Why Roman Reigns isn't connecting with WWE fans, Sami Zayn is miscast as underdog and more.

By Justin Barrasso
April 12, 2017

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 “Nature Boy” Ric Flair analyzing the WWE product; The Shoot with wrestling comic book writer Michael Kingston; The Nitro Files with Eric Bischoff; and Five Questions with Carlito.

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WWE continues to encounter problems while trying to persuade audiences that Roman Reigns is the new face of the company.

The issue remains in the storytelling.

Roman Reigns is larger than life, talented, and has grown into a role where he is finally confident on the microphone. His finest moment to date occurred on the Raw after WrestleMania, when he succinctly stated to a rabid crowd, “This is my yard.”

Despite Reigns being able to capture an organic buzz, the WWE returned to his underdog, babyface storyline this past Monday. Reigns was manhandled by Braun Strowman, and the crowd’s reaction completely hijacked the segment as the majority of fans at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York loudly celebrated Strowman’s beat down of Reigns.

Reigns is 6-foot-4, over 300 pounds, and constantly written into storylines where he is superhuman in his ability to withstand punishment. He’s far more Superman than Daniel Bryan, and the natural response is, of course, to reject the non-believable storylines.

If Reigns had built off last week’s cockiness, his character would have been trending in a much more realistic direction. Instead, he’ll be back on Raw next week, somehow recovered from the fractured ribs he suffered on Monday, to avenge his beating from Strowman.

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Sami Zayn is another talent with a maddening character arch. Zayn is presented as the plucky underdog desperately seeking an opportunity, but the storyline is too manufactured to build organically.

Daniel Bryan and, to some extent, Zack Ryder were popular because, in addition to their talent, they were legitimate underdogs overlooked by the WWE. Bryan suffered so many indignities that his character was always believable and genuine. Zayn also does not yet have the personality of Bryan, who could win you over in an interview and delivered both humorous and serious promos.

Zayn defeated The Miz on Raw, which was championed as another upset, but the match failed in its job to elevate either competitor up the card. Zayn then made the move to Smackdown Live, and excelled in his match against Baron Corbin and AJ Styles, though most talent opponents tend to have a fantastic match with Styles.

If anyone is a current-day underdog, there may be no better choice than Finn Balor. The popular Balor, who just returned from the injury list, reportedly suffered a concussion from a far-too-stiff blow to the head from Jinder Mahal.

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In other news…

• The Superstar Shake-Up was disappointing in its lack of transparency. Why weren’t there interactions between Daniel Bryan and Kurt Angle? Could we have seen the two men in charge of the Raw and Smackdown brands negotiate a trade? The draft from this past summer was much more realistic of a process.

• Was anyone else hoping that Kurt Angle would deliver a German suplex to both Samoa Joe and Seth Rollins during their skirmish on Raw? Angle’s on-camera frustration with the role of GM would be a sublime segue into a return to the ring in a high-profile match at SummerSlam.

• Jonathan Coachman stepped down from his role covering wrestling on ESPN. The Coach received criticism on social media over the timing of his decision to focus on other projects at ESPN, considering the announcement was in the thick of the JBL/Mauro Ranallo scandal. Coachman did, however, create some noteworthy content for ESPN with his weekly interviews, though I know for a fact that there were many at ESPN opposed to any wrestling featured on their airwaves. We’ll see if “The Worldwide Leader” continues to work with WWE.

• Notes from a live showing of last night’s Smackdown Live at the TD Garden in Boston:

-- There were three JBL-related chants –“Fire Bradshaw”, “We Want Mauro”, and “Bradshaw Sucks”–during the Uso/American Alpha match, but all three burned out quickly;

-- The triple threat to end the show proved, once again, that AJ Styles is the best in the world;

-- The loudest reaction of the night went to Shinsuke Nakamura;

-- The crowd went silent during 205 Live;

-- WWE teased a match between Nakamura and Dolph Ziggler, and that took place after 205 Live to keep fans from leaving.

