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 Jim Ross discussing AXS TV’s coverage of New Japan Pro Wrestling and his analysis of WrestleMania 33; Jake “The Snake” Roberts with his insight of what is working—and not working—for Bray Wyatt as WWE champion; and Five Questions with Ring of Honor world champion Adam Cole.
Jim Ross, Okada, & Naito on New Japan & WrestleMania 33
Legendary play-by-play man Jim Ross is the only man ever to call WrestleMania, Starrcade, and Wrestle Kingdom. He and Josh Barnett call AXS TV’s New Japan Pro Wrestling every Friday night, which begins broadcasting the 2016 G1 Climax this week from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. ET. The coverage runs for four Fridays and concludes with the G1 26 Climax finals between Hirooki Goto and Kenny Omega. The grueling round-robin tournament lasts for four weeks and the winner has to test his endurance over the course of ten different excruciating matches. The AXS coverage also includes Kazuchika Okada versus Hiroshi Tanahashi, which airs on Friday, March 24, as well as Tetsuya Naito versus Kenny Omega on March 31.
Beginning this Friday, AXS TV will spotlight the top matches from the 2016 G1 Climax with commentary from Jim Ross and his broadcast partner Josh Barnett.
“This tournament is such a big thing in the industry and within the business itself, and nobody does tournaments like New Japan,” said Ross. “They’re just the best at it. The journey from the opening match to the finals is always intriguing and compelling and unpredictable, but also logical.”
Kenny Omega etched his name into the annals of New Japan history by becoming the first North American not of Asian descent to ever win the tournament, and Ross is continually amazed by the non-stop evolution of Omega over the past three years.
“Kenny keeps striving to get better,” explained Ross. “He doesn’t put himself in a comfort zone for long, which is unlike a lot of guys you see on American television, who have the same basic structure for all their matches on television. I don’t know if you’re doing your best effort or if you’re being a real pro if you’re having the same basic match every Monday or Tuesday night on television. I don’t see Kenny Omega having the same match every week, and I call a lot of his matches on AXS TV’s New Japan. Granted, there are some high-profile matches that we’re able to bring the fans on Friday nights, but Omega is continually going out and tweaking his game, trying new things, and refining what he’s doing.
“It’s a good time to follow a guy like Kenny, who, some day, will be a WWE guy. There’s no doubt. I’m glad that he came back to New Japan for another year, and I would think that after he stars at Wrestle Kingdom in 2018, then he very well could be the most coveted free agent that WWE has tried to sign in years.”
Even more so than AJ Styles, it is Kenny Omega who continues to shatter the glass ceiling for a North American competing in New Japan. Yet New Japan’s IWGP champion Kazuchika Okada, who has wrestled both Omega and Styles, sees more differences than similarities between the two.
“Kenny and AJ are both great, but they’re very different,” said Okada, whose match against Naomichi Marufuji airs this Friday on AXS. “They have different wrestling styles. Kenny has crazy moves, but AJ can do anything. Kenny just has a different style. They’re both great wrestlers, and wrestling both has been great experience for me. They’re both very different, but neither is as great as me.”
Okada has earned the right to brag as world champion, but he was unsuccessful in his bid to win the 2016 G1 Climax, as those honors were won by Omega.
“I could not even watch the finals of the G1,” revealed Okada. “Of course I knew Kenny won, but it was too hard to watch after I was done. I already knew how good Kenny is, and Kenny is very, very good.”
Okada battled the “Ace” of New Japan, the legendary Hiroshi Tanahashi, in the 2016 G1 tourney, and that match airs March 24 on AXS.
“Okada and Tanahashi have great skill levels,” said Ross. “They would be main event guys in anybody’s territory, even WWE. They’re both skilled enough to be a main eventer in that company or anywhere else. You just have a feel for greatness, and when I first called Steamboat-Flair back in ’89, and Rock-Austin in WWE, there is just a feel for how it looks, the texture of it, the buzz it creates for the audience, and those guys have that.
“The great thing about the G1 Climax tournament is that you can tell for these talents in New Japan—similar to when it’s WrestleMania season for WWE talents—that everything heightens. Okada and Tanahashi are at the head of the class, and that is a very talented class in New Japan.”
