SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling. This edition includes The Shoot with Bret Hart; an interview with Chuck Taylor before his PWG world title match against Zack Sabre Jr.; the Nitro Files with Eric Bischoff; the MMA Corner with Rampage Jackson and Five Questions with Dave Lagana.
The Shoot: Bret Hart
With WrestleMania 33 less than two months away, Bret “The Hitman” Hart shared his favorite moments and memories from WWE’s signature event, as well as working with Sharpshooter Funding.
WrestleMania Memories with The Hitman
I am proud to have a lot of great WrestleMania memories.
As far as WrestleManias go, when I got to work with Roddy Piper, I knew that was going to be the biggest moment up to that point of my career. Thanks to Roddy, that was my first WrestleMania classic. A lot of people thought we stole the show, and I thought we were one of the better matches on the card. It was a different kind of match than Roddy had ever had, and it was a different kind of match for me at that point, too. Having good guy versus good guy, old pro versus young pro, it worked really well. That buildup and match was a big turning point for me, and wet my lips to do better.
Headlining my first WrestleMania a year later with Yokozuna is also memorable. I was really looking forward to working with Yoko at WrestleMania IX, but I had no idea that my title reign was going to end so abruptly. I was caught off-guard by that, to be honest. I was told when I won the belt that I was going to be champion for a long time, but at the same time, Vince is always very clear when you win the belt and he tells you, ‘Anything can happen.’ I felt I didn’t have my chance to prove I was as good as I thought I was.
A WrestleMania moment I will forever cherish is wrestling my brother Owen at WrestleMania X.
WrestleMania X will always be my most special one because of the memory of being with my brother Owen. There was a lot of pressure on Owen to fill those shoes as a top heel. The storyline was the bitter hatred between two brothers, but Owen was really grateful to work with me. I went to bat a lot for Owen for that chance, and he really shined that night. I thought that was one of his finest hours. There were two reverse sharpshooters in that match, which had never been done before. Those are the tiny little things that no one really remembers or notices, but made that match a real treat. And what I really love about the match is how it launched my brother’s career.
As for my finest WrestleMania moment, that happened at WrestleMania XII with Shawn Michaels. I think it stands as the best pro wrestling match. Kudos to Shawn, too. We both made that a classic match that will never, ever lose its shine. There were no wasted moves, and the precision in every move, right down to Tony Chimmel getting kicked off his chair—I’ve watched it maybe 10 times in the last 10 years—and the beauty of that match was that Shawn and I had put a lot of thought into different aspects of the match. I remember there was a certain point when I had to be setting up a move with exactly five minutes left in the match. I remember setting up on the second rope and looking at the score clock, and there were exactly four minutes and fifty-nine seconds left in the match. It was those little details where we were exactly on cue, on the second, that made the “Iron Man” match unlike any other live drama. The amazing stuff I did with Shawn that day eclipses anything I ever did in terms of timing and thinking on my feet. The drama of me staggering back up to my feet, still fighting, then taking the big boot for Shawn’s finish, and the drama, frustration, and emotion my fans must have felt was huge. It still stands as one of the most dramatic matches in WrestleMania history.
There was supposed to be a rematch at WrestleMania with me and Shawn. If you remember, he had to go home and retire to find his smile and all that. They ended up throwing me and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin together about three weeks before the pay per view. It was kind of an ice-cold story line. That was a big disappointment, at first, for Steve and me. We’d just fought at the Survivor Series, and even though we loved working together, he was looking for someone new to work with and I was looking for Shawn… yet it ended up as one of the greatest nights I ever had.
The WrestleMania XIII match with Austin was pro wrestling’s version of the best MMA fight. It looked like a real toe-to-toe brawl. Steve even calls me once in a while and goes, ‘I got our match on.’ He always tells me it’s his favorite he’s ever had, and it’s the same for me. That match with Austin and the Iron Man with Shawn are my two favorite matches of all time. It’s just so beautiful to watch that story unfold between Steve and me. Watching how I went in the hero and he entered as the bad guy, then 35 minutes later, we switched places and he was the good guy and I was the bad guy. It’s a really fascinating time period. I’ve always felt that Steve was good enough to make it on his own anyway, but I do like to think I played a role in helping him.
If I could wrestle somebody at a WrestleMania, I would have really loved to wrestle with John Cena. It would have been nice to have a great WrestleMania match with The Rock and Edge, but my history would have lined up perfectly with John. I know I could have a great match with John from the way he wrestles, the way he moves, and his style. He’s just a total pro. I’ve seen the thought and concentration he gives into putting together his matches. He’s also very athletic, and we could have put together a great match, and we could put together some incredible storylines.
