SI.com’s Wrestling Week in Review is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
Bullet Club Fully Loaded with Adam Cole
The once-proud Bullet Club–a faction that originated in New Japan Pro Wrestling–lost considerable smoke over the past five months. Despite its original leader, Finn Balor, departing for NXT in 2014, the group elevated itself to an entirely new level during its run with AJ Styles at the helm. Styles exited NJPW this past January, and all signs pointed to the Bullet Club being replaced by “The Elite,” a faction formed by Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks. Yet that all changed ten days ago at Ring of Honor’s Global Wars pay per view when Adam Cole came out with guns blazing.
“By far, Bullet Club is the hottest faction in years,” said Cole. “It’s amazing how much it has transcended every company it’s been involved in.”
Cole noted that Bullet Club’s impact reverberates across the wrestling world, including the WWE Universe.
“You even feel Bullet Club presence in WWE, calling it ‘The Club,’” continued Cole, “and obviously in New Japan Pro Wrestling and Ring of Honor. It goes to say with the talent that has been involved the Bullet Club–your AJ Styles, Finn Balor, Kenny Omega, the Young Bucks and now myself–it’s definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever been part of.”
The finish of the pay per view–as Bullet Club members in Matt and Nick Jackson, Cole and the Guerrillas of Destiny physically destroyed Ring of Honor wrestlers and crew members, even spray painting “BC” onto a table–was criticized in some corners as a knockoff of an old NWO storyline from the halcyon days of World Championship Wrestling, but undoubtedly succeeded in generating buzz.
“Whether people enjoyed it or whether people hated it, I can’t think of the last time a Ring of Honor pay per view was so talked about and discussed,” said Cole. “The Bucks and myself felt Ring of Honor needed a shakeup. Ring of Honor has the reputation of being the best wrestling company in the world, but the company hadn’t gone in a ‘What the heck is going on?’ direction in a long time.
The vastly talented Cole, who won’t even turn 27 until this July, already has a Ring of Honor world title on his resume. He credits much of his success to the guidance and friendship of WWE’s Kevin Owens.
“The top three wrestlers in the world are Brock Lesnar, Jay Lethal and Kevin Owens,” said Cole. “But I’d never met somebody or traveled with someone who thought about pro wrestling all the time until I met Kevin. He still is that kid who wanted to be a pro wrestler, and you can see he’s living his dream every day of his life. There’s nothing he would rather do, and the only thing he loves more than pro wrestling is his family.”
Owens reached out to Cole after Global Wars, and extended his approval of the storyline.
“We’re really close, and he’s always so happy for me with anything that’s successful that I do,” explained Cole. “This being Bullet Club, he knew that it was going to be huge for me. Already a very good year that I was having is turning into my best year at the Ring of Honor/New Japan level.
“A big reason I got to main event status in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and here in Ring of Honor is because of Kevin and the Young Bucks. They took me under their wing and helped me advance and grow. None of them had to do that. A lot of guys have their spot and they like to stay there, and they don’t want anyone else to creep up. If Kevin sees something in you, or sees that you want it as bad as he does, he wants to bring you up with him and help wrestling as a whole.”
Cole, who has also garnered interest from WWE but is signed with ROH through April of 2017, also envisions the day when Owens is world champion.
“I can almost promise you he will be world champion,” said Cole. “He has all the tools, and wrestling as a whole has changed so much since [CM] Punk and [Daniel] Bryan. The whole industry has changed–look at Seth Rollins and a whole list of guys with a true pro wrestling background given this opportunity. Kevin Owens fits the bill. If wrestling keeps moving the way that it is right now, a bunch of guys here in Ring of Honor and also in WWE are going to lead the way of genuine pro wrestlers running the sport.”
The world title is also at the front of Cole’s mind.
“The number one goal for me is getting the Ring of Honor world championship back, but winning gold in New Japan would be a feather in the cap,” Cole explained. “I’ll be in Japan by late summer, and now I’m getting the opportunity to go over in a featured role with Bullet Club. For anyone who’s ever listened to me talk, they know that I’ve been waiting to go over to Japan.”
Bullet Club leader Kenny Omega, as well as the Young Bucks, have all advocated for Cole to be included.
“Kenny Omega really pushed for me to be a part of Bullet Club,’ said Cole. “I wrestled Kenny once in a six-man tag in PWG, and we hit it off immediately–not only in the ring, but as friends. So for the Young Bucks, who are the best tag team in the world and the most popular tag team going today, and Kenny Omega–who has worked so hard to get to this position in Japan–for those guys to welcome me with open arms and to actually push for it, that was all the confidence I needed.
