Week in Wrestling: Five Questions with AJ Styles; Adam Cole wins ROH world title
SI.com’s Wrestling Week in Review is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
The Wrestlers’ Tribune: Adam Cole
New Ring of Honor world champion Adam Cole defeated Jay Lethal this past Friday at Death Before Dishonor, ending Lethal’s 427-day run with the title. The victory puts the 27-year-old Cole in exclusive company, as he becomes only the third two-time ROH world champion in the storied history of the company along with Austin Aries and Jay Briscoe. Just days after reclaiming his title, Cole shares the behind-the-scenes meaning of his championship victory.
Relief...but only for a moment.
In one word, that one emotion was what I was feeling back in 2013 when I won the Ring of Honor World Championship in Philadelphia for the first time.
I was 23 years old, still a kid in many ways, and the pressure of holding a championship of such importance was weighing on me heavily leading up to that night. I didn’t have time to enjoy it. I didn’t have time to “sit back and smell the roses.” I was already thinking about the responsibilities I would have and the expectations I needed to fill with being Ring of Honor’s world champion. However, in those few short minutes of holding that championship after the bell rang, I felt a sense of relief. “I did it. I accomplished a huge dream of mine.”
Then, as the adrenaline wore off, and I returned to my hotel room, reality sunk in. I am holding what I believe to be the most important championship in professional wrestling. “Can I really do this?” and “Do I have what it takes?” were questions I asked myself that night. Instead of celebrating how far I had come, I was accepting the pressure of holding such a prestigious title at such a young age. “Never settle, you can never settle and you must always get better,” I told myself. “Never stop pushing.” And because of that night in Philadelphia, I sit here now in a hotel room in Las Vegas with a very different story of what relief means to me.
2014 and 2015 had some great moments and some not-so-great moments for me. The positive was that I continued to wrestle all over the world and have some of the best matches of my career. There is nothing I love more than pro wrestling, so getting to do that all over the globe with some of the best out there is my personal heaven. I lost the Ring of Honor World Championship at ROH’s first traditional PPV, Best In The World, in June 2014, but things were still moving forward for me. That is until I had my first major injury.
I had been wrestling with a fracture in my elbow and a slight tear in my triceps for quite some time, but it was continuing to get worse. As I worked through it, I ended up dislocating my shoulder and tearing my labrum. All of these injuries were on the same arm, so things like working out or even sleeping became increasingly difficult. I was able to tough it out for a few more months, but by the end of 2014 I needed to take time off for surgery.
Taking time off as a wrestler is scary. The rehab and pain that comes with it is the easy part. The hardest part is hoping that the audience will care when you come back, and that you are able to pick up where you left off. I was a main event guy for Ring of Honor, and the fear of “losing your spot” grows the longer you are away. At that point, it was the most difficult thing I had gone through in my career. Then, the most difficult thing in my life happened.
My grandmother passed away.
My parents divorced when I was nine years old. I had a great upbringing, but anytime a family splits it can be a difficult time for a young kid. My mother moved in with my grandmother, both to help her – and to give my brother and I another positive influence. My grandmother was one of the most loving, caring, and supportive people I’ve ever met. She had countless health problems, was always in pain, but continued to be as happy and caring as she could. She also watched wrestling with me. When I first became a fan, and talked about wanting to become a wrestler, she would tell anyone who would listen, “Just you wait! He’s going to be the best wrestler!” Now I know that sounds like something many parents or grandparents would say but, at that time in my life, it meant the world. She really gave me a lot of confidence to pursue this job and go after it. Not once did she shut it down–she always believed in me.
Fast forward to 2014 and 2015. She became increasingly ill, and ended up passing away in her sleep. Beyond being sad, I was selfishly angry. I was angry that I had to sit at home and really deal with my grandmother’s passing. I didn’t have wrestling as my escape because I was recovering from surgery. All I had was my thoughts. I told myself that when I came back, I would make her proud... and that’s exactly what I did.