I am also grateful to be connected with Sharpshooter Funding. Pairing up and working with my son Dallas has been great. Dallas works so hard and he is grateful for the opportunity he’s been given. Their owner, Paul Pitcher, has an incredible company that genuinely helps people, and Dallas is a great fit there. It’s a special thing to work with Dallas, and I’m very proud of him.
My relationship with fans is based off the love of my work and my work ethic. I worked hard, and I was always frustrated when wrestlers didn’t want to work as hard. When I think of my greatest WrestleMania matches, I also think of Andre the Giant and the battle royal, as well as wrestling the Nasty Boys in Los Angeles with Jim Neidhart. I loved that match at WrestleMania VII. My heart was always dedicated to giving fans around the world the best match possible, and the fans grew with me. It reminds me a lot of Bayley in the WWE now.
People saw that my heart was so into the job and they got behind me, and there was a true love there. Every fan counts to me. I’ve been there, earlier in my life, as a fan and I watched different wrestlers who I loved. That connection is so real, and I will always be devoted to my fans. I will always be thankful for my WrestleMania moments. Most of all, I will be forever grateful that I was able to share these memories with you.
News of the Week
Bray Wyatt is WWE champion.
Yet, somehow, Wyatt’s ascension to the top of the WWE is not the prevailing storyline this week.
Talking Smack, the post-SmackDowntalk show featuring Renee Young and Daniel Bryan, is a light, fun look at the WWE and its talent. Young kicked off the post-Elimination Chamber edition of Talking Smack on Sunday by stating that Bray Wyatt is set to face Randy Orton in the main event of WrestleMania 33, and Bryan quickly interrupted to let her know that anything can happen between now and WrestleMania. Bryan actually delivered a terrific rant about how his vision of SmackDown—and he was clearly mocking Vince McMahon—changes by the minute and on a moment’s notice depending on how he feels.
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Shockingly, the show then focused on American Alpha (SmackDown tag team champions), Alexa Bliss and Mickey James, and Naomi (SmackDown women’s champion). There was no genuine breakdown of the actual Elimination Chamber match, nor was there discussion over Wyatt’s seat atop the WWE throne. Bryan actually worked a very compelling program with the Wyatt Family, and he is able to offer all kinds of perspective on Wyatt, yet the show was produced to focus on the other talents. The newly crowned Wyatt took a backseat to the rest of the card, which is absurd.
Despite claims that Wyatt will now headline WrestleMania, the chances of that match going last—which is how you headline a show—is non-existent, as I have been informed that the current plan from WWE is to feature Goldberg-Brock Lesnar in the main event. Whenever Wyatt’s WrestleMania match is, it won’t be against Randy Orton. The Viper pledged his allegiance to Wyatt last night on SmackDown, forcing a new number one contender to be determined via a battle royal next week, which should involve Luke Harper in some fashion.
Hopefully Wyatt’s title reign is more than just a footnote in the card.
Outside of the Elimination Chamber match, arguably a top five match over the past calendar year, the other standout wrestling affair from this past Sunday was Ricochet versus Will Ospreay.
Repeated viewings of Ricochet’s matches only serve as confirmation that he is the future of the business.
The match took place during WhatCulture Pro Wrestling’s True Destiny show, which was available on FITE TV. The two battled in the card’s opening match, which was significant as the top rope collapsed only two minutes into the bout.
Ricochet, who is known as the “Future of Flight”, and Ospreay, who is aptly nicknamed the “Aerial Assassin”, were forced to call an audible and change the bulk of the 17-minute match as the ring was not fixed until afterwards.
Ricochet is only 28 years old yet already has eleven years of experience in the ring, and is seasoned from working in front of diverse crowds in Japan, England, and independent shows across the United States. The match with Ospreay at True Destiny is especially meaningful because of the adversity both men faced when the ring ropes malfunctioned. Yet, somehow, the match was even more compelling, as fans were treated to two extremely talented performers stepping up to deliver an extraordinary match amidst unforeseen difficulties.
Height will always be an issue for the 5’10” Ricochet in the image-conscious WWE, but his talent and charisma is undeniable. Ricochet is wrestling’s most attractive free agent, though he has his eyes set on New Japan’s IWGP Junior Heavyweight championship.
While Ospreay is only 23 years old and holds only four years of experience in the business, he would provide Ring of Honor some genuine buzz by winning their world title in 2017. He is signed with ROH until November, with an out-clause in May, and is signed by New Japan until April of 2018.
Both Ricochet and Ospreay are on an inevitable collision course with WWE, and a Ricochet/Ospreay match would be a phenomenal fit for WrestleMania 35. Taking it one step further, Ricochet is WWE’s next mega star in waiting, as the “Future of Flight” is the future face of the company.
