SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
Hulk Hogan honors Gene Okerlund, discusses Kenny Omega and his own start in Japan
Hulk Hogan returned to Raw this past Monday for the first time since March 2015.
Hogan’s appearance was met with some criticism throughout the wrestling community due to racist comments he made on a leaked sex tape that was recorded in 2007. The release of the tape—in which he repeatedly used racial slurs—led WWE to fire Hogan, but he But Vince McMahon stood by the decision to have Hogan return to honor the memory of the late “Mean” Gene Okerlund. Despite the criticism, McMahon is fully aware that both WWE and Hogan are better off when the two are aligned.
The appearance on Raw was the highlight of this past Monday’s show, and followed a heartfelt tribute video to Okerlund. It was entirely apropos that Okerlund, who was such a critical piece of Hogan’s success, put over the Hulkster one last time.
Hogan’s promo on Raw stirred many positive memories for decades-long wrestling fans, breeding nostalgia few others can generate. Hogan remains the Babe Ruth of WWE, even if he is no longer fit for the main event. Vince McMahon has an opening in that particular spot, as Roman Reigns is on leave from the company while battling leukemia, John Cena and Brock Lesnar are no longer weekly characters, and Braun Strowman is not quite ready to carry the company on his broad shoulders.
One man who could fill that vacancy is Kenny Omega, who hinted at an exit from New Japan Pro Wrestling in an interview with Tokyo Sports where he said he was “stepping away” from the company he’s spent more than eight years with.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Hogan discussed what it would mean for Omega to come to WWE.
“It’s tough to go your whole life without eating at McDonald’s or riding in a Chevrolet,” said Hogan. “If you don’t touch on the WWE, the story’s not complete. But maybe Kenny could be the exception.”
Omega has options, though. He will have to choose between continuing with New Japan, joining the industry’s most prominent company in WWE or setting out on an uncharted path with All Elite Wrestling, the company founded by his friends Cody Rhodes and The Young Bucks. Whatever his decision is, he can’t announce it until after his NJPW contract expires on Jan. 31.
Omega first created his stardom in Japan, which is the same country where Hogan began to believe that he could be a major star in the business.
“I fell in love with Japan in 1978,” said the 65-year-old Hogan. “Times were different back then, there were no cell phones or internet. There was no cross-promotion of social media platforms, and you couldn’t watch my matches in Tokyo or Fukuoka or Osaka like you can now. I wasn’t married until December of ’83, and I hadn’t started a family yet, so in ’78 I was over there running hard.
“I could have stayed in Japan. I loved working there with Freddie Blassie. That’s when I was working for Vince Sr. He sent me over there and I fell in love with the place. I used to call him after a four-week tour and ask if I could stay the extra six days until the next tour started. I loved it in Japan.”
Hogan was informed that his photo still hangs on the front of the famed Ribera steakhouse in Japan, which caused the wrestling legend to reflect on the honor.
“If my pictures are still up there, it means I’ve stood the test of time,” said Hogan. “But it used to be potluck whose pictures were up on the wall. Ribera, depending on who was in Tokyo that night and All Japan was in Tokyo, they’d change the pictures on the wall. If I was in a different part of Japan with Inoki, Ribera would pull down the Hogan and Inoki’s pictures and put up Giant Baba and [Bruiser] Brody. We caught him doing it a few times, but he had a way of always making the talent feel special.”
Jungle Boy More Recognizable Than First Meets the Eye
Jungle Boy is on the precipice of the biggest month of his career.
The 21-year-old is set to challenge DJZ this Saturday at Game Changer Wrestling’s “400 Degreez” show that is available to watch on FITE.TV, and is poised for another breakout moment in a match for famed California super-indie PWG on January 18 against Brody King.
Jungle Boy is a wild-haired, 5’10”, 150-pound athlete with a unique in-ring style and an uncommon background. He is the son of Hollywood star Luke Perry, and better known outside the ring as Jack Perry.
“My family is a part of who I am, but I’m trying to make my own way,” said Perry, who grew up in California but admitted he has never been a fan of 90210. “I don’t want to use that to be successful, I want to have my own success.”
First turned onto the business when watching the Boogeyman eat worms on WWE programming, Perry started seriously pursuing pro wrestling during his senior year of high school. He spent a year in college and has dabbled in film school, but it is the same fearlessness that has him looking to get involved in stunt work that brought him into pro wrestling.
