Week in Wrestling: Cody Rhodes makes major decision, Young Bucks discuss Hardys feud, Five questions with Hornswoggle and much more
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 “American Nightmare” Cody Rhodes discussing his current project and upcoming decision; The Young Bucks officially declaring themselves the best tag team in the world; The Shoot with former WWE ring announcer Justin Roberts; The Nitro Files with Eric Bischoff; New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Michael Elgin discussing Tetsuya Naito and Five Questions with Hornswoggle.
Cody Rhodes ready to settle down after a year of traveling the world
- After a year traveling the world and working for different promotions, Cody Rhodes is ready to find a permanent wrestling home.
Cody Rhodes spoke with Sports Illustrated to discuss his upcoming Bullet Proof show this April 22 in Georgia for Luke Gallows’ Wrestlemerica. Rhodes also touched on the upcoming decision he is going to make about his new full-time home in wrestling.
Cody Rhodes’ 3,143 mile storytelling odyssey from Woburn, Massachusetts to Manchester, England traced the footsteps of his father, the legendary Dusty Rhodes, but is coming to a close.
Rhodes’ post-WWE sojourn has included programs in Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro Wrestling, and Impact Wrestling, as well as all over the independent scene. Rhodes’ next step is to find a permanent home.
“I’m about to make a decision,” admitted Rhodes, who has broken the alleged structure of the business by engaging in feuds with Moose in Impact Wrestling while simultaneously engaging in programs with Jay Lethal in Ring of Honor while still a part of New Japan’s vaunted Bullet Club. “It’s been really fun to cross all the streams, but at this point I do need to find a new home. That is going to limit all the distance I cover, which includes the work I’ve done with companies like Limitless, Defy, and All Pro Wrestling – there is even a company in Kolkoska, Michigan where I’m wrestling that is called ‘Mr. Chainsaw’. If you see my name on a card and you’re a fan, come on out. I’m not sure how much longer it will be until I’m no longer able to roam around.”
Rhodes will be found this Saturday in Barnesville, Georgia wrestling at the “Bullet Proof” show for Luke Gallows’ Wrestlemerica.
Gallows, who is teaming in the WWE with Karl Anderson, is rebranding his Georgia independent, and he called upon Rhodes to recruit the talent for Saturday’s show. Rhodes grew up in Marietta, only 79 miles away from Barnesville on Interstate 75 in Georgia, and once worked 15 years ago for his father’s Turnbuckle Championship Wrestling, which was a direct competitor to Wrestlemerica.
“I’ve known the Gallows family a long time,” said Rhodes. “Luke Gallows is now entirely focused with WWE, but he built WrestleMerica, which was very much a Southern-based independent. We used to always joke, because so many of the guys who worked for my dad’s independent promotion would often give Gallows a hard time when they’d say, repeatedly, ‘This isn’t how Dusty ran it.’
“Gallows said that annoyed him endlessly. He said to me, ‘If you come to Barnesville one time so you can have my back, we’ll see if these people were even in Turnbuckle Championship Wrestling.’ That was my dad’s backyard, so it’s pretty special to come back home.”
Rhodes is wrestling in the main event on Saturday against the internationally-renowned Jimmy Havoc, which is a first for him on multiple fronts. This will mark the first time Rhodes and Havoc ever lock up in the ring, but it is also his first main event in a Georgia indie – Dusty would never allow teenage Cody, who started refereeing at 15, to officiate the main event.
“I always tried to stand out as a ref,” said Rhodes. “I wore a long sleeve black Under Armour t-shirt so that you knew I was the cool ref as opposed to the old dude.
“I was also never allowed to referee any of my father’s matches. My dad had a habit of giving me the Abdullah the Butcher matches, as well as the ones with tables and chairs – basically the matches that went all over the building. I was so terrified of Abdullah the Butcher, and I reffed one of his matches where the culmination of the match was Abdullah fighting his opponent into the ring truck, and Abdullah slamming the doors and then being the only one to emerge. I just remember raising his hand. No actual words were exchanged between us, ever.
“That was his way of making me pay my dues, and maybe even rib me. My father didn’t smarten me up, ever, so I smartened myself up. It was a good learning experience.”
