SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling. This week's edition features insight on Matt Hardy’s attempt to recreate “Broken” in WWE, Earl Hebner speaking on his departure from Impact and desire to return to WWE and interviews with Gabe Sapolsky, Al Snow, Conrad Thompson, and Kayfabe Commentaries’ Sean Oliver.
The latest on Matt Hardy and his Broken Universe
Matt Hardy’s “Broken” status has reawoken, and there is a significant proponent of the “Woken” character in WWE:
Hardy’s mannerisms, creativity, and passion for the character will be on full display within his “Woken” state. A contact within WWE reached out to inform Sports Illustrated that Hardy will be allowed a creative license by McMahon, who sees opportunity and the opportunity to cash in on a character that is already established.
Hardy has long faced criticism that he cannot be a top star in wrestling and that McMahon does not view him in that light. Yet McMahon has known Hardy for over two decades, and the Chairman clearly trusts Hardy enough to give him the opportunity to connect his character with the vast WWE audience.
Hardy’s “Broken” and “Woken” characters also connect back to Anthem Sports and Entertainment, which is the parent company of Impact. Ed Nordholm, who is president of Anthem Wrestling Exhibitions, still controls the “Broken Universe” intellectual property that Hardy and his wife Reby created. Both parties in Anthem and the Hardys believe they have rightful ownership of the IP, and the possibility exists that Hardy works out a deal with Anthem for rights to the “Broken” character. There are currently no discussions between Anthem and Hardy.
During his time as an executive with Impact, Jeff Jarrett certainly felt the same way about Hardy’s star power. Jarrett believed Jeff Hardy was the sole star of the Hardys, while Matt was just part of the act.
Hardy is motivated to prove otherwise with his “Woken” character on the WWE stage.
Do all roads lead back to WWE for Earl Hebner?
The most well-known referee in the history of professional wrestling is no longer attached to any company. Hebner worked for WWE from 1988 to 2005, then spent the past twelve years with TNA/Impact.
“I’m a free agent,” said Hebner. “I’ll see who is interested.”
Hebner noted that he had signed a two-year extension with Impact this past March, but explained that Anthem Sports and Entertainment has dealt with finance issues during their ownership of Impact.
“We thought the new company had it all worked out when they bought it, but they’ve been having financial problems,” said Hebner. “I feel like I’ve been paying them. It’s been pay cut after pay cut, so I asked for my release. Some of the wrestlers were only getting paid $100 a day. That’s a slap in the face to the wrestlers.”
Hebner’s son Brian, who was a referee in WWE and then joined TNA/Impact, also gave his release to Impact.
“My son, Brian, also wanted his release, and then they asked Brian Stiffler to be the senior ref,” said Hebner. “But the money he’d have made there would have been spent on expenses on the road, so he quit, too.”
Impact just announced a new hierarchy with Don Callis and Scott D’Amore reporting directly to Anthem’s Ed Nordholm, but that structure was not yet in place for Hebner as his 12-year run with the company came to an end. Hebner expressed disappointment that Anthem decided to use local referees at the Bound for Glory pay per view in Ottawa instead of flying in their own talent.
“They wanted local refs because it was cheaper,” said Hebner. “But that’s a risk, especially when it’s live. They wanted to take a cheap route, but as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for.”
The 68-year-old Hebner has 39 years of experience officiating wrestling matches, and his subtleties and nuances are unmatched in a big match. He reminisced about his first match, which was with Sam Houston in the NWA.
“I was helping set up rings at NWA shows in Virginia,” said Hebner. “I was thrown into action when NWA referee Angelo Martinelli had a heart attack and passed away. Back then, you had one ref do the whole show and they asked me to fill in for him.”
The NWA also serves as a potential landing spot for Hebner, but he will always be remembered fondly for his work in WWE. Hebner was the referee for the final match at WrestleMania on twelve different occasions, and the connection with WWE will always exist, despite the two parties not parting on the best of terms in 2005.
“I would love to go back to WWE and finish my life in this business right there,” said Hebner. “Vince McMahon was always good to me, and he gave me the opportunity to be who I am and what I am. I would love to go back and, if nothing else, do one more match to say thank you very much for what you’ve done for me.”
Closer to the end of his career than the beginning, Hebner took a moment to thank those who have made his career a success.
“The talent, they’re the ones who made me who I am,” said Hebner. “I owe it to them and Vince.
In other news…
• EVOLVE returns this weekend for its final two shows of 2017, with EVOLVE 96 this Saturday in Queens, New York, as well as Sunday in Melrose, Massachusetts at EVOLVE 97. Both shows are available on iPPV at WWNLive.com.
