SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling. This edition of the super-column includes: New Japan’s Hiroshi Tanahashi with a preview of his upcoming Intercontinental title match against Tetsuya Naito; Something to Wrestle with Conrad Thompson; Coming Soon, which is a look at wrestlers from the indies; and The Nitro Files with Eric Bischoff.
Samoa Joe’s moment has arrived
The 38-year-old Joe succeeded in TNA despite the company’s mistreatment of his character. It is criminal that Joe was only rewarded with one run as TNA world champion. He was consistently misused, despite putting together some of the best wrestling matches in the world from 2005-07, while TNA preferred to give Ken Anderson multiple reigns as champion.
Joe again paid his dues, this time in NXT. He was underpaid and underappreciated by his employer, which is a feeling with which he is quite familiar. He also nearly paralyzed Tyson Kidd in a dark match when he first signed with WWE in 2015, which earned criticism internally and externally from the likes of WWE Hall of Famer Bret Hart. Joe did not help his cause when he reinjured Seth Rollins’ right knee during a skirmish while debuting on Raw before WrestleMania.
There are currently no plans to keep Joe atop the card after he is defeated in July by Lesnar. Still, the match is particularly exciting, not only by the contrast of styles between Lesnar and the nimble Joe, but also for what is at stake. Joe (and, to an extent, Lesnar) holds the keys to his future. He needs to deliver a performance so memorable that the WWE audience will allow nothing less than a run as WWE champion. Time will tell if Joe will deliver.
Wrestling world braces for Okada-Omega II
New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Dominion show this Sunday features the highly anticipated rematch between IWGP heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada and Bullet Club leader Kenny Omega.
There are similarities between Okada and WWE’s Roman Reigns, but the ability to tell Okada’s story has served as one of New Japan’s greatest strengths over the past three years.
New Japan knows its storytelling, particularly at the top of the card. WWE, for all of its strengths, continues to run into roadblocks when presenting its top protagonist in the main event.
Roman Reigns is a superhero with no flaws, which is a fundamentally flawed concept. Reigns can withstand any move, absorb all types of punishment, yet does not falter. How, exactly, is that compelling storytelling?
Kazuchika Okada is another example of a larger-than-life hero. He has been battered and bruised since he won the title last June, and, like Reigns, continues to overcome insurmountable odds to win. Yet Okada can better connect with an audience because he is allowed to have a fatal flaw. Okada cannot kick out of Kenny Omega’s finisher, the One-Winged Angel. Omega was unable to hit the move during their Wrestle Kingdom classic in January, but has boldly proclaimed that his maneuver will be the difference this Sunday.
A victory by Omega will give New Japan a new face for expansion in the United States, as well as allow Okada the opportunity to battle his way through the grueling G1 Climax–the same tournament that Omega claimed last summer–and work his way back to redemption at Wrestle Kingdom 12 next January.
Now that is a story well-told.
In other news...
• The decision to have Baron Corbin guest commentate during the Shinsuke Nakamura-Kevin Owens main event on SmackDown was mind-boggling. Why would WWE ever want to focus on anyone–or anything, for that matter –other than the competitors in the ring? There is no other professional sport that would attempt to get a third talent over during a critical moment between two top talent. Corbin could have attacked Nakamura after the match without stepping in on commentary.
• Raw enjoyed a solid week, but SmackDown is still, by far, the better show. That gap will only widen when John Cena returns in July. I am still surprised that AJ Styles was not moved to Raw, as he would have helped carry the program, especially in Brock Lesnar’s absence. Styles feuding with Bray Wyatt and Seth Rollins would have added a lot of depth to the top of the card.
• The three-year anniversary of the breakup of The Shield occurred this past Friday, creating another opportunity to analyze the career trajectories of Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, and Dean Ambrose since the split in 2014.
All three were the singular WWE world champion before the brand split. Rollins’ run as champ had the most momentum after he cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase at WrestleMania 31. Reigns nearly had some genuine buzz when Vince McMahon returned to oppose him on WWE television during the winter of 2015, but even that did not win over Reigns with the WWE faithful. Ambrose won the title in an extremely well done spot last June where he cashed in his briefcase to defeat, fittingly, Seth Rollins, who had just returned from injury to defeat Roman Reigns.
