SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
The end of Brock Lesnar’s run is near
WWE is giving its fans no reason to cheer Brock Lesnar.
Monday’s Raw was the beginning of the end for Lesnar’s underwhelming reign as Universal champion, as well as potentially the end of his WWE run that reignited six years ago. Lesnar even split from longtime advocate Paul Heyman before the show went off the air.
There were three concrete takeaways from the end of Raw this past Monday:
• WWE is going all in on making Lesnar a heel.
• Vince McMahon is still 100% behind Roman Reigns as his next champion.
• Even though the crowd cheered “We want Roman!” on Raw, WWE still has either Braun Strowman or Kevin Owens to cash in the Money in the Bank contract in the event that the SummerSlam crowd turns on Reigns.
WWE was smart to have Reigns removed from the building, as he and Lesnar have already had enough face-to-face encounters. It is the right move to keep the two apart from eachother until the Raw before SummerSlam.
Lesnar’s on-screen break from Heyman is another blow to fans of the tandem, but it was necessary for the end of Monday’s show to make sense. In order to turn Lesnar full heel, you need him to dump Heyman. Even so, don’t count out a Lesnar return for next year’s WrestleMania, as he and WWE have a mutually beneficial relationship. A Braun Strowman vs. Lesnar at WrestleMania would certainly be appealing.
The advantage of this entire angle is that WWE worked hard for everyone to say that Lesnar is a bad champion and that he does not does not care about the fans. Creatively, they went as far this past Monday as to have Lesnar basically state he does not care about the product. Removing Heyman from Lesnar means there is now no reason for the audience to cheer Lesnar.
But, if all else fails with Reigns, the backup is the Money in the Bank briefcase.
Is Matt Riddle WWE-bound?
Three enticing talents who seem destined to one day headline SummerSlam are Tommaso Ciampa, Velveteen Dream and Matt Riddle. And they are all signed with WWE.
Or are they?
Ciampa and Dream already work full-time for NXT, and Riddle is rumored to have already signed—but remains non-committal about his future.
Riddle worked Beyond Wrestling’s “Americanrana ’18” this past Sunday in a tag match with “Filthy” Tom Lawlor against Nick Gage and Matt Tremont, and he spoke with Sports Illustrated after he took the pinfall.
“I’ve been in situations like this before,” said Riddle, who was rumored to have signed with WWE three years ago and also saw a deal fall apart with New Japan Pro Wrestling. “There is nothing official. I’ve talked to WWE, I’ve talked to the president of New Japan, and I am confident in where I stand in the world of professional wrestling.”
A look ahead to WWE’s future should include Riddle, who is one of the most unique, authentic, and athletic talents in the ring. The former UFC star made headlines in and out of the Octagon due to his predilection for marijuana, and he has always remained true to his beliefs.
“Being real in pro wrestling has paid off,” said Riddle. “Just being myself, that really translated to the fans.”
Riddle is also the current EVOLVE champion. He is still set to defend the title this Saturday at the old ECW Arena in Philadelphia against Shane Strickland in a “Hardcore Rules” match, which will be available to watch live on the WWNLive streaming service.
Riddle was willing to state that his next landing spot will be with WWE or New Japan.
“It’s not that I don’t love the indies, it’s just time to move on,” Riddle explained. “Places like EVOLVE, Beyond, those were the companies that gave me an opportunity, gave me a platform, and gave me the chance to run with the ball and showcase my skills. I got to mix it up with a world array of talent.
“I need more substance, I need to grow. I’m a shark and I swam in a lot of different ponds, but I’m ready for the ocean. It just depends if I’m going to the Atlantic or the Pacific.”
Chants of “Bro! Bro! Bro!” from the crowd in Riddle’s honor will be genuinely missed on the independent scene.
“In professional wrestling, the fans are tremendous,” said Riddle. “They’ve helped me so much. Pro wrestling fans love what they watch, and they go out to enjoy and have fun. I love the fans of professional wrestling.
I can’t thank them enough for all the support. Everywhere I go, I always hear ‘Bro.’”
