Wrestling Week in Review: Top 10; WWE gets talent infusion from Japan
SI.com's Wrestling Week in Review is published every Wednesday. For the inaugural edition, we’ll break it into five sections: Weekly Top 10, News of the Week, Five questions with TNA champion Ethan Carter III, This week in wrestling history and Tweet of the week.
News of the Week
The internet buzzed on Monday with the news out of MLW Radiothat AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Doc Gallows, and Karl Anderson all signed with the WWE. With the WWE Network now available in Japan, the timing of the move makes perfect sense.
Call me a pessimist, call me crazy, but I do not see this talent raid ending well.
The “New Japan Four” represents some of the best wrestling talent in the world. Styles dealt with a back issue near the end of 2015, but has displayed in TNA, ROH, and NJPW that he is an elite talent. Styles and the wildly talented Nakamura just faced off at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in a phenomenal match for the IWGP Intercontinental championship. Nakamura retained the title, so he will have to do the honors for someone in NJPW before departing. Gallows and Anderson are a big, bruising tag team, and they also dropped their tag titles at Wrestle Kingdom. Gallows was with WWE once before, but was booked extremely poorly. He is one of the more underrated big men in wrestling and ready to make an immediate impact in NXT and WWE.
I verified the report with three different reputable sources, including one with direct ties to the WWE. The signing has Vince McMahon’s fingerprints all over it – he loves to bludgeon and weaken an opponent – as well as WWE COO Paul Levesque.
Levesque is given credit for his Hall of Fame wrestling career, but he is also a very savvy businessman. He mended old wounds with Bruno Sammartino and the Ultimate Warrior, as well as cut ties with Hulk Hogan when he believed the biggest name in the history of wrestling was no longer best for business. He made the call to hold off on the Kurt Angle comeback, as well as built a tremendous product in NXT.
The reported signing is similar to the addition of “The Radicalz” sixteen years ago, as Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, and Perry Saturn turned the wrestling world on its head with their sudden departure from WCW and surprise signing with the WWE. Guerrero and Benoit, the most successful of the four, both needed time in the WWE to learn the style and develop their own personalities. There is no doubt that Styles, Nakamura, and Gallows/Anderson will all make a significant impact and memorable moments with NXT. Levesque has transformed the former “developmental league” into a bona-fide, must-see product based around a little bit of sports entertainment and a whole lot of wrestling, and that certainly hurts competitors like Ring of Honor and TNA. The “New Japan Four” will thrive in NXT, but the WWE is an entirely different beast.
Each of the four are tremendous wrestlers. Styles reminds me of a 2016-version of Ric Flair, which is no small compliment, and Nakamura is a true wrestler’s wrestler. Gallows and Anderson are the most intimidating tag team in the world. But the WWE is a corporate entity that proudly calls itself a television show about a wrestling show.
If it were only about the wrestling, the “New Japan Four” would be wildly successful WWE superstars. But I just cannot envision a 25-minute match between Nakamura and Styles at WrestleMania 32. If I’m wrong? Vince McMahon can put me in a hammerlock, and that’s a promise I will not break.
Weekly Top 10
1.) Roman Reigns, WWE
Will Reigns draw money as champion?
The highest honor in the business is wearing the WWE championship, and Reigns is currently wearing it. Drawing is the measuring stick for all champions, which is why Hulk Hogan and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin rank far above Triple H, Ric Flair, and even The Rock.
The WWE finally figured out a winning formula for Reigns: stick him with wrestlers who the crowd dislikes more than him. After wrestling the likes of Daniel Bryan, Brock Lesnar, and Bray Wyatt throughout 2015, he is now on a steady diet of Sheamus, Rusev, and Alberto Del Rio. If Wade Barrett weren’t injured, he’d also be in line for a spear from the champ, too.
There is no doubt that Reigns is over with a hefty portion of the WWE Universe -- his merchandise sales are only second behind John Cena -- but serving as the main draw for the biggest wrestling conglomerate in the world is a job not everyone can withstand. After getting a major rub from Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, and even
God Almighty Vince McMahon, Reigns continues to win over formerly hostile crowds. But will he draw well enough to extend his reign to WrestleMania 32 for a rematch with Brock Lesnar? Or drop the belt in the Rumble and fight Triple H at ‘Mania? WrestleMania 32 appears to be Brock-Rock, Cena-Undertaker, and Reigns-Triple H, so it will be interesting to see who holds the title entering the biggest show of the year.
