The Week in Wrestling: AXS TV’s Mark Cuban Hopes for More Live NJPW Specials
SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
Mark Cuban Sees Value in Pro Wrestling
New Japan Pro Wrestling continues to extend its reach in the United States, and an integral piece of that success is its partnership with Mark Cuban’s AXS TV television network.
“We are always looking for great content for the network and New Japan Pro Wrestling is the best pro wrestling in the world,” said Cuban, who is the CEO of AXS TV but also well-known as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and for his work on Shark Tank. “AXS TV has a great track record of acquiring top international content in sports and entertainment and adapting it for the U.S. market.”
Cuban is an advocate of AXS TV’s live NJPW specials, the next of which will be the “G1 Special in San Francisco” in prime time on Saturday. He noted that the specials are a way to thank the audience who watch New Japan every Friday night on AXS TV, as well as draw new viewers.
“They are a great way to reward viewers of the weekly show and to increase the fanbase in the United States,” said Cuban. “The viewership and social engagement for live specials in the U.S. explodes as it expands the audience outside of those who will stay up all night for events from Japan.
“We also want to thank New Japan Pro Wrestling and the wrestlers for the great promotional support leading up to the ‘G1 Special in San Francisco’ on July 7. Kenny Omega, Cody and the Young Bucks have all been in the AXS TV studio shooting promotional material and Kenny Omega, Cody, Jay White and Juice Robinson have participated in media calls to promote the live event.”
Cuban’s AXS network was not originally known for sports entertainment, but he assembled a team, led by AXS TV Fights CEO Andrew Simon, to produce and engineer a “Friday Night Fights” series that includes New Japan.
The live special includes a main event featuring IWGP heavyweight champion Kenny Omega vs. the “American Nightmare” Cody Rhodes. Cuban noted that pro wrestling shares connective tissue with movies, sitcoms, and sports because compelling characters are needed in order to make a show worth viewing every week.
“New Japan is the best in the business at long-term storytelling that has a payoff,” said Cuban. “The tension between Kenny Omega and Cody has been building on AXS TV since June of 2017 when Cody tried to ‘throw in the towel’ during Kenny’s title shot with Okada. Add in the iconic voice and storytelling of wrestling Hall of Famer Jim Ross and MMA champ Josh Barnett for July 7, and you have must-see TV.”
The billionaire Cuban first made his money through the Broadcast.com online startup that was eventually purchased by Yahoo, and now that he is in the wrestling business, he is certainly taking note of the events taking place around him. WWE just agreed to new television contracts with NBC Universal and Fox, with NBCU agreeing to pay $265 million a year to keep Raw on the USA Network for the next five years, as well a separate deal with FOX that will earn WWE another $205 million per years for the rights to air SmackDown.
“No, I’m not surprised,” said Cuban. “WWE provides 52 weeks a year of solid ratings for both RAW and SmackDown.”
Considering the value of pro wrestling, Cuban is also exploring further ventures that will allow AXS TV’s relationship to build with New Japan. He confirmed that AXS TV and New Japan are working together to find more creative ways to engage viewers, with possibilities including live specials from Japan.
“Our team is excited by the recent hiring of Harold George Meij as the new CEO of New Japan Pro Wrestling,” said Cuban. “His stated goal of increasing the amount of English content and increasing the international fanbase offers many opportunities for us to work together. We look forward to hearing his long-term strategy and having AXS TV play a major role in New Japan’s U.S. expansion efforts.”
How The Undertaker’s Theme Helped One War Veteran Walk Again
The United States of America celebrated its 242nd birthday this week on the Fourth of July.
Pro wrestling and the United States share a long and distinguished history, with patriotism serving as an integral part of the business for some of wrestling’s biggest stars.
Wrestling is also a source of joy for many service members, including United States Marine Chris Hancock, who lost both legs during the War in Afghanistan.
His decision to serve the country was directly attributed to the horrific terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.
“I wanted to step up,” said Hancock. “I wanted to do something that mattered on a bigger scale than myself, so I enlisted straight out of high school. I literally left on my birthday in 2005 after I turned 19.”
Hancock spent 9 1/2 years in the military until he was medically retired with an honorable discharge.