Okada explained that the G1 matches are brutally hot and often take place in July and August in buildings without air conditioning, and he also revealed that he does not enjoy facing off against Tanahashi in the G1.
“I don’t want to wrestle Tanahashi in G1,” said Okada. “You can only wrestle for thirty minutes in G1, but me and Tanahashi-son always wrestle for more than thirty minutes. Wrestling Tanahashi for thirty minutes only feels like fifteen, it goes by very quickly.”
Compared to the frustration over the booking decisions at WWE’s Fastlane—which saw Braun Strowman’s undefeated streak end as well as the unceremonious conclusion to Charlotte Flair’s 18 consecutive pay-per-view victories—one of New Japan’s key strengths is its sound booking philosophy.
“The product is based in athletic reality, and their philosophy of booking is different,” explained Ross. “They’ll give you some twists and turns that you may not fathom. A star may actually get on a losing streak, and will have to work his way out of a disadvantage, which is what all great heroes have done at some point. I like their philosophy of booking, and it’s different from what a lot of fans are used to today where the sizzle is first. Any time you see a TV show where the champion is introduced first, it tells you that they’re a whole lot more about the sizzle than they are the steak. That’s real simple.”
This past year’s G1 also featured the brilliance of Tetsuya Naito, who is the current IWGP Intercontinental champion and unquestioned leader of the Los Ingobernables de Japon faction.
“Naito is a different breed of cat with a unique level of charisma,” explained Ross. “Wrestling is not ballet, but it’s almost so choreographed in the States that you could put music to it. That’s taking us away from the fundamental charm of the business that got us all interested. But Naito, along with Omega, has done the most to recreate himself and get better at his craft, going from a semi-crowded level to clear-cut main event status. Now that they’re there, it’s going to be really interesting to see how they can contribute to building the New Japan business model.
“I think Omega is going to end up being a great babyface there, and fans owe it to themselves to watch these two on Friday nights and get back to the roots and fundamentals of pro wrestling. You get that physicality that you don’t see enough of in our daily wrestling diet.”
Speaking through a translator, Naito thanked “JR” for the compliment before noting that he is on a far higher level of greatness than Omega will ever reach.
“Kenny Omega is shining, he is popular, but even he knows where to look,” said Naito. “You need to look at Naito, Naito is the top, and Kenny knows that, too.
“Everyone wanted to win the G1, but my group—Los Ingobernables—brought the impact. We made the biggest statement. Even though Kenny Omega supposedly won the G1, Los Ingobernables really won. We gained the popularity, we gained the respect, and we ultimately won.”
The Naito-Omega match from the G1 semi-finals airs on March 31, and remains a breath-taking example of how to deliver genuinely compelling wrestling.
“If Kenny Omega and I had a draw, I would have beat Kenny,” noted Naito, as a 30-minute time limit draw would have allowed Naito to advance. Omega ultimately defeated Naito with only one minute and forty-eight seconds remaining. “I could have done it the easy way, but that’s not the way I win. It is most important for me to fight. I want to beat Kenny Omega. I feel bad for losing to Omega, but I will mark my revenge this year.”
Ross returns for his “Ringside” shows during WrestleMania weekend in Orlando, and he is scheduled to discuss the “Monday Night Wars” during his Saturday, April 1st show with Tony Schiavone and then he will be joined onstage on the day of WrestleMania for an uncensored, unauthorized pre-game show with Bruce Prichard and Jim Cornette.
As for early ‘Mania predictions, Ross believes that Brock Lesnar will put a quick end to Bill Goldberg’s reign as WWE Universal champion at WrestleMania 33.
“Lesnar will go over with his finish, the F5,” predicted Ross, who was then asked whether the audience will be treated to a squash match or one that extends beyond five minutes.
“If they use their head, make sure Paul Heyman is involved in the game-planning, and get an agent like Michael Hayes or Pat Patterson or someone like that, then there is no excuse that they can’t give you ten quality minutes, bell-to-bell,” said Ross. “There is no reason that two guys of that stature, earning that kind of money, can’t give ten kickass minutes of pro wrestling content. I firmly believe it’s possible.”
