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: Who is the best world champion in wrestling?
Brock Lesnar, AJ Styles, and Kenny Omega are the top three champions in the business of professional wrestling.
Lesnar is WWE’s Universal champion, Styles adds value by the day to the WWE title, and Omega is New Japan’s IWGP heavyweight champion.
Aleister Black (NXT), Dalton Castle (Ring of Honor), Austin Aries (Impact), and Pentagon (Lucha Underground) round out the list of wrestlers representing large-scale promotions as their champions.
But which one means the most? What makes a world champion special?
The criteria for making a world champion special are drawing money, delivering compelling matches, increasing pay per view buys, and generating a spike in house show attendance. All those represent key components of a successful world champion.
The champion cannot allow the match quality to wane. Omega, who is taking over as champion for the incredibly talented Kazuchika Okada, will have to show that he can have massively popular matches with talents other than Okada. This is an area where AJ Styles has thrived, as he has delivered top-tier matches with a variety of opponents, including John Cena, Kevin Owens, Brock Lesnar, and, most recently, Shinsuke Nakamura. Match quality has to be kept at the top level, which means there cannot be off nights. The champion needs the work in the ring to be on the next level, like when Charlotte Flair wore the women’s title in WWE, while also taking name identity and marketability to the masses.
But in 2018, even with high-intensity matches being such a premium among fans, work-rate is not the only major responsibility for a world champ.
A critical piece for a champion is the ability to garner mainstream attention. No one did this better for a longer period of time than Hulk Hogan, but Steve Austin and The Rock were also able to parlay their wrestling notoriety into mass appeal with the general public. If there is one knock on AJ Styles (and you can be certain that WWE knows this), it is that he lacks that certain variable that makes non-wrestling fans tune in and watch the product.
A champion needs to be recognized by more than just wrestling fans, as that transition into pop culture helped solidify fame for Hogan, Austin, and The Rock. Lesnar fits all the criteria, except that his matches are nowhere near the caliber of his fellow world champs.
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If Lesnar appeared on WWE programming even slightly more often, he would very likely win this debate. But Lesnar’s most recent match on Raw took place in 2002, which is approaching its 16th anniversary this July.
All of this leads us to… Kenny Omega as the new face of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
“I am a huge fan,” said Ring of Honor world champion Dalton Castle. “I think he’s a wonderful performer and a hell of an athlete.”
Castle defends the ROH title this Friday at the Best in the World pay per view in a triple threat match against Cody Rhodes and “The Villain” Marty Scurll, but his six-month title reign has been hindered by injuries to his hips, right hand, and constant back pain.
“It’s something I’ve had to deal with,” Castle acquiesced. “I feel like I’m letting people down as a champion when I cannot compete. I’m trying to do the best I can to work through that and be the best in the world.”
Earlier in his career, Castle allowed a stress fracture in his back to heal on its own, and the disc between his L4 and L5 vertebrae shifted in such a way that left Castle in pain. The injury existed well before Castle was crowned champ, but reached the point this year where he was in constant pain. He is looking to avoid surgery at all costs, which is another responsibility of a world champ.
“I had a lot on my plate the second I was able to call myself world champion,” said Castle. “I felt the responsibility to go out and represent the company in the best light possible. It was my responsibility to show the world that [Ring of Honor] is the best wrestling in the world. The only way to show that is to do it myself.”
Despite the fact that Castle has been ROH champ a few months longer than Omega, who captured the IWGP title earlier this month, he noted that he will be watching how Omega carries New Japan’s top title.
“As far as world champion to world champion goes, I feel like he’s really got a handle on it,” said Omega. “I remember watching matches of Kenny’s well before I got to meet the guy. We got to share the ring one time, but we never had that one-on-one, which is a heartbreaker to me but hopefully something you can look forward to in the future.”
On a conference call last week promoting the upcoming “G1 Special in San Francisco”, which will broadcast live on AXS TV this July 7, Omega confirmed that his responsibilities as a champion exceed his work in the ring.
“The matches are the matches,” said Omega. “For me, that’s the easy part. I’d like to challenge new trying to expand our name and expand my own brand, as well.”
