SI.com’s Wrestling Week in Review is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
The Taz Show
In an industry-shaking decision, the WWE has decided to once again split its roster into two distinct brands, Raw and Smackdown. This is the second time the WWE will have employed this format, having split their brand from 2002-11. The recent influx of new talent, combined with the return of several previously-injured superstars, has the WWE thinking the time is right for this monumental shakeup.
Count Taz among those in favor of the brand extension.
“It’s a layup to me,” said the former two-time ECW world champion. “They’re doing a brand split, which I humbly say that I predicted three or four months ago on my show. I know how they book and I know what works. They’re actually a little late on the brand split, frankly, but the brand split works.”
Taz hosts his incredibly entertaining radio show–“The Taz Show” on CBS RADIO–live from 7am-9am ET every Monday-Friday. The show can also be watched live, as well as downloaded on-demand at any time.
“It’s a variety show built around pro wrestling,” said Taz. “CBS is happy with the content, the audience is growing, and I appreciate all the support I get from the fans.”
Taz also offered a very creative solution to improve WWE’s weekly content by airing NXT from 8pm-9pm ET and then air a revamped two-hour Monday Night Raw from 9pm-11pm.
“I think they’ll do NXT from 8pm-9pm on the USA Network, which is a perfect lead-in to Raw,” said Taz. “Raw at three hours is too long–it’s tough for creative, tough for the announcers and a three-hour wrestling show is a lot for wrestling fans to watch. The NXT idea brings more awareness to another brand, and you still keep those five hours of weekly content. Then they can be part of the draft, too.”
The “Human Suplex Machine” explained that the three shows can be run on-air by Shane McMahon, Stephanie McMahon, and the returning Triple H.
“Stephanie and Shane have a kind of sibling rivalry, so Stephanie will run Smackdown and Shane will run Raw,” said Taz. “Stephanie will ask, ‘Why do you get three hours on your brand and I only get two on mine?’ Then Vince can come out and settle the argument between his kids by making it plain and simple–‘Raw and Smackdown will both be two hours.’ When someone asks what happens to that third hour, then boom–you play Triple H’s music and you give NXT to Triple H.”
Taz’s 29 years in the business provide him with an acumen and prowess for the business that few can match. He has worked closely with Vince McMahon and Paul Heyman, and also received two different educations about the business as an accomplished wrestler and broadcaster.
“I learned more about the business as an announcer than I did as a wrestler,” said Taz. “We did this brand split before when I worked for WWE and, in order to make it work, you have to keep it clean. You can’t have talent bleeding over to another brand. Unless you’re doing a massive event, only then can worlds collide. You need separate house shows, separate announce teams, separate writing teams. When I was there, they kept separate teams everywhere except for production.”
The 48-year-old New Yorker continues to enter unchartered territory with “The Taz Show.” Success, however, did not come by accident. The reason Taz appears at ease as host and the show has a natural flow comes from years of hard work and dedication to his craft.
“This is my legacy and my history,” said Taz. “This is something I’ve been trying to do for a decade, and that’s something people don’t know. If you sat down with Michael Cole and you asked him, ‘Are you surprised that Taz is doing a radio show that’s working so well?’ He’d said, ‘No, not at all.’ He knew how passionate and driven I was about radio ten years ago. It’s very, very hard to do. Anybody can stream a show or go on YouTube, but I’m proud to say that the platform I have–with a corporation as big as it is at this level with CBS Radio–this was ten years in the making. I look at this as my life’s work.”
Taz made a pivotal decision with his “Human Podcast Machine” podcast when he opted to be content-driven instead of a show that was interview-driven.
“It works, but you’ve got to have the chops,” said Taz. “While I was doing Smackdown as a broadcaster, I was studying and listening to radio, replaying stuff, going online and studying. This is something I had a passion for, and I worked and practiced on my own. I would record myself on my iPhone and practice by doing shows that no one even heard. I didn’t want to just do an interview format–there are a bunch of shows out there like that. Initially, I started that way and did the same thing as everyone else for the first two months. Then I said to CBS, ‘I want to do a topic-driven show, as opposed to an interview-driven show.’ Then it just took on a life of its own.”
Taz is an advocate for returning to the two world champions–with one on Raw and one on Smackdown.
“I would have separate champions,” said Taz. “And don’t be surprised if tag team wrestling completely goes away as far as tag team championships. I know that Vince isn’t a huge fan of tag teams, and they’re trying to change the way the business is done on the higher level, which I don’t agree with to some degree.