News of the Week
The finish to Sunday’s Fastlane, which saw Bill Goldberg defeat Kevin Owens in only 22 seconds for the Universal championship, was a tough sight to see.
Starting the night after WrestleMania 32, Kevin Owens has been a workhorse for Vince McMahon. Owens wrestled 145 times and carried the WWE banner in 17 different countries, perfecting his craft and keeping interest in the product during the lean months when part-timers could not be found on WWE programming.
Bill Goldberg, on the other hand, has wrestled three times since WrestleMania 32.
Naturally, of the two, Goldberg will be headlining this year’s WrestleMania.
Goldberg’s quick work of Owens is emblematic of WWE’s willingness to better position their high profile part-timers at WrestleMania instead of spotlighting the full time talent. Of course, after ‘Mania, the 50-year-old Goldberg will exit WWE while Kevin Owens will still be asked to deliver a meaningful segment that Monday on Raw.
Not all is bleak for Owens. The 32-year-old Canadian will remain the longest reigning WWE Universal champion for the foreseeable future, as Goldberg is unlikely to last beyond WrestleMania. Owens will also have a legitimately big match at ‘Mania with Chris Jericho for the United States championship.
There is only one true main event at WrestleMania, even with two heavyweight champions. Unfortunately for those invested in the product full-time and year-round, it will be Goldberg, and not Owens, in that must-watch spot at WrestleMania.
The Hardys made a surprise appearance at Ring of Honor’s Manhattan Mayhem this past Saturday, defeating the Young Bucks for the ROH tag team titles in an impromptu match moments after the Bucks had defeated Lio Rush and Jay White.
Contrary to reports, the Hardys are only signed with Ring of Honor through Saturday, April 1, which is the night of their rematch with the Bucks at the ROH show in Lakeland, Fla. The possibility remains that the Hardys, who are also exploring the potential of a longer deal with ROH, will appear on the Raw or Smackdown following WrestleMania, though a surprise appearance at ‘Mania is also not out of the question as the Hardys are actively speaking with WWE.
The move to ROH, which came just days after ending negotiations with Impact Wrestling, stands as another example of Matt Hardy’s brilliance. Matt Hardy reportedly had the offer from ROH while he was dealing with Impact Wrestling, and he successfully played his hand into a surprise appearance for ROH, who can use the boost from the Hardys to promote their 15th Anniversary pay per view, which is live from Las Vegas this Friday night. The next move for the Hardys is hard to predict, but will certainly keep people guessing.
In other news…
• While some may say the biggest story of the week is how Randy Orton is, once again, set to face Bray Wyatt for the WWE championship at WrestleMania, or that Roman Reigns is going to, incredibly, defeat The Undertaker at WrestleMania, the most striking moment occurred on Talking Smack when Daniel Bryan let it slip that he plans on wrestling again in a year-and-a-half. Bryan mentioned this during an exchange with The Miz and Maryse, after Miz mentioned that Bryan cannot wrestle due to head injuries, and Bryan responded, “I can’t or they won’t let me? We’ll see in a year and a half and see what happens.”
• WrestleMania 33 needs at least one match designed specifically for its hardcore, year-round fans. A tip of the cap to the people who are devoted to both Raw and Smackdown would be much appreciated from its core audience, and that would be achieved by squaring off Raw’s Samoa Joe against Smackdown’s AJ Styles. In addition to pairing two stars with no real road to WrestleMania, this would also tie the two brands together and distance Styles from a directionless match at ‘Mania with Shane McMahon.
• Jack Swagger announced on Chael Sonnen’s podcast that he requested his release from WWE. The former WWE champion would be a perfect fit as a cornerstone for Impact Wrestling, where “Dirty” Dutch Mantel—formerly known as Zeb Colter while working as Swagger’s manager in WWE—is head of the creative team.
• Ring of Honor’s 15th Anniversary pay per view is set for this Friday and is headlined by Adam Cole defending his world title against Christopher Daniels. The 45-year-old Daniels has been wrestling for 22 years, and he even teamed with Daniel Bryan to win New Japan’s IWGP junior heavyweight tag titles in 2004, but he is missing a run with the ROH world title on his resume. Expect Bully Ray, the former Bubba Dudley—who also made a surprise appearance this past weekend during the ROH show in Manhattan—to involve himself in the main event.