Ambrose’s title reign was interrupted by the brand split. He has yet to recover his momentum, and his character–which relies more and more on comedy–has struggled to connect with the larger audience since losing the title to AJ Styles last September. Part of Ambrose’s allure was that he vowed to forever make life difficult for Rollins, who turned on the group. Forever, of course, has no expiration date, yet tensions have inexplicably cooled between the two. This is a critical transition point, as all three are struggling to connect in some fashion; Ambrose over-reliant on his comedy act, Rollins badly miscast as a babyface, and Reigns booked as a superhuman being who can never be defeated. The Shield members still have a great deal of unfinished business with one another, and hopefully that story culminates in a triple threat match at SummerSlam in August.
• The “Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino appeared on the WWE Network’s “Table for Three” alongside Ric Flair and Randy Orton. Sammartino is a two-time world champion, while Flair has officially held the title sixteen times and Orton has thirteen title reigns on his resume. The 81-year-old Sammartino spoke with Sports Illustrated about how the business has evolved in the way it changes its champion.
“I had the title two times,” said Sammartino, whose two reigns combined for over 11 years. “I’ve heard someone just won the belt for the 16th time, and I’ve heard of other high numbers. It sounds a little bizarre to me, but that is just the business of today. If you wear that belt, it is a big deal and it should be treated that way. You should conduct yourself in and out of the ring like a champion.”
• Lucha Underground executive producer Eric Van Wagenen explained to Sports Illustrated that his show’s greatest success is providing viewers a different lens to view pro wrestling.
“I’m not a live television person,” explained Van Wagenen, who produced WWE’s Tough Enough, which was hosted by Steve Austin, in 2011. “My background is very much in post-production. I’ve edited reality shows for fifteen years, so I definitely subscribe to the idea that you save something and fix it in-post [production]. That’s never really been done in the wrestling space before. On one level, that was very much a creative decision, but it was also a budgetary decision. Live television is expensive, and to have everything produced the way WWE does is not in our realm. Just their lighting alone is more than our episodic budget.”
Van Wagenen, who also has experience producing Survivor, The Amazing Race, and The Apprentice, was also asked if Lucha Underground will be returning to El Rey Network for a fourth season.
“We’re planning on a season four,” said Van Wagenen. “Our president, Daniel Tibbets, has always been incredibly supportive of our product. There needs to be an official announcement, but as far as my plans, it is in my immediate future.”
Lucha Underground is not a pro wrestling show, but is instead described by Van Wagenen as a science fiction telenovela revolving around pro wrestling. Despite the vernacular, the distinction is never intended to slight wrestling fans, who he holds in the highest regard.
“It’s important, especially when you work for [El Rey founder] Robert Rodriguez, to differentiate yourself creatively,” explained Van Wagenen. “We didn’t want to do anything that has already been done. We couldn’t afford to compete with a bigger promotion. If you lump Lucha Underground into the wrestling bucket, that would have severely limited us from deals with Netflix, iTunes, and other venues. There are channels that are looking at Lucha Underground that would have never looked at traditional pro wrestling.
“That is not a knock, whatsoever, to anyone or anything in wrestling. I think wrestling is done great, but we don’t have the budget to compete. We’d lose money if we started booking 10,000 seat arenas. We’re very economical, and we are creating something that is not direct competition but offers an alternative.”
• News broke last week that 5 Star Wrestling’s 128-man tournament has been postponed until 2018. Daniel Hinkles, who is the founder of 5 Star, shared with Sports Illustrated that the tournament is now set to open in February 1, 2018 at the Liverpool Echo.
“We have decided to completely reschedule the entire 5 Star Wrestling tournament for February,” said Hinkles. “We know this will be disappointing to many fans and we sincerely apologize to those impacted, as it means we will not be running any further shows in 2017 but we assure you, this is not a decision we have taken lightly and it is a move that will greatly improve the shows we host going forward. The new dates are as follows and tickets are on sale via 5StarWrestling.co.uk immediately.
