving forward and touched on the current storylines in the WWE.

SI.com: How did you connect with AXS TV to become their lead broadcaster for New Japan Pro Wrestling? And what are your goals?

Jim Ross: [Broadcast partner] Josh Barnett and I have two goals. One is to build the New Japan brand on AXS TV. And the second is to become the best broadcast team in the genre.

AXS reached out in late November. I never reached out because there weren’t any openings. Mauro Ranallo and Josh Barnett were doing a great job, and I had no idea that WWE and Mauro were talking. Mauro’s a friend, and I’m happy for he and WWE–they got a great hire [to broadcast Smackdown] and he got a great gig. [My agent] Barry Bloom called me and asked if I would be interested in doing their Friday night show, but I said not at the expense of Mauro. Then I was told Mauro was going to WWE, so then I was interested. The schedule, travel-wise, is very compatible. I’ll make about eight to ten trips a year to LA.

New Japan has such an eclectic group of people. They’re not hung up on body types, so you get a buffet of physiques. They are not ashamed to have a junior heavyweight division. Now I’ve had guys in WWE that begged me not to book them in a match that had that label–they just thought it was the kiss of death because of the connotation they perceive it brings. But I’m not putting these guys over by the pound. They’re on the New Japan show for a reason, and that’s because they are stars.

SI.com: What is so unique about the New Japan brand of wrestling?

Jim Ross: The New Japan style really fits my style. They’re not a television company–they’re a wrestling company that does television. Their first priority is producing really sound, logically booked, strong style in-ring work live events. They prioritize taking care of their first base over taping the event, though they do a nice job with that, too. I’ve always had great respect for their company, but I think they are very under-marketed in America. Their presentation, when the wrestlers get to the ring and the bell sounds, is serious business. They stay loyal and true to their basic philosophies.

My goal is to see the relationship between New Japan and AXS grow. We’d like to see the TV shows get more current, as some of the shows are several months removed from when they happened. So we have an opportunity to build upon this great brand. The news of my hire was really good, and they had never received so much domestic PR in their company’s history, so they were very pleased with. We hope they are more open to Josh Barnett and I doing more shows for them, like the New Japan Cup. New Japan is motivated to build their brand, and I would enjoy going to Japan a few times a year with Josh and have AXS broadcast the shows live.

SI.com:The stars of New Japan include Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Kenny Omega. What excites you most about enhancing their product and helping elevate their talent?

Jim Ross: Kenny Omega is an intriguing talent, without question. He’s young and still putting his game together, but has a little bit of Brian Pillman in him–he dances to the beat of his own drummer, he’s fundamentally sound, and he’s very athletic.

I’m also looking forward to seeing how Tanahashi continues to evolve. We know, right now, he’s got shoulder issues. All talents have to be challenged to get better. Austin, Rock, HBK and Undertaker all had that common denominator: they were always their own worst critics and they always felt like they left something on the table. There was always something they wanted to recapture. They were never in their own personal comfort zone–they never stopped trying to get better. We’ll see how motivated Tanahashi is to pay the price to become even more extraordinary.

I see some of Bret Hart’s tendencies in Okada. He can do aerial things when he needs to, but he’s very, very proficient on the ground. There is a lot of Bret in this kid. When I got back from [broadcasting New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 9] Japan last year, I had the chance to speak with Paul Levesque and Vince McMahon–in separate conversations–about my experience and what I saw. I told Vince and I told Triple H that the talent was absolutely extraordinary, and I said Nakamura was the guy with the right age and sizzle. He has an MMA background, he speaks English, and his influences are Joey Mercury and Michael Jackson. He resonates to the fans.

SI.com: Roman Reigns is someone whom you respect greatly, but he remains unable to connect with a large section of WWE’s most hardcore fans. How would you book Reigns?

Jim Ross: Roman Reigns took more heat than he ever deserved for how he was booked at the Royal Rumble. He was a nose tackle in the ACC at Georgia Tech at 300-plus pounds, and then decided to go into the family business of pro wrestling. The thing we told him was, ‘You’ve got to work on your body,’ and I’m sure The Rock probably had some influence on that, too, but Reigns worked extremely hard and is very dedicated. The way he was booked in the Royal Rumble was decided by management. It was executed poorly. There should have been medical staff trying to help him and he could have pushed them away, refusing a ride to the trainer’s room. But the damn story was not told. And I’m not lashing out at anyone, because I don’t know if that was by design or not.