Omega explained that his role and responsibility as champion exceed the in-ring work.
“I really want this opportunity as champion to make some waves with the company,” said Omega, who is fluent in both English and Japanese. “I would love to use my voice and talents to be heard all around the world.
“I want to do more media in the United States and Canada, but also establish myself more in Japan in TV land and radio. To me, it sort of sucks to watch other sports get so much support from the general public, in Japan especially. If I watch an instant noodles commercial, or a beer commercial, or a whiskey or chocolate commercial, it’s always going to be a baseball star that guest stars, or a golfer. You never really see a wrestler, unless it’s purely in an over-the-top comedic role.
“I’m cool with that, of course, but I feel we can bring back that respect to professional wrestling that we once had and we can be the cool dude walking in a suit and hype up whatever product it is. That will add a new layer of respect to professional wrestling as a whole. That is my goal.”
Omega is taking steps to accomplish that, already filming four commercials over the past month, in addition to his high-profile involvement in the EC3 video game expo with WWE’s New Day that was even covered by WWE.com. He is also running his own New Japan show at the first night of the upcoming CEO Fighting Game Championships in Daytona Beach, Florida.
“That’s all about trying something new and a merger of worlds,” said Omega. “The gaming world is actually really big, and New Japan really doesn’t understand that yet. This is a very, very new thing for New Japan, sort of risky business, like ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ So it’s cool for them to trust me at the helm to do something new like this and show them there are all these other worlds we need to tap into, and CEO is hopefully the start of that.”
The only other wrestling stars potentially capable of making the move into the mainstream and pop culture are Roman Reigns, Daniel Bryan, and Braun Strowman. Bryan needs a prolonged stretch of health where he is constantly performing and on television, while Reigns and Strowman are both draws courtesy of their talent, size, and charisma.
For now, however, the best champion in the world resides in Japan. The most complete package out of all the world champs is Kenny Omega.
Jim Ross ready to call New Japan’s G1 Special in San Fran
Jim Ross returns to the New Japan broadcast for AXS TV’s live “G1 in San Francisco” special on July 7, and he is not shy to admit that he is personally invested in the career of Cody Rhodes, who battles IWGP heavyweight champion Kenny Omega in the show’s main event.
“I’ve known Cody since he was a little boy,” said Ross, who knew Rhodes’ father, Dusty, for decades. “I loved his father, I love the whole family. I miss talking to Dusty. I remember talking to Dusty about Cody when he was an amateur wrestler in high school. Cody won a state championship in Georgia, and Dusty had no clue about the rules. I used to think he was going to do a run-in and drop the bionic elbow on the referee, getting both the father and son disqualified from the match.”
His podcast, Westwood One’s Jim Ross Report, features Omega as this week’s guest, and Ross believes that Rhodes and Omega are destined for a classic in Omega’s first title defense as world champ.
“Kenny is so cerebral and makes his matches so different,” said Ross. “He and Cody have some characteristics that are compatible, but they also have some very different traits. The story they’re going to tell is going to be so well told. They are two of the best in the game. They’re going to mix all those ingredients into a hell of an entrée on July 7.”
The Rhodes-Omega story is personal; they are two alpha males who want control of the Bullet Club. Looking beyond the storyline, Ross sees two performers ready to capture the spotlight.
“They’re both in their 30s, they’ve both paid their dues, they’re not new kids on the block,” said Ross. “They have the chance to close the show on a live, free national broadcast. There is a lot of opportunity for positive exposure. They just need to get it done, bell-to-bell. It should be absolutely off the hook.”
Ross sees a multitude of parallels between the current New Japan roster and WWE’s “Attitude Era” in the late 1990s.
“Some of their personalities resemble some of the greats who preceded them,” said Ross. “Naito dragging the Intercontinental title when he had it and being so anti-authority has some of the same traits as Steve Austin in the ‘Attitude Era’.”
In Ross’ estimation, there is a lot of commonality with the New Japan roster and the WWE’s “Attitude Era” as far as age is concerned.
