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: The Young Bucks attain heavyweight gold
The Young Bucks made wrestling history earlier this month at New Japan’s Dominion show, becoming only the second team in the 46-year history of the company to win both the junior heavyweight and heavyweight tag team titles.
Matt and Nick Jackson defeated Los Ingobernables de Japon’s EVIL and Sanada for the belts in an emotionally compelling affair that saw the Bucks officially reach heavyweight status in New Japan, which is very rigid with its weight classes. The Bucks have now won virtually every tag title outside of the WWE, and share the rare distinction of having won both sets of New Japan tag titles with only one other team, No Limit’s Tetsuya Naito and Yujiro Takahashi.
“It was a major goal of ours because it was one of the last boxes to check off on our checklist,” said Matt Jackson, who spoke with Sports Illustrated from his home in California. “We knew all along we were the best, but sometimes you need to physically prove it to the naysayers, so this is further proof of our legacy that we’ll one day leave behind.”
The Bucks are the driving force behind the wildly popular “Being The Elite” series on YouTube that has reshaped the fashion in which wrestling fans are consuming the product. The show has allowed for the opportunity to introduce new storylines that would not otherwise have materialized, like their push to become heavyweights in New Japan.
Within the walls of the New Japan hierarchy, junior heavyweights are intended to remain juniors. The transition by the Bucks, which was made possible directly through their own efforts, is particularly noteworthy.
On the same night that the Bucks won the IWGP tag titles, Kenny Omega also made history by winning the IWGP heavyweight championship. Omega and the Bucks have placed an emphasis on meaning and feeling in their matches, striving to show that wrestling can evoke a deeper emotion and more profound storytelling, which was on display in the Bucks’ tag title win and in Omega’s victory.
“Kenny and Okada are both all-time performers, and their matches will go down in history,” said Jackson. “The callbacks to the earlier matches, and the brilliant sequences of counters for counters, had me on the edge of my seat. Wrestling is a universal language. Kenny learned to connect with people of a different race because he tells stories that anyone can understand.”
Omega embraced the Bucks before he was awarded the title, explaining that the moment signified that he did not lose his humanity even while in the midst of his unremitting pursuit of the title. That meant more to the Jacksons—who are extremely close with Omega—than any title or status.
“It was a really emotional moment for me personally,” said Jackson. “I didn’t know he was going to do that. The biggest win of his career, yet he remembered me first. It kind of humbled me. Tears came immediately.”
Omega will defend his newly-won IWGP title against fellow Bullet Club stalwart Cody Rhodes on July 7 at the “G1 in San Francisco” special on AXS TV. The Bucks will be supporting Omega in this affair.
“Before, we were split and didn’t know who to root for,” said Jackson, who will be defending the tag titles with his brother Nick in a rematch against EVIL and Sanada. “I think it’s clear this time around, we’re Team Kenny. I love Cody, but I’m not sure of his intentions, doing this again, putting us through this again.”
The Bucks, Omega, and Kota Ibushi form the Golden Elite, and the Bucks and Omega set the wrestling world aflame when they battled—and defeated—WWE’s New Day in Street Fighter V at the EC3 video game conference in Los Angeles, an event that was even covered by WWE.com.
“I think it was proof that people from competitive companies can work together and make entertainment magic harmony,” said Jackson. “We were very surprised to see how much WWE covered the event. We thought it was pretty cool they helped get the word out. We knew we’d win in the end, but figured it would be as competitive as it ended up being.”
Rumors will never stop that the Bucks will one day sign with the WWE, and their look and style have both evolved toward a style that is more commonly found in Vince McMahon’s world with a buffer look, tanner skin tone, and slightly more physical ring style. But Jackson explained the team’s evolution has more to do with their wrestling philosophy than the company for which they work.
“If you stick with the same moves, style, and act, you’re not truly the best,” said Jackson. “All great athletes, performers, and entertainers learn to adapt and evolve. We knew we were moving up the card and would have to have longer, more dramatic matches, so we altered things a bit. We told a different type of story. It’s important to push and expand if you want to stay on top of the mountain forever.”
This evolved style will also help enhance their upcoming June 29 match at Ring of Honor’s Best in the World pay per view against ROH tag champs Mark and Jay Briscoe, who are arguably the greatest tag team in company history.