“I was blown up in 2011 in Sangin Valley during the War in Afghanistan, and I lost both my legs there, along with many other people, in an IED blast,” said Hancock, who was on a combat mission when the improvised explosive device exploded. “I had to go through a whole recovery process to get back to a new way of living.”
Wrestling has continually given joy to the 31-year-old Hancock. Watching Raw every week is a connection to his childhood, a bridge to his life before the war and in advance of the 50 surgeries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
In addition to the physical rehabilitation following the loss of his legs, Hancock also fought a mental battle—the once fearless, bulletproof Marine was forced to accept that he could no longer walk.
“There was a conversation when I was going to physical and occupational therapy when someone said I needed to find something that pushed me,” said Hancock. “I had to walk and get to that ‘new normal.’”
Wrestling reappeared during the darkest moments of Hancock’s life. After his legs were blown off in war, he found the inspiration to walk again when he listened to The Undertaker’s entrance music.
“I used my son as motivation,” said Hancock. “He needed his dad to be living, so I found Undertaker’s entrance theme song and put it on my phone. It has a slow, methodical, almost robotic tone to it, which was the same way I was learning to take my steps. I can’t tell you how many times I listened to it.”
Slowly, Hancock rose back from the dead, just like ‘Taker had done time and again on screen in the WWE.
“I used Undertaker’s music to mask my pain,” said Hancock. “The more I listened to it, the more it worked and the more I walked.”
WWE’s stories share a common struggle, whether that is working toward a championship or settling personal differences with foes. Hancock sees a direct parallel to the military.
“We’ve got our own struggles, moving through different operations and traveling the world, and you test your limits to move forward,” said Hancock. “You hold onto certain personas to try to move forward in life.
“For me, I’ve taken little bits and pieces from The Undertaker so I can live my life again. A lot of people might think that’s cheesy, but I don’t care. I’m still here.”
The Tennessee native made extreme sacrifices for the United States, choosing to protect and serve his country, which is an act of heroism, yet paid an unfair price in losing both his legs. Despite his hardship, Hancock explained that there is no sense in staying angry.
“I made the choice in 2005 to join the Marine Corps,” said Hancock. “There are circumstances out there that are beyond people’s control, whether that is in the Marine Corps or everyday life around the world. Yes, you could be mad, but in that environment, it is to be expected that you will witness or experience something on that scale. War is hell. I made that choice to be there.”
Hancock is still without his legs, and there are even days when Hancock wakes up and he does not want to put on his prosthetic legs. Yet the sacrifices Hancock made for his country still stand, as he and his fellow service members stood up for a certain way of life and freedom, then served to ensure its future.
Emotional wounds take time to heal. Hancock admits that he still slips into darker places, but he has also used his resilience to persevere. He has run both the New York City and Boston marathons.
“Missing a portion of my limbs, I never knew I could walk four miles or dive back into the pool,” said Hancock. “The body is an amazing thing. It can recover from some of the most atrocious things possible.”
Hancock now spends his time as the father to his son, grateful for every moment.
“I want to be the best dad for my son that I can be,” said Hancock. “I want to watch him grow up and see him attain manhood, and go through all the things he’s destined to do.”
In other news…
• An extremely compelling part of HBO’s “Andre The Giant” documentary on HBO occurred when Hulk Hogan showed off the meticulous notes he took preparing for his main event with Andre.
“I don’t normally do that,” said Hogan. “It’s all about instinct in the ring for me, but I had to do it there.”
Hogan, who will celebrate turning 65 this summer on August 11, spoke with Sports Illustrated about the moments before his WrestleMania III match against Andre.
“Vince came to me panicking,” said Hogan. “He didn’t know if Andre was going to put me over or not. I don’t care what anybody says. Vince said to me, ‘I know Andre is going to do the right thing.’ But that doesn’t mean Andre agreed to put me over. The ‘right thing’ may have been to beat me.
“Andre was ‘The Boss’ and he knew better than all of us. If Andre wanted to beat me, that was fine with me. I’ve got nothing but respect for Andre. At the end of the day, if it was a real fight, he could have beat me. If he felt that beating me was best for business, then I’d have agreed with him.”
Hogan recently returned to Florida after appearing at a fundraiser with Jimmy Hart to benefit the Stony Brook Children’s Hospital in East Meadow, New York. With a return to the ring unlikely, Hogan looks back fondly on the moments that helped make his career so legendary.
