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How WWE’s Gable Steveson became your favorite wrestler’s favorite wrestler

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How many 275-pound men do you know who can do a backflip?

While you’re ruminating on that seemingly trivial question, let’s take this thought exercise a step further: How many 275-pound men do you know who can backflip, capture the attention of Triple H and Ric Flair with their athletic prowess, win an Olympic gold medal and sign a multiyear deal with WWE before graduating college?

I reckon not many aside from Gable Steveson come to mind.

That’s because the tantalizing heavyweight freestyle wrestler is one-of-a-kind, a bona fide original.

“When and if I can win, put on a good show for America, that flip is coming,” Steveson teased to NBC Chicago of his signature post-victory backflip ahead of his awe-inducing run at the Tokyo Olympics in August.

In due time, the ultimate showman made good on his promise.

There’s a fine line between confidence and hubris, and Steveson walks it masterfully. The 21-year-old’s keen sense of self and his belief in his otherworldly abilities is what enabled him to cruise through the first three matches of his Olympic debut without giving up a point.

It’s a feat that’s particularly impressive when you consider one of his opponents was Taha Akgul of Turkey, the defending Olympic champion. Steveson — The University of Minnesota Gophers’ heavyweight, reigning NCAA Division I National Champion and winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy — made light work of Aiaal Lazarev of Kyrgyzstan in his opening match, taking only 2 minutes, 2 seconds to win 10-0. He followed that up with an 8-0 drubbing of Akgul before winning his semifinal match against Lkhagvagerel Munkhtur of Mongolia 5-0 to advance to the men’s freestyle 125kg wrestling final.

“He’s the best heavyweight wrestler to probably ever step foot (on the mat),” Steveson said of Akgul after their quarterfinal showdown last month. “But his time is up. I came here for business. I came here to win. … Ain’t nothing going to be given to me. I’ve got to go get it.”

And that’s exactly what he did in an incredible comeback win over Geno Petriashvili — the 2016 bronze-medalist and three-time world champion (2017-19) of Georgia — in the final.

Steveson was born in 2000, and America hadn’t won an Olympic gold medal in men’s heavyweight in his lifetime (Bruce Baumgartner, 1992). If you know his story, it’s not surprising that the Apple Valley, Minnesota, native would be the one to get it done.

That is not to say the Team USA standout’s mom set this all in motion by choosing to name her son after wrestling legend Dan Gable (Steveson’s middle name is Dan), who was a two-time national champion wrestler at Iowa State and an Olympic gold medalist in 1972.

Who am I kidding? That’s exactly what I’m saying. The whole thing felt preordained. Maybe that’s why the charismatic superstar was so fearless and brash about what he intended to do. He was born for it.

“You can see that when the lights get bright, Gable comes to perform,” he told the Associated Press. “And I think that’s number one with me. And I think that’s what people can expect with me wherever I go.”

If the wrestler choosing to address himself in the third person and the above quote gave you strong Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vibes, you’re on the right track. The pinnacle of athletic achievement, winning an Olympic gold medal, was just the first item on a long list of aspirations for Gable — a stepping stone on the way to his ultimate goal: Becoming a WWE superstar.

It’s not presumptive to say the wrestler’s plan to use the accomplishment to springboard his WWE career was a resounding success. On Thursday, Steveson signed a NIL deal with WWE that will allow him to attend the University of Minnesota for his senior year and defend the Division I national championship at heavyweight. WWE will also set up a remote training facility for Steveson near campus where he’ll learn the finer points of in-ring work with WWE coaches.

While only time will tell if he will eventually be afforded opportunities like The Rock or Steveson’s mentor, fellow Minnesota great and WWE champion, Brock Lesnar, his ascension to superstardom feels about as certain as a post-victory backflip.

“When you’re a kid, you don’t really know how to make it to the WWE, but when I got to the University of Minnesota, I learned how Brock went about things and how to make connections,” Gable told Gopher Sports.

“My relationship with Brock has been awesome. It’s outstanding that a guy like that has noticed me and has gone out of his way to be there for me and guide me in the right direction.”

It was never a matter of if Steveson would go down the professional wrestling route, but when. Which is the same energy I’m bringing to the question of whether we will ever get to see him face off with Lesnar.

Steveson has already made a ton of noise in the professional wrestling space without ever stepping in the ring. From appearing in the crowd at NXT TakeOvers and WrestleMania to waving at Vince McMahon on Twitter (and eventually meeting up with him at SummerSlam 2021 after his Olympic victory), Gable kept his name top of mind among the WWE brass and stars alike.

