- In this edition of The Week in Wrestling:
- WWE’s Superstar Shakeup revitalized the rosters while maintaining Raw’s status as the top attraction.
- How rock guitarist Nita Strauss landed her WrestleMania gig.
- Rising indie star Flip Gordon gears up for a weekend of premier matches and reflects on his role in “Being the Elite.”
- A preview of Bruce Prichard and Conrad Thompson’s WWE Network debut.
- ... and much, much more.
SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
News of the Week: Sorting Through the Superstar Shakeup Results
WWE’s “Superstar Shakeup” served its purpose, moving some important members from the Raw roster to SmackDown while still keeping the Monday night A-show full of talent.
Some of the most noteworthy members of the roster to switch brands were Jeff Hardy, who moved to SmackDown and has the chance to once again flourish as a singles star in WWE, and Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, who returned to Raw. Samoa Joe is, figuratively and literally, a big addition to SmackDown. He moves from merely fodder for Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar on Raw to a legitimate world title contender on Tuesday nights.
SmackDown now has a deep roster of talent, with Joe and Hardy joining the likes of Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles. It will be interesting to see how WWE fits so much talent into a two-hour show.
Unlike the realistic, sports-oriented draft from the summer of 2016, the “Shakeup” lacked any realism. Although the WWE is presented as a television show that revolves around wrestling, there was still an opportunity to deliver the roster moves in a more transparent fashion.
The majority of the other changes (Mike Kanellis, Konnor, Viktor, Mojo Rawley, Tyler Breeze, Fandango, Chad Gable) primarily moved talent without a defined spot from one brand to the other.
Andrade “Cien” Almas was also introduced in a brief video on SmackDown, and Big Cass returned to insult, and subsequently attack, Daniel Bryan. SmackDown is particularly loaded with talent, but the stacked rosters also present problems for those who are on the bottom of the card.
It is clearly a bad omen for the talent that was announced as part of the brand split after Raw, but Triple H made a very interesting comment in his post-NXT TakeOver: New Orleans press conference.
“Talent can make bad writing great,” said Triple H. “People want to put it on the creative, and all that stuff, but from a talent’s point of view, that can be overcome by talent. If it’s not being overcome, you can go somewhere and overcome it.”
Who will shine because of the roster moves? Samoa Joe and Jeff Hardy appear to be the most logical candidates, but it will be interesting to watch if any other talents can use the shakeup to enhance their spot on the card.
In other news…
• Travis “Flip” Gordon continues to make an impression throughout the business, as the 26-year-old product of Kalispell, Montana, has upcoming marquee matches with Ring of Honor, Beyond Wrestling, and Northeast Wrestling.
Gordon main events Northeast Wrestling’s “LuchaMania” show this Friday against Lucha Underground star Pentagon, who will wrestle Impact Wrestling champion Austin Aries in a triple-threat match with Fenix on Sunday at Impact’s “Redemption” pay per view.
“Pentagon and I are making a name for ourselves,” said Gordon. “We’re putting on matches that you’re not going to see on a local level. Our match at LuchaMania is going to have a different style for Northeast Wrestling fans. They’re going to see a match they’ve never seen before, so it’s a must-see show.”
Gordon’s increased standing within Beyond Wrestling is also a major development, as the promotion has served as a breeding ground for some of the top talents in the world who have gone on to star in WWE.
“When I first started, Beyond gave me an opportunity,” said Gordon. “I was brand new and they helped me get the exposure that I needed. I felt like, at least then, they looked at me like I was a local guy. They didn’t look at me like I was a top guy or someone who could go far.
“I decided to venture out and make a name for myself, and Beyond has been so great to me, reaching back out and asking me to come back where I started. That’s always a good feeling, and it’s always amazing when I get to go back to Beyond.”
Gordon is no longer a “local talent.” His upcoming Beyond match on Sunday, April 29 in Worcester, Massachusetts against CMLL star Puma King is an example that Gordon is one of the national talents that fans will pay to see.
“I want to wrestle the best to learn,” said Gordon. “I literally want to travel anywhere and everywhere, and that’s still my mentality. The more I’m wrestling, the more I’m learning. The more I’m learning, the better I’m going to get.
Gordon, who is a veteran with six years experience in the Army National Guard, has only wrestled for three years.
His decision to pass on an offer from Impact Wrestling and instead sign a less lucrative deal with Ring of Honor has paid dividends. Gordon’s scheduled “Proving Ground” match against Ring of Honor champion Dalton Castle in West Palm Beach on April 27 shows his progress in the company in only a year’s time, and he plays an important role on the Young Bucks’ cutting edge “Being The Elite” YouTube series.
“I’m very grateful to be part of ‘Being The Elite,’” said Gordon. “The Young Bucks could make that show all about Bullet Club or The Elite, but they don’t. They’re looking at the big picture of professional wrestling. They’re constantly asking, ‘How can we give back? How can we make professional wrestling better?’
