Week in Wrestling: Dean Ambrose’s rise stutters; Matt Riddle on UFC firing
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
Road Block’s main event saw the hottest face in the company lose cleanly to WWE’s 46-year-old world champion. And we continue to wonder why there is a void of new stars.
Somewhere between Milwaukee and Chicago, CM Punk understands. He knows the feeling, having performed the favors for Triple H, despite all sense and logic. Punk was the hottest act in the company in September of 2011 right up until he was forced to unnecessarily job to Triple H. The loss threw a wet blanket over Punk’s growing popularity, temporarily halting a hot streak that began the prior June with his infamous pipe bomb.
I am not advocating that Ambrose should have won the title, but the clean defeat was an unnecessary blow to his momentum. WWE’s creative department is staying the course (for now) with the plan for Roman Reigns and Triple H at WrestleMania. But why not have Triple H heel his way into a victory?
Road Block was nothing more than a brief traffic jam. After two weeks of hype, the card failed to advance storylines beyond their current position.
The Shane McMahon-Undertaker storyline has all sorts of gaps in logic. Why would the Undertaker, at this point in his career, feel obligated to do the bidding of Vince McMahon? How does Shane McMahon pose a threat in any way, shape or form to the Undertaker? The is clearly Plan B after John Cena’s injury, and a match between Shane and Triple H–with a triple threat between Ambrose, Reigns, and Brock Lesnar–would have made more sense. With all that being said…I can’t wait to watch the match at WrestleMania. Shane must have something good in store to risk his legacy for one more match, and I am beginning to wonder if the Vince and Shane will join up on the Undertaker…after all, Vince continues to repeat that he will be destroying his “greatest creation” at WrestleMania.
In other news…
• How is Jacqueline Moore a Hall of Famer? She hasn’t produced a single memorable match or noteworthy feud. She now passes Rikishi as the least deserving member of the HOF.
• Matt Mitrione spurned the UFC and signed with Bellator MMA. He revealed in an interview with Sports Illustrated that there was no truth to the rumor that he was negotiating with New Japan Pro Wrestling, but he confirmed that he does bump into Triple H at his workouts in Orlando: “There was never a conversation with New Japan Pro Wrestling,” said Mitrione. “If that were the case, I would have talked to Josh Barnett about it for his opinion. He is a mentor of mine, he is a coach and I take the tutelage he gives me and put it right next to the Bible. When I go down to Florida, I train in the same building as Vince McMahon and Triple H, but I have never had a conversation about pro wrestling.”
• Memories of Joey Styles screaming, “Oh my God!” popped into my head when the former ECW play-by-play man announced on Twitter that AJ Styles and Kevin Owens will face off tomorrow on Smackdown. Even though the match won’t end with a clean finish, that is the most highly anticipated match thus far in Mauro Ranallo’s run with the WWE.
• Best wishes to Neville for a speedy recovering after severely injuring his ankle during his match with Chris Jericho on Raw.
• Transitioning from real injuries to the worked variety, I really enjoyed seeing Bobby Lashley unleash his inner beast on Josh Mathews and “The Pope” D’Angelo Dinero. But why would Mathews ever be allowed to return to the broadcast booth after such an alleged beating? Unlike Brock Lesnar’s beatdown of the announce crew this past summer, which forced the broadcast team to be out of action from the remainder of the evening, Mathews recovered from the attack almost instantaneously, severely hurting the segment.
• TNA crowned a new champion last night, as Drew Galloway cashed in his briefcase (sound familiar?) to defeat Matt Hardy. Galloway was never the right fit in WWE, but his wrestling ability has allowed him to shine in TNA.
• The New Japan Cup featured an upset. Instead of Michael Elgin or Hirooki Goto, I was surprised to see Tetsuya Naito emerge as the winner. Naito also challenged Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP title, as Naito will serve as Okada’s next feud.
