Week IN Wrestling talks with Jay Lethal about his long title reign, looks at the curious booking of the A.J. Styles-Roman Reigns feud, and gets a lesson in ring psychology from Ricky Steamboat.
SI.com’s Wrestling Week in Review is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
Lethal Set to Defend ROH World Title
Jay Lethal is prepared to defend the Ring of Honor world title this Sunday at Global Wars against Colt Cabana.
“The Colt Cabana I grew up on was a comedy guy who would make you laugh so fast,” said Lethal. “But this is a different side of Colt.”
Cabana returned to Ring of Honor after a five-year absence, and he reintroduced himself to the company by pinning Lethal in a non-title match.
“Colt was able to capture every missed opportunity he’s ever had and everybody who just dismissed him as nothing more than CM Punk’s friend,” said Lethal. “But I live for this. My moment as champion is defining me. I’m getting to make my mark, immortalize myself, and make history–because no one can ever take this away from me. No one can erase the fact that I’ve had this belt–it will be there forever.”
Ring of Honor prides itself as the best wrestling company in the world, which is a perfect fit for Lethal. The New Jersey native grew up watching pro wrestling with his grandfather and has never pursued any other interest in life other than wrestling.
“The passion and the emotion from each of those moments–and parts of my life I had to sacrifice for wrestling–play a key element,” added Lethal. “Even if my reign was only one day–and I would have been heartbroken–but I would be satisfied inside because one of the highest honors you can give is putting the world title on somebody.”
Far from a one-day reign, Lethal’s 320 days with the belt has him approaching sacred ground, as he is closing in on Kevin Owens’ 328 day run. With a win on Sunday, Lethal will only trail Daniel Bryan (462 days), Nigel McGuinness (545 days), and Samoa Joe (645 days) for the longest title run in ROH history.
“Wearing the title meant something totally different to the kid growing up wanting to be world champion,” said Lethal. “It means more than being the best, because it also means people believe in you. When somebody believes in you, it’s such a powerful thing. It will make you go above and beyond because they believe in you. I’m the Ring of Honor world champion, in a company known for its wrestling, and it’s an amazing opportunity.”
Lethal successfully defended his title against Rhode Island’s own Vinny Marseglia in the “Local Underdog Championship Challenge” series this past Saturday at the West Warwick Civic Center. The match was as much of a tribute to 16-time world champion Ric Flair as it was a clinic by Lethal, as the 31-year-old heel champ is dedicated to Flair’s philosophy that he is beatable–yet no one can beat him.
“A lot of what I do in the ring is strictly because of the guys that I loved growing up,” explained Lethal. “In a match like this in almost any other promotion, even with Vinny being the hometown guy–and not to give too much away from the business–but under normal circumstances, Vinny probably would have got beaten mercilessly. But that’s one of the coolest parts of Ric Flair–no matter who he stepped foot in the ring with, no matter what quality of athlete or how long they’d been wrestling or if the people in that town only knew him, Flair was able to put on a show and made you want that underdog to win so bad. That, to me, is professional wrestling.”
The title is very real to Lethal, who noted that he has been wrestling, night after night, for Ring of Honor during the past five years while Cabana was removed from the company.
“The meaning of this title is something rooted in reality,” shared Lethal. “And then multiply it times ten. Ultimately, we are trying to make the people leave needing–not wanting–to see the next show. To me, that’s what this is all about.”
Lethal is not the biggest or most muscular champion in wrestling, nor is he a spectacular high-flyer. Instead, he is an incredible athlete who is continuing to climb to the peak of his brilliance in the ring, and he has a mind like no other in wrestling.
“Secretly, every wrestler harps on the negatives,” revealed Lethal. “Some are more outspoken than others about it, but most of us do. We never go, ‘Look at Moose–he’s got the size and the height, but I have the speed.’ We never do that. We go, ‘Damnit, that guy has the size and the height, I wish I had that.’ Therefore, almost every wrestler is fighting to prove something. To be honest, even I do. I look at a guy like Moose, and I think, ‘If I had that height and that body,’ or I look at a guy like Lio Rush, who just joined our roster, and think, ‘If only I could do those flips, then I could do this.’ So, I’m out to prove that I don’t need those things to be a good wrestler. I don’t need those things to make a mark for myself, I don’t need those things to make a name for myself.”
While others call the business fake, wrestling is as real as ever to Lethal.