Gallows enlisted Rhodes to recruit the talent, and he delivered with an array of burgeoning stars in Havoc, Bobby Fish, the Tempura Boys, and Donovan Dijak. Rhodes did admit, however, that he does not have quite the same smooth touch that his father made appear so easy.
“I don’t have the same knack for the business end that my old man did,” said Rhodes. “Recruiting people has been tough. I don’t envy anyone in that spot, especially some of the great non-WWE promoters like EVOLVE’s Gabe Sapolsky, Beyond Wrestling’s Drew Cordeiro, or Markus Mac at All Pro Wrestling. This may have been my only foray into behind-the-scenes work, ever. I think I’ll stay out in the forefront.”
Rhodes’ goal is to help ingrain Wrestlemerica into the Atlanta wrestling landscape the way that WrestleCircus is to Austin, Texas and All Pro Wresting is to San Francisco, California.
“I really admire when I see a place like All Pro Wrestling,” explained Rhodes. “I admire the risk when people say, ‘We’re a brand, not an indie.’ Now, they might even say, ‘We’re going to be a small brand, there might not even be a camera, but we’ll be our own individual brand.’ You can tell stories today without cable television.
“I hope this show puts Wrestlemerica back on the map, but that’s up to those in the ring. The guys who have been part of WrestleCircus in Austin–Brian Cage, Johnny Morrison, Joey Ryan, ACH, Sammy Guevara–are out there tearing the house down. When you tear the house down, people come back. That’s up to the talent on that April 22nd show. There is another show coming up in May with some nice names, and they’re going to keep trending upward if I have anything to do about it.”
Rhodes’ finest moment in Ring of Honor came during WrestleMania weekend during the Supercard of Honor show in Lakeland, Florida. He lost to Jay Lethal in a grueling Texas Bull Rope match, but moved on from the loss quickly by challenging ROH world champion Christopher Daniels.
“For the very first time in my career, my goal of the world title is clearly defined,” said Rhodes. “It was an out-of-body experience when I put my hands on that title after the Dalton Castle-Christopher Daniels match at Supercard of Honor.
“This is the first world title that I’ve put on a hit list. My last year was spent wrestling everywhere, and this was a departure from that. Now my sights are clear and my focus is channeled at absolutely one thing. It’s a nice juxtaposition from the past year, which has been everywhere.”
Rhodes also returns to New Japan in May for a match with David Finlay, who is the son of longtime wrestling veteran Fit Finlay.
“I’m sentimental when I see that match on paper, considering our families and knowing how important my family is to me in wrestling,” said Rhodes. “David is paying his dues by joining the New Japan Dojo, so it’s two different types of multi-generational wrestlers.”
Rhodes is fully aligned and integrated with the villainous Bullet Club, though he remains grateful that people come out in massive throngs to see him wrestle.
“With the ‘Bullet Proof’ show, it was really nice to see that, when I put myself out there on the card, the fans remembered. I can pretend to be a city boy as much as possible, but the folks from the country know better. It’s a chance to wrestle in southern Georgia, which is home to me.”
Rhodes remains at the crossroads of carrying his father and the Rhodes legacy with him, while contemporaneously creating a lasting image of his own.
“When I’m brainstorming, I always remind myself, ‘Hey, it’s not about him,’” reflected Rhodes. “My dad hated being trudged up. I dragged him to Sacramento to get in the ring with Rey, and I promised I’d have WWE pay him double to come and do anything when we did Stardust vs. Goldust. I can remember him telling me that the last thing he really wanted on his resume was what we did at Battleground in 2013. With that in mind, I try very much to remember and do me.
Rhodes will forever be proud to be Dusty Rhodes’ son, but he has had to go simply by “Cody” on television because the Rhodes name is an intellectual property owned by WWE.
“I’ll tell you this, and I’ve not told anyone this, but I don’t mind that WWE took away my last name. Deep down, in my bones, I definitely want it back – and I have plans to get it back – but there is something to being Cody. The longer I don’t have a last name, the more I’m OK with it. That’s not to say WWE is holding it ransom. It’s literally an intellectual property law that easily can be remedied, but there is something about being Cody that I don’t mind.
“There is something to not always reminding people of a show they’ve already seen, but instead embracing the one right in front of him. I am Cody, and I can promise you that the future is going to be even better than the past.”