“All business aside, these guys are my really good friends and we all love pro wrestling. That’s the coolest part of being in a group like this. There are a lot of people in life who can’t relate to what we do or the struggles or the happy moments that we have. Now I get to share these moments with some of my closest friends, which makes it so much more special. They know what ride I’m about to go on–I’ve never been on it before, but I couldn’t be more ready and more exited to do it with my friends.”
Every version of Bullet Club has been strong in its own way. The Finn Balor version was the original, and the group expanded in size and reach with AJ Styles. Now, with Omega, the Bucks and Cole, the group is prepared to run pro wrestling through five-star matches, unparalleled ring psychology and a genuine love for the business.
“I wake up every day thinking about pro wrestling and I go to bed every night thinking about wrestling,” said Cole. “It’s been that way since I was nine years old in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I never wanted to be a football player, I never wanted to be an actor, and I never wanted to be a musician. I’ve only ever wanted to be a pro wrestler.”
News of the Week
The WWE is unleashing a more vicious side to Roman Reigns, and he will use that newfound aggression to retain the world title this Sunday at Extreme Rules.
While part of me wishes for a finish similar to the 1991 Survivor Series–when Ric Flair held Hulk Hogan’s feet down on the mat while the Undertaker pinned him for the title–I understand that there is zero chance Reigns is dropping the belt this soon into his third run as champ.
Styles never received the opportunity on Raw after his debut to fully explain who he is, where he came from or why he entered the WWE. His promos were continually interrupted by The Miz and Chris Jericho, and Styles even dropped a high-profile match to Y2J at WrestleMania 32. Yet he has every bit held his own with Reigns, carrying him to a terrific match at Payback, and even outworking Reigns on the mic.
Each week, Styles appears more and more ready for a run as WWE champion. There is no doubt he is ultimately being fed to Reigns, as he is the chosen face of WWE, but it is very encouraging that his feud with Reigns is not positioned as an outsider vs. WWE. As Sting can confirm, those feuds do not end well for the outsiders.
With the returns of John Cena, Randy Orton and Seth Rollins all on the immediate horizon–as well as the eventual call-up of Finn Balor–Styles must capitalize on his opportunity right now and seize the WWE title. Vince McMahon will provide a clear indication of how he feels about that possibility this Sunday night in the main event of Extreme Rules.
Curtis Axel cannot catch a break. The son of the legendary “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig never caught on as a “Paul Heyman Guy” during his 2013 Intercontinental title reign, and the short-lived run with Damien “Macho Mandow” Sandow in the Mega Powers was cut off after Hulk Hogan was released last summer. Axel helped form the Social Outcasts, but that group is temporarily on hiatus for three reasons: fellow Social Outcast Adam Rose received a suspension for violating the WWE Wellness Policy, then was suspended indefinitely for a nasty domestic abuse arrest; the group never found a role besides jobbing out to bigger stars; and the influx of new talent has limited television time for acts not over with the crowd.
Axel would do well if given the opportunity to succeed as a face. Mr. Perfect was wrestling’s consummate heel, so Axel’s “Better Than Perfect” always felt like an awkward fit. Axel would succeed as a mid-card face, as his real life underdog story–entering the business after his father passed, training under Harley Race, encountering road blocks to success in his journey–makes for a compelling story.
In other news…
• Why were we subjected to another match between Gallows/Anderson and the Uso’s? I would have looked forward to this match much more on Raw if we had not already seen multiple variations–including the same match–in prior weeks.
• The League of Nations continued its plague on talent, this time affecting Paige. The British beauty, of course, is in a relationship with Alberto Del Rio. Can we somehow blame Sheamus?
• For the second time in three weeks, The Miz again tortured viewers on Monday in the role of guest commentator. Fortunately, Kevin Owens also donned a headset–and instantly provided some color to the broadcast.
• A SummerSlam showdown between Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn for the Intercontinental title may not reach the exalted level of Bret Hart and Mr. Perfect from SummerSlam 1991, but I’d certainly enjoy seeing the two try to reach those heights.
• Who am I to nitpick–as I’m actually very excited to watch next Monday–but why are we calling the post-Raw interview between Mick Foley and Shane McMahon a podcast? Isn’t this more of an exclusive WWE Network interview?
• I really want to like Primo and Epico as the Shining Stars, but they delivered an uninspiring debut on Raw against Scott Jackson and Brian Kennedy. Feuds with the Lucha Dragons and the Golden Truth–and eventually the New Day–will hopefully allow the two talented wrestlers a chance to truly shine.
