“The atmosphere was crazy, everybody was stoked about it, and the event was awesome.”
SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
U.S. Soldiers Grateful for Tribute to the Troops
WWE’s Tribute to the Troops airs this Thursday on the USA Network, but the show has already garnered strong approval ratings from its most important viewers: the women and men of the United States Armed Forces.
Performing in front of a packed house at an aircraft hangar in the Fort Hood Army Air Field in Fort Hood, Texas, the stars of the WWE dazzled those in attendance in a manner which only a rare few other sports and entertainment entities are capable.
The tribute show, which first ran in 2003, serves as a morale booster for soldiers and their families, many of whom will not be able to return home for Christmas or New Year’s Day.
Col. Henry Perry, the U.S. Army Garrison Fort Hood commander, expressed his appreciation of what the event meant for his soldiers.
“The fact that World Wrestling Entertainment came to Fort Hood with a tremendous event shows the great support that they have for our soldiers,” said Col. Henry. “This show offered an opportunity for the soldiers and their families to relax and build morale, and there was excitement in the air with all the WWE superstars conducting outreach.”
In addition to hospital visits and military outreach initiatives across the base, WWE also made a financial contribution to Celebration of Love, which is a local non-profit organization dedicated to supporting U.S. soldiers, veterans, and their families.
“WWE’s superstars got to see what the soldiers do every morning, as well as interact with each other,” said Perry, who is the son of a U.S. Marine. “They were also in our schools talking about an anti-bullying campaign, so they made an impression on the soldiers and their family members.
“I also had a chance to meet several of the superstars. One that I know that even my wife was excited to meet at Fort Hood was ‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey. She’s an Olympic medalist, sets a good example for my daughters, and it was pretty cool to meet her.”
Tribute to the Troops, which gathered five generations of military for the event, also included a special appearance by former Daily Show host Jon Stewart.
Lt. Jason Welch, a 26-year-old from Hillsboro, Oregon, watched the event, along with the rest of his company, from atop a CH-47 helicopter.
“I really appreciated how WWE took the time to include us in the entire process,” said Welch. “I know everybody was really excited to see Ronda Rousey, and people were surprised to see Jon Stewart. It was a pretty cool day for a lot of people, and an event like this helps us know that a lot of people out there are supportive of us regardless of what’s going on in the world.”
There were also some hardcore WWE fans in attendance, perhaps none more knowledgeable than Specialist Patrick Mendoza.
“I’ve been a fan since I was four years old,” said Mendoza, a 30-year-old native of San Antonio who was first in line for the show. “So this event was a dream come true. The atmosphere was crazy, everybody was stoked about it, and the event was awesome.”
The U.S. Armed Forces provides the liberty and freedom that has served as a trademark of this country for more than 200 years, and the Tribute to the Troops event resonated among soldiers for WWE’s willingness to give back.
“I didn’t realize I had so many military friends who are also into WWE,” said Mendoza. “Now we’ve all kind of gathered together into one group. For them to come out here and put on this show, that meant a lot to us.”
Vince McMahon Returns to Raw and SmackDown to Promise Things Will Change
Will Vince McMahon serve as the missing piece on WWE programming?
The opening segment on Raw featured Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon, Triple H, and Shane McMahon, all promising to usher in an era of change in WWE.
But how is that actually accomplished? And where do we go from here?
Vince also appeared on SmackDown, but the world of WWE is far removed from his revolutionary work alongside Steve Austin, Mick Foley, and the rest of the talented supporting cast of the “Attitude Era.” McMahon almost felt out of place the last two nights, and it will be interesting to see how he fits in on WWE programming in 2019.
Both Raw and SmackDown also removed their authority figures, which was disappointing to viewers who found Paige entertaining in her on-screen role.
While traditional authority figures in wrestling are long past their expiration date, Raw has been built around this format since 1995. I may be in the minority, but I think the role remains effective, but only if presented in a creative manner. And the most creative character in WWE is “Woken” Matt Hardy, who is currently working as a backstage agent.
Combining the elements of a great wrestling match and great storytelling is what professional wrestling is supposed to represent, so why not allow Hardy the opportunity to freshen up Raw? Hardy is unique as one of the rare performers who focuses on the moments as much as the matches.
The timing of McMahon’s return was also peculiar, as the next two weeks of programming air on holidays. So although the promise of change was continually mentioned the past two nights, Raw and SmackDown reminded viewers that it is a long way away.
In other news...
• This past weekend featured some of the most captivating wrestling of 2018.
The WWE title match at TLC with Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles gave a tutorial in originality, style, and psychology. The two shared remarkable chemistry, and the finish, which saw Bryan win with a small package, added a layer of unpredictability to the affair.
Ladder War VII from Ring of Honor’s Final Battle pay per view was also a must-see attraction. The Young Bucks bid farewell to ROH in a classic with the Briscoes and SCU’s Frankie Kazarian and Scorpio Sky.
The match had unfair expectations following incredible performances from the Bucks and Kazarian at Ladder War VI in 2016, but all three teams produced a battle that was full of breathtaking spots, a will to be the best, and a desire to win the ROH tag team titles. Creating an organic feeling in a manufactured field is as complex a task as there is in pro wrestling, but the in-ring work from those six men made me believe that there was nothing more important than winning the titles.
A third match from the weekend that highlighted the best of pro wrestling was the main event from New Japan Pro Wrestling’s “Road to Tokyo Dome”, which was a tag between Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi against Hiroshi Tanahashi and Will Ospreay.
This was also New Japan’s final show of 2018, as well as its final chance to highlight the upcoming Wrestle Kingdom 13 show that is set to take place on January 4.
The match provided a glimpse of what is in store for Wrestle Kingdom, as both Omega-Tanahashi and Ibushi-Ospreay have the chance to set the standard for the entire year only four days into 2019.
