At this time of year, it’s always fun to look back and reflect on the year gone by. So sit back, relax, pour yourself “a little bit of the bubblay!” and enjoy this recap of, what we here at SLAM! Wrestling think were the biggest professional wrestling stories from 2019.
1. WWE airs on major network? That’s crazy… like a FOX
Last year, WWE announced it had signed with FOX Television to bring Smackdown to the network, the first time professional wrestling has aired on a major traditional network since a one-off episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event aired on NBC back in 2008. With the move to FOX, WWE made some significant changes to its long-running property, presumably to elevate the blue brand’s reputation, as it had generally been regarded as the “B-show.”
A roster draft saw many of the company’s biggest names move to Smackdown including Roman Reigns, “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt, Daniel Bryan and the company’s biggest mainstream draw: Brock Lesnar. Other changes were made to the set design and pyrotechnics were brought back for as part of ring entrances. Even a new theme song (AC/DC’s “Are You Ready?”) was selected, heralding not only a fresh direction for the company but also creating a more professional, polished and dare we say networky look and feel to the broadcast.
Backstage personnel changes were also made with Eric Bischoff originally announced as returning to WWE as the show’s executive director, though he was swiftly released from WWE and replaced by Bruce Prichard. Though not confirmed by any parties, rumour is that WWE wanted someone who could deftly handle the intense scrutiny of ratings-minded network executives while still managing the ego and delivering the creative vision of WWE CEO and ultimate head creative honcho, Vince McMahon.
At Survivor Series this year, the Smackdown roster got the better of RAW‘s, beating them in terms of number of interbrand match wins. Although both lost to NXT for the night. Friday night’s supremacy over WWE’s traditional flagship show would have been unthinkable before the FOX deal as RAW had always been portrayed as the stronger brand (even if the match quality and talent depth suggested otherwise).
The FOX deal undoubtedly includes conditions based on sustaining ratings and with a billion dollar deal in play over the next five years it would seem imperative that WWE do whatever they can to ensure success. Anything else would be crazy.
2. AEW vs. NXT – this is war
It’s been nearly 20 years since the Monday Night Wars ended and, since then, WWE has been the only real player in town. But that changed on October 2, 2019, when All Elite Wrestling (AEW) debuted its weekly show, Dynamite on the TNT network airing against WWE’s NXT show. That was the official opening bell for the Wednesday Night Wars.
It’s still too early to say how the war will play out. Initially, AEW was besting NXT in the Nielsen ratings but (and perhaps out of concern) WWE countered with some high-profile programming, bringing NXT into an inter-brand competition with RAW and Smackdown (which NXT eventually won) and bringing stars over from the main roster onto the show, such as the popular Finn Balor. This, along with some higher-profile matches — including a title match this past month that aired without commercials — helped lead to WWE win for a couple of weeks, with them trading wins for most of December.
Of course, Wednesday nights are only one part of AEW’s programming, the other being pay-per-view events (which were held monthly over the summer but appear to be scheduled on a quarterly basis now). With its strong financial backing — the company’s founder is billionaire sports executive Tony Khan — AEW has the resources to make this war long and competitive. If that should happen, we could see yet another boom era for professional wrestling and change the industry once more.
3. WWE holds SummerSlam weekend in Toronto
For the ten years prior, WWE’s “biggest party of the summer” had either been held in Los Angeles or New York. So when it was announced that SummerSlam 2019 was going to be held in Canada’s largest city (the first PPV event to take place in Toronto since 2016’s Survivor Series event), Canadian fans were ready to party. And what a party it was.
WWE’s multi-day festivities included its giant Fan Axxess experience at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre which had a number of photo ops and autograph sessions. WWE superstars made appearances at various events and shows throughout the GTA. And that’s even before the four-day run at the Scotiabank Arena, with NXT Takeover on Saturday, the PPV on Sunday, and then RAW and Smackdown on the Monday and Tuesday nights, the building jam-packed for all four events, with the first two events announced as sell-outs.
Not surprisingly, the local independent scene also offered up numerous events for the wrestling-hungry locals and travelers who had come into town for the event. No less than a dozen non-WWE wrestling shows were put on that week. Many of these shows were held in conjunction with Toronto’s Smash Wrestling promotion led by the seemingly tireless Sebastian Suave. Those and other stellar promotions like Destiny, Greektown, and Superkick’d pulled no punches to put on stacked shows that not only drew fans with international names, but more importantly, gave local, Ontarian, and other Canadian talents a chance to perform in front of people who may not otherwise have been familiar with their work. This exposure will undoubtedly lead to more fans, more bookings — and hopefully, signings — for some of these talented folks.