Then there was the famed picture of the Team USA standout with Roman Reigns and his manager Paul Heyman.

“The picture of me, Paul (Heyman), and Roman Reigns is gonna go down as maybe one of the best wrestling photos in history,” Steveson said. “Just because the path that I’m taking with it and the path that Roman Reigns has set in stone being a champion, that’ll probably never be defeated again. The path that Paul Heyman has done for wrestling. He’s probably the greatest spokesperson. (He’s going to the) Hall of Fame.”

Steveson’s expectations for his future are larger-than-life, but why shouldn’t they be? Thus far he has been a walking, back-flipping testimonial for the benefits of doing it big.



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Olympic gold medalist Steveson signs with WWE

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Gable Steveson, the heavyweight freestyle wrestler who won a gold medal at the Olympics last month, has signed a multiyear deal with WWE, Stevenson told ESPN.

The 21-year-old signed an NIL deal with WWE that will allow him to attend University of Minnesota for his senior year and defend the Division I National Championship at heavyweight. WWE will set up a remote training facility for Steveson near campus where he’ll be able to learn the finer points of in-ring work with WWE coaches.

He’ll also have access to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, where his brother, Bobby Steveson, currently trains. After Gable graduates in May, his multi-year talent contract with WWE begins; he’ll be a full-time performer with the company (but also appear on WWE programming during the school year.)

“I’ve been on WWE since I was really young,” said Stevenson, WWE’s first gold medalist since Kurt Angle. “I was on guys like Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman for a very long time. So growing up watching them, me being an entertainer on the wrestling mat, it just felt like it was the right choice.”

The 6-foot-1, 265-pound Stevenson held talks with the UFC and also contemplated pursuing a career in the NFL; he was a hot commodity coming off the Olympic gold-medal win in Tokyo, a last-second victory over Geno Petriashvili that he celebrated with a backflip.

Sources told ESPN’s Marc Raimondi the UFC wanted Stevenson to gain experience on the regional MMA scene before potentially bringing him onto Dana White’s Contender Series to compete for a contract. The formula would have been similar to what the UFC did with former NFL All-Pro Greg Hardy. Stevenson said “we never talked about that so I have no clue.”

“We all saw his physical ability prior to and at the Olympics,” said Nick Khan, WWE President and Chief Revenue Officer. “What we also saw was that Gable has as much charisma as he does ability. Marketability and ability are both of great importance to us.”

“This is just the starting line and nowhere close to the finish line,” Khan added. “So our investment is based on how much we think of Gable now and how much bigger we think he can become.”

WWE has a rich history of transforming top freestyle wrestlers into main-event Superstars. Angle won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and parlayed that success into a long run as both a WWE champion and headline act. Lesnar, who like Stevenson, won the national championship at the University of Minnesota, is currently signed with WWE where he’s featured as one of the biggest stars in the company.

Stevenson calls the former UFC heavyweight champion a “great mentor to me,” and envisions a WrestleMania match against Lesnar in the not-too-distant future.

“Being able to learn how to take bumps and with the wrestling background I have right now, I think I can adapt to all of it really quick,” Stevenson said. “I think with the charisma and the confidence and the attitude that I bring to the wrestling mat, it will translate over to the WWE really fast and I feel that I can … go on screen and have a good role and know what to do perfectly.”

In the meantime, Gable will focus on the college wrestling mat, where he’ll defend his national championship while completing his studies. He grew up in Apple Valley, Minnesota, watching Triple H spit water in the air at WrestleMania as a member of D-Generation X. Now, he’ll learn the craft of a WWE Superstar, and that same man will be integral to his development.

“Gable impressed us well before he became a U.S. Olympic gold medalist,” said Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE EVP, Global Talent Strategy & Development. “He has all the tools to be a generational talent: a world-class athlete with size, speed, determination – and the ability to captivate an audience with his incredible charisma.

“The introduction of NIL allows us to create a more direct path from college to WWE, a benefit to athletes as well as the WWE Universe as Gable will have an immediate presence with our company while working towards earning his degree and defending his national championship. The future is bright for him in WWE.”

Stevenson said his breakthrough moment “might come sooner than you think.” And as for that all-important finishing move?