“They see the powers they have, and they’re able to help a guy like me get more exposure, more opportunity to showcase my character and make people more likely to want to see a match with me. It’s absolutely amazing. They’re not just thinking about themselves, they’re looking for what is best, long-term, for the business.”
Last week was teased as the final episode for “Being The Elite,” yet the card is always subject to change in pro wrestling. If and when the show returns, Gordon agreed that there is more story to be told between himself and Brandi Rhodes.
“One hundred percent, if it comes back,” said Gordon. “But as of right now, last week was the finale.” (The Young Bucks told Sporting News on Wednesday that they are considering the future of the series.)
In only three years, Gordon has worked for CMLL in Mexico, New Japan, as well as shows in England and Ireland. His future goals include some gold in Ring of Honor and designs on a prestigious tournament in New Japan.
“I would love to get an opportunity at a run as the Ring of Honor TV champion,” said Gordon. “I would also love to be a regular in New Japan Pro Wrestling, and I would love to be part of the Best of Super Juniors tournament this year. That would be a testament to how far I’ve come, but also a reminder of how much further I have to go. It would solidify me as a top indie guy.”
For now, Gordon has his eyes set on a spot at the upcoming “All In” show this September in Chicago.
“I would love to be ‘All In,’” said Gordon. “That is the biggest show of the year. The best of the best in the world are going to be there. Look at the names that have already been announced: Cody, Kenny, Okada. Those are three of the biggest names in professional wrestling all in one building. If you’re not on this show, it just says that you’re not one of the top performers in this business, so I’ll do anything to get on this show.”
• Guitarist Nita Strauss introduced herself to the WWE Universe at WrestleMania when she played Shinsuke Nakamura to the ring.
But it wasn’t her first time on a wrestling stage, as she played in legends like the Great Muta and Rob Van Dam at PCW Ultra shows in California.
“My boyfriend, Josh Villalta, is also my manager, and he got me into wrestling,” said Strauss. “I’ve been involved in the scene for a while now, but never on a level as grand as WrestleMania.”
Strauss made her name in music on the guitar for the Iron Maidens, an all-female Iron Maiden tribute band, and she has also played with Alice Cooper since 2014.
Her connection with WWE was brokered through Villalta.
“Josh is a visionary,” said Strauss. “We got confirmation that it was happening a week before WrestleMania. So I didn’t have a few months to prefect everything, but as soon as I spoke with WWE’s music team, I knew what I was going to do right away.”
Despite the limited rehearsal time, Strauss immediately let her creativity flow to capture the right moment, thinking about what was best for the audience listening and the athlete she was playing down to the ring.
“My call time was at noon on WrestleMania Sunday,” said Strauss. “We rehearsed from 12:45-1:00, and then I actually met Shinsuke at sound check. We ran through it once, and Shinsuke wanted to listen to back what I’ve done so he could sort of play off what I was doing. The next time I saw him was on stage, which felt like 15,000 hours later.
“Sound check went so well, but the waiting was insane. Then we had to hang tight. I had time to get nervous, then relax, then get nervous and relax a couple times. But everybody treated us with so much respect, and WWE was great to work with.”
Although Strauss has played in front of many audiences, she noted that nothing compared to her experience at the Superdome in New Orleans for WrestleMania 34.
“This was completely different,” said Strauss. “Wrestling fans are similar to rock fans because of the energy, the passion, and the excitement they bring to the show. But WrestleMania is the convergence of all the biggest fans from all over the world in one spot, and that’s something you don’t see very often. Playing Shinsuke to the ring in front of that crowd was a really, really unique experience.”
Strauss is branching out as a musician, with her new solo album of original songs generating interest as soon as she announced her new Kickstarter.
“I’ve been a hired gun musician for most of my career playing other people’s songs, but I haven’t had that chance to showcase my own music. This Kickstarter gives me the chance to fund my record and give me a chance to do this on my own terms.
“This is my chance to do something all on my own with no external influences. It’s going to be me playing guitar, playing songs that I’ve written, and it’s all my own music.”
• A highlight of WrestleMania weekend was “An Evening with Paul Heyman”, which was an opportunity to hear fascinating insight from wrestling’s most famous advocate.
The show was hosted by “Inside The Ropes” creator Kenny McIntosh, who has helped redefine Q&A forums abroad in wrestling.
The 33-year-old from Glasgow, Scotland started off in wrestling through podcasting and promoting Q&A sessions with wrestlers. He started the “Inside The Ropes” podcast in 2012, and later worked with WhatCulture Pro Wrestling, but he was hit with an epiphany while attending a Jim Ross Q&A in the U.K.
“JR was great, but every question was a different topic. It was very hard to remember any of it because it darted in so many directions. I was thinking it would be great to hear those stories in a more chronological order.”
McIntosh has developed a style that is informative and enjoyable for audiences, and he guided the discussion for some extremely compelling sessions with Shawn Michaels this past January when he visited the U.K. for a Q&A with “Inside The Ropes”. His first foray into the United States was the show with Heyman from ’Mania weekend in New Orleans.