WWN champion Keith Lee is in action both nights, as well as EVOLVE champion Zack Sabre Jr., and the company is unveiling and enforcing its “no rope break” policy.
“This is going to be a pivotal weekend for EVOLVE as we close out our 2017 and start to look towards 2018,” said EVOLVE owner Gabe Sapolsky.
“I am a fan first and foremost, so I book what I would want to see as a fan. I have to admit that I became a little bored with EVOLVE. It wasn’t the talent, who always put on a great show, or anything else other than my booking. We started a new format for our shows in August 2014 and it helped give EVOLVE an identity and we saw growth with it. However, what was new three years ago, isn’t new now, so it is time to, for lack of a better word, evolve who we are.”
Sapolsky, who first cut his teeth in the business with ECW and then created the foundation of Ring of Honor as its booker, astutely observed that the entire independent scene is in need of developing new talent.
“I look back at our event in Melrose, Massachusetts in July 2016 and you had a main event of Johnny Gargano vs. Drew McIntyre, both main eventers in NXT now, and on the undercard you had talent like TJ Perkins, Tony Nese and Drew Gulak, who are now on 205 Live,” said Sapolsky. “Then ROH has taken talent off the independent scene, particularly Marty Scurll who was on that show and names like The Young Bucks and Cody. These were all top draws.
“Meanwhile in 2017 we have seen some talent really step up and take those open main events spots. WWN Champion Keith Lee has grown into a top singles wrestler this year, Matt Riddle is a superstar in every sense of the word, Zack Sabre Jr. can claim ‘best in the world’ bragging rights as EVOLVE Champion and Fred Yehi has grown to the point we call him the 2017 WWN MVP for the work he has done across the WWN brands. However, we are still in a growth period for talent. The talent is there, they just need the stage to make their names. This is the best part of independent wrestling to me, watching someone start their journey as relatively unknown and grow into a main eventer and then move on to WWE/NXT. I feel there is lots of talent out there with that potential, now it is our job to give them the forum to realize that potential.”
The combo of Austin Theory with Priscilla Kelly, as well as Darby Allin, are talents that Sapolsky believes–starting this weekend–have the chance to break out as stars in 2018.
“We are doing Allin vs. Theory this Saturday in NYC with the idea of giving them the chance to steal the show and elevate themselves going into 2018,” said Sapolsky. “The first EVOLVE show featured talent like Johnny Gargano, Ricochet, Kyle O’Reilly, Adam Cole, Bobby Fish, Luke Harper, TJ Perkins and gave them that stage. It is our goal to do that with the next generation now and take the fans on that journey of becoming stars.
“At the same time we have established top talent like AR Fox and DJZ coming in this weekend, who are both relatively new to the current EVOLVE scene. I feel that they both still have even higher ceilings and can be legit draws in 2018. We are putting them against each other this Sunday in Melrose with the idea of giving them the stage to have a spectacular match and prove they are elite talent so they can be main eventers in 2018.”
Beginning this weekend, Sapolsky is altering the format of the EVOLVE cards by adding matches to each show, including preliminary matches with 10-minute time limits to enhance the intensity of the action.
“We are adding new wrestlers to the roster this weekend from total unknowns to elite talent like AR Fox, DJZ and WALTER from Germany,” said Sapolsky. “We are freshening up every aspect of the promotion from in ring talent to presentation. It is the start of a new chapter for EVOLVE and I feel completely rejuvenated about it.
“One of the ideas we have been playing around with is eliminating rope breaks,” said Sapolsky. “People take for granted that it is a part of wrestling, since it has been forever, but we asked ‘Is this an antiquated concept in today's world where people are educated by MMA?’ I mean, there is fighting while on the cage in MMA. So we have discussed this in the locker room and got a lot of different ideas from the wrestlers. In the end, we decided to give it a test run so this Saturday in Queens, NY we are going to have Matt Riddle vs. Fred Yehi in a No Rope Break match. The exact rules and then how it comes off will be clear at the show, but I expect this to be a very interesting experiment and look forward to seeing the outcome.”
“This isn’t just an appearance. Regal is coming to help us move into the future. He is going to cut a promo on the live event in Queens on Saturday that will showcase our direction in 2018 and really put the spotlight on some talent. I can assure you something very interesting will come out of this. In addition, Mr. Regal will help us build a relationship with the fans as there will be a very rare picture and autograph opportunity with him before the event.”
• KnokX Pro Wrestling has launched the first-ever live interactive wrestling show with Live Interactive Wrestling (LIW), which allows viewers to control the action.
The show airs on Twitch every Wednesday at 11pm ET and Saturday at 3pm ET. The premiere show featured the Profilers vs. the Samoan Dynasty, which included Sefa Fatu, who is a brother to Jimmy and Jey Uso, and WWE Hall of Famer Rikishi.