2.) Kazucika Okada, New Japan Pro Wrestling
Okada is New Japan Pro Wrestling’s world champion, which is his third reign with the prestigious IWGP (International Wrestling Grand Prix, the governing body of New Japan) title, and he is only 28 years old.
After a rough start to 2015–Okada was forced to watch Hiroshi Tanahashi play the air guitar after defeating him in January at Wrestle Kingdom 9–he rededicated himself to the business and defeated AJ Styles in July for the title. That storyline came full circle this past Monday as Okada defeated Hiroshi Tanahashi in a 36-minute main event at Wrestle Kingdom 10 this past weekend.
Okada actually had a temporary sojourn to the United States in 2010 with TNA, but was so misused that furious New Japan officials vowed to never again work with TNA, which opened the door for New Japan to enter its current talent-exchange program with Ring of Honor.
3.) Kevin Owens, WWE
Owens is the most entertaining wrestler currently active in the WWE. His skillset was refined in the independent wrestling scene over the past fifteen years, and as a result, his style and work is very different than many of WWE’s current stars. He’s talented on the stick, and his quick, insulting promos are a tremendous example of how an effective heel should operate in the current day of wrestling.
The biggest question mark regarding Owens isn’t whether he can go, as he is one of the most talented wrestlers in the business. But will the WWE ever book him in a fashion that will lead to a reign as WWE champion? Owens does not have the “look” of a prototypical champ (there is a reason that the chiseled John Cena’s nickname in WWE developmental was “The Prototype”), but neither was Mick Foley. Despite his fresh character and overflowing talent, a cursory glance at the list of WWE champions, however, does not indicate that a wrestler with Owens’ build will ever win the company’s grand prize. Lots of eyes will be watching the fashion Owens is booked in 2016.
4.) John Cena, WWE
It is only a matter of time before Cena joins Ric Flair as a 16-time world champion. He reinvented himself in 2015, proving critics wrong again and again with outstanding U.S. title matches -- most notably with Cesaro, Owens, Neville, and Sami Zayn -- a terrific three-way match with Seth Rollins and Brock Lesnar at the Royal Rumble, as well as a fantastic bout with Seth Rollins in Brooklyn at SummerSlam. Cena delivered another outstanding match in his return to Raw last week with Alberto Del Rio, who had put on a series of dull, stale matches as U.S. champion. Cena’s return showed, once again, it is the man who makes the title and not the title who makes the man.
5.) Dean Ambrose, WWE
Ambrose’s Intercontinental Championship is his second major title, having already won the United States championship. A feud with Reigns–even with both men as faces – would have been great draw for the December PPV had Reigns’ championship story arc began at the Survivor Series, but the company made the decision to extend Reigns-Sheamus into the new year.
What is the next step for Ambrose? Reigns, Lesnar, and Cena are firmly entrenched as the top three draws in the company, but there is an opening for a top heel within the WWE. Could Ambrose be the next Shield member to join Triple H in the Authority? In the interim, it will be very interesting to see Ambrose’s progression and the direction for his match at WrestleMania 32.
6.) Finn Bálor, WWE NXT
The NXT champion changed the image of his entire promotion, as the 34-year-old superstar is one of the world’s best wrestlers and has also shown he is a team player willing to make the most of any situation his bosses present him. Bálor was an international star and has transformed NXT from “developmental” to the majors, and his matches with Owens (the “Beast of the East” special on the Fourth of July, as well as the ladder match in Brooklyn on the eve of SummerSlam) were two of the best matches of the year. His work rate has elevated NXT above TNA and Ring of Honor.
Bálor is reportedly in line for a call-up to the main roster after WrestleMania 32, right after his title defense at NXT Takeover Dallas, against, presumably, Sami Zayn.
7.) Ethan Carter III, TNA
It is unfair to refer to EC3 as the future of TNA, as he is also their present. He is the most compelling part of the current programming, and the talented 32-year-old reclaimed the TNA heavyweight world championship last night on live television. He defeated Bobby Lashley earlier in the show, then went over cleanly in the main event against Matt Hardy. EC3 is proof that a wrestler can succeed without the help of WWE. He was not one of “Paul Levesque’s Guys” in developmental and was unceremoniously let go by the WWE, but channeled that disappointment to fuel his future success.