“I’d been on Andre’s bad side before, and I did not want Andre to know I wrote a bunch of notes about the match because that went against everything Andre believed in,” said Hogan. “That went against our art form. I wrote it down to give Vince an idea of what we’d do; we argue, he throws a punch, I block it, hit him with two, go for the slam, then he slams me once, slams me twice, stands on my back, and I’m thinking, ‘Holy s---, he’s doing exactly what I wrote down.’ It really caught me off-guard.
“The only thing I told Vince was, ‘Brother, I can write this match out.’ I don’t normally do it, because it’s normally all instinct. I listen to the crowd, I listen with my heart, and I listen to what the people want. I never talk about the match like a lot of these guys do, because sometimes when they talk about the match, it doesn’t work but they keep doing what they talked about. I said to Vince, ‘I wrote this down simply to give you a base if you need to talk with Andre about anything. But if you show him what I wrote down, I’m dead.’ If Vince had showed Andre that I wrote the match out, he was going to have a red-and-yellow blood spot in the middle of the ring.”
• The world mourned last week as Matt Cappotelli’s courageous battle against cancer came to an end.
Cappotelli, who was WWE’s Tough Enough III winner alongside John Morrison, passed away on June 29 at the age of 38 after fighting brain cancer for more than 12 years.
I last spoke with Matt on September 18 of last year. Ohio Valley Wrestling’s Rip Rogers was running a benefit show a few days later with the proceeds being donated to Cappotelli’s medical expenses, and despite the difficult struggle he had to endure on a daily basis, Cappotelli only wanted to speak about others.
“I’m extremely grateful,” said Cappotelli, as his German Shepard barked in the background. “People have taken time out of their day just to tell me they’re praying for me and thinking about me, it’s just amazing all-around. There are so many positive and good things that have come from such a dark situation.”
Cappotelli always had a little extra fire in his voice when discussing his wife, Lindsay:
“My wife, she’s the main-eventer,” said Cappotelli. “Every pay per view, every TV event, she’s the main event. “Just a little fact for you, we got married two months after my first cancer diagnosis. She’s been there through the thick of it, and she continues to be a rock star. From preparing my meals of this special diet that I’m on, to mowing the lawn or doing all these things that I’m not energized to do, and just picking up the pieces and making this thing fit together.”
My condolences to Cappotelli’s wife and loved ones.
• This week’s Raw developed the feud between Roman Reigns and Bobby Lashley, as well as more cartoon antics from Braun Strowman.
Reigns was in two tag team matches on Raw, with both ending in disqualification. The tag match seeing Reigns and Seth Rollins against Dolph Ziggler and Drew McIntyre included more outstanding work in the ring from Rollins, and the four shared some strong chemistry. The tag match of Reigns and Bobby Lashley against The Revival did not feature that same chemistry or cohesiveness. Reigns and Lashley have a big opportunity in their match at Extreme Rules, with Lashley looking to prove he is still a main-event caliber talent following a terrible storyline with Sami Zayn. And no one in the WWE has a brighter spotlight on his matches than Reigns, who will be tortured by the crowd in Pittsburgh with a poor showing.
Braun Strowman’s nonstop antics of flipping cars and spearing port-a-potties has run its course. Strowman is supposed to be a monster that wreaks havoc in WWE, not a cartoon character capable of superhuman feats.
SmackDown featured a fantastic opening segment with Daniel Bryan and Kane that touched on their shared history as well as logically explained why they are pairing together in pursuit of the Bludgeon Brothers. Personally, I would have preferred that Bryan made the pin to defeat The Usos instead of Kane, but overall, it was an entertaining way to start and finish the show.
• Juice Robinson is days away from his biggest opportunity during his time in New Japan Pro Wrestling when he challenges Jay White this Saturday at the Cow Palace outside San Francisco for a shot at the IWGP United States title.
The 29-year-old Robinson wrestled for WWE as CJ Parker in NXT for three years, but he requested his release in 2015.
“If you rewind my career back to NXT when I was CJ Parker, I came out there with a bunch of colors in my hair and a bunch of colors in my gear, I danced, I was flamboyant, over-the-top, and they ate me alive and booed the s--- out of me,” said Robinson. “I hadn’t proven myself to them. I didn’t show them I was a good worker. Now fast-forward to 2018. I have the confidence, I’ve proved to Japan that I love this and I’m going to wrestle my ass off for as long as I can here. I’m being myself and I’m not playing a character, and I think people can relate to that.”