• After a hard-to-believe five months of buildup, I actually enjoyed The Golden Truth’s debut. Although the team will be more comedy than anything else, Goldust and R-Truth are two veterans who constantly know how to connect with the crowd.
• Big Cass name dropped Steve Urkel and Fred Flintstone in his promo against the Dudley’s. Serious question–did those insults connect at all with the intended (ie; adolescents and teenagers) audience? And don’t they show a complete disconnect with older fans?
• Hiroshi Tanahashi spoke to me this past Saturday at length about his appreciation for “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, admitting that the ladder match at WrestleMania X between HBK and Razor Ramon is his all-time favorite.
• Was anyone else appalled by the New Day promo on Monday? Or at all invested in this forced feud with the Vaudevillains? Someone in WWE needs to make a serious push for Big E to join the world title picture.
Five Questions with… Jerry “The King” Lawler
Once known only as a territorial legend, Jerry “The King” Lawler has grown into one of the most recognizable names in wrestling with his broadcasting run in WWE. He just opened a new restaurant, Jerry Lawler’s Hall of Fame Bar & Grille, in Memphis and has displayed his extraordinary art skills as the cover artist for the wrestling inspired comic Headlocked.
SI.com: What is your connection between art and wrestling?
Lawler: I started drawing when I was five years old, and my affiliation was with Superman–that’s the first thing I remember drawing. I was always drawing Superman, Batman and other superheroes. That’s what I wanted to do with my life–I wanted to be a comic book artist and draw Superman for DC Comics. I had that intention all through school, drawing when I should have been doing my work, and just barely doing enough to get by at school. Finally, though, when I graduated high school, I won a full tuition commercial arts scholarship to the University of Memphis. I was going to go there and be a commercial artist. Then one day, out of the blue, I drew some pictures–caricatures–of the local wrestlers in Memphis, Tennessee and, on a whim, sent the pictures to the TV studio that aired the wrestling. The next week, they showed my pictures on the show. It was unbelievable–I tuned in, turned the TV show on like I usually did every Saturday morning, and heard the announcers say, ‘Everybody welcome to Saturday morning wrestling,’ and I could see my pictures were sitting on the desk. I thought, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to show them,’ and sure enough, they showed the pictures. After the show was over, the lead announcer, Lance Russell, calls my number up and said everybody liked the pictures and wanted to know if I’d do some more. I started doing sketches on a weekly basis that they would highlight on the show. Then after a few weeks, he said, “Could you come over and actually be on the show? People want to see you doing these, and some of the wrestlers want to meet you.” So that’s how I got my foot in the door.
SI.com: How much of an influence was Jackie Fargo on your career?
Lawler: I became friends, through drawing, with the top wrestler at the time in Memphis–the “Fabulous” Jackie Fargo. He actually hired me to do art work at the night club he owned, and he and I became friends. I finally convinced him that I wanted to try wrestling one time. He said, “Oh no, kid, you’re too good an artist. Stick with the art and stay away from wrestling.” I said, “I just need one time wrestling, Jackie, and I’ll promise I’ll go back to being an artist.” I finally talked him into letting me try it one time, and here, over 40 years later, I’m still doing it. I’ve finally gotten a chance to get back to doing some more of the art work I originally intended to do. But I never do it when I’m on the road–only when I’m in my studio at home. There is very little time on the road.
SI.com: How did you connect with Michael Kingston, who is the author of Headlocked, and what is your role with the series?
Lawler: Michael sent me an email–I get a lot of emails, but it’s not every day that someone emails me saying they want to produce an actual comic book, wrestling especially. It was a lucky thing for the both of us, and I’ve really enjoyed doing some of the covers.
As a comic book artist, I have a world of respect for the guys, who do what we call in the business, the interiors. In other words, telling a story inside the comic book. I’d never done that, I’d never even tried to do that. I’m much better at just doing the covers and the one splash page.
SI.com: Do younger wrestlers recognize your contributions to the business, and are they even aware of your legendary status in Memphis?
Lawler: There’s sort of a feeling in the WWE that, if it didn’t happen in the WWE, it didn’t happen. In reality, a lot of stuff happened outside the WWE. Throughout my career, I’ve won more titles than anybody in the history of this industry. I’ve won 168 championships. Sometimes we’re on saying, “He’s a 15-time champion,” or “He’s a 16-time champion!” Well, I’ve won 168 championships. But I just want to have a good time. Some people ask what I want for my legacy–who cares? I don’t, and I don’t think about it that seriously.