“The Briscoes might be our toughest opponents ever,” said Jackson. “I don’t know if it’s because they’re brothers as well, but things are extra competitive when we’re across the ring from them. They’re definitely the hardest hitting dudes I’ve ever faced. We’re sore for two weeks after each match we have with them, so I’m always trying to prepare myself for the hits.”
The Bucks’ grand finale for the summer is this September at their own All In show. Their dream opponents are Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio, but that match is likely to unlikely to become a reality, even in front of over 10,000 fans at the Sears Centre just outside Chicago.
“We’d love to wrestle Rey and Chris Jericho, but Jericho currently has a rule that he doesn’t want to wrestle for any company in the U.S. unless it’s WWE,” said Jackson. “So that match isn’t happening, at least not at All In, so the plan is to walk into All In with both the IWGP heavyweight tag team titles and the ROH tag team titles. We’ve obviously never held both simultaneously, so that’s our goal.”
Jackson left the door open for a number of possibilities for the Bucks at All In, including a must-see brother-vs.-brother affair.
“There are a lot of options for us, especially since we’re helping book the show. Every time we wrestle Fenix and Pentagon, we produce lighting in a bottle. Or maybe we could have a Golden Elite showdown? Or, speaking of Kenny and Ibushi, they’ve still got a win on my brother and I, maybe we could wrestle again under different circumstances this time?
“Or maybe we surprise everyone and wrestle two guys that we don’t even announce? Or maybe Nick and I just wear headsets and work the Gorilla position? We could always just wrestle one-on-one against each other. It’s going to be an exciting night, and, as always, Nick and I are looking to steal the show.”
Wrapping up a wild week in WWE
The past four days were an eventful stretch in WWE, beginning Saturday with NXT’s Chicago TakeOver special and wrapping up Tuesday night with SmackDown.
WWE saved some gripping content for the finale of that stretch, as The Miz pinned Daniel Bryan before Rusev won a phenomenal gauntlet match on SmackDown to set up a title match against AJ Styles at Extreme Rules in July.
Highlights from Raw included Ronda Rousey dismantling Alexa Bliss en route to a 30-day storyline suspension, as well as Dolph Ziggler reclaiming the Intercontinental title for a sixth time with his defeat of Seth Rollins.
Rousey’s time off from WWE coincides with her July 5 induction into the UFC Hall of Fame.
The last time Ziggler was truly relevant occurred when he was IC champ in October of 2016 after defeating The Miz in a career vs. title match. It’s interesting to compare their two careers from that point, as Miz is on the precipice of another world title reign while Ziggler—who is better than Miz in the ring and not far off on the mic—has struggled to remain relevant.
The pacing and lack of action on WWE’s weekly programming, particularly Raw, has been difficult to watch over the past month, but Sunday’s Money in the Bank pay per view again highlighted the company’s ability to deliver on a big stage. The four-hour show is the length that WrestleMania should run, instead of the seven-plus hours we saw this past April. AJ Styles, Ronda Rousey, Shinsuke Nakamura, Braun Strowman, and Alexa Bliss all stood out for their performances, as did Roman Reigns, who made his match with Jinder Mahal worth watching.
Money in the Bank also marked the end of Big Cass’ run with the company, as he was released early in the day on Tuesday at the SmackDown television taping.
Following Money in the Bank, WWE produced a wildly compelling documentary, Woken, on the struggles of Matt and Jeff Hardy. Most major topics were discussed, including battles with pills, alcohol, and even Jeff’s recent DUI.
There was ample footage from TNA, and the interviews with Sting and Eric Bischoff regarding Jeff Hardy’s disastrous 2011 Victory Road pay per view performance—when he was too far under the influence to compete—was gripping.
WWE also announced that it will be running a show this October in Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, which has the capacity to hold over 100,000 people. Triple H versus The Undertaker has already been advertised for the Super Show-Down, as well as an appearance from Shawn Michaels.
In other news…
• Adam Cole took a break from his travels in London at the United Kingdom Championship Tournament to speak with Sports Illustrated about his upcoming match this Sunday at EVOLVE 107, which will see him defend the NXT North American championship outside of WWE’s traditional walls in a match against WALTER.
Even with an absurdly busy schedule of late that included flights from Florida to Illinois to London, Cole was aware that The New Day battled Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks at this past week’s E3 video game conference in California.
Cole was asked if Omega and the Bucks are talented enough to run with his Undisputed Era stable in NXT.
