Week in Wrestling: WWE and CTE; Adam Rose’s thorny exit
SI.com’s Wrestling Week in Review is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
Adam Rose’s Thorny WWE Exit
The story of Adam Rose is finished, but there are many more chapters left to be written for Ray Leppan.
The 36-year-old native of Johannesburg, South Africa was arrested for domestic abuse and witness tampering on May 11, but all of the charges against Leppan were dropped yesterday.
“My wife stands behind me,” said Leppan. “That night was a shock to both of us. The reason we were having a heated argument was stress. It was a heated argument where I said hurtful things. I am now learning to disconnect arguments before I get to the point where I say hurtful things. We were under a lot of stress at the time because I’d just been suspended, and I wasn’t at my best. I’d had a concussion in Mexico, so mood-wise, I was not in the best place.
“There was no physical harm. There was a cupping of the face with my hands, but I thought there was an over-reaction by law enforcement–who I have the utmost respect for–and I understand that they have to take those cases seriously. Everything is going to get dropped, and I’m learning how to communicate with my wife through my church. I’m in counseling, and I’m learning how to communicate better with my wife.”
Leppan was extremely successful in NXT as Leo Kruger yet struggled to connect with audiences on the main roster as Adam Rose.
“NXT turned out to be the highlight of my career,” said Leppan. “I was signed at 29, and then I was really in developmental for four-and-a-half years. I was already long in the tooth for developmental, and I only did the Adam Rose character in one promo class with Dusty Rhodes to show that I had more range than Leo Kruger. That was the whole point–we’d been doing Leo for four-and-a-half years, and I tried to do something that was totally different from what I had been doing to show that I had a lot more range, and that’s when the Adam Rose character came in.”
WWE suspended Leppan for his second violation of the company’s Wellness Program this past April, which he criticized on social media–and even posted a note from his doctor to prove that he had a valid prescription for Adderall.
“I can say, straight off the bat, I’m not a drug addict,” said Leppan. “My sister was a heroin addict and she battled drugs her whole life, and actually passed away from them eventually. Drugs are very serious to me, and I take the matter of drug abuse very seriously. The moment that happened–and I can’t get into too much detail–all I can say is what is already publicly declared, which is that it was for Adderall usage that they knew about for over a year. It still doesn’t make sense to me. If you knew about it, and it’s been popping up on drug tests for over a year–and then you’re going to suspend me eventually for it? I gave doctor’s notes for it and followed all the protocol I was told to do on it.”
Leppan revealed that Adderall allowed him to flourish in the world of wrestling.
“If you look at my life’s history, I am a high school dropout,” said Leppan. “I could never study–never concentrate, I could never read a book. I could never do anything that required a long-term attention span. Anything education-based, I was unable to do, so I ended up a high school dropout and living on the streets for two years. When I was younger, the only thing in South Africa was Ritalin. I think my mother was afraid to put me on it because of all the side-effects, but I wish my mother had put me on it because it could have changed my educational background. We tried different types of things, but some made me moody and others made me depressed. The reason I was so irritated was because they knew about it for over a year, and then suddenly it was a problem. I couldn’t understand that.”
Leppan’s story was shared in ESPN’s E:60 with Behind the Curtain, and fans were allowed to see a far more human side of Leppan as he interacted with his two sons–four-year-old Maverick, who suffers from a rare abdominal birth defect, and two-year-old Levi.
“There is nothing more important than my wife and kids,” said Rose. “They are the reason I wrestled for that long. They were the reason I was in the WWE for that long, even though, artistically, I was dying on the inside. I was supporting my family, and that’s why I did it. To the WWE’s credit, I was never promised anything more–so I can’t blame the WWE for it. But I can say that Maverick is now four, who’s still tube-fed, but he’s doing very well and he’s a rambunctious little boy. Then we’ve got Levi, who’s two, and together they are a handful, to say the least. They take over a room.”
From the outside, the WWE and NXT seem like two different worlds. Leppan performed on both stages, and explained that the two destinations are more similar than you would imagine.
“Both have their own set of problems to deal with it,” said Leppan. “NXT is hard in the fact that, especially if you’re coming into developmental, you’re running drills and your body is exhausted most of the time. WWE is not as physically draining, but the travel is what gets you. But I was always trained that you do everything in developmental to get to WWE. If you’re not trying to get to the main roster, then you’re not getting anywhere. If you watched the documentary on ESPN, they were pretty much done with me at that point. Adam Rose was my last hope. I don’t think the character was fully ironed out yet, and I do think the translation of that character from NXT to the main roster produced two completely different characters. We had one product at one end, and then offered them a completely different one.”