“Every wrestler is out to prove something,” said Lethal. “I almost think that is part of the realism of wrestling. You always hear, ‘Wrestling is fake.’ Well, it’s definitely very real. To say the competitiveness of wrestling is real is an understatement. You go out and you have a match–well, I’m going to go out there and try to have a better match than you. I want the people thinking about me and not you, and that is very real. You can’t fake that.”
As for the Global Wars this Sunday, Lethal advised Cabana to send out a lifeline to CM Punk if he hopes to dethrone the champ.
“And Colt is going to wish he had more than that,” said Lethal. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. I mentioned that, if I only had this title for one day, I would have been satisfied deep down inside–but I’m out to do a lot more than that.
“At the end of the match with Cabana, my hand will be raised because it has to–The House always wins.”
News of the Week
Upon further review, this is not going to end well for AJ Styles.
Just like this past Sunday at Payback, Styles will carry Roman Reigns to another excellent match in three weeks at Extreme Rules. There is no questioning Styles’ talent in the ring or his ability to connect with a crowd, but the way in which a wrestler is booked is always a major concern.
Instead of looking like the rebellious leader of Doc Gallows and Machine Gun Anderson, Styles has been booked to waffle. This angle would be far easier to execute if Reigns were a clean-cut, heroic babyface, but that is impossible when the majority of the crowd prefers to boo the champ and cheer Styles, Anderson, and Gallows. But make no mistake–this program was ultimately designed to benefit Reigns, while still giving some (but not too much) momentum to Styles. So it is no surprise that Styles’ finest moment in a WWE ring was overshadowed by the Stephanie/Shane McMahon storyline.
The world title storyline should always have a clear focus on the champion and challenger, but Reigns–who looked solid but was carried by a tremendous opponent–and Styles were pushed behind the McMahon drama. Unlike the main event on Raw, which invested its full attention onto the performers in the ring, the purpose of the title match at Payback was designed to build heat for Stephanie and Shane.
Ring of Honor’s Global Wars is live on pay per view this Sunday. History will be made when Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi square off against each other in tag team action, and the building will come alive when those two legends are together in the ring. The Briscoe Brothers are favored to recapture the tag team titles, and I am also very interested to watch the 8-man tag between the Young Bucks and IWGP heavyweight tag champs Tanga Loa and Tama Tonga–known as the Guerrillas of Destiny–against Kushida, Matt Sydal, Alex Shelley, and Chris Sabin.
In other news…
• The Enzo Amore injury on Sunday highlighted the inherent risk of putting your life in someone else’s hands. Simon Gotch was not overtly reckless with Amore, but the sequence reinforced the potential for disaster that is always looming in wrestling. The injury reminded me to appreciate the veterans–especially someone like Chris Jericho–who do everything possible to protect their opponents. While we all feared the worst, Amore was fortunate to only suffer a concussion.
• Kevin Owens and Cesaro will restore a significant amount to prestige to the Intercontinental title, especially with the lack of importance currently being placed on Kalisto’s U.S. title run. Owens made a quick foray into the world title scene, but I prefer him dominating the IC title picture until the WWE has no choice but to give him a shot as world champion.
• The Owens-Cesaro match on Raw was solid if not spectacular–and the opportunity to watch extended wrestling matches of PPV quality is a pleasure–but The Miz’s commentary nearly submarined the match. When Owens regains the IC title, are we just going to pretend the ladder match at WrestleMania 32 never happened?
• JBL was really on his game this past Monday, particularly during the Becky Lynch-Emma match (“It just means they both talk funny” was a line straight out of the Bobby Heenan playbook) as well as during the return of Chris Jericho’s “Highlight Reel” (“This is like Ed Sullivan returning to late night television!”). I have a hard time imagining Raw without JBL, which is one of the highest compliments you can give to a broadcaster.
• Ring of Honor’s Moose weighed in on the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning debate: “I’d take Tom Brady over Manning,” said Moose. “That’s an easy answer–Brady has done more with less.” Moose, known at the time as Quinn Ojinnaka, played for the New England Patriots with Brady in 2010.
• Dissolving the League of Nations allows Rusev the chance to return to singles matches with Lana in his corner. Despite his overflowing character and personality, it is extremely challenging to rebuild a talent after he has been devalued–and make no mistake, Rusev’s stock has plummeted over the past year. The man who was arguably the hottest heel at WrestleMania 31 will need a major push to restore his shine.
• I am officially ready for Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson to dethrone the New Day.
• Speaking of the tag team division, there is no more under-used talent on the roster than Bubba Ray Dudley. The former TNA world champion is extremely quick on the microphone, and the key to his potential success would be whether WWE would give him an opportunity to speak on the mic.