“Those guys would fit perfectly in the Undisputed Era,” said Cole. “They’re exactly what the Undisputed Era is all about: cutting-edge, going against the grain, doing what they want when they want. Obviously, a lot of people know my history with Kenny Omega, and I have a very long history with the Young Bucks, and those guys would fit perfectly. It’s like two peas in a pod.”
The full interview with Adam Cole will run this Friday on SI.com.
• AJ Styles, who was announced this past Monday as the new cover superstar for WWE 2K19, revealed this his favorite character in every wrestling game is Sting.
“I watched WCW when I was growing up, but WWE owns WCW now so it’s OK to tell you Sting was always my favorite,” said Styles. “That’s the guy that I always played with, and my son actually plays as AJ Styles and he whoops my tail.”
The friendship and mutual admiration between Sting and Styles was forged during their time together in TNA, where they bonded over faith, family, and wrestling.
“Sting is my choice, I’ve always been a big fan,” said Styles. “The ‘Crow Sting’ will forever be my favorite.”
• Pentagon and Fenix are the new Major League Wrestling tag team champions.
The pair, known as the Lucha Brothers, claimed the titles after winning a triple-threat match against Col. Robert Parker’s Dirty Blondes and Team TBD’s Jason Cade and Jimmy Yuta. The match aired this past Friday on MLW’s weekly show, Major League Wrestling: FUSION.
“I am very proud to represent my country in such a great company like MLW,” said Pentagon. “We will defend these titles against the best teams in the world and show why the Lucha Brothers are the best team on the planet.”
Pentagon and Fenix are now set to defend their titles on July 12 at MLW’s next television taping in Orlando against former WWE star Rich Swann and ACH.
For those who grew up listening to Tony Schiavone call WCW’s Nitro, it is extremely entertaining to listen to his style with newer stars, like Pentagon, on MLW programming.
• In the toy world, “M.U.S.C.L.E.” stands for Millions of Unusual Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere. The toys generated a cult following in the 1980s, and WWE is now releasing its own set of M.U.S.C.L.E. Figure 3-Packs.
Each pack features three of the two-inch M.U.S.C.L.E. figures, and presale of the first four M.U.S.C.L.E. 3-packs begins June 26 at 1pm ET on MattelShop.com, and they will also be available at the San Diego Comic-Con in July.
In news exclusive to the Week in Wrestling, the sets include: the “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Andre the Giant, and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper; “Mean” Gene Okerlund, the Iron Sheik, and Ric Flair; Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Junkyard Dog, and the Ultimate Warrior; and Sgt. Slaughter, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, and the “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase.
• In addition to announcing the new NXT UK brand on Monday, Paul “Triple H” Levesque held a press conference with media following Saturday’s NXT TakeOver in Chicago. He addressed a number of fascinating topics, including the long-heard criticism that the WWE Performance Center and NXT uses a rigid system that does not allow talent to use any creativity.
One of the critics was Scott Steiner. In a 2015 interview conducted with this reporter, Steiner said, “In ’93, in the WWF, that was all my stuff. ‘Big Poppa Pump’ was all my work. When I came back in 2003, they tried to give me a script to read word-for-word. How can you ask a writer to write like I talk?
“All of the good interviewers back in the day used their personality and their character the way they thought it should be. You had to make it work, otherwise you wouldn't have a job for long. Your interviews were how you got over.
“But now it’s all scripted. That’s what they’re doing down at their school. They’re making robots, making puppets.”
Levesque is certainly aware of these critiques, but he firmly believes otherwise.
“We’re not looking to make robots, we’re looking to make stars,” said Levesque on the conference call. “You make stars by making them unique. Patrick Clark doesn’t really work like anyone in particular, he’s just the Velveteen Dream. Bianca Belair brings something totally different to the table. That’s the excitement of what we do. The system works.”
On the subject of the Velveteen Dream, who lost what was arguably the match of the night at TakeOver to Ricochet, Levesque lavished praise while offering a solemn warning.
“There is no ceiling for him,” said Levesque. “I think he’s going to be as good as he wants to be. That being said, I’ve seen many a people self-destruct over the course of their careers. The potential and sky-is-the-limit quote is just what you do with it, and that is the truth. A lot of people will put it down to, ‘Well, they booked this way’ or ‘they didn’t do that right.’ Having been through that and seen a lot of people do it, it comes down more to talent and what they do with it more than any other factor.”
