Matt sits down with AKIRA a rising-star on the Indie wrestling scene. They talk about their history, AKIRA’s viral moment, what he wants people to think of when they hear his name, and much more!
A large number of corporations in America have struggled to balance worker safety and satisfying their bottom line. In sports and entertainment, there have been several examples of companies that have prioritized shareholders over employees. Arguably the worst example is not Major League Baseball, but World Wrestling Entertainment.
The U.S. containment of COVID-19 was thought to be possible in early spring. Toward the end of March, however, those hopes were dashed. States began to lock-down restaurants. Most sports leagues including the NBA, MLB, and the NCAA postponed and in some cases canceled the current and upcoming seasons.
The WWE, for their part, stopped live shows and began pre-recording programming without fans in attendance. According to executives, talent was told that these tapings would be voluntary and would not receive punishment for refusing to attend either financially or otherwise.
Wrestlemania, the largest pro wrestling pay-per-view of the year was held in the performance center in Orlando, Florida. Florida was coincidentally one of the last states to enter lock-down and was open during the taping of Wrestlemania.
The company acted proactively with two of its wrestlers Dana Brooke and Rey Mysterio who showed signs of illness by pulling them from shows. Roman Reigns, a wrestler in remission from leukemia took a leave of absence from performing over concerns over his high-risk status for Coronavirus. WWE did not test any of its wrestlers for COVID-19 during March.
By early April all states had entered into varying degrees of lockdown, and Nationally the U.S. outpaced the rest of the world in total COVID-19 deaths. With only essential business open in most states, WWE was declared an essential by Florida Governor Ron Desantis despite not initially labeled as such. Around the same time, the Connecticut based company decided on April 10th to resume live shows.
Vince McMahon cited the change by implying the networks carrying his programming could cancel their television contracts if the company did not continue to perform live shows regularly. Dave Meltzer of Wrestling Observer reported that USA Network and Fox denied considering dissolving their agreements. McMahon reversed course and eventually allowed pre-taped episodes to resume.
On April 15th, WWE released a business update announcing the furlough of talent as well as other cost-cutting measures. Over 30 wrestlers were released, not including behind the scenes workers This included Miroslav Barnyashev formerly known by his in-ring name of Rusev. Rusev had recently donated $20,000 of his own money to help those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
A week later the company’s quarter one earnings report was released and the biggest highlight was the increased revenue from the previous year’s first-quarter earnings: A net positive of 60%. During April there was a confirmed but unidentified employee who contracted coronavirus. The individual was not a wrestler but did work at shows. WWE did not test any of its wrestlers for COVID-19 during April.
There were not many new developments from the business perspective of World Wrestling Entertainment, however, the content of their programming led to frustration from fans and employees alike. Fans began noticing Reigns had been edited out of more and more programming. He had not made an appearance in over a month so in some regard, it was understandable that his name was not often referenced during or after matches.
What was harder to understand was the manipulation of certain highlight packages removing him entirely. This included matches he was heavily featured in. Previous to this instance only one wrestler had been effectively removed from the annals of history: Chris Benoit. Since the American Somoan’s conduct had been spotless it was unclear why these decisions were being made.
Also, Sami Zayn was effectively stripped of the Intercontinental title. While this may seem like a storyline angle at first glance, it’s important to note Zayn was participating in Canada’s quarantine protocol as he was a Canadian citizen and could not attend the Orlando tapings due to international travel restrictions. His failure to comply cost him his place despite the company’s earlier assurances that no worker would be punished for skipping voluntary tapings.
Jordan Devlin had an almost identical experience. As the Cruiserweight Titleholder, Devlin was unable to defend his championship and there was a tournament to determine who would hold the belt during the interim similar to how UFC deals with injured fighters. However, the word interim was dropped without explanation and it’s unclear if Santo Escobar, the winner of the aforementioned tournament, will have to defend his title against Devlin when the UK native eventually returns. WWE did not test any of its wrestlers for COVID-19 during May.