“I think I got one in mind,” he said. ” … It’s crazy how long I’ve been following them and now I’ve reached that point where I’m going to be walking out in front of WrestleManias and SummerSlams and people are going to do my signature look when I’m an old man, too.”

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Olympic gold medalist Stevenson signs with WWE

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Gable Stevenson, the heavyweight freestyle wrestler who won a gold medal at the Olympics last month, has signed a multi-year deal with WWE, Stevenson told ESPN.

The 21-year-old signed an NIL deal with WWE that will allow him to attend University of Minnesota for his senior year and defend the Division I National Championship at heavyweight. WWE will set up a remote training facility for Stevenson near campus where he’ll be able to learn the finer points of in-ring work with WWE coaches.

He’ll also have access to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, where his brother, Bobby Stevenson, currently trains. After Gable graduates in May, his multi-year talent contract with WWE begins; he’ll be a full-time performer with the company (but also appear on WWE programming during the school year.)

“I’ve been on WWE since I was really young,” said Stevenson, WWE’s first gold medalist since Kurt Angle. “I was on guys like Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman for a very long time. So growing up watching them, me being an entertainer on the wrestling mat, it just felt like it was the right choice.”

The 6-foot-1, 265-pound Stevenson held talks with the UFC and also contemplated pursuing a career in the NFL; he was a hot commodity coming off the Olympic gold-medal win in Tokyo, a last-second victory over Geno Petriashvili that he celebrated with a backflip.

Sources told ESPN’s Marc Raimondi the UFC wanted Stevenson to gain experience on the regional MMA scene before potentially bringing him onto Dana White’s Contender Series to compete for a contract. The formula would have been similar to what the UFC did with former NFL All-Pro Greg Hardy. Stevenson said “we never talked about that so I have no clue.”

“We all saw his physical ability prior to and at the Olympics,” said Nick Khan, WWE President and Chief Revenue Officer. “What we also saw was that Gable has as much charisma as he does ability. Marketability and ability are both of great importance to us.”

“This is just the starting line and nowhere close to the finish line,” Khan added. “So our investment is based on how much we think of Gable now and how much bigger we think he can become.”

WWE has a rich history of transforming top freestyle wrestlers into main-event Superstars. Angle won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and parlayed that success into a long run as both a WWE champion and headline act. Lesnar, who like Stevenson, won the national championship at the University of Minnesota, is currently signed with WWE where he’s featured as one of the biggest stars in the company.

Stevenson calls the former UFC heavyweight champion a “great mentor to me,” and envisions a WrestleMania match against Lesnar in the not-too-distant future.

“Being able to learn how to take bumps and with the wrestling background I have right now, I think I can adapt to all of it really quick,” Stevenson said. “I think with the charisma and the confidence and the attitude that I bring to the wrestling mat, it will translate over to the WWE really fast and I feel that I can … go on screen and have a good role and know what to do perfectly.”

In the meantime, Gable will focus on the college wrestling mat, where he’ll defend his national championship while completing his studies. He grew up in Apple Valley, Minnesota, watching Triple H spit water in the air at WrestleMania as a member of D-Generation X. Now, he’ll learn the craft of a WWE Superstar, and that same man will be integral to his development.

“Gable impressed us well before he became a U.S. Olympic gold medalist,” said Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE EVP, Global Talent Strategy & Development. “He has all the tools to be a generational talent: a world-class athlete with size, speed, determination – and the ability to captivate an audience with his incredible charisma.

“The introduction of NIL allows us to create a more direct path from college to WWE, a benefit to athletes as well as the WWE Universe as Gable will have an immediate presence with our company while working towards earning his degree and defending his national championship. The future is bright for him in WWE.”

Stevenson said his breakthrough moment “might come sooner than you think.” And as for that all-important finishing move?

“I think I got one in mind,” he said. ” … It’s crazy how long I’ve been following them and now I’ve reached that point where I’m going to be walking out in front of WrestleManias and SummerSlams and people are going to do my signature look when I’m an old man, too.”

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Secret meetings, negotiations and ice cream bars: The inside story of CM Punk’s return to wrestling

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HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — CM Punk arrived at the United Center in Chicago at about 4:30 p.m. local time on Aug. 20, about 4½ hours before he was scheduled to make his return to professional wrestling after more than seven years away on All Elite Wrestling’s “Rampage.”

The former WWE champion and UFC fighter was nervous and anxious as he entered his hometown venue. He hadn’t slept for two nights. Punk tried to settle down by watching some of the wrestling matches being taped for other AEW shows prior to the live Rampage broadcast, but he couldn’t sit still or focus. He was hungry, but he couldn’t force himself to eat much.

