Courtesy of WWE

“Storyline or not, entertainment or not, that title meant the world to me,” Ciampa says. 

By Justin Barrasso
July 17, 2019

SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

Tommaso Ciampa: “I’m Going to NXT.”

Tommaso Ciampa last wrestled in February. But the former NXT champion—who was forced to relinquish his title due to injury in March—has put his blood, toil, and tears into returning to the ring.

And Ciampa revealed the destination he has in mind once he finally receives the green light to wrestle.

“I don’t know if people think I’m going to Raw or SmackDown, but here’s a spoiler, I’m not,” said Ciampa. “I’m going to NXT. If someone tells me anything else, I’m answering them with a no. I bleed black and gold. NXT is home. And I have unfinished business there.””

Ciampa underwent neck surgery (anterior cervical fusion) 18 weeks ago and while he has made progress, there is still no timetable for Ciampa’s return.

“I didn’t lose the title,” said Ciampa. “Storyline or not, entertainment or not, that title meant the world to me. I was ‘The Guy’ for NXT, the hottest brand in the entire world. I came through knee surgery and two shoulder surgeries to get to that point. That’s what I worked my entire career for, so giving up the title is not how I envisioned it ending.

“I am the best sports entertainer in the world. I always hear, ‘Sports entertainer? You’re a sell-out!’ Call me a sell-out if you want. I’m buying in. This is my brand. NXT is mine.”

NXT’s reigning champion is Adam Cole, and Ciampa has made no secret that he intends to be the one to dethrone him. But Ciampa also holds a deep respect for Cole, which was first built in Ring of Honor.

“When I was in Ring of Honor, Adam Cole was the champion,” said Ciampa. “When I won the title in NXT, in the back of my head, I told myself, ‘I have to do for this title what Adam Cole did for the Ring of Honor title.’ He was the champ and carried the company to a new level. My job was to create my own footsteps, but do the job he did. So I don’t have any hard feelings for Adam. The only disservice to Adam Cole is the second I get cleared.”

In addition to his 238-day reign with the title, Ciampa created the most memorable feud in NXT history with Johnny Gargano. Their TakeOver matches produced some of the most compelling moments in wrestling over the past decade. Ciampa’s title win over Aleister Black, who now stars on the main roster, was another statement from a man poised to be a legend.

Injuries, for now, have done their best to hinder Ciampa’s dreams. But the man who calls himself “Blackheart” sees neck surgery as merely another step on his stairway to greatness.

“I’m an entertainer and I’m really damn good at it,” said Ciampa. “I’m not the best at strictly wrestling, but this is a television show for an entertainment company. NXT, this is my baby. When you put together everything this business entails—the entrance, persona, and talking on a microphone, spontaneity, adapting to a live audience—that’s what I’m the best at doing.

“I can’t chain-wrestle with the best, I can’t fly with the best—but I talk with the best, I look the best, I perform the best. When I talk about being the greatest sports entertainer of all-time, I mean that. And when my music finally hits, Adam Cole and the rest of the world will again learn why I am the greatest.”

Unscripted Kevin Owens Given Freedom to Succeed in WWE

Kevin Owens is finally tapping into the elements that allowed him to shine in his pre-WWE days as Kevin Steen.

Owens dropped two stunners on Shane McMahon this week on SmackDown Live, and WWE is positioning Owens as a modern-day “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. The bearded, burly star is being presented as an everyman the audience can relate to and admire, and few are better suited for this role. Owens is wildly talented but is also far more relatable than a monster like Braun Strowman.

Known for his promos, Owens cut one last week on the selfishness of Shane McMahon that had the wrestling world paying complete attention.

Chris Jericho made waves after this past Saturday when he revealed during the post-Fight for the Fallen press scrum that the promo he cut during the show was unscripted and did not need prior approval by anyone at AEW.

Like Jericho, Owens is also working without a script, Sports Illustrated has learned. He is working off bullet points, but it is a move by WWE that shows tremendous faith in Owens.

An unscripted Owens is the performer that WWE desperately needs. He knows how to evoke emotion from the crowd, which he has done on the main roster since his debut program with John Cena. Somewhere along the way, Owens’ upward mobility was severely hampered by creative. But WWE is finally giving a chance to Owens, who is one of the best wrestlers in the world, with a shot at jumping to the top of the card.