In other news…
• Far different than Raw and SmackDown was the main event of Beyond Wrestling “Americanrana ’18” show this past Sunday.
The popularity of the show allowed it to reach the top ten trends of Twitter on Sunday night, and it ended with a no-rope barbed wire match between the “Bad Boy” Joey Janela and “The Product” David Starr.
Beyond’s founder Drew Cordeiro spoke to the challenges of setting up the match—available on Powerbomb.TV—which led to some incredible visuals between Janela and Starr.
“We’d never done a no-rope barbed wire match before, so I reached out to the performers, Janela specifically, and he hired the crew that works for Game Changer Wrestling and a local deathmatch enthusiast Ethan Morin,” said Cordeiro. “We also had another dedicated fan, John Souza, help out last minute to bring the boards and cinder blocks. Another element to consider is that the fans typically stand ringside for our events and we felt it was absolutely necessary to set up guardrails ringside to minimize any unnecessary risks.”
The sold-out crowd watched as Janela again defeated Starr in what has become Beyond’s most compelling—and violent—feud.
“The idea wasn’t, ‘Let’s do a no-rope barbed wire match at Americanrana ’18... what rivalry best fits the stipulation?’ We don’t shoehorn our programs into gimmick matches like mainstream fans are used to seeing at WWE pay per views. The rivalry between Starr and Janela started in May of 2016 and has organically grown to a point where a no-rope barbed wire match was necessary to settle the score.”
In addition to highlighting two amazing talents in Janela and Starr, the match also placed a spotlight on Beyond’s nonstop creativity for its fans.
“Our goal is to top ourselves every single month, not just once a year at our signature ‘Americanrana’ event,” said Cordeiro. “I would never in a million years ask our wrestlers to do such a dangerous match, but both Starr and Janela pushed for it, and above all else, Beyond Wrestling has always been there for the wrestlers. But given the history between Starr and Janela, we knew that this would be an absolute must-see match for our fans. We had a record number of fans in attendance as well as a record number of fans watching on Powerbomb.TV.”
• “Big Cat” Dan Katz couldn’t suppress his laughter when asked if his wildly popular Pardon My Take podcast is the NWO of Barstool Sports.
“I’ll answer the question with a question,” responded the sharp-witted Katz. “Are we the NWO in terms of us against the outside world, or inside of Barstool?”
Katz agreed that he and his Pardon My Take partner PFT Commenter, like The Outsiders’ Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, create revolutionary content within a well-established platform, with Barstool founder Dave Portnoy serving in the role of Eric Bischoff.
“PFT is next level genius, and we struck a chord with the podcast,” said Katz. “But at the end of the day, the podcast is about laughing and having fun in the prism of sports. A lot of people want that these days and a lot of people need that these days. When it comes down to it, we’re all diehard sports fans and want to laugh about our teams. We’re going to make jokes about our teams and jokes about other teams, and I think people appreciate that.”
Along with Portnoy and comedian Bill Burr, the 33-year-old Katz is a part of Barstool’s commentary team for Sunday’s Rough N’ Rowdy 4 pay per view. While Portnoy may be Barstool’s pulse, Katz is its heartbeat. Honesty, relatability, and an incredible sense of humor are all part of his charm and allure, which will all be on display during the pay per view.
“At the end of the day, we’re trying to sell fights and we want people who watch to have a good experience, and a big part of that is the storyline,” said Katz. “We have a fight between a cop and a skateboarder. That is the backbone of wrestling, too.”
Katz grew up a wrestling fan, especially as a teenager while watching the late 90s feud between Vince McMahon and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
“I was a huge ‘Attitude Era’ guy and I loved Steve Austin,” said Katz. “My favorite tag team was Kane and X-Pac.”
The 51-year-old Kane is still active in WWE, and 46-year-old Sean Waltman—who hosts his own podcast, X-Pac 12360—still makes appearances throughout the indies. Katz was asked if, in 2018, he and PFT could compete with X-Pac and Kane in a tag match.
“I think I’m a similar size to X-Pac, so I would try to take care of him,” said Katz. “I’d just hope that PFT could use his agility to run circles around Kane in a ‘big tree fall hard’ type of situation.”