“I was very nervous,” admitted McIntosh. “I wanted to do a show in the States for years, and my view was always, ‘Why is this random Scottish guy going on stage with all these people? What does he know?’ That was helped by having built an audience from the States and Canada, and going to WhatCulture, which was a phenomenon for a couple of years with a million YouTube subscribers.
“But, to me, it was always about doing a show in America with a guest that worked. The only guy you could do it with is Paul Heyman. There is so much competition if you do a show during WrestleMania weekend. We needed to offer something that people weren’t getting anywhere else. Paul Heyman has never done these shows with anyone else, and we convinced him to do shows in the U.K. in 2016, and he agreed to do it with us again. I’m glad it went well, but I was nervous and shi----- myself beforehand.”
McIntosh resonates with audiences through his knowledge, stage presence, and timing. He is also a rare example of a media personality willing to step aside to present the best content possible. When Jim Ross and Rob Van Dam made surprise appearances during the Heyman show, McIntosh quickly exited stage right to allow the crowd to soak in the moment with the stars on stage.
“It’s all about what we are presenting, it’s not about me,” said McIntosh. “If Paul Heyman and Rob Van Dam are on stage, all that audience wants is Paul Heyman and Rob Van Dam. I have the comfort to sit back and let it all take place. I don’t need to stand beside them just to get in a picture.”
The Heyman show entertained on multiple different levels, and no topic was off-limits.
“The show was emotional, funny, and uncomfortable,” said McIntosh. “At one point, Paul was telling a story about Chris Benoit and how he was almost paired with him [as his manager] in 2002. There was a guy in the crowd who did the JR impression of Jim Barnett’s ‘My boy!’ about Benoit.
“There is a portion of the wrestling fans who champion that Chris Benoit should be talked about more. But Paul Heyman knew Chris Benoit, he knew Nancy Benoit, and he knew Daniel Benoit. Paul stopped the show and said, ‘I don’t care if it’s CTE, and we can talk about Chris Benoit’s accomplishments, but if he’s your boy, then f--- you.’ I thought that was so powerful for Paul to shut him down properly and efficiently with reasons as to why it should be shut down.”
McIntosh’s “Inside The Ropes” shows continue this spring with Chris Jericho Q&As in Glasgow, Manchester, and London this May, as well as with Bill Goldberg this July in Dublin. And for those hopeful that McIntosh returns to the U.S. for another show, the wheels are in motion.
“For us, it’s just about making the rights moves,” said McIntosh. “The Paul Heyman show was hopefully the beginning of doing shows in the States.”
• Hip hop artist Karan “The Asoka” Batta’s newest music video is “Hollywood Girls,” which includes another cameo from Ring of Honor star Christopher Daniels at the end of the video.
“It’s like the Marvel Universe,” said Batta. “Except all my videos have Christopher Daniels at the end.”
• Coming attractions: This Friday on SI.com, Sports Illustrated will have an interview with Impact Wrestling’s Executive Vice President Scott D’Amore.
• Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard and co-host Conrad Thompson returns this Friday at noon ET with a new podcast, fittingly discussing the Rob Van Dam era in WWE on 4/20.
Prichard and Thompson’s new WWE Network show, “Something Else to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard”, also makes its debut Wednesday night.
“You’re going to see our first crack at video,” said Thompson. “If you go back to some of our earlier episodes of podcasts and then listen to our newer shows, you can hear the evolution. I imagine that this first episode on the WWE Network will be similar, and we’re going to try some things, fine-tune it, and get our rhythm.”
The first topic for the Network show is WrestleMania 14, which was the night “Stone Cold” Steve Austin defeated Shawn Michaels for the world title and Mike Tyson served as ringside enforcer.
“We’ll address the rumor and innuendo surrounding Mike Tyson,” said Thompson. “He comes in with a huge pay day only a handful of months after Bret Hart was told by the WWE that they couldn’t afford his contract. We’ll talk about Shawn Michaels leaving, whether people were suspect about his back injury, and the legend that the dumpster match was originally supposed to be a barbed wire match.”
The lineup is similar to the podcasts presented each week by Prichard and Thompson, but the caveat here is that it will be delivered on video.
“If all goes planned, we’ll get to see some of the things we’re talking about,” said Thompson. “I always thought that would be the ultimate version of our show: hearing us and seeing what we’re talking about. And we’ll get more comfortable every week with the equipment and pacing of the show, and we’re going to have a lot of fun.
“We’re out of our element with the camera as opposed to our normal routine. The podcast is no holds barred in a big way, but on the Network, they are going to cater to a more family-friendly viewer when they can. It wouldn’t surprise me if we heard a beep or bleep when there is a bad word here or there, but I think they’re going to let a lot more fly than people imagine.”
Tweet of the Week
No matter who you are in this world, it’s tough to say goodbye to those you love. When Reigns wins his next world title, I am sure his big brother will be on his mind.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.