Punk started second-guessing some things. He gazed down at his black-and-white sneakers and wondered if those were the right ones to wear. He looked in a bathroom mirror to see if his slicked-back dark hair looked OK. He continued to pace around the backstage area, trying to find comfort in a small group of people who he brought along with him, including Nora Flanagan, who he has known since he was 14 years old, and Lou D’Angeli, a former pro wrestling performer who was once known as Sign Guy Dudley in Extreme Championship Wrestling.

With about 15 minutes until showtime, Punk and his friends moved just behind the curtain. Punk, a massive hockey fan, flashed a quick smile. This was a familiar location for him inside of the United Center.

“This is where I always stand for when I do ‘Shoot the Puck’ for the Blackhawks,” Punk told D’Angeli. “I’m always nervous when I’m doing that, so this makes perfect sense that I’m nervous here again.”

Finally, the intro music for AEW Rampage played in the arena, marking the start of the broadcast. And when that stopped playing, the “CM Punk!” chants started, even though the sold-out crowd still didn’t know for sure he would be there.

That’s when Punk’s signature entrance music, “Cult of Personality,” by Living Colour, blared out of the United Center’s PA system — whipping the crowd into a frenzy, with a climbing decibel level that only grew to greater heights as Punk walked through the tunnel and presented himself to the spectators.

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After seven years, CM Punk makes his return to professional wrestling and receives massive cheers on AEW Rampage in Chicago.

Punk, one of the most beloved wrestlers of the modern era, had officially returned to pro wrestling for the first time since he left WWE in 2014 under the most acrimonious of circumstances. On Sunday, he’ll perform in his first match back, against Darby Allin — a wrestler that Punk said would be his favorite if he was a teenager right now –at AEW’s All Out pay-per-view event at NOW Arena, near his hometown of Chicago.

The story of Punk’s return goes much deeper than that. There were multiple sold-out arenas, record-setting T-shirt sales and $500 ice cream bars along the way, but at its core, it’s about a man who has finally come home.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime spot,” Punk said of his return. “I’m never going to get a chance to do something like that again. I don’t know if there’s ever gonna be another chance for anybody to do something like that again. Perfect storm.”


Tony Khan remembers the first time he sat down for a meeting with Punk. It was the day after Christmas in 2018. Khan, also a Chicago native, was home for the holidays. He was one week away from announcing that AEW, his upstart wrestling promotion, would be launching in 2019 with Khan as the president and CEO. Khan is the 38-year-old son of Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC owner Shad Khan, and has served at an executive level for both professional sports franchises.

Punk, a former WWE headliner who walked away from that company and the industry as a whole in 2014, was at the top of Khan’s acquisition list. The two spoke for more than an hour.

“He’s one of the biggest stars in all of wrestling, and he was a free agent,” Khan said.

Punk, though, was “pessimistic,” Khan said. Things between him and WWE ended badly. Punk was sick and injured in those final months, and he left in January 2014 the night after competing in his final WWE match at the Royal Rumble. He was officially fired on his wedding day that June.

WWE doctor Christopher Amann ended up suing Punk for defamation after comments Punk made about his medical treatment with WWE on a podcast — a lawsuit Punk eventually won, after a long, drawn out process.

After leaving WWE, Punk seemed to want to put the wrestling business behind him. He started training full time in mixed martial arts, was signed to the UFC in December 2014 and competed twice for that organization, in 2016 and 2018. In interviews, Punk was mostly negative about professional wrestling.

“He was turned off by a lot of things that happened after the fact, for the obvious reasons,” D’Angeli said. “He needed to take that step away. I wasn’t fully convinced he would ever come back. I never asked him, either.”

Punk, whose real name is Phil Brooks, said he never hated pro wrestling, a path he started on as a passionate backyard wrestler in 1999. He had tons of success in the independent wrestling scene, including Ring of Honor, and then signed with WWE in 2005. He described his feelings for the industry as “love-hate.”

Even before he officially left the WWE, the way he believed the talent was treated, and how they treated each other, started to sour Punk’s long-time passion for wrestling.

“To me, honestly, there’s no such thing as ‘the boys,'” Punk said, using a wrestling term for the wrestlers or talent. “If there was such a thing as ‘the boys,’ there would be a f—ing union. And too many times you see people just get so unfairly treated and there’s a whole locker room full of people who would be — if it was them — be like, ‘Hey guys, help me.’ And I was one of those people.