Katz believes that wrestling fans will also enjoy the action from Rough N’ Rowdy, which includes NXT pre-show analyst Pat McAfee as special ring announcer.
“The pay per view is the main driver here, but the in-arena experience is another big piece,” said Katz. “We’re having Pat McAfee, who is tremendously talented and does some work with WWE and NXT, do the Bruce Buffer role of introducing a bunch of the fights inside the ring. Pat is an absolute wizard on the microphone in live settings. We want the pay per view to be great for the people inside the stadium, as well as for those watching on pay per view.”
Rough N’ Rowdy offers more than 30 fights over four hours, with Katz and Portnoy serving as the modern-day version of Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse “The Body” Ventura.
“There are a ton of reasons to order, and I’ll list them,” said Katz. “Dave Portnoy is unbelievable on the microphone, and you’re basically buying a Bill Burr comedy set for four hours. Pat McAfee is going to be there, we have in-arena interviews that are the highlight of the show for me with two talented guys from our staff, Rone [Adam Ferrone] and Caleb [Pressley], and everybody likes to see a good fight.
“If you strip it all down, we have a ton of funny stuff going on, but you’ll still see a couple knockouts. It’s going to be a great night.”
• The Young Bucks’ opponents for the September 1 “All In” supershow have been announced.
Matt and Nick Jackson will team with Kota Ibushi against Rey Mysterio, Rey Fenix, and Bandido in a must-see six-man tag that will see the Bucks lock up with Mysterio.
Separating Fenix and his brother Pentagon is an interesting booking choice, and leaves Pentagon open to work a singles match, potentially, with Kenny Omega.
• PROGRESS and EVOLVE are set to run four doubleheaders in the next two weeks, beginning this Saturday in Philadelphia at the old ECW Arena.
A key part of that show, fittingly, is “King of the Death Match” Jimmy Havoc wrestling Rickey Shane Page, another Death Match expert, in an ECW Rules match. The match is not recommended for the faint of heart.
Havoc’s worth and value in wrestling is constantly debated. Despite his popularity in PROGRESS, Major League Wrestling, and throughout the indies, it sometimes feels as though the wrestling world still does not know what to make of him.
“Not particularly, no,” said the gentlemanly Havoc in his British accent, stressing that his death match-style is safer for him than a customary match. “In your mind the risk is higher because we’re cutting ourselves, but the ratio to getting hurt vs. not getting hurt is in my favor. For me, I feel like I get less hurt in a death match than I do in a regular match.
“My neck is fine. Look at Nigel McGuinness or Bryan Danielson, they had to stop their careers because of bumps and damage. I had some stitches the other week. That was the first time in 15 years I’d ever been to the emergency room for a death match. I tore my ACL, but that was when I jumped off the ring apron and landed funny.”
There is an eerie Silence of the Lambs vibe from Havoc’s character, but underneath, there is an undeniable love for pro wrestling.
“No one is forcing me to do this s---,” said Havoc. “I used to have a really high-paying office job and I hated it. I love wrestling.”
Havoc has watched as seemingly the majority of PROGRESS’ roster has either jumped to NXT or the 205 Live cruiserweight division, with the notable exceptions being Mark Haskins and himself. Naturally, Havoc has asked himself whether his style is too extreme for WWE.
“I never, ever thought WWE would be a possibility for me, and that’s one of the reasons I went the route I did,” said Havoc. “Now it’s hard to not to think, ‘Maybe if I didn’t do that.’
“In life, I’ve never compromised. I’ve always done things how I’ve wanted to, and I’m enjoying myself. I do what I do because I love it, and I’m quite proud that I never compromised.”
Despite no chance to work directly on WWE’s canvas, Havoc’s 2018 calendar is booked. He has already wrestled in Australia twice, New Orleans, New York City, and Florida this year, with upcoming dates in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Washington.
“I’m getting to do everything I wanted to do since I was a little f---ing kid,” said Havoc, who revealed he was bullied as a child. “I’ve got a chance to make my name in a new market.
“You know what to expect in a Jimmy Havoc match. The ECW Arena show this Saturday, that’s going to be something very special. People are in for a treat, and a little blood and guts.”