Non-wrestling events in town included some stand-up comedy shows, improv shows, and podcast tapings, again featuring many local personalities as well as WWE and other non-WWE stars.
At the shows and the events, the outpouring of support for wrestling in general was palpable. Hopefully, it will be recognized how hot the Toronto market is. Certainly, it’s hot enough that the city could be considered as a potential WrestleMania host in the next few years? Ball’s in your court, WWE. Make it happen.
4. Hart Attack – jackass “fan” blindsides legend at Hall of Fame
Held the weekend of WrestleMania, the Hall of Fame induction ceremony is an annual highlight that celebrates the industry’s biggest stars. While the exuberance of the ticket-buying crowd has sometimes been disruptive and tiresome — interrupting solemn and reverent speeches with dumb “What?” chants, for example — this past year’s ceremony saw one moron take things to an entirely new level when he jumped out of the crowd, jumped onto the stage and attacked Bret “Hitman” Hart during the legend’s induction speech for his late tag team partner: Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart.
During Hart’s speech, Zachary Madsen ran past a barricade and tackled Hart, taking down both he and Hart’s co-presenter, WWE superstar and Jim’s daughter, Natalya, before being subdued by Barclays Centre security, a number of WWE superstars and MMA fighter and husband of WWE superstar Ronda Rousey, Travis Browne.
Madsen, who was known to police, had apparently posted angry wrestling-related tweets in the days leading up to the event, was arrested for assault and trespassing. He apparently missed his court appearance in November related to this matter and an arrest warrant was put out for him at the time.
The incident marred what was otherwise a truly special and sentimental night, as the Hall of Fame inductions often are. It also raises some questions, though, not the least of which is the wisdom of the decision to move the induction speech platform from the traditional location on an end-stage to a smaller “in the round” layout where the stage is closer to the audience. Whether or not that is changed at next year’s event remains to be seen, though it’s expected.
5. Cain Velasquez joins WWE, jobs to Lesnar, does nothing afterwards
After years of Brock Lesnar’s dominance in WWE, his stranglehold on the company’s championship gold almost impenetrable, finally someone appeared who was seen by the fans as a credible contender. It happened on the debut episode of Smackdown on FOX TV. Lesnar had just steamrolled over Kofi Kingston to capture his fifth WWE Championship. With him having pretty much beaten every other top contender in the company, it seemed as if the WWE Universe could brace itself for another formulaic Lesnar title reign, punctuated with the occasional series of Paul Heyman weekly promos and a PPV squash title defense.
But then Cain Velasquez — the man who humbled Lesnar during their one and only UFC fight with a first round TKO — hit the entrance ramp, making his WWE debut. With Lesnar’s face full of shock and fear, a fired up Velasquez bee-lined to the ring and went toe to toe with Lesnar, besting the Beast in a punch-up, and sending the champion scrambling. It was announced soon thereafter that Lesnar would defend his title against Velasquez at Crown Jewel.
It could have — should have — been epic.
Instead, it was a squash match that saw Brock beat the knockout specialist in under 90 seconds, with an anti-climactic Kimura submission hold. And with that, the mystique and aura of Velasquez’ WWE career deflated like a balloon, the accompanying farting noise deafened only the sound of silence (and some booing) at Velasquez’s lacklustre in-ring performance.
Perhaps WWE was trying to mirror Brock’s first UFC match, where he was submitted by Frank Mir despite going in with so much hype. Maybe they thought the Saudi Arabian audience wouldn’t know who Velasquez was, and so decided to treat him like every other Brock victim. Or perhaps they thought “the money is in the chase” so figure their next match, the rubber match, will see Cain vindicated with a decisive win and passing of the torch (indeed, rumours are that he may be appearing at the Royal Rumble, so that may be setting him up for another title match against Brock at Mania).
Whatever the explanation, it may be difficult to resurrect fan interest in Velasquez. The booking of the last match may have damaged his credibility so much that, in the eyes of the fans, they buried him too deep to ever raise Cain.
6. Party like it’s 1999 — Rey Misterio and Chris Jericho champs again
“Don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years, I’m rocking my peers, puttin’ suckers in fear.” Though LL Cool J originally wrote and rapped those lyrics in his song “Mama Said Knock You Out,” this could have been the theme song for either Rey Misterio Jr. or Chris Jericho, both of whom made triumphant returns to the championship scene in 2019.