• When I met with Steve Austin last June for an interview, he gave me an education on pro wrestling. The question Austin continued to repeat to me was, “Who is he?” For instance, he asked me, “Who is The Undertaker? He’s a badass. Who is Bret Hart? He’s the ‘Excellence of Execution’. There is an image, and you get it. You see what I mean?”

This past week on The Steve Austin Show podcast, Austin detailed the problem with Seth Rollins:

“Who is Seth Rollins?” asked Austin. “When you say Seth Rollins, or you say Seth ‘Freakin’ Rollins, I still don’t have a sense of what or who this guy is. That rests on Seth Rollins’ shoulder as an individual to define or create that, as well as the WWE. I still don’t get a sense of what kind of personality he is. He’s not electrifying like The Rock, he’s not anti-authority like Stone Cold, or like The Deadman, so OK, then who is he? Look at another guy who, if I dare say, was a little introverted but obviously had an ego in Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart. Not a larger-than-life personality, but the genuineness of his character was he was ‘The Hitman’ and he was a badass – the ‘Excellence of Execution,’ the best there is, was, and ever will be. Bret wasn’t an over the top guy, he was a pretty humble and quiet individual outside the ring. In many regards, he was somewhat like Seth – though, in many regards, Bret is an entirely different animal – but there is a case of a guy who was not a showy guy, but rather conservative, and had a highly-defined, world-class gimmick and was a badass worker. Seth needs to work on this.”

• For those keeping track at home, it has been 148 days since The Undertaker appeared on Smackdown this past November and claimed he would be “taking souls and digging holes”. He has yet to return.

• Duane Gill, who is better known to the wrestling world as Gillberg, was heartbroken to see The Undertaker’s last ride at WrestleMania 33:

“To me, it’s the end of an era,” said Gillberg. “‘Taker was the man, so I can’t believe his career is over. Wrestling just won’t be the same knowing that ‘Taker will not return. For me, seeing his career end was a sad, sad day in wrestling. I was impressed at what he could still do at WrestleMania, oh hell yes I was. ‘Taker passed the torch like a true pro. He is the man in and out of the ring – I love the ‘Taker.”

• Impact Wrestling star Moose played for the New England Patriots during his time in the NFL. A current Patriot, Rob Gronkowski, involved himself in the Andre the Giant Battle Royal at WrestleMania 33, and again last night on Smackdown. Moose was asked if Gronk could compete with him if they ever stepped into the ring against one another:

“Like Vince McMahon’s music says, Gronk got no chance!” said Moose.

Moose put together a compelling program with Cody Rhodes in Impact Wrestling, and the former NFL lineman is grateful to work with Rhodes: “Cody is awesome,” added Moose. “He is a pro’s pro. You can definitely see that he is a hard worker with the amount of shows he is doing each week, and his travel schedule is insane.”

Rhodes is also currently working with New Japan Pro Wrestling, and Moose had the chance to wrestle IWGP champion Kazuchika Okada while in Ring of Honor. Moose grew reflective when asked if Rhodes and Okada were similar:

“You can’t really compare Cody to Okada,” said Moose. “They’re two totally different guys. They are both awesome, but Okada is maybe the best in the world.”

• Congratulations are in order for Ring of Honor tag team War Machine, which consists of Raymond Rowe and Warbeard Hanson, who won the IWGP tag team titles this past Saturday at New Japan’s Sakura Genesis show. The pair, which has already put together a solid 144-day run as ROH tag champs in 2016, now have the opportunity to show off their talent as champions in the top company in Japan. Rowe and Hanson are two old-school, physical forces in the ring, but are also extremely versatile for big men. Despite the fact that they do not look like prototypical-chiseled WWE superstars, they are well-defined characters that have redefined the meaning of success in pro wrestling without the machine of the WWE behind them.