“If you have already purchased a ticket to one of the events listed, you will be automatically issued a new ticket for the rescheduled date. All customers are entitled to a full refund within the next 30 days and can claim that refund by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or contacting the company you purchased the ticket from. Please note, the information is very new and could take around a week to filter thought the various vendors. If you have any questions, please contact email@example.com. We are expecting a large volume of emails so please understand that we will get back to you as soon as possible.”
• Six-time Pro Bowler Matthew Slater of the New England Patriots, who just won his second Super Bowl championship this past February, spoke with Sports Illustrated about former Patriot teammate Quinn “Moose” Ojinnaka, who is currently Impact Wrestling’s Grand champion.
“I’ve had a lot of teammates over the course of my nine-year career, and Quinn’s professionalism instantly stood out,” said Slater, who played with Moose in 2010. “He came to the New England Patriots, worked every day, and the attitude he brought to the work place was overwhelmingly positive. I always appreciated having him as a teammate. I caught wind of what he’s doing now, and you always want to see good things happen to good people.”
Slater noted that Moose was grateful to learn from Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has coached the Patriots to five Super Bowl championships.
“Some of the principles Coach Belichick tries to instill in his football team are practical in applying to all areas of life, especially other professions, and that’s been very successful over the past 17 seasons,” said Slater. “I wish Quinn nothing but the best in what’s he doing now.”
Although Slater is not a wrestling fan, he did admit that there was one match he would not afford to miss.
“I will pay to see Quinn in a world title match and see Coach Belichick walk him to the ring.”
• The Young Bucks and Roppongi Vice put together a masterpiece, along with the Hardys, at Ring of Honor’s Anniversary show in February. Now the two teams are set to meet again this Sunday at New Japan’s Dominion show in Osaka, Japan, as Roppongi Vice’s Rocky Romero and Trent Beretta look to retain their IWGP junior heavyweight tag team championship against the Bucks. Look for this match to open the card, as well as set a pace that will be nearly impossible to match.
• The wrestling world has endured a tough stretch recently; wrestling legend Harley Race fell and broke bones in both of his legs. Harley Race World League Wrestling released a t-shirt to help raise funds for Race’s recovery; Smith Hart, who is the oldest of Stu and Helen Hart’s 12 children, moved into Hospice care but is keeping friends and fans updated on Facebook; and Judy Poffo, the mother of the late “Macho Man” Randy Savage and “The Genius” Lanny Poffo, passed away this past Saturday at the age of 90. When I was conducting interviews for a Macho Man story for Sports Illustrated in March of 2015, my interview with Mrs. Poffo reminded me that while Randy Savage was a larger-than-life figure to me, he was also his mother’s beloved son. We spoke for 45 minutes, and she invited me for tea if I was ever nearby in Florida. My sincere condolences to the Poffo family.
• Coming attractions: Days before his match against Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP heavyweight championship, Kenny Omega will write a first-person story for Sports Illustrated this Friday discussing his date with destiny.
Tweet of the Week
While it is true that 205 Live is still coming together, I am grateful for the fact that we can view so many of the wrestlers who were top indie stars on a weekly basis on the WWE Network. I sincerely hope that WWE allows the show time to grow. For all its faults, there is a wonderful product at the root of the show.
Conrad Thompson and Bruce Prichard return to the MLW airwaves this Friday at noon for the “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” podcast to discuss “Stone Cold” Steve Austin walking out of WWE in 2002.
“I want to know how and why and the full details on how Austin came back,” said Thompson. “I want to see what else we know about him leaving, coming back, and then what they did to try to teach the boys a lesson about the way Austin came back. He didn’t get to just walk back in; he had to write Vince a check to come back. Vince did that so he could save face with the boys and discourage anyone else from walking out.”
Thompson provided context on Austin walking out, which he did after learning he was supposed to lose cleanly to Brock Lesnar on an ’02 Raw.
“The business was rolling pretty good at the time,” said Thompson. “People had been a little disappointed at the way the ‘Invasion’ angle had been booked, and then obviously the NWO in the WWE didn’t end up being the huge success that many thought or felt it could be, but it was an interesting time. It felt like a changing of the guard. You had WrestleMania 18, where it felt like the real main event was Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock. In the ring, it was actually Chris Jericho vs. Triple H. Austin, the biggest star in the history of the business, wasn’t even figured into those plans.