For Jericho, this wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Indeed, one of our top stories from last year was his ubiquity, having wrestled for a large number of promotions, including AEW, throughout the year. What may be more surprising, though, is that in a company that is full of young up-and-comers, it is the 49-year-old Jericho that has been the most compelling, relevant, and must-watch performers of them all. His matches have been on point, his storylines — particularly his feud with Cody Rhodes and the creation of his new stable, the Inner Circle, has been interesting to watch. And his legendary gift of gab is as keen as ever, creating new meme-worthy catchphrases (“le champion,” “a little bit of the bubblay”) that join the wrestling lexicon along with “you just made the list.” If he remains uninjured, 2020 may very well become Y2Jv2.
As for Misterio, many thought they’d seen the last of him in WWE after he left in 2015. But since returning to the company in 2018, Misterio has shown no signs of slowing down. His matches with Randy Orton were well-received. The saga of his near-retirement, only to be pulled back by his son Dominic, playing off of the fans’ familiarity with Dominic from when he was a kid embroiled in Rey’s feud with Eddie Guerrero, has drawn people into Rey’s newest journey. It also led to what some would call his finest hour in 2019, his storyline with Brock Lesnar. The way the fans rallied behind him, convinced that he had a good chance of beating Lesnar — that’s textbook babyface booking. As 2019 came to an end, Misterio’s year culminated with a win over AJ Styles for the United States championship. (He has since lost the title.)
It’s remarkable that both Jericho and Misterio were champions back in 1999 — and 20 years later, they’re still as relevant as ever. #TBT as the kids say. But in this case, it’s Throwback Thursday Night Thunder.
7. Endeavouring to be Future Endeavoured
This year, perhaps more than ever before, a number of reports came out about wrestlers wanting releases from their contracts. Perhaps legitimately, or maybe just as a negotiating tactic, 2019 saw a lot of people jumping companies in an effort to seek out new and better opportunities.
Indeed, it seems that WWE could actually stand for “We Want (to) Exit.” In February, Tye Dillinger requested his release, and it was granted a couple of weeks later. Then in April, Sasha Banks took her ball and went home, reportedly unhappy with having to lose the Women’s Tag Team Championship at WrestleMania. Banks reportedly asked for her release, and when she didn’t get it, apparently threw a tantrum and instead took an extended leave of absence in protest, eventually returning (and playing up her absence as part of the motivation for a character change) in the fall. The Revival also reportedly requested a release, due to creative differences, but ended up staying put, winning championship gold, and in recent months have been featured prominently in storylines.
For Mike Kanellis, Sin Cara, and Luke Harper, though, they apparently requested — and got –their releases. Though Kanellis hasn’t resurfaced anywhere to date, Sin Cara has popped up in Mexico again, and it was noted that Harper recently requested a trademark for the name Brodie Lee, the name he used on the independent circuit prior to his WWE stint, and was recently name-checked by AEW’s Cody Rhodes in an interview, suggesting there may be a place for Harper in that company.
Impact Wrestling had a few notable big name departures as well. Eli Drake and Johnny Impact left in the past few months, with Drake now wrestling for NWA and Impact signing with WWE, where he first came to fame performing under many names, but most successfully as John Morrison. The lovely Scarlett Bordeaux, who was a prominent player on TV during her short stint there, asked for her release and has now signed with NXT. Perhaps she’ll be joined by her real-life squeeze Killer Kross, who Impact just granted a release, despite, by many accounts, asking for it months ago.
Logic would suggest that with AEW now a viable alternative workplace, more wrestlers are going to be using the threat of them going there as leverage in any discussions, both in terms of compensation or in role prominence / storyline. Or maybe we’re all just getting worked. For example, in the fall, Randy Orton teased fans with an online photo suggesting he’d be interested in leaving WWE for AEW; but later he announced he’d extended his contract with WWE for apparently a lot more money. Was he really threatening WWE? Was he just trolling the internet wrestling community? Either way, it’s certainly the most interesting thing he’s done in years.
With the wrestling landscape in its current state of flux, all we can do is stay tuned. Because, as good old J.R. would say, business is about to pick up.
8. ACH / Jordan Myles — toothy T-shirts, toxic tweets, and toodle-oo
Claims of racism. Alleged deceptions. Public dissension. A sudden departure. A social media meltdown. Insert your Justin Trudeau / Donald Trump / Boris Johnson / any other world leader joke here. But, more to this point of this article, what an annus horribulus it was for former NXT superstar Jordan Myles.