“Everybody was in their 20s and mid-30s back then in WWE,” said Ross. “With the exception of Tanahashi and a few others, everyone is in that age category and we’re getting the best out of them. The more over these talents get, it just makes them more attractive when the time is right to do business with WWE, the biggest company in the world.
“You can never outbid WWE. By me saying that, someone’s going to say, ‘That’s why I don’t like WWE.’ You don’t like them just because they’re successful? Or that they’ve created so many jobs for wrestlers? If you want to be a football player in America, you want to play in the NFL. It’s the same thing in wrestling.”
Will Ospreay is Ross’ choice to make the leap as wrestling’s next breakout star, but only if he slightly alters his high-intensity style.
“Ospreay is the next breakout star, but only if he can stay healthy,” said Ross. “He has a great upside, without any question, but the questions concern the style and how he works. Calling his matches, I’ve seen him get up after I thought he hurt himself or broke something in his body. At some point, you don’t need a medical degree to figure out the fact that when you take bumps on surfaces that were never intended to be bumping surfaces, and you do it for too long, the cumulative effect is going to be negative.
“He has a great imagination and he’s a great improvisationalist, and he’s really good with strikes and submissions. So if he leaned a little more on the other aspects of ‘The Aerial Assassin’–he doesn’t have to do a moonsault to the outside to be an aerial assassin, he just needs to land on a surface that will half-ass welcome your body to it.
“He’s got some size, he’s a real keeper, but I do worry about the number of risks he takes on any given tour. I hope I’m wrong, because he is so entertaining and wonderfully creative, and he’ll be a big, big star if he stays healthy. It’s up to guys like myself and Josh Barnett, or Don Callis and Kevin Kelly, to make sure we don’t make him known for only one thing in taking risks. Sometimes the talent believe what you say about them, and they continue down that road, which has a very unfortunate but inevitable destination.”
Ross also has a slate of upcoming overseas shows for his “Slobberknocker Sessions” one-man show, which began on Monday in Glasgow, Scotland and runs until Saturday in Galway, Ireland. Ross performs later tonight in Birmingham, England.
“I think I owe the fans a thank you, and I’ll be able to say thank you when shaking their hand or taking a picture,” said Ross, who is also booked for live shows this summer with Jerry Lawler, with two “Live with JR & The King” shows set for August. “Some people who go to these shows have been supporting me for their entire lives, and this is my chance to hear their stories. I get out of the house and interact with some passionate fans, and those fans in the U.K. just can’t get enough of pro wrestling. They’re getting some great treatment from WWE with the new U.K. show, and their talent base is getting featured, so it’s one of those things where we all win.”
In other news…
• WWE officially announced a five-year extension for "Monday Night Raw" on the USA Network, which will remain at three hours, as well as watershed five-year deal to make FOX the new home of "SmackDown Live," which will air on Friday nights beginning on October 4, 2019.
“WWE and FOX are a perfect match,” said Vince McMahon in WWE’s press release. “Moving SmackDown Live to broadcast TV and having the ability to leverage FOX’s extensive portfolio of world-class sporting events will expand the reach of our flagship programming.”
McMahon also commented on the company’s renewal with USA.
“We look forward to continuing our long-standing partnership with [USA parent company] NBCUniversal and USA Network,” said McMahon. “Monday Night Raw has been synonymous with USA Network and we are excited about what the future holds for WWE’s flagship program.”
This week’s Raw gave viewers two strong reasons to feel justified for watching: the Bayley heel turn on Sasha Banks, which added instant life to a doormat feud, and the Dolph Ziggler-Seth Rollins main event. Even though Ziggler and Rollins’ match ended in a disqualification, which is usually tough to stomach after a match that clocked in at over 27 minutes, the work between the two men was on another level. The post-match featured a stare-down and quick altercation between Roman Reigns and Drew McIntyre.
The real test will be whether an encounter between Reigns and McIntyre will still have meaning in six months, which has a lot to do with the long-term booking of McIntyre.
A highlight of SmackDown also occurred in the ring, as Daniel Bryan wrestling Luke Harper–who is talented enough to be a singles star–served as another reminder that the best part of a wrestling show can be the actual wrestling.