“We’ll talk about some of Austin’s frustrations, and when the WWE knew he was frustrated and how he voiced those frustrations. It’s been said that Austin was one of the more difficult talents to work with, and I’ll be interested to see when Vince decided to stop giving in to Austin, who is a guy who earned his right to have his say. Yet Vince pushed back, and that feels like a calculated decision. It’s an interesting story, and I look forward to breaking down the Vince McMahon end of it with Bruce. That’s what we’ll find out for the very first time this Friday.”
Thompson and Prichard just delivered their second ever live show, which took place in Baltimore this past Sunday, and they kept the unpredictable nature of their live shows alive with another surprise by bringing back Nikolai Volkoff to sing “With My Baby Tonight” with Prichard.
“The goal is to bring the parts people enjoy about the podcast to the stage,” said Thompson. “We have some props that we use, but we still do our usual hallmarks, too. We love to give a surprise. We’ve had some luck delivering some interesting guests, and you never know who or what is going to happen at one of our live shows.”
Thompson was asked if Volkoff, who once delivered a stirring rendition of the song Cara Mia on the 1985 Wrestling Album, was a better singer than Jeff Jarrett, who sang on stage with Prichard at their live show in Orlando.
“Everybody was too drunk and rowdy to remember or hear Jeff Jarrett at our WrestleMania weekend show, but Nikolai Volkoff proved again this past weekend that he is a national treasure,” said Thompson. “I don’t know if that’s an American treasure or a Russian one, so we’ll stick with a national treasure.”
Thompson also made news this past weekend on Twitter, as he was blocked by Hulk Hogan after last week’s Hogan-themed podcast aired.
“I’ve listened to the podcast, and I don’t remember saying anything derogatory,” said Thompson. “Maybe he blocked me when someone else tweeted something negative and had me in the tweet. Either way, I’m blocked, brother. Bruce and I will address it on the show this Friday and decide whether I should reach out to Hogan or just let it ride.”
As for the live June 18 show in St. Louis, Thompson promised there are more surprises in store.
“This is our biggest undertaking yet,” said Thompson, whose show is nearly sold out. “We’re trying to coordinate something that is going to require quite a bit of planning, but it will be a stunt that people who are hardcore supporters of our show will really get a kick out of.”
SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
New Japan Pro Wrestling has employed many legends over the course of its 45-year history, yet there has been only one man to win the IWGP heavyweight championship on seven different occasions.
That man, of course, is Hiroshi Tanahashi. The 40-year-old “Ace” of New Japan is set to battle Los Ingobernables de Japon leader Tetsuya Naito this Sunday for the IWGP Intercontinental championship at Dominion. Tanahashi will enter the match after having ruptured his right distal bicep tendon during a Ring of Honor television taping in Philadelphia on May 14.
“I’m fine,” explained Tanahashi, who answered no further questions about his health while emphasizing that his focus remains on defeating Naito, which he was unable to do this past January in their match at Wrestle Kingdom 11.
“I hate his actions,” said Tanahashi, referring to the way Naito has physically destroyed the IWGP Intercontinental title belt. “He kicks the belt, he throws the belt. I will beat him and take that title from him.”
Tanahashi is also keeping a close eye on the Okada-Omega rematch for the IWGP heavyweight championship.
“Okada is very strong,” said Tanahashi. “Kenny has power, but a little bit as a lightweight. Maybe they will do a long match, but Okada has more experience, so it’s a good situation for him.”
A great deal of prestige is associated with the IWGP heavyweight championship, and the company is particularly selective about its world champion. Tanahashi noted that he hopes for one more run atop New Japan.
“IWGP title is very traditional,” said Tanahashi. “I hope to come back one more time.”
New Japan’s tour of the United States begins in Long Beach, California with a live airing on AXS TV this July 1. Health permitting, Tanahashi will be wrestling. He explained that the Japanese psychology of wrestling differs from the current version in the United States.
“Japanese style is slower than the United States,” explained Tanahashi. “Most important thing in our business is psychology. When it is just moves? That’s what I hate.”
The trend in North American wrestling shifting toward valuing moves over psychology has been particularly noticeable over the past decade. Tanahashi shared that his favorite wrestler of all time, the “Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, was brilliant in both his skill set and psychology.