In late October, Myles tweeted his outrage about a T-shirt that the WWE was selling for his character. He protested that the shirt, which was designed to look like a mouth with the teeth represented as the letters of his name, seemed to resemble a “blackface” caricature which is considered to be offensive to African-Americans. Myles accused WWE, Vince McMahon, and Triple H (who runs NXT) as being racists and raised other complaints about the company’s culture. WWE responded, noting that Myles had actually approved the design of the shirt and that after he protested they pulled the shirts from the market, with none sold.
After some back and forth, Myles then turned up his frustration, basically accusing WWE of being a toxic workplace where racism went unchecked. Some more tweets went out — including one that was also critical of Ring of Honor and its African American champion Jay Lethal. Finally, on November 13, Myles tweeted a profanity-laced video in which he announced that he “quit f—ing WWE,” noting that he will “refuse to work for racist… I f–king quit. F–k them!” and referring to the name Jordan Myles as his “slave name.” Shortly thereafter, Myles was released from the company.
During the firestorm, a number of people commented about the situation, with WWE advocates suggesting that Myles was overreacting and that if he had a problem with the shirt design, he should have said something at the time. Meanwhile, others supported him, sometimes bringing up WWE’s renewed relationship with Hulk Hogan — who had his own controversies in the past few years stemming from racist comments that he’d made in the past — as evidence that the company is racially insensitive. While others expressed concern for Myles as his tweets seemed to be getting angrier as they went on.
Since his release, Myles had started accepting bookings as ACH — the name he used on the independent scene before joining WWE — but as of early December, he cancelled those bookings and announced that he had quit wrestling.
Overall, this was an unfortunate situation for all concerned, as nobody looked good coming out of it. But that’s not necessarily unexpected, since things like this aren’t always simply black and white.
9. Jim Cornette gets Don Cherried
In November 2019, legendary hockey personality Don Cherry was fired from Hockey Night in Canada, the Canadian institution where he hosted his signature segment, Coach’s Corner for over 30 years. Talking about Remembrance Day and the importance of wearing poppies as a sign of respect for our veterans, Cherry used a term when talking about new Canadians (“you people”) that a number of viewers, the network, and the National Hockey League, later criticized as being offensive. Under pressure from a reported avalanche of complaints, Sportsnet felt it had no choice but to show “Grapes” the door.
Cut to legendary wrestling personality Jim Cornette about a week later. On commentary during an episode of NWA Power, Cornette, when describing the toughness of Trevor Murdoch, commented that Murdoch could “strap a bucket of fried chicken on his back and make it across Ethopia.” Like with Cherry’s comments, viewers perceived the comments to have racial overtones, leading the NWA to take the episode offline. Later, they apologized for Cornette’s comments, and Cornette left the company the next day.
There are some obvious similarities between the two incidents. In both, an elder statesman of their respective industries, said something that may have been fine in the past, but fails to meet the more sensitive standards of today. In both cases, it’s unlikely that either of them harbour any racial intolerance whatsoever (indeed, from personal experience, this writer can say that both Cherry and Cornette have been nothing but courteous, friendly, and generous with their time in our interactions). But, their comments appear anachronistic in today’s “snowflake” society, so it’s not really surprising that they were “OK, Boomered” out of their jobs.
Perhaps the most outrageous part of this entire thing is that NWA’s show was pre-taped, so there was plenty of time to have removed the comments before the episode ever aired. Instead, the company went ahead with it, and only seemed to raise concerns when others did, resulting in Jim Cornette being blamed, and some would say, scapegoated. As fans, we hope he can find a new racket soon.
10a. Women wrestle in Saudi Arabia
Not many people were thrilled a couple of years ago when WWE announced its multi-year deal with the Saudi Arabian government that promised a number of live events to be showcased in that city. Given the limited rights afforded to women under the Saudi regime, it seemed a complete antithesis to WWE’s “Women’s Revolution” movement that has seen a dramatic shift in WWE’s women’s division, elevating it from novelty to a increasingly-significant component of WWE programming.
In response to that criticism, and cries from people to scrap the deal unless and until women were allowed to compete in that country, WWE argued that changes could only come through confronting the issue, not staying away from it. And that it would continue to push the Saudis to relent on their stance and allow women on the shows.
And on October 31, 2019, history was made, when Natalya Neidhart and Lacey Evans squared off in the middle of the ring at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It was the first time that women had ever competed in a wrestling ring in that country.
Respecting the culture, the women wore very conservative outfits that covered their full bodies. The match itself was pretty standard TV fare — the wrestling was solid if unspectacular — that saw Nattie submit Lacey with a SharpShooter. After the match, the two women embraced, emotions pouring out of them, to celebrate their achievement. It was one of the few good things to come out of the deal so far, and a legitimate feel-good moment of the year.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Saudi Arabian government should be cut much slack — indeed, its record of human rights violations, crimes against its own citizenry, and its murder and subsequent whitewash/cover-up of same of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi still deserve international scorn and sanction.
