SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
John Cena on His WWE Future
John Cena is in no hurry to return to the grind of the WWE.
Cena’s new movie, Playing with Fire, opens in theaters this Friday, and the WWE icon is now fully immersed in his acting career.
“I literally give my life, willingly, to WWE,” said Cena, who has been a fixture of Vince McMahon’s wrestling promotion since WrestleMania XX in 2004. “But you shouldn’t be the same person you were yesterday. You should always evolve and grow and change. I want to make sure I still love what I do. I never want to get to the point where I steal your money just to get your money.”
Even though his presence would instantly give a significant boost to SmackDown on Fox, there are no current plans for a Cena return.
“Professional wrestling is a wonderful industry, but it’s also extremely addictive,” said Cena. “It’s addictive because it makes you feel relevant, it makes you feel important. It can fill the void of a lot of things that you may not be brave enough to face. It also pays really well, so you get attached to the financial security. It allows you to make irresponsible financial decisions because you think the money’s always going to be there.
“The fan base has seen some wonderful individuals look a step slower. I just don’t want to be that person. People like Steve Austin and Dwayne Johnson, they have done it perfectly.”
Like The Rock, Cena has successfully transitioned from pro wrestling into acting. He plays a starring role in Playing with Fire, alongside a talented cast that includes Keegan-Michael Key and John Leguizamo.
“It’s a family movie that should be seen in theaters around other families,” said Cena. “I take my WWE experience with me to movies. If I read the script and like it, at least I know I’m going to do my best. And this film really resonated with me from the start.”
Cena plays the role of Jake Carson, the superintendent of an elite group of firefighters known as smokejumpers. His character is stoic, yet comes alive next to the comedic brilliance of Keegan-Michael Key.
“Keegan is the most underrated, under-appreciated actor in Hollywood,” said Cena, whose chemistry with Key was undeniable. “People often use the word ‘funny,’ but it doesn’t do him justice. I learned so much from him, and that was not only him spewing out wisdom, but also watching him perform.
“It was like being in the ring with Shawn Michaels for the first time. Shawn Michaels can make a broomstick look good, so when you’re put with Shawn Michaels, you shut the f--- up and you let him do his thing. When you’re put in a scene with Keegan, you let him do his thing and take the moments when you can.”
There was a time in Cena’s career when acting merely interfered with wrestling, but the situation is now reversed.
“Originally, I did movies—12 Rounds, The Marine, a lot of the WWE Films movies—because I was explained that it would be good for the WWE business model,” said Cena. “At the time, I didn’t want to be in movies, and that’s because I loved being a WWE champion.
“Nowadays, I’m a storyteller. I love telling stories and being able to entertain an audience, whether it’s immediately or a year-and-a-half after you shoot a film. I have my 10,000 hours on the canvas. I can see the ones and zeroes. I fancy myself with being able to have perspective of that.”
Expanding his acting portfolio has provided Cena with a deeper appreciation for Dwayne Johnson, the same man he repeatedly criticized for deserting WWE in pursuit of attaining success in Hollywood.
“I’ve told Dwayne Johnson that when I called him out for a lack of love for WWE, I was wrong,” said Cena. “I was ignorant. He loves WWE, but he goes from shooting one project to the next. He blazed a trail and I didn’t understand that, but now I totally understand. I was wrong. It led to a good piece of business in WWE [at WrestleMania 28 and 29], but I was speaking from a point of selfish ignorance.
“When you’re filming, there is simply no way to be with WWE. You just can’t. Even when we don’t film on Sundays, if I come back for a weekend show and get hurt or break my nose, I could jeopardize the entire film. Movies force you to make the choice. When you sign on for this, this is what you have to do–and this is what I am so excited to do.”
Now 42 years old and a 17-year veteran of this business, acting has given Cena a new challenge beyond the wrestling ring.
“Any athlete that has played 17 seasons will tell you they need to be considering what to do when they play their last game,” said Cena. “It’s been a wonderful ride. I’m at a very reduced workload now. I feel great, I still have my health, my sanity, and wonderful emotional balance.”
