SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
Roman Reigns Backs Seth Rollins as Face of WWE
WWE has a roster full of stars who grew up envisioning themselves as the face of the company, but the reality of those responsibilities is exceedingly harsher than any boyhood dream.
No single figure, aside from John Cena and CM Punk, has been thrust into the WWE’s glaring spotlight quite like Roman Reigns over the past decade.
Reigns knows the grind, from endless travel to the amplified magnifying glass attached onto one’s personal life. So he offers a unique perspective on Seth Rollins’ ongoing journey to become WWE’s singular star inside and out of the ring.
“There is a lot to being the face of WWE,” said Reigns. “It’s not only about being in the ring. It’s about how you represent, and that is a 24-7, 365 job. You’ve got to be on all the time for 52 weeks a year. But I’m telling you now, my brother is legit.”
Intimately familiar with the grind of professional wrestling, Reigns—who is cancer survivor Joe Anoa’i—is making the most of his precious time spent away from the ring. He has teamed up with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to serve as a voice for people, particularly children, battling the deadly disease. (Reigns’s full discussion with Sports Illustrated on his new role with LLS will run this Friday in a Q&A on SI.com.)
He has also resumed the bulk of his WWE schedule since his cancer went into remission and he returned in February, giving him a front row seat to Rollins’ ascension to WWE’s top babyface.
“I was so proud of him and what he did at SummerSlam against Brock Lesnar,” said Reigns, who made magic—and grew close—with Rollins and AEW’s Jon Moxley (formerly Dean Ambrose) during their time together in The Shield. “He obviously had one of those weeks where the Twitter machine and the Internet went nuts on him, but he bounced back and answered the call.”
Social media hasn’t always been an ally to Rollins, at times by his own doing in Twitter spats with Sasha Banks and New Japan’s Will Ospreay. But Reigns expressed confidence that WWE, and its passionate fan base, are in the best hands with Rollins leading the way.
“Is he passionate?” asked Reigns. “God, yes. Is he blunt? Of course, that’s why I love him. He doesn’t sugarcoat, he’s very honest, and he is passionate, and he was born for professional wrestling.”
Rollins and Reigns were both in action at Sunday’s “Hell in a Cell” pay-per-view. Reigns teamed with Daniel Bryan in a wildly entertaining tornado tag team match against Luke Harper and Erick Rowan, while Rollins made headlines during his Hell in a Cell match with “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt that ended in disappointing fashion.
“Seth loves the WWE,” said Reigns. “That’s why some people misread some of the things he says or the ways he delivers it, but he does mean well. He’s a workhorse. Yeah, he’s a little live at the mouth sometimes, but he’s got a heart of gold, trust me.
“Whether he’s on Raw or SmackDown, the WWE is in good hands with him as champion.”
AEW and NXT Make Two Different Impressions in Debuts
All Elite Wrestling won the initial ratings battle last week against NXT, as its Dynamite premiere posted 1.409 million total viewers, significantly more than NXT’s 891,000 total viewers.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is no surprise that NXT got thumped by such a large margin in the ratings.
AEW has had their plan in place for nearly 10 months, while the same cannot be said for NXT. This was no more apparent than in the first two weeks of NXT airing on the USA Network, when the show only aired for an hour on USA before returning to the WWE Network for the second and final hour because USA still had a prior commitment at 9 p.m. ET.
In the 18—49 year old demographic, AEW also had a resounding win, posting 878,000 viewers, according to The Wrap, with only 414,000 viewers in that age bracket for NXT.
Based on the demographics, AEW is appealing to a younger audience than NXT. That is a significant concern for WWE.
The Cody Rhodes/Sammy Guevara video package to open last week’s match on Dynamite was tremendous, and gave off a UFC pay-per-view vibe. It was smart, too, as just like in the UFC, you never know how long or short a wrestling match will be, but builds excitement nevertheless. These documentary-style videos can be grounded in reality while also remaining storyline based, which should be leveraged to AEW’s advantage.
AEW’s finer points still need to be worked out, but the show’s promotion was immaculate and all but ensured a ratings victory in the opening week. The presentation was bright and vibrant, and delivering a show in a big arena with an elaborate stage and big-time broadcast team played a big part in its success. Another of AEW’s biggest strengths is that it is largely an unknown commodity. NXT, on the other hand, has been around for six years, so people may have already made up their mind whether they are going to watch the product.
AEW won the opening week’s ratings battle, if not the critical acclaim.