But for at least one night, the country made a small step in the right direction. A step in women’s shoes.
10b. Saudi trip was just plane awful
Hallowe’en is a night when being scared is a good thing. But the next day was a fright for many WWE superstars and employees, when their Air Atlas plane was grounded in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the day after the Crown Jewel network special.
Initially, WWE said that the delay was due to several aircraft problems, including mechanical issues. But reports soon followed that suggested that the delays were politically-motivated, resulting from a dispute between WWE and the Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, over money owed to WWE for earlier Saudi shows.
During the 14-hour delay, many WWE superstars took to Twitter to express their concern over the hostage-like incident. Others expressed their outright frustration with the company, particularly from the disparity of Vince McMahon and other top superstars flying out earlier on chartered flights, while they were left on the tarmac to the mercy of the Saudis. The incident shook up others so much that they vowed they would not go to Saudi Arabia again.
WWE couldn’t avoid the negative publicity this got — including from many mainstream news sites varying from Sports Illustrated, the UK’s Sun paper, Forbes, and Entertainment Tonight — but, in typical fashion, they seemed to try to sweep the incident under the rug publicly. It is rumoured that Vince did hold a talent meeting after everyone returned, but instead of addressing the concerns, they called out people for their tweets, and brushed off the few people who did speak out about it.
If there was one positive coming out of all of this mess, it’s that the lack of superstars there for the next night’s Smackdown show meant the company had to resort to Plan B, which was to call up a group of NXT stars to kick off a very well-received invasion storyline, which culminated at Survivor Series, one of the company’s best shows of the year.
Since then, WWE has extended its Saudi deal through to 2027. Buckle up, boys and girls… it’s bound to be a bumpy ride.
Other notable stories:
– CM Punk returns to WWE programming as an analyst for FOX TV. No real pipe bombs dropped to date, though he did manage to offend Lana. In a UFC match, we’d put our money on her.
– Orange Cassidy and Marko Stunt delight some fans, offend purists. Funny, but given Cassidy’s laid-back attitude and Stunt’s miniature stature, we wouldn’t think that either one of them would be powerful enough so as to cause the downfall of the entire wrestling industry.
– Super Humman goes from YouTube to the ring. The living and breathing crash test dummy (and proud Juggalo) became a viral sensation due to the videos of himself performing hardcore stunts in his backyard (like being smashed through light tubes, hitting flying elbows on a microwave oven, or running full-speed into a tree). It was only a matter of time before some independent promotion brought him into the ring for a match. On October 11, he made his professional debut, participating in a five-way match for Atomic Revolution Wrestling. Super Humman won the match, but sadly, didn’t get hurt like in his videos.
– Roman Reigns returns after beating leukemia. Look, we’re glad he’s back, and we’re thrilled for him and his family that the cancer is behind him once again. But sitting through the horrible feuds he’s been involved in since his return (looking at you, Erick Rowan’s hit-and-run doppelganger, and anything to do with Baron Corbin), maybe you could have taken some more time off anyway?
– Speaking of the Erick Rowan hit-and-run storyline, can we never speak of the Erick Rowan hit-and-run storyline ever again? Thanks.
– John Oliver talks WWE contracts; WWE puts out contract on John Oliver. Well, that second part never happened. But WWE certainly didn’t take too kindly to the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight criticizing WWE that doesn’t care about the health and safety of its wrestlers on the March 31 episode. The scathing “report” included Oliver calling McMahon an a**hole for structuring talent contracts in a way that precludes giving the talent any employee benefits, despite treating them like employees in terms of the restrictive nature of the deals. WWE responded in a public statement, noting they had provided information to refute the claims, but this information was never included in the segment. McMahon vs. Oliver at Mania 36?
– Tessa Blanchard makes an Impact. The Impact Wrestling standout talent might have had the best year out of any woman in the entire business in 2019. Her impressive intergender feud with Sami Callihan’s OVE faction was a highlight of the company’s programming this past year. And on January 12, 2020, at the company’s Hard to Kill PPV event, Blanchard will make history as she faces Callihan in the main event for the World Heavyweight Championship. Becky Who?
– Legends Harley Race, King Kong Bundy, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, and Pedro Morales were among the big names that passed away in 2019. Rest in peace, and thanks for the memories, all.
SLAM! Wrestling would like to wish everyone the best in the new year.