Robinson, who is from Illinois, is a far cry from the Parker character, mainly due to his confidence, presence, and skill in the ring, which have all grown exponentially during his time abroad in Japan.
“Now American fans are starting to see my work again,” said Robinson. “All of a sudden, they’re saying, ‘Juice Robinson? He doesn’t suck anymore.’ I love wrestling so much there was no way I wouldn’t be good at it. Otherwise, I’d die trying.”
Robinson was recently seriously injured, breaking bones in his left hand. Yet he still plans on putting out the best match possible in his attempt to win his first New Japan title.
“It’s the biggest match of my career, for sure,” said Robinson. “There is going to be some time put in, and it sucks that my hand hurts, but it’s almost the perfect cherry on top to the Juice Robinson story. I get a little closer every time, a little closer every time, and now here’s this f------ injury, so how on earth will I have a chance against Jay White?
“And I’m not really a move guy. There are a lot of guys in New Japan with all the moves. Shoot, between Ospreay and Mike Elgin, is there a move left? I don’t think so. I’m not a move wrestler, but I like the stories and the moments in wrestling. Beating Kenny Omega in last year’s G1 was the biggest moment in my life, and that was a f------ victory roll for a 1-2-3. It ain’t about the moves with me, but at the same time, I hope the hand is good enough to be able to do the amount of moves I have to in order to tell the story I want to tell.”
Robinson’s attempt to become the first IWGP United States champion actually from the U.S. takes place this Saturday, and he sees the match as an opportunity to prove to New Japan that he can be trusted to carry one of their titles.
“If there are titles that matter anywhere, it’s in New Japan,” said Robinson. “This U.S. title means a lot to me, especially knowing what the company wants to do in America.”
• Marty the Moth has shared some behind-the-curtain access to the Lucha Underground universe:
• WWE returns to Madison Square Garden this Saturday in a show that includes the return of The Undertaker to the “World’s Most Famous Arena”.
Charlie Adorno will be in the crowd at MSG for the show, which is something he has done for every WWE card at the Garden since 1982.
“I went to a good amount of shows from ‘75 to ‘82, just not consecutively, but I’ve been going consecutively to every show at the Garden since November 22, 1982, which was the day before my birthday,” said Adorno, who has also been to all 34 WrestleManias. “And I’ll be there this Saturday.”
Adorno’s streak began with a card highlighted by World Wrestling Federation champion Bob Backlund defending his title against “Superstar” Billy Graham, Pedro Morales successfully defending the Intercontinental title against Buddy Rose, as well as “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka hitting a top-rope splash onto “Captain” Lou Albano.
As an expert of the WWE at the Garden, Adorno was asked whether Bruno Sammartino or Hulk Hogan enjoyed more success in New York.
“Bruno is the most connected to the Garden, specifically,” said Adorno. “Hogan was most connected with the company as a whole. Towards the end of the Hogan run, the shows weren’t always selling out. So I always give it to Bruno, and, to a lesser extent, Backlund.
“Every month, Backlund would run the Garden as the headliner, and every month, the show would sell out. He could fight one of the Wild Samoans and the show would sell. A lot of people discount Backlund because Bruno and Hogan were much flashier, but Backlund deserves a lot of credit for drawing ability and being the name of the Garden.”
Although WWE only performs at MSG two or three times a year, the company used to visit every month in the 1980s. Adorno estimates that he has seen the last 250 WWE shows at the Garden.
The 50-year-old Adorno, who is now known as “Ringside Charlie”, lives and breathes the business. His parents separated when he was only five, and he and his mother would travel on the subway from Brooklyn to the Garden when wrestling was in town. He would also travel with his father to the Nassau Coliseum, the Meadowlands, the Spectrum in Philadelphia and the New Haven Coliseum, but Vince McMahon’s primary focus was always the Garden.
“WWE is all over the world and has been for a long time, but even in its infancy, when it was running shows out of Pittsburgh, Washington, and Connecticut, the territory was still called ‘New York’,” said Adorno. “People still look at the Garden as the home of the WWE.”
Adorno has been watching wrestling since 1973, which was an era long before fans could simply tune into Monday Night Raw every week on the USA Network.
