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
For the second straight year, SummerSlam will be in Brooklyn, NY at the Barclays Center. Is the WWE ready to go full steam with the women’s division and put Charlotte and Sasha Banks in the main event of the second biggest show of the year?
The crowd in Brooklyn would absolutely support a main event between the two women. Moving away from the pay-per-view model also allows WWE some flexibility, as monthly subscriptions are far different than PPV buys. The match could also include Ronda Rousey–who is still a draw despite her one loss to Holly Holm–as the special guest referee as Sasha Banks finally dethrones Charlotte.
The winds of change are blowing in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Three months after the departures of Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles, we are now beginning to see the revised game plan by head booker Keiji Takayama, who is better known in the ring as Gedo.
Tetsuya Naito won the IWGP championship with an upset victory over Kazuchika Okada this past weekend in Tokyo at NJPW’s Invasion Attack. Other title changes included Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks dropping the NEVER Openweight 6-man tag team title to the team of Michael Elgin, YOSHITATSU and Hiroshi Tanahashi. The six man tag matches give Tanahashi even more time to recover from nagging shoulder and back injuries.
A true gamble for New Japan would have been placing the world title on Kenny Omega. Gedo is gun shy after losing Styles, and Omega has received numerous offers from the WWE, but New Japan has a long history of preferring homegrown talent as IWGP champion. Nevertheless, the best business move for NJPW remains giving the wildly talented Omega a chance to succeed as champion.
In other news…
• Is it just me, or does Shane McMahon seem unsure of himself on the microphone? Although I have enjoyed his comeback, McMahon is always thinking about his next line, as the WWE has a script with every line planned out on its programming.
• Jim Ross offered an interesting perspective on the Associated Press story where Brock Lesnar admitted that he views himself as a “skilled worker” and not someone who loves wrestling for the WWE: “It’s refreshing,” said Ross. “Lesnar is honest. He’s saying the same thing a lot of others guys are feeling. It’s not a bad philosophy. He wants to provide for his family. But people forget about Lesnar that he is very competitive. That’s why he left the WWE the first time–he wanted to compete in something real. He wants the most physical, compelling match on the show.”
• Difficult to argue the WWE’s game plan with Roman Reigns as champion–stick the champ with the best workers possible. AJ Styles is going to ensure Reigns’ shines at Payback, and that is similar to the blueprint used at the 2015 Fast Lane between Reigns and Daniel Bryan.
• For those counting, Raw marked the third consecutive show where Reigns used his signature “I’m not a good guy, I’m not a bad guy, I’m just the guy” line. It’s a good line, no doubt, but has he already used it too often?
• Didn’t think it was possible to dislike Dr. Phil more I already did... until watching his segments on Raw.
• John Cena and Daniel Bryan were the respective United States and Intercontinental champions after WrestleMania 31, which is a far cry from Kalisto and the Miz. Kalisto actually took the fall last Thursday in the Vaudevillains’ debut on Smackdown, which immediately devalues his title, and the WWE is building toward a Kalisto-Sin Cara feud that also does little to enhance the title. The Miz does nothing to elevate the Intercontinental championship, and I would much prefer the Chris Jericho-Dean Ambrose feud to include the IC title. A victory by Cesaro at Payback would restore some prestige to the title.
• The Uso brothers are definitely not bullet proof. Michael Cole introduced the WWE universe to Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows on Monday, and the two add instant credibility to the tag team division. Along with the Dudley’s, Enzo and Cass, and the New Day, there is new life in the tag team division.
• The Bucks/Omega-Elgin/YOSHITATSU/Michael Elgin match alone is worth the price of New Japan World, NJPW’s online streaming service. I’ll be shocked if Kenny Omega is not playing a significant role at WrestleMania 33.
• Ring of Honor world champion Jay Lethal has an upcoming challenge in Colt Cabana, but it is hard not to look ahead to his future matchup with KUSHIDA. His fifteen minute match with the wildly talented, 22-year-old Will Ospreay was a highlight to the show, and the IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion is ready for a world title. Tanahashi’s injuries are preventing him from challenging for the title, but KUSHIDA and Lethal will be magic together in the ring.
• The storyline of Shane McMahon receiving on-screen credit for all the NXT call-ups and fresh new developments on Raw–while Triple H is the actual driving force behind those movements–is some very rich irony. This should set up to a very interesting return for Triple H and Stephanie McMahon.