• Jim Ross is as good as ever on AXS TV. This past week included matches between Kenny Omega and Alex Shelley, as well as a six-man tag bout between the Doc Gallows, Amber Gallows and Karl Anderson vs. The Kingdom. The matches were from this past May, and the six-man tag featured six wrestlers who all are no longer with NJPW.
• KUSHIDA defeated Ring of Honor’s ACH this past Saturday in the old ECW Arena. The two daredevils put on the match of the night before ghosts of ECW past. Both would add a lot of life to WWE’s United States championship division, which is by far the weakest title on the card.
• Roman Reigns returned to Raw on Monday and was welcomed back with a chorus of boos. I’ll be shocked if the WWE changes its course and doesn’t give the belt to Reigns, but the decision is immediately going to be eaten up and spit out at WrestleMania, and the following night on Raw… and the following Thursday on Smackdown… and the following Monday on Raw…
• The League of Nations represents one of the dullest, driest opponents for the New Day at ‘Mania. I would have much preferred to see the Wyatt Family challenging the power of positivity.
Weekly Top 10
1.) Dean Ambrose, WWE
Ambrose rebounded with a strong Monday night, including a compelling segment with Mick Foley.
2.) Kevin Owens, WWE
I’m not sure if this is someone’s idea of a joke, but the Miz ruining a Kevin Owens segment just hurts on so many levels. The background of the Owens-Zayn feud was detailed in extremely compelling fashion last Thursday on Smackdown, and Miz would be a much better fit in the third annual Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal than in muddying up the match for the Intercontinental title.
3.) Brock Lesnar, WWE
The “Beast Incarnate” defeated Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper at Road Block in a feud that is likely to resume post-Mania.
4.) AJ Styles, WWE
Styles is going to need some surprise mic time to continue to build his match with Chris Jericho.
5.) Kenny Omega, New Japan Pro Wrestling
Omega was a late scratch to the ROH card this Saturday, but all of my reports regarding the IWGP Intercontinental cleared–The Cleaner is as healthy as ever.
6.) Jay Lethal, Ring of Honor
The “Greatest First Generation Wrestler” defeated Matt Sydal this past weekend at the old ECW Arena in Philadelphia.
7.) Roman Reigns, WWE
Reigns returned on Raw to attack Triple H, but he did not receive a hero’s welcome. Still hard to believe that this is the man scheduled to win the title at WrestleMania.
8.) Kazuchika Okada, New Japan Pro Wrestling
“The Rainmaker” found a new dance partner in Tetsuya Naito.
9.) The Young Bucks, Ring of Honor
Matt Jackson took the fall this past Saturday in Philly in a four-way tag match with the reunited Motor City Machine Guns and eventual winners The Addiction, but it’s only a matter of time before the Jacksons are wearing ROH gold. The Bucks will be featured on SI.com next Tuesday.
10.) Triple H, WWE
The Game successfully defended his heavyweight championship against Dolph Ziggler on Raw, marking his first fight on Monday night in over three years.
Mark and Jay Briscoe have worn the Ring of Honor tag team championship belts on eight different occasions, and the two chicken farmers from Sandy Fork, Delaware are eager to start their ninth run as champs.
“We’re trying to get these straps back,” said Jay Briscoe, who is also a two-time Ring of Honor world champion. “We’re trying to get the New Japan straps, and we’re trying to take over the world.”
Wrestling is overflowing with colorful characters and personalities, but there is absolutely no one quite like Jay and Mark Briscoe in the business.
“We don’t have to play a character,” explained Mark Briscoe. “We play ourselves–we’re characters enough.”
The 32-year-old Jay, who is a year older than Mark, articulated on the evolution of the Briscoe Brothers, which saw the pair return to natural personalities.
“It took years, but we had to convince ourselves to be ourselves,” said Jay Briscoe. “Whenever we walked into a locker room, guys knew we grew up on a chicken farm. The guys used to get a kick out of the stories about the chickens and living on the farm, so we thought we’d let everybody see it, and it kind of caught on.”