News of the Week: The Young Bucks discuss Hardys feud, Jim Cornette podcast preview
The Young Bucks have rejuvenated tag team wrestling.
The Bucks, who are self-made and constantly evolving, are the current Ring of Honor tag champs after defeating the Hardys in a ladder match main event at Supercard of Honor. One night later, the Hardys returned to WWE’s WrestleMania 33 to shock the wrestling world and win the WWE Raw tag team titles.
“We are better than any other team in the world,” said Matt Jackson. “We are bigger than tag team wrestling. We are The Young Bucks. We’re our own brand and our own genre. We’ve become larger than any active team, and we did it all on our own–without the help of a billion dollar wrestling company.”
Considering that the Bucks defeated the Hardys, who are the only reigning tag champs who were in a title match at WrestleMania, Nick Jackson was also asked if the Bucks are better than any other team in WWE.
“No one is bigger or better than the machine, but we are definitely the best tag team of the last decade,” said Nick Jackson. “I say that with confidence because our body of work does the talking.”
The Bucks defeated the Hardys with a sublime double superkick off two ladders, which was a sequence designed by all four men on the day of the show.
“We climbed the ladders in an empty building and the idea sparked,” said Matt Jackson. “We thought it was a perfect way to end the story.”
Nick Jackson added that was only one of a few spots actually tried beforehand.
“The four of us all climbed ladders and actually brainstormed ideas,” said Nick Jackson. “We all kind of came up with it while standing 10 feet high.”
The Hardys are now in WWE largely because of the way they were mistreated and disrespected by the Jeff Jarrett-run Impact Wrestling. Both of the Bucks were disappointed in the way Impact Wrestling attempted to take a lot of the momentum out of the feud by limiting the Hardys’ “Broken” characters.
“I was very upset,” admitted Nick Jackson. “This feud was supposed to go on until possibly June and they pretty much screwed up their whole deal with the Hardys, which is why we had to jumpstart the whole angle.”
“We were definitely disappointed they tried to do that,” added Matt Jackson. “We took it very personal because not only were they taking aim at our good friends, but it was also affecting our segments. It ended up being fine, because we worked around it, but it was definitely agitating.”
As for the reported dissension between Kenny Omega and Adam Cole, the Bucks stressed that all is well – despite the occasional flaring of competitive tension.
“Everything is just fine with the Bullet Club,” said Matt Jackson. “Kenny and Adam are two strong personalities. Two alpha males. I think it is friendly competition.”
“In my opinion, things are okay, but a little rocky,” added Nick Jackson. “Kenny and Adam both are our best friends and it’s kind of complicated when you have two guys that are alpha males who want both of our attention at the same time.”
The Bucks just reunited with “The Elite” partner Kenny Omega on their recent tour of the United Kingdom, and OTT’s ScrapperMania 3 at National Stadium in Dublin last Saturday featured a main event that saw The Elite defeat Will Ospreay, Lio Rush, and Ryan Smile.
“It’s been a few months since we’ve been with Kenny, so we missed him,” said Matt Jackson. “There’s a certain creative chemistry the three of us have that’s unlike anything we’ve experienced. There’s magic there.”
The Bucks also confirmed there will be brand new “Being The Elite” videos posted on Twitter.
“We filmed three different ‘Being The Elites’ during the trip and they might be the best of the series,” said Nick Jackson. “We did four shows from Wednesday to Saturday and every show was sold out. It was amazing to see all the fans come out and see us all, and this was one of my favorite tours ever.”
In other news…
The ring collapsing spot on Raw was spectacular, despite the fact that Braun Strowman and the Big Show had a nearly identical match, which was also a Raw main event, less than two months ago on Monday, February 20.
The rematch was rife with problems for two separate reasons. First of all, WWE never acknowledged this was a rematch. Why not share the back story that Show has been furious over the loss and was seeking redemption? Also, in the weekly live television era of professional wrestling, very rarely is there a strong build-up. Match-ups are often rushed for a rating–Charlotte versus Bayley immediately comes to mind–and, unfortunately, WWE creative missed an opportunity to unveil this match by rushing to it in February.
The spot was planned, with airbags underneath the ring, which was already lifted a few inches. If you notice, the LED on the ring mat had also been turned off and the ring posts were different. A very similar spot was used in 2003 with Big Show and Brock Lesnar, though the visual of referee John Cone being violently thrown from the ring greatly enhanced the visual on Monday. When WWE is at its best, it is suspending people’s belief, which was done, in exquisite fashion, in that spot on Monday.
