The Wrestling Week in Review looks at Daniel Bryan’s retirement, the burgeoning Beyond Wrestling promotion, and an interview with Sami Callihan, on why he walked away from WWE.
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
After spending the last ten months explaining to anyone who would listen that he would return to the ring, Daniel Bryan announced the news of his retirement on the exact same night the WWE was visiting his home state of Washington.
I was originally skeptical of the timing of the announcement, but Bryan’s honesty and openness in the ring were sincere. He explained that the condition of his brain is no shape to handle the stresses of pro wrestling, which he elaborated with Jonathan Coachman last night on ESPN’s “Off The Top Rope.” Bryan admitted he has suffered at least ten concussions, and revealed he has been hiding his post-concussions seizures in an attempt to return to active wrestling. Recent tests exposed Bryan’s condition, and there is no way that a global, corporate entity like the WWE will ever again allow him to take the risk of wrestling.
Ultimately, Bret Hart was right. The Hitman delivered a “State of the WWE” this past June, and explained, “Daniel Bryan is finished. He’ll never wrestle again. I don’t think he knows it yet... One day, you learn it’s over. Doctors tell you that you can’t wrestle and you’ll never wrestle again.”
Bryan has always remained true to himself, and even went off-script by discussing why he cut his hair for “Wigs for Kids.” The interview was emotional, particularly as Bryan counted off the reasons he loves wrestling, as well as memories of his late father. People very rarely stay retired in this business, but in this case, Bryan has no choice. His wrestling, emotion, and ability to tell a story will forever be missed in a WWE ring.
And, unlike WrestleMania 30, it was fitting that Bryan and his wife finally had their moment together in the middle of the ring.
In other news…
• Triple H appeared in the very end of the opening segment on Raw, as the WWE’s four biggest stars–Triple H, Brock Lesnar, Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns–were all featured, albeit briefly, in one segment. Yet, even with Stephanie McMahon also appearing, the biggest star on camera was Paul Heyman. His accomplishments–ranging from his work with the Dangerous Alliance in World Championship Wrestling to creating a revolution in the business with Extreme Championship Wrestling–are only a brief glimpse at his brilliance. ECW’s hottest streak began in 1998-99, which is eighteen years ago, yet Heyman’s star still burns brighter than ever. He and Vince McMahon are the two most captivating men in wrestling, and a WrestleMania storyline including Triple H and Lesnar–which will include face-to-face interaction between Heyman and Vince–is best for business.
• The February 14 show for New Japan Pro Wrestling should be a monumental night for Kenny Omega. The vacant IWGP Intercontinental championship is on the line in a match between Omega and Hiroshi Tanahashi. Despite working with a separated shoulder, expect Tanahashi to help Omega shine, as New Japan desperately needs a strong heel in the wake of AJ Styles’ departure.
• How dare Stephanie McMahon interrupt Paul Heyman during his introduction? Heyman referring to Reigns and Ambrose as “big brother” and “little brother” was a great way to open the segment before Lesnar destroyed the both of them. If anyone in WWE creative listens to the crowd response on Raw, the crowd lit up when Lesnar clobbered Reigns with the table.
• The Daniel Bryan highlight segments were incredibly well-produced, but the WWE would love for you to forget that it took an epiphany to put Bryan over in the main event of WrestleMania 30. One of the greatest “What If’s” is, “What if CM Punk hadn’t quit the WWE after the 2013 Royal Rumble?” When I asked Bryan that very same question this past July, he replied, “I don’t wonder. I just find it funny, it’s such an odd thing. I wasn’t supposed to be in that spot. Because Punk quit, I was in that spot. My mind doesn’t work in what-if’s. What happened happened, and I don’t really think about it too much.”
• I understand that it is good business for the WWE to promote Total Divas on Raw, even though the show continually hurts the actual wrestling storylines, but did you know that the women on the show do not receive royalties? Reality television plays by a separate set of rules, which is why the show keeps churning out season after season at minimal cost.
• Loved the Usos-Dudleys interaction on Raw. D-Von’s “They get us confused all the time” line reminded me of how little promo time the Dudleys have received since their return. Turning the Dudleys is a fantastic way to add some heat to their characters, and it appears that the wheels are slowly turning for a New Day-Usos-Dudleys TLC match at WrestleMania 32.
• Speaking of the New Day, their comedy is extremely hit-or-miss. The trio fell flat with their “Working on a table” interview on Monday.