It would have been criminal had the company put its fate in the hands of anyone else. TNA has attempted many different recipes for success, but it needs to deliver in the area that the WWE occasionally lets slip through the crevices – the wrestling, and EC3 can work. TNA needs to continue to highlight young wrestlers – led by their champion – and allow for significant time to tell a story in the ring. Eventually, a series of matches between EC3 and the newly signed Michael Bennett will be appointment viewing for all wrestling fans.
8.) Jay Lethal, Ring of Honor
The Ring of Honor world champion is six months into his title reign, and he also spent four months as a dual champion with the world television championship. Lethal first gained notoriety in TNA as the maker of “Black Machismo,” and put together a really entertaining program with Ric Flair, but this title run has been based on his extraordinary wrestling ability as much as his charisma.
Lethal defeated of AJ Styles at ROH’s Final Battle on December 18, as well as disposed of Michael Elgin in Tokyo at Wrestle Kingdom 10. As ROH builds toward its 14th Anniversary PPV on February 26 in Las Vegas, curiosity is building to see who challenges the master of the “Lethal Injection.”
9.) The Young Bucks, NJPW/ROH
The Bucks are the most talented, cohesive, and explosive duo in the business. Fresh off their Wrestle Kingdom 10 victory, Nick and Matt Jackson are now the newly crowned IWGP Junior Heavyweight tag team champions, and have positioned themselves for a run with the Ring of Honor tag titles after signing for the next year with the company. With the current champs–War Machine–working without contracts, it is only a matter of time before the Bucks are posing with the titles.
After watching these two perform, you have to ask yourself–how are they not currently working for the WWE? A triple-threat TLC match between the Bucks, New Day, and the Dudley’s would have created a genuine WrestleMania moment in April.
10.) The New Day, WWE
The trio is a very entertaining act, but there is cause for concern for Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston, and Big E.
The New Day has not been booked as a serious threat since the October 5 edition of Monday Night Raw when they laid out John Cena. Over the past three months, the New Day has focused more on trombones and unicorns than destruction. Comedy is absolutely needed in wrestling, particularly on a three-hour Raw, but the comic act needs to be balanced by the right amount of violence.
The collective harmony in the ring and on the mic for Woods, Kingston, and Big E is unlike any other group in wrestling, but a question mark still lingers over the current WWE tag team champions. An interesting solution would be to book the champs in a triumphant program with the Uso’s and Lucha Dragons in January and February, then book them to go over in a TLC match at WrestleMania with the Dudley’s and returning Hardy’s, which would further solidify the New Day as a major piece of the company -- as well as a serious threat inside the ring.
Five Questions With ... TNA World Champion Ethan Carter III
Fresh off his championship victory over Matt Hardy, Ethan Carter III left the ring, and – with the title in hand – conducted his first interview as champion with Sports Illustrated.
SI.com: TNA has attempted many different ways to succeed, but they are investing their faith and future – on a new network in Pop TV – in you. How humbling is it to be the face of the company?
Ethan Carter III: It’s very humbling for me to be the face of the company, but I don’t feel I’m the face quite yet. There is still a lot of work for me to do to bestow that honor upon myself, and this company has a lot of faces that need to be seen by the world. It’s very humbling, and it is also a great responsibility and challenge, but it’s the responsibility and challenge I’ve waited for my whole career.
SI.com: We see you on television every week, but wrestling fans are not blessed with the opportunity to watch you work behind the curtain. You have dedicated yourself to the business for the past thirteen years, and sacrificed a great deal to put yourself on top of the company. Has all of your hard work paid off?
EC3: There have been four knee surgeries, one arm surgery, concussions, and stitches more times than I care to count. I’ve been beat up and bruised, and that’s only the physical part. The mental aspect is entirely different. Striving so long trying to get somewhere on the independents to getting an opportunity to learn from WWE in their developmental system. It didn’t work out, and whatever happened, it happened for a reason. I truly believe that the reason was for me to come here to TNA. There are life-changing events I’ve had to give up to even get a sniff of this opportunity, but hell yeah, it was worth it. I am very fortunate because I have had nothing but great support from my family, even since the beginning. I didn’t finish college, but my dad told me, ‘If you want to do this, go do it and do it the best you can.’ I have a great girlfriend, who is now my fiancée, who has been with me for a very long time. She’s seen me at my worst and sees me at my best, and it’s emotional to get to this point.