Owens needs to make short work of Shane McMahon in their match at SummerSlam. McMahon is a fantastic addition to the card when used sparsely (i.e.: once or twice a year) but not weekly. If the program with Owens concludes at SummerSlam, then that is a perfect use of McMahon.

Jon Moxley Gives Full Support for the Rejuvenation of Big Cass

When Jon Moxley issued an open challenge during the Northeast Wrestling “Six Flags Slam Fest” show on June 15 in Jackson, New Jersey, Big Cass appeared as his surprise opponent.

Moxley won the match, which was competitive, and both wrestlers came away from the bout looking better than when it started.

Just as Moxley planned.

Cass, now known as CazXL, has endured a difficult stretch since he was released from WWE in June 2018. He just opened up about his battles with anxiety and depression, and he is now finally reaching a spot where he is making positive strides again in wrestling. His Madison Square Garden appearance during the Ring of Honor/New Japan G1 Supercard in April may not have caused the reaction that ROH had hoped for, but it was a memorable moment for Enzo and Cass.

Mox and Cass were roommates during their time together in WWE developmental territory Florida Championship Wrestling, which was the forerunner of NXT. Moxley personally requested the chance to work with Cass at Northeast Wrestling, Sports Illustrated learned, and their match also highlighted the star power of Cass.

Moxley and Cass are set for a rematch at Northeast’s “Wrestling Under The Stars” show on August 17 at Dodd Stadium in Norwich, Connecticut.

Josh Briggs Shines on the WWE Network EVOLVE Anniversary Show

Josh Briggs opened this past Saturday’s EVOLVE anniversary show with a statement win over “Retrosexual” Anthony Greene. He opened the match with a succinct promo on how he is the future of pro wrestling, and ended the match with a chokeslam powerbomb on Greene.

Briggs is a product of wrestling coach Mike Hollow, who helped build core skills early in the careers of Triple H, Chyna, and Matt Bloom. Billed at 6’7” and 285 pounds, Briggs is a legitimate big man but works a style that showcases his versatility. Briggs can bump, he can sell, and he can also deliver a blend of power and athleticism few other rising stars possess.

“The part that really made this past Saturday special was wrestling Anthony, who is one of my best friends,” said Briggs, who is getting married this fall and asked Greene to be one of his groomsmen. “But I always knew I’d have the opportunity to wrestle in front of the world.”

If Briggs appeared nonchalant over his WWE Network debut, it is not for a lack of gratitude. Yet he genuinely always believed he had the talent to succeed in pro wrestling, and his past—which included playing Division I college football at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst—helped prepare him for the moment.

“You have to be ready for these moments,” said Briggs. “I remember playing in front of a sold-out Penn State crowd of over 110,000 people in a game that was nationally televised on CBS. That helped get me ready for big moments in wrestling, and I knew I was prepared for the EVOLVE show.”

NXT star Johnny Gargano made an appearance during EVOLVE 132 this past Sunday, cutting a promo telling Briggs to be the promotion’s next champion. That championship belongs to Austin Theory, who is another star in the making, and a run with that title is exactly what Briggs is seeking.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Briggs, who worked extremely hard to recover quickly from tearing a piece of his groin and a few other ligaments. “I was supposed to be out four months but I came back after seven weeks, and I’m better than I’ve ever been before.

“I just had one of the best matches of my career in front of the entire world. And the plan has always been to be champ. I always wanted to get to EVOLVE, and now that I’m here, I don’t want to be anything but the top guy.”

Brian Milonas has a shot at tag team gold in Ring of Honor

Ring of Honor is on the precipice of an important weekend, with a show on Saturday at the Manhattan Center’s Hammerstein Ballroom headlined by Matt Taven defending the world title against Jay Lethal.

Only a day later, ROH is in Lowell, Massachusetts for its “Mass Hysteria” show that includes a tag team title opportunity for The Bouncers.

Brian “Brawler” Milonas and the Beer City Bruiser are The Bouncers, and they will challenge the winner of Saturday’s match between reigning ROH champions the Guerrillas of Destiny and the Briscoe Brothers.