Developing the Jungle Boy character has allowed Perry the opportunity to flourish creatively, both in-ring as well as through mannerisms and storytelling. Originally, however, he was not a fan of the character.
“I’m a big fan of Conor McGregor, and I always noticed how he’d stand before his fights in this monkey-like posture,” said Perry. “I always thought that was really cool. I did that in my first fight, when I went by Nate Coy because he is another of my favorite fighters, and the announcer told me that he had a nickname for me and said, ‘Jungle Boy’ Nate Coy.
“At first, I hated it. I thought, ‘What did he just stick me with?’ Then I started to develop the character around the name, and I love it now. It’s completely my own. Eventually, I dropped the Nate Coy, and now I am Jungle Boy.”
Classifying himself as a high-flyer, Perry sees the Jungle Boy character as an advantage when he is in the ring.
“There are things out there that I know I will never be able to do,” said Perry. “When you look at Ricochet, PAC, and guys like that, I realistically will never be able to do a double backflip onto someone. I can do some athletic moves, but that’s where my character helps me have well-rounded matches with a story.”
Perry trains with David Arquette, another Hollywood star and longtime friend of Luke’s.
“Wrestling is pretty tough. Anyone who’s been in there and done it will tell you it’s not easy,” said Perry. “David has no real reason to get in the ring, and potentially hurt himself, other than it’s something he really loves to do. I respect and appreciate that a lot. He’s doing what he wants to do, he’s doing it his way, and I think that’s really cool.”
Perry is working on adding some bulk, as the size differential will be on display in his PWG match with the 6'5" Brody King.
“PWG is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said Perry. “I’m getting to wrestle guys who are more well-known and higher in skill. My Game Changer match with DJZ and the PWG match with Brody King will have two very different styles, and I’m going to have to rise to compete with them.”
Perry has created a character that is unique and original. The desire to be known as his own entity, away from his father’s fame, has transferred to his in-ring work in wrestling.
“This next year is going to be my year,” said Perry. “Jungle Boy is the best mix of it all. It’s a character, athleticism, and innovation—a character people are familiar with, but with a new energy.”
In other news...
• All Elite Wrestling made headlines yesterday, delivering fireworks—both literally and figuratively—at its public rally in Jacksonville.
The big revelation from the event was that the promotion’s first major show, “Double or Nothing,” will take place on May 25 at the MGM Arena in Las Vegas.
AEW will be working with the OWE promotion from China, will feature a women’s division, and showed off some of its outrageously talented roster that includes Cody Rhodes, the Young Bucks, Chris Jericho, and PAC, who was known as Neville during his time in WWE. SCU’s Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian, and Scorpio Sky are all also signed to AEW, as well as Brandi Rhodes, Joey Janela, Penelope Ford, Britt Baker, MJF, and Hangman Page.
AEW’s second show will take place at a yet-to-be-announced date in Jacksonville. The promotion did not announce whether it has yet to secure a television deal, but sources close to AEW have informed Sports Illustrated that the long-term plan is to run on Tuesday nights after SmackDown moves to Friday nights on FOX in October.
• Becky Lynch forced Carmella to tap out last night to walk away victorious in the SmackDown Live triple threat main event that included Charlotte Flair, placing her in a women’s title match against Asuka at the Royal Rumble.
SmackDown built to the match all night, and it certainly delivered. But as someone who would like to see Lynch in the main event at WrestleMania 35, I have mixed feelings over the result.
Would Lynch have been better off in the Royal Rumble match? A phenomenal story would have been Lynch lasting from one of the top spots in the Rumble, overcoming the odds, and winning the match.
Another complicating factor from a storyline perspective is that Lynch could win the SmackDown championship, which makes it unlikely that she would wrestle Raw champion Ronda Rousey at WrestleMania.
• The NFL playoffs continue this Saturday and although the Browns fell short of the postseason this year, Mike “The Miz” Mizanin believes his beloved Browns will be legitimate AFC contenders for the next decade.
“Let’s talk about the Cleveland Browns just for one second here,” said The Miz, whose Browns finished 7-8-1 in 2018 after going winless the prior season. “Baker Mayfield has turned this team around, [general manager John] Dorsey has turned this team around, [interim head coach] Gregg Williams has turned this team around. Oh my god, this team just has what it takes.”