This month WWE has made every effort that it could to return to normal. Developmental wrestlers, friends, and families began attending pre-recorded shows to give the performers and audience at home a more authentic fan experience. For the first time in months, there were boos, cheers, and even chants to fill a mostly empty void of fan interaction.
This week, a cascade of bad press has been unloaded upon the pro-wrestling giant. It was announced on Monday that a developmental wrestler who had attended a taping has tested positive for coronavirus. Reports surfaced from multiple sources stating that face masks were not permitted inside the performance center premises during tapings. This is in contrast to the early April CDC recommendations on wearing a face mask in public.
WWE responded by explaining to fans and news-outlets that masks were unnecessary since all employees and fans in attendance maintained proper social distancing and followed Florida state policy to the letter of the law (despite fans being shown high-fiving talent and disregarding the six feet minimum of each other of the episode in question).
Possibly the most disturbing report released this week was that on some occasions, fans were allowed to attend shows despite having a fever if there were special circumstances. On Wednesday the company implemented the first wave of COVID-19 testing to its wrestlers. At this time there has been no announcement of regular testing.
WWE’s Coronavirus response looks worse with context
All companies have the legal right and ability to hire and fire employees at their discretion. All publicly-traded companies are expected to be at least somewhat responsible with their finances to appease the stockholders. All businesses should be able to set forth policies for their workforce.
The problems lie when WWE is compared to smaller wrestling promotions who have done an objectively better job keeping their employees safe while staying afloat during these difficult economic times.
All Elite Wrestling on TNT has returned to their regularly scheduled live shows. Before each show, all fans, wrestlers, and staff are all tested before they can enter the building. AEW along with even smaller groups like Ring of Honor and Impact have not fired, released, or furloughed any wrestlers. At shows, you will see masks worn by referees, interviewers, and even fans. These groups have proved you can make every effort to serve your employees first and put the bottom line on the backburner and survive as a wrestling organization.
World Wrestling Entertainment may have fulfilled its legal obligation to its shareholders, but it has severely failed its ethical responsibility to its staff, especially the talent which is the main product for consumers of pro-wrestling.
What a start to the turn of a new decade, 2020 has been relentless. First, the sports world gets shook with a tragic helicopter accident killing nine people including Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter. Shortly thereafter the world is hit with a Coronavirus pandemic deemed Covid-19. An invisible menace that’s had us quarantined for the last three months and has claimed thousands of lives.
Then on Monday, May 25th, 2020 on Memorial Day, a day to celebrate our fallen servicemen and women, a police officer took the life of yet another unarmed black man named George Floyd. You can say my community’s collective breath was taken away in eight minutes and 46 seconds. Going into the sixth month of 2020, the second half of this year I’m sure we’re all wondering when will the director say cut!
Sports Can’t Breathe
This Is Supposed to Be About Sports
It took me a week to construct this piece because I was angry, upset, and didn’t want my emotions to completely take over my writing. You see, I’m a black man in my 40s, same as Mr. Floyd, and that could’ve easily been me. I’ve had my experiences with racial profiling from police and civilians.
To see a video of officers of the law who took an oath to protect and serve the community hold down a human being and kneeling on his neck for over eight minutes watching him die is one of the worse crimes to witness. The disturbing part is this was the third such incident in a month where a black individual was murdered. What those cops didn’t know is that George Floyd was good friends with former NBA player Stephen Jackson and he would be the catalyst in leading a global protest for justice.
I understand that this is supposed to be a sports column and I can assure it is. It will just be a little different approach on this one. Almost four years ago it was in a football stadium, 2016, that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick exercised his American right to protest. His peaceful protest was to sit during the national anthem to bring awareness to police brutality of black people.
Even after people saw this as disrespectful to our military, he consulted with a serviceman and changed to more appropriate kneeling. Players began following Kaepernick in this protest and the message was interrupted by President Trump making this issue about respecting the American flag. The president even went to the lengths of insulting the players and the mothers of these exceptional athletes by calling them sons of b*****s.
