SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
Sasha Banks: ‘It’s been such a long journey to make this happen’
Both in and out of the ring, Sasha Banks continues to make headlines.
Banks, the 27-year-old Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado, is an extremely passionate performer. She remains a valuable part of the women’s division, and is one of the most talented and popular performers in all of wrestling.
But according to numerous recent reports, Banks was unhappy enough with the last-minute creative decision to lose the tag team titles at WrestleMania that she even attempted to give her notice to WWE.
Although the outcomes in the ring are predetermined, there is no doubt that titles matter. And despite her continued success for WWE, Banks’ title reigns have been, in a word, underwhelming.
Banks is a four-time Raw women’s champ, but her combined runs with the title stands at only 82 days. Her 49-day tag team title run with Bayley is the longest amount of time she has held a championship on the main roster, which can help explain why a performer at Banks’ standards may be frustrated.
The arrival of Ronda Rousey signaled significant progress for WWE’s women’s division, but the company’s seminal women’s wrestling match is still the NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn main event from August 2015 featuring Banks and Bayley. That was the match that began paving the way for WrestleMania 35’s main event of Rousey, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte Flair.
“It was a dream match,” Banks told Sports Illustrated in an interview that took place during WrestleMania weekend. “To know that helped make a difference and helped start us on the right path to the first-ever women’s main event at WrestleMania, it’s wild. It’s only four years later. It’s amazing, it’s beautiful.”
Banks was also especially proud of her work with Bayley as The Boss ’n’ Hug Connection, who won the first-ever WWE women’s tag team titles in February in a tag team Elimination Chamber match.
“It’s been such a long journey to make this happen,” said Banks. “We’re fighting to make it special. But I’m blessed, blessed I can do this with her, and [to have gone] into WrestleMania as the first-ever tag team champions.”
Before they were tag champs, Banks had an on-again, off-again feud with Bayley that seemingly had no beginning or end. She also put together an entertaining match with Rousey at January’s Royal Rumble, and has proven on multiple occasions that she can bring out the best in Charlotte Flair—who, by contrast, is an eight-time champion with 654 combined days as champ.
Sports Illustrated has learned that Banks is consistently one of the top merchandise sellers in the women’s division. So why isn’t she given a long-term run with a championship?
Banks does not share the same lineage as Flair, but she has every reason to exercise her right as a performer when discouraged by creative storylines. This is no different than Steve Austin, Hulk Hogan, The Rock, or nearly any other power broker in WWE history voicing concerns over the direction of their storyline.
The next step for Banks will be fascinating, especially after she was split up from Bayley in this week’s Superstar Shakeup. Will she try to force her way out of WWE? Or can the company restore her faith with a satisfying long-term storyline?
Even with so many parts of the story still unknown, one certainty is that Banks is far from finished creating new headlines.
WWE’s Superstar Shakeup creates new opportunities — as well as frustration
The biggest announcement of WWE’s newest edition of the “Superstar Shakeup” is that Roman Reigns has moved from Raw to SmackDown Live.
The move is beneficial to Reigns, who can now work with a different set of opponents on Tuesday nights. Just as importantly, the move is significant because it keeps Reigns away from Seth Rollins. Rollins is the current Universal champion, and needs time, especially as a babyface, to establish Raw as his show. The presence of Reigns makes that extremely difficult to do, which is why he was moved to SmackDown Live. Reigns is now also the featured face when SmackDown moves to FOX this October.
There were also backstage frustrations regarding the Shakeup.
While two off-screen couples—Jimmy Uso and Naomi, and Aleister Black and Zelina Vega—were kept together on the same brand, Charlotte Flair (SmackDown Live) and Andrade (Raw) were split.
While the first two couples are married, Flair and Andrade are dating, which should also be taken into consideration. Flair and Andrade recently went public with their relationship on social media during a post-WrestleMania vacation and were immediately split up, which is unfortunate timing.
Another key part of the Shakeup is AJ Styles’ move to Raw. “The House That Styles Built” now moves to Monday, which is WWE’s flagship show (at least until SmackDown moves to Fox in October). WWE essentially flipped Styles with Finn Balor, who moved to SmackDown.
Styles has primarily starred on SmackDown during his WWE run, and his addition to Raw adds some excitement to Monday nights. He also has not spent much time working with Seth Rollins, which immediately adds a fresh, must-see matchup to Raw.
King Brian Anthony set to defend his crown against David Arquette
Royalty is coming to Connecticut.
King Brian Anthony will bring his royal entourage to Northeast Wrestling’s WrestleFest XXIII on Friday, April 26 in a no-count-out, no-disqualification match against David Arquette.
The 33-year-old Anthony is a product of Bethel, Connecticut and a 12-year veteran of Northeast Wrestling.
Wrestling as “The King” may seem outdated in 2019, but Anthony has perfected the character and performs it in a way that is easy for fans to hate.
“It’s so different than what’s out there on the independent scene and in WWE, and it gives me a chance to be creative,” said Anthony. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my career.”
Anthony started his career as a disciple of Matt and Jeff Hardy, who were revolutionary in their ability to take their craft to the air and sacrifice their bodies. Unfortunately for Anthony, that approach was costly.
“In the late ’90s and early 2000s, I had my run doing crazy moves,” said Anthony. “But I had a few serious injuries and my body just couldn’t handle it anymore. I herniated a couple discs in my neck and needed some plastic surgery on my face. That was enough for me to change gears. I grew up loving characters and getting invested in them, so I went back to a different time period with the king.”