Leppan often wonders if his intense, frightening Leo Kruger character would have suited him better on the main event.
“I was so comfortable with Kruger,” said Leppan. “I always think the number one thing that held the Leo Kruger character back was the fact that I wasn’t 6’5” and 300 pounds. If Kruger was 6’5” and 300, the character would have made it–but the fact I’m 6’1” and 210 allowed for a massive disconnect. I think Leo Kruger should have hung around and never gone away, but I do think there would have been a different approach taken to the Leo Kruger character [on the main roster]. The ‘hunter’ would never have been done, and there would have been a certain part of the South African culture that I would have done rather than always a hunter.”
Leppan was willing to discuss his relationship with Vince McMahon and Paul “Triple H” Levesque.
“I have no ill feelings or hard feelings toward any of them,” said Leppan. “At the end of the day, Paul brought me up. Paul is the reason I came up. I don’t think certain people up there were sold on me from the get-go, but Paul was the reason I went up and I was given exactly what I was told I was going to be given, which was a mid-card push for a couple of years. I cannot complain at all.
“At the end of the day, I was never promised anything more than what I got. I always hoped I could change their mind once when I got there. In Vince’s mind, if you’re not a challenge to John Cena or a main event character, he doesn’t really know where to put that kind of character. Hunter was open to the other characters and doing some fun stuff and making some money. I don’t think certain people could ever understand the Adam Rose character.”
Rose finally gained some momentum during his first heel turn where he feuded with his bunny that was part of his “Rosebud” followers in the Exotic Express.
“It never played out, and it broke my heart,” said Leppan. “That was the hottest we ever were, and that was the one thing people were dying to see–who could be under that mask. Unfortunately, it never got played out because, honestly, nobody knew how to pay it off. They didn’t know who to put under there–if you put a nobody under there, nobody cares. If you put somebody important under there, why would you, it’s Adam Rose? It’s just a situation where no one knew where to go from there, and it collected so much steam so quickly that it took people off-guard, and no one knew what to do with it, so the easiest thing was to make it disappear.”
Leppan admitted that he knew his release was imminent, so he has been planning out his post-WWE goals.
“I have some other business interests that I am pursuing right now, and these are the things I was lining up already,” said Leppan. “I saw the writing on the wall a while ago with the way I was being booked and handled. I’m also finally getting the opportunity to work the American indies. I’ve never had the opportunity to do that and experience that side of things, and experience that artistic freedom that I’ve never really had. I can’t discuss contracts, but I can say that, pretty much from July on, I’m fully booked. But I can’t discuss contracts.”
Leppan did not receive the opportunity to thank fans during his tumultuous exit from WWE, but he stressed that he has so much gratitude for those who have supported him.
“The U.K. fans have always been massive supporters of Adam Rose, and the highlight of my career is probably going to be when they chanted my name the entire show and sang my song the entire show almost right after I debuted,” said Rose. “I came out in the dark [match] at the end, too, which is only a spot for main guys. That was Adam Rose at his highest, so I always gave a special shout-out to the U.K. For my American fans who stuck by me, I want to say thank you. It’s been one heck of a ride, and I have no regrets with WWE. Thank you for the opportunity. All I ever wanted was an action figure, and I got one.”
News of the Week
Finn Balor will be with NXT throughout August. Paul Levesque already teased a Shinsuke Nakamura-Balor match for the NXT show taking place the night before SummerSlam. Obviously, I can’t wait for the match, but the question needs to be asked – what is the delay in Balor’s call-up to the main roster?
Ultimately, it comes down to difference in philosophy between Vince McMahon and Levesque. McMahon may not know, or care, that Balor was a two-time winner of the Best of the Super Juniors tournament in New Japan, but that is a major deal in the height-sensitive world of WWE.
Yes, the prerequisites for a champion changed during the runs of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, but those were short-term storylines that ultimately paid off with a return to larger-than-life champions. There is zero chance that McMahon pictures Balor as a future world champion.
In other news…
• Coming to SI this Friday: a Father’s Day tribute to the late Curt Hennig, better known as Mr. Perfect. Interviews in the story include Bret “The Hitman” Hart, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Sean Waltman, Rob Van Dam, Hennig’s son Curtis Axel and Hennig’s father Larry “The Axe” Hennig.