• Last week’s EC3 promo–apologizing to the fans and vowing revenge of TNA world champion Matt Hardy–was good but not great. The segment was taped, which didn’t help, but EC3 was far too scripted. The canned background music also severely damaged the interview. Imagine if “Stone Cold” Steve Austin cut a taped promo on Vince McMahon with music in the background? If you’re going to give EC3 the keys to the car, then don’t hold back.
Weekly Top 10
1.) Kevin Owens, WWE
After originally believing that the WWE was building Owens toward a match with the Undertaker at WrestleMania, I’m now having serious doubts. Isn’t there a better way to use Owens than losing back-to-back weeks against Dolph Ziggler? Kalisto also defeated Owens on Smackdown. Owens is the company’s best heel, but I worry that the post-loss temper tantrums could be turned into a bad comedy bit.
2.) Brock Lesnar, WWE
Lesnar’s presence immediately provides an extra element of excitement. I still fear that Reigns pins Ambrose (Lesnar has had some bad luck in recent triple threat matches), and Lesnar instead works with Bray Wyatt at ‘Mania.
3.) AJ Styles, WWE
We are officially ready to hear from AJ Styles. It is a bit disconcerting that he’s been called a redneck on multiple occasions, and it legitimately seems like the WWE is afraid to put a microphone in his hands.
4.) Dean Ambrose, WWE
The Intercontinental champion delivered a low blow to Brock Lesnar, but only after Reigns served as a distraction. The IC title is lost in this program, and Owens should have reclaimed the belt at the Royal Rumble.
5.) Kazuchika Okada, New Japan Pro Wrestling
Okada defends his IWGP championship in a singles match against Hirooki Goto on Thursday night in the main event of the “The New Beginning” in Osaka.
6.) Roman Reigns, WWE
Would it be better if Reigns remained silent? He needs something to add intrigue to his character, but we’re seeing an awful lot of joking around and hijinks from a man who had his championship taken away from him at the Royal Rumble.
7.) Finn Balor, NXT
Balor defeated Apollo Crews in a non-title match last week on NXT with the coup de grace and a DDT. Considering Balor was going over, why not just make this a title match?
8.) Zack Sabre, Jr.
After a successful run in New England, the “Technical Wizard” battled Timothy Thatcher in Hamburg, Germany on Saturday and was victorious over Will Ospreay on Sunday in Marylebone, England.
9.) Jay Lethal, Ring of Honor
Does either Adam Cole or Kyle O’Reilly pose a credible threat for Lethal at the upcoming 14th Anniversary show on February 26? Like Lethal, O’Reilly (who stars in the reDRagon tag team with Bobby Fish) also just re-signed with Ring of Honor, making him a possibility to walk out as world champion.
10.) Kenny Omega, New Japan
Omega’s date with destiny is this Sunday on Valentine’s Day, as he looks to claim the IWGP Intercontinental title left vacated by WWE-bound Shinsuke Nakamura.
Five Questions with… Sami Callihan
Formerly known as Solomon Crowe in NXT, Sami Callihan returned to his roots this past November after requesting his release from the WWE. The “Callihan Death Machine” took a few moments out of his daily destruction to speak with Sports Illustrated.
SI.com: Testicular fortitude is needed to succeed in wrestling, but why would you ask for your release from NXT?
Sami Callihan: Everyone’s like, “You left NXT, and NXT is so hot,” but I have no hard feelings against NXT. Hopefully I’ll be back there one day. But when I went in, a couple things happened–I got injured at one point, and I was just not being used. Now that I’m 28, I wanted to have the chance to leave and show them why they hired me in the first place. I’m still young enough to go back, so that’s what I’m doing now. I’m one of the only guys ever to walk up to WWE and quit, but I didn’t do it to be a badass. I needed to roll the dice, and it may pay off one day and it may not. But no matter where I am, whether it’s WWE or someplace else, I’m still a professional wrestler. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters to me.
SI.com: You have worked with Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Dragon Gate USA, Evolve, Pro Wrestling Syndicate, and even just wrestled a dark match with Lucha Underground. How much work does it take to succeed in this business, particularly on the indies?
Sami Callihan: I’ll never say I’m the most athletically gifted, or I’m the best looking guy, but one thing I do better than anyone is I work harder. One thing I have, something you can’t teach, and that’s the ability to connect with an audience.
SI.com: You have recently wrestled in some inter-gender matches. Despite the difference in size, you’ve still helped your opponents shine in the ring. How did your time in WWE help you evolve as a wrestler?