2015 to now also had some ups and downs. Returning from injury in Philadelphia was one of the best feelings in the world. I was not only accepted by the audience, but embraced. They told me with their energy how much they missed me, and trust me when I say I missed them too. From the moment I returned, my goal was to become Ring of Honor champion once again. 2015 put me on that track, and 2016 was in full swing. Earlier this year, I joined Bullet Club, the most popular wrestling faction of the decade. I was getting closer to my shot, and feeling the best I’ve felt in years. However, I wasn’t going to feel my best for long, because a little thing called pneumonia decided to show up.
I’ve been really lucky over the years with my health. To me, one major surgery at 27 years old isn’t so bad considering my line of work. Getting sick with pneumonia was a whole other ball game. Just a few months ago I came down with it, and I’ve never been so sick in my life. I lost 15 pounds, had a fever for a week, and had absolutely no energy. None. It’s the most drained I have ever felt. Fortunately being a young, healthy adult came into play, and I was able to recover fairly quickly. It’s good that I did, because I was about to get a second chance at the Ring of Honor World Championship.
Death Before Dishonor, one of Ring of Honor’s major PPV events of the year, happened in Las Vegas. My opponent, Jay Lethal, was having one of the best ROH title runs in recent memory, so the audience both in Vegas and all over the world on PPV were very excited for this encounter. From the moment the event started until that final bell rang, our fans were full of energy. They showed us that this event was a special one, and we delivered just that. When it was main event time, the butterflies were there. They always are, but it’s a little more special when it is PPV and for the Ring of Honor World Championship. Jay Lethal and myself went to war for almost 30 minutes, and the fans were invested every step of the way. After a true battle, I was able to best Jay Lethal and call myself a two-time Ring of Honor World Champion.
Relief. There was that feeling of relief again as I was announced as the new Ring of Honor World Champion. Looking into the stands and seeing my family created a great sense of pride in me and, in that moment, I couldn’t have been happier. Through the injuries and the illness, I was able to make history and win back that prestigious championship. Like the first time, the adrenaline began to wear off as I went up to my hotel room. I sat down on the bed and started thinking.
Do you know why we only feel relief for such a short time? It’s to remind us that we must always get out of our comfort zone... because outside of our comfort zone are where great things happen. If I would have sat in that hotel room in 2013 when I won the ROH Championship for the first time and said, “Good enough! I did it!,” I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this as a two-time champion. That stress, those nerves, all of the “negative emotions” are not negative at all. They are driving forces that pushed me to be the best that I can, and will continue to push me even further. I’m OK with always being “uncomfortable,” because in those moments are where dreams come true. And that is truly a relief.
Not many people can say that their biggest dream came true. Mine came true... twice.
I love you, grandma.
~ Adam Cole
Adam Cole will defend his newly won Ring of Honor world championship in a “Four Corners Survival Match” on Saturday in Brooklyn at ROH’s Field of Honor against Jay Lethal, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Tetsuya Naito.
News of the Week
All signs point to AJ Styles as the next WWE champion.
Let’s allow that to sink in for a moment.
John Cena did the honors for Styles at SummerSlam, and Styles is now ready to claim the ultimate prize in the business.
Yes, it is infuriating that Styles is no longer working with Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson–their chemistry together is unparalleled in today’s business–but Styles has reached the rarified status in the business where he delivers something special every time he is in the ring, and his pay per view performances–particularly with Cena, Roman Reigns, and Chris Jericho–have been otherworldly.
Styles’ story is remarkable. He called Dixie Carter’s bluff in 2013 when TNA wanted to slash his pay. Styles surprised people when he left, but he bet on himself and believed that he was worth more than TNA offered.
At the age of 34 and standing only 5’10” in a business that is still populated by giants, Styles was not supposed to become the next big thing in wrestling. He was repeatedly told he was too small, but he is out-working every single man on the roster.
Three years later, after a successful run in New Japan Pro Wrestling and Ring of Honor, as well as working with some of the best independent promotions around the globe, Styles is now cashing in on his bet with the worldwide leader in wrestling.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s words from his June 20 podcast with AJ Styles–describing how Styles “executes with malice and intent to harm”–came to life at SummerSlam. Austin also implored Styles to capitalize on the rare chance to “knock the snot out of Cena because those chances are few and far between.” Clearly, Styles took note.