NXT may have looked second rate, but it featured the better matches. Johnny Gargano, Shayna Baszler, Io Shirai, Matt Riddle, and The Undisputed Era all wrestled, and there were appearances from Finn Balor and Tommaso Ciampa. That group forms a core that any promotion, including AEW, would long to have.
Interestingly, even though the matches were better on NXT last week, they felt more important in AEW.
The AEW women’s title match between Riho and Nyla Rose was a perfect example. The two missed a handful of spots, but their match felt more important than Shayna Baszler vs. Candice LeRae for the NXT Women’s Championship or even Io Shirai-Mia Yim. In a vacuum, the NXT matches were better, but they felt less consequential in direct comparison.
Moving forward, NXT needs to keep delivering the same type of show as it did last week. They desperately need to avoid knee jerk changes and doing guest appearances like WWE did with its failed version of ECW. A key for NXT is making sure that the USA Network remains happy. There are also questions for AEW, including how its look and presentation will translate in smaller venues.
The ratings win does not hide the fact that there were missteps on the opener for AEW. Too often, the show took for granted that the fans knew all the key characters. If casual fans tuned into TNT, there was limited context on AEW’s stars. People know Chris Jericho, Cody Rhodes and Jon Moxley from their time in WWE, but many mainstream fans do not know Kenny Omega, and he needs a proper introduction as one of the most elite wrestlers in the world. The announce team of Jim Ross, Tony Schiavone, and Excalibur is going to have to work overtime to tell the stories of the wrestlers.
Also, since AEW is a pay-per-view-centric show, they are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to giving away major matches. The success of the WWE Network has led to fans no longer being conditioned to consistently pay for a pay-per-view that has a $30-$50 price tag.
AEW didn’t eclipse the Raw rating from two nights prior, which had to matter to Vince McMahon, but WWE inexplicably gave awareness and credibility to their competitor by issuing this statement last Thursday: “Congratulations to AEW on a successful premiere. The real winners of last night’s head-to-head telecasts of NXT on USA Network and AEW on TNT are the fans, who can expect Wednesday nights to be a competitive and wild ride as this is a marathon, not a one-night sprint.”
This battle has the potential to be the most fun we’ve had in wrestling in a long time. Week two continues later tonight, and I will be covering the AEW show in-person for Sports Illustrated.
Beyond Wrestling’s Discovery Gauntlet an Important Piece of ‘Uncharted Territory’
An essential part of Beyond Wrestling’s weekly Uncharted Territory show is its Discovery Gauntlet.
The concept is not complicated: if you win your match, you are guaranteed to be back the following week.
The wrestlers in the Discovery Gauntlet matches are independent wrestlers seeking to build their standing in the business. This week’s show features Manders in his debut against Tony Deppen, who defeated Daniel Garcia on last week’s show. The winner will face AJ Gray in his first Uncharted Territory appearance next week.
Placing a spotlight on emerging talent is a key part of Beyond founder Drew Cordeiro’s strategy.
The core of Uncharted Territory is giving indie talent a chance to be highlighted on a weekly basis, pushing independent wrestling forward in spite of an overarching model across the industry where professional wrestlers are signing exclusive contracts at an unprecedented rate. So the backbone of the Discovery Gauntlet is developing the next crop of independent stars week by week.
The entire Discovery Gauntlet series is more about building a roster of new indie stars more than just spotlighting one wrestler, but there have already been individual success stories.
Thomas Santell went from someone largely unknown in independent wrestling to significantly raising his profile in a matter of a couple of weeks as a result of his Discovery Gauntlet matches. Christian Casanova defeated Santell, then went on to compete for Evolve and Ring of Honor in the same week. Following his Discovery Gauntlet matches, Australia’s Mick Moretti went on to compete in PWG and Chikara’s King of Trios tournament. Tristen Thai signed with Major League Wrestling after his Discovery Gauntlet match against Moretti.
Daniel Garcia also significantly raised his profile, then went onto wrestle for EVOLVE. Despite her loss in the Discovery Gauntlet, Leyla Hirsch also raised her profile and she is now wrestling in Germany with wXw.
This season’s entrants are a mixture of tryout camp participants and IWTV partners. Thursday’s match on Uncharted Territory offers a chance for Manders and Tony Deppen to take their first step toward exposure and notoriety in this business.
The (Online) Week in Wrestling
- Braun Strowman-Tyson Fury was well done, though the standard-bearer for these encounters will always be “Stone Cold” Steve Austin-Mike Tyson… but is Fury’s presence in WWE meaningful enough to justify a loss for Braun?