“The business is always going to be the business. It’s built the way it is. I will always tell individual wrestlers, you have to protect yourself. You can’t expect other people to come to your aid. I found out the hard way. There’s other people that it’s still happening [to]. You can be loyal to a company that wouldn’t piss on your ashes if you burned alive or you could just make sure at the end of the day that you’re happy and you’re healthy.”

While the edges of his stark opposition to a wrestling return had softened slightly over the years, it was clear to Khan after the Dec. 26 meeting that Punk was not ready.

“He wanted to see how this thing went,” Khan said.


There weren’t sirens signaling Punk’s desire to return to wrestling, but little by little there were small signs popping up in unseen corners. In early 2019, Dana Salls Cree got a direct message from a verified account to her business Instagram for Pretty Cool Ice Cream. Salls Cree had started the artisan ice cream bar company in Chicago just a few months earlier.

Punk had been told about her shop from a mutual friend, and there he was in her DMs.

Punk asked Salls Cree if Pretty Cool could make 20,000 ice cream bars. It would have been the most the shop had ever made in an order, but she said it was doable.

“The conversation with him was pretty simple,” Salls Cree told ESPN. “He seemed like a good guy. I asked, ‘Do you have an event?’ He just said, ‘I’ll say I have an event.’ I said, ‘Cool, where do you want them?’ I didn’t pry. I figured if there was more information to come, it would come when it needed to come.”

At the time, Punk still had not made up his mind that he would return to wrestling with AEW, though he was starting to consider it, unbeknownst to many. AEW wasn’t even a thing yet, officially, as its first event wouldn’t happen until May 2019.

But Punk had said for years he wanted to see the return of the old WWF ice cream bars, which were discontinued in 2009 after more than two decades, including an infamous on-air callout for them as he stood in the ring with Vince McMahon himself. He also was inspired by comedian Andy Kaufman, who once took a Carnegie Hall crowd out for milk and cookies.

“It was all part of the plan, and I was just getting my ducks in a row,” Punk said. … “I just think I knew this was something that was going to happen. In order for it to be perfect, that was a main component — those damn ice cream bars.”


AEW’s first pay-per-view event, Double or Nothing in Las Vegas on Memorial Day Weekend 2019, came and went. No Punk. The comeback buzz picked up again in late summer. AEW would be running its second PPV in Chicago on Labor Day Weekend. Punk was asked about it often, and Khan said that put some strain on the possibilities. The media, Khan said, “didn’t do us any favors.”

“The fans really had an expectation,” Khan said. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It wasn’t like we were trying to give people the perception he was coming and it wasn’t like he was trying to give the perception he was coming. But people just really wanted it to happen, because it’s just something people really care about.”

Punk did return to pro wrestling in 2019, sideways. In November 2019, Punk signed with Fox Sports as part of the panel for its WWE Backstage show on FS1. Punk made it clear that he was working for Fox and not WWE. But Fox was WWE’s broadcast partner for the show Smackdown, and that naturally led to more speculation of a return.

Khan was undeterred.

“I was not discouraged, actually,” he said. “If he was going to go back there, he would have gone back. He didn’t. I was actually somewhat encouraged. The fact that he never went back to wrestle there made me believe this was still definitely possible. It was definitely one of my dreams and aspirations.”

Having a good experience with Backstage and enjoying the work alongside host Renee Paquette, the show’s producers started to warm Punk up to wrestling again. Earlier that fall, Punk had cleared all his legal situations. In 2018, Punk won his lawsuit against Amann, and in September 2019, he and former friend Colt Cabana settled lawsuits against one another that stemmed from the Amann suit, after Punk appeared on Cabana’s podcast.

“That takes a lot out of you,” Punk said. “I don’t think I was ever coming back while entrenched in [Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation] suits and whatnot. I think once I was free and clear, I think that’s when you can begin to heal from all of that. Honestly, it’s what eventually happened.”


WWE Backstage was canceled in June 2020 due, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic. In spring 2020, Khan and Punk started to talk more, and got closer. Khan had no intention of signing Punk and bringing him back with no fans in attendance, so it allowed for what he described as a “low-pressure friendship.”