• The ROH 6-man tag team belts are on the line this Friday, as Dalton Castle and The Boys look to dethrone The Kingdom’s Matt Taven, Vinny Marseglia, and TK O’Ryan. The eccentric Castle spoke with SI.com to explain why his feud with Taven runs so deep:
“I once had lunch with Matt Taven about four years ago just outside Cincinnati,” Castle explained. “He ordered the Reuben and I ordered a chipotle butternut squash soup that I was really looking forward to. When our food arrived, I got up to wash my hands in the restroom. When I returned, it appeared that someone had eaten more than half my soup... Matt denied it at the time, but the evidence on his face told a different story. Matt Taven is a jerk. The two goons he hangs out with are jerks as well. He took my soup, and at Ring of Honor’s 15th Anniversary, my boys and I are going to take his 6-man tag-team titles.”
• Matt Taven, who did not deny Castle’s accusation, explained that his ruthlessness is a key ingredient to his success:
“Dalton Castle is the type of guy that thinks he can laugh and joke his way through life,” said Taven. “But this is the real world and, in the real world, you have to be an ass---- to get ahead. The proof is in the pudding when it comes to our resumes—just compare the two. There’s no question that being the way I am has brought me much further than the clown in the peacock feathers. I’m going into Vegas as the champ, and everyone knows that, in Vegas, the house always wins.”
• Kurt Angle and Cody Rhodes delivered a genuinely compelling main event inside a steel cage this past Friday at Northeast Wrestling’s WrestleFest XXI in Waterbury, Conn. The 15-minute affair ended when Rhodes slipped out of his boot after Angle applied the Angle Lock, then rolled up the former Olympic gold medalist for the win. The match served as the exclamation point to a fantastic card, which included appearances from Jerry “The King” Lawler, the Great Khali, Ryback, and The Godfather. After the match, Rhodes momentarily broke away from his “American Nightmare” character to offer praise for Angle:
“In 2007, I had the chance to induct the headliner to the WWE Hall of Fame,” said Rhodes, referring to the induction of his father, the late Dusty Rhodes. “In 2017, I had the chance to compete with the headliner of the Hall of Fame. I am a better wrestler, and I am a better man, for sharing the ring with Kurt Angle.”
Rhodes added one more comment before exiting:
“If you don’t like it where you’re going, the Bullet Club is always looking for new talent.”
• New Japan’s Tomoaki Honma suffered a frightening injury this past Friday in a six-man tag match in Japan. Honma, who is extremely well respected throughout the international wrestling community, seriously injured his spinal cord from a rope-hung DDT during the match and is still hospitalized, though he has regained movement in his limbs.
Bad Luck Fale, who is one of the leaders in the New Japan locker room, touched on Honma’s importance to the company and the inherent dangers of stepping in the ring:
“Sports entertainment is no different from any other professional contact sport,” said Fale. “Your life is on the line each time you’re in the ring. Honma is a great wrestler and someone that never gives up. He has worked hard to get to New Japan Pro Wrestling. His style is a fan favorite and it has made him famous, not just in wrestling, but also on mainstream television in Japan. He also helped me in my career when I first started.
• The most interesting man in the history of professional wrestling remains Vincent K. McMahon. This video, which is from his 60th birthday in 2005, provided a unique insight into the mind of the Chairman of the WWE.
• Coming attractions: Bully Ray joins SI.com this Friday to discuss why he chose Ring of Honor over WWE and Impact Wrestling.
Jake Roberts on Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton
Jake “The Snake” Roberts offers a unique perspective on Bray Wyatt as WWE champion. Wyatt has often been compared to Roberts, whose dark, brooding promos just as insightful and deep. Both Roberts and Wyatt are characters who have never been defined by world titles, but instead were agents of chaos in the WWE. Wyatt’s run with the world title is too early to judge, but Roberts touched on the positives and negatives in the early phase of Wyatt’s title run.
Jake “The Snake” Roberts has always championed Bray Wyatt, and now he is waiting to see how the story builds for Wyatt as WWE champion.