Sami Callihan: That’s the art form. To be able to suspend someone’s disbelief is the art form of what we do for a living. I know things are predetermined, but this is a real sport. I’ve had multiple surgeries, I’ve had stitches all over my body, multiple concussions, and broken bones. I’ve lost family members, I’ve lost jobs, I’ve lost girlfriends all because of this business, but I did it because it’s something that I love.
My time in WWE made me a better wrestler. I am whole different animal than I was character-wise, wrestling-wise, and psychologically-wise. I was able to work with some of the best minds in the business. I worked with Dusty Rhodes, another amazing mind in Terry Taylor, and Norman Smiley, who is one of the best technical wrestlers of all time. Matt Bloom has been a main guy everywhere he went in the world. Adam Pierce traveled the world and knows what works, Sara Amato is one of the best female wrestlers in the world, and I came out better as a whole. Now I have the freedom to show up wherever I went, and that’s what makes me my own brand and own enigma. You never know where Callihan’s going to show up.
SI.com: How did you give your notice to Paul Levesque?
Sami Callihan: I gave my notice in the office on a conference call. I left on no hard terms, and they knew I was miserable at the time. People said to me, “But you were making so much more money with WWE,” but it’s not always about the money–it’s about quality of life. Triple H showed up at the Evolve show [the night before the Royal Rumble], and that was the first time I got to see him face-to-face and talk with him. He said, “Man, I know how good you are, and to quit the top company in the world takes balls. You left on good terms and did it professionally, so if a spot opens, it’s yours.” I did everything by the book, and I want to be back, but at the end of the day, I realize WWE isn’t the only place that is professional wrestling. I can be a professional wrestler anywhere in the world. If my journey takes me back to WWE and WrestleMania someday, then that’s freakin’ awesome. But my career could take me to the Tokyo Dome or someplace else, and that’s why I left when I did. I have the chance to go out and do what I want to do.
SI.com: What are your post-WWE goals?
Sami Callihan: My first goal is to show WWE exactly what they had in me. I don’t believe they truly knew what they had. If you look at me in regular clothes, I’m a 5’8” white kid that’s a nerd. But when I go out there, I become something different, something you can’t teach people. That factor makes me different from everyone else. My goal now is to become ‘The Man’ on the indies, and I also want to prove why WWE hired me in the first place. Before I got to WWE, I had the same accolades as Finn Balor and Samoa Joe, but things didn’t work out. So now I want to show them exactly why I got hired in the first place, show them why I have the cult following that I have, and to prove, truly, why I am the best professional wrestler walking this planet today. If there’s any wrestler out there who disagrees with me, work a show with me and we’ll see who has the better match.
Lucha Underground’s Biggest Star
Pentagon Jr. is the single most dominating force with Lucha Underground.
Through a translator, the 30-year-old Pentagon discussed his wrestling philosophy, as well as the unique aspects of his character.
“Lucha Underground stands out because it’s not only wrestling,” said Pentagon, who refused to reveal his real name. “There are stories and motives, and that makes the company stand out and speak for itself.”
The Mexican style of wrestling is only a piece of Pentagon’s background.
“Being Mexican, I obviously think the Mexican style is the best,” said Pentagon. “But even though my origins are in the Mexican lucha libre, I like to mix up and blend the styles. I really like the Japanese style of wrestling. I’m very true to myself and my own style and way. The fans have embraced me because I’m not a copy of a copy of a copy. I’m myself, and something that is completely different. The only way I can repay the fans is to continue to improve myself and give them great, great lucha. This is only the start for me, and I still have a ways to go.”
Pentagon explained there is a touch of psychology behind his black and white ring attire.
“I really identify with those colors,” said Pentagon. “I’ve been working on adding a little bit of red, but the second season of Lucha Underground is so dark, so it reflects my colors. My masks are all different, and I go through the process of designing, finding the fabrics, and I’m very involved in that process. I want to stand out from everyone else in every aspect.”
Pentagon Jr. was scheduled to work with Alberto Del Rio in season one of Lucha Underground, but Del Rio refused to put him over. Instead, he worked with the legendary Vampiro during the inaugural season, and was grateful for the opportunity.
“Vampiro is a legend for me, and I knew fighting him would catapult my career to another level,” said Pentagon. “I want to be an even bigger star than Vampiro, but I needed to take that opportunity and run with it as much as I could.”
Social media has forever changed the business of pro wrestling, but the Mexican style–overflowing with secrecy–has remained largely the same.