• With Father’s Day just days away, Steve Austin explained how his father taught him and his two brothers to hunt: “I’ll never forget following my dad down in the woods when he first got us deer hunting. He was up in front, he had his rifle, and we were walking down the trail–Scott, me, and Kevin–and we’re stepping on sticks, twigs and leaves, making noise. As many things as I’ve forgotten, I’ll never forget that perpetual look on his face as he kept turning around with his finger on his lips going, ‘Shhhh!’ He probably wanted to say, ‘Quiet, mother------!’, but he didn’t, and man, I’ve been hunting and fishing ever since. We were city slickers in Austin, and he got us into the woods.”
• Will Dean Ambrose or Kevin Owens walk away with the Money in the Bank contract on Sunday? Both are a significant upgrade over last year’s winner, Sheamus. My money is on KO.
• One of the most effective buildups to the Money in the Bank undercard is the Rusev-Titus O’Neil match, which was greatly enhanced with Rusev attacking O’Neil from behind and locking on the Accolade. The set-up for the women’s tag match, on the other hand, included more guest commentary from Natalya and Becky Lynch, and was far less effective.
• The world title match between Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins cannot end cleanly, can it? I assume this is the main event–and John Cena/AJ Styles takes place earlier in the card–and I can see this match going one of two ways. Rollins can win under controversial terms, which leads to two world champions–and Rollins then takes his championship to Smackdown. Or, of course, Reigns could win with a Superman Punch.
• Fact and fiction always intertwine in pro wrestling. Seth Rollins returned from injury in just over six months after his surgery, which the WWE has championed as a whole three months ahead of schedule. The WWE Network “Redesign. Rebuild. Reclaim” special on Rollins, as noted last week by Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer, saw Rollins’ surgeon saying that Rollins would need six months to recover.
• Dean Ambrose showed a far more aggressive side during the conclusion of the “Ambrose Asylum” segment. Whether the world champion is Rollins or Reigns a week from now, I hope Ambrose remains in the title picture and reinserts himself into the main event.
• The burial of Zack Ryder continued on Raw with another loss to Sheamus. Ryder’s upset Intercontinental title victory from WrestleMania feels more like an afterthought as his losses pile up week after week, tainting such an incredible ‘Mania moment.
• TNA’s Impact Wrestling was delayed last night for nearly two hours due to technical difficulties from Pop TV, but the show – once it aired – was highlighted by EC3 inadvertently costing Drew Galloway in his world title match with Bobby Lashley.
• Also coming soon to SI: a feature interview next Monday with Linda McMahon.
Brain Injuries & The Boston Globe
The Boston Globe’s Bob Hohler reported this past Sunday about the relationship between Chris Nowinski’s Concussion Legacy Foundation and the WWE.
Hohler’s reporting revealed that the WWE has donated $2.7 million since 2013, making it the largest publicly acknowledged benefactor of the foundation. Nowinski, who is co-founder of the foundation and its president, wrestled as “Chris Harvard” for the WWE. His career ended after suffering a concussion in 2003, which was exacerbated by Nowinski wrestling for another five weeks.
Nowinski co-founded the Concussion Legacy Institute in 2007 with Dr. Robert Cantu in an effort to solve the concussion crisis, and his trailblazing work led to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which the foundation’s web site describes as “the first research center in the world dedicated to the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease associated with brain trauma.”
As an investigative reporter for the Globe, Hohler has followed Nowinski and the foundation for years.
“I’ve done two prior conflict-of-interest stories on the Sports Legacy Institute, which is now the Concussion Legacy Foundation,” said Hohler. “They changed their name right before the Concussion movie came out last year–the Concussion book [by Jeanne Marie Laskas] was rough on Nowinski, in particular. One of the [prior] conflict-of-interest stories was about this venture with impact sensors for football helmets, and it was totally a profit-making business for their non-profit [organization]. They shut it down after we did the story. Before that, I did a conflict-of-interest story on Dr. Robert Cantu, who is one of their founders. He took on so many tangled relationships in football, medicine, and all different areas, so I’ve kept my eye on them.”
Hohler decided to further research the connection between the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which is a non-profit organization, and the WWE after learning of a sizable donation.
“I knew that WWE gave them $1.2 million, and I was looking at their website and saw Triple H [Paul Levesque] and Corey Graves holding up a check for $1.5 million,” said Hohler. “So I said, ‘Wow, does this mean they’re up to $2.7 [million] now?’ That number -- $2.7 million – turned out to be true.
