Week in Wrestling: WrestleMania week; Honky Tonk Man reminisces
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
Vince McMahon knows how to deliver at WrestleMania. Yet he is entering unknown territory this Sunday with the Roman Reigns predicament. Reigns’ booking has been a disaster for the past two years, and there is no way to put him over in the main event of the biggest pay per view of the year. McMahon threw a swerve last year with Seth Rollins cashing in “Money the Bank” contract, but no such backup plan exists for this weekend.
The Rock is promising a surprise of epic proportions for Sunday. Is it possible–in a scene out of WrestleMania IX–that Triple H defeats Reigns, mocks the crowd/claims he is the greatest champion of all time, only to be challenged by the People’s Champ? ESPN is giving unprecedented coverage to WrestleMania, and concluding the “Showcase of Immortals” with Dwayne Johnson as champion would be money for Monday morning headlines. It also provokes a Reigns heel turn, perhaps even as soon as the following night.
Or… based on the finish of Raw, Roman Reigns can overcome all odds to defeat Triple H. If that is the case, we will soon find out if there is enough pyro in Arlington, Texas to drown out 100,000 boos.
Shane McMahon finally hit his stride on Raw. The delivery of his “You stole this company from your father–this Sunday, I’m taking it from you” line blurred the lines of reality as many older WWWF veterans felt that Vince made a mockery of his father’s Northeast wrestling dynasty. The 46-year-old Shane was blown up after five minutes of brawling with the Undertaker, and I am expecting a match full of high spots in the cage and plenty of outside interference on Sunday.
In other news…
• Sports Illustrated will be delivering a running blog from the Lone Star state throughout WrestleMania weekend. There will be coverage from Ring of Honor, Evolve, the WrestleCon Supershow, Shimmer and a WrestleMania review on Monday. In addition, there will be a feature story this Friday on Evolve’s Gabe Sapolsky.
• The most memorable match from WrestleMania 32 will be Brock Lesnar defeating Dean Ambrose. Lesnar is still the most destructive force in wrestling, and Ambrose is hungry to deliver spectacular matches en route to his first run as WWE world champion.
• Will WrestleMania 32 open with Steve Austin, The Rock and John Cena in a segment similar to the one we watched at WrestleMania 30? The Rock will likely be inserted into the main event, and a spear/heel turn for Reigns would make for a memorable ‘Mania moment.
• Soon-to-be Hall of Famer Michael Hayes produced a solid two-part segment between the Dudley’s and Roman Reigns, which began on Smackdown and finished with Triple H on Raw.
• Revolution Pro Wrestling just announced Zack Sabre Jr.’s next title defense on June 12 in London against Kurt Angle. Although Angle was offered a part-time wrestling/coaching contract from TNA, the return to the independents is a far better route to lead to an appearance at WrestleMania 33.
• Count me among those who hope the Zack Ryder push extends beyond WrestleMania. While I not optimistic that it will last beyond this Sunday (especially considering he immediately took a Codebreaker after upsetting Chris Jericho on Raw), Ryder is talented in the ring and strong on the mic. Given the opportunity, he and Kevin Owens would put together a very good series of matches.
• Absolutely incredible that Big Show and Kane are being teased as the top two forces in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. Based on the entries, which is the weakest field in three years, it actually appears that these will be the final two. Curious to hear the crowd reaction for the winner…
• Brock Lesnar is considered somewhat of a mercenary in wrestling. He does not follow the company line and say he grew up dreaming of headlining WrestleMania or even becoming a WWE superstar, so it was interesting to hear Drew Galloway remark that Lesnar was one of the people who questioned his decision to join 3MB. “I remember Brock Lesnar walked up and said to me, ‘Why are you doing this?’” said Galloway. Nice to see that Lesnar cared enough to ask why the 6’6”, 240-pound Galloway was relegated to a comedic heel trio.
• Very quietly, Ric Flair has transformed into one of the best managers in the business. The “Nature Boy” will forget more about wrestling than most of us will ever learn, and he has found new life managing his daughter. Flair never steals the spotlight, and has only enhanced Charlotte’s run as a heel.