NFL Had a Chance to Take a Stand
The NFL and owners had the opportunity to support its diverse players but instead decided it valued its bottom line more than human life. In the process exiling Kaepernick from the league who never received another contract offer. One of the most outspoken owners, Jerry Jones, had plenty to say about that protest in 2016. Fast forward to today, crickets. Countless mothers and fathers being taken away leaving children without parents with no repercussions just doesn’t seem American.
Now the NFL wants to make statements of support for the black community when it’s convenient and is the right thing to do. It comes off as disingenuous because it took protesting and rioting on a global scale to finally be heard as a community. The league and its owners could’ve done like their NBA counterparts and given support when it was uncomfortable to the very people that make this a billion-dollar industry. We’ve all heard the saying “get out of your comfort zone”. This is supposed to represent growth within one’s self. Time to get out of your comfort zones.
How Can Sports Make an Impact
One thing we’ve learned since March 11th, 2020 is how important sports are to our way of life. We can see that from the most-watched documentary in history, “The Last Dance”. In this instance, though this issue shouldn’t just be blanketed by the restart of the NBA or any sporting event for that matter. Instead whenever the NBA starts all the players should refuse to play, same for when the NFL starts.
This stance may not happen but a more feasible impactful statement could. The NFL taking accountability for the lack of understanding of what Kaepernick’s kneeling protest was bringing attention to. Second, rectify this by teams offering Colin a contract giving him the opportunity, if he chooses, to exit the game his way. Lastly, at the start of any sporting event letting the clock run for eight minutes and 46 seconds with no movement and displaying the statement, “I can’t breathe”.
This would serve as a reminder that our country as a whole has a lot of work to do eradicating systemic racism and ensuring equality for all Americans.
On the first Dynamite following his TNT championship win over Lance Archer at Double or Nothing, Cody Rhodes addressed the AEW fans and gave subtle clues on a darker alter ego on the horizon, one not seen since his time in WWE. AEW has proved its dedication to long term storytelling. There was a slow burn between Jon Moxley and Chris Jehrico. The all-out war that happened to feature the Young Bucks, Adam “Hangman” Page, and Kenny Omega, both had tremendous build-up and rewarded fans for paying attention to details. Cody has been dropping clues about a possible heel turn for months and in his coronation speech on dynamite he finally revealed the reason he will renounce his baby-face persona.
An Inevitable Heel Turn is Coming for Cody Rhodes
Rhodes has been a heel for a large portion of his career and with good reason, he is an exceptional talker and worker for that role. We have not seen him be a true heel since he left WWE either in the indies, New Japan or inside of AEW. Cody Rhodes will become a heel again and the evidence is already there.
Cody has been careful to leave hints right out in the open, but there are also examples where fans have to look deeper into his past to find the foreshadowing of the coming turn. Let’s have a look at the things Rhodes has said, the actions and inaction he has taken on pay-per-views, dynamite, and his run in the pro wrestling indies this past couple of years.
No one on the AEW roster has been more outspoken against Cody Rhodes’ character than Maxwell Jacob Freeman. MJF betrayed his mentor and made it his mission to besmirch the Rhodes family name ever since. It has drawn him nuclear heat at times and erupted when the former protege pinned Cody earlier this year at Revolution in Chicago. Most heels say disgusting things to get over as a villain in front of the crowd, but some of what MJF says about Cody has an air of truth in it.
MJF has always maintained that the reason for his betrayal was Rhodes was not who he appeared to be. The people that associate themselves with Cody are there to be used to advance his career. Interestingly, MJF chooses these words to describe how Cody treats his friends and family. Has Rhodes reciprocated the support Brandi, Dustin, QT Marshal, and Arn Anderson have given him without fail? Or was MJF’s heel turn a stand-alone event with no bearing on Cody’s storyline?