Zia Hiltey/Ring of Honor

Weighing in at a combined weight of over 700 pounds, the duo is a throwback—and they offer a style in the ring that most fans are unaccustomed to seeing from such behemoths.

“Either way, we’re ready for a fight,” said Milonas. “The Guerrillas of Destiny have been dominating Japan for a long time, and the Briscoes are one of the greatest teams ever. Stepping in the ring with either of those teams is something we’re really looking forward to this Sunday.”

The 37-year-old Milonas began wrestling at the age of 20. He remains a staple in the New England wrestling circuit, and is now on the receiving end of an opportunity in ROH he has worked nonstop to achieve for nearly two decades.

“I’m an overnight success that took 17 years,” said the humble Milonas. “For me, it took a little while, but it’s different for everyone. When Kofi Kingston was with Chaotic Wrestling, it took him about nine months to get signed. Dominik Dijakovic, TK O’Ryan and Flip Gordon, those are guys who had incredible success in a short amount of time. But my time in wrestling makes me appreciate the opportunity even more. Everything I am today is a culmination of 17 years of learning, practice, and listening.”

The card will be available to watch on ROH’s HonorClub streaming service, and regardless of opponent, Milonas is grateful to return home. He grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire, but has worked in Lowell more than any other town in his career.

“If I wrestled another 10 years, it still wouldn’t be possible for me to total the amount of matches I’ve had in Lowell,” said Milonas. “I’m coming back here with Ring of Honor to challenge for the Ring of Honor tag team championships. My family will be there, my friends, and even fans who’ve been watching me since I cut my teeth at Chaotic Wrestling, so this is pretty cool.”

The 6’4”, 425-pound Milonas earned his opportunity in ROH through depth of character, versatility, and his willingness to be a utility player.

“This business is all about evolving,” said Milonas. “You can’t work that 1980’s King Kong Bundy style any more, but at the same time, I’m not going to do flips. I’ve always stayed true to myself, and that won’t change.”

The Bouncers offer a drastically different look from the vast majority of today’s stars, but they also provide variety in a business that is always seeking something out of the ordinary.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish so far, especially for us to look like we do and be the type of wrestlers that we are in an elite place like Ring of Honor,” said Milonas. “We’re going to continue to make waves in Ring of Honor. There isn’t another team like us.

“The Bouncers are ready to take over the world and throw either the Guerrillas or Briscoes out of the club. And this is just the beginning for us—tag team titles, runs in Japan and Europe, and more. Sunday night is going to be a real big night for us.”

Michael Kingston Bringing Headlocked to San Diego Comic Con

The San Diego Comic Con, one of the premiere comic cons in the world, has finally arrived. WWE will have a massive presence at the event, as will Headlocked creator Michael Kingston.

Kingston created the Headlocked comic book in 2007, relishing the opportunity to merge wrestling and comics. He has created his own path over the past twelve years, working with a plethora of stars to make Headlocked the single most definitive comic about wrestling. Kingston is also a presence at comic cons around the country, and he is bringing a lot of star power to San Diego.

Joining Kingston in Booth 1901 at the San Diego Comic Con will be Dolph Ziggler and Scott Steiner, as well as Women of Wrestling owner Jeannie Buss, who also owns the Lakers, WOW founder David McLane, and premiere talent Tessa Blanchard.

“WOW was trying to get a presence in San Diego, and AXS TV put them in touch with me,” said Kingston. “Their second season is coming up on AXS and they wanted to get noticed, and it’s a great fit—I’m putting wrestling into comics, and WOW is all about putting superheroes into wrestling.”

Kingston’s booth will have prints on sale, including a phenomenal Scott Steiner grindhouse-style poster and a piece of art paying tribute to Becky “Two Belts” Lynch.

“We’re also giving away 100 of a WOW print that is designed look like an old X-Men comic cover,” said Kingston. “Those are for the first 100 people to line up for the Jeanie signing on Saturday, and it’s free and they’ll also be signed for free.”

Kingston will travel to different comic cons and wrestling shows throughout the summer, including the Northeast Wrestling shows in August.