• Twelve matches at WrestleMania is a significant accomplishment for Chris Jericho, but it will be a long time before Shawn Michaels is ever replaced as “Mr. WrestleMania.” But who is the original Mr. WrestleMania? Before Michaels claimed the title, I would rank Randy Savage–who had ‘Mania moments with Ricky Steamboat, Ted DiBiase, Hulk Hogan, Dusty Rhodes, the Ultimate Warrior, and Ric Flair–as the original holder of that prestigious title.
• Curtis Axel briefly mentioned, “Happy birthday, Dad” on Raw to his late father, Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig, who passed away thirteen years ago. Mr. Perfect was the prototype for a cocky, talented heel, and it is unfortunate that Axel continues to be marketed in the same fashion when he would connect far better with viewers as the underdog.
• The League of Nations should be involved in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, and the Wyatt Family–even riddled with injuries–would have added a tremendous amount of excitement to a dull series between New Day and the League of Nations. On the bright side, maybe the LON will cease to exist after WrestleMania.
• Ring of Honor’s four-way tag match–between the Young Bucks, Addiction, the Briscoes and the Motor City Machine Guns–on Saturday afternoon has the potential to be the match of the weekend.
• What is worse–the Total Divas show… or matches on Raw which tie in storylines from Total Divas?
Weekly Top 10
1.) Kevin Owens, WWE
KO-Mania has to retain the Intercontinental title in the 7-man ladder match, right? Right? I am looking forward to a transcendent performance from Owens, who understands the enormity of what is at stake this Sunday.
2.) Dean Ambrose, WWE
Two very different points in their careers, but I recently re-watched Goldust vs. Roddy Piper in a Hollywood Backlot Brawl. Piper was 41 by this point, while Ambrose is only 30, but if the “Lunatic Fringe” can tap into Piper’s wheelhouse against an all-time great in Lesnar, we’ll have the match of the night.
3.) AJ Styles, WWE
I hate to set the bar too high, but I think the template for Styles-Jericho is the WrestleMania 22 classic between Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho. Can these two deliver?
4.) Brock Lesnar, WWE
Will Lesnar be reinserted to the title picture after Sunday? Or will his feud with Ambrose be extended?
5.) Chris Jericho, WWE
Jericho has been superb in the Rumble-to-WrestleMania stretch, and I am very excited to see what he has in store for his next feud (Shinsuke Nakamura?) after Sunday.
6.) Roman Reigns, WWE
Unless Reigns turns heel, the finish of WrestleMania is going to be a disaster.
7.) Kenny Omega, New Japan Pro Wrestling
Omega returns to action in a 10-man tag this Friday as he teams with Bullet Club members Tama Tonga, Bad Luck Fale, Tanga Roa and Yujiro Takahashi against Hiroshi Tanahashi, Michael Elgin, Juice Robinson, Tomoaki Honma and Togi Makabe.
8.) Jay Lethal, Ring of Honor
The Ring of Honor world champion defends his title against Top Prospect Tournament winner Lio Rush on Friday in Dallas.
9.) Kazuchika Okada, New Japan Pro Wrestling
The IWGP champion returns to six man tag action tonight, Friday, and Saturday–will Okada find time to watch former rival Shinsuke Nakamura debut at NXT on Friday?
10.) Charlotte, WWE
Surprised that Charlotte was booked against Becky Lynch on Monday, but looking forward to seeing what she has in store for Sunday. Although Sasha Banks is the favorite to win the title, Charlotte–despite a slow start–has thrived in her role as heel champion.
Five Questions with… ACH
Ring of Honor’s Albert C. Hardie, Jr.–known in the ring as ACH–is one of the top high flyers in the business. The 28-year-old already has ten years of experience in the ring, and he is, both literally and figuratively, one of ROH’s rising stars.
SI.com: You have put so much work into your career to reach this point of success in Ring of Honor. What has allowed you to succeed, and were you nervous that you did not have a backup plan in case of failure?