- The creation of AEW DARK and the immediate replay of Dynamite right after the show ends (to watch what you missed while flipping back-and-forth to NXT) are two extremely smart ideas from AEW.
- MJF’s “surprise” appearance from the New York Comic Con was phenomenal.
- Interesting to see other athletes, including UFC’s “Thug” Rose Namajunas, believing in AEW.
- You can’t say he isn’t consistent… Hulk Hogan is pushing for one more match, potentially in Tampa at WrestleMania 36.
- Master P—who wrestling fans may recall from the No Limit Soldiers in WCW—is coming back to pro wrestling.
- Dave Meltzer is correct—you can’t advertise the likes of Austin/Taker/Sting and fail to deliver.
- If Edge is medically cleared and coming back to the ring, he isn’t letting on…
- Congratulations to the NWA for last night’s successful premiere of NWA Powerrr.
Lilian Garcia Making the Call for the Professional Fighters League
Wrestling fans tuning into the Professional Fighters League playoffs will be treated to the sound of a familiar voice.
Longtime WWE ring announcer Lilian Garcia is the PFL’s cage announcer, and she is thrilled to be part of the innovative MMA promotion.
“The PFL is doing something so different and so exciting,” said Garcia, who will be introducing the fighters during Friday night’s playoff fights on ESPN+ and ESPN 2. “People need to tune in, and it’s so different than other promotions in MMA.”
Garcia is embracing the new opportunity, as well as the chance to introduce the PFL fighters with a combination of respect and flair.
“Every single one of the PFL fighters are giving their bodies to this, so every time someone enters the cage, I want to make it special,” said Garcia. “It’s been really gratifying to give these bigger-than-life introductions. One of the PFL fighters, John ‘Doomsday’ Howard, even thanked me. He said, ‘The last thing I remember before I got into Ray Cooper’s face was you saying, ‘It’s about to get real,’ and that sparked something in me. That ignited me.’ So to hear that my introduction meant something to him, that was incredible.”
After 17 years spent working with WWE, Garcia is forever intertwined with the company. She has dedicated her podcast to sharing the stories of the women and men that have created unforgettable moments in wrestling.
“For years, wrestlers had such a stigma, but, in reality, they had these amazing stories,” said Garcia. “My whole purpose with the podcast is for people to get to know who they really are and the struggles they’ve overcome. I’m humbled by what people are sharing on the podcast, and it’s taken it to another level. It’s been so fulfilling, especially now that I’m no longer full-time with WWE.”
The podcast has allowed wrestlers a safe platform to speak and share their stories.
“When Paige was having a really difficult time with her sex tape coming out, she told me she felt comfortable to speak with me,” said Garcia. “She shared all these incredible things from where it sent her, going to a mental institute—and the love she received from being so open and so vulnerable, she couldn’t believe it. Offering that safe platform, where people are not exploited, that means the most to me.”
Garcia, who returned to WWE for the Raw Reunion show in July, is hopeful that wrestling fans will check out her new work with the PFL.
“Make sure you’re watching this Friday,” said Garcia. “It’s about to get real.”
Indie Spotlight With AC Mack
One of wrestling’s most promising prospects is AC Mack.
Only three years into his career, Mack has lit up the independent scene all over the south. He has worn the ACTION Wrestling championship for the last 306 days, and he added the Southern Underground Pro Bonestorm championship to his collection this past weekend—adding even more meaning to two of the southeast indie scene’s top titles.
The 27-year-old was born and raised in Atlanta, backing up his ring introduction that he is from the SWAT—the Southwest Atlanta Territory—and his work is reminding the U.S. indie scene to look no further than the south.
“We really want everyone to take notice,” said Mack. “There’s a little more sauce on it down here in the south. The characters are louder. It’s a certain type of attitude, and we have a chip on our shoulder. So many people automatically think of the northeast when they think of indie wrestling, but it’s just like with hip hop in the early 90s—the south is knocking on their door.”
Mack began training in 2016, but was first struck with the epiphany that he would be a pro wrestler at the age of 14 while he and his friends were restlessly awaiting the start of WrestleMania 22.
“That’s the night I knew,” said Mack. “Me and my friends were waiting for the show to the start and we went to the local jungle gym and put on our own matches. People in the neighborhood actually started coming out of their houses—we thought we were in trouble, but they came out to watch our freestyle. Once I started, I just didn’t want to stop.”
Mack studied the craft from the teachings of AR Fox, one of the most underrated wrestlers in the business.