“Roman Reigns isn’t a heel and he’s not a babyface–he’s a gray area guy. I’m a little old school when it comes to that, and I believe in good and evil. Movies do it, TV does it, and it’s done more than we know in mainstream sports. Alex Rodriguez is one of the top heels, and LeBron [James] can be looked at as a heel. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are all heels. For WWE to change that to a gray area is flirting with a rough idea. They’re doing it with the Roman Reigns’ line–‘I’m not a good guy, I’m not a bad guy, I’m just the guy.’ OK, I got it–that was a good line in a promo once. They overdid it with him, and they’ve got to be careful with what’s good and evil. That’s why it wouldn’t surprise me if the tag team titles disappeared. There are going to be too many titles. I’m not saying they are going to eliminate tag team wrestling, but it wouldn’t shock me.”
As for main eventers–“hood ornaments,” as Taz calls them–for each show, Taz believes that Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins are headed in separate directions to each main event their own show.
“Roman Reigns has the ability to work, he definitely has the awareness now and popularity,” explained Taz. “I don’t know if he has the promo skills yet, and he needs to keep working on that, but they’ve put a lot of money behind him–millions–and they can’t give up on him and they won’t. They’ll build around Roman Reigns on one show, and they’re going to build around Seth Rollins. I do not think Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns will be on Raw together or Smackdown together. I would change one of their looks a little bit and some branding around the guys, but those are the two guys they’re going to run with.”
As for the surrounding talent, Taz is optimistic that Finn Balor and Shinsuke Nakamura will each play key roles on either Monday or Tuesday nights.
“Finn Balor is going to be a main guy within the next year,” said Taz. “He’s a guy who is on deck behind Reigns and Rollins. Do you go with the Balor Club or go with Finn Balor as an individual? I would bring in Finn and introduce the history with Gallows, Anderson and AJ Styles.
“Nakamura is another guy who is a tremendous worker and is very successful. He has the connectivity to the audience, but I do not see Vince McMahon making Nakamura a top guy on Raw or Smackdown because of this problem–cutting a promo in English. I’m a fan of him and I’m not knocking him, but I think that will be a problem in pole-vaulting him to another level.”
The WWE has highlighted some of their stars – “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, and Mick Foley – as hosts of live podcasts on the Network, but fans have been disappointed that Taz has not received the call.
“People tell me every week that ‘The Taz Show’ would be great on the WWE Network,” said Taz. “They had interest in it and we did have talks with them. The talks didn’t go far, but you have to understand that my bosses [at CBS Radio] are not going to allow my content to be tweaked or tainted with, and the show is not the show with me having a filter. The show is the show because it’s unfiltered. I’m speaking from the heart and giving my true opinion. That doesn’t mean I’m right–I’m just giving my opinion built on three decades of experience in every facet of the wrestling business. My opinion is formed off experience, and I don’t think WWE wants that, at least not to that degree.
“I criticize their booking a lot, but I also praise their booking a lot. I sometimes promote their brand better than their announcers do. The WWE Network is an online, video-streaming network, and that is exactly what I am on with CBS. I don’t need to be on WWE’s network. It would be awesome to bring ‘The Taz Show’ there, but I don’t fall in line. I’ve never fell in line, and Vince knows that. I wouldn’t bash their content if I was on their network, but I would critique it. I don’t think they want that, but that’s exactly what their network needs. Someone on their show sometimes takes a shot at the internet hardcore fan, but that’s who is paying for the WWE Network–the internet wrestling fan. So why not give them a real unfiltered show? So it’s one of those things where we talked a couple of times, but it never really took off. Maybe it eventually will.”
Taz hinted that his show could move to three hours a day, and gave a heartfelt thank you to those who listen.
“We’re a team, we’re a unit,” said Taz. “The audience has given me the opportunity to bring the entertainment I try my best to bring, the insight I try my best to bring, and the opinions I try my best to bring. Without the audience motivating me and being there for me, I don’t have that. I appreciate the support more than anything.”
News of the Week
After a four month wait, the time has finally–thankfully–arrived for AJ Styles to explain himself.
Styles debuted in the Royal Rumble, but has yet to explain who he is, or where he has traveled, and why he arrived in the WWE. Now–after Styles and John Cena delivered the Raw moment of the year on Monday–the WWE has set up the perfect delivery for the leader of The Club.
The Styles-Cena set-up was brilliant, and Styles is far better suited as a heel, especially with Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson beside him. The roster is overloaded with faces–including Cena, Roman Reigns (despite the “I’m not a good guy…” mantra), Dean Ambrose and the impending return of Randy Orton–and Styles immediately jumps into the top three heels in the company alongside Seth Rollins and Kevin Owens.