In other news…
• Has there ever been a less meaningful “historic” title reign than John Cena’s sixteenth WWE championship? What is the value of Cena defeating AJ Styles at the Royal Rumble if the plan was for him to lose the title in just two weeks? Had Styles retained the title at the Rumble—or even defeated someone else—then lost the championship to Wyatt in the Elimination Chamber match, WWE would still have a compelling storyline with Cena seeking revenge over Styles. Instead, both Cena and Styles are now directionless, and the WWE championship is devalued with its hot potato status.
• Chavo Guerrero Sr. passed away this past Saturday, and David Marquez, who runs Championship Wrestling of Hollywood, shared some memories of the legendary “Chavo Classic”:
“I grew up in Los Angeles so I saw him on local TV, and Chavo was a huge star,” said Marquez. “I followed his career in Texas and early WWF stuff on TV. I got to know him later on, and while we didn’t have a huge relationship, I was able to learn he was a very passionate person. If he felt he was correct, he’d stand by it, and if he thought you were right, he’d stand by you. I had nothing but positive interactions with him.”
Marquez recalled an unforgettable incident in an elevator with Chavo Sr. and Verne Gagne.
“This is five or six years ago,” said Marquez. “I went up in an elevator with Harley Race and Larry Hennig, and Verne Gagne stopped the elevator to ride up with us. Harley made me laugh when he whispered in my ear, ‘We’ve got to go up with Gabby,’ and I later found out that the nickname for Verne was ‘Gabby’ because he gabbed too much. So we stopped at a floor, and Chavo got on. He looked around and nodded at us, and then he saw Verne Gagne and just went in on him. ‘Well, Mr. Gagne,’ he said, ‘where is that money you still owe you me?’
Guerrero was still felt he was owned money from a booking twenty years prior, and he and Gagne began throwing punches in the elevator.
“Later, Chavo said he was mad at me for not stepping in. I said, ‘I was a kid when this happened!’ But that story showed Chavo’s conviction, and he stood up for what he believed in. He was a great talker, had great feuds with Roddy Piper and Freddie Blassie, and his wrestling was fantastic. He was a fiery babyface and a great talent.”
• Kurt Angle and Alberto Del Rio headlined the WhatCulture True Destiny show, which was called on pay per view by Jim Ross, this past Sunday in England. The match merely served as a reminder of Angle’s greatness, as the 14-minute affair concluded with an Angle ankle lock prevailing over Del Rio’s arm bar. Angle will be 49 in December, and WWE will be missing a tremendous opportunity if he does not fight at WrestleMania 33. An ideal opponent would be NXT’s Shinsuke Nakamura, as Angle could wave farewell to the WWE while elevating Nakamura to the main roster.
• The talented Sonjay Dutt returns to Ring of Honor to battle World Television Champion Marty Scurll on March 4 at the Manhattan Center in New York, and he connected with SI.com to share his excitement over the title opportunity:
“I’m really looking forward to this match against Marty,” said Dutt. “It isn’t the first time we have wrestled each other, but this will be the biggest stage. The greatest thing about Marty is that he’s cultivated a persona that has truly resonated with fans worldwide. And doing that without the help of television and any major company is a feat I respect immensely. Not being in ROH for many years, I’m excited for this showcase. This is not my first time in the Manhattan Center, as I’ve had numerous matches there, but this one is a little special as it has been four years since I was last in ROH. I’m truly motivated by wanting to show ROH fans that I’m an ever evolving performer that can step up to the challenge of a TV title match.”
Dutt was a guest coach earlier this month at the WWE Performance Center, and he was grateful to share some of his knowledge, as well as learn from the experience:
“It’s funny because I was in a coaching role, but I thought I learned more than anyone. It was a true learning experience, especially when it comes to behind the camera and grasping how things are done there,” said Dutt. “I went into it with an open mind and really enjoyed not just working with the guys in the ring, but learning how things are run behind the camera.”
• More WWE news: WWE eclipsed 750 million social media followers across 16 global social media platforms, further cementing its place as one of the most-followed brands in the world. Also, HBO, Bill Simmons, and WWE announced a partnership on an upcoming Andre the Giant documentary, which will air on HBO. Simmons has been pursuing a large-scale project on Andre for over a decade, and with the footage from WWE, this documentary has the chance to be epic. I’ve always been fascinated by Andre’s final matches in Japan after he left WWE, which include working with a young Yokozuna, though I imagine the documentary will focus more on his beginning, success in WWE, and sojourn to Hollywood.
• Seth Rollins battled Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce in the UpUpDownDown All-Star Madden Challenge. In addition to his injury woes, poor Rollins is also a… Bears fan.