“Believing is the greatest gratification of coming to a match, and that is a major cultural difference,” Pentagon explained. “I’m extremely proud that this is still part of the Mexican culture. That’s all about the magic of lucha libre. Once you put on that mask, you’re portraying that magic to the people. I enjoy the magic and mysticism of not knowing what’s behind that mask.”
Rey Mysterio debuts later this season for Lucha Underground, but Pentagon has mixed feelings for the former WWE champion.
“Professionally, every luchador has to look up to Rey Mysterio,” said Pentagon. “Everyone of us has to have gratitude for what he’s accomplished. But when I face him in the ring, he’s another opponent I will destroy.”
Pentagon wrestled in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s 2015 “Battle of Los Angeles,” and plans to continue to wrestle in the U.S.
“Stepping into the United States has opened a lot of new opportunities,” said Pentagon. “As long as the fans want to see more of me, there will be more of me. The Mexican and American styles are totally and completely different, but the trick is to know how to mix the two. Once you have that technique down, it’s really not that difficult.”
Zack Sabre Jr. defeated Pentagon in the second round of the PWG BOLA, and the masked wrestler has vowed to avenge his loss, as well as continue to become internationally acclaimed in wrestling.
“I felt honor to face such a talent, but I played to Zack Sabre’s style,” said Pentagon. “Even though I lost, I felt it was a great match. But I don’t fear anything or anyone, and my ultimate motivation is to become a global superstar. If any big promotion is interested in me, I’m open to anything that will push my career further.
Beyond Wrestling is not kidding when it bills itself as “The Most Interactive Pro Wrestling on the Planet.”
The January 31 show in Somerville, Massachusetts included Zack Sabre Jr., Sami Callihan, NXT’s Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano, former UFC fighter Matt Riddle and Ring of Honor “Top Prospect” finalist Brian Fury.
The promotion is the creation of Drew Cordeiro, who grew up in Rhode Island but grew frustrated with the local wrestling scene.
“I didn’t really like the wrestling scene in New England,” said Cordeiro. “A lot of people who came up in this area only wanted to go to WWE, so your career lived and died as far as whether you went to WWE. You wrestled the same people in the same circles, and the only time you’d be able to see this super-indy style of wrestling–the more hard-hitting, high octane wresting–is when Ring of Honor would come once or twice a year. And that was frustrating, because there are a lot of super talented guys in New England who never got the opportunity.”
Cordeiro moved to Ohio in 2008 and worked with Absolute Intense Wrestling in Cleveland before branching off with Beyond Wrestling in 2009. He learned how to effectively run entertaining wrestling shows far different than what was presented every week on WWE television, as well as highlight some of the best talent in the world not currently signed to a WWE contract.
“This began as wrestlers wrestling for wrestlers,” explained Cordeiro. “Some people originally found it disrespectful, especially some carny promoters. We have a very fluid roster, but that’s one of the things that has worked to our advantage. Guys know we’re going to give them the tools they need to make as big of an impact as possible, and hopefully they can earn more bookings and climb the ladder of independent wrestling. Biff Busick is incredibly talented and was able to utilize our platform to get signed by WWE, and that is Beyond Wrestling’s greatest accomplishment. We were born out of background wrestling, but now we have WWE scouting our shows. This is all very new to us, but it didn’t happen overnight.”
One of Beyond’s most exciting talents is Tommaso Ciampa. The hard-nosed product of Everett, Massachusetts once tore his ACL in a Ring of Honor match yet still finished his two-out-of-three falls contest with Jay Lethal. In addition to his work on the independents, he also wrestles with NXT.
“Any place is really tough to wrestle until you get over,” said Ciampa. “Once you get over, it doesn’t matter if you’re on television or an armory, it all becomes pretty easy. There’s more anticipation, there’s more forgiveness once you prove yourself to the fans. The fans understand that this isn’t scripted, and they understand the physicality of the matches if something goes wrong.”
Just like Triple H, Ciampa–who is also busy with his fundraising efforts for children in their fight against cancer–trained at the legendary Walter “Killer” Kowalski’s wrestling school.
“Walter wasn’t my hands-on trainer,” said Ciampa. “Mike Hollow was, and he’s an amazing trainer and the best fundamental coach there is. But Killer would sit and watch, and any time something seemed wonky to him, I can still hear his voice saying, “Fake, fake, fake.” It was really implemented in me from day one that everything I do out there cannot be misconstrued as fake. That’s not to say I won’t do things for a chuckle, but my own personal style is to be intense and snug. I want it as real as humanely possible.”