Reality intertwines with fiction all the time in pro wrestling, and the Briscoe Brothers legitimately grew up on a chicken farm.
“Our dad started the farm about thirty years ago,” said Jay. “He only has one now, but there used to be three. As long as we’ve been born, we’ve pretty much been in it. Then there is another farm with three newer houses that we still take care of.”
As one can only imagine, there are plenty of noteworthy stories from their time together as children on the chicken farm.
“Our mother still tells the story,” said Mark. “When I was four, we were building a new chicken house. Some of the chicken farms are close to two-hundred feet long and fifty-to-sixty feet wide. Dad’s building a new one, so they put holes where they were going to put the beams in. There are holes all the way across before they can start the construction, and I’m talking hole after hole after hole all the way for 120 yards down and sixty feet wide. My little four-year-old frame fit perfectly in the hole. Jay ran up to our mom and said, ‘Mark went missing!’”
Jay took the cue and continued his brother’s story.
“Mark wasn’t saying nothin’,” said Jay. “He was content to be in the hole.”
Their mother finally found Mark, and it is true–he was perfectly content in his new home.
“Our mom walked hole to hole to hole, and there I was,” laughed Mark. “Barely big enough to fit in the hole, just staring up at her.”
The two brothers have considerable size–Jay is 6’1”, and Mark is 6’0”–have the look of WWE superstars. But it was a more extreme promotion that first caught their attention.
“When we finally got turned into ECW, that was a game changer,” said Mark. “That changed our entire outlook. We went from, ‘Wrestling is pretty cool’ to ‘Man, I want to be a wrestler.’ The dynamic between Sabu and RVD was incredible. They were such different individuals but they came together to be such a good unit.”
The Briscoes have fought Sabu over the years, but have yet to lock up with Rob Van Dam.
“Shoot, in ECW, you also got the Dudley Boys,” said Jay. “Just their presence with their whole crew, and the heat they used to get. Man, I was big on them back in the day.”
Although the brothers have the look and are tremendous in the ring, it is questionable whether their edgy style would fit within the WWE’s corporate environment.
“I think times are changing there,” said Jay. “I look at what Kevin [Owens] is doing now, and he’s still doing him. He is great, and it looks like they’re going to let AJ be AJ for the most part.
“If what you do works someplace else, then it will work there. Probably even more so. It’s probably harder to get over with these hardcore Ring of Honor fans. If you can get over with these people, I think you can get over with anyone.”
The Briscoes have a younger sister, who, fittingly, is a nurse. The two brothers are no strangers to fighting one another, and could have used a her services during their recent trip to Japan in February.
“We just got back from Japan, and one night we had some of our English speaking American brothers in our hotel room,” said Jay. “I was on the bed and I just so happened to fall off to sleep. So this jacka--, my brother, decided to jump off the other bed while I’m fast asleep. He jumps up as high as he can and drops an elbow on me. I didn’t even know what happened. I thought North Korea had bombed Tokyo or some sh--. It absolutely scared the piss out of me.”
Mark Briscoe knows Jay Briscoe very well, and he knows when his brother is going to explode.
“I saw the fire in his eyes,” admitted Mark. “I’m not going to lie, I covered up.”
The culprit behind the altercation was none other than Ring of Honor’s Cheeseburger.
“Cheeseburger was actually who gave me the confirmation,” explained Mark. “I was like, ‘Can I do this?’ He said, ‘Yea, do it!’”
But Cheeseburger redeemed himself.
“I had a few words afterward with Cheeseburger,” said Jay. “He actually ended up flying back on the same flight, and he had an aisle seat and I had a middle seat. He offered me his aisle seat for his penance.”
The Briscoes have enjoyed successful runs as singles competitors but while tagging, and they are happy to be team players.