• Coming attractions: Bret “The Hitman” Hart will share his memories of The Undertaker next Monday on SI.com.

Something to Wrestle with Conrad Thompson

Courtesy of Conrad Thompson

Conrad Thompson and Bruce Prichard return to the MLW airwaves this Friday at noon for the “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard podcast to dissect and analyze the career of Owen Hart.

“We’re also going to use a lot of excerpts from Bret Hart’s book, and [Owen’s wife] Martha Hart’s book,” said Thompson. “A lot of people consider Owen the most underrated performer of that era, and many in the business think he is the most talented Hart. I’m looking forward to telling his story and being able to do it justice in long-form this Friday.”

Hart was the king of playful backstage pranks, and those ribs will also be an integral part of Friday’s podcast.

“We’ve got a really good rib story that we didn’t tell on our Undertaker episode last week that involves Owen Hart,” said Thompson. “It will also be interesting to hear how Owen’s big break almost didn’t happen. Originally, the whole feud with Bret and Owen was supposed to be another Hart, but Bret campaigned for Owen and Owen got the nod, and his career was never the same. We’ll examine the beginning with the Blue Blazer, we’ll have a little bit of fun with High Energy and Koko B. Ware, and then we’ll talk about when it got a little more serious with he and Bret, and everything that happened around ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin’s injury at SummerSlam, which no one has ever heard Bruce’s take on. We’ll cover the life and times of Owen Hart.”

Exclusive Lucha Underground clip

Lucha Underground is on its mid-season break for season three, but seasons one and two have been added to Netflix and the current season is also available on iTunes.

New Japan Pro Wrestling

Courtesy of Karen Tran/AXS TV

New Japan Pro Wrestling returns to AXS TV this Friday featuring Kenny Omega versus Yoshi-Hashi, as well as the Young Bucks battling the Briscoe Brothers.

Kazuchika Okada and Katsuyori Shibata combined to deliver a 38-minute classic this past weekend at Sakura Genesis. Okada retained his IWGP championship at Ryogoku Sumo Hall in front of 10,000 people, and the match was enhanced even further by the commentary of Kevin Kelly on New Japan World.

“To me, Okada’s best skill is how calm he is when in trouble,” said Kelly. “And he was in a lot of trouble against Shibata. That allows Okada to dig down and execute high-level offense late in long title matches. Shibata can be proud to know that he and Okada sold out Ryogoku and he left the ring under his own power, refusing help.”

Although the show finished on a high note, the night did not end well. Shibata, who still uses the headbutt as part of his offensive arsenal, split his head open during the match and collapsed backstage. New Japan reported Shibata was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, though it is still unclear if that is part of the storyline or reality.

“It’s fair to say that Shibata must be open to modifying his offensive style for his own sake,” said Kelly, “but he was incredible in defeat.”

Tweet of the Week

Through hell, fire, and brimstone…

Ric Flair spoke with Sports Illustrated about John Cena tying his world title record, his daughter Charlotte’s continued success in WWE, and also touched on Jay Lethal and Seth Rollins.

The “Nature Boy” Ric Flair was celebrated as wrestling’s only 16-time world champion, an honor he now shares–and happily, he adds–with John Cena.

“I have no problem with John Cena tying the world title record,” said Flair. “John has an incredible work ethic.”

Courtesy of WWE

Flair noted that his daughter, Charlotte–who made the move last night to Smackdown Live as part of the “Superstar Shake-Up”–could even surpass his record.

“She’s already a four-time champion,” said Flair. “She’s so athletic, she is a female Kurt Angle. She’s way past asking me questions. She tells me things now.”

Foot Locker and WWE just announced a partnership of limited-edition footwear and apparel collection with a collection of Puma products featuring exclusive merchandise of six WWE Legends (Flair, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Ultimate Warrior, the “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Andre the Giant, and The Undertaker). The 68-year-old Flair is grateful that more people are beginning to see wrestling the way he views the profession.