In hindsight, instead of sprinting and running to do anything, Reigns should have walked very deliberately and used his facial expressions to tell a great story. But we have the luxury of re-booking something we’ve already seen. I understand the intent of the storyline, but we never got a medical update on Reigns. It might have been a philosophical thing from upper management to have fans forget about Roman for a while, so it wasn’t the announcers’ fault and it damn sure wasn’t Roman Reigns’ fault.

SI.com: You are scheduled to perform your Ringside with Jim Ross show twice on Saturday, April 2, and then a post-Raw show on April 4. As such a passionate wrestling fan, what do you envision unfolding on the road to WrestleMania?

Jim Ross: If I was booking the Undertaker at WrestleMania, I think AJ Styles needs a little more time before you go in that direction. I know there is some talk online about people at WWE endorsing an Undertaker-Braun Strowman match, but I would not book that. Strowman’s not ready. He may have a great future, but I haven’t seen him work that much because he doesn’t get booked that much. If I’m WWE, I’m booking Braun Strowman on the road in singles matches. Get him match time in front of the paying customers, that’s what’s going to make him better. Not to be the third guy in a six-man tag.

It also seems it’s going to be Brock Lesnar and Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania. If Bray Wyatt and Brock Lesnar have a knockdown, drag out, physical, strong style, well-told story, that will be a hell of a match. Wyatt’s going to have a lot more credibility. Brock’s a real pro, and he knows that he’s the toughest dog in the yard. Knowing Brock, he knows he’s not going to break an egg with Bray Wyatt, because Wyatt is a tough, physical kid. That match will be intense, and Brock will love it.

The piece that conflicts me the most is they want Reigns to be a babyface. I’m just not sure that’s in the cards right now. Look at the Fast Lane pay per view–Reigns is going to be in the ring with Lesnar and Ambrose. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind who remotely pays attention that Ambrose and Lesnar are going to be cheered, so the odd man out is the guy who they want to get over most as a fan favorite. Unless WWE already has another plan. It’s obvious to me that Reigns is better-suited, with today’s fan base, as a villain. That’s what I hear from the paying customer, who is the best research tool. Roman’s going to be a heel in that scenario, so what if Vince McMahon thinks his son-in-law is getting too big for his britches? He runs the successful NXT, he’s the WWE champion, and he married the boss’ daughter. Maybe Vince is not ready to acquiesce the leadership of the company to his son-in-law, so maybe Vince makes a secret deal with Roman Reigns to win Fast Lane and then Vince orchestrates Reigns to screw Hunter at WrestleMania. No matter what happens, Vince McMahon is a smart marketer, and I have faith in Vince and his group.


Zack Sabre Jr. Recalls Working with Daniel Bryan

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Zack Sabre Jr. and “The American Dragon” Bryan Danielson–better known to the world as Daniel Bryan–locked up in a renowned 2008 match for Triple X Wrestling. Sabre, arguably the best technical wrestler in the world, met with Sports Illustrated this past Sunday and recalled the encounter.

“That was a real turning point for me,” said Sabre. “I’d been wrestling for a couple years on the UK scene, but being in the ring with someone who dictates their match so well, and puts you into positions you didn’t even realize you needed to be in, and makes it all so effortless. He wrestled at such a high caliber. He didn’t know who I was, he’d never met me before, but he showed me the kind of wrestler I want to be. I want to travel around the world and have a good, quality match with anyone.”

The match was a seminar in advanced psychology and presentation, and Bryan’s approach helped shape Sabre’s wrestling philosophy.

“We wrestled in front of a few hundred people, and he’d been on a huge schedule, but he absolutely worked his ass off. He’s the example of a wrestler who loves it so much, and cares about his own artistic integrity. If even one fan has traveled to see me, I don’t want him to be disappointed. I want pride in my own work, and Daniel Bryan puts so much pride into his work.”

Sabre also discussed his career, revealed his upcoming goals–and touches on a recent meeting with Triple H–in a story that will run next Monday, February 8 exclusively on SI.com.


A Rising Fenix

Fenix is bringing lucha to the United States.

The 25-year-old wrestles every Wednesday on El Rey Network’s Lucha Underground, and he is grateful for the opportunity.

“I love that we’re bringing lucha-style wrestling to the USA,” said Fenix. “The Lucha Underground family is amazing, and I’m so happy to be there.”

Fenix grew up in Mexico City, and established himself in AAA, Mexico’s premiere wrestling company, as well the Pro Wrestling Noah promotion in Japan.