Weekly Top 10
1.) Kevin Owens, WWE
KO dropped another fall on Monday, this time to Cesaro on Monday. Even in defeat, as well as face-to-face with Shane McMahon, Owens remains the most entertaining talent on the roster.
2.) Dean Ambrose, WWE
Although it is not always foolproof–with the match between Curt Hennig and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania IX falling far below expectations as a prime example–the pairing of Chris Jerico and Dean Ambrose appears destined to succeed.
3.) Kenny Omega, New Japan Pro Wrestling
“The Cleaner” was fantastic with the Young Bucks at NJPW’s Invasion Attack. One-on-one in the ring, Omega is one of the top three in the business.
4.) AJ Styles, WWE
Styles defeated Sami Zayn in a pay-per-view quality match on Raw. Even though he will not win the title, the WWE is treating him like a serious threat to Reigns as well as giving him some time on the microphone.
5.) Chris Jericho, WWE
Jericho and Ambrose will add another chapter to Y2J’s Hall of Fame career in the WWE.
6.) Roman Reigns, WWE
Whether a babyface or a tweener, a victory over AJ Styles will not add to Roman Reigns’ popularity as champion.
7.) Brock Lesnar, WWE
When will Lesnar be reinserted into the WWE championship picture? He never actually lost the title.
8.) Jay Lethal, Ring of Honor
The Ring of Honor champion needs some new dance partners, and he’s now slated to work with Colt Cabana and then New Japan’s KUSHIDA.
9.) Kazuchika Okada, New Japan Pro Wrestling
Okada is now the former IWGP champion, but the opportunity for “The Rainmaker” to chase the title will add another compelling element to New Japan each week.
10.) Charlotte, WWE
Charlotte and Natalya worked well together on Monday (though Charlotte did a horrible job selling Natalya’s sharpshooter), but the women’s title match was gimmicky and contrived with Dr. Phil involved.
Hardcore Heaven with Tommy Dreamer
Tommy Dreamer will always be known in wrestling for his feuds with the Sandman and Raven in Extreme Championship Wrestling, but another part that will remain unforgettable to him are the car rides with Paul Heyman.
“We were always pushing each other, unless Paul was asleep,” said Dreamer. “Sometimes the rides were the only times he could sleep. Paul did so much for me, and I’m very, very grateful for it. There would be times we’d argue, and you’d think we hated each other, but we argued for the betterment of the show and never the betterment of the individual.
“No one can match Paul, and he can verbally destroy someone. I didn’t want to win the ECW title, but Paul knew we had to do it a certain way. We always found the best decision for the overall product, and that’s why people are still talking about it twenty years later. We had the passion for the business.”
Dreamer’s House of Hardcore is set for a busy weekend, as HOH 12 takes place this Friday in New York, while Saturday’s HOH 13 is back in Dreamer’s old stomping grounds of Philadelphia. The cards feature stars in Rob Van Dam, Billy Gunn, and Rhino, as well as younger talent like Sami Callihan, Bull Dempsey, and Davey Boy Smith, Jr.
“A big formula from the original ECW was finding a blend of older stars and younger wrestlers,” said Dreamer. “I’ve taken the role of Terry Funk in my own company. This business is about the future, but it’s also about recognizing guys in the past. It also should have a lot to do with your in-ring ability.
“Billy Gunn is 53 years old, but I watched him wrestle recently, and he’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen. He still moves amazingly in the ring, and he’s available, and he’s working with two guys–Sami Callihan and Bull Dempsey–he helped train in [WWE] developmental. It’s a teacher versus student type of matchup. Rhino versus Rob Van Dam on the second night is the rematch from ECW that never happened because we went out of business. But if neither of those two guys could go in the ring, I wouldn’t have them. Sandman cannot go in the ring any more, but the people still go wild when we play his music at our shows. He can still hit a few people with the stick, but people should remember their heroes in a good way. My greatest memories all come from wrestling, and I want people to walk away having a great night. Knock on wood, it’s working so far.”
Dreamer is utilizing all of the lessons he learned in wrestling to build his promotion.