Cena hopes his wrestling audience will enjoy Playing with Fire, confident that the same type of hustle he once displayed in the ring will now be felt on screen.
“I love this film,” said Cena. “It’s the type of film the whole family should see together. I can’t wait for people to see it.”
The Fiend and Brock Lesnar Take Top Spots
Bray Wyatt is the new WWE Universal champion, having defeated Seth Rollins last Thursday at the “Crown Jewel” show in Saudi Arabia.
The following night, Paul Heyman announced that Brock Lesnar, effective immediately, had quit SmackDown and is now a part of Raw. Lesnar’s stalking of Rey Mysterio was a highlight of this past Monday’s Raw, and the promo from Mysterio about fighting fire with fire is a really solid build to their matchup at Survivor Series.
While the move makes sense—with two world titles, Raw needs one of the champs—Lesnar’s move to Monday nights makes the recent draft something of a waste of time. But his ongoing program with Rey Mysterio should be compelling, especially if Cain Velasquez, who was defeated in under three minutes by Lesnar at Crown Jewel, can re-emerge and play a role in the feud.
Velasquez is fairly new to wrestling, and the match with Lesnar was the first singles match in his career. The decision to book him in an MMA-style match in his debut, and then almost immediately tap to Lesnar, is hard to fathom. Velasquez represents a big acquisition, who was nearly guaranteed to sign with AEW, and that was a forgettable debut. WWE, Vince McMahon in particular, seemed intent on having Lesnar avenge his UFC loss to Velasquez from 2010.
Could Velasquez return as a heel, ultimately turning on Mysterio and aligning with Heyman and Lesnar?
“I don’t see that happening,” said Velasquez during a media session with Sports Illustrated leading up to Crown Jewel. “I belong with Rey. Being with Rey puts me in a situation where I’m most comfortable.”
If Velasquez were ever to turn heel, Mysterio would certainly make him shine in their matches.
As for Wyatt, his title run kicked off with a win against Rollins on Thursday. “The Fiend” won one pay-per-view too early—or one pay-per-view too late. He could have won the belt at Hell in a Cell, or even the upcoming Survivor Series, but the decision was made to have him win the belt in Saudi Arabia.
I wish WWE would allow Wyatt to be the villain of his matches through his heinous acts instead of forcing the narrative with the dimmed red lights that completely remove the idea that wrestling is supposed to be rooted in competition.
Rollins and Wyatt wrestle for different brands, and it will be interesting to see the direction WWE takes Wyatt beginning this Friday on SmackDown. Hopefully “The Fiend” avoids teaming up with the rest of the SmackDown roster in the battle against NXT and focuses on wreaking his own unique brand of havoc.
Lots of Unanswered Questions Surrounding WWE’s Trip to Saudi Arabia
Even with all the in-ring action, the focus after Crown Jewel quickly shifted from the show to the flight home.
WWE’s charter flight, which was scheduled to depart at approximately 3 a.m. local time, was delayed, per the Atlas Air airline, “due to a mechanical issue.” The aircraft remained on the tarmac for over six hours. WWE revealed that more than 175 people were on that flight, many of whom were originally scheduled to work Friday’s SmackDown in Buffalo.
A statement from Atlas Air also noted, “We regret that operational disruptions delayed the flight and apologize to our passengers who were inconvenienced.”
Vince McMahon and his staff had already left without issue. Others—including Brock Lesnar, Paul Heyman, Hulk Hogan, and Ric Flair—had separate flights and were also able to fly out of Saudi Arabia without issue. Heyman and Lesnar opened SmackDown this past Friday.
There was also a separate charter flight back to the United States that Fightful reported included, among others, Roman Reigns, Bray Wyatt, and Shinsuke Nakamura. WWE’s press release noted that, “… several Superstars felt so strongly that they arranged for their own separate charter in order to make it back to the U.S. for [SmackDown].” That charter did not return in time for the talent to work SmackDown.
The story has been subject to rampant speculation, including a potential disagreement between McMahon and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman over late payments. The inference to be made was that the flight was purposely delayed as a result of the dispute, which is certainly plausible, but there is no concrete evidence to support that as of yet.