“Fox eats, breathes, and lives wrestling,” said Mack. “He’s one of the best in the world, and this is all he knows and all he wants to know. He allowed people like me and Austin Theory to be who we wanted to be, and he gave us the tools to make ourselves better and make ourselves shine. Training was long, but it wasn’t boring and it was never the same.”
A highlight of Mack’s young career took place in May, when he stood in a Southern Honor wrestling ring as he came to the aid of Kenny Omega, who was on the receiving end of a beatdown from Chris Jericho.
“It was really hard for me to be professional backstage,” said a smiling Mack. “I’m meeting Cody Rhodes, Jericho, Omega, and I felt like, ‘Who am I to be in the vicinity of these legends?’ They were super, super nice, asking our opinion, making the moment that much more awesome. I remember the fans cheering for me, that was dope. Taking a chair shot from Jericho, that was dope. Jericho even mentioned us on his podcast by name, he listed us all. That was a crazy night, we had over a thousand people in the building, and it unfolded into something really special.”
Another milestone for Mack was working an NXT show last December, where he wrestled Dominik Dijakovic.
“That was another surreal moment,” said Mack. “Norman Smiley was our agent, and I’m backstage getting advice from Triple H, my all-time favorite. And Dijak was incredible, even DMing me after the match on Twitter.”
Mack’s success is the product of his innovative nature in the ring and comfort on the mic, and he is willing to put in the work to conquer even bigger dreams.
“AC Mack is me turned up by ten with a little bubbly in the system,” said Mack. “I’m inspired by a few different people—my drunk uncle down in southern Georgia and my favorite artist Kanye West. He makes people feel something, and I wanted to take that urban attitude, that swagger, and take it into professional wrestling. That’s AC Mack.”
Wrestling provides a creative outlet for Mack, especially on the indie scene.
“The indie world is all about trendsetters,” said Mack. “I love seeing something start bubbling in the indies and it grows to the point where you see it in WWE. It could be a move, a gimmick, a spot, or a storyline, and it’s so underground that you have to search for the hidden gem on the indies that grows into the mainstream. And the fans, they’re the ones who make independent wrestling so cool.”
Mack offers an old-school skillset in the ring combined with new-age athleticism. He is more of a striker than a mat technician or a flyer, and he is methodical in the way he attacks an opponent’s body part and capitalizes upon their mistakes.
After winning the SUP Bonestorm belt, which he adds to a collection that includes the ACTION Wrestling title, Mack’s exposure continues to grow within the business.
“ACTION is special because each show is a benefit show,” said Mack. “We highlight a charity and the proceeds go to that charity. I’m the perfect person to represent ACTION because it’s something that is new, it’s in your face, and it’s making waves.
“Behind the scenes, they’re really big on seeing their talent grow in the entire industry as a whole. ACTION is the reason I was booked during ‘Mania weekend up in Jersey, and the reason I was booked in Jefferson, Indiana. ACTION is my home, and I’m proud to make history there.”
As for what comes next, Mack is looking to expand his reach throughout independent companies across the United States.
“I want AC Mack everywhere and on everything,” said Mack. “I’m a big advocate for the south, but I want other regions to know who I am, too.”
Conrad Thompson Previews Next Week’s Episode of “Arn”
Conrad Thompson returns this week with a new slate of podcasts, and his newest edition of “Arn” takes a deep look into Arn Anderson’s retirement speech in August of 1997.
Real, raw, and emotional, Anderson’s retirement speech took place on Nitro and still stands as one of the most emotional moments in WCW history, as he offers up his spot in the Four Horsemen to Curt Hennig.
“There’s such a distinct human element to this show with Arn,” said Thompson. “Bruce Prichard and Eric Bischoff were or are in the office, so they have a much different relationship account than those who were in the ring. Arn was a beloved figure in wrestling, and he wasn’t necessarily a top guy. This episode on his retirement speech is a great example of that.”
Next week, Thompson and Anderson look at one of the most pivotal singles matches in the career of “The Enforcer” against Ric Flair.
“Fall Brawl in 1995 is one of the biggest moments of Arn’s in-ring career, and it’s the only time he threw up before a match because he was so nervous,” said Thompson. “He was wrestling his best friend, not just on camera, but also in life, the ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair.
“Longtime NWA fans knew these two were as thick as thieves, so it was different to see them on opposite sides and finally having this match. Most of the guys in the business thought Arn was the most underrated performer in the business, and Flair was the most celebrated. To see them finally squaring odd against each other was special.”
Tweet of the Week
That was a classy response from Matt Hardy, who is well aware that people are only gifted so many second chances in life. All our best wishes to Jeff Hardy.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.