• New Japan Pro Wrestling’s 28th annual G1 Climax continues to produce great matches and compelling moments.
IWGP heavyweight champion Kenny Omega leads the B-block with 12 points, while the A-block leader is Hiroshi Tanahashi with 10 points.
Tanahashi, who is a former seven-time world champ and in many ways still face of New Japan Pro Wrestling, would combine with Omega for an electric finale.
Kazuchika Okada (A-block, 8 points) and Tetsuya Naito (B-block, 10 points) are also leading candidates to advance to the finals.
• Former UFC star “Filthy” Tom Lawlor captured MLW’s inaugural Battle Riot, eliminating Jake Hager (WWE’s Jack Swagger) to win the inaugural 40-man match.
Lawlor’s rise to superstardom will be MLW’s first major test at creating a babyface star.
Originally a heel, MLW’s Court Bauer delicately designed the match by starting Lawlor as a heel and then placed him in situations where he would be cheered during his 55-minute performance.
“I didn’t know what the crowd’s response would be,” said Lawlor. “Court Bauer and Bruce Prichard had some really smart booking.”
The crowd at the Battle Riot in New York booed Lawlor early in the match when he eliminated guys like “The Taskmaster” Kevin Sullivan and Hornswoggle, but respected his performance and cheered for him to eliminate Hager to win the match.
The key, of which MLW’s creative team is undoubtedly aware, is not to book Lawlor like a pandering babyface, but rather keep him as a quick-talking, MMA badass.
“I still train like a fighter for three, four hours a day,” said Lawlor. “There is nothing that is going to get you in better shape than actually wrestling against real people. So, to me, going 55 minutes, that was no issue. I just did the same thing I’ve been doing for years.”
Often in wrestling, a babyface is pushed to the top of a promotion despite the fans’ approval (see: Reigns, Roman), but Lawlor intends to remain true to himself.
“If you look at my career, in pro wrestling and MMA, I haven’t been afraid to speak my mind,” said Lawlor. “Sometimes I’m right and sometimes I’m wrong, but one of the best things about MLW is its ability to integrate the grey area.
“In real life, fights aren’t always black and white. Take the angle with Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa. Gargano is towing the line where you’re asking yourself, is he a bad person or just doing bad things? It’s not cut-and-dry, even though wrestling had always fallen back on that.”
Lawlor’s Battle Riot victory ensures him a future world title opportunity against MLW world champ Low Ki.
“I’m going to pick and choose my spot,” said Lawlor. “I have this opportunity and no one can take it away. Before, I’ve lost decisions, I’ve lost because of judges, but now I have an opportunity that no one can take away from me.
“I don’t care if Low Ki is still the champion when I cash in. Everybody’s just another body for me to choke unconscious.”
• Filmmaker and musician The Asoka has released the short film he wrote and directed, Coach’s Wrestling Class. New Japan star Rocky Romero co-wrote and directed the film, which stars Christopher Daniels, Brian Kendrick, and MVP, as well as Romero and Asoka.
Combining his love for hip-hop and pro wrestling has been a lifelong pursuit for Asoka, and the passion is noticeable in this entertaining film.
• The wrestling world was hit hard when Nikolai Volkoff, Brickhouse Brown, and Brian Christopher all passed away this past weekend.
Volkoff lived to 70, while Brown was only 57 and Christopher, who was the son of Jerry Lawler, took his own life at 46.
Volkoff filled the role of foreign heel in the 1980s perfectly, and he had runs working with Hulk Hogan and Bruno Sammartino. His rendition of “Cara Mia” on The Wrestling Album in 1985 showed his ability to interconnect humor and talent in his work.
Brown, as Jim Ross mentioned earlier in the week, was once thought to be the next Junkyard Dog.
Wrestling is unique in the sense that the product airs every week and new content is produced at an unremitting pace. Often, great runs are forgotten. Brian Christopher’s career fell into that trap. Looking back in time, his run with Scotty Too Hotty and Rikishi was an extremely popular part of WWE’s resurgence in 1999 and 2000.