“Lucha Underground allows the wrestlers to wrestle any style they want,” said Fenix. “My work is combination of the Mexican, Japanese, and American style.”

“I don’t watch or follow WWE. I watch Japanese lucha. But my work is more in my mind. I constantly think of new moves, and I dream of new moves. Wrestling has changed my life. Lucha libre is my life, and it is my love.”

Wrestling is a family business for Fenix. His brother, Pentagon Jr., also wrestles for Lucha Underground. Outside of confirming they are related, however, Fenix declined to speak about matters outside the ring.

“Part of wrestling is keeping the mystery,” said Fenix. “I have my Fenix life and I have my life. When you have a mask in Mexico, you have two lives. It’s a mystery. I’m Fenix, but when I don’t have my mask, I’m a just a normal guy who wants to have fun, likes drawing and reading books. But in Mexico you need to honor the mask. When I have the mask, I’m Fenix. I don’t have a family, I only have the ring and the audience.”

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Rey Mysterio will appear on Lucha Underground this season, and Fenix was grateful to work with the master of the 619.

“My favorite wrestler in the world is Rey Mysterio,” said Fenix. “Rey Mysterio can have a match in the Japanese style, the American style, the lucha libre style. He is my role model and example to follow in this business, and he is also the best guy in the world. I have very much respect for Rey Mysterio as a person.”

Fenix keeps a close eye on the Japanese wrestling scene, and dreams of a match with NXT’s Shinsuke Nakamura.

“Nakamura is the big star from New Japan, and I want a match with him,” said Fenix. “I want a match in [Pro Wrestling] Noah with [Taiji] Ishimori, and I want to fight Kenta Kobayashi [NXT’s Hideo Itami], but I’ll take a match with anyone in the world.”

While many in wrestling have a burning desire to become the world champion, Fenix explained he wants to be defined by his work.

“It’s not about titles,” he said. “For me, it’s about the people watching the show saying, ‘I remember Fenix, that mother----- is crazy.’ I want to go to the best companies in the world, and I want the people to remember me. I want the people to feel me, for people to know my love. I know how it is to watch lucha libre, and I want to people to watch with a smile on their face. I want the people to remember me.”

Lucha Underground confirmed that plans are in place for a third season, which will air in early 2017. Fenix plans to remain an integral part of LU.

“I love the lucha libre,” said Fenix. “The ring makes me happy, and my fans are the greatest in the world. I want to thank them so much for following me. Everything I do is for these people who believe in me.”


Sonjay Dutt & Global Force Wrestling

Sonjay Dutt knows why so many men and women are exploited in pro wrestling.

A lack of education.

“I help run a [wrestling] school in southern Maryland, and there are five students I’ve honed since day one,” said Dutt. “There are two or three of them that are really young–one just turned 19–and I’ve made it a point to tell him that there is nothing guaranteed in this business. But if you get your education, the whole world is guaranteed. If you’re educated and you know what you are talking about, you’re going to go far in life.”

The 33-year-old Dutt juggled wrestling in TNA and Japan with his studies, but still graduated in four-and-a-half years from George Mason University in 2004 with a concentration in public relations and a major in communications.

“There are under two hundred contracted wrestling jobs in North America,” said Dutt. “That’s the reality of it, so I always emphasize that if you enter pro wrestling without your education, you’re doing yourself a disservice.”

The reigning Global Force Wrestling NEX*GEN champion is also proud of his Indian heritage, especially because he has never played the role of a stereotypical Indian character.

“I grew up watching the ‘Attitude Era’ and I still remember Tiger Ali Singh,” said Dutt. “I just didn’t want to do that. When I first broke into wrestling, I recognized and understood that you need to exploit anything that is different about you. My culture and background makes me different, but right from the very beginning, I said I was going to avoid capitalizing on negative stereotypes. I wanted to be a pro wrestler known for my talents.”

Vince Russo tried to persuade him to wear a turban in the ring with TNA, but Dutt held true to his convictions.

“There was a time around 2006 when Vince Russo wanted me to come out in a turban, and that was exactly what I didn’t want,” said Dutt. “My status in the industry at the time wasn’t anything special, so a lot of guys in my shoes would have said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want.’ But I made it a point to tell Vince why this wouldn’t be a positive thing. We had just started television in ESPN STAR Asia, so this was going to be something broadcast to the Indian people, and we’ll be poking fun at them and their culture. That’s something we want to completely avoid, and something I don’t want to do. Thankfully, he saw my viewpoint and we went in a totally different direction.”