Styles (clean!) SummerSlam victory over Cena cements his status among the elite in WWE, and the next stop for Styles is to end Dean Ambrose’s disappointing run as WWE champion.
While it is unfair to call SummerSlam a disappointment, the card ultimately fell short of its lofty expectations.
This year’s SummerSlam was very reminiscent of last year’s show, which also ended in controversy. Last year, there was the disputed finish between Brock Lesnar and the Undertaker in the main event, but this year’s card was an improvement from a year ago. Cena and Styles delivered the match of the year, and the card was boosted by the tag match between Enzo and Cass against Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens, as well as a very well executed women’s title match featuring Sasha Banks and Charlotte. Oddly enough, the highlight–unlike last year–was the main event.
The Brock Lesnar-Randy Orton match–unlike Lesnar/Undertaker from a year ago–actually ended with a hotter finish due to Orton’s injury. Whether the finish was planned or unplanned is ultimately insignificant–no matter how you view it, the WWE has found gold with this Lesnar-Orton feud. The backstage flare-up between Lesnar and Chris Jericho only adds fuel to Lesnar’s raging fire. For Lesnar–who was temporarily suspended yesterday from MMA competition by the Nevada Athletic Commission, which could lead to a two-year suspension–there is no better time to embrace a run as a full-fledged heel–is that life imitating art or art imitating life?–than the present.
The biggest potential rematch in the industry–and it will be interesting to see if WWE can build it all the way to WrestleMania–is the rematch between Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton.
In other news…
• Devastating news for Finn Bálor. The now-former WWE Universal champion suffered a torn labrum from Seth Rollins’s running powerbomb into the barricade during their match at SummerSlam. The shoulder injury should sideline Bálor for the next six months, and his presence will be greatly missed each week on Raw.
• Seth Rollins is the favorite to win next week’s Fatal 4-Way on Raw and capture the WWE Universal championship, but he also has developed a reckless reputation in the ring. Fairly or unfairly, the injury count is now up to three–breaking John Cena’s face, ending Sting’s career, and now the injury to Bálor. All of the industry sources to whom I speak regularly, however, do not believe Rollins is reckless–but rather the recipient of some bad luck in the ring.
• WWE and 2K17 hosted a SummerSlam Weekend Party this past Friday night in New York City, and red carpet interview opportunities existed with the likes of AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Sasha Banks. Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman also had their own session with the media before the event broke off into a party with a DJ set by Lil Jon. The highlight of the night–and I know I’m not alone with this–were the mini grilled cheese sandwich appetizers.
• I really wish the WWE fashioned the extremely talented Bray Wyatt as a feared cult leader instead of relying too much on the hackneyed “turn out the lights” routine. Wyatt could be world champ if the WWE seriously invested in him, yet his new feud with Randy Orton that kicked off last night on Smackdown is destined to end in the same disappointing fashion as every other major Wyatt program.
• Why do count-outs exist in 2016? The match between Brock Lesnar and Randy Orton at SummerSlam featured two different scuffles outside the ring, with one lasting 87 seconds, while the other ran for 97 seconds. For those wondering, a count-out is 20 seconds. Obviously I did not want the match to end in a count-out, but I’d prefer just to do away with the outdated method.
• I binge watched the first five episodes of Holy Foley, and I gained more appreciation for Mick Foley in every episode. Foley mentioned in the second episode that, in wrestling, “capturing people’s emotions is like capturing people’s hearts.” No one would know that better than Foley, who captured people’s emotions in very contrasting manners as Cactus Jack, Mankind and Mick Foley.
• Behind Styles/Cena, the second best match at SummerSlam was Sasha Banks versus Charlotte. My appreciation for Charlotte has grown throughout the past year–she is an extraordinary athlete, but I genuinely enjoyed her enhanced psychology by exposing Banks’ back injury throughout the match on Sunday. As for Banks, it’s clear that WWE prefers her to chase the title and used her title victory as a chance to increase the ratings on the first Raw after the draft.
• For those still looking for more SummerSlam breakdown and analysis, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Wade Keller combined to deliver an in-depth, nearly two-hour breakdown of the show.