• Both Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank generated headlines this past week. The Rock, who is one of Under Armour’s most famous clients, responded to Plank’s comments on CNBC that President Donald Trump is “a real asset” for the United States. Although other Under Armour clients—including Steph Curry—spoke out, The Rock’s response was particularly interesting as he has previously discussed plans to one day run for office.
• Count me among those as a full-fledged believer in Baron Corbin. Yes, I am late to the party, but Corbin has consistently improved his character and ring work since his debut at WrestleMania 32. Corbin had a lackluster match with Austin Aries during ‘Mania weekend last year, but he is poised to steal the show with Dean Ambrose—who also needs to atone for a weak WM 32 match—at this year’s show.
• As we approach Kevin Owens’ “KOMania II,” it is only right to play back some of the highlights from Owens’ illustrious career. Owens, who was phenomenal in the “Festival of Friendship” with Chris Jericho last night, was best known before his WWE run for his feud with El Generico, who most people are now familiar with as Sami Zayn. Their Ladder War 4 match from December of 2012, which was Zayn’s final match with Ring of Honor, brought the feud to an entirely new level of greatness:
• Coming attractions: Kevin Nash discusses WrestleMania 33 next Wednesday on SI.com in the Week in Wrestling.
Speaking of Bray Wyatt, how much do you know about him?
Chuck Taylor Ready for PWG Gold
Chuck Taylor is one of the premiere talents on the independent wrestling scene. He began his pro wrestling training in December of 2001 when he was fifteen, then started wrestling regularly in December of 2002, mostly around Kentucky and Tennessee. Taylor started to break out into the bigger indies in 2006, and he is also well-known for his eclectic presence on Twitter.
Chuck Taylor headlines the February 18 Pro Wrestling Guerrilla show as he battles Zack Sabre Jr. for the PWG world title. Despite the modest setting—the American Legion Post #308 in Reseda, California—Taylor takes immense pride in representing independent wrestling.
“I’ve always been a fan of punk rock and indie music, and I never want to go see a band who is going to play at the stadium,” said Taylor. “There is no band who is going to play at Wells Fargo in Philadelphia that I want to see. To think you could see a band before they got big—in a small cruddy little basement show, that is so awesome to me.”
The 30-year-old Taylor, who has wrestled for the past fifteen years, constantly deals with the misconception that the best wrestlers wrestle in the WWE.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a big music fan, but I think of pro wrestling the same way as punk rock,” said Taylor. “Indie wrestling is punk rock, it’s DIY. I know [Johnny] Gargano’s tag team is called DIY, but it’s by a publicly traded company – that’s not punk rock. I sometimes feel like NXT is corporate punk rock, it’s Ramones shirts being sold at Walmart. Sometimes that bugs me, but anyone that supports independent wrestling, thank you, that’s so awesome. It’s guys who love wrestling just trying to give you wrestling, not based on what shareholder meetings tell people.”
Taylor was honest when asked to state his goals for 2017 and beyond.
“I don’t want to be poor anymore,” said Taylor, who lives in Philadelphia. “If I could just make some money in wrestling, that would be awesome. At this point, I’ve been doing it half my life, I’m a lifer in wrestling.”
The topic of the three best wrestlers in the world was brought into the discussion, and Taylor chose Kenny Omega, AJ Styles, and—surprisingly, he admitted—John Cena.
“I stayed up and watched that New Japan [Tokyo] Dome show, and I don’t know how you can say that Kenny Omega is not the best wrestler in the world right now,” said Taylor. “He was incredible in that match, at a whole new level. We used to tag together in PWG as the Men of Low Moral Fiber. I loved tagging with Kenny, he was great, and we got to do a bunch of backstage promo vignettes with El Generico [Sami Zayn] where we were always torturing El Generico—it was really fun.
“AJ Styles is also unbelievable right now. He’s always been incredible, but he’s been ever better lately. And third is a guy who I never held highly until the last five or six years, and that’s John Cena. He’s amazing in-ring, I think he’s so good. I never thought I would say that. I don’t know who is telling him to do all these indie moves, cause I feel like that guy has no time to sit around and watch a PWG DVD, but there has to be someone showing him a Youtube clip saying, ‘Hey, try this Code Red powerbomb,’ and he’s like, “OK, I’ll do it.’ Then he does it kind of floppy, and I love it, it’s so endearing. It’s probably Claudio [Cesaro] next to him saying, ‘Try this.’”
Most wrestlers dream of stardom in WWE, but Taylor has proven that it is possible—despite the difficulties—to create your own brand in pro wrestling through innovative matches, merchandise, and a presence on social media.