“Everyone is at home more,” Khan said. “People are reconnecting with people they haven’t talked to as much, and connecting with friends. I talked to him a lot. He was watching the shows and enjoying them. He liked a lot of the young wrestlers who were becoming breakout stars on AEW Dynamite.”

Punk said he wasn’t sure if he would have returned sooner if not for the pandemic. He joked in the virtual media scrum after his return that he needed to be wined and dined by AEW.

“It’s me, and I go to my own speed and I’m on my own dream,” Punk told ESPN. “It worked out. I’m pretty guarded and I’m pretty private. So I was just kind of keeping an eye on it and I wanted to see how it was going to turn out.”

One of the things that impressed Punk most about AEW was how the promotion and talent dealt with the death of one of its wrestlers, Brodie Lee, last December. No one in the AEW locker room divulged that Lee was sick with a non-COVID-related lung issue — and Khan didn’t even tell Punk, even though by that time they were talking often.

Punk said this week on ESPN’s SportsNation that he was “blown away” the locker room was tight-knit enough not to leak the news. It gave him the hope that maybe AEW would be different from his past experiences.

In December 2020, Punk finally took himself out of the UFC’s USADA drug-testing pool, rendering him essentially retired from MMA. Meanwhile, Punk said WWE had been reaching out to him about a return as well, through intermediaries. Punk said he did listen to overtures, but they never really got off the ground.

“I remember one of the first things I ever said to them was, ‘Above all, don’t play games,'” Punk said. “And they played games. Some things never change. … When you enter a conversation with people you have a past with and you know who they are, how seriously can you take it? I know exactly who they are and they just continue to prove it. I’m trying to be as diplomatic as I possibly can.”


On Feb. 12, Punk answered a fan’s Twitter question about which AEW wrestlers he’d most like to work with if he came back. Punk listed five young AEW stars, including Allin. Khan texted him, saying he liked his list.

Within a few weeks, Punk and Khan were talking monetary figures and how he’d debut in AEW.

“Once he wanted to come back, there was nothing standing between us,” Khan said. “He was looking to be well compensated, but I would want to compensate CM Punk. That wasn’t that hard to figure out. Him wanting to wrestle for AEW was the biggest thing we had to establish. Once we had that established, we all wanted the same stuff.”

As these conversations were going on, AEW Dynamite pulled in big ratings on Wednesday nights and became the No. 1 show on cable for the night several times. By January 2020, AEW had already proved themselves a viable entity and signed an extension with TNT that extended through 2023.

Punk said in an interview last year that he would need a fun story to tell and “the stupidest amount of money” to come back. Punk said he’s happy with his AEW contract, adding that LeBron James loves basketball, but “he ain’t showing up unless you pay that motherf—er, right?” He implied that if he returned to wrestling for the money alone, it would be with WWE.

“What I mean is, it’s not all about the money for me,” Punk said. “Because if it was, I would have probably been the main event of WrestleMania this past year. Or I would have been at the Royal Rumble. Everybody is different. Every situation is different. There’s some people that don’t like me, so all they’re going to hear is ‘Oh, he’s just doing it for the money.’ And I could give a s—.

“The proof is in the pudding. Does it matter why I’m doing it? Do you really care? If you don’t like me, don’t watch. It’s a perfect storm. It’s a lot of everything. It’s the money, it’s the freedom. It’s the creative, and it’s the possibility of working with young, talented people that excite me.”


Khan had All Out circled for CM Punk’s return. But in the spring, Punk had brought up the United Center. Khan looked into it in May or June and saw that the building had Aug. 20 open, so AEW put a hold on that date.

The wrestling website Fightful.com reported July 21 that CM Punk was in discussions for a return to pro wrestling with AEW. Seven days later, AEW announced it would run United Center on Aug. 20 for the second episode of its second cable show, Rampage. The title of the episode would be The First Dance”, a takeoff on ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

On Aug. 2, Punk showed up at Pretty Cool Ice Cream and put down a deposit to buy 15,000 ice cream bars. He and Salls Cree had been talking on and off for two years. The cost for the order would have normally been $84,000, Salls Cree said, but she gave Punk a discount.

“I mean, you write a check for 15,000 ice cream bars, you’re pretty much all in at that point,” Punk said with a laugh.

On that same day, AEW sold out the United Center in minutes. It would be the promotion’s largest live audience to date, although Punk was never officially announced. Fans bought tickets based on reports, rumors and hints made on AEW television, like Allin calling out “The Best in the World” to appear on Rampage.