“This is the respect the guys are due, and I’ve always seen us in that light,” said Flair. “There’s nothing more athletic in any sport than the wrestlers. The fact that some of it is choreographed shouldn’t reflect on the abilities, skills, and work ethics that go into. I think it’s great for both brands.”

The current WWE talent still pay their respect to Flair whenever he appears backstage. Flair admitted that he is grateful to be remembered so fondly by a younger generation of wrestlers.

“That means a lot to me,” said Flair. “It means I did something right. It’s a very tough, insensitive business. If you’re good to people and work hard with them, and I was never selfish–I wanted my opponent to look as good, if not better, than me when I was in the ring with them.”

As much as Flair does respect the active talent, he did mention his pet peeve during a WrestleCon panel over WrestleMania weekend.

“It’s this thing where guys duck the clothesline,” said Flair. “If you watch a three-hour WWE program, you’ll see thirty guys ducking the clothesline. How do you miss a guy with a clothesline? How do you do it? It’s a transitional spot, and it drives me crazy. Nobody ducked Road Warrior Animal and Hawk’s clothesline, and nobody damn sure ducked Stan Hansen’s clothesline.”

Flair asked for his favorite talent outside of WWE, and he shared that it is Ring of Honor’s Jay Lethal, who arguably does a better Ric Flair impersonation than Flair himself. 

“I do wish that Jay Lethal was in WWE,” said Flair. “He’s an incredibly nice guy, and he’s a good talent, so I don’t know why Jay never made it to WWE.”

Who wears it better?

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The future of the WWE, Flair revealed, is in the hands of Seth Rollins.

“That’s the guy to watch,” explained Flair. “Seth needs to be a bad guy again – he’s not nearly as good being a good guy – but he’s a tremendous performer. They had him in the right spot, but then he got hurt. Seth can really go.”

Flair also asked to thank fans for their support over the past four decades of his career.

“Thank you for all the respect,” said Flair. “I hope I’ve never disappointed you. I worked hard and tried to give you my all every night, whether it was 100 of you or 100,000. Thank you for all the respect, and we’re carrying on that legacy through my daughter now.”

Courtesy of WWE

Carlito is a former WWE superstar and the son of WWE Hall of Famer Carlos Colon. The 38-year-old first signed a developmental deal with WWE back in 2003, and he followed in the footsteps of Pedro Morales to become the second Puerto Rican to ever win the WWE Intercontinental championship. Carlito also won the tag team titles with his brother, Primo, who is currently one-half of the Shining Stars, with real-life cousin Epico.

Carlito, who is still active on the independent scene with Big Time Wrestling, discussed a potential return to WWE, as well as his thoughts of the Shining Stars.

SI.com: There are constant rumors, but do you have any plans to return to WWE?

Carlito: We’ve had talks. I haven’t spoken to them in a while, but it’s all about economics. For the right price, I’d love to come back, but it’s got to be something that works for them and something that works for me.

The last time I was there was the Hall of Fame for my dad. That was a lot of fun. They know me and my personality, and know my comments were all in fun. I’m not the most political person out there, and I just stay true to me and they know that about me.

SI.com: Do you place extra pressure on yourself in the ring to succeed because of your father, Carlos Colon, who owned the Puerto Rican wrestling promotion, World Wrestling Council, and is a WWE Hall of Famer? And what is the key piece to your success?

Carlito: It’s a big name, but at the same time, I like to do my own thing, just at the same standard my father set. My main goal is to give the audience quality.

The connection with the audience is the biggest part of what I do. A lot of these people haven’t seen me in years. I’ve been off TV since 2010, so to go out to these towns and have people cheer me and still know my character, it’s humbling. The main thing guys need to do is learn how to connect with an audience. If you do that, they won’t forget you.

SI.com: Are you a better performer after having worked for WWE?