“I’ve went from a player, to a coach, and now to a John Elway type as an owner,” said Dreamer. “Just like Paul Heyman wanted us to highlight our positives and hide our negatives in ECW, that’s been my philosophy this whole time in the business, and I’ve taken it to this company. A lot of talent we’re using are people we’re losing to NXT, TNA and Ring of Honor. It’s a hard job, but I love doing it, and I get to see my creative juices come to fruition at the end of the show. This is my personal money, I’m not a publicly traded company. I broke my neck and my back, literally, to continue this, but it’s been great and I’ve been blessed to do it.”
House of Hardcore just announced another show in Australia, and has sold out its past five shows.
“There are a lot of wrestlers not getting the push they deserve,” said Dreamer. “WWE, and every other company, will push who they want to push. Wrestling is very political, but my slogan is no politics, no BS, just wrestling. When you go out there and perform, it’s the fans who matter. Zack Ryder is an example of hard work paying off, and it was great to see him win the Intercontinental title at WrestleMania.”
Dreamer’s most recent return to the WWE culminated in a feud this past December against the Wyatt Family.
“The Wyatt’s are the next Undertaker and Kane,” said Dreamer. “They are unique, different characters that I feel can do really well. I loved working with them, and I loved the match we had in Philly the night after the TLC–except for going through the barricade by Braun Strowman.”
Dreamer is still connected to the WWE product and watches each week, partly because wrestling runs through his veins, and also because it provides the best opportunity to scout and evaluate future talent.
“I loved the Monday Night Raw after WrestleMania,” said Dreamer. “Everyone talks about how it’s great that they brought up guys from NXT, but then there will be people they’re not going to spotlight because there are only so many spots. That’s the nature of the business. There are only so many minutes on television, and that’s the cycle of the business. No one is guaranteed a job forever. ECW was a feeder system for the business, and that’s what made us so great. I don’t ever want to compete with the WWE, I just want to give people something different. There is so much talent out there that needs a spotlight, and I just want to give people something different.”
Dreamer will also wrestle at both shows this weekend, and as he will for the remainder of his career, he will be wearing polka dots.
“My hero was the ‘American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes,” said Dreamer. “He was the one who made me believe. This is my tribute to him–for the rest of my career, I’ll wear something with polka dots. I never want him to be forgotten. ‘Dream’ actually wasn’t a big fan of the polka dots, and they were actually a rib towards him, but he still got them over. He still thrived, and this is my little tribute to him.”
Dreamer thanked wrestling fans for all of their support, and hopes to connect with as many as possible this weekend at House of Hardcore.
“I’m blessed to have been able to cross that guardrail,” said Dreamer. “Without wrestling fans, there is no Tommy Dreamer. I can’t thank you enough.”
Five Questions with… Rocky Romero
New Japan Pro Wrestling star Rocky Romero is now a six-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight tag team champion, as he and Trent Baretta form Roppongi Vice. The 33-year-old Los Angeles native also received serious interest from the WWE this past December before signing his first official contract with NJPW. He helped create the Talk’n Shop podcast with Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, and just dropped his new album, Six Trees Vice, for the one year anniversary of Roppongi Vice.
SI.com: Congratulations on your title victory this past weekend. How proud are you to be one-half of the IWGP Junior Heavyweight tag team champions for a sixth time?
Rocky Romero: I’m so proud to win this belt for the sixth time. I feel like Jordan! I’m in the company of Prince Devitt and Jushin Liger with number of title reigns. I’ve wanted this and have been chasing it for almost a year. The crowd was on fire. It was one of those electric nights and RPG Vice and our opponents, Matt Sydal and Ricochet, were all just on. That was one of the top moments in my career. Tag teams have always been my thing. My personality outside of the ring helps–I’m pretty easy-going, but I know what I want and how to get it.
SI.com: How close were you to signing with WWE this past January? Did your friendship with Shinsuke Nakamura sway you in one particular direction?
Rocky Romero: There was definitely some interest from WWE, but we didn’t go too deep into full-on negotiations. We talked very seriously about something happening in the near future. I had to make a decision quickly on which route I was going to take, and I’m happy that I continued on with New Japan. I just signed a two-year contract, and I’m really excited because this is actually the first time I’m wrestling with a contract. Even though I’ve been with New Japan for almost eleven years, this is the first time I’m a full-time employee.
Shinsuke and I had multiple conversations about WWE, and I had an idea of what the situation was going to be, but he never pushed me. I fully support him. I’m close with him and his family, and he’s following a dream. He conquered the wrestling world in Japan, and he was looking for something fresh. A big life challenge is to go conquer the world.