“My goal has always been to make a better experience for wrestling fans at comic cons,” said Kingston. “I’m so grateful about what we’ve built, and Headlocked is all over the place. If this year is any indication, we’re going to be in even more places, too.”

The (Online) Week in Wrestling

• Welcome back, Bray Wyatt. 

• Don’t mess with Strowman. 

• Best wishes to the legendary Harley Race, who still has his fighting spirit at the age of 76

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An update that have been wanting to know about in regards to the boss's situation over the weekend. This past weekend, he was scheduled to attend the Knoxville Fanboy Expo. While traveling to Knoxville, he exhibited some signs that needed to be addressed by medical personnel. He has been in the hospital since Thursday evening and that's where he currently is. Due to privacy concerns, no specific information will be given out about his current health status or anything of the sort. All that can and will be said is that Harley Race was, is, and will always be a fighter. He doesn't know anything else and he hasn't thrown in the towel and he has promised that as long as it is up to him, that won't be an option. His health is obviously top priority and with that being said, all of his upcoming appearances will be immediately cancelled. All promoters have been notified about the situation and we here are currently trying to come up with a solution to rectify the situation the best way possible. Unfortunately, since this situation has taken place while traveling to a signing, he is currently in a hospital that is pretty far away from home that has his family there with him. So, in an effort to help out with the un-expected expenses, we are selling t-shirts of which profits will be given directly to the situation. The link to purchase the t-shirts is below. We appreciate the support whether or not you purchase a t-shirt. This is just a little extra help when it is needed. The price of the shirt that has an exclusive design for both front and back prints are $24.99 (plus S&H). All shirts are going to start to be shipped on August 9, 2019. Regardless, please continue to support Harley Race, The Harley Race Wrestling Academy, and World League Wrestling. All events and camps are going to take place as scheduled and we look forward to keeping it that way because that is what Harley Race would do. We look forward to getting him back home and continuing to have the Greatest Wrestler on God's Green Earth. To order, visit http://www.harleyrace.com/hrfundraiser.html

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PWInsider’s Mike Johnson reported that WWE executives were extremely pleased with the response to EVOLVE airing their anniversary special on the WWE Network

• Our friends at Kayfabe News delivered an entertaining “report” on Eric Bischoff’s return to WWE

Conrad Thompson Previews This Week’s “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard”

Conrad Thompson has two noteworthy podcasts dropping this week, including a thorough look at the Canadian Stampede pay per view on “Grilling JR” on Thursday and a new episode of “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” for Friday that delves into the career of Jim Ross.

Thompson and Prichard will examine Ross’ run with WWE, which was partly engineered by Prichard in 1993.

“They first met when Jim Ross was working for Bill Watts in Mid-South Wrestling, and Bruce helped JR get his foot in the door with Vince McMahon,” said Thompson. “And we’ll spend a lot of time on the behind-the-scenes stuff, looking at the real man behind the black hat.

“It should make for one hell of a show, and I know a lot of our hardcore ‘Something to Wrestle’ fans like the personality profiles the best, and I can’t think of a better one than Jim Ross.”

Thompson’s “Grilling JR” show is cohosted by Jim Ross, and they are exploring one of the most entertaining pay-per-views of the past 25 years in the 1997 Canadian Stampede.

This show was Bret Hart’s last great moment as a full-time, active member of the WWE roster. The main event featured a 10-man tag pitting Hart, Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, and Brian Pillman against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the Legion of Doom, Ken Shamrock, and Goldust. But Thompson and Ross will discuss the original plan for the show, which included Shawn Michaels in the main event. Considering the crowd in Calgary boisterously rejected any opposition to their beloved Hart Foundation, an appearance by Hart’s archrival would have been unforgettable.

“Goldust was not scheduled for the original main event and The Undertaker was not originally slated to face Vader,” said Thompson. “The original plan also included Shawn Michaels in the 10-man tag main event. Imagine him teaming with Austin, Shamrock, and the Legion of Doom? And we’ll cover all the behind-the-scenes moments of the World Wrestling Federation in 1997, and you’re going to get a heaping helping of Canadian Stampede, which is coming your way.”

Tweet of the Week

Austin’s return is one of the many reasons that next week’s Raw is its most highly anticipated show of the year.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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