The story continued to develop this past Monday, as WWE and the Saudi General Entertainment Authority announced that their live event partnership has been extended through 2027 and will “include a second annual large-scale event,” as well as that “WWE and GEA also continue to work towards the completion of a media agreement in the MENA region.” The last line of the statement read, “This long-term partnership demonstrates WWE and GEA’s commitment to bring sports entertainment to the region and supports Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.”
Sports Illustrated will report on the story as it continues to develop.
Kenny Omega Returns to Japan for DDT Show
Kenny Omega worked for DDT Pro in Japan from 2008 to 2014, and he returned to the promotion this past weekend for the Ultimate Party card at Sumo Hall in Tokyo.
Omega teamed with AEW women’s champ Riho, who was his first-ever partner in a mixed tag match, to defeat Miyu Yamashita and Antonio Honda, who was a longtime rival of Omega’s in DDT.
Omega now stars for All Elite Wrestling, and he will undoubtedly advance his story with Jon Moxley on tonight’s edition of Dynamite before the two meet this Saturday in a non-sanctioned match at the Full Gear pay-per-view.
Replacing Omega is an unreasonable task for any promotion, and his departure left a wide gap within New Japan Pro Wrestling. Omega has not appeared with New Japan since dropping the IWGP Heavyweight title to Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom last January.
One member of the New Japan roster that has helped carry the company since Omega’s exit has been Will Ospreay.
Ospreay has been an important part of New Japan since he first arrived in 2016, but his matches over the past 11 months have produced some of the best work of his career. Currently in his third reign as IWGP Junior Heavyweight champ, Ospreay defeated Bushi this past Sunday at the Power Struggle card in Osaka.
While it is impossible to make people forget that Omega is no longer a part of New Japan, Ospreay’s innovative style certainly adds a special element to any card on which he wrestles.
“People have compared me to Kenny Omega,” Ospreay told Sports Illustrated. “If you want to compare me to Kenny, that’s absolutely fine. But right now, I’m not Kenny. I respect and admire that man so much, but I have my own vision for what pro wrestling is, and the vision is to have as much crazy fun as I physically can.”
Ospreay is set to wrestle the returning Hiromu Takahashi on January 4 at Wrestle Kingdom 14, which is night one of a two-night affair.
“The thing that Will Ospreay can bring to the table is something no other man in the world can do right now,” said Ospreay. “In order to become the best in the world, I need to put New Japan on my back. I aspire to be like Okada and Tanahashi, and bring an entirely new style to New Japan Pro Wrestling.”
The (Online) Week in Wrestling
- If you haven’t already watched Daniel Bryan-Adam Cole from this past Friday’s SmackDown, it was a brilliant finish to the best edition of the show this year.
- SI’s Jimmy Traina spoke with Renee Young about her own career, and she offered some fascinating perspective on her time on Raw commentary—as well as touched on her husband Jon Moxley’s work in AEW.
- Moxley’s promo on last week’s Dynamite is a reminder that he might be the best promo in wrestling.
- The Young Bucks’ Nick Jackson, who is also an EVP in AEW, throws cold water on the possibility of his promotion teaming up any time soon with New Japan.
- Former WWE star Joey Mercury—who worked backstage for Ring of Honor from May to October—ripped ROH to shreds this past week on Twitter.
- ROH has considerably less buzz and fanfare than it did a year ago, but its roster remains extremely talented—though it will be worth watching to see who leaves the company when certain contracts expire at the year’s end.
- A reminder of the brilliance of Sting.
- A new 205 Live show will air immediately after SmackDown this Friday on the WWE Network.
- Memories of Roddy Piper’s greatness instantly flooded my mind upon seeing this text.
- MLW’s pay per view this past Saturday delivered an exciting card and was extremely well-priced ($19.95); it will be exciting to see how the promotion builds upon the show.
Impact Wrestling Raising Funds for ODB
Impact Wrestling is holding two “ODB Appreciation Nights” this upcoming weekend during its television tapings in New York’s Melrose Ballroom.