Carlito: Everything I learned at WWE helped me. I was able to travel the world, make a lot of money. I can still do the shows I do today thanks to them. I’m very thankful, very blessed, and overall, it was a great experience.

SI.com: You have been active wrestling in the United Kingdom. How do you describe that experience? And is it a blow to the U.K. wrestling scene that WWE re-signed Drew Galloway?

Carlito: The hottest zone for wrestling is definitely in the U.K. The wrestling industry is so used to one guy leaving today and another guy coming into his spot tomorrow. It’s a fast turn-around these days, a lot faster than back in the day. Now, it’s, ‘Who’s next?’

SI.com: The Shining Stars have yet to hit their stride together as a tag team. Would you prefer to see a more realistic gimmick for Primo and Epico?

Carlito: They’re extremely talented, but it’s all about finding the right avenue for them. There are a lot of guys there like that. There is a lot of talent there, and you need to find the right way to exploit it. I’m not a booking guy. I’m a wrestler. I get asked all the time about the promoting side. I don’t worry too much about the promoting or the booking, I just like to go out there and wrestle. I wrestle, then I come back to the locker room, change, and I head to the next town.

The Nitro Files: The Hall of Fame

Courtesy of 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 – also hosts his weekly Bischoff on Wrestling” podcast with 120 Sports’ Nick Hausman, and plans on proving every week in the Nitro Files that the truth is out there.

Eric Bischoff inducted “Diamond” Dallas Page into the WWE Hall of Fame this past WrestleMania weekend,

“It was a great experience for me,” said Bischoff. “I haven’t been back, behind the scenes, in WWE for a long time. There were a lot of people that I haven’t seen for a long time who I really enjoyed seeing. These are the names and faces that most of the audience wouldn’t recognize, but there are so many amazingly talented, hard-working, and dedicated people behind the scenes. Those are the people I was actually most excited and happiest to see. I know how hard they work, and I’m never not amazed at just how seamless and how flawless such an amazingly complex effort comes off in WWE, and I respect that a lot. That was the fun part, and walking up to that podium – and speaking in front of 15,000 – was an honor. It was a great night, a great experience, and a great night all around.”

Bischoff was asked who would have been his first induction had he ever created a WCW Hall of Fame.

“You know me well enough to know I don’t answer hypotheticals,” answered a joking Bischoff.

Bischoff also made news during WrestleMania weekend as he announced the launch of the IRW Network.

“It’s going to be an independent pop culture hub,” explained Bischoff, whose site stands for “Indies Rule the World”. “There is amazing quality content out there, and I thought it would be so cool to create a hub that will allow independent promoters, independent producers, and independent artists to have their own channel within the community that targets those people who love alternative, independent content. That is the essence of it, and we’re putting a lot of our effort into the wrestling side of that independent equation, and we’re going to rapidly expand into music, film, and comic books.”

Though the site officially launches June 1, it is currently available to access for free.

“There needs to be a hub where we help discover independent artists from all parts of entertainment,” said Bischoff. “We’ve opened it up to the public, and people can navigate through the site. We’ll have over 1,5000 hours of independent wrestling content, and that content is there right now. You can listen to my podcast right now, and I’m encouraging people to check it out and let me know what they think. We’re constantly looking for new ways to present great content.”

 

The Shoot is a first-person point of view piece written and shared directly from the people inside the business of professional wrestling. In the column’s debut, Headlocked comic book writer Michael Kingston details his journey of putting together the most compelling wrestling comic book in the history of the genre.

In wrestling, there’s no easy way.

That’s the tag line for the fourth volume of the “Headlocked” comic book kickstarter.

Think of Headlocked as an HBO-style drama set in the world of wrestling. It is a coming-of-age story chronicling a college theater major’s journey from wrestling fan to professional wrestler. The story begins from the moment he falls in love with wrestling and follows him through the seedy underbelly of the wrestling business as he chases his dream of making it to the bright lights and the big stage of the WFW.