ACH: It’s taken a lot of bumps and a lot of bruises to get this far. It takes a lot of sacrifice to be successful. With me, it’s been a constant struggle trying to find who I am as a person. I got in when I was 18 and fresh out of high school. I grew up in Austin, Texas, and I went against the grain. People wanted me to get an education, and I’m not against that at all, but I always believed that if I ever gave myself a backup plan, I was telling myself there was a possibility that I wouldn’t make it. Failure was not an option. I actually just moved back to Austin after living in St. Louis for the past four years. I’ve had to mature a lot to come this far in the business. It’s a small window, and only a few people can fit through. I’ve just been grinding and believe that hard work pays off.
SI.com: In today’s era of wrestling, dives are overdone in the same fashion that blood gushed in matches throughout the late 90’s. How did you make your dive–the breathtaking “Air Jordan”–so unique?
ACH: The dive is actually a luchador dive and the inventor was Aero Star from AAA. I wanted to add my own touch, so I call it the “Air Jordan.” One thing I have over a lot of wrestlers is my imagination. I always try to add that flavor to it, and the step up dive is a good example of that. Aero Star never spread eagle in the air, but I live in the moment. If I skydive, I’m not going to just jump off the plane. So I spread eagle, and it reminded of Jordan’s “Rock the Cradle” dunk, so I looked at it as a game-changer like Michael Jordan.
That’s why it is so cool to share the ring with someone with an imagination like Kenny Omega. He would do the hadouken and all the Street Fighter stuff, and he always expressed himself through his own outlets. I love being myself in the ring. So to be at this point in my career, and face guys like Alex Shelley, Matt Sydal, Kenny Omega and Shinsuke Nakamura, it’s mind-blowing.
SI.com: Who are the top three wrestlers in the business?
ACH: The best three in the business has to be Okada, Finn Balor, you always have to mention AJ Styles, he’s basically the godfather. There are so many great guys in the business. Hate him or love him, but I think Roman Reigns is really good. He’s making top dollar for a reason. Nakamura, Kenny Omega, you can’t even neglect the Bucks, reDRagon and the whole NXT is killing it, our roster, the PWG roster, Kevin Owens. Wrestling as a whole is just killing it. I’m proud to be a pro wrestler.
SI.com: You have yet to win gold in Ring of Honor. Is that a goal of yours for 2016?
ACH: I want it all. I’d love the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship and the Ring of Honor Television title. At some point–and why not?–I want the Ring of Honor championship. My childlike exuberance comes alive out in the ring, I work very hard, and a title would put the stamp of approval on how hard I’ve worked. Titles can be props, but they do have meaning. It shows people that you’ve worked hard enough to the point where a company is going to put its trust and faith in you.
SI.com: What is the most important piece of your character in the ring?
ACH: I represent being yourself. I don’t talk about expressing yourself, I just do it. It’s a good feeling when you walk out to the crowd and feel like you’re wrestling in front of friends and family versus wrestling in front of fans. It makes the connection that much deeper and that much better. When you’re around your family, you’re yourself. When I can look at the people in the audience as my friends and family, it makes my performance that much better.
Shake, Rattle, and Roll with the Honky Tonk Man
The Honky Tonk Man–the longest reigning Intercontinental champion of all time–has officially given his stamp of approval to Kevin Owens.
“I always thought the Intercontinental title was never the same since I wore it, but Kevin Owens is the one,” said the Honky Tonk Man. “I met Kevin on one of the independent shows. I knew he had been around for a while, and he has that desire and dedication. He wants to succeed, and he’s going to do very well.”
The 63-year-old Honky Tonk Man–whose real name is Wayne Farris–remains a part of wrestling’s independent scene in grassroots America, but a discussion of the IC title naturally brought him back in time to 1987. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat defeated the “Macho Man” Randy Savage for the company’s number two title at WrestleMania III, but Steamboat informed Vince McMahon shortly after the victory that he needed time off to be with his wife and newborn son.
“Vince was ambushed with Steamboat,” said Farris. “He won the belt over Savage, and then–three weeks later–he told Vince he wanted to take time off time to be with his wife and baby. Obviously, I can understand that, but he really should have said something before he won the belt. Vince had plans for Butch Reed to take the belt, and he was talking to Hogan one day in the hallway before a show in Buffalo. I walked by, and Hogan said, ‘Hey Vince, what about this guy?’ Vince took one look at me, threw his head back like he does and stuck out his chin, and said, ‘Maybe so.’ Two hours later, I had the belt around my waist.”