“It’s super difficult,” said Taylor, whose only source of income outside the ring is as a trainer at the Chikara Wrestling School. “Nowadays is the easiest time to ever be a full-time independent wrestler because of things like social media and different t-shirt company outlets and the availability of different types of merchandise. That’s where anyone who makes any money is making their money on the indies, and that’s the merchandise. It’s tough. I do everything. If you buy a t-shirt from me, it’s me going to the post office and mailing it. It’s me going to pick up the shirts. There is no company behind anything.”
Taylor’s social media presence, especially on Twitter, is another source of his popularity, mainly because of his carefree approach.
“I still don’t really take Twitter seriously,” said Taylor. “I know a lot of people do, and some people program tweets so they come out at a certain time, and they think, ‘When is the best time for this tweet?’ I just get bored and I think something’s silly and I talk about it. Any time I’ve ever live tweeted anything is because I’m bored and probably drinking whiskey, and usually I go back and delete all of them because they’re embarrassing. I try not to take anything too seriously.”
Taylor wrestled for Global Force Wrestling, so he is naturally connected with Jeff Jarrett, who is back running Impact Wrestling.
“Jeff was a super nice guy and super easy to work with,” said Taylor. “I was in the first match in Global Force history. It was me and Trent Barreta vs. The Boys from Ring of Honor. I remember me and Trent walked to the ring, and then nothing happened for a really long time. We were just kind of standing around, and we looked at the ref and asked, ‘What’s going on?’ He said the power in the whole stadium went out, so they couldn’t play their music – so the first match was two guys walking to the ring, standing there for ten minutes, then two other guys walked out. Jeff was great, I’d love to go back and work for him.”
Taylor was asked if his style and personality is better suited for Ring of Honor, Impact Wrestling, or WWE.
“Lately, I’ve been working for Evolve, which is the hard-nosed, realistic style,” said Taylor. “My character is best suited for the WWE type of wrestling. That’s where I thrive, and maybe why I don’t work for places like Ring of Honor, because while I can do that style, it doesn’t really interest me. There are people who can do it way better than me, especially when I can do my own style, which is goofy and lighthearted and fits me better.”
Taylor looks to throw the independent wrestling world into disarray by upsetting Zack Sabre Jr. and winning the PWG world title, which will take place in front of, Taylor explained, the hottest crowd in pro wrestling.
“I don’t know exactly what it is, but there is something special about that venue and about that crowd,” said Taylor. “It’s a crappy little American Legion Hall, but for some reason, the crowds are always great. They’re never bad. Even the worst PWG crowd is better than 99 percent of other crowds. I don’t know what started it, but it’s the best crowd in wrestling.”
The Nitro Files: The NWO in WWE
The Nitro Files with Eric Bischoff will delve into a moment from WCW’s Monday Nitro era. Bischoff—who was the president of WCW during the company’s most successful years—hosts his weekly “Bischoff on Wrestling” podcast, as well as delivers a “Controversial Video of the Week” with 120 Sports’ Nick Hausman, and plans on proving every week in the Nitro Files that the “truth is out there.”
The 15-year anniversary of the NWO’s arrival into the WWE takes place this Friday. The No Way Out pay per view from February 17, 2002 saw the return—and NWO debut—of “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall to the WWE.
Conspicuous by his absence, however, was Eric Bischoff.
“In my humble opinion, however humble it may or may not be, that was partially one of the flaws in the NWO within the WWE,” said Bischoff. “Certainly not to the extent that Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall were, but I was pretty well recognized as the architect behind the NWO, both in reality and in terms of the fiction that helped build the drama in that story that the fans knew so well. If WWE had included me, or at least stayed within the same genetic gene pool of the original story, then it wouldn’t have fallen so flat.”
“When I first saw that Vince McMahon would reveal himself as the evil owner of the company that was going to introduce the NWO as a cancer into his own company, I knew it would be such a dramatic departure from any type of reality-based story,” Bischoff continued. “It didn’t work for me, and it didn’t really resonate with the WWE audience either. That led to a creative disconnect, but it also didn’t work because Scott Hall was at the apex of his dependency. He was totally unpredictable.”
Despite not being a part of the sequel, Bischoff revealed that he still watched the NWO in the WWE.
“I looked at it analytically, as I still do when I watch wrestling to this day,” explained Bischoff. “I look at it and ask, ‘Why the hell would you do that?’ or ‘Why wouldn’t you do this?’ That wasn’t an emotional response, but more of a hobby, trying to break down and analyze what worked and, in this case, what didn’t work.