Punk wanted a surprise element.

“I kind of proposed that it could be the worst kept secret in wrestling, but it’s still a secret,” Khan said. “And the real gist of it was that 99% deep down you’re pretty sure he’s going to come out, but it’s that 1% doubt that maybe he’s not here, that maybe this is all a big put-on, that is what made the reaction in the moment so electric, I think.”

Two weeks before Punk’s return, he contacted Ryan Barkan, the owner of Pro Wrestling Tees, and told him the news. Pro Wrestling Tees is the leader in non-WWE wrestling merchandise and based in Chicago. Punk needed a new T-shirt for his huge return, so Barkan put him in touch with artist Dave Stenken. They came up with a design and AEW quickly approved it. The shirts would be ready for Aug. 20.

Barkan had to have the shirts printed at a different warehouse, so his staff didn’t know what was going on. He delivered the first batch, which were customized with an “I was there” message for all in attendance, himself. Meanwhile, Salls Cree and her nine employees at Pretty Cool were carrying the Punk ice cream bars up by hand from their downstairs freezer before driving them over.

Punk arrived early at the United Center and got a text from his lawyer while there. He told Punk that he should probably sign his AEW contract before appearing on television, so he did that about 30 minutes before the start of Rampage.

Before the show began, Barkan took his seat in the front row. Punk came out to one of the loudest reactions in the history of pro wrestling. On his phone, Barkan was watching the Pro Wrestling Tees website traffic — and the site immediately crashed when the T-shirts went live. Lines for the shirt at the United Center climbed up escalators and throughout the concourse.

The website came back online 12 hours later, and that weekend the Punk return shirts surpassed the company’s all-time selling shirt record.

The classic Bullet Club T-shirt from New Japan Pro Wrestling previously held the record with 35,000 shirts sold, over seven years. The new CM Punk shirts sold more than that in less than three days, even with the site crashing. Barkan said the new Punk shirts are on pace to reach more than 100,000 sold and orders have come from as far away as Malta, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.

Back at United Center, Punk was nearly brought to tears as he walked out. He slapped hands, hugged fans and did a stage dive into the crowd at one point. Inside the ring, he cut an emotional promo about his pro wrestling journey, the city he loves and why he wanted to return in front of his hometown fans. At the end of his speech, Punk told the 15,316 fans that on their way out there would be ice cream bars “on me.”

The next morning, a wide-eyed Salls Cree watched the segment on YouTube from home. Up until that point, she really had no idea what all those ice cream bars were for. Her husband woke her up and she opened Instagram to 90 messages, mostly of people wanting the Punk ice cream bars, some from as far away as Italy and Colombia.

She looked on eBay and saw some people selling wrappers from that night for as much as $800. One fan bought a frozen, uneaten Punk ice cream bar on the site for $500. There will be 4,000 more Pretty Cool ice cream bars sold this week at the NOW Arena.

“I don’t think I quite understood how beloved he was to this city,” said Salls Cree, a Seattle native. “But the Chicago that I’ve gotten to know and the way they showed up for him, and he showed up for them. That was so Chicago to me.”


During Punk’s on-air speech, AEW sent out a news release with a quote from Punk simply stating: “I’m back,” just as Jordan had done when he returned to the Bulls in 1995.

When he got back behind the curtain, Punk saw Khan first, then walked down the stairs to hug D’Angeli.

After the embrace, Punk asked D’Angeli, “So, how was it?”

D’Angeli looked back at his longtime friend and replied: “You know how it was.”

Even days later, Punk was still living in the energy of that moment.

“Soak it in, man. Just enjoy it,” Punk said. “It doesn’t matter what happens in five minutes. It doesn’t matter what happens in five weeks. Tomorrow does not exist. Yesterday does not matter. Everything was about the present. And I think just as human beings, not enough of us take moments to just be present.”



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Lapsed fan’s guide to WWE SummerSlam: The return of John Cena

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As a service to fans who have a general interest in WWE but might not have watched a match in months, we’re happy to provide this guide to WWE SummerSlam at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada. The event begins on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on Peacock.

Vegas, baby?

Heck yes! SummerSlam makes its first-ever trip to Sin City, but the WWE has a history with Las Vegas that can be summed up in three words: “championship match shenanigans.”

It’s the place were Bret Hart lost the world title to Yokozuna in WrestleMania IX, only to have Hulk Hogan walk out, challenge the new champ and beat the big guy in 22 seconds because “Hogan Must Pose.”