Part of the allure of the Honky Tonk Man was the “Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart by his side.
“Jimmy Hart and I were like macaroni and cheese,” explained Farris. “We were inseparable, and we worked so naturally together. Jimmy motivated me and he pushed me. He acted like my real life manager. He had been around the music and he toured all over the country with American Bandstand, and he knew the importance of dressing and acting like a show, and doing publicity. He’d get me up at 4am in Seattle to do a 7am drive time radio show in Boston. If we had to do a 6:30am Good Morning, Buffalo TV spot, Jimmy would have us do it. Jimmy pushed me and prodded me, and I owe him a lot for that. I wouldn’t have reached the extra mile of success without him.”
In addition to Hart, Honky’s traveling crew during his days as champ were Dave and Earl Hebner.
“Jimmy and I traveled together that whole fifteen months I was Intercontinental champion,” said Farris. “We also traveled with Earl Hebner. I’d met Earl in Knoxville when he came over from Charlotte, and we clicked together in the ring. He was a great referee. Then his brother, Dave, came along, so I traveled with Jimmy and the Hebner twins. After that, I traveled with Greg Valentine. Jimmy got spread real thin managing a lot of guys by the end of my run.”
The most memorable moments of Honky’s career include smashing Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Savage over the head with his signature guitar, as well as dropping the IC title to the Ultimate Warrior at the 1988 SummerSlam.
“When it came to the Warrior, that was a four-month deal that I knew ahead of time,” explained Farris. “We had to keep it under wraps, so most of the locker room didn’t even know. The buildup was done so, so well that it threw everyone off track and no one had an inkling that it was going to be the Warrior.”
The Honky Tonk Man was scheduled to defend the Intercontinental title against Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, but a storyline injury allowed the Ultimate Warrior to take his place and win the title in just thirty-one seconds.
“Madison Square Garden exploded when the Warrior ran out,” said Farris. “That was actually the one time when I worked for a company that I had creative control, and Vince said, ‘I don’t care how you do it, just get him over.’ I knew it needed to be short, and Vince said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ So that was all mine, and it did three things. It didn’t hurt me–I was already hated. I wanted every person out there to think they could beat me, and I had eight-year-old kids saying they could beat me. It made the Warrior an overnight sensation, and it created the superstar they wanted. Hogan had just given Vince his year’s notice that he was going to Hollywood to make movies, so they needed somebody, and the Warrior was the guy.”
Though all parties were pleased with the Warrior’s rub at SummerSlam, the damage was already done. Issues between Farris and McMahon arose when McMahon wanted Savage to win the IC title months before, and McMahon has a long memory.
“Vince never forgets,” said Farris. “Vince is a rough, tough businessman. He’s a nice guy and the most pleasant person when you’re not doing business with him, but he’s a real tough negotiator, and he never forgets when someone screws up. I’m not going to say I screwed up, but I was not politically or professionally correct when I told him I was not going to lose the belt to anyone on national television. Our deal was that I wouldn’t, because back then, that would really hurt you. He never got over it, and he lost trust in me.”
Amazingly, the Honky Tonk Man does not occupy a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame. He was, however, offered the chance to be enshrined in 2010 during WrestleMania XXVI weekend.
“They offered the Hall of Fame when they were in Phoenix, but I was contracted to go to Wizard World of Comic Con,” said Farris. “I went to Toronto instead, and I don’t think they liked me doing that. But if I had a contract with them, they would want me to honor it, and I had a contract that I honored. Back then, there was also a no-compete clause for 90 days after you were inducted in the Hall of Fame, and I needed to work.
“I equate Vince to George Steinbrenner and Donald Trump. They control a lot of people, and have to manage a lot of personalities. Vince had to deal with a locker of fifty guys who were aggressive, had egos as big as Andre the Giant, and deal with all kinds of stuff on a nightly basis. I can remember calling the office at 4am to vent, and he answered the phone. Vince and Pat Patterson did it themselves. There was no corporate lineup with junior vice presidents – they did it. It’s amazing what Vince has put together. He has a WrestleMania that is bigger than a Rolling Stones concert.”