• My condolences to the Anoa’i family, who lost Matt Anoa’i, better known in the wrestling ring as Rosey, at the age of only 47. Anoa’i is the older brother of Roman Reigns.
Shane Helms, who teamed with Anoa’i in the WWE as the Super Heroes, shared his heartbreak over the loss of his friend:
“He was a really great human being,” said Helms. “I can say that with all conviction. He had a big heart, he was a very loyal friend, and just a great guy. As a talent, he was a very underrated big man. His character was so over that his talent was sometimes overlooked. He could do lionsaults like Chris Jericho, he could go up to the top and do a moonsault if he wanted to, and he was so fast and agile. He was just really, really talented.”
Anoa’i’s final match took place in 2016 when he teamed one last time with Helms.
“That was our first match back together,” said Helms. “I know he wasn’t in great health, and I took it upon myself to make sure he looked good. I’m still glad we were able to perform together one more time.”
Helms was heartbroken over the loss of his friend, and was asked how he would remember him.
“Matty was Big Daddy Ro-Ro to me,” said Helms. “That’s who he was to me. When I think of him, my favorite memory of him is when he would do the ‘Elaine dance’ from Seinfeld. Imagine a 400-pound superhero doing that dance. That’s something he would do that always made me laugh, and he always had this great big smile on his face. I’m going to miss him a lot.”
• The Mauro Ranallo/JBL storyline took a brief respite this week. Ranallo confirmed on Twitter that he will eventually return to calling pro wrestling, which is likely to be with AXS TV calling New Japan Pro Wrestling. JBL has carefully steered clear of the story, and he received support from longtime friend–and newest addition to the Raw broadcast team–Booker T this past week.
Meanwhile, The Elite took a chance to poke fun at JBL, who was allegedly blocking those who came out in support of Ranallo:
• Due to the results of last Thursday’s 8-man tag on Impact Wrestling, Josh Mathews has been removed from the Impact Wrestling broadcast booth. Mathews team, consisting of Bobby Lashley, Bram, Eli Drake, and Tyrus was defeated by Jeremy Borash’s team of Chris Adonis, Matt Morgan, Alberto El Patron, and Magnus. The stipulation of the match was that, if Mathews’ team lost the match, he would leave the announce table.
When reached by Sports Illustrated, Mathews offered a statement regarding the loss:
“Without me, the state of wrestling commentary–no, Sports Commentary as a whole–is beyond repair,” said Mathews. “In one ‘Universe’, you have bullies and teams of 50 people calling shows, and now you also have ex-quarterbacks getting ‘A Team’ gigs without any resume to speak of.
“Quite honestly, I should be calling Olympic Games, Super Bowls, NCAA Championships, The Masters and The US Open. I realized how good I truly am by listening to my contemporaries and not one of them actually gets the job and what it is at its core.”
• The most compelling storyline from Monday night was the build of the Hardys’ tag team title defense against Cesaro and Sheamus. In the match of the night on Raw, Jeff Hardy defeated Cesaro in singles action. Even at the age of 39, Jeff Hardy is still a phenomenal talent, but the single most talented man in the business–and someone who allows his opponents to shine through making their moves look as realistic as possible–is Cesaro.
• Jinder Mahal won the right for a future world title shot on Smackdown. We too often complain that WWE does not build new stars, but my issue with Mahal is in the presentation. He was a non-factor in an enhancement loss last week on Raw to Finn Balor, yet a week later he is presented as a title contender. Time will tell on how Mahal is presented moving forward, but his anti-American promo after the victory on Smackdown had Vince McMahon’s fingerprints all over it.
• Interesting to note that all of the champions from last summer’s WWE Draft–which included then WWE champion Dean Ambrose, women’s champion Charlotte, tag team champions in The New Day, Intercontinental champion The Miz, and United States champion Rusev–all changed brands during the Superstar Shake-Up.