“We’ll do whatever the company needs,” confirmed Jay. “When they came at me with the world title, I said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ Whatever the company needs–they take care of us, so we take care of them.
“Once we went apart as singles, we even moreso developed our own identity. Now we are stronger when we bring it back as a tag because we can mesh together what we do well individually, and it’s even more developed and diversified. And the more good tag teams there are around, the better it is for the all of us.”
Mark concurred with his brother’s assessment.
“We can go with any team on the planet,” he said. “The tag team division is so strong in Ring of Honor right now, so sometimes it works out better for the show to have us as a team. Pro wrestling, believe it or not, is a team sport–we’re trying to put on the best show possible. If Jay is back in the world title picture, and I’m in some program on the undercard, then so be it, it’s all good. I’m just glad that we’re to the point in our careers where we’re versatile enough to handle that–I don’t think we could have in the past.”
Five Questions with… Matt Riddle
Former UFC star Matt Riddle made the jump from mixed martial artist to pro wrestler, and enjoyed an eventful year in 2015. He tried out for WWE, and wrestled across the indies. Riddle’s biggest opportunity yet comes this Saturday at Evolve 56 with a title match against Evolve champion Timothy Thatcher in Queens, New York.
SI.com: Why were you fired from UFC while you were on a four-fight winning streak? Was Dana White’s decision personal?
Matt Riddle: It was extremely personal. I’m the only fighter ever fired for marijuana. Everyone else gets suspended or a penalty. They just fired me because I was so vocal against testosterone replacement therapy [Author’s note: TRT is a class of hormone replacement therapy]. People knew I used marijuana, and I was always honest about it. [UFC parent company] Zuffa’s attorney, Michael Mersch, called me and told me not to talk about it. At the time, UFC was trying to keep guys around like Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva, and they couldn’t stick around unless they used testosterone. I didn’t need that. I was 27 years old and in a four-fight win streak, so even though I’m ranked top ten in the world, their decision kept me in the shadows. Other guys have been suspended for failing drug tests, but they fired me, and that’s why.
But things have changed since–now they’ve banned TRT. I didn’t fail a commission drug test, I failed a UFC-ran drug test. I still think it’s a fishy thing, and it had to do a lot to do with how vocal I was about TRT. When I was fired in 2012, TRT was allowed but medical marijuana was not. Dana White and the UFC allowed testosterone replacement therapy, along with Adderall, OxyContin and other drugs as long as you had a doctor’s note. You were allowed to use prescribed medications before competition. I was prescribed medical marijuana, which was considered a performance-enhancing drug. Unlike marijuana, the other drugs were all allowed with a doctor’s note. I was in the middle of the big battle between marijuana and pharmaceutical companies. The UFC had just brought on Bud Light as a major sponsor, so they were outspoken against marijuana. You could use steroids and not marijuana, and my big beef was against the testosterone.
SI.com: The life of an independent wrestler is nonstop. Instead of potentially one fight every six months, you now often wrestle three times in one weekend. How have you adjusted from a UFC fighter to pro wrestler?
Matt Riddle: There is so much respect built into this business. Coming from MMA, I was used to traveling and competing. MMA is more focused on beating each other up and then shaking hands after. Every time you step into a locker room in a different town in wrestling, you shake everyone’s hand.
There is a big difference. You can work every weekend and sometimes four times a week in wrestling, but in MMA, you might, if you’re lucky, only get three fights a year. That’s a big difference as a performer.
SI.com: You tried out for WWE in 2015. What did you learn from the experience?
Matt Riddle: I learned a lot from my tryout with WWE. In MMA, you need to be ready to fight, but there is a lot of wiggle room to a good match in wrestling. I’ve learned that you need to adapt to other wrestlers. You may be wrestling a guy with a technique that you hate, but the crowd likes it, so you need to find a way to make that work. When I tried out with WWE, I learned that you need to work the way they like. They like things the WWE likes, but it’s a lot freer on the indies.