Farris appeared as a new character on WWF programming in 1986, but was already a nine-year veteran by the time his introductory “Vote of Confidence” vignettes with Jesse “The Body” Ventura began to air.
“I had a whole other career. I spent nearly a decade as a journeyman, and then I created this Honky Tonk Man character and brought it to Canada and then, of course, the WWE,” said Farris. “That’s when I came on the national scene, even though I had been around for quite a while.”
Before wrestling, Farris was coaching football and teaching civics, economics, and geography in West Tennessee.
“My plan was to give wrestling five years, and see what happened,” said Farris. “If nothing came out of it, I would go back to teaching and coaching. Those first five years went well, so I thought, ‘OK, I’ll give it five more.’ I really did have a five-year plan every five years, and then finally, I lost count.
“I always planned to go to the New York territory. That’s where you got magazine coverage. If you’re not in New York, then you’re not anywhere. That’s where you need to go to be recognized. I always wanted to do that, and I told myself, ‘If I ever get there, I’m going to give it the best shot I ever have and try to make it,’ and that’s what happened.”
In addition to a place in the history books, the run as Intercontinental champion also gave Farris an introduction to how McMahon’s pay scale operated.
“With no formal contracts and no guaranteed money, there was a big pay discrepancy between the bottom of the card, the middle of the card, and the top of the card,” explained Farris. “When I first started underneath on the card, I was doing $2500-$3000 a week. People thought that was pretty good money, but I’m paying my hotels, food, and rental cars, so there’s not a lot left when I paid my taxes. I was making that much teaching school. Then you get to the middle of the card, and it goes up another $1500-$2000. The top of the card–headlining Madison Square Garden with Bruno [Sammartino]–had you making $10,000 for one match, so you always want to be on top of the card.
“Back then, there were three shows running a night. Some guys would be in the C-club, which were the smaller towns that held 3,500 people. Then there was the B-club, which was myself and Macho Man, Ultimate Warrior, and Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts. The A-clubs were the big houses and, of course, was Hogan.”
Farris has known Terry Bollea for over forty years, and watched the Hogan-Gawker trial with great interest.
“Hogan puts himself in some bad predicaments all the time, but he always bounces back,” said Farris. “He’s Hulk Hogan. He changed the way people look at professional wrestling. Hogan and our group of guys touched a whole generation of people, and I owe a lot to him. Where would the business be without him? He changed the business forever, and I’m glad everything is working out for him in his personal life.”
Farris also expressed his gratitude for the people who have supported him for decades.
“Without the fans, I would be no one. We have the most fabulous fans in the world.”
Cryme Tyme, Part II
JTG and Shad Gaspard have dream matches in mind for Cryme Tyme at WrestleMania 32.
“I’d love to work with the Uso’s,” said JTG. “I remember when they were fans of us.”
Both agreed that a series with the New Day would be compelling, Gaspard wants another team if he ever returns to WWE.
“Bubba Dudley is one of the guys who is pushing for us to come back,” said Gaspard. “He knows Cryme Tyme and the Dudley Boyz is where the money’s at–all four of us know how to work a match.”
Both JTG and Gaspard complimented the New Day for making their gimmick work.
“Your job as a professional wrestler is to create,” explained Gaspard. “It’s not a writer’s job to create for you.”
“And that’s what New Day did,” added JTG.
The rich history of the WWE title includes only one African-American champion, and Gaspard once had designs on the world title.
“Pro wrestling has not progressed as much as the world,” said Gaspard. “Wrestling has a stopper, and it’s not always Vince McMahon. Vince said to me once after I killed it in a promo class, ‘We found our next world champion.’ But I couldn’t control my temper. John Cena knows how to play the game. If you can’t play against him, you don’t belong to be there.”
“The first thing they teach you in wrestling school is to check your ego at the door,” said a smiling JTG. “Shad didn’t get the memo.”
Gaspard explained that Shawn Michaels represented one of the stoppers of Cryme Tyme’s success.
“I idolized Shawn Michaels, but he had our back to our face,” said Gaspard. “Away from us, he didn’t.