“LIW will change the culture and the future of wrestling,” said Rikishi. “Wrestlers on TV choreograph matches along with producers assigned to them. The choreography is very predictable as the fans these days are very smart about the wrestling business.
• Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard returns this Friday at noon ET with a new podcast, and co-host Conrad Thompson is looking forward to breaking down the careers of the Steiner Brothers, with a particular focus on Scott Steiner.
“The original idea was not to bring them in as a tag team,” said Thompson. “The idea was to bring in Scott and make him a singles star, and there was even discussion of having him win the Royal Rumble in 1993 and work main events as a singles star. That didn’t happen, but it’s interesting to look back in hindsight and wonder, what if they went with Scott Steiner instead of Lex Luger for a major singles run?
“We’ll break down why it didn’t happen, as well as some of the famous Steiner Brother ribs, then we’ll talk about why they left even though they were one of the top three tag teams in the world.”
The Steiners jumped from WCW to the World Wrestling Federation in December of 1992. Despite the excitement upon their arrival, they left the company before SummerSlam in 1994.
“There are a lot of rumors about Scott Steiner being a hothead and that he was difficult to work with,” said Thompson. It will be interesting to see if Bruce echoes that, or if he pushes against that narrative.”
A significant part of the show will examine Steiner’s feud with Triple H in 2003, which produced disappointing matches at both the Royal Rumble and No Way Out.
“It’s highly unlikely that Triple H was purposely trying to make Steiner look bad,” said Thompson. “It’s a little more logical to think Steiner’s best days were behind him, and, pardon the expression, Triple H was trying to make chicken salad out of their matches.”
Prichard and Thompson will also evaluate Steiner’s legacy, which is hurt by the timing of his singles runs.
“Steiner had a hell of a run in WCW as a singles star, but WCW had fallen so much by that point,” said Thompson. “The business had all went toward WWF by 1999. He always had the worst timing. His loyalty to his brother instead of starring as a singles wrestler is a great ‘What if?’ in wrestling.
“His legacy as an innovator is probably overlooked. He doesn’t get enough credit for the Frankensteiner, which was the most over move in all of wrestling, and he broke all kinds of code as Big Poppa Pump. He called out the competition, made fun of Ric Flair’s teeth, and even called out Diamond Dallas Page’s wife. Scott Steiner is wrestling’s last renegade.”
• Sean Oliver’s new book, Kayfabe, is an incredibly detailed, funny, and compelling read on the behind-the-curtain ventures of Oliver.
Oliver is well-known as the creator of Kayfabe Commentaries, which redefined the shoot video genre in pro wrestling. He began writing a book with former ECW owner Tod Gordon over the summer, but ultimately decided to go the route of a singles star instead of working in a tag team.
“I was starving a little creatively over the summer. Tod Gordon and I were set to collaborate on a book, and then we weren’t. I had very much gotten into my wordsmith’s mindset. With the prospect of that book no longer a reality, I started spending lots of time trying to develop something to write.
“Years ago I’d done lots of writing, mostly screenplays. But I wanted to write a book now. And as I pored over lots of fiction ideas and looked at a lot of fiction structure that was out there, I kept coming back to the same realization–the best story I had to tell was my past ten years. The best characters I could develop were the characters in the story of my past ten years. The most intriguing situations about which I could write were those in the past ten years of my helping run Kayfabe Commentaries.”
Oliver’s ability to draw the reader into certain scenes is incredibly well-done, as he skillfully brought his interview skills and applied them to his prose.
“It was of great importance to me to be able to create stories and recollections that brought the reader into them,” said Oliver. “I didn’t want to tell stories, I wanted to show them. So it’s a great compliment when another worker says, ‘Man, you really captured Balls Mahoney’s essence in his scene.’ I very much wanted the book to be an experience, not just a story. Though it read like fiction, every word is true.”
Oliver does not hold back in his writing. The wrestlers who are funny and kind are represented as such–and readers will have even more respect for legends like Bruno Sammartino, the Iron Sheik, Terry Funk, and Kevin Nash–while others, like Buff Bagwell, Raven, and Jake Roberts are not always painted in the most positive of lights.
“Anyone in the book is portrayed exactly as they were portraying themselves to me in real life,” said Oliver. “They can either call me a friend if shown in good light, or call me and apologize to me for being a prick if shown negatively.”
With the holidays rapidly approaching, Oliver noted that his book serves as a wonderful gift for any wrestling fan.
“Any reader of this book will see the wrestling business for what it is,” said Oliver. “It is hilarious; it is sad; it is dangerous; it is fulfilling. It is the enchanted forest.”