• Despite falling behind three games to none to the Anaheim Ducks in the opening round of the NHL playoffs, Bret Hart still has faith in the Calgary Flames:
“I’m a big fan of the Flames,” said Hart. “I’ve got a jersey with [Johnny] Gaudreau on the back. I like [Matthew] Tkachuk a lot, he’s kind of my favorite–Tkachuk and [Micheal] Verland. They’ve got some good players and Calgary is going to be a better team each year. I don’t think they’ll win the Cup this year, but I would like to see them get to the second or third round. They’ve got a good, young team, and they really play well together.”
• AXS TV will air the New Japan Destruction in Kobe match from last September featuring Michael Elgin defending the IWGP Intercontinental championship against Tetsuya Naito this Friday night at 8pm ET. Elgin, who discusses the match in greater detail in the “New Japan” section of the column, was asked whether Tetsuya Naito’s character reminds him at all of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin:
“It’s hard to say that Naito reminds me of anyone,” said Elgin. “Austin wasn’t so care-free. He was against authority, but he was against authority for a reason. Naito is against authority, but for no other reason than just to be against it.”
• Steve Austin and Vince Russo each traded appearances on the other’s podcast, and each show was full of insight and perspective from two men with experience in front of and behind the camera. My ears perked up on Russo’s show, The Brand, when Austin–yes, that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin–explained that he needed to ask for permission to use the word “ass” on Raw.
• Coming attractions: John Cena may be off WWE television, but he will be joining the Week in Wrestling on SI.com next Wednesday.
Something to Wrestle with Conrad Thompson
“Everybody is familiar with Jim Cornette, and our listeners love Bruce’s Jim Cornette impression,” said Thompson. “People will have a lot of laughs this Friday at noon.”
There is also a bonus “Love to Know” edition of the podcast that hits the MLW airwaves today at noon
“We’re delivering almost three hours of Q&A, with rapid-fire questions from Twitter,” said Thompson. “There will be lots of little details and stories we’ve never heard before. We have way more good conversations over little things that I never expected we would get into, and we have a lot of collaboration from our listeners this week with some really good questions.”
Exclusive Lucha Underground clip
There will be a panel at the Chicago Comic Con this Sunday with Lucha Underground’s Rey Mysterio, Johnny Mundo, Taya, Melissa Santos, Vampiro, Eric Van Wagenen, Chris DeJoseph, and Dorian Roldan – and it will be hosted by yours truly. If you would like any questions asked, please do not hesitate to email me.
The Nitro Files: Booker T
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 has also created the IRW Network, which is currently highlighting over 1,500 hours of independent wrestling. Bischoff plans on proving every week in the Nitro Files that the truth is out there.
Booker T’s rise to wrestling prominence began in World Championship Wrestling. Surrounded by a sea of talented wrestlers, Booker first resonated with audiences as one-half of Harlem Heat and then went on to a memorable singles career.
“Booker has always had a lot of confidence,” said Bischoff. “Booker was also a soldier. He would go out and work, and his self-confidence pushed him over the edge. He has a spectacular work ethic and a great amount of self-confidence.”
Bischoff did not recruit Booker and Stevie Ray, as Harlem Heat was brought to WCW by Bill Watts.
"I was an announcer there, and I was immediately drawn to them,” said Bischoff. “I loved them as a team, but Booker always had, even backstage in the locker room, a presence. He had that infectious laugh, he was always the one who made everyone in the room smile, and he had this incredible energy. He could also be serious and intense, but you could feel that charisma that drew you to him. Stevie Ray was bigger and more intimidating, but Booker was fluid, could do all the great selling, and he had that magic ‘It’ factor of charisma.”
New Japan Pro Wrestling
New Japan Pro Wrestling returns to AXS TV this Friday featuring the Destruction in Kobe match between Michael Elgin and Tetsuya Naito.
The encounter took place this past September, and Elgin defended his IWGP Intercontinental champion against Naito.
The match was a 32-minute affair, delivered a strong beginning, middle, and a majestic finish that saw Naito reverse Elgin’s running power bomb into his “Destino” finisher.
“Naito knows who he is as a wrestler, and I know who I am as a wrestler, and that makes things so easy,” said Elgin. “People like to say that Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat had great matches and they never had to call anything. When it came down to the 100th match they’d worked together, they didn’t need to call anything – they’d already worked together 100 times, so they knew what to do. We’ve grown into such great chemistry and things just clicked for us.”
Elgin was surprised how well he and Naito worked together and were able to mesh together their contrasting styles.