“If you know Nowinski’s story, it’s all about the fact he was a WWE wrestler and suffered these career ending brain injuries that helped inspire him to write his book [Head Games in 2006] that sort of got him started and helped him form a connection with a New York Times reporter, and they wrote that NFL concussion story, which went a long way. Nowinski is a guy who suffered serious brain injuries in WWE, and then decided he was going to help people who have suffered these injuries in contact sports and entertainment businesses like WWE.”
Nowinski put in tremendous work researching the connection between CTE and professional football, and Hohler investigated the foundation’s work on the professional wrestling front.
“We all know he was the first to get [Chris]Benoit’s brain, and he found severe CTE,” said Hohler. “Then it looked like he went silent. The next was Andrew Martin–Test–but that was [Dr. Bennet] Omalu, and Omalu had done that on his own. So I looked at their web site, which lists the Legacy donors–it’s people who have died and whose brains they have received and studied and the families have allowed them to go post their identities with the dates of their birth and death–so I said, ‘Let me see how many of those he’s gotten since 2013 when WWE started donating money to him.’ There were 43 people on that page who have died since 2013, and none of them were wrestlers. So that further raised my interest into what he’s doing–he’s looking at rugby and lacrosse and all these other sports, but what about professional wrestling? It’s been documented in two cases, and his case, in particular, was very clear, so what else is he doing to try to see how widespread and deep the problem is? Those were the jumping-off points.”
Hohler stated that Nowinski was not open to discussing his relationship with the WWE.
“He wasn’t forthcoming, I’ll put it that way,” said Hohler. “It was a really pulling teeth experience. We went back-and-forth over email for over eleven days, and I got a lot of different answers to the very simple questions I was asking, which were how many brains have you procured and how many were CTE found in? It just seemed very much that he didn’t want to be very forthright about it, in which I told him at the end that he wasn’t being very straightforward about this.
“He finally acknowledged that he’s only obtained twelve brains since 2013, and none of them were wrestlers. He said that now he’s no longer in the brain chasing business, which was what really launched him and gave him the fame that he has – it had a lot to do with going out and chasing the brains of people that died to document the severe problem in the NFL. He just decided he doesn’t want to do that anymore. On his side, he said he’s collecting pledges from all these wrestlers. He does have a number of pledges from wrestlers, so when they die, he’ll get their brains. But it raises the question–all these people are dying in the last few months–professional wrestlers who were under the age of 50–and seem like pretty good candidates for study. So when Nowinski didn’t go after them, they went to Omalu–who’s not taking money from WWE. It raises questions, and only Nowinski knows in his heart whether he really wants to dive deeply in this issue and thoroughly document the incidents of CTE in professional wrestling.”
The situation, Hohler explained, raises questions over the future of CTE research in professional wrestling.
“Nowinski is unique in what he did,” said Hohler. “He really was a trailblazer and pioneer in that field–he made things happen because he was aggressively out there trying to tell a story and document what was going on in a sport. He did an incredible job in procuring all those brains in football and making that case, but now, I guess, he’s taking a more passive approach. Maybe over the long term, we’ll find out more as he studies the brains of the pledges. Unless somebody else is going to pick up that mantle at some other CTE research center, I don’t see any real swift action developing.”
Weekly Top 10
1.) AJ Styles, WWE
Will Styles defeat Cena? Styles will always be a factor on the mid-card, but for those of us hoping he will remain in the main event and eventually wear the WWE championship, this match is a major indicator of the way Vince McMahon feels about the “Phenomenal One.”
2.) Kevin Owens, WWE
Dropping a little French on Alberto Del Rio and then giving a Pop-Up Powerbomb to Sin Cara were the highlights for Owens on Raw before ultimately being dropped by Del Rio.
3.) Kenny Omega, New Japan Pro Wrestling
“The Cleaner” defends his IWGP Intercontinental title against Michael Elgin this Sunday at New Japan’s Dominion show.
4.) Samoa Joe, NXT
The NXT champion defeated Finn Balor in a cage match last Wednesday, and now awaits his next challenge–which is likely to be a feud with Bobby Roode.
5.) Dean Ambrose, WWE
Ambrose regained some of his edge on Raw, delivering a Dirty Deeds on Roman Reigns at the conclusion of the “Ambrose Asylum.” His victory over Chris Jericho, however, indicates that it is unlikely he will win the Money in the Bank title contract on Sunday.
6.) Roman Reigns, WWE
The WWE champion has a herculean task on Sunday–can he deliver a world class match without AJ Styles as his dance partner? Seth Rollins is extremely talented, but he is also just returning to a full-time wrestling routine after tearing his ACL, PCL, and medial meniscus last November.