Ciampa iced his shoulder as he watched Zack Sabre Jr. wrestle Brian Fury, and he explained there are drawbacks and positives to wrestling on the indies as opposed to NXT.
“When you’re not in the Performance Center, you’re losing out,” said Ciampa. “You get Terry Taylor, Prince Albert, Robbie Brookside and Steven Regal every day instead of feedback from a couple guys after a six minute match. Our fan base on the independents, while vocal, is small. But wrestling [on the indies] helps with your own personal comfort and confidence. I still get nervous before going out, especially with a company like WWE and NXT, but it’s different. I know how to wrestle, but it’s the nerves of performing and wanting your last match to be as good as the one before.”
Beyond Wrestling also includes some talented female wrestlers, headlined by 25-year-old ballet instructor Kimber Lee. She main-evented the show in an intergender tag match with Heidi Lovelace against Sami Callihan and Chris Dickinson.
“I’ve always wanted to prove that women could wrestle just as good as the men,” said Lee. “I never wanted to be looked at as a female wrestler, I just want to be looked at as a wrestler. Beyond Wrestling has given me the opportunity to do that. I was on a sixteen-month winning streak, but it means just as much to have someone believe in me.”
Cordeiro is grateful to highlight some phenomenal talent, and hopes to tour further throughout New England.
“You need to do business the right way,” said Cordeiro. “Sometimes, unfortunately, that is out of the ordinary in pro wrestling. It’s a cash business with handshake agreements and not a lot of contracts, so I can see where people would take advantage of that but I’m never tempted to–I do this as a labor of love. If I wasn’t running the shows, I’d be paying to sit in someone else’s.”
The Tweet of the Week
Addiction and Axl Rotten will forever be connected.
Rotten, whose real name was Brian Knighton, was found dead at the age of 44 in a McDonald’s bathroom last Thursday in Maryland, losing his battle with addiction. But he’ll remembered in a different light by those who knew him, including fellow ECW alum–and recovering drug addict–Justin Credible.
“Axl was a caring person,” said the 42-year-old Credible, who just retired from active wrestling but still writes for Wade Keller’s Pro Wrestling Torch and his own Pro Wrestling 101 video series. “He loved people, he loved the business, and he loved being loved. He really enjoyed the interaction with the fans, he was very charismatic guy, and he was a genuinely nice guy.”
Credible related to Rotten better than most, as both men encountered terrible addictions with heroin.
“I’m a recovering heroin addict myself,” admitted Credible. “I went through similar struggles as Axl, and I went through the WWE Wellness Program. They put me through an amazing rehabilitation center, paid tens of thousands of dollars for it, and I’m glad to say I’ve been clean and sober for three-and-a-half years. But we really shared similar struggles–we partied together, and I understand that old-school 1990’s, early 2000’s generation mentality.
“I think it has to do with mental illness and depression, and you want to self-medicate. This is the entertainment business, and having certain aspirations and failing to meet them. That can be seen in a lot of facets of entertainment. And, of course, pain has a lot to do with it.”
In addition to wrestling, Credible recalled, Rotten loved KISS.
“Axl always loved music, and I’ll always remember listening to his stories about KISS,” said Credible. “We actually went to see KISS in Philadelphia when they came back on their reunion tour, and that’s how I’ll remember him. He seemed like such a happy guy, but there was so much pain inside.
“Axl had the same resources with the WWE Wellness Program, but he was always telling me that he was clean and sober,” said Credible. “But I know a drug addict because I am a recovering drug addict. He had all the talent in the world. He did all that blood and guts stuff, but he could really wrestle. The news broke my heart.”
A unique aspect to wrestling is how the wrestlers literally put their lives into their characters.
“Scott Hall is one of my best friends in the business,” said Credible. “He’s been a mentor and a big brother to me, and he’s been through everything. There were times when he’d call me on Christmas all alone, crying on the phone saying that he wanted to die. Now he’s been given life back. He got clean.”
Unfortunately, the same will never be said about the late Axl Rotten.
“Axl started at a very young age–I remember watching in 1991 on WCW’s Saturday morning TV–and this was his lifetime dream,” said Credible. “Our careers really mirrored one another. I also started really young at 18. When you don’t go to college and you don’t get an education, and all you know for the next twenty years is pro wrestling, what are you going to do? When wrestling got taken away from him, it really amplified his pain.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.