Matt Cardona won the biggest match of his career on Saturday and did so in the most authentic way possible, creating a viral moment by being himself.
As Cardona stood in the ring, attempting to celebrate the victory while being pelted with all kinds of debris, he was hit with the realization that he had accomplished what he set out to do.
“Tasting my own blood and hearing those boos, I knew we had something special,” says Cardona, who was covered in blood at the conclusion of the match. “But it was all worth it. I’m the new deathmatch king.”
His victory over Nick Gage at GCW’s Homecoming show in Atlantic City earned him the promotion’s top championship. The win marks Cardona’s first world title, which is remarkable given the length and success of his career.
“All my life, I wanted to be a pro wrestler,” Cardona says. “Ever since I was 18, that’s what I’ve done with my life. But I didn’t just want to be someone on the card. I wanted to be a superstar, a champion.
“This title is a big deal. I was fortunate in WWE to win the tag team title twice, the intercontinental title and the United States title, but the GCW title is my first world title. So people are absolutely crazy if they don’t think I’m going to treat this as the biggest thing in the world. I took the title to Disneyland and posed in front of the castle.”
The Cardona-Gage program has been exquisite. Cardona has been presented as a WWE-lifer, a story that does not stray from the truth. His 15-year run with WWE built the Zack Ryder character into a genuine commodity. He is the perfect foil for Gage, who is wrestling’s premier hardcore star. Gage, who spent five years in prison after being convicted on bank robbery charges, has built a tremendous following, which he only enhanced this week on Dynamite in his AEW debut against Chris Jericho.
The Cardona match was a clash of styles, personality and approach. Cardona leveraged his star power at Homecoming, helping GCW attain the No. 1 trending spot on Twitter, which is even more remarkable considering there was a UFC card taking place at the same time, as well as the Olympics.
“I knew we’d draw a buzz, but I never thought we’d trend over UFC and the Olympics,” Cardona says. “That’s pretty damn incredible. We’ve built something that people are invested in, and they wanted to see if I’d get beat up or if I’d actually win.”
Cardona is one of the most endearing performers in all of wrestling. It constantly felt as though he was under-utilized in WWE, but he still had some magical moments, particularly winning the ladder match for the intercontinental title at WrestleMania 32. Yet he was clearly the villain in the GCW feud against Gage, who is beloved by his home fanbase.
“I’m not trying to be a heel; I’m being myself,” Cardona says. “It just so happens that this audience in GCW doesn’t like me. I had fans there in Atlantic City, but the more vocal fans were the ones that didn’t want me to win. And there were people there that genuinely didn’t want me to win, throwing water bottles and beer bottles at me. People threw pizza cutters at me. That’s crossing the line.
“But boo me all you want. I won’t quit. I’ve proven that time and time again. I’m so fortunate for the time I had in WWE. I had some great moments there, moments I’ll never forget. But I dare anyone to find somebody that’s been written off and come back more times than me.”
A low blow, light tubes and Radio Silence were all part of Cardona’s finishing sequence. The crowd at the Showboat erupted after Cardona won, hurling bottles and cans into the ring as he was crowned the new champion.
“Originally, I thought we could have a little celebration in the ring after I won,” says Cardona, who quickly realized that would not be the case. “I have the Major Wrestling Figure podcast and we have a sponsorship with Pabst Blue Ribbon, so I wanted to do a toast in the ring after I won with Pabst Blue Ribbon. But I couldn’t even get to the beer because they were throwing so much crap at me. It wasn’t like it was a water bottle here or there. That stuff was coming at me. It was crazy.”
The emotion from the crowd caught Cardona off guard, but he was well prepared for an onslaught of punishment in the match, especially against an opponent like Gage.
“Going into this match, I knew I was out of my element,” Cardona says. “I’d never done a deathmatch before. I’d never even seen a Nick Gage match from start to finish. I tried to watch the Dark Side of the Ring [episode on Gage], but it was just too gory and too gross. But I give Nick Gage all the credit in the world. I respected him before the match, and I respect him even more now after the match.
“I knew I was going to get cut up. I knew there were going to be light tubes, I knew I was going to bleed. That’s why I wore all white. I wore pants, I taped myself all the way up. I tried to be as safe as possible. I didn’t want to get involved with glass or pizza cutters, but when you’re in there with Nick f---ing Gage, things happen. I went through two panes of glass. I took the pizza cutter. When you’re in there with Nick, anything goes.”
GCW owner Brett Lauderdale was not surprised that the Cardona-Gage match went viral, and his belief in the two stars was rewarded with a genuinely memorable moment when Cardona won the title.
“Matt Cardona is a legitimate superstar with a massive, engaged following,” Lauderdale says. “He brings an entirely different fan base and set of eyes to GCW. He is a bridge to a fan base that in large part never knew GCW existed. What he’s done in his short time is incredible. It's more than a publicity stunt or cheap heat.
“Cardona came into an environment that was completely foreign to him both in the style of match he did with Nick, but also the GCW environment. This is a passionate indie wrestling fanbase that doesn’t traditionally care for a guy like Matt Cardona, a former WWE star. He had to come in and prove himself, and he did just that. He earned the respect of a lot of people in the indie wrestling community with his approach and performance.”
Now that the inaugural Cardona world title run has begun, the possibilities for the future are endless.
“I’m the face of this company, and I believe I can change this company for the better,” Cardona says. “This company is special and has its diehard audience, but I want to bring more mainstream attention and make it a little more professional. We’re going to get ring aprons to start. At its core, this company works, and I want to bring it to the next level.”
Cardona possesses the gift of making a manufactured business feel very real. That authenticity comes from his 17 years in the industry, as well as a passion developed from a pure love of professional wrestling.
“I don’t try to prove people wrong,” Cardona says. “I try to prove people who believe in me, and myself, right. This journey has been a roller coaster ride, and people have been behind me since my YouTube days, since I came back from obscurity to climb the ladder and become the intercontinental champion at WrestleMania.
“Wrestling is all about moments. My story is scratching and clawing, and when I get my moments, like I did last Saturday, it’s even that much sweeter because people know I’m busting my ass to make it happen.”
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.