Anthony is a Northeast Wrestling staple, with his first appearance for the promotion taking place 12 years ago in April 2007. He has made himself invaluable ever since, and playing the role of “The King” allowed him to engage in a feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler, who has been a Northeast Wrestling mainstay for the past two decades.
“That was the perfect opportunity, and we had a great year out of our ‘King versus King’ feud,” said Anthony. “That just got better and better as it went on, especially at our Redemption show in November.”
Northeast’s Redemption show took place last November and was main-evented by Kenny Omega wrestling Fenix in what turned out to be a ‘Match of the Year’ candidate. The Anthony-Lawler bout stood out on that card for its originality and old-school wrestling feel.
“People in that crowd wanted to see Jerry throw me from pillar to post, and we gave them something special,” said Anthony. “That night was a career highlight.”
Anthony lost to Lawler due to interference from David Arquette, who he wrestles next week at WrestleFest XXIII. The Anthony-Arquette storyline began even before that, starting in September of 2018.
Anthony interrupted Arquette at a restaurant, then again during a radio interview, before using questionable means to defeat Arquette in a tag match last September. Arquette returned the favor by costing Anthony his match at the Redemption show in November against Lawler, and the two even fought among the crowd at this year’s WrestleCon autograph signing during WrestleMania weekend.
“People are itching and screaming for David Arquette to finally get his revenge on me,” said Anthony. “I know that’s what they want, but unfortunately, they’re not going to get it. I can’t even begin to tell you how much pride I’m going to take in disappointing everyone.
“It’s going to be the greatest night ever—April 26 in Danbury, Connecticut—when everyone’s jaws drop and I beat David Arquette, ending his tyrannous wrestling return.”
The (Online) Week in Wrestling
• Roman Reigns is featured in this week’s print edition of Sports Illustrated.
You can also read the story online.
• Luke Harper went to Twitter yesterday to announce that he has requested his release from WWE.
• Using a hashtag of #impregnationvacation, Ronda Rousey also announced her current plans on Instagram.
• Hurricane Helms responded to Sexy Sky’s claim that her Lucha Underground title win inspired the WWE’s women’s revolution.
• WWE’s production team did a fantastic job with this “Behind the Scenes at WrestleMania 35” video:
NJPW “Very Proud” of MSG show
New Japan Pro Wrestling made history at Madison Square Garden, crowning a new IWGP Heavyweight Champion on American soil for the first time during the G1 Supercard with Ring of Honor on April 6.
New Japan General Manager Michael Craven worked out the contract with Ring of Honor, and he spoke on the meaning of the Madison Square Garden show.
“We worked on a collaboration deal for the contract,” said Craven. “I think it was the first time in wrestling history that professional rights were discussed, and it truly was a 50-50 partnership, which we are both very, very proud of.”
Both NJPW and ROH benefited from the showcase, which also saw Matt Taven defeat Jay Lethal and “The Villain” Marty Scurll to win the ROH championship.
“The show was a culmination of two separate entities working together in harmony,” said Craven. “My first task for New Japan was working with Ring of Honor on the Madison Square Garden show, and then we passed it onto our US team, and they also did an exceptional job.”
New Japan has ongoing plans to to make inroads in the United States, and the chance to wow a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden is a massive step forward for the company.
“To have our stars—our Japanese stars and our international stars—in the center of the sports universe was unbelievable,” said Craven. “I’m at a loss of words for what it means for everyone. The cheers and the roar from the crowd was just phenomenal, and that is a memory for us that is going to last a lifetime.”
This week on “Something to Wrestle”
Conrad Thompson returns this Friday to “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” to discuss the 2004 Backlash pay per view headlined by WWE champion Chris Benoit, Shawn Michaels, and Triple H.
“We’re looking at the 15-year anniversary, which featured a main event rematch from WrestleMania 20,” said Thompson. “They got a half hour in that match, which was even longer than the match at ’Mania.”
Benoit, Michaels, and Triple H shared tremendous chemistry in their triple-threat matches, but the match that stole the show at Backlash was a “Hardcore Match” for the Intercontinental title between a 24-year-old Randy Orton against Cactus Jack.
“That’s the match that everyone remembers,” said Thompson. “This is the match that makes Orton a ‘made’ guy.”
A unique aspect to Backlash was the opening match, which featured Ric Flair against Shelton Benjamin.
“It’s weird to see a show start with Ric Flair,” said Thompson. “Seeing Flair open a show as opposed to close a show is quite different.”
A collection of colorful personalities combined to make Backlash a successful pay per view, including the late Rosey, the late Garrison Cade, Tajiri, and Victoria.
“We’ll also touch on La Résistance, and there is a lot of rumor and innuendo surrounding those two guys,” said Thompson. “There was so much start-and-stop with them, and Rosey is one of the unsung characters, especially in his superhero tag team with Hurricane Helms, which was super entertaining.”
Thompson will seek an explanation from Prichard as to why Vince McMahon decided to have a rematch of his WrestleMania XX main event less than a month later.
“It’s rare to go back to a WrestleMania main event, and I want to see what the plans were for Benoit,” said Thompson. “WrestleMania was Benoit’s crowning moment, so was this a reinforcement that Benoit was the top guy? So why was this the right match, and what challenges did it present the performers to make it different? Usually, when you come back with the same matchup, WWE adds a stipulation—but there were no stipulations here. And we’ll look at WWE’s transition, as they’re trying to find their footing after WCW went down.
“This is a real transition period with Benoit and Eddie Guerrero as the new champs, and we’ll touch on the brand split, which is why Benoit is on this show and Guerrero is not.”
Tweet of the Week
Is there a more likeable person in wrestling than NXT champion Johnny Gargano?
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.