“I love Shawn Michaels,” said Tanahashi. “He loves our business, he loves wrestling. He’s retired now, which makes me sad, but he is my dream opponent and idol.”
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, and officially launches on June 1. Bischoff plans to prove every week in the Nitro Files that the truth is out there.
The June 9, 1997 Nitro was live from Boston.
Boston was a McMahon family staple since the days of Bruno Sammartino in the 1960s, but Bischoff had an ace up his sleeve as he poised himself to bring the “southern wrasslin’” of WCW into the town that Paul Revere helped make famous.
“It was critical for WCW to move into the northeast,” said Bischoff. “And we decided to bet on Hulk Hogan to make it work.”
Hogan wrestled Lex Luger in a highly anticipated match-up that saw Luger defeat Hogan in a non-title match with the Torture Rack.
“There may have actually been a better match-up specifically for that house in Boston, but we walked a fine line because that was perfect for the television audience,” said Bischoff. “I felt like it was a safe bet. I knew I could always bet on Hulk. He and Lex made the show feel pay per view worthy.”
WWE had built a legacy and a footprint with wrestling fans with decades worth of shows at the Boston Garden, so Bischoff knew the importance of delivering a memorable Nitro.
"If you go back in time and look at a map of all of the television markets where wrestling was most popular, historically, the deepest concentrations of those markets were in the northeast. The northeast was critical to our formula.
“It was particularly important for us to penetrate the market place, make a foot-hole in the television market place, and it was critical to establish ourselves as a viable competitor in what was, traditionally, WWE’s home territory.”
Roman Reigns would appreciate knowing that, in 1998, the northeast was Vince McMahon’s yard.
“That certainly is true,” confirmed Bischoff. “A lot of the buildings we tried to book at that time wouldn’t let us bring Nitro there. That had nothing to do with money and everything to do with the long-standing relationship going back to Vince McMahon Sr. It was not only Vince’s yard from a perception point of view, but also in terms of business. It was incredibly hard for us to break into that marketplace.”
Since Nitro was on for two hours and Raw only aired for an hour, Bischoff started the Hogan-Luger right before Raw was set to air, effectively ending Vince McMahon’s chances to compete in that evening’s battle for ratings. Nitro clobbered Raw, 3.4 to 2.2, in the ratings.
“That was my number one focus,” said Bischoff. “My number one focus was to become number one. Not everything we did was right, but we constantly asked, ‘How does this solidify our position as number one?’”
Later in the show, Chris Jericho lost to Alex Wright. Play-by-play man Mike Tenay mentioned during the match that Jericho had just competed in New Japan’s “Best of the Super Juniors” tournament, which Bischoff believed added another element to his product.
“We were working with New Japan, so it made sense to put a spotlight on New Japan whenever we could in a positive way,” said Bischoff. “Also, part of my strategy in branding WCW was making us feel different and feel bigger than the WWF, so I did that by embracing our relationships with international wrestling organizations. That was all part and parcel of making WCW feel like a world class promotion.”
The main event featured a tag team title match pitting The Outsiders, defending their belts, against Ric Flair and Roddy Piper. The match, which was the same main event on the upcoming Sunday’s Great American Bash pay per view, ended quickly in a beatdown by the NWO before Sting descended from the rafters. Sting came to the rescue of Diamond Dallas Page, who had also tried to even the odds for Piper and Flair against the NWO, and actually ascended back to the rafters with DDP.
Bischoff was asked if Sting’s ascending and descending to the ring were a concern behind the scenes.
“We were all concerned,” said Bischoff. “We knew the potential danger and risks involved, but Ellis Edwards was the guy who worked for us, and he oversaw, coordinated, and managed all of the stunts. Ellis still works, to this day, for WWE, and he does a lot of the same things for WWE. We tested and re-tested, using weighted crash dummies that weighed as much as Sting and their joints would articulate like they would in a scientific crash test, so we could see exactly what this was going to look like. It was a very dangerous stunt.”
By the time the show in Boston finished, Bischoff could not wait to bring Nitro to Chicago.
“We were clicking,” said Bischoff. “I was chomping at the bit to see the ratings on Tuesday morning and then get to the next town for Nitro. Leaving Boston, I was pretty excited to get to Chicago.”