• Do the Uso’s make anyone want to drink 5-Hour Energy?
• Still lacking any logic as to why Charles Robinson–nearly nineteen years after the Montreal Screwjob–would want to reenact the moment, especially when Charlotte was in control of the match.
• TNA’s invasion of NXT continues. World champion Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, Bobby Roode, and now Eric Young are all significant players on the roster. The recent call-ups of Apollo Crews, Baron Corbin, Aiden English, Gotch, Amore, and Cass have opened the door for some new faces, which is why I believe the WWE will make a hard push for Ring of Honor’s Moose when he becomes a free agent this June.
Coming Soon: G1 Climax with Jim Ross
New Japan Wrestling is preempted from AXS TV for the next three Fridays, but returns in a major way on Friday, May 27.
“Josh Barnett and I are very competitive, and we want to be the best team on television,” said Jim Ross. “The only way we can achieve that is to consistently do good work, and the New Japan product allows us to do that. These G1 Climax matches are all such pivotal matches, and they’re important to the overall big picture.”
AXS TV will present ten broadcasts of the 2015 G1 Climax 25 highlighting the elite matches from the tournament. The matches include a bevy of talent, including Kazuchika Okada, Shinsuke Nakamura, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and AJ Styles.
“Winning the G1 in New Japan is similar to winning the Royal Rumble in WWE,” said Ross. “It gets you a main event shot in the biggest event of the year, which for the New Japan guys is Wrestle Kingdom. I’m a tournament guy, but for all the years I was with the company, the WWE wasn’t. After the King of the Ring faded away–and I never heard if it was because pay per view buys were weak, but part of it was that upper management never enjoyed tournaments. To me, they’re just naturally episodic, and the foundation of pro wrestling was built on episodic television.”
The ten episodes from the tournament will air over six weeks, with double-premieres on June 3, 17, 24, and July 1. Each episode will feature at least one match in full, and begins at a special air time of 8pm ET with Tanahashi vs. Kota Ibushi, Katsuyori Shibata vs. Styles, and Tetsuya Naito vs. Bad Luck Fale.
“The irony of that ‘15 G1 tournament is that you saw WWE hire four of New Japan’s guys,” said Ross. “The guys [Nakamura, Styles, Doc Gallows, and Karl Anderson] all came to WWE in 2016 largely based on their matches in 2015. I know a lot of guys in WWE in who watch the Friday show on AXS, and obviously a lot of fans do, as well. How else can you explain the phenomenon of Shinsuke Nakamura, or how are we able to elevate the highly-skilled AJ Styles as one of the top ten workers in the world? It’s because of their work in New Japan that most Americans saw on AXS TV.”
Dem Boys Looking to Regain Gold
Mark and Jay Briscoe are pursuing a record-breaking ninth reign as Ring of Honor tag team champions. In order to achieve the feat, they have to defeat current champs War Machine this Sunday at Global Wars.
Ring Psychology with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat
Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair will celebrate 40 years of friendship in 2017, but their classic matches will live on for generations.
“Ric and I were different,” said Steamboat. “I had the black hair, he had the blonde. He stood for what he stood for, and I believed what I believed. We were total opposites, but at the same time, it worked. His lifestyle was totally different than mine, but it was legitimate.”
Steamboat spent the past weekend raising awareness about opioid abuse as a featured guest of Dr. Martin Urban and Dr. Robert DeFrancesco at the “Help Wrestle and Prevent Opiod Abuse” event in Watertown, Massachusetts.
“The more people we make aware, it’s all for the right reasons,” said Steamboat.
A connection between the two dentists and Lanny “The Genius” Poffo spurred the affair, which also included Poffo, Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart, Fred “Tugboat” Ottman and “Irish” Micky Ward of The Fighter fame.
As Steamboat reminisced about his career, he saw a connection between himself and Flair when discussing Ward and his boxing rival, Arturo Gatti.
“There was a growing respect between Ric and I through the hundreds of matches that we’ve had,” said Steamboat. “I was able to talk to Mickey Ward, and by the end of those three fights he had with Gatti, the two had an incredible amount of respect for each other. That was like me and Ric Flair.”
The clash of styles between Steamboat and Flair added an intriguing element to their matches.
“We didn’t hang out together,” confirmed Steamboat. “No, I did not go out and drink beer with him. No, I did not have dinner with him. But whenever it came to business and wrestling, we had an undeniable respect for one another.”
Wrestling was a world of giants when Steamboat broke into the business in 1976, and a critical piece to his Hall of Fame career was his unmatched ring psychology.