As any longtime fan will tell you, wrestling and art are one in the same. At its core, Headlocked is a love letter to the craft of professional wrestling. But in order to fully do it justice, we can’t gloss over the ugly bits, either. And we don’t. This comic book is far more than just a pro wrestling story. It’s a pro wrestling story written and drawn by the wrestlers, themselves.

The cover is created by Jerry “The King” Lawler. The interiors are drawn by Michel Mulipola, a Samoan wrestler from New Zealand. There are pinups by Tugboat and Lince Dorado. And the book also features short stories created by Ric Flair, Mick Foley, Cody Rhodes, and Kenny Omega. We strive to have different voices that cover different fan bases. Ric Flair’s experience is very different from Kenny Omega’s, and the stories reflect that. Mick’s tale is our first Christmas-themed Headlocked story. While we’ve had the likes of AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Booker T, and Rob Van Dam contribute to the series in the past, this is the single biggest lineup we’ve ever had.

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We just added Penta El Zero M as our first stretch goal. I’m such a huge fan of him as both a wrestler and a character and we’ve never had a bona fide luchador contribute. So this was a perfect opportunity to be able to come up with a story featuring a different part of the wrestling experience.

Crafting a story, and seeing it come alive in the pages of a comic book, is my passion. I’ve also been a lifelong fan of wrestling… and spending so much time with wrestlers has only helped hone my skills as a storyteller. From the stories they tell in the ring to the tales swapped on the road, these guys are the masters.

I was at dinner with Paul Heyman, Shane Helms, and Christopher Daniels at the San Diego Comic Con a few years back. I told one of the details out of sequence, and Paul Heyman cut me off – Paul said, “That’s not how you tell a story! You need to let it build, kid!”

I was being schooled in the art of storytelling over nachos.

To me, wrestling and comics is a no-brainer. I mean, wrestlers are the closest thing to real life superheroes that you’ll ever find. But not everyone has seen it that way. When we initially pitched Headlocked to comic book publishers, everyone turned us down. A rep from one of the largest publishers in the industry straight-up laughed in my face. Another one asked me, “Do wrestling fans even read?” A store in my own town told me that no one would ever read it.

So we made it ourselves.

I spent the next year working two jobs to fund our first print run and a round of convention tables. And we built an audience by going to wrestling shows and comic cons… bringing it to the people. And once Kickstarter became a viable option, we were able to take Headlocked to the next level.

Still, in this age of social media and endless entertainment options, it’s still hard for an independent to gain awareness. I work 60-hour weeks at what I call my “Clark Kent job” and then I’m on the road every weekend trying to introduce new audiences to Headlocked. From our social media, the process probably looks a lot more glamourous than it is, but there are a lot of solo six-hour car rides and way too many empty energy drink cans on my writing desk. Because I work nights, the first day of any comic con is usually done on zero sleep. But, as many of the wrestlers I know will attest, when you’re doing something you love, that grind is a pain that you don’t feel.

Sometimes people are wary of the idea of comics. These days, though, comics are at the vanguard of original storytelling. Just like all wrestling isn’t WWE, all comic books aren’t just superheroes. No one thinks of Road to Perdition, History of Violence, and Ghost World as comic book movies, yet all were comic books first. The fact that we’ve been a lot of people’s first comic is the part of this journey that I am proudest of.

If you like wrestling, comics, or cable dramas, Headlocked is definitely your unicorn. But despite the names we’ve collaborated with, we’re still very much underground and DIY. We’re not sponsored by WWE, Marvel, or DC. It’s just us, hustling from town to town, bringing original and creative content to the masses. If I may be so bold, I might say we’re the ECW of comics… only our canvas is stained with red ink. 

If you’re interested in checking out Headlocked, ordering the books through Kickstarter is the method that helps us most… and you get thirty extra pages in your book for doing so. Even if you’re new to the series, you can still get caught up on all the books. The current campaign ends on May 1

 

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