Levesque has mentioned that a goal for each TakeOver is to outperform the previous TakeOver event, which was no easy task for this past Saturday’s show, as it was following the WrestleMania weekend NXT show in New Orleans. Levesque was asked how he assessed Saturday’s TakeOver, specifically if he was narrowing in on crowd reaction, Network views, social media response, or an entirely different barometer.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” explained Levesque. “There are bits and pieces that all mean something. How many people watched? Well, that’s a meaningful thing. There’s also a lot of entertainment going on and a lot of things happening in the world, so the great thing about the Network is you might have watched it live, but I’ll also look at the overnights, the three-day, and I’ll look at the seven-day, because that is really what is important to me.
“The beautiful thing about the Network is you watch when you want to. That said, the fact that we can trend number one worldwide on the same night Jay-Z and Beyoncé dropped an album to the world, to me, that’s an indicator of excitement.”
The final question of the press conference asked if Levesque uses any particular method to mentally prepare himself that stars in NXT may not reach the same level of successful on the main roster.
“You try to prep them and give them the tools to succeed on that main roster, but if you believe that everybody is going to get called up and become ‘The Guy’ or ‘The Girl’ or the next big thing, it’s kind of an unrealistic expectation,” said Levesque. “There’s this weird thing in the business, and I’m not really sure how it happened, [but] if you didn’t become the champion, or you didn’t become the John Cena character, you robbed this guy’s career.
“I don’t recall Roddy Piper being ‘The Guy,’ I don’t recall Mr. Perfect being ‘The Guy.’ I could run down a list of who’s who of Hall of Fame performers that some people would make arguments were the best in the world or the best at what they did at that moment in time or their favorite all-time character, and never got past the middle card if you look at it honestly. And today, you would look at those people and say, ‘Oh my god, that’s a Hall of Fame worthy career, I can’t believe it took them so long to put them in the Hall of Fame.’ But the truth is, if you went back and looked at it, today you would have said, ‘Mid-card for life, man,’ or ‘They screwed him and never gave him his spot.’ I don’t know how that changed and became the thing.
“Not everybody is going to be ‘The Guy’ or ‘The Girl’, not everybody is going to be the champ. It’s not about, ‘They should get their turn.’ That’s the funniest thing of all-time. It’s like saying you should get a participation medal. That isn’t it at all. There is no deserve, everybody works hard. You hear that sometimes: He’s the hardest working guy in our business. I don’t know anybody on our roster who doesn’t work hard. Well, I do, actually, but there are a lot of people who do work hard. Most of them, 99 percent of them, work their asses off, just like everybody else does, and they’re proud of that and work hard for it. They should be excited and rewarded for successful careers.
“One, making it to the WWE is successful. Making it to these TakeOvers, making it to the main roster, and being there for a long period of time, successfully doing it, not getting injured, taking care of your family, that is success. So when people sometimes look at it and say, ‘Oh boy, you have to watch these guys fail,’ I haven’t seen too many of them fail.”
• Cody Rhodes conducted a conference call this past Monday to discuss the New Japan Pro Wrestling’s July 7 ‘G1 Special in San Francisco’ that will be broadcast live on AXS TV.
Rhodes, who defeated Jonathan Gresham in an entertaining but very one-sided match that favored Gresham this past weekend during the ROH tour of Texas, touched on a plethora of topics regarding New Japan, Ring of Honor, and WWE.
I asked Rhodes about the number of New Japan stars—including legends like Hiroshi Tanahashi and Minor Suzuki—who were in the crowd at this past WrestleMania in New Orleans. I also noted that WWE, even if they are working the same city, is unlikely to ever allow its stars to appear at a competitor’s show. Rhodes was asked if there is a difference in the locker room philosophy in NJPW compared to WWE.
“There is a huge difference in the locker room philosophy between WWE and New Japan Pro Wrestling,” said Rhodes. “I can tell you, it’s not a knock on WWE, [but] New Japan Pro Wrestling understands much more how to do their locker room. The individual factions are separated. CHAOS has their own locker room, Bullet Club has their own locker room. There are no outsiders, no celebrities; they can be somewhere else, but they can’t be in the locker room. It’s a real traditional space.
“You ride on a bus with your crew and not the other crew. You don’t stay at the same hotel, it’s a real traditional space. It’s something as an old-school wrestling fan that I really value. I think they have the philosophy of the locker room.”
As far as competitors go, Rhodes explained that every wrestling locker room, regardless of the continent, shares similarities.