People thank me for everything I’ve done in my career for this business, and I’m flattered–but I’m also a little embarrassed. Maybe one of the reasons why I’ve had whatever success I’ve had is that I’ve never really taken this business that serious. I’ve always looked at this as something that I would have paid them to let me do. It’s just always been so much fun, and I feel like I’ve never had to work a day in my life. So I don’t ever look at it as what I’m doing for my legacy, it’s just something that I enjoy so much.
SI.com: How do you feel about growing into an even bigger star as a broadcaster than you were as a wrestler?
Lawler: It does still seem strange when people recognize me as a commentator more so than a wrestler. I certainly never, ever got in this business–back when I was begging Jackie Fargo for one match–to become a commentator. I was a wrestler, and that’s all I ever wanted to do. It was kind of thrust upon me when Randy “Macho Man” Savage left for WCW during the “Monday Night Wars.” Randy kind of jumped ship with no notice and showed up on WCW. Vince [McMahon] asked me to fill in for a night, and that was almost 25 years ago. It’s a lot more pressure than people think, but I try to keep in my mind that I am a wrestler and also a wrestling fan. That’s the way I like to approach it, not be too analytical–that’s the job for the play-by-play guy. I’m just commenting on what I’m seeing, and that’s worked for me. I like to add some humor to it, because it should be fun.
Weekly Top 10
1.) Kevin Owens, WWE
Owens dazzled–both in French and English on the Raw broadcast–then added personality and emotion into his “impromptu” tag team match with Sami Zayn. Owens unloaded a missile dropkick off the second rope on Raw to compliment his customary offensive array on Monday.
2.) AJ Styles, WWE
Styles shined on the microphone this past Monday, showing he is every bit as effective as Roman Reigns. A full-blown heel turn would instantly make Styles the top heel in the company.
3.) Tetsuya Naito, New Japan Pro Wrestling
Naito defeated Ring of Honor’s ACH this past Saturday at War of the Worlds in New York, and has a really effective gimmick where he is above the IWGP heavyweight title.
4.) Chris Jericho, WWE
Y2J accepted Dean Ambrose’s challenge for the first-ever “Asylum Match,” and I like the fact that the only way to win is by pinfall or submission.
5.) Dean Ambrose, WWE
Will Ambrose begin to regain his momentum with a second consecutive win over Jericho? More likely, this feud will extend to Money in the Bank in June.
6.) Roman Reigns, WWE
Has Reigns improved in the ring, or is he simply the beneficiary of working with AJ Styles?
7.) Hiroshi Tanahashi, New Japan
The “Ace of New Japan” defeated Matt Sydal–formerly known as Evan Bourne in WWE–this past weekend at War of the Worlds.
8.) Jay Lethal, Ring of Honor
Despite unfinished business with Colt Cabana, Lethal now turns his sights on former Ring of Honor champion Jay Briscoe.
9.) Bobby Lashley, TNA
Prediction: Lashley will exit TNA’s Slammiversary on June 12 as world champion.
10.) Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, WWE
When Anderson and Gallows signed their contracts with WWE this past January, the deals must have included the provision that the pair would work exclusively with the Uso’s. On a serious note, I am looking forward to seeing them wrestle a different set of opponents.
The Meaning of the G1 Climax to Michael Elgin
Michael Elgin debuted in the G1 Climax in 2015, and he considers the experience to be one of his highlights in the business.
“The tournament is brutal,” said Elgin. “It’s a full four weeks, and it is ten matches to win it. You have to win ten big matches against ten of the best singles wrestlers in the world, so winning one–or two, like [Hiroshi] Tanahashi and [Kazuchika] Okada have done–is a big deal.”
Elgin’s inaugural appearance in the G1 was such a success that it led to a two-year contract with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
“It was surreal,” said Elgin. “It was like watching WrestleMania, and it’s always been something I really wanted to do. I got to experience it last year, and it was amazing. I’m really looking forward to this year’s, as well.”
New Japan Pro Wrestling will return to AXS TV on Friday, May 27 with ten broadcasts of the 2015 G1 Climax, which will follow ten episodes from the tournament that will air over six weeks with double-premieres on June 3, 17, 24, and July 1. Each episode begins at a special air time of 8pm ET.
“Some wrestling promotions think that a championship tournament has to be for some kind of championship, but why not for a championship opportunity?” Elgin asked. “You know the winner of the G1 is going to get an IWGP heavyweight match at Tokyo Dome, and it’s big. People want to see who is going to go for the championship.”
“New Era” Tracker
The “New Era” phrase was uttered only ten times this Monday night on Raw.
Tweet of the Week
Count “The Master and Ruler of the Universe” among Roman Reigns’ critics.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.