Easily the person closest to Cody, Brandi has been alongside her husband for nearly every match since the nightmare collective folded last year. In those matches along with segments interspersed through dynamite, we have seen where Brandi has been put in harm’s way, both accidentally and other times with a bit more intent. When Cody is in championship fight mode Brandi comes second, that’s not conjecture, that’s Brandi’s experience before Cody’s pay-per-view fight with Chris Jericho at Full Gear last November.
Also, when Cody faced off with Darby Allin in the semi-finals it appeared as though he threw Allin into Brandi despite knowing his wife was behind him. Finally, possibly the most damning moment where Cody’s ego showed through was his inaction after Jake Roberts covered his wife with his trademark snake and mimed heinous motions over her unconscious body. Rhodes never delivered a promo, he let Anderson talk for him on the go-home show before Double or Nothing.
The eldest member of the Rhodes family is a strong veteran wrestler who has worked without his half-brother most of his career. However, after a heartfelt plea by Cody after their match at the very first Double or Nothing, the two have teamed together and have stood up for each other much more. However, during the other semi-final of the TNT championship tournament, Cody had an opportunity to stop the contest between Lance Archer and the Natural, Dustin Rhodes.
QT Marshall held the towel in his hands asking, almost begging Dustin to let him end the fight before he made his decision Cody ripped it from his hands and refused to throw it in. This may have been a matter of pride, but the match was over from a realistic standpoint. Cody could have saved his brother from taking even more unnecessary damage. In the lead up to his match with Archer, Rhodes only acknowledged his “need” for the title, he never talked about the match as a way of vengeance for his family.
One of the people who battled for power with the second generation pro wrestler and fellow member of the bullet club was Kenny Omega. Many people were speculating back in the tandem’s NJPW days that Cody was jealous of Kenny’s popularity, and talent and that it would lead the nightmare family patriarch to launch a hostile takeover of the bullet club and leave Omega on the outside looking in. The payoff to their tension was never to be, but to this day both Rhodes and Omega still acknowledge they don’t always see eye to eye.
If Kenny becomes a threat in the eyes of Rhodes what will Cody do to maintain his place in AEW?
The TNT Championship Title
On the May 27th edition of Wednesday night dynamite, Rhodes cut a promo as the very first TNT champion and it didn’t start like anyone expected. “Tony (Schivone) do you know why Tom Brady is my favorite quarterback?” He explained that both he and Brady were passed over multiple times by organizations and despite that fact have legacies that speak for themselves. The analogy being made hinges on the fact that Rhodes was the fourth phone call made by Tony Khan when making a merit-based pro wrestling promotion.
“It (being called 4th) doesn’t bother me, and if there is a tinge of bother it is absolved by the fact that in my right hand is the TNT Championship, and I am the very first champion of America’s greatest network,” Rhodes admits to having a sore spot or a chip on his shoulder for being snubbed for the first couple draft picks as it were when selecting the greatest free agents to start AEW. If Rhodes were ever to lose the title, these old feelings would resurface. In the press conference immediately following Double or Nothing Cody talked at length about what the title meant to him, it is important to him personally as it is professionally.
How Does it Happen?
Dropping the championship for Cody will be extremely difficult considering how attached he is to it. Losing the TNT championship would be the most likely opportunity for a change in personality. While a when is difficult to predict, the person to take the title is much less in doubt. While Jon Moxley is a fan favorite it’s very hard to characterize him as a pure babyface. Mox is the ultimate badass, a lone wolf who oozes charisma. While fans root for Moxley his persona will never be a replacement for Rhodes if he does indeed fall.
Who Triggers the Turn?
AEW has many likable wrestlers who could hold the title and perform at a serviceable level. There is only one wrestler, however, who has an unmatched rivalry with Cody Rhodes and always gets the best out of him when they square off. Darby Allin has had three matches with Rhodes each time getting closer to beating him. As mentioned before, Allin collided with Brandi Rhodes and appeared to be redirected into her by Cody. When listening to the promo by Cody leading up to that contest it’s clear he perceives Allin as a threat. A title win by Allin would not only elevate the profile of the Seattle native but would force a new chapter in the Cody Rhodes story.