“You’re going to see so many familiar faces in locker rooms,” said Rhodes. “I was just in a locker room staring at Rey Mysterio wondering how the hell he got there. It wasn’t too long ago I was in a WWE locker room [with Rey]. I’ve found that people who love wrestling tend to continue to find each other.”
• Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard and co-host Conrad Thompson returns this Friday at noon ET with a new podcast, with a look at Sable’s memorable run in WWE.
“This is going to be one of more of our more controversial shows, just considering that she’s married to the Universal champion,” said Thompson, referring to Sable’s husband Brock Lesnar. “It’s an interesting dynamic, because when WWE shows all the packages about women’s wrestlers, she’s never there. It feels like she’s been erased from history.”
Sable is the former Rena Mero, who was brought into WWE following WrestleMania 12 as a valet for Hunter Hearst Helmsley as a way to pair her with her then-husband, Marc Mero. By WrestleMania 14, Sable was a bigger star than Mero.
Sable and Mero divorced in 2004, and she married Lesnar two years later. The former WWE women’s champion also filed a $100 million lawsuit against the company in 1999 that was later settled out of court, which will also be covered by Thompson and Prichard.
“She was never intended to have a featured spot on TV, but before you knew it, she was the biggest star they had,” said Thompson. “Obviously that relationship didn’t last, and I’m looking forward to examining the good, the bad, and the ugly of her relationship with WWE.”
Thompson’s WWE Network show, “Something Else to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard,” will cover the Hardys’ first run in WWE this Wednesday, as well as touch on their time in TNA Impact Wrestling that coincided with Prichard’s time working in the company.
“We’re also going to cover that 2011 Victory Road from Bruce’s perspective,” said Thompson. “And it’s important for us to talk about Michael Hayes in longform.”
Thompson also revealed that next week’s Network show will examine The Undertaker’s run as Big Evil in WWE from the end of 2001 to the end of 2003.
“We’ll go right up to when he lost the ‘Buried Alive’ to Mr. McMahon,” said Thompson. “The company was trying to figure out what was next for ’Taker after his American Badass run, and before they pivot back to ‘The Deadman’, they decided to give a run to the Big Evil character, which was more of who Mark Calaway really was. That’s something WWE hasn’t talked a lot about, so it will be interesting to get Bruce’s take on that.”
Next Monday, Thompson’s “83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff” will cover the 1998 Great American Bash, which included a tag team match with four of WWE’s greatest stars as Hulk Hogan teamed with Bret Hart against Randy Savage and Roddy Piper.
“That’s really the first time we saw Hogan work with Bret Hart,” said Thompson. “Bret had been the top heel in the WWF before he came in to WCW, and Hogan had been the top heel in WCW, and I can’t wait to hear from Eric why they were teaming up instead of facing off. We hear so much about the backstage maneuvering and politics between Hogan and Bret, so the idea that we can examine all that from Bischoff’s perspective is pretty exciting.”
WCW and Hart never found the right groove, right from the onset with an awkward beginning at Starrcade ’97 with Hart serving as the special guest referee for the Eric Bischoff-Larry Zbyszko match.
“That era of Bret Hart felt like nothing worked,” said Thompson. “And it’s interesting that he’s programmed with Hogan and Savage, but I don’t think positioned as a top guy.”
Thompson also added that he will ask Bischoff about Hart’s Starrcade debut.
“It does feel like they’re playing catch up with Bret after they didn’t start the right way,” said Thompson. “Lots of people armchair quarterback with the way Bret was booked at Starrcade ’97, but they also had plenty of opportunity to get Bret hot in ’98 with his feud against Ric Flair. It felt like, all along, they were building to Hogan-Bret at a major event, like Halloween Havoc or Bash at the Beach. But it doesn’t happen. This was the opportunity to tell that story, but they went with a pairing, which feels like Hogan trying to pacify Bret, and the build to their match never comes.”
• The wrestling world lost a giant with the passing of Leon "Big Van Vader" White, who died on Monday night at the age of 63.
Vader will go down in history as one of the greatest big men of all-time. He championed his own cause for WWE Hall of Induction two years ago, and though he received support from the wrestling community, he sadly has not yet been inducted.
Tweet of the Week
Whether you are for or against the president’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border—or Trump, for that matter—it is easy to see why WWE has remained silent on politics and not publicly aligned itself with the president, despite the company close ties to the WWE Hall of Famer.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.