“Why would the WWE not try to present that NWO story in a more believable way? I sound like I’m picking on Vince McMahon, and I’m clearly not doing that—nor would he care at this point—but the NWO worked at a moment in time, and still works to this day in a different way, because it was one of the first reality-based stories that really resonated with people. To me, at the core of the NWO was reality, and WWE had the benefit of owning WCW and owning the tape library. All they needed to do was add on myself and maybe one or two other pieces of talent, and create a story around it that made people go, ‘Wow, that could be true.’ That would have been presented in a far different fashion than Vince McMahon’s version, which made people immediately disengage on any thoughts they had of it being true.”
Hogan, Hall, and Nash fit so perfectly together in the history of pro wrestling, but, Bischoff reminded, the ride to greatness was far from smooth. Bischoff once again mentioned the night tempers flared in Casper, Wyoming, between Hogan, Hall, and Nash.
“The beginning was extremely volatile,” said Bischoff. “The night at Bash at the Beach was easy, and everyone knew the heat that was created that night was going to be special, but it was actually a three-way tug of war 99 percent of the time. They were three super high-powered stars with three super high-powered personalities, and there were a lot of other extracurricular things going on in their individual lives and professionally. So there was that moment in Casper when I was standing between Scott Hall, who was probably lit up at the time, in more ways than one, and Kevin Nash, who just was living the gimmick as the big grouchy one, and he was just miserable, and then there was Hulk, who had so much going on in his personal life that he was ready to fight anybody and everybody on that given night.
“I remember standing there, and Kevin Nash was standing there with a baseball bat. He was ready to go. I know for a fact that Hulk had a knife in his bag, and if Kevin would have swung that bat, he wouldn’t have been afraid to use it. And then there was me in the middle, trying to keep these guys from beating the hell out of each other. There were moments that were difficult. I’d be lying if I said I knew it was all going to come together.”
Exclusive Lucha Underground clip
Lucha Underground, which is available on iTunes, is on its mid-season break, but will be reminding Sports Illustrated readers about what is in store once Season 3 returns on May 31. In other LU news, Seasons 1 and 2 will be available on Netflix this spring.
The MMA Corner
Jackson is one of the top light heavyweights in the history of MMA, as well as a former UFC Light Heavyweight champion. Both Jackson and Lawal also dabbled in pro wrestling, most notably in TNA, which is where Jackson first connected with Kurt Angle.
“I’m a big fan of Kurt Angle and all the things he’s accomplished,” said Jackson. “He has an amazing mental game – he broke his neck and was still able to compete. A lot of people don’t respect pro wrestlers, but Kurt comes from real wrestling in the Olympics. There’s nothing else to accomplish as a wrestler after the Olympics except MMA or pro wrestling. He went into pro wrestling, and he showed the people who don’t respect pro wrestling that they should have a lot of respect for those guys. Kurt Angle is one of the best, and he became one of the best pro wrestlers out there. He brings a lot of entertainment to whatever he does, and I’ll always support Kurt.”
Jackson and Lawal first fought in May of 2014, in a match Jackson won by unanimous decision, and the rematch will be broadcast live on Spike TV.
“I’ve been on both sides of rematches,” explained Jackson. “I’ve lost one, and this is a rematch where I won the first one. It all depends on where your head is at. I lost a fight to Marvin Eastman, and I knew I could beat the guy. He was my first professional fight and my head was in the right place for the rematch and I trained really hard. I knew the type of fighter he was and I knew I’d evolved more than he had.
“This is a rematch with King Mo, and I beat him the first time. He thinks he can beat me, but who knows where his head is at. I know the type of fight he’s going to bring—he’s going to bring more of a wrestling match, so I have to prepare for that, counter his wrestling, and knock his ass out.”
Jackson fought in the UFC from 2006 and 2013 and explained the difference between his former promotion and his current one.
“Bellator is less stress for me,” said Jackson. “The fans of Bellator are more seasoned fans. They’ve been around the sport for a long time and enjoy the fighting. A lot of the UFC fans are the new fans that have come along with the reality shows. A lot of those fans don’t know me or any of the older fighters, and they have no history with MMA. Bellator has fans that are more knowledgeable of who I am and how I fight and how dangerous I can be. UFC fans just say, ‘Fight McGregor next! Fight McGregor next!’ to me.”
Jackson’s last UFC title shot occurred in 2011 when he battled Jon Jones in the cage, which ended when Jackson tapped to Jones’ rear naked chokehold.
“Jon Jones is one of the best fighters in the world,” said Jackson. “I fought him and I was at my best when I fought him. I’d never lost a fight when I was at my best, and I thought I was going to walk right through him, but he surprised me and beat me. I know nothing about [current UFC Light Heavyweight champ Daniel] Cormier, I’ve never followed him and I’m not a fan of his. I just know Jones beat him.”
Despite working with top talent such as Sting, Samoa Joe, and AJ Styles in TNA, Jackson recoiled when asked to describe his time working with Dixie Carter and TNA management.