7.) Cesaro, WWE
Cesaro’s brief backstage interview with Sami Zayn served as a reminder that he works much more effectively as a heel. A heel turn and Money in the Bank contract would give an entirely different outlook for Cesaro’s future.
8.) Shinsuke Nakamura, NXT
Nakamura looked solid in victory over Austin Aries, and now the build-up begins for his match in Brooklyn against Finn Balor in August.
9.) Tetsuya Naito, New Japan Pro Wrestling
The world champ defends his IWGP championship this Sunday at New Japan’s Dominion against Kazuchika Okada.
10.) John Cena, WWE
We’ll learn if this truly is the “New Era” of WWE if Cena does the J-O-B for Styles this Sunday.
The Art of the Dropkick with Killshot
Lucha Underground’s Killshot delivers the best dropkick in wrestling.
“My dropkick is one of my most effective moves,” said Shane Strickland, who is the former member of the United States military that dons the mask as Killshot in Lucha Underground. “The running dropkick is the most fluent move that I have in my arsenal. It’s from A to B and fans understand it. It’s not too contrived to do–I don’t have to pick anyone up to do it and I can do it on anybody.”
Killshot is loaded with an array of talented maneuvers, but he finds the dropkick so appealing because of its deep-rooted psychology with wrestling fans.
“It’s a move that actually hurts,” said Strickland. “Everybody throws a punch, but there are certain punches that hurt way more than other punches–it’s all about the technique. The dropkick is a technical move. Fans can understand the mindset of a dropkick to the face. There are many people who throw dropkicks, but I like to make mine more effective. My dropkick is more of a powerful technique, and that makes it special.”
Killshot’s dropkick helps build up to his JML Driver, which you will only see on Lucha Underground.
“It’s one of those moves that you just don’t kick out of,” said Strickland. “I start by getting you up in the electric chair, which is the person sitting on my shoulders. I pop them up in the air, they land on my chest, and then I grab their head and inner-thigh with my other hand, and flip them upside down–and it turns into a driver where the head hits the mat. It’s a mixture of a couple moves I really loved, but I contrived it like that because nobody else does it the same way I do.”
Five Questions with… Michael Elgin
Michael Elgin is set to compete in New Japan’s first-ever ladder match this Sunday against Kenny Omega. Elgin, a former Ring of Honor world champion, is filling in for the injured Hiroshi Tanahasi and looking to capture his first piece of IWGP singles gold.
SI.com: No one ever wants to see an injury, so I am sure you feel terrible for Hiroshi Tanahashi. Did he offer you any advice? And just how big of an opportunity is it to be in the first ladder match in the history of New Japan Pro Wrestling?
Elgin: Injuries are the worst and it sucks Tana went down. He didn’t really offer much advice as he’s never been in a match like this. He did say, ‘Make Bullet Club pay and become champion.’ Being in this match-up is not only a big opportunity, it’s ground breaking. There’s very few firsts left in wrestling–I’ve accomplished a few over my career but this is the biggest.
SI.com: Have you wrestled before in a ladder match? We often think of high flyers and aerial wrestling succeeding in the match, but Razor Ramon excelled in ladder matches–alongside your wrestling inspiration, Shawn Michaels.
Elgin: I have been in a ladder match, but it’s been about since 2007. So I wouldn’t say I’m all that experienced. I remember sitting at home watching Razor and Shawn at ‘Mania 10, it was something special. I’m hoping we can make something special, we have two very different styles and I think that’s an advantage.
SI.com: Do you have a pregame routine before your matches?
Elgin: I don’t really have rituals. I’ll workout as soon as I wake up, have a big breakfast and just do the regular routine. Have some chew, and a pre-match Monster Energy, and protein bar.
SI.com: I know this is a big match for you, but you are also a former world champion with Ring of Honor, so you have some history with big matches and important moments.
Elgin: I live for big matches–that’s when the greats standout–and I want to be remembered as great.
SI.com: How do you picture the match unfolding? And when we next hear from you, will you be wearing the IWGP Intercontinental title?
Elgin: I see this match one way only–with me winning. But that’s hard to say, it’s a ladder match and when you wrestle Kenny, the Young Bucks also aren’t far behind. As I said it’s hard to say... but I have a goal to be the Intercontinental champion, and I always reach my goals.
Tweet of the Week
Wouldn’t a 10-minute match between Charlotte and Paige have accomplished considerably more than the match we saw–which was under three minutes–on Raw?