“Me and Jay got offered to go to NASCAR. The people at NASCAR actually said, ‘We want Shad and JTG.’ Bernie Mac just had a movie where he was in NASCAR, so NASCAR wanted to diversify their audience. I didn’t know anyone who watched NASCAR except Shawn, so I trusted him and asked a bunch of questions. A week later, we were told that John Cena was going instead. You always heard those stories about Shawn, but it’s different when it actually happens to you.”
In addition to a friend of both Gaspard and JTG, former WWE tag team champion Lance Cade was a student of Shawn Michaels. Unfortunately, the late Cade, who passed away at the age of 30 in 2010, was unable to please his teacher.
“I loved Lance Cade,” said Gaspard. “He was my friend in OVW, and he was a guy who always upbeat and happy. But when Lance got around Shawn, nothing he did was right. It breaks my heart. That’s a guy who really tried his f----- his a-- off.
“Lance changed his whole gimmick, wearing all this stuff that got him over, and he had earring in. He had a f----- spectacular match, and when he walked backstage, all Shawn could say, ‘You look like a f------ f---t. You want to get over? Black boots, black tights, and a leather vest.’ And I looked at Jay and said, ‘Who the f--- wears leather vests now?’ A week later, Lance wore that gimmick, and Vince went off and said, ‘Take that off and don’t ever wear that sh-- ever again.’ So it’s either impress your boss or your mentor. Around Shawn, he couldn’t be himself.”
A major reason Cryme Tyme is unlikely to return to WWE is their confidence and honesty.
“In that system, they just want people to go along,” said JTG. “You have to find ways to manipulate the system so it goes your way.”
Gaspard agreed that he is not optimistic for a return solely on the WWE’s terms.
“I’m honest, Jay is honest, and that’s a bad thing in that company,” said Gaspard. “But we can sleep at night. I never had a pill problem to the point where I needed to take pills because of all the dumb s--- I did. I never had a problem with alcohol, and you’ve never seen Jay and I have domestic issues with our girlfriends or wives.”
Even without a return any time soon, there will always be fond memories of the Cryme Tyme every time they turn on WWE television, especially Kofi Kingston.
“I beat the s--- out of Kofi Kingston in his tryout match,” said Gaspard. “He still has a scar from it. I also made him look like a million bucks. I threw Kofi so high in the air that he fell in my face, and when he drop kicked me, I sold got him. I said, ‘Hit me as hard you can, please.’ He survived, and then he got signed. He belonged.
“I love professional wrestling, and so does Jay. It’s in our hearts and in our souls. 50 Cent f----- told us, ‘I’ll write you a song and we’ll walk to the ring together at WrestleMania.’ We’re WWE born and bred, and maybe one day you’ll see us back again.”
Monday Night Ran
The Mat Mania album would not be complete without a track featuring Vincent Kennedy McMahon.
“Vince is the best character in the past twenty years,” said Mega Ran. “Vince got me back into wrestling after a long hiatus. I remember buying the 1997 Survivor Series VHS because it had an exclusive interview with Vince about Bret. That changed wrestling forever, as every federation since has had an evil commissioner or heel boss. Bringing that bit of reality was brilliant.”
McMahon, Mega Ran remarked, has found innovative ways to keep his character fresh for the past twenty years.
“It’s amazing he’s kept his character so intriguing for so long,” said Mega Ran. “I started off with that story from 1997 and the birth of McMahon, ‘The match made in heaven, McMahon and ‘97.’ He’s constantly being the best at being evil, and he’s the ultimate team player taking stunners and even peeing on himself. I have the ultimate respect for Vince, and that’s why we did this track.”
Mega Ran, who officially released the complete Mat Mania album today, is about to enter a busy WrestleMania weekend. He is podcasting from 9am-5pm on Friday at WrestleCon, and he will be shooting live episodes and delivering a plethora of surprise guests. He is also performing in the ring at Kaiju Big Battle on Friday night, followed by a Mat Mania Release Show on Saturday at 9pm at Caves Lounge in Arlington.
“It’s been so cool to see the range of reactions to the tracks,” said Mega Ran. “Thank you to everyone who is listening and sharing.”
Tweet of the Week
New York Stock Exchange? They’re home.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.