“Our first match in Ring of Honor, which was before he found himself, wasn’t bad but it didn’t stand out,” said Elgin. “Then we wrestled in the G1, and it was awesome. When our return singles match was announced, I knew that we could definitely amp it up and really produce something special. I definitely thought that something big could happen and we could wrestle a match that people would remember.”
As for the end, which saw Naito defeat Elgin and take his Intercontinental championship, the finish went as planned.
“We had an idea of how we were going to do the finish,” said Elgin. “We knew we could add things to it or take something away, but we had it set in our minds how we were going to do the finish.”
Tweet of the Week
The Revival’s Dash Wilder suffered a jaw fracture at an NXT show last Friday, and he and tag team partner Scott Dawson will be off WWE programming until the summer.
The Shoot: Justin Roberts pays tribute to The Undertaker
The Shoot is a first-person point of view piece written and shared directly from the people inside the business of professional wrestling. In this week’s edition, former WWE ring announcer Justin Roberts–who is also the author of recently-released Best Seat in the House–thanks The Undertaker for a storied career.
Thank You, Undertaker
In 1991, when I was 11 years old and got bit by the wrestling bug, I had seen GLOW, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, on Saturday Nights. I had seen WWF’s Saturday Night’s Main Event when it would preempt Saturday Night Live, but running into the Ultimate Warrior and the “Texas Tornado” Kerry Von Erich at a Milwaukee hotel made me search for WWF in the TV Guide.
The big event that year was WrestleMania VII. WrestleMania was the Super Bowl of wrestling and this was set to be the biggest event of the year. Hulkamania was runnin’ wild and the “Immortal” Hulk Hogan vowed to defeat the evil Sgt. Slaughter to regain the WWF championship, as Hulkamania would never die. On that same event, a character that had debuted at the previous WWF pay per view, the Survivor Series, would make his WrestleMania debut. He did not claim to be immortal. In fact, this character was the complete opposite.
A gong would play into the arena and Gorilla Monsoon would proclaim on commentary, “For whom the bell tolls.” The music that played wasn’t a catchy theme song, like The Rockers would run out to, or a hardcore song like Demolition’s, nor was it anything like the Legion of Doom’s entrance music. As an eerie funeral march played, a pallbearer so to speak, dressed in a suit with a pale face and dark black circles around his eyes–appropriately named Paul Bearer–would lead the Grim Reaper to the ring with a gold urn in his hands. Dressed in black with a black hat and gray tie, The Undertaker would enter the ring to wrestle and dismantle “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka. This would unknowingly begin “The Streak” that would become a WrestleMania staple many years later.
Week after week, The Undertaker would make his eerie entrance as Gorilla Monsoon continued to point out the uncomfortable atmosphere in the arena and refer to the “ominous” Undertaker as faces of scared children would show on my television screen. When the bell rang to start the match, opponents would try to get the best of him, but nothing seemed to phase the creature from Death Valley.
Just as quickly as the match began, The Undertaker would hit his opponents with the tombstone piledriver and quickly pin them for a count of three, before rolling them into a body bag. Later on, he would even have casket matches with the biggest and baddest opponents in the WWF, where the bout would end once a competitor was placed inside a casket and the lid was shut. It was hard to keep the Deadman down as his super powers were different. He would make his entrance in the dark, raise his hands and cause the lights to come on. He might get hit with his opponent’s finishing move, and those were moves that would have got them the win on anybody else, but The Undertaker would just right sit up.
The Undertaker and the rest of the guys from my WWF Lunchbags, WWF crackers, WWF ice cream bars, WWF posters on my walls and WWF action figures kept me glued to the shows. I would watch wrestling every weekend and Monday night. Over the years, Undertaker would not only transition from a bad guy to a good guy, but he would become one of the most popular stars in wrestling history. I watched Undertaker feud with Hogan, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Giant Gonzalez, Yokozuna, Bret Hart, Diesel, Kamala, Kama, and Sid. I even saw him in-person twice; once against the Ultimate Warrior at the Rosemont Horizon, and then again against Ted DiBiase’s “Underfaker” at the United Center in Chicago.