ODB is Jessie Kresa, a former four-time Impact Knockouts champion and a key part of the women’s division since 2007. Impact is looking to give her support after her food truck was destroyed in a fire in September.
“Impact has always been my home, they made ODB,” said Kresa. “They helped me build the brand I have today, and I’m so thankful for it. And for them to do this, holy crap. It feels pretty damn cool to have them stand by me.”
Kresa explained that the income she made off the truck served as a major part of her finances. She also extended gratitude to those that have donated to her Indiegogo fundraiser.
“I’d just had a new exhaust fan put in a few weeks beforehand, so maybe it had something to do with that,” said Kresa, who hopes to have her truck back in operation by March. “My insurance people haven’t done much to help, so I’m grateful for everyone’s support. I never realized how loved I was in this business, and I’m so grateful for the love I’ve been getting.”
Impact Wrestling currently employs one of the business’ top performers in Tessa Blanchard, who is set to make a run at new champ Sami Callihan. Kresa reflected on the way in which women have evolved in pro wrestling, especially during the course of her career.
“Back in 2007, when the Knockouts division was built, that was the start of a new evolution,” said Kresa. “The women in TNA were so different, with different shapes and sizes. Other shows were doing pillow fights, but you didn’t see that with us. It was awesome back then, and it’s been great to see what’s happened the past few years, especially with chicks headlining WrestleMania—that’s pretty damn cool. These girls are busting their ass, and it’s pretty cool to be a women’s wrestler right now in this business.”
Kresa is not currently scheduled to wrestle this weekend in New York, but, just in case, she’ll be ready to jump into the ring.
“It’s a wrestler’s rule to always bring your gear,” said Kresa. “And I’ll have my gear with me.”
Conrad Thompson Previews Upcoming Slate of Podcasts, Ready for Starrcast IV
Conrad Thompson unveils a new episode of “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” this Friday, looking at the 1985 Wrestling Classic show that was full of potential but largely failed to deliver.
“I wish Bruce was still in Saudi, but unfortunately, he’s back,” kidded Thompson. “We’re going to go through the entire Wrestling Classic, and what an interesting show it was, but it’s a strange card with some comically short matches. Bruce is only a few months away from working with the WWE, and we look at that show, which is so interesting to see in a time capsule.”
The 15-match pay-per-view featured Hulk Hogan defending the world title against “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and the 16-man “Wrestling Classic” tournament that included a litany of future legends in “Macho Man” Randy Savage, the Junkyard Dog, the British Bulldogs’ Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Adrian Adonis, Tito Santana, and Terry Funk.
“The finals of the tournament end in a count-out, and the booking on this entire card is fascinating,” said Thompson. “Bruce didn’t book it, but he knows how Vince thinks, and we’re really going to dig into what Vince McMahon could have been thinking.
“It’s an old-school wrasslin’ promotion type of card, and I really like the idea of watching the old stuff with Bruce. Hopefully he’s in a better mood than last week when he was looking for a magic carpet.”
Thompson also has new podcasts out this week with Jim Ross and Arn Anderson, delivering Q&A episodes on “Grilling JR” and “Arn,” as well as an in-depth look at the AAA’s When Worlds Collide show from November of 1994 on “83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff.”
“That show was produced by WCW, as Eric was still looking to make a profit, which he’d learned wasn’t as easy as it originally looked,” said Thompson. “He’s looking for an underserved market, and he noticed the success in California. So he rolled the dice, ran an experiment, and this was All In before All in.
“It’s a breakout performance for Chris Jericho, it’s a breakout performance for Eddie Guerrero and Art Barr, and this is the show that puts Rey Mysterio on the map.”
The pay per view benefitted greatly from the insight of Mike Tenay on the broadcast, one of the most knowledgeable to ever wear a headset in wrestling.
“Eric couldn’t say enough about Mike Tenay,” said Thompson. “When it came to the color commentary, no one could touch him.”
Tweet of the Week
Recently released by Impact, Scarlett Bordeaux has the potential to be the next mega star for WWE.