“It’s great that Bray is champion, but my worry is that they’re pulling him away from his character,” said Roberts. “The people were chanting, ‘You deserve it!’ to him on Smackdown after he won the title. Is that a chant for a heel? Hell no, but that’s just the nature of the business these days. Bray needs to do something really nasty, and now is the time. He needs to be the one to do something crude and wrong.”
Roberts firmly believes that Wyatt needs a prolonged run with the belt in order to redefine the meaning of a champion in the WWE.
“Hopefully they’ll let him keep his character and hold onto the belt for a while,” said Roberts. “If this is just WWE quickly using Bray to change the guard, then it’s a waste of time. They’ve really hurt his character in the last year. They’ve really watered it down.
“Randy Orton has a lot of going for him. He’s just missing that last little piece. I would love to spend time with him and see if I could help him. I’ve offered that before, and no one replied, so there you go. It hurts because I love the business and I want to give back to it. It’s a damn shame that I reached out and didn’t hear anything, it made me sick to my stomach.”
Roberts explained that a best-case scenario for Wyatt would be to reunite with Luke Harper and Erick Rowan at WrestleMania, and the Wyatt Family could do some serious damage to Orton.
“I’m surprised they haven’t turned Randy complete babyface yet, then Bray could reunite with his complete brethren,” said Roberts. “That makes a stance that says, ‘We Are.’”
Exclusive Lucha Underground clip
Something to Wrestle with Conrad Thompson
“Creatively, this WrestleMania sticks out because it wasn’t their best work,” said Thompson. “They had a rebuilding year with WrestleMania 13 and WrestleMania XIV is unanimously praised, but WrestleMania XV is panned, which I find interesting. You had your first Stone Cold-Rock main event, but for whatever reason, people don’t look back on this fondly.
“This was the first WrestleMania with the Vince Russo influence—with things like the Boss Man hanging but being on Raw the very next night, and of course this is the first time the Hardcore title is featured in a big way. Mankind was a few months removed from being the world champ, it’s Big Show’s very first WrestleMania, the Undertaker is with the Ministry of Darkness, and you had the Butterbean devastation of Bart Gunn. There are just lots of weird, interesting one-off stuff about WrestleMania XV. While it may not have been the best WrestleMania, I think it’s going to lend itself to be one of our better shows because there is so much to discuss about the how and why.”
With WrestleMania 33 on the horizon, Thompson was asked to break down and analyze his top five matches in WrestleMania history. Thompson listed his second favorite match as the “Macho Man” Randy Savage versus Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat at WrestleMania III.
“That’s the first great match I ever saw,” said Thompson. “It was a lot more than just the ‘gaga’ that I enjoyed from Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. There are so many things, especially with the false finishes. Some people say that aspect of the match is over-worked, but in a real wrestling match, you are constantly trying to pin your opponent. Sometimes, present day wrestling is too concerned with highspots and storytelling that they forget that it’s supposed to be about trying to pin the guy, but Savage and Steamboat really told that story.”
Five Questions with… Adam Cole
Adam Cole headlines Ring of Honor’s 15th Anniversary pay per view this upcoming Friday night against Christopher Daniels. Cole successfully defended his world title in New York at Manhattan Mayhem over Bobby Fish this past Saturday. Now, the first-ever three-time Ring of Honor world champion has a tough task this Friday at the ROH 15th Anniversary pay per view as he defends his title against Christopher Daniels.
SI.com: You have already enjoyed a phenomenal 2016, first by winning the ROH world championship at Wrestle Kingdom 11 in January and successfully defending your title this past Saturday in New York over Bobby Fish. Your feud with Christopher Daniels is one of the most compelling in wrestling. What do you respect most about Daniels?
Cole: The history between Christopher Daniels and I is actually much deeper than people realize. When I first watched Ring of Honor, Christopher Daniels was one of the first guys I attached myself to as a fan. I liked him a lot. Christopher Daniels was the one guy in Ring of Honor who went against the grain. He didn’t shake hands, he was disrespectful, he was better than everybody else. Seeing his transformation, from the first Ring of Honor event to the career he’s had, it’s really cool to think that we’ll have the chance to compete against one another at the 15th Anniversary of Ring of Honor. It’s almost as though we switched positions—I’m the arrogant, brash, cocky champion that feels he’s better than everybody, and Christopher Daniels’ time is past. Christopher Daniels is the underdog in this match, despite the fact he has experience over me.