• IWGP heavyweight champion Kenny Omega mentioned EVOLVE champion Matt Riddle on last week’s AXS TV conference call promoting the upcoming “G1 in San Francisco” on July 7, saying that he believed Riddle can become the “foreign Shibata” in New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Katsuyori Shibata won the New Japan Cup in 2017 and was going to be further positioned as one of the promotion’s top stars until suffering a career-ending injury in a physically grueling match against then-IWGP champ Kazuhika Okada in April of 2017.
Riddle is a talent that Omega noted New Japan should sign, and he would be a perfect fit with his UFC background as the new face of “Strong Style.”
“That means a lot coming from Kenny Omega,” said Riddle. “One stallion to another, it’s a true compliment. I know how hard he’s worked and how long he’s been in the business. For that guy to even know who I am, and for him to think that highly of me just from watching my work, is just outstanding.
“I’m on the same page; I’ve seen his work and I’m a fan myself. I’ll be honest, I’ve taken some of his stuff and used it. I was very excited by his comments. It always feels good when you hear another guy in your industry give you praise.”
Riddle won over another crowd during his EVOLVE 107 main event this past Sunday when he defeated the vastly underrated AR Fox in a “no rope break” match, which is a Riddle specialty. Riddle’s work is very realistic, as he is able to combine on-the-mat wrestling with some breathtaking athleticism and aerial maneuvers.
“I look at it like this: we’re all wrestlers and we’re all here to win and do our thing,” said Riddle, whose path from the UFC to pro wrestling has been unconventional but successful, not dissimilar from his story. “We all have the same job, but how come somebody’s a better star than others? How is somebody standing out more than others?
“I’ll be honest, when I first started pro wrestling, everybody else did clotheslines better than me. They did everything about pro wrestling better than me. But when it comes to fighting, getting nitty and gritty, I’m the man. I’ve been doing that better than anybody for a long time. I love doing that style. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but at the same time, I like to bring that real feel to professional wrestling.”
• Vader passed away last week at the age of 63, and his famed rival Mick Foley was among the many who grieved the loss of one of the best big men to ever grace pro wrestling.
“I’ll miss the camaraderie when I’d see him,” said Foley, who took time before his sold-out “20 Years of Hell” show in Boston, Massachusetts to share a word about Vader. “Our history together is really wild. Some of our matches were just brutal to watch, and it was surprising to people how well we got along. I was one of his biggest supporters, and one of the most vocal ones, for sure.”
Vader and Foley shared an infamous moment during their feud together in WCW when Vader tore off a piece of Foley’s ear during a 1994 match in Germany.
“The ear incident happened in Munich,” said Foley, which included a moment when the referee picked up Foley’s dismembered ear and handed it to the ring announcer. “It was just an accident, but it added to the mythology of our rivalry.”
In addition to his work with Foley, Vader’s matches with Stan Hansen also stood out, and his matches with Sting in WCW, especially the encounter at SuperBrawl III in 1993, were spectacular. Other must-see Vader matches include his ‘93 Starrcade match against Ric Flair and his Halloween Havoc match, also in ‘93, against Foley. At the time, Foley wrestled as Cactus Jack, which is the way Vader referred to Foley whenever they spoke.
“I loved the fact that he always called me ‘Jack’,” said Foley. “I talked with him about three weeks ago, and he was still calling me ‘Cactus Jack’. I’ll miss that.”
Vader inducted Stan Hansen into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2016, but he never received the call for the HOF. Foley was one of the biggest names to champion Vader for the Hall of Fame.
“I was so glad that WWE went out of their way to go to Boulder [Colorado] to talk to Leon for my DVD,” said Foley. “I thought the stories he told really added to it.
“I’ll miss talking to him, I’ll miss talking about him and his career, and I’ll miss the matches.”
• William Daniels played George Feeny on Boy Meets World, and he shared a moment in the wrestling ring with the late Leon “Vader” White from the “Thrilla in Phila” episode of the series in 1995.
Daniels was in awe of the sheer size of the gargantuan Vader, but remained undaunted and fearless as he jumped over the ropes and into the ring, a chance to display both the athleticism and intelligence of Mr. Feeny.