SI.com: You were a success in the UFC, and even won your last four fights. Was it humbling for you to transition from the Octagon to independent wrestling?
Matt Riddle: The indies are the place to perfect your craft. There is nothing else like it. I really wish there was something similar to it in MMA, but it would be impossible with all of the injuries. It’s hard to practice in pro wrestling without the crowd. The only way you can get better in pro wrestling is listening to the crowd.
I’m myself when I’m out there, but you need to turn up your volume to a hundred. This is such a great chance to express myself. When I fought and got punched in the face, I had to hide my pain even if it really hurt. Wrestling is all about selling. Honestly, it’s just a lot of fun.
SI.com: Is your goal to wrestle with the WWE in 2016?
Matt Riddle: I want to wrestle for every major independent company. I’ve wrestled for Evolve and Beyond, but my goal is to wrestle more independent shows with Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, AAW, and Hollywood Championship Wrestling. I want to get on every big independent show in the country.
Hirooki Goto has been a steady force for New Japan Pro Wrestling over the past thirteen years, but never great enough to become IWGP champion. He has received eight title shots throughout his career, but was unsuccessful in every one of his tries.
“My goal in the beginning was to be IWGP champion, but now that’s changed,” admitted Goto, who spoke through a translator. “My professional goal to be is more famous–and make more money–than anybody. Even [current champion Kazuchika] Okada.”
As of this past weekend, Goto and Okada have now teamed up in Okada’s stable, Chaos. Although the world title has eluded him, Goto has still pieced together an extremely successful career in NJPW. He’s captured the New Japan Cup on three separate occasions, as well as wore the IWGP Intercontinental championship twice. He credits a great deal of his early development to MMA fighter and New Japan color commentator Josh Barnett.
“I was still young in pro wrestling when Josh Barnett taught me some base fighting and shooting style,” said Goto. “I learned lots of ideas and psychology from Josh.”
Goto and Shinsuke Nakamura are childhood friends, and actually entered the business together.
“Nakamura and I are the same age,” said the 36-year-old Goto. “We grew up together. We’ve known each other since high school when we were on the same amateur wrestling team. We went to different colleges, but we’ve been competing together for a long time. We even became pro wrestlers at the same time.”
Goto defeated Dalton Castle at Ring of Honor’s 14th Anniversary pay-per-view, and noted that he is enjoying working with the Ring of Honor talent.
“Movement and technique are very important, but nothing is more important than the fighting spirit,” said Goto. “That’s what shows the emotion behind each move. My only goal is to get better at that each day. The more insight I have into the psychology, the better I can be through emotion.
“Dalton Castle is a good example. He was my opponent in Las Vegas, and he fights a very different style. I actually learned a lot from him. American wrestlers in Ring of Honor make a big impact with their characters. They show a lot more individual character, like Castle, and that connects with the crowd. That’s what I need to continue to learn.”
Monday Night Ran
“Mat Mania” debuts a new track this week featuring Triple H.
This is arguably Mega Ran’s best track yet, capturing the rise and dominance of Paul Levesque.
“I feel like the first eight bars of the second verse are pretty golden,” said Mega Ran. “I’m the Cerebral Assassin through any season or fashion/Attack the mat with a passion; don’t need a reason I’m smashing/To competition I’m sickening got ‘em wheezing and gasping/Degenerate evolution, without the need of a faction.”
“There are so many layers to that group of rhymes that made me pretty proud. This is basically HHH from 2002 to now, if you peel it back far enough.”
As a musician, Mega Ran agreed that it is far easier to write lyrics when an artist is so intertwined with the subject. After watching Triple H for over twenty years, this song was a joy for him to write and craft.
“As a history buff, I wanted to make sure I covered the major parts of the HHH story from the beginning to current times,” said Mega Ran. “He’s undergone so many changes, and is still the man, not a lot of guys can say that. It’s definitely easier when you have such a huge pallet to work with.