“I’m 5’11”, and at the time, weighed 228 pounds,” said the 63-year-old Dragon. “I looked across the ring, the guy is 6’4” and weighed 270. Don Muraco was closer to 300 pounds. But this is not an individual sport–it takes two guys to make this work. It takes two guys to tell a story, paint a picture, so our audience can be entertained and brought into the match. You need to suck people in emotionally to a match, and it takes both parties to paint that picture.”
Wrestlers drilled the importance of ring psychology into his head as soon as he broke in the business.
“The old-timers taught me about psychology,” said Steamboat. “Whatever body part, for instance, you decided to work on, well, you worked on. If you’re working on someone’s arm, you don’t go to the head with headlocks. You don’t go to the lower body. If you start with a body part, you stay with a body part. That’s the story. People watching your match get the fact that you’ve worked on his arm, and that’s the part you’re wearing out. Now during the match, the other guy is going to break away from it, and we may even start doing something new as the story is being told. But whenever I have a chance to go back to that arm, I will, and people get it. Five minutes ago, I spent ten minutes working on it, and people get that.”
Steamboat also noted that he was fortunate to work with some very talented individuals.
“If you think of the guys that I was in the ring with, when I looked across the ring at the other guy, whether it be Randy Savage, Ric Flair, Rick Rude, Don Muraco or Jake Roberts, a carpenter is only as good as the tools he has to work with. Every night, I had some great guys to work with. We really complimented each other, so it worked both ways.”
Savage and Steamboat worked together in front of a reported 93,000 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome during WrestleMania III in 1987. The feud ignited once Savage crushed Steamboat’s larynx, and the WWF sold the kayfabe injury as potentially career-threatening.
“That was a deal we did on television, and it was one of the first time we used the gurney to take a wrestler out of the ring,” said Steamboat. “The big question was, ‘Could Ricky make a comeback?’ People were sending me mail and saying that the best thing I could do was to hurt his throat. I kept saying, ‘The best thing I could do is to take his championship.’ At the end of the day, that’s what I did. I made the comeback and won the championship. That story spoke volumes.”
Savage learned from Steamboat, using a similar philosophy five years later in his WWF feud with Ric Flair building up to WrestleMania VIII. Savage’s mentality in that feud with Flair was to hurt him by taking his title, which Steamboat did to Savage at WrestleMania III after a series of near-falls that was never before seen at an event with the magnitude and reach of WrestleMania.
“We took the people on such a wild ride with so many false finishes,” said Steamboat. “I believe there were 21. On that twenty-second time – when fans finally heard the one, two, three–it was a moment, and the crowd erupted.”
While Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant headlined the card, it was Savage and Steamboat who stole the show.
“At the WrestleMania after-party, all the old-timers–Arnold Skaaland, Gorilla Monsoon – were coming over to compliment us and say, ‘God, what a match you two had,’” recalled Steamboat. “Hogan was getting a few pats on the back, but nothing like ours. I mentioned to Randy, ‘Take a look over at Hogan.’ And Randy replied, ‘Oh yeah, Dragon, he knows we stole it tonight. He knows.’”
Steamboat remains involved with WWE as an ambassador to the company, but is no longer allowed in the ring after suffering a brain aneurysm six years ago. He remains grateful for the wrestling fans who have been in his corner for the past four decades.
“The one thing I’ll never forget is the fan base,” said Steamboat. “Without them, there would be no WWE. There would be no wrestling. I’m retired, but this is a way for me to give back. I think about my fans all the time and I’m so thankful for them.”
Five Questions with… Ivelisse
Lucha Underground’s Ivelisse just suffered heartache along with a broken ankle, but the two-time Lucha Trios champion is healing quickly and hopes to return before the end of the show’s third season. The 27-year-old, who broke into the WWE through Tough Enough in 2011, has spent the last decade in the business. After runs with WWE and TNA, she has finally found her home in Lucha Underground.
SI.com: Why has Lucha Underground been a better home for you as opposed to WWE and TNA?
Ivelisse: It’s been a long, hard-fought journey with a lot of sacrifices, but I’m so grateful to be in Lucha Underground. I come from absolutely nothing–a little island on top of a mountain [in Ponce, Puerto Rico]. I went for it, and I have not stopped. There is no other option than perseverance for me, and fortunately, I’ve landed at Lucha Underground with a great opportunity to show what I have on the mic and in the ring. The professional atmosphere is so great backstage, and that’s rare in wrestling.