Conspicuous by its absence on this list is the TLC Intercontinental title match between Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose.
Rollins is one of the best wrestlers in the world, but the match may have exposed Ambrose. Rollins is one of the top three workers in the world, so how is it possible that his match with Ambrose was so underwhelming?
The decision to work a more traditionally styled in-ring match exacerbated the problem. The story between Rollins and Ambrose is presented as very personal, which should have led to brawling, especially at a TLC pay per view known for tables, ladders, and chairs. But the match failed in its execution.
WWE knows exactly what they have in Rollins, who is nothing short of elite, but Ambrose has much to prove in the ring in 2019.
• EJ Sparks is the new Arizona State Champion.
The fact that the title, which is Championship Wrestling from Arizona’s signature championship, belongs to the 24-year-old Sparks is a testament to the promotion’s focus on character development.
Sparks is only a four-year veteran of the business, and still honing his craft, but those interested in seeing the creation of a star from the ground up need look no further than his work.
Equipped with a versatile style that works against big men, on the mat, and in the air, Sparks is learning directly from Championship Wrestling president David Marquez.
“David has been like a father figure,” said Sparks. “He teaches presentation, and he always lets me know to be myself. It’s been a wonderful experience working close to him and I’m humbled by the way he believes in me.”
After graduating high school in 2012, Sparks came to a crossroads when he needed to decide whether he would enroll in college or pursue a career in professional wrestling. Ultimately, he decided that college was not the right investment.
“My mother looked at me and said, ‘Make sure this is what you want to do with your life, and don’t just go to college because everyone else feels that is the way to become successful,’” said Sparks. “That’s when I made up my mind I wanted to go into wrestling, and I started my journey in 2014.”
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Since childhood, wrestling has served as an integral part of Sparks’ family.
“It’s tradition,” said Sparks. “On my mom’s side, everyone would go watch at my uncle’s house. On my dad’s side, everyone would go to my grandparents’ house. It’s in my bloodline.”
It is so hard to be a pure good guy in 2018, but Sparks is making himself relevant as a babyface.
“I have this connection with the crowd wherever I go,” said Sparks, who has benefitted from feuding with a natural heel in Gino Rivera. “Their support means the world to me. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I’m at.
“Now the ball is in my court. This is where I’m meant to be. So I’m going to keep working and lead the way. I’m the face of the company, and the EJ Sparks Army is growing by the day. My journey is just beginning, and I want everyone to come with me and see that anything is possible as long as you put your mind and your heart into it, you can achieve anything.”
• In the book section, Brennon Martin crafted a fantastic biographical novel about his grandmother, Christine “Teeny” Jarrett, who is Jerry Jarrett’s mother and “Double J” Jeff Jarrett’s grandmother.
The book, “Teeny”: Professional Wrestling’s Grand Dame, is a fictional account based off Jarrett’s life and her 50 years in pro wrestling.
“I thought that this format would allow me to bring her story, and who she was, back to life in a way that a simple biography couldn’t,” said Martin. “I wanted to make Teeny’s story accessible and approachable by those who aren’t into wrestling but who can appreciate the story of a strong, single mom who believed that education and hard work would lift her family out of poverty.”
Martin’s research for the book was thorough, and he had the advantage of recalling his childhood memories, as well as already knowing many of Teeny’s relatives and friends in wrestling.
“She was a loving grandmother with whom I got to spend a lot of time growing up both at home and, for one summer, at the Gulas-Welch wrestling office in Nashville,” said Martin. “I have the benefit of having known folks like Nick and George Gulas, Pat Malone, and Nina Bond, so those characters were easy to bring to life.
“I learned many new things about her professional life, though, through conversations with folks like my uncle and cousin Jerry and Jeff Jarrett; icons of Memphis wrestling like Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee, Jim Cornette, and Koko B. Ware, and legends like Cora Combs, Corsica Joe, Eddie Marlin, Don Fargo, and Sara Lee.”
The Jarrett family has such a fascinating history in wrestling, and it was apropos that Martin’s book starts at the beginning with Teeny.
“In so many ways, Teeny was one of a kind,” said Martin. “That’s kind of cliché, but how many other women can you name who went from taking a second, part-time job in a male dominated industry to co-owning one of the most successful businesses in that same industry?
“She was not just the most successful female promoter in professional wrestling, bar none; she was also one of the most successful regardless of her gender.”
• Conrad Thompson and Bruce Prichard return this Friday at noon with a new episode of the “Something to Wrestle” podcast, which will look at the December 22, 1997 edition of Monday Night Raw that saw “Stone Cold” Steve Austin deliver a stunner to Santa Claus.
The focal point for Thompson during the episode, which will be a watch-along with Raw, is to examine the components that went into creating the show in 1997.
“They’re still taping shows at that point, and they’re not necessarily flourishing financially, but things are getting better against WCW,” said Thompson. “I’m driving at how Raw was booked and set up in 1997.
“Vince had just recently said, ‘This isn’t just good guys vs. bad guys,’ and now the company had this attitude and was going with Austin. Bret is in WCW, Shawn Michaels is champ, and it’s a very interesting time in the WWF.”
The show will also compare today’s set-up of Raw, which includes an entire writing team, against the 1997 version, looking closely at nuances like the show being taped in advance.
“This will be our first deep dive into how the creative changed,” said Thompson. “What was a show like when it was taped? Did Vince have last-minute changes, and was that a nightmare for the commentators? We’ll explore all that through the eyes of Vince McMahon’s right-hand man.”
Tweet of the Week
Am I the only one who believes EC3 is going to be one of WWE’s breakout stars—and more successful than Lars Sullivan—in 2019?
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.