The Browns play in the AFC North, which is a division historically controlled by the Steelers, who have an aging quarterback in 36-year-old Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers have generally beaten up on the Browns over the years, but The Miz is optimistic that is going to change.
“The AFC North is going down the drain,” said The Miz, who, along with Shane McMahon, will be challenging The Bar for the SmackDown tag titles at the Royal Rumble. “How long can Big Ben go, really? The Bengals aren’t the Bengals they used to be. The Ravens still look good, but they’re in a building phase. Losing Flacco and having Lamar Jackson could be a big difference. But when you look at who’s in the upswing right now, it’s the Cleveland Browns.
“Dorsey set this team up really nicely. We’ve had two really strong drafts, having Myles Garrett as a first rounder last year with [Jabrill] Peppers, and then coming in this year and getting Baker, [Nick] Chubb, [Denzel] Ward, and getting [Damarious] Randall to come in there. We need another really good draft and offseason and then we’re a playoff contender.”
• NJPW star Yujiro Kushida announced that, as of January 31, he will become a free agent and explore a new home in wrestling.
His impending departure from New Japan is significant. He is a six-time winner of the IWGP junior heavyweight championship, two-time Best of the Super Juniors champion, and, in many ways, the face of New Japan’s junior heavyweights.
Kushida’s desire is to wrestle as a heavyweight in the United States, and it is highly likely that his next landing spot will be WWE. If he does sign with WWE, it would be a mistake to place him in the cruiserweight division.
In a 2016 interview with Sports Illustrated, Kushida expressed his desire to wrestle as a heavyweight.
“I am the Junior Heavyweight champion, but here in U.S., I can get the heavyweight title,” said Kushida. “And I’m going to prove it.”
Featuring a blend of aerial maneuvers and traditional wrestling that is well suited to appeal to the North American audience, Kushida would be a great fit in the main event picture for WWE, especially on SmackDown.
In a 2017 interview with SI, Kushida noted that two wrestlers he held in high esteem are Daniel Bryan and Rey Mysterio.
“When I was a fan I really loved the American Dragon [Daniel Bryan] and Curry Man team and their chase for the IWGP junior tag championships,” said Kushida. “A guy like Bryan, or Rey Mysterio, they aren’t necessarily the biggest, but they still managed to get to the top of the business. As someone of roughly the same size, I really hold them in high regard. They’re proof you can live your dreams if you believe and work hard.”
New Japan announced Kushida’s final match will take place on January 29 in Tokyo at Korakuen Hall against IWGP heavyweight champion Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Kushida wrestled Kenny Omega for the IWGP junior heavyweight title three years ago at New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 10. But, unlike Omega, Kushida was never able to elevate himself from the juniors. A move to the United States, particularly in WWE, will allow him to greatly enhance his stature in the business.
• Conrad Thompson returns this Friday to “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” to discuss and examine the 1999 Royal Rumble.
“Vince McMahon, of all people, won the 1999 Royal Rumble,” said Thompson. “The idea, even two years prior, that McMahon would let alone be in the Rumble would have been viewed as ridiculous, but by ‘99, he’s the hottest thing in the business.”
Thompson will question Prichard on the psychology that goes into a Royal Rumble match, who enters when and where, and what, specifically, the company was hoping to accomplish with McMahon winning.
“The storytelling worked,” said Thompson. “This is Vince Russo’s last Royal Rumble, and they made the decision to go with Vince because he was the No. 1 heel in the business.”
Thompson has been involved in one of his busiest stretches in wrestling, traveling to the Tokyo Dome for last week’s Wrestle Kingdom and helping emcee yesterday’s AEW rally in Jacksonville.
Like countless other wrestling fans, Thompson mourned the death of “Mean” Gene Okerlund, and he honored the legendary broadcaster’s memory on last week’s podcast with Prichard and this week’s “83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff”.
“This Wednesday’s podcast with Tony Schiavone will be one of the best ‘Mean’ Gene tributes,” said Thompson. “Tony was a coworker of Gene’s in WWE and WCW, as well, and we have tons of audio clips of Gene. There will also be a fun little treat where we have Ric Flair do a run-in on the show. We never have guests, but we felt that ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund deserved to have someone he was so closely associated with, and he was very close with Ric Flair.”
Tweet of the Week
Yes, it’s fair to say Okada is over in Japan.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.