The beat down on Cena was booked just right. The repeated beatings from Styles to Cena only enhanced the heel turn. Although Cena will eventually win the feud–and, I’m sure, motivate me to write another 2,000 words defending Styles–I’m hoping we see Styles score at least one decisive victory (perhaps on a PPV?) over Cena.
WWE missed a massive opportunity to have Seth Rollins return as a babyface.
Rollins’ journey back to the ring from a devastating knee injury was chronicled on a well-done Network special entitled “Redesign. Rebuild. Reclaim.” The injury stripped Rollins of the WWE title, as well as nearly cost him his livelihood as a wrestler. His return was emotional, and the decibel level from live crowds has clearly indicated that people want to cheer for the returning hero.
Even if the plan were to return to Rollins’ heel character, the buildup between a face vs. face title match at Money in the Bank between Rollins and Reigns–for the title Rollins never lost–would have been a fresh take on the feud. WWE could have also teased a Shield reunion, only for people to fall victim to Rollins’ eventual heel turn on Reigns. Every one of Reigns’ feuds, however, needs to be treated in a very unique manner since the champion is the heavily booed by the crowd.
In other news…
• The New Day’s act has grown complacent over the past ten months as tag team champions. The trio was so over that WWE overbooked them for months, and it is difficult to be over-the-top every week. Gallows and Anderson should bring out a different, far more serious side to our unicorn-loving champions.
• Taz was absolutely correct to criticize the Charlotte-Stephanie McMahon segment on Raw. What purpose did that backstage interaction serve? How did it build any heat for Charlotte? I do not understand why Stephanie was booked to make Charlotte–the women’s champion and face of the entire division–look small, petty, and weak.
• The WWE made a very wise decision to have John Cena salute the troops this Memorial Day. Based off the reaction from The Club’s whipping of the fifteen time champion, it would have been interesting to hear the crowd in Green Bay’s reaction to Cena had he done anything but honor our nation’s troops in his return on Raw.
• Cody Rhodes is booked to wrestle Kurt Angle for Northeast Wrestling’s “Wrestling Under the Stars” event on August 27 in Wappingers Falls, New York. In addition to a fantastic match, it is big news that Cody Rhodes was able to hold onto his name after his release from WWE.
• Bill Goldberg took one step closer to his return to a WWE ring by appearing in the WWE 2K17 video game. The most likely opponent for Goldberg is a rematch from WrestleMania XX–in one of the most disappointing matches ever at a i–against Brock Lesnar. This match would presumably occur in August at SummerSlam, but the only caveat, of course, is that Goldberg would have to drop his return match.
• Josh Barnett–who broadcasts New Japan Wrestling for AXS TV–returns to the Octagon on September 3 in Hamburg, Germany to battle Andrei Arlovski in a UFC Fight Night event. Barnett and Jim Ross will call a double feature this Friday on AXS, which includes coverage from the 2015 G1 Climax with AJ Styles battling Kota Ibushi, as well as Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tetsuya Naito.
• Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. Dolph Ziggler claimed on Raw that he was the master of 1,005 holds–which was a play-off of Jericho’s promo from Nitro in 1998, where he mocked Dean Malenko as the “Man of 1,000 Holds” and proclaimed that he was the master of 1,004.
• In addition to Money in the Bank, the month of June also includes TNA’s Slammiversary on June 12, New Japan’s Dominion show on June 19, and Ring of Honor’s Best in the World pay per view on June 24. The top three matches at Slammiversary–Drew Galloway/Bobby Lashley, EC3/Mike Bennett, and Jeff Hardy vs. the “Broken” Matt Hardy.
Weekly Top 10
1.) AJ Styles, WWE
Styles is back at home with The Club.
2.) Kevin Owens, WWE
Unless the yet-to-be announced seventh member surprises us, Owens is the odds-on favorite to win the Money in the Bank ladder match. Owens’ fire also burns a little brighter after Zayn cost him the match on Raw.
3.) Kenny Omega, New Japan
Omega is working six and eight-man tags in preparation for his June 19 IC title defense against Hiroshi Tanahashi in New Japan’s first ever ladder match.
4.) Tetsuya Naito, New Japan Pro Wrestling
Naito is exclusively working tags before his next title defense against Kazuchika Okada on June 19.
5.) Jeff Hardy, TNA
One week after main-eventing Impact, Jeff Hardy signed the contract last night to fight brother Matt, who has completely revamped his on-air character to a dark, brooding force.
6.) EC3, TNA
EC3 carried TNA’s programming last night, and he is on track to avenge his loss to Mike Bennett when the two square off at Slammiversary.
7.) Roman Reigns, WWE
He’s not a good guy… he’s not a bad guy…
8.) Kazuchika Okada, New Japan
Okada is scheduled to main event Dominion against Naito for the IWGP championship, though the title reign is not likely to end this soon for Naito.