• The New Day is destined to pass Demolition as the longest-ever reigning WWE tag team champions. Demolition held the world tag team championship for a record 478 days, while the New Day has held the WWE tag team titles 367 days. When the New Day successfully defends the tag titles during Raw on Monday, December 12, the trio will have the tag title record all to themselves.
• Exciting weekend of pro wrestling to report on for next week: Friday is Top Rope Promotions’ “Pro Wrestling Supershow”; Ring of Honor is live from Brooklyn, New York this Saturday for Field of Honor, and I am particularly looking forward to Kyle O’Reilly vs. Katsuyori Shibata; and the weekend will conclude with Beyond Wrestling’s “Battle of Who Could Care Less” (with Tommy End!) on Sunday in Providence, Rhode Island.
Jim Cornette and Pro Wrestling Ambition
Jim Cornette has returned to the wrestling airwaves. His latest project is serving as the color commentator for entrepreneur Caleb Seltzer’s Pro Wrestling Ambition.
“Caleb called it Pro Wrestling Ambition because his goal was to get the best independent wrestlers from the New England area and put on a showcase to show their skills and highlight their ambition to get better,” said Cornette. “Truthfully, to me, the ambition story came from Caleb’s, and that’s why I was attracted to do it.”
Cornette was impressed with Seltzer’s vision. Pro Wrestling Ambition is a four-episode wrestling project featuring 45-minute episodes available to purchase and watch online.
“I wanted to channel my passion into this business,” said Seltzer. “This was an extravagant three-camera shoot, and it was very intuitive and very involved. We set this up like it was WWE television, with production run-throughs, pre-tapes, and that was the whole point–we wanted the talent to get that whole of experience of producing television and getting a product on tape that resembled a national television product to send to promoters.
Seltzer, a 24-year-old native of Massachusetts, fell in love with the business by watching wrestling with his father, and has worked on ring crews as well as broadcasted for Ring of Honor. Seltzer engineered the entire venture, which included television tapings produced at an indoor entertainment venue in South Windsor, Connecticut, last November.
“Our motto is ‘Perception is reality,’” said Seltzer. “If we present you as stars, then maybe it will be perceived that way by the decision-makers in the industry. We encouraged the talent to invest in themselves and create a product they could be proud of and help them achieve the goals they’ve set out for themselves.”
Cornette explained that he was thrilled to be part of Pro Wrestling Ambition.
“Caleb was a one-man band,” said Cornette. “He promoted the show, he was the matchmaker for the show, he lined up the crew and did all of the technical work and produced the shoot, and has done the commentary. That’s why I agreed to do the commentary for less than my normal rate, because he is the classic example of an old-time promoter. He could have traveled with the carnivals in the 1930’s, he could have promoted dance marathons in the roaring ’20’s. It’s all about having a vision and putting it all together, and that’s why I was honored to do the commentary–and it’s why I wanted to help, because I saw how much he put into the project.
“People are not going into this expecting to see The Rock and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin on the show. It’s all about hungry, talented guys who want to get to the next level and have ambition. The fans prosper because they get to keep wrestling alive at the grassroots level and see a good show at the same time.”
Cornette, whose “Corny’s Drive-Through” podcast drops every Thursday, was also asked if he is surprised by the amount of top-tier talent NXT is producing for WWE.
“The NXT roster, in-ring performance wise, is now ahead of the main roster,” said Cornette. “I’m not surprised, especially because they’re signing a lot of guys who were already top guys to begin with.
“I’m not trying to piss on their cornflakes, but they have signed [Shinsuke] Nakamura, [Austin] Aries, Finn Bálor, Samoa Joe, and Bobby Roode–they’ve signed literally everybody that’s a top star on the independents or other promotions. There is some great talent–like The Revival and Tommaso Ciampa, who is an old Ring of Honor guy–in NXT.”
Cornette’s voice has been heard for the past few weeks on both Raw and Smackdown in the Brock Lesnar-Randy Orton video that explained the history between the two men. Both started–with Cornette–at Ohio Valley Wrestling.
“Randy Orton was a little iffy there at the beginning,” said Cornette. “I knew he had the genes for it, and he had the talent and could sell, but he didn’t seem to love the business at first. Then, gradually, he came around–money probably helped.