“I don’t want to get into all that,” said Jackson. “I just want to focus on beating the crap out of King Mo. I fight King Mo on March 31 in Chicago, and that’s a great city. The last time I fought there [in a January 2013 loss on UFC on Fox to Glover Teixeira], I felt like I let my Chicago fans down. This time, I want to leave victorious, finish King Mo, then go and eat some stuffed crust pizza and get drunk, and that’s what I am going to do.”
Something to Wrestle with Conrad Thompson
“I’m curious about the decision to roll the dice with the Ultimate Warrior and pivot away from Hulkamania, which is what WrestleMania was built on,” said Thompson. “They deviated a little with WrestleMania IV, but not really because Hogan was still figured in on top with the understanding that WrestleMania IV would lead to WrestleMania V. He was doing the honors at WrestleMania VI, and Vince wanted to push Warrior past Hogan.
“We’ll spend a lot of time on Hogan-Warrior, as well as talk a little more about Brutus Beefcake-Mr. Perfect, and we’ll also cover my favorite match on the show, which was a little bit of a sleeper, between Dusty Rhodes and the Macho Man in the mixed tag. Those two had incredible chemistry together and apart, and it’s going to lend itself to a really fun segment on our show because they’re two of Bruce’s best impressions. I’m sure that will be a fun segment on the show.”
With WrestleMania 33 on the horizon, Thompson was asked to break down and analyze his top five matches in WrestleMania history, with number five, fittingly, being Hulk Hogan versus the Ultimate Warrior from WrestleMania VI.
“I was a super Ultimate Warrior fan, so that was a big day,” said Thompson. “I even had an Ultimate Warrior-themed birthday party with an Ultimate Warrior cake. I remember exactly where I watched WrestleMania VI, what my family did afterward, and it’s one of my favorite WrestleMania matches ever.”
Five Questions with… Dave Lagana
Dave Lagana has worked on the creative side for WWE, Ring of Honor, and TNA Impact Wrestling. Lagana, who is an Emerson College graduate, exited his position as the senior director of creative writing at TNA this past fall to work with music legend—and former Impact president—Billy Corgan on the new “Thirty Days” project, which sees Corgan travel cross-country over thirty days with no destination in mind, meeting people from all walks of life and creating new music.
SI.com: You have worked outside of professional wrestling before, but you have such a successful track record in the creative department. Was it difficult for you to leave TNA, and was it easier knowing that you would be working with Billy Corgan?
Lagana: When I left TNA, Billy brought up a project when he traveled around America in an RV and he wrote music that is going to come out this May in an album he produced with Rick Rubin. We decided to follow up that project with “Thirty Days”, and do daily documentary pieces, sort of in the vein of a guy by the name of Gary Vaynerchuk. He has a daily vlog where he has a camera guy follow him around. Billy loved the concept, so we started at day zero in Chicago on the Mancow Show, and that one video we shot—where he said, “It’s looking good that the Smashing Pumpkins may get back together”—became the biggest story that the Pumpkins were reuniting. It was interesting to see, on day zero, how the media will take one line and twist it into what they want it to be for a better headline. That’s where the project started.
SI.com: Wrestling fans had an opportunity to see Billy Corgan on TNA, but what can you share about Billy behind the camera? It cannot be often that you work with someone who offers that type of creative genius.
Lagana: The Billy that people saw on Impact was a character. Whenever he talks about his performing style, he’ll say, “I like to play heel on stage.” If you’ve ever seen him in concert, if he doesn’t like how the audience is responding to his music—like when I saw him playing a new song in Nashville, and the audience wasn’t responding, so he said, “I guess you want to hear the old stuff”—he likes to play heel. The guy you’re seeing in “Thirty Days” is actually Billy. He’s very funny, amazingly smart. He can have deep discussions that 99 percent of the world cannot really understand, and he’s well-read and has a level of talent—and this isn’t me kissing his ass, it’s true—that comes through. Every morning, and I don’t even know where we’re going, he gets in the RV and says, “We’re going here today.” We go to places, we stop, and we shoot. Nothing is written, we don’t plan out funny bits. That’s how the, “Is it me or does this look like EC3?” bit started. We put a picture of EC3 next to the thing we think looks like him, and we’ve done about seven of those. I’ve known him about seven years, and this is the most accurate version of who he is. The music really makes these pieces, and he’s doing cover songs, “Lost Highway,” “Gentle Annie,” and the guy you’re seeing in this documentary is him. We’re not creating it, we’re documenting his life.
SI.com: As a wrestling writer on the creative side of major promotions, is there a window where you may lose your creative vision? Or grow out of touch? In the wrestling business, since so many storylines have repeated over the past fifty years, is it hard to last as a wrestling writer? Is it better to have quicker turnover, or is that based on the situation?