SI.com: Are you the WWE’s biggest mistake?
EC3: They have a wealth of talent. They can afford to make mistakes, but I just happened to be a really bad one. My disdain, my anger has subsided because I’ve proved detractors wrong. When I left, I talked to someone – who is currently their top guy in the industry – and I said, “There’s only one left for me to do, and that’s shove it up their a--.” And he said, “I’d agree.” So it was a motivating factor for a while, but now my motivation is building this company as much as I can and working the hardest I can to give the fans an alternative and a great show to watch. My drive is the success of this place, not the mistake of others.
SI.com: The “New Japan Four” reportedly just signed with WWE. You have a connection to all men, especially AJ Styles. What is your perspective of the report?
EC3: I’ve been busy with what we are doing, so I just vaguely heard of it, but those are four great talents. They’re going to be great wherever they go, and if they’re moving on somewhere else, more power to them.
SI.com: How can you push TNA in a different successful direction? Will you have longer matches? And who would you like to see in the ring?
EC3: The EC3 character started as a cocky, little prick kid. My motivation was to develop my character. I knew that great matches would come if the character progressed. Going forward now as the champion, we’ve made the EC3 character conniving and evil, but every time his back is against the wall, he’s been able to pull it off. I credit Kurt Angle for being the one to put me in that position when I first won the world heavyweight championship. So EC3 can go, he’s battle-tested, he’s hardened, he knows his sh-- now, and it’s time for the world title to be prestigious, have lineage, and sought after by everyone in this locker. This means everything to me, and my life revolves around being the champion of this company. The fights for the title need to be worth watching, and we need to have contests of epic proportions – fifteen-to-twenty matches would be great, and twenty-five to thirty? Let’s do it, let’s go.
This Week in Wrestling History
Seventeen years have passed since arguably the greatest moment in the history of Monday Night Raw.
Mick Foley defeated The Rock on the January 4, 1999 airing of Raw, and the match was a major turning point for the WWE in the battle against World Championship Wrestling, as well as the culmination of Foley’s blood, sacrifice, and dedication to the business. Last night, before traveling to his comedy show in Charlotte, Foley took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss, as he calls it, “The Night the Channels Changed.”
“I didn’t feel like I was properly prepared,” explained Foley. “If you look back at the match, you can see my entire shirt was ripped wide open. Earlier in the night, after securing my match with The Rock, I had jumped into the crowd. I actually jumped to the wrong area where there was no security guard to help me, and I was almost destroyed by a bump from the fans there in Worcester. I really didn’t feel extremely confident before the match that we would be pulling off something that fans would be talking about seventeen years after the fact.”
Foley never even broke out the headphones to listen to Tori Amos before the title match.
“I was too nervous,” he said. “There was too much going on to even think about the match.”
Wrestling has a history of contentious title changes. No one wants to lose their spot at the top of the company, but The Rock was extremely happy for Foley’s achievement.
“I actually tried to talk Vince McMahon out of it, thinking it wasn’t best for business,” said Foley. “I remember looking at The Rock’s face and he must have been thinking, ‘He’s trying to talk the boss out of winning the WWE title?’”
Foley dedicated his life to the pursuit of professional wrestling, and – no matter how humble and gracious Foley remains – his work in the ring forever changed the business.
“I was what is known in the business as a transitional champion, but I was happy I had the title, even if it was for just 26 days or so,” said Foley. “I never based the success of my career on whether or not I was a champion, especially the WWE champion, until I actually held it. I didn’t realize the magnitude of it because I never thought it was in the cards. I’m happiest about the fact that people recall that moment so fondly, even seventeen years after the fact.”
The Foley title victory aired on a taped Raw, and WCW’s Tony Schiavone infamously on Nitro. The Foley-Rock match ended up delivering a bigger rating than a live match between Hollywood Hogan and Kevin Nash.
Foley has no peers in wrestling. He displayed his charisma in many different personalities, which included a raving lunatic in Cactus Jack and a psychedelic hippie as Dude Love. But his most successful character remains himself – and re-watching Foley’s title match serves as a refreshing reminder to just how exceptional he was in the ring.
“Whether it’s in the ring, with my writing, or with my occasional comments on the state of the business, people know I care,” said Foley. “I’m still emotionally invested in WWE, and I think people appreciate that.”
Tweet of the Week
Nice to see Bálor isn’t a Peyton Manning fan.