“We knew Brock had the credentials to be great, but he didn’t like the business and still doesn’t. He’s great at it because he’s a great athlete, but he could give a sh-- whether he ever wrestles again if they don’t pay him millions of dollars.”
Cornette found the finish to the Lesnar-Orton affair at SummerSlam mind-boggling.
“I don’t know what the f--- they’re thinking, and I commented on that for my podcast that drops on Thursday,” said Cornette. “The rule in the WWE is that there is no blood. Well, they just violated that rule, they had blood. They can say that it wasn’t self-inflicted blood, but no, this blood was inflicted by this big moose beating the f--- out of Orton. If they’d have just said f--- it, taken the blade, and done it the easy way, you couldn’t have proved different.
“This was worse than using a razor blade–a former UFC champion just elbowed a guy in the top of his f------ head and busted his head wide open. What problem do they think they’re getting out of by doing it that way? I don’t understand.”
Cornette displayed the same sharp commentary that he provides for Pro Wrestling Ambition when discussing the match.
“Blood adds drama to wrestling, but the reason the blade was invented a hundred years ago is because it’s easier than going through sh-- like that,” said Cornette. “The hard way was used in the old days when there was doubt about wrestling’s credibility, and guys would do the hard way in a high profile match in an arena in front of a lot of people or on TV to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that wrestling was real. That horse has left the barn. Bret Hart, several times, got busted open during a blade ban but was creative about it and said, ‘No, I didn’t do it,’ and no one – not even Vince McMahon – could tell the difference. So it seems it would have been a lot easier to blade instead of opening up a crater the size of the Red River Gorge on Randy Orton’s head. If Randy had done a good blade job, no one would have known if Brock really opened him up.”
Cornette took pride in sharing his sharp wit and keen sense of the business with Ambition. He has watched young stars bloom in the past, especially during his time with wrestlers like John Cena and Dolph Ziggler at OVW.
“John Cena’s success was the least surprising,” said Cornette. “When Cena got to OVW as ‘The Prototype,’ he looked great physically, he could cut a wonderful promo, and he impressed [OVW founder] Danny Davis when he showed up for the first day of class after coming out from California by already getting a place to live in Louisville. He got there early, always had his sh-- together, and was always a step ahead. I thought he was going to be the next Ric Flair.
“Cena’s in-ring work at the time–for the time that he had been in the business–was incredible. A lot of people say now, ‘John Cena doesn’t work.’ Well, John Cena does the things that people go to see John Cena do, and he doesn’t take a lot of risks. I would imagine if he dove off the top rope onto a pile of seven or eight guys, then Vince McMahon would probably take a rusty fishing knife after him and say, ‘You’re worth $50 million dollars a year to me. Don’t f--- up and get hurt.’ So I don’t expect four-star matches out of John Cena because all the guys that have four stars matches these days have injuries on a regular basis, and Cena is too valuable, so I give him a pass on some of those things. I don’t think John ought to be taking risks.”
The lone surprising success story, Cornette admitted, was Ziggler.
“We also had some guys who loved the business that we knew, if they got the break, that they would make it,” Cornette explained. “There were a few disappointments, but the only surprise was Dolph Ziggler. I knew he was a good kid, a good athlete, and a good wrestler in college, but I had no idea that he would be the second coming of Curt Hennig. He’s achieved far and beyond.”
Cornette encouraged fans to try Pro Wrestling Ambition, as he promised this project provides the full Jim Cornette experience.
“You’re going to take a ride on the experience train with me, baby, and there’s no getting off ‘til we get to the station,” said Cornette in a spot-on Dusty Rhodes impression. “We going to fight and scratch and scuffle, we going to do it all day so we don’t have to do it again tomorrow.
“I really enjoyed working with Caleb, and we did some work that hopefully people will enjoy.”
Weekly Top 10 with Rocky Romero
Rocky Romero is one of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s most versatile talents.
In addition to six different reigns as a junior heavyweight tag team champion (which, he notes, makes him the Michael Jordan of New Japan), Romero made his New Japan World broadcasting debut with Ring of Honor’s Kevin Kelly and Steve Corino for the G1 Climax.