Lagana: Short of [former WWE writer] Brian Gewirtz, who did it for fifteen years before going off to work for The Rock, and [WWE writer] Ed Koskey, who I think has done it one year longer consecutively than I did, I’ve done it consistently, across three different wrestling companies, for fifteen years. It’s about finding characters and stories that motivate you to sit down and write or create with somebody. I believe, and I can’t say enough nice things about Matt Conway—he is one of my very good friends and a very talented person, writer, booker, and creator in pro wrestling—and, along with Billy, I thought we had the best year on Impact in terms of characters and storylines. I could talk about all of the characters and weaves of storylines, and the Hardys and Allie, and I could have a thirty-minute discussion about each, because that’s how much effort we put into it. I don’t think you get burnt out, I just think sometimes situations push on it. I didn’t leave Impact because I was burnt out. I left because I wanted to do something different. You wonder, as a writer, “What will inspire me?” I am a completely different human being today than I was thirty days ago. I saw 95 percent of the country I didn’t know existed. What you see on the documentary is what I saw and what Billy saw, and I’m willing to bet most people have no idea what’s out there. I am so much more inspired by characters than I was thirty days ago.
SI.com: There is an oversaturation of matches in wrestling and a dearth of moments. The Hardys created genuinely compelling moments in 2016. How proud are you to have been an integral part in that process, and can you walk us through some of the creative, behind-the-scenes of the “Broken” Hardys storyline?
Lagana: It’s about learning what people do well, how they do it, and what the audience is hoping for. The Hardys storyline began in January when Matt Hardy turned heel, but he didn’t want to do a storyline with his brother. Every time they had done it, it had not been what they had hoped it would be. Those storylines are hard. Matt was “Big Money” Matt, and that was starting to gain traction, and then we did the “I Quit” match where Jeff put Matt through the table. We asked Matt, “What if something broke in you and you changed when Jeff breaks the table with you on it?” If you remember the early stages of “Broken” Matt, it was very dark, the accent was kind of weird, and the contract signing—that JB [Jeremy Borash] went to North Carolina to shoot—was one of those moments that became great. It was campy, but it was also disruptive. How many contract signings have you seen in WWE? I think they’ve probably had 1,000, and that’s no disrespect, but we asked ourselves how we could do a contract signing differently. The Hardys had a completely different contract signing. I remember the day after it aired, when the clip got shared on Twitter, and it started to gain traction. You got the normal “I hate TNA” response, then people dove deeper into this and found something special in this. Matt and Jeff and JB deserve all the credit for pivoting the storyline. After that moment, we saw something completely different and trusted the talent to do it.
We built moments through trusting talent—from Lashley to EC3 to Eli Drake to Allie to Rosemary to Decay, and it was from trusting them with the material and allowing them to put their own spin on it. It wasn’t like, “Here, say this word for word, or else.” It wasn’t a dictatorship. In creative jamming, and Billy will tell you the same thing about music, you need to kind of riff with people, and that’s how this whole year came together. When Allie started, she was supposed to be this annoying heel, but there was one week where the crowd felt bad for her when I heard Maria say one crazy line to her, like, “Shut up!” and the crowd reacted. We were like, OK, let’s go with it. That’s where life and being adaptive to life leads to moments, and that’s what everyone responded to this year.
SI.com: For the wrestling fans who bought into the content you were writing on Impact Wrestling, especially in 2016, with the re-emergence of Bobby Lashley, the “Broken” Hardys, Eli Drake, EC3, and Eli Drake—how do you respond to the fans who are disappointed that the company is taking a different direction in its creative vision?
Lagana: Devote your time to something you like. If you devote your time to something that frustrates you or angers you, or makes you feels like you’re wasting your time, find something else. There are TV shows that drove me insane, and I just didn’t go back. I liked the first two years of Grey’s Anatomy, but after that, I was done with it. Sometimes wrestling fans hold onto a moment from three years ago and hopes it happens again, but I know it is a huge time commitment to be a wrestling fan. That’s the question talent and people working in the business need to ask themselves—are you giving people full value for the time they are investing? Every moment doesn’t have to be impactful, but it has to fulfill an audience. If you’re not feeling fulfilled, find something else.
I haven’t watched wrestling in thirty days. I took the time away from it to do something completely different. Will I start watching again? Sure, but I am very happy doing what I am doing now with Billy—creating compelling content in every genre of things we like. Billy likes music, he loves wrestling, he loves America—he loves what this country can stand for, does stand for, and we want to find compelling people and tell strong stories. That’s what we’re doing in music, wrestling, and reality.
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