“To get into the ring, I lowered the top rope and just popped into the ring,” said the 91-year-old Daniels, who is an accomplished actor who also starred in Knight Rider, 1776, and St. Elsewhere. “I couldn’t do that today.
“My condolences to his family. He was such a good sport to work with, a real gentle giant. It was a pleasure.”
Daniels cut his teeth in Brooklyn, New York, noting that his childhood gave him a plethora of moments to prepare for his scene with Vader.
“I used my Brooklyn background in that scene,” said Daniels. “I also got into a ring during St. Elsewhere. In fact, I had a few bruises afterward.”
Daniels was so authentic and genuine in his work as Feeny, becoming a true star and creating a character that still resonates with viewers.
“You don’t know in a show what is going to be effective, and that applies to television, to film, and certainly to the theater,” said Daniels, with the same being true of developing an effective character in pro wrestling. “It’s always a bit of guesswork as to what is going to be successful, and I have to confess that when I was handed a script about a car that could talk, I originally thought that was pretty ridiculous. But it turned out that Knight Rider and ‘KITT’ the [artificially intelligent] car took on a life of its own. No one knows what they’ve got until they get in front of an audience.”
Daniels also recently wrote a book, There I Go Again, which follows his career and shares the backstory behind his acting roles, which he was grateful to share with readers.
“I wrote about where I started and my journey up to now,” said Daniels. “It was an attempt to recall where I started and how I got to where I am.
“I’m very lucky. These roles came that I seemed to be suited for, I’m thinking of "St. Elsewhere" and the stage play 1776, which played in New York as a musical and then became a film, as well as "Knight Rider" and "Boy Meets World." It’s been a very lovely career and I feel very lucky to have had it.”
• NXT’s Adam Cole successfully defended his North American championship this past Sunday night in Melrose, Massachusetts at EVOLVE 107 against WALTER.
WALTER drops the best knife-edged chop in all of professional wrestling, but that was rendered obsolete against Cole when he injured his chopping hand after Cole ducked and WALTER chopped the ring post. The storytelling was brilliant, as the injury turned the 6-3 WALTER into an underdog against a smaller opponent in Cole.
WALTER rallied to reclaim control of the match, but a barrage of superkicks to the head and a running bulldog off WALTER’s knees eventually allowed Cole to hold onto his NXT North American championship.
“In general, I was very happy about it,” said WALTER. “I’ve known Adam Cole a long time. He was in Germany years ago in wXw. He was always one of my favorites of the guys who came in. And for our match to finally happen now, I was very happy about it. I’m used to being in charge of the match, but if people find ways around that, I try to adjust.”
The 6-foot Cole has dealt with questions over his size for the majority of his 10 years in the business, yet refuses to allow doubt to cripple his abilities.
“There are two types of people who don’t believe in what someone does,” said Cole. “There are people who are unsure, and maybe their minds can be changed based on someone’s work and accomplishments. Those people are the ones I’m interested in having stay tuned and watching for the rest of my career. I’ve been wrestling for 10 years, but I’m only getting started.
“The other type is the impossible-to-impress type. No matter what I do, they will always tell me why I’m never going to succeed, whether it’s because I’m not tall enough, or muscular enough, or I can’t talk, whatever their judgment may be. If I were to listen to what people like that said about me, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now. That’s fuel for me, and I’m thankful for that. The fans that I do have are the absolute best fans in the world, and they make why we do this such a fulfilling and rewarding job. On the same token, the people who don’t believe are motivation, too, for me to better myself every day. I wouldn’t be the performer I am if everyone thought I was the best. Having people against you, or who don’t quite believe in you, gives a lot of extra fuel to never settle.”
The match between Cole and WALTER was an exclusive for the live crowd at EVOLVE 107. It served as the perfect example of how to make two wrestlers look like stars in a match while still delivering a clean, effective finish.
“I’m not the kind of guy who is going to say ‘I’m proud of this or that.’ I’m happy when everybody else is happy with the match,” said WALTER, who is on the precipice of superstardom. “Cole has worked his way up and made it to the big stage and got a warm welcome back, and that was a really good thing to be a part of.”