“My favorite moment of his career has got to be back in ‘99, watching his rise. I remember at the time, being so annoyed and angered by his promos and style, not realizing that it was doing exactly what it was supposed to. He was so smart, so smug, and so... good.”
The Future of TNA’s Women Wrestling
If you are impressed with the work of Jade every week on TNA’s Impact Wrestling, she is successful for one simple reason.
She put the work in.
“I started training in 2007, but didn’t have my first match until 2009,” said Jade, who wrestles as Mia Yim on the independent scene. “I wanted to wait until I was ready before I debuted. A lot of people, and girls especially, just go out when they’re not ready. Once I had my first match, I just fell in love with it.”
The 26-year-old earned a volleyball scholarship in college at Virginia Union University
“I would drive an hour or two hours during the off-season to train as a wrestler,” said Jade. “My last year of college was when I focused fully on wrestling.”
She grew up infatuated with wrestling, and unlike her family and friends, never grew out of that phase. She remains in love with the business.
“When I was growing up in California, I watched wrestling with my father and my sister,” said Jade. “It used to be a family thing, but then they grew out of it, and I never did. When I saw Chyna and Lita wrestle with the guys, and I wanted to be just like them. That’s the little seed that got planted in my head.”
She still wrestles for all-female independent groups like Shimmer and Shine, and is honored to use her Korean heritage in her character.
“I don’t mind playing someone who is Korean,” said Jade, who is half-Korean. “My mom loves the fact I’m Mia Yim on the independents. She’ll say, ‘If you need help learning more Korean, just let me know.’ And it’s really cool to see more all-female feds out there showing that we can wrestle more than one match.”
Jade credits Sara Del Ray, who is now one of the lead trainers at WWE’s Performance Center, as one of her strongest influences.
“I wrestled Sara in my second match,” said Jade. “We wrestled together a lot after that, and she’d always give me critiques, tips and advice. She’s helped me so much, and it was really nice to pick her brain at the beginning of my career and see her on a regular basis. I wrestled with her, Daizee Haze, Mercedes Martinez–and all of them aren’t wrestling any more. I am honored to have wrestled these women and receive advice from them, and they’re a big part of the reason why I am where I am.”
Jade worked as an enhancement talent for NXT in October of 2014, losing to current Diva’s champion Charlotte Flair.
“That match really taught me camera angles, and making each move mean something,” said Jade. “Charlotte was so nice and sweet. TV wrestling is so much different compared to independent wrestling. It’s all about getting used to a different style and focusing more on character, facials and mannerisms. That’s been the hardest part for me to adapt, so I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half working to perfect my craft.”
Jade’s sights are now narrowly set on TNA Knockouts champion Gail Kim.
“I don’t know any other Korean wrestlers other than Gail,” admitted Jade. “She’s done so much and been in the business so long and paved the way for me. She’s Korean, she’s beautiful, she works out hard and she’s showed me that I can do what she does. She inspires me every day.”
Since Awesome Kong’s sudden dismissal from TNA, Jade has taken on the unofficial role of leader of the Doll House with Rebel and Marti Bell. She has also wrestled in her first Lethal Lockdown match.
“It’s really cool they put their trust and faith in me, but we’re all leaders in the Doll House,” said Jade. “I’m just getting to showcase what I can do.”
Jade continues to work full-time, as she captures for the deaf and hard of hearing. She is thankful for all of her success, but even more grateful for the support.
“I want to thank TNA for believing in me, as well as the both the male and female locker room,” said Jade. “I definitely want to be Knockouts champion in 2016. The people who believe in me are the reason I do what I do, so thank you for all of the support.”
Tweet of the Week
A sobering image and message from Regal, who served as one of Daniel Bryan’s greatest influences in the business. The physical and mental toll that wrestling takes on the wrestlers is the single most misunderstood aspect of this business.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.