Every time Christopher Daniels is in a huge match, he goes about trying to prove himself all over again. He set the bar even higher for himself. On a personal level, Christopher Daniels is always someone I wanted to have a big match with on a pay per view with some hype and some build, but I stand by the fact my title reign is a legendary, historic three-time ROH world championship run, and I have no plans to lose the title any time soon.
SI.com: Despite the fact you are ROH world champion, you are inevitably asked about a potential move to WWE or NXT when your contract expires. How do you respond to the lingering question of leaving for WWE?
Cole: That question comes up all the time. To be honest, it’s a question I’ve dealt with, pretty consistently, since 2012. A lot of people have entertained the idea of me leaving, or going to WWE or me leaving for NXT, so that question comes up quite a bit for me. I answer truthfully, as the fact of the matter is I am still under contract with Ring of Honor. For me, I focus so much on what I have in front of me, as opposed to my future. I don’t know if that will hurt me or help me, but I can’t think six months, nine months, or a year ahead from now. The challenges I have set in front of me currently are big challenges, and those are being the Ring of Honor world champion and starting a career in New Japan Pro Wrestling. I have so much to focus on that I’m not even thinking about going to WWE. I’m completely focused on what I have in front of me right now. People ask, ‘Well, would you ever like to go?’ Yes, some day. I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t want to have my own ‘WrestleMania moment.’ Yet the goals that I have and the task I have in front of me are keeping me fully focused on taking care of business in ROH and New Japan.
SI.com: You returned two weeks ago from a trip to Tokyo where you engaged in a verbal altercation with Bullet Club leader Kenny Omega. Is there friction between you and Omega?
Cole: People think that me and Kenny Omega don’t get along. That’s been exaggerated. Bullet Club, generally, has been a collective, unified unit. Naturally, when you have two alpha males who are very passionate and very opinionated about what should be done and who leads the charge, then obviously there are going to be some moments when we bump heads. I’m fair enough to say that Kenny Omega is the leader of Bullet Club in Japan. I very much feel that I am the leader in the United States. When we are together, and that is a rare occurrence, some disagreements do take place. Kenny and I actually get along quite well—but when the blood is flowing and the action is going, Kenny and I do butt heads some times.
SI.com: During your post-match beating of Bobby Fish this past weekend at Manhattan Mayham, Bully Ray made his Ring of Honor debut and slammed you through a table. Do you have any prior history with Bully Ray?
Cole: I have zero history with Bully Ray. I was just as shocked as everybody else when he decided to come down to that ring and chokeslam me through a table. I’ve never been slammed so hard through a table in my life. Bully Ray showed up, and he definitely made a statement. That entire night, with the Hardys and Bully Ray showing up, is proof, again, that Ring of Honor is the place to be. This is where people come together to put on the best wrestling show possible. But Bully Ray made a mistake coming at me, especially since I’m the one who leads Bullet Club, which cannot be stopped. Nobody can touch us, and Bully Ray will be no different. If he wants to start a fight with me, then he just picked a fight with the entire Bullet Club. I hope he’s ready for that.
SI.com: Can you promise that your main event world title match with Christopher Daniels will last longer than 22 seconds?
Cole: I’m a very confident, cocky person, and a lot of people know that, but I know it’s going to take me longer than fifteen seconds to beat Christopher Daniels. It certainly will be a memorable, and time consuming, main event.
Here’s something else I can promise: Ring of Honor stands by the statement that we are the best professional wrestling on the planet. As far as in-ring competition, in-ring storytelling, and polarizing characters, I really stand by the fact that Ring of Honor is the best pro wrestling product in North America. We will show that at the 15th Anniversary event. Christopher Daniels, who many people have called the forefather of Ring of Honor, has never been ROH world heavyweight champion, and a lot of people think he should be.
The piece working against Christopher Daniels is that I am champion and this run is something I want people to talk about for a long time. I will beat every person that gets in my way, and Christopher Daniels will be no different. This match is more than just me versus Christopher Daniels. This match, and this event, is fifteen years of Ring of Honor culminating in one night in Las Vegas, and this will be historic, memorable, and iconic.
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