I got into wrestling when most kids my age were getting out of that phase. I soon learned, however, that everyone watched. It was just a matter of who would admit to it. As the years went on, I never outgrew this phase. As the wrestling superstars that I admired would come and go between the WWF and rival World Championship Wrestling, The Undertaker always remained part of WWF. Eventually, WWF bought WCW, then lost a bout to the World Wildlife Foundation, necessitating a name change from the WWF to World Wrestling Entertainment. Times were changing in the wrestling world. The landscape had changed. Even The Undertaker had changed. Instead of coming out as the grim reaper, he became a biker. He was still the Deadman, but now in charge of Deadman Inc.
I, too, found myself going through a transformation. I evolved from a hardcore fan that could not and would not miss watching a wrestling show to a fan that wanted to be a part of the pro wrestling world. At 16, I started ring announcing around the Chicago independent wrestling scene. By 22, I had sent uncountable amounts of videotapes and resumes to WWE. After graduating from the University of Arizona in 2002, I sent WWE the email that finally put me over the edge. After announcing all over the country for various independent promotions, FX’s Toughman Contest and anything else I could announce, including the U of A softball team, I finally earned my tryout in the big leagues.
Entering into WWE, I had to remain professional. I was used to working with talent from WWE and WCW, but sharing a dressing room with Hulk Hogan and the current stars of WWE was a monumental change. I had a tryout match at Monday Night Raw, announcing John Cena in a pre-show match before his debut on television. The next night, I announced Rey Mysterio, who was making his WWE debut. Over time, I would fill in as ring announcer for Smackdown and sometimes even Raw, before I got a steady position as the ECW ring announcer, which was followed by two years on Smackdown and then five years on Raw.
I announced at WWE for 12 years. As has happened for decades, talent would come and go. Sometimes they would come back again, sometimes not. In those 12 years, there was one man who was always there, even when he would disappear for a short length of time.
The Undertaker was the mainstay, a consistent element of World Wrestling Entertainment. He was the grim reaper, the biker, and, eventually, the grim reaper once again. I was in awe when he would enter the arena for his matches. While some guys break character, The Undertaker was very protective of his character and remained The Undertaker. I was not only in awe when he would make his entrance, I was in awe whenever I saw him backstage. There was something special about The Undertaker, not only the character–but also the person. I never called him by his first name, because I knew him as The Undertaker. He was the staple of wrestling and the most amazing character to come out of a company filled with phenomenal characters.
On March 30, 2008, I was ready to announce my second WrestleMania. The year before, I had announced one match. I now had about half the show and even the main event. Edge was going to be wrestling The Undertaker in this main event. That ominous entrance that Undertaker would make towards the ring had only changed just a bit over the years. He still had his slow, eerie walk to the ring, but he was no longer managed by Paul Bearer. The music was the same song, just exponentially bigger. The lights were low and the smoke would fill the air. I was still in awe watching him approach the ring for this match, but now, my voice was a part of his entrance. Yet I wasn’t just the ring announcer introducing The Undertaker in the same way that I was for all the other wrestlers. I remained that fan who was taking in the special, magical entrance. I could hear Gorilla Monsoon’s commentary in my head as he walked to the ring. When I was cued, I introduced his name as the music played and the lightning sound effects filled the outdoor football stadium.
Over time, as I got more comfortable in my announcing, I would take chances and give some of the wrestlers more magnified introductions. My favorite to deliver was the introduction of The Undertaker, which grew organically from “Thee Undertaker” into a growling “Underrrrrrrrr Takerrrrrrrr”. Along with John Cena, Jeff Hardy, and Batista, The Undertaker’s introduction was turned up and delivered to go along with the reaction that he would receive when introduced. If you didn’t get goosebumps, I didn’t do my job.
The Undertaker was my favorite introduction, as well as my favorite character. There was always something special surrounding The Undertaker. No other entity or individual compiled a WrestleMania track record like him, even if it did not end perfectly. “The Streak” that had become such a huge part of WrestleMania was suddenly ended on April 6, 2014 when Brock Lesnar defeated The Undertaker at WrestleMania 30 after 21 WrestleMania victories. When the finishing bell rang, I thought there was a mistake. I thought the referee accidentally counted to three. I thought the timekeeper made a mistake as well, by ringing the bell. My stomach dropped. A minute later, I was given the cue to make the announcement … and I did. Your winner wasn’t The Undertaker, even though we were at WrestleMania… your winner was Brock Lesnar… and all of us fans were stunned. The reaction was unlike any other reaction I had ever gotten before from an announcement that I made.