SI.com: Was your loyalty to New Japan part of your decision to stay with the company? And how did working in Mexico impact your career?
Rocky Romero: This has been an ongoing narrative in my career. I always want to find my way back to New Japan. Even though I’ve taken other opportunities when I worked for Pro Wrestling NOAH and went down to Mexico with Triple A and CMLL for three years, I always knew I wanted to go back. New Japan is my home, and there are still a lot of goals for me to accomplish there.
Working [under a mask] as Black Tiger was a great run for me, but I had some problems with the office, which is a completely different office than there is now, but that’s why I went to NOAH. We were bitter rivals at that time in 2007, and NOAH was hot, so it was a big deal. I worked with Ring of Honor, but I wanted to go international and make my mark as a wrestler. That’s why I went to Mexico. I needed to improve my work and develop my personality in Mexico, and that was a huge turning point in my life. There is no place in the world like Mexico City. Those wrestling fans are very passionate, and you have free reign. There are no rules in Mexico City, so making it there as a foreigner was something I was able to bring back with me to the States. That was the turning point to evolving into the personality and character I am now.
SI.com: What can you share about your new album, Six Trees Vice?
Rocky Romero: I’ve been working on music as hobby since my days in Mexico. The idea of the album came after the success of the RPG Vice theme song. Fans really responded to the song. People started asking about more songs, so I decided I would make an album about us and my friends. The tracks that resonate so far are “Roppongi Vice Remix”–with guest stars MVP, Kenny King and The Asoka–and “Dustin’s Song,” a hilarious tribute to Chuck Taylor, Trent’s former tag team partner.
We named it Six Trees Vice–Roppongi literally means “Six Trees” in Japanese. So the number six became a theme this week for me. Six-time champ, Six Trees Vice, 46th IWGP Junior Heavyweight tag team champs... so now I’m going straight to Vegas and hitting the roulette table.
SI.com: What is the next evolution in the career of Rocky Romero?
Rocky Romero: I want to try some more singles stuff, because that’s where I need to do more growing as a person, a wrestler, and a character. The world of wrestling doesn’t know Rocky Romero as a singles personality, and that’s not to say I want to break up my team with Trent, but I would like more singles opportunity to challenge myself.
It’s so important to challenge yourself–look at Shisuke Nakamura, who took a huge chance leaving New Japan Pro Wrestling. He’s one of the biggest stars ever in Japanese history, and he’s taking a huge chance to go to the WWE. There is a chance he fails, or he makes it huge and headlines the next WrestleMania. No one knows. Those challenges inspire me to grow. To make a major step would be to go for the NEVER championship belt, which is open weight, and that would be a segue for me to make a bigger splash.
The Total Package
Lex Luger’s health has deteriorated to the point where he is a far cry from the physical specimen he portrayed in the ring.
Due to complications from his 2007 spinal stroke, Luger is now confined to a wheelchair. He remains thankful for those who stood by him in his roughest times, including longtime friend Sting.
“I have had some dark times, but Sting has always been there for me,” said Luger. “I could never put that into words. He’s always been a true friend, and we have so many memories. To see the career he’s had and the longevity, and now to see him enshrined in the WWE Hall of Fame, that was a very special moment for me.”
Sting was the force behind Luger’s return to WCW in 1995.
“Eric Bischoff wouldn’t bring me in,” explained Luger. “Sting is the one who talked him into it.”
Luger’s surprise return on the premiere of Nitro–which took place just a week after Luger appeared at SummerSlam–was the first shot in the head-to-head battle between WCW and the WWF.
“It was definitely an electric moment,” recalled Luger. “That was the kickoff to the ‘Monday Night Wars,’ and it was such a great thing to be part of in the late 90’s.”
Luger originally dreamed of playing pro football. Outside of a cup of coffee with the Green Bay Packers in 1982, his pro career on the gridiron was a bust. He did, however, team up with future WWE Hall of Famer Ron Simmons on the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits in 1984.
“Football gave me confidence for wrestling,” said Luger. “The training techniques and hard work I put into football were something I was able to carry into wrestling with my training in the gym and what we did in the ring.”
Luger’s finishing maneuver, the Torture Rack, was actually designed by Dusty Rhodes.