“I saw it and said, ‘Oh my god, this is great,’” said Adorno. “None of the other kids in the neighborhood knew about wrestling because it came on Saturday at midnight. I would always stay up late to watch, and my first actual card was in 1975 at the Garden.”
Wrestling also introduced Adorno to Mike Johnson, who founded the brilliantly-run center of breaking news that is PWInsider. The two first met at shows at the ECW Arena and when Raw was held weekly at the Manhattan Center in New York, and they have now been friends for the past 25 years. Adorno was also the best man at Johnson’s wedding.
“I’ve made a lot of great friends through wrestling over the years, including Mike and ‘Super Fan’ Vladimir Abouzeide,” said Adorno. “People always say, ‘Wrestling is fake!’ We all know that. We go to enjoy ourselves, and it’s still a lot of fun.”
• In one of the more hard-to-believe spots that happened this past week in wrestling, Ace Romero launched Anthony Gaines out of the ring and into the crowd in a match for Empire State Wrestling in Buffalo.
• Coming attractions: This Friday, Sports Illustrated will have a Q&A with UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic on SI.com.
• “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” and co-host Conrad Thompson returns this Friday at noon ET with a new podcast, with a look at Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake.
“We’ll talk about how Brutus Beefcake became Brutus Beefcake as well as how he became ‘The Barber’ and his relationship with his best friend Hulk Hogan,” said Thompson. “Depending on who you ask, Brutus was a company guy and did what he was asked, or he was a lackey and lazy, so we’re going to examine through Bruce’s experience who Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake really was, once and for all.
“Brutus had one hell of a gimmick. He knew how to play it, and the strut was over. This will be one of our sleeper episodes, like when we covered Bob Holly.”
Thompson is also the creator of the Starrcast event, which is a fan fest surrounding the All In card in Chicago at the end of the summer and features some incredible events for wrestling fans that includes official meet-and-greets with the stars of the show, as well as a “Monday Night War” debate with Bruce Prichard and Eric Bischoff, karaoke with “The Villain” Marty Scurll, and even a DDP Yoga workshop with “Diamond” Dallas Page.
The newest addition to the Starrcast lineup is a “Behind the Themes” interview with former longtime WWE composer Jim Johnston hosted by Sean Mooney on Saturday, September 1, which is Johnston’s first-ever non-WWE appearance.
On top of all that, Thompson’s “Something Else to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” show on the WWE Network will have its season finale next Wednesday and look at the WWE run for CM Punk.
“It’s either the end of season one or the grand finale, I guess we’ll see, but we’re going out with a bang,” said Thompson. “We’re going to do something that a lot of people are not expecting us to do, and that is talk about CM Punk.”
The show will even touch on the recent lawsuit that Punk won against WWE doctor Chris Amann.
“Bruce wasn’t there for any of the lawsuit, but he was privy to the way ‘The Machine’ and specifically Vince McMahon thinks,” said Thompson. “I do want to examine a lot of the rumor and innuendo surrounding Punk’s release, and Bruce can give us a look into the mind of Vince McMahon. We’ll also talk about Bruce’s real-life experiences with CM Punk, and cover all of Punk’s run while Bruce was there. We’ll also cover those who were against Punk in the back, as it has been pretty evident that some people were big advocates and others who weren’t.”
Also, next Monday, Thompson’s “83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff” will look at the 1998 Bash at the Beach pay per view, which included a main event with Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone, who were both less than a month removed from the NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz.
“WWE spent potentially millions of dollars on acquiring Mike Tyson to be a special ring enforcer at that year’s WrestleMania, and now WCW responds by setting an all-time record in revenue and ratings when Goldberg beats Hogan, then ride that momentum six days later with Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone,” said Thompson. “It feels like more of the ‘Can you top this?’ of the ‘Monday Night Wars’, and we’ll examine it. The show pops a huge buy rate that was one of the biggest in WCW history, and sort of buried in there is a lot of really good wrestling. We’ll cover Rodman, Malone, how DDP got to the main event, and everything surrounding it is what we’ll cover on the next 83 Weeks.
“WCW didn’t put Hulk Hogan and Goldberg on pay per view because the edict was they needed it for ratings, but they did put two NBA players on pay per view and they did not have them wrestle on Nitro. I can’t wait to beat Eric up and break that down in longform.”
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.