• The Week in Wrestling recently caught up with Back to the Future stars Christopher Lloyd and Thomas F. Wilson. Lloyd played Dr. Emmett Brown, and Wilson was the film’s antagonist–or heel–as Biff Tannen.
The Back to the Future series delivered a trilogy of films, and the second installment, which was released in 1989, depicted an “Alternate 1985” with a Biff Tannen character with a striking resemblance to the current President of the United States–and WWE Hall of Famer–Donald Trump.
Wilson was asked if President Trump reminds him of the Biff Tannen character in Back to the Future II.
“Clearly, there can be comparisons made,” said Wilson, who played Biff in all three Back to the Future films. “But the idea, the internet meme, that it was based on it? No. This is a performance that came out of me that wasn’t based on anything. It was based on a character that was on the page I created.”
Perhaps, Wilson was asked, Trump modeled his own character off Biff?
“Whatever floats your political boat, man,” said Wilson. “I’m into peace, peace to everybody. I’m not a fan [of Trump], but we’re all on a big ship going this way and that way. Boy, everyone has been screaming about us sinking for a long time, but somehow we just keep going.”
Christopher Lloyd then interjected. Lloyd, who wrestling fans may recall from the 1991 Surburban Commando film with Hulk Hogan, also expressed his bewilderment that an actor would ever be voted president.
“Things swing one way, then they swing the other,” said Lloyd, referring to the political landscape in the United States. “It doesn’t mean it’s fun. It feels like it’s going to sink sometimes.”
Wilson cautioned to separate politics from his acting.
“The thing with me is–when that internet meme comes out, when Hillary Clinton uses me without my permission, Ted Cruz uses me without my permission, all the politicians are using me without my permission, Jake Tapper of CNN, Fox News, everyone wants my comment,” said Wilson. “I, the actor Tom, then become a political commentator on what I did 30 years ago. I understand the mill, and I understand going into that big Cuisinart of politics, but I am an artist. I created what I created, it is what it is, and the audience has to do whatever they want with it.”
• Coming attractions: Mick Foley will share his memories of the Christmas holiday, as well as discuss his new book, Saint Mick: My Journey from Hardcore Legend to Santa’s Jolly Elf, in next week’s edition of the Week in Wrestling.
• Al Snow returns for “Inside Al’s Head”, wrestling’s primary advice column, to discuss relationships in pro wrestling.
Can a wrestler have a healthy marriage? Is it the kiss of death to marry someone from the business? Are relationships feasible in the sometimes cartoonish, often-times cutthroat world of professional wrestling?
“It is possible to have a healthy relationship, but both parties in that relationship need to realize the norm is not going to be the norm in your relationship,” said Snow. “Wrestlers live outside the norms of society, so you have to accept that you’ll do what other people don’t do.”
Snow, who noted he is twice divorced but currently in a very happy marriage, put relationships in wrestling terms.
“Never think you are too over in the relationship,” cautioned Snow. “If you do, then you’re no longer working your partner, you’re never putting the effort in. You think you’re guaranteed that they’re going to show up the next night, just like if you felt like you’ll always walk into a building to a full crowd. You’re just not working as hard and become complacent. That edge has gone away, and so has the excitement.”
Snow noted that different complications arise when dating someone in the business.
“A good 98 percent of us in wrestling are narcissistic and pre-occupied with ourselves,” said Snow. “If you’re able to get to WWE, that is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job. That is no exaggeration. When you’re not on TV, you’re wondering what you did wrong and how to correct it and get back on TV. It’s such a tenuous grasp, which you know can slip away at any moment. The more you get, the more that pressure grows. Your partner has to know and understand that, and that’s not easy.”
Cheating, Snow admitted, exists in wrestling like any other facet of life.
“The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence, but that grass is usually crazy,” said Snow. “When you’re a child and you make a mistake, you suffer. When you’re an adult and you make a mistake, everyone pays the consequences.”
Snow conceded that marriage in pro wrestling is not easy, but ultimately takes sacrifice from both parties to make the relationship work.
“Most of us in pro wrestling are quite mad,” said Snow. “It’s not like the real world, it’s more like Alice in Wonderland, so you have to give 100 percent of your time to your partner, and your partner also needs to dive in headfirst.”
“God bless the people who are in relationships with wrestlers. Wrestling can be an amazing life. I’ve been married numerous times, and wrestling has allowed me to go places and do things with my family that I never would have otherwise, but it’s not a normal life. It’s not the Ozzie and Harriett lifestyle, it’s a circus life.”
Tweet of the Week
Have wiser words ever been spoken by the Texas Rattlesnake?