9.) Bobby Fish, Ring of Honor
The Ring of Honor Television champion is preparing for his upcoming title defense against Dalton Castle with a superb showing in New Japan’s Best of the Super Juniors, defeating Trent Barreta and Volador Jr. this past Friday and Monday.
10.) Ricochet, New Japan Pro Wrestling
One of the most underrated young stars in the business, Ricochet would win the WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic. He defeated Jushin Liger in the Best of the Super Juniors on Monday.
Facebook Live with Lucha Underground’s Jeff Cobb
Jeff Cobb cannot reveal which character he plays on Lucha Underground–though his work is incredibly similar to Matanza Cueto’s–but he was eager to open up about his debut with Pro Wrestling Guerrilla against Chris Hero.
“PWG is fighting for the number two wrestling spot in the world,” said Cobb. “WWE is obviously number one, and they’re a global juggernaut, but PWG is going for number two–the tickets to their last show sold out in four minutes. They have something special and unique. It’s like a badass concert.”
Cobb, who competed in the 2004 Olympics in freestyle wrestling and wrestles under the nickname “Mr. Athletic,” returns to PWG this July and wants a rematch after dropping his match to Hero.
“I would love to have a rematch with Chris Hero. That automatically jumped into of my top five matches of all time,” said Hero. “It’s the same vibe from the crowd that was in ECW. The crowd was crazy hot for everything. The first thing I did to Chris Hero in our match was a dropkick–a friggin’ dropkick–and I had goosebumps from the eruption. I hit my dropkick, then my triple gut wrenches, and I couldn’t believe the reaction from the crowd.”
The big story over the weekend was the New Japan match between Ricochet and Will Ospreay, which was criticized on Twitter–most notably by former three-time IWGP champion Vader–as a “memorized gymnastics routine.” Cobb believed that Vader was critical instead of appreciating the evolution of the business.
“I’d also love to wrestle Ricochet,” said Cobb. “He had a great match with Will Ospreay this weekend. We could be critical to Vader, but there’s no point in that. Why badmouth them? We could be critical and say, ‘You’re 400 pounds, you shouldn’t be doing a moonsault. A regular splash would work.’ Why knock the sport that you’ve made a living in? I understand the opinion, but everything evolves. Everything has to evolve, and wrestling is more athletic than it was before.”
Five Questions with… Hiroshi Tanahashi
New Japan legend Hiroshi Tanahashi is a 7-time IWGP heavyweight champion. The 39-year-old master of the frog splash is looking to regain the IWGP Intercontinental title this June 19 against IC champ Kenny “The Cleaner” Omega. Tanahashi sat down with Sports Illustrated on a recent trip to Manhattan and discussed his influences, inspiration, and goals for the rest of 2016.
SI.com: Who is your favorite wrestler?
Tanahashi: When I became a wrestler, I watched Shawn Michaels every night I could. I love Shawn Michaels’s style. Someone once called me the “Japanese Shawn Michaels,” and I was proud to hear that. I’d be too nervous to wrestle him.
SI.com: What do you think of Shinsuke Nakamura leaving New Japan for WWE? And would you ever consider leaving for WWE?
Tanahashi: I’m glad to see Nakamura in WWE. I’m proud of Nakamura, but I love New Japan. New Japan helped me, always. I love New Japan.
SI.com: What are your goals for 2016?
Tanahashi: I hope to become Ring of Honor world champion. If I get the opportunity to become champion, then I’ll come back to the United States every month and wrestle. Soon, I will also challenge [IWGP heavyweight champion] Naito. Unlike Naito, I respect the IWGP championship belt. For now, I am focused on Kenny Omega.
SI.com: Your June 19 encounter with Kenny Omega at Dominion in Osaka in New Japan’s first ever ladder match. How are you preparing?
Tanahashi: I’ve watched Shawn Michaels’ ladder match against Razor Ramon for inspiration. Now I fight against Omega in a ladder match in Osaka in a date for the Intercontinental title. Sometimes, Kenny Omega uses second and third members from Bullet Club. But this June, I’m going to beat all of Bullet Club. I wish I had Shawn Michaels in my corner.
SI.com: How is your shoulder? Will you be able to perform against Omega at full strength?
Tanahashi: Pro wrestling is a fight. Sometimes, it is entertainment but deeper than that, it is fighting. I have fought many times, many long matches. I have even been hurt by Kenny Omega. I may be hurt, but I’ll be OK–but I’m never tired.
“New Era” Tracker
The “New Era” phrase was delivered 15 times this Monday night on Raw.
Tweet of the Week
PBR 1, John Cena 0.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.