“This was the greatest G1 ever,” said Romero. “A lot was accomplished in one night with Kenny Omega’s G1 win. Omega had a great 2016, but he’s a guy who, at this time last year, was a junior [heavyweight]. Within one year, he beat all the top guys like [Tetsuta] Naito and [Hirooki] Goto to win the G1. It’s been the rise of Naito in 2016 and he’s been the guy who stepped up for New Japan after Shinsuke [Nakamura] left. It was guaranteed that Naito was going to win the G1, and no one expected Omega to beat him.
“It was one shock after another, and the final night was insanity. So it was incredible to see Omega take on Goto, a Samurai warrior, and the crowd was with Kenny more than they were with Goto. He broke the wall from a junior into a heavyweight world, plus he did it as a foreigner, and the fans showed they’ll embrace whoever is the best in Japanese wrestling.”
One of the most knowledgeable men in the business, Romero was courted by WWE earlier in the year, but opted to re-sign with New Japan. He offered the readers of Sports Illustrated his weekly top ten in wrestling:
“This is a tough call, because I’m leaving out [Hiroshi] Tanahashi and [Katsuyori] Shibata,” said Romero, “but this is my top ten for the week:
1.) Kenny Omega, New Japan Pro Wrestling
Winning the G1 puts him in an entirely different position. He even dropped a pipe bomb in Japanese after the win, and I can see him being the guy to lead New Japan for the next five years.
2.) Finn Bálor, WWE
3.) Shinsuke Nakamura, NXT
4.) Tetsuya Naito, New Japan Pro Wrestling
5.) Kazuchika Okada, New Japan Pro Wrestling
6.) Seth Rollins, WWE
7.) Adam Cole, Ring of Honor
8.) Jay Lethal, Ring of Honor
9.) Brock Lesnar, WWE
10.) AJ Styles, WWE
Honorable mention: Tomohiro Ishii, New Japan Pro Wrestling
Romero added that he was grateful for the interest from WWE, but New Japan is his home.
“I was absolutely considering going to WWE,” said Romero. “We were a step or two away from the ‘getting extremely serious stage,’ but this is my path. I couldn’t be happier with New Japan. I grew up here, and the opportunity to commentate on New Japan World is definitely making me happy and allowing me to grow as a character and as a wrestler for a company that I love, which I’m really grateful for.
“They’ve treated me so well over the years and, without a doubt, New Japan is the best company and wrestling on the planet. How many guys from WWE came from New Japan? New Japan is the leader, especially right now.”
Five Questions with… AJ Styles
Known as “The Phenomenal One,” AJ Styles made an immediate impact in WWE from the moment he debuted in January at the Royal Rumble. In only seven months, Styles has already put together memorable feuds with John Cena, Chris Jericho, and Roman Reigns. He answered questions during the WWE’s 2K17 event this past Friday in New York City.
SI.com: You were drafted to Smackdown. What is the key to success for the show?
Styles: We’ve got to be consistent. Every week, we need to be consistently better than Raw. That’s a hard thing to do. They’ve got three hours and an amazing roster, but we have an amazing roster, too. We’re going to get after it every week.
SI.com: Is it difficult to face an opponent of John Cena’s status in pro wrestling?
Styles: I’m not worried.
SI.com: After wrestling in the G1 Climax, how impressed were you with Kenny Omega’s historic victory in the 2016 G1?
Styles: I’m a little jealous of his G1 win. He earned the right to do that. He was the first ever geijin [foreigner] to win the G1, and he’s worked really hard and he deserves it. The man speaks fluent Japanese–I barely speak English.
SI.com: Omega used both the Styles Clash and the Bloody Sunday DDT–signature moves of yours and Finn Bálor–before defeating Hirooki Goto for the G1 with his own One Winged Angel. What did you think of the sequence?
Styles: That was a little tribute to AJ Styles and Finn Bálor, and I appreciate that.
SI.com: Who was the most effective leader of the Bullet Club?
Styles: Everybody always gets really confused about that. I was never the leader of the Bullet Club. We don’t follow anybody. We do what we want, when we want, and how we want. We don’t need someone to tell us. Finn may have been a leader, maybe Kenny is the leader now, but I was never the leader.
Tweet of the Week
The only way to describe the work of Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa? Glorious.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.