Dutt grew up idolizing Sabu, who was hailed from Bombay, India. The two later worked together in TNA in a program with fellow ECW legend Raven.

“Raven was actually one of my biggest supporters, and he’s one of the reasons I got my initial job with TNA in 2003,” explained Dutt. “We had done a lot of independents together and he took a liking to me. He’d take me to lunch and give me advice non-stop, and then he pushed to include me in this big angle with himself and Sabu. He was a wealth of knowledge, and explained what I needed to do and what I needed to stay away from.”

Dutt, who is now a fifteen year veteran of the business, also revealed his gratitude for Kevin Nash’s influence on his career.

“All of the guys working with Nash on a weekly basis in that ‘paparazzi’ TNA angle–Jay Lethal, myself, Alex Shelley, and Chris Sabin–I mean, we were all just kids,” said Dutt. “We were 19, 20, 21 years old, and we were the runts of that locker room. We had our own separate trailer to change in, and one day, low and behold, Kevin Nash walked in. Kevin’s a kid at heart, and he took a liking to us. He changed with us, hung out with us, cut up with us after the school. Very quickly, we realized he was the coolest guy in the world. Because of that, I built a friendship with him personally and professionally.”

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Dutt is best friends with Ring of Honor champion Jay Lethal, who is the godfather to Dutt’s five-year-old daughter.

“This is his time,” said Dutt. “I can’t be more proud or happier for his success, but I’ve known how great he is since day one in 2002.”

Lethal made his initial mark in the business with incredible impersonations of Ric Flair and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, but Dutt noted that Lethal’s greatest accomplishment is building his own character.

“For the longest time he would tell me, ‘It’s so much easier being the ‘Macho Man,’ or being Flair,” said Dutt. “He said it was so much harder to be himself, but he didn’t have the platform to do it. Once Ring of Honor gave him the chance to show off who he is and the innate qualities that no one else has, he showcased it. Now he knows he can do it.”

Dutt returned briefly to TNA this past summer with the Jeff Jarrett-Dixie Carter angle, and that was solely based on his association with Jeff Jarrett and GFW.

“Jeff Jarrett has taught me so much about how this business works and about life,” said Dutt. “I’ll always be grateful toward him.”

Dutt is optimistic that GFW’s Amped will debut on television in 2016.

“The difference between GFW and any other wrestling promotion out there in North America will come out once the television product hits the airwaves. Fans will really see the difference in how we’re trying to present pro wrestling. We have compelling wrestlers and compelling characters, and we have some stuff that’s really going to engage viewers.”


Tweet of the Week

I first reached out to Bret Hart in February of 2013. I was working on a “Macho Man” Randy Savage feature story, and I thought Hart’s friendship and admiration toward Savage would add a compelling element to the story.

Hart agreed to speak for twenty minutes. As we reached the 27-minute mark, I thanked him for his time and began to ask my final question. The “Hitman” cut me off and asked, “Do you mind if we talk about Randy a little longer?” He then shared another hour of his time with me.

WWE mentioned Hart’s battle with cancer on Raw, and it was appropriate that the following match was Erick Rowan vs. The Big Show. Hart, of course, was extremely close with the greatest giant of all–Andre the Giant. When I was with the Boston Herald, Hart recalled a great story over the phone to me about Andre from the WrestleMania II battle royal that featured a plethora of stars, including the NFL’s William “Refrigerator” Perry:

“Andre was in a grumpy mood that day,” remembered Hart. “He didn’t want anything to do with those football players, but he was good to me. I was just lucky that Andre had his eyes set on the football players.”

Hart finished his night as the runner-up after Andre hurled him over the top rope.

“Being picked up over Andre’s head and tossed out into the crowd, that was a long ways down,” said Hart. “Even when I watch it now, it doesn’t seem like that big of a drop, but it felt like I was falling off the top of the Empire State Building.”

My favorite part of getting to know Hart through our multiple interviews is hearing, first-hand, his passion for the business. He revealed to me in our most recent interview that he felt inspired to forgive Shawn Michaels after watching his WrestleMania 25 match with the Undertaker.

Hart is one of wrestling’s treasures, and I sincerely hope that the “Excellence of Execution” shows cancer, once and for all, that he is the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be.


Bonus Tweet of the Week

The stylin’, profilin’, limousine ridin’, kiss-stealin’, wheelin’ and dealin’ son of a gun takes a photo next to Ric Flair.

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