For those who are still wondering why a win-loss is such a big deal in a show that we know is predetermined … the rule is, you have to let yourself escape to this land of make believe with the rest of us. The same way that you get caught up in a movie, that you know is entertainment-we get caught up in these storylines … so think about the enormity of the winning streak.
When the streak came to an end, it wasn’t much later that my time at WWE would also come to an end. In October of 2014, I would once again head back to the other side of the guardrail to watch wrestling. Much had changed in wrestling, as it always had, but the one consistent piece still remained–the (now sporadic) appearances by The Undertaker. I went from enjoying his entrances as a kid, to playing a very minor part in the ambiance, to going back and watching on television. I didn’t notice an introduction for him after I left. Other than that, nothing had changed.
The Undertaker lost his second WrestleMania match at WrestleMania 33. He put on his jacket and his hat after the match, only to take them off… and leave them in the center of the ring. He kissed his wife at ringside and walked off. The talk around the wrestling world is that this past Sunday was The Undertaker’s last match. I didn’t reach out to him. I didn’t ask anyone in the company. He was the one wrestling superstar that had been on the first WrestleMania that I watched. Now he was on the last WrestleMania I watched.
If that match signified the end, then a big part of me would be sad. He has been a big part of this journey that I’ve been on ever since March of 1991. He was always around, even if he wasn’t on a show. You never knew when he would pop up next, you just knew that eventually he would. I prefer not knowing whether he will come back, or if he is finally taking a more-than well-earned sendoff and riding into the… darkness. The kid in me will keep the hope alive, but the rest of me will simply say thank you.
Justin Roberts’ new book, Best Seat in the House, is now available both online and in book stores.
Five Questions with ... Hornswoggle
Swoggle is former WWE star Hornswoggle. The 30-year-old connected with SI.com to discuss parts of his decade-long tenure with WWE, as well as his current work with Impact Wrestling.
SI.com: When and where is your upcoming ACW Watercity Wrestlecon show in Wisconsin? Also, are you still working with Impact?
Hornswoggle: We have a big show this Saturday at ACW Watercity Wrestlecon in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The show features Bret Hart, myself versus El Torito in WeeLC 2, Vickie Guerrero, Mr. Anderson, Carlito, and Kevin Thorn. I’m also doing here and there appearances with Impact Wrestling.
SI.com: You hid under the ring so often in WWE. Did you have to go under the ring before gates opened? What is it like down there? Are there lights? Or food? Or a place to use the bathroom? Did you bring your phone? How did you spend your time? So many questions exist about your time under the ring.
Hornswoggle: When it comes to being under the ring, I’d either go under before the doors opened or would get snuck under in the dark while a video package played on the screen. There were times when I was underneath for six-plus hours because it wouldn’t work out to sneak me under later in the show. I’d get dressed under there, have plenty of waters, and would normally bring my phone or PSP. Thankfully, I never had a bathroom emergency under the ring.
SI.com: When did you officially become the “King of Small Style”? Did it happen the night of the WeeLC match?
Hornswoggle: The “King of Small Style” moniker was actually an idea that a real good friend of mine back home in Oshkosh, Wisconsin came up with the day I was released by WWE. Nakamura was the “King of Strong Style” and that nickname was hot at the time so I jumped on the bandwagon and made a name of my own. It’s stuck with me ever since.
The night of the WeeLC match was the biggest match of my career. That gave me a ton of amazing memories that will never be able to be taken from me.
SI.com: Given the chance, what is one WWE storyline that you would like to do over?
Hornswoggle: I would love to do the whole “Anonymous General Manager” storyline again. The way it was supposed to turn out was that I was supposed to be this almost mob-boss style character with this Napoleon complex, throwing his power around while running Raw. Obviously things didn't work out that way.
SI.com: What is your best road story from your time in WWE?
Hornswoggle: There are so many road stories that come to mind, it’s almost impossible to come up with one favorite. In a general way, I think traveling with Kofi Kingston and Curt Hawkins would have to be some of the best times I had. Those two are my two best friends that I’ll ever have in wrestling. As far as road stories go, well, you’ll have to just wait a little longer until my autobiography comes out in the very near future.