“The Torture Rack was designed by the ‘American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes,” said Luger. “He was such a great mentor behind the scenes. He helped with my interview skills and wrestling and my finishing move.”
Luger was a top act in both WCW and WWE, including two runs as world champion in WCW and received a major push as top babyface from Vince McMahon in the summer of 1993.
“It was like a fifteen-year, Fourth of July firework party,” said Luger. “From Flair to Stinger to the Steiner Brothers to Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, and Shawn Michaels, I worked with all of the top guys in the business.”
Luger and the Fourth of July will always intertwine, as he is still famous for slamming Yokozuna on the deck of the USS Intrepid on July 4, 1993.
“That’s definitely a career highlight,” said Luger. “So were working with the Four Horsemen, as well as the world title win over Hulk Hogan on national TV in Detroit in ’97.”
Hogan and Luger shared a mutual respect, which heightened during their time together in WCW in the late 90’s.
“We always had a real good relationship inside and out of the ring,” said Luger. “Hogan didn’t lose often on national television, so I was honored to be in that position.”
Although he won gold in WCW, Luger always fell short in the WWF. His push in the summer of ’93 was supposed to end with a championship payoff at WrestleMania X, but Bret Hart won the fan support–and ultimately the championship–instead.
“Contrary to popular opinion, the belt was never promised to me,” said Luger. “But why I never won the belt would be a good question for Vince McMahon.”
The 1994 Royal Rumble ended with Luger and Bret Hart both hitting the ground at the same time, and the pair was announced as joint winners. The spot was awkward, as both men needed to be eliminated at the exact same moment, but Luger felt comfortable placing his safety in the hands of Hart.
“The only thing nerve wracking for me was that I was going backwards over the rope,” said Luger. “I was counting on Bret to protect me, which he always did, and Bret did the rest. Bret’s timing was always impeccable.”
Luger is more grateful than ever for the support he receives from fans.
“Wrestling has the most special fans that ever can be,” said Luger. “I really enjoy saying thank you to the fans who made us. I’ve had some dark times, and the fans picked me up.”
Women’s Wrestling Revolution
Deonna Purrazzo calls herself the modern day “Ravishing” Rick Rude.
The 21-year-old talented beauty has already wrestled for NXT, Ring of Honor and TNA. She is also still in college, studying history education, and also works a full week as a preschool teacher near her hometown of Hackettstown, New Jersey.
“I work Monday through Friday from 9:30-6:30, and I train for wrestling on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sunday mornings,” said Purrazzo. “I try to get to the Ring of Honor dojo in Jersey on Wednesday since that’s only an hour from me. I’m trying to be everywhere on the indies, and I can keep up with the best of them.”
Purrazzo grew up a wrestling fan. She watched with her twin brother, Dominic, and then jumped at the opportunity to start wrestling when she turned eighteen.
“I loved Trish [Stratus],” said Purrazzo. “I think every girl did. Lita, Jacqueline, Jazz were the girls who really inspired me, but I was a teenager and loved John Cena. Now that I’ve learned how to wrestle, I appreciate Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels so much more.”
The opportunity to work twice with Asuka provided a completely different perspective of the business.
“Getting in the ring with her twice in Orlando was really cool,” said Purrazzo. “You have to bring yourself up to her level, and she worked strong style, so I gave it right back. I really enjoyed working with her, and a dream of mine has always been to go to Japan.”
The experience to wrestle and try out for NXT provided Purrazzo with newfound confidence, in large part thanks to Bayley.
“Bayley was there for all three days of my tryout at NXT and I got to know her,” said Purrazzo. “She shook me and said, ‘Be yourself! Smile!’ But that was hard because I’m so intense and serious, and this is my dream job.”
The daughter of a stone mason, Purrazzo identifies closely with Bayley and Sasha Banks.
“Bayley and Sasha were indie girls,” said Purrazzo. “So to see what they’ve been able to do and where they’ve been able to go is inspiring. Sasha and Bayley have opened up so many doors for indie women, and it proves indie women can do what they’re doing.”
As for future goals, Purrazzo knows exactly what she wants.
“My goal last year was to wrestle 100 matches, but I fell short at 97,” said Purrazzo. “I’m at 28 right now, but hopefully I can work 100 by the end of the year. I want to keep my momentum going, hopefully sign a contract, and enjoy the ride.”
Tweet of the Week
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.