This business hasn’t been easy. I still struggle to hold onto that positive force that keeps me going. I’ve scratched and crawled, and I obviously don’t have the best luck, being injured again, but I find a way to keep going and persevere. I learned that what I wanted to focus on bringing to the table wasn’t what WWE wanted. It sucked, but it was something I was not willing to compromise. There is a certain integrity to my work that I am so obsessed over–I want to be the best at what I do in every sense possible. There is the politics side, but I can’t be something other than who I am. That is something that hurt my soul, and I tried it but it just wouldn’t work. As long as I can work on perfecting my craft, then I’m happy. When I left WWE, I tried to find that in TNA, but it didn’t work, either. Thankfully, Shine gave me the chance to show who I am really and what I can actually contribute to wrestling, and that’s something for which I am eternally grateful. Now I have that chance on a bigger scale with Lucha Underground. My message is to be a strong female competitor. I don’t get attention for what I wear or what I look like–I get respect through my hard work, and that’s all I’ve done my whole life. As long as I get a chance to do that, I’m happy.
SI.com: Is there a negative connotation to breaking into the WWE through Tough Enough?
Ivelisse: I knew the stigma that followed any kind of contest, especially with Tough Enough. People in wrestling don’t see that as a prestigious way to get in the business, but I don’t pay my bills with their opinions. Tough Enough was an opportunity that presented itself, so why would I refuse a chance for exposure and contacts? Even though I didn’t win, Tough Enough worked out for me because I took every opportunity to learn all about the business, I took every opportunity to meet everyone and present my mind, and that is why I was the only one who was actually signed by the WWE from that Tough Enough season that wasn’t already signed. I will take every opportunity given to me, and I will make the most of it.
SI.com: Former NXT trainer Bill DeMott resigned from the WWE amidst allegations of misconduct. Was he one of the reasons you left the WWE? And is it accurate that you and Paige became close in FCW?
Ivelisse: Obviously, I’m not the only one who ran into numerous big problems with Bill DeMott. In my personal experience, [his presence] was a big obstacle and big problem. I tried and tried my best to deal with it, but there was only so much I could do when he was in such a position of high power. I am not the type of person to blame someone for any type of failure, but it was a very big obstacle during my time there, especially during the last three months when he was placed in power of the developmental territory.
Paige and I clicked right away in FCW, especially because she had an independent scene background and no one else of the females really did but me. She was the youngest, too, and I wanted to be there for her. We aren’t as close now as we were when we first met, but I’m pretty happy that she managed to find a way to overcome all the crap that made it very, very difficult for one to succeed in that developmental territory. It’s very hard, but she is still there and doing great.
SI.com: What is your current health status?
Ivelisse: I had two fractures and a torn ligament from this second injury [after also suffering a broken ankle during season one of Lucha Underground]. It happened in a move in a particular episode that will air in the future. It was just a miscommunication. The person had a different interpretation of the move we were doing than I did. We somehow failed to communicate that to each other before we went out there, and that unfortunately ended up badly. The outer bone of my ankle crushed into the one underneath it. When it happened, my mind shut down. All I could think was, “Dear God, not again!” It’s the mental drama and the mental pain that is worse than the physical pain.
We’re still not even done filming the third season, and I’m almost walking now. I’ve healed extremely fast. This was an injury that was supposed to be six-to-eight weeks minimum, but it’s been a month and a week after the injury, and I’m almost walking already. They did think that I might need surgery at first, but I do have a bone-healing machine, and that’s helped immensely. I’ve healed super fast, fingers crossed.
SI.com: What is a major goal you would like to accomplish in 2016?
Ivelisse: Definitely Japan. I’ve had a couple of opportunities to go to Japan last year and the year before, but I couldn’t go for different contract reasons. It’s presented itself again with Stardom and I hope to be able to do that this year.
I’m used to being a singles performer and that’s what I’ve focused on for my entire career, so I’m looking forward to a singles run. I’ve enjoyed the dynamic of being in a team, and seeing what my character can do in that type of situation, but I’m still looking forward to presenting my character in the singles form, which I’m trying to perfect. Also, the support that I get from the fans is something I don’t think they’ll ever really fully grasp how much it means to me. I do this because it’s my passion, but it drives me knowing I have people who believe in me and care about me, and that I in some way, somehow inspire. That is very important to me.
Tweet of the Week
Good morning, sunshine… yea, that’s what The Rock just said. Open your eyes up, get your candy a-- out of bed.
Yes, I now wake up to an alarm sung by the most electrifying man in horology.