Cole defending the North American title off WWE soil is part of NXT’s plan to expand its reach and brand throughout the wrestling world.
“I do have a very sincere goal of saying one day, ‘Without question, I am the absolute best,’ and I want other people to believe that, too,” said Cole. “Being the best is a constant journey. For the rest of my career, I’ll always have doubters; it’s going to get worse the better my career here in WWE goes, but on the same token, I’ll get just as much love and support. People are very entitled and welcome to have their own opinion, and you’ll never hear me tell someone people aren’t allowed to think a certain way, but just know all that negative stuff that comes my way is also turned into a positive.”
Despite the loss, WALTER shined in the match. His career trajectory has been fascinating to follow, and his landing spot after an upcoming trip to wXw in Germany this August will be worth watching.
“Wherever I go, I do my thing. I don’t try to change,” said WALTER. “I want to be an authentic person and an authentic character, and I can only be that if I’m myself. Luckily, everywhere I’ve went so far, people have liked it. I’m happy it’s worked out so well.”
• Next week’s Fourth of July holiday falls on a Wednesday, so the Week in Wrestling column will next run on Thursday, July 5. I hope everyone enjoys a happy and safe holiday.
Also, a Q&A will run this Friday on SI.com with “The Villain” Marty Scurll, who is headlining Ring of Honor’s Best in the World pay per view later that night against ROH champ Dalton Castle and Cody Rhodes.
• "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 the 1998 King of the Ring pay per view.
“This is a landmark show for Mick Foley,” said Thompson. “His career was never the same after this. You can almost break his career up into a ‘before’ and ‘after’ because this is the night that really put him on the map.”
Foley was thrown off the top of the Hell in a Cell structure by The Undertaker on two separate occasions.
“We’ll talk about what was planned and what wasn’t planned for the match,” said Thompson. “Of course, there is lots of rumor and innuendo about that second cage break where lots of people say that was planned. Why else would they be on the cage a second time? Were they going to climb down? I need to hear more about that from Bruce.”
The match forever changed expectations for a Hell in a Cell match, as well as set a new standard for insanely dangerous bumps by wrestlers.
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“Did this ruin all future Hell in a Cell matches?” asked Thompson. “One of my favorite matches of all time is the Hell in a Cell between The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, which took place only a few months before the ‘98 King of the Ring. The actual wrestling itself is much better with Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker, but when you think of Hell in a Cell, you only think of Mick Foley being tossed off the damn thing.
“This show is about one man willing to throw caution and his body into the wind to make himself a superstar, and it worked. But at what cost? We’ll also look at the Kane-Steve Austin main event where Kane becomes world champion.”
Today’s WWE Network’s “Something Else to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” will feature Thompson delving into the “Big Evil” run of The Undertaker’s career from 2001-03.
“We’ll cover from 2001 all the way to 2003, and it’s an interesting time in his career,” said Thompson. “We talk about how the ‘Big Evil’ and ‘American Badass’ characters are really Mark Calaway more than anything else. That area is one of the first times we’re able to see backstage, real life, non-kayfabe footage of The Undertaker. For years, he would not allow himself to be filmed backstage. We’ll be airing some of that footage.”
Finally, Thompson’s “83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff” next week will look at the July 6, 1998 episode of Nitro that was highlighted by the unforgettable “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan-Goldberg match for the WCW championship.
“That decision to have the Goldberg-Hogan match on television instead of pay per view is one of the things Bischoff gets criticized for most,” said Thompson. “A lot of people think the decision to have that match is because WWE had a few good weeks of ratings, and I’m going to hold Eric’s feet to the fire and make him defend giving away one of the biggest box office attractions on free TV.”
Unlike most other wrestling promotions, WCW was owned by Turner Broadcasting, which remains an interesting part of Bischoff’s decision to deliver this match on Nitro.
“Turner’s priority was the television product, not pay per view,” said Thompson. “With every other traditional wrestling promotion, you’re out to make as much money as possible. Some of the WCW decisions seemed to be based off ratings. It’s still one of the most important moments in WCW history.”
Tweet of the Week
Velveteen Dream sharing a ring with Hulk Hogan would certainly be appointment-viewing.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.