It’s also the place where all three members of The Shield held the WWE world championship on the same night at Money In The Bank 2016; Seth Rollins won it from Roman Reigns in the scheduled main event, and then Dean Ambrose cashed in his briefcase to win it from Rollins. (Whatever happened to that Ambrose guy? Charismatic fellow, that one.)

SummerSlam is another big WWE event in Las Vegas, with another Roman Reigns championship defense — but this time, against John Cena!

John Cena? The actor?

play

1:24

John Cena passionately dons his Peacemaker outfit and discusses his return to the WWE.

You might remember him from such roles as Peacemaker in “The Suicide Squad” and … Peacemaker in his eponymous upcoming HBO Max series. Also, he’s part of the family in “F9,” the latest entry in the Fast and Furious saga. Cena made a welcomed return to the WWE at July’s Money In The Bank, following in Dwayne Johnson’s grand tradition of coming back to the ring when you’ve got something to promote. He said he wanted to defeat Reigns for the Universal Championship, which would break his tie with Ric Flair for most world championship wins in the WWE, as they both currently sit at 16 world titles.

Why would Roman Reigns agree to wrestle someone who hasn’t competed since WrestleMania 36?

He didn’t. Follow the bouncing plot: Reigns denied Cena a match, opting instead to accept Finn Balor’s challenge for a SummerSlam match; at a contract signing on SmackDown (those things never end well, do they?), a desperate Baron (no longer King) Corbin attacked Balor and tried to sign the contract himself. Cena ran out, pummeled Corbin and then put his own name on the dotted line. While none of this likely stands up to the scrutiny of U.S. contract law, it makes for a great setup for this SummerSlam matchup.

Reigns, for the uninformed, continues to be the single best thing currently going in the WWE. He has found his niche as a charismatic heel: the “Tribal Chief” flanked by his cousins Jimmy and Jey Uso and advised by the indelible Paul Heyman. He has struck the perfect balance between physical domination, sarcastic smack talk and the occasional moments of pusillanimity that make for a classic wrestling villain. It’s a tribute to Reigns that fans can root for his demise and find satisfaction in his reign continuing with the same fervor.

Needless to say, this match holds a bit more interest than our other “returning veteran star gets inexplicable title shot” match, probably due to the lack of Goldberg.

Goldberg is back? Again?

Yes, 54-year-old Bill Goldberg is wrestling Bobby Lashley for the WWE title, which either speaks to the lack of options in the championship picture, Goldberg’s enduring popularity, or a little of both.

Please recall that Goldberg challenged Drew McIntyre for the WWE championship at the Royal Rumble and lost in under three minutes. Like Reigns with Cena, Lashley initially turned down Goldberg for a championship match. Instead of a convoluted contract signing, all it took was a monstrous spear from Goldberg to change his mind. Please note: Goldberg’s 15-year-old son has featured prominently in the build to this match; if this was still the Attitude Era, that would mean he’d turn on his father and join a reconstituted Hurt Business as an intern. Alas, that time has passed. But he’s not the only wrestling legacy son who will likely appear at SummerSlam.

Who are the Mysterios battling?

Rey Mysterio and 24-year-old Dominik Mysterio are taking on The Usos, who defeated the father-and-son team for the SmackDown tag-team championships at Money In The Bank last month. SummerSlam marks the one-year anniversary of Dominik Mysterio becoming a regular in-ring competitor for the WWE, having lost to Seth Rollins in a street fight at last year’s SummerSlam.

What’s up with Seth Rollins these days?

He has a match against Edge. It’s one of these WWE feuds in which two great talkers get you interested in an undercard bout. Sure, Rollins cost Edge in his Money In The Bank match against Reigns by distracting the referee for “reasons,” but mostly the animosity between these two has been personal and increasingly contentious.

Rollins being taunted as “Edge Light” was a particular favorite. That these two can also really go in the ring makes the matchup one of the more anticipated ones on the card, aka the opposite of Drew McIntyre vs. Jinder Mahal.

Stop. Why is Drew McIntyre in a match against Jinder Mahal?

Huh, it appears this question was submitted by a “Drew from Ayr, Scotland.” At least there’s a little history here, as the two were stablemates in “3MB” with Heath Slater, a name we did not expect to have listed in this preview. Mahal was upset that McIntyre had been successful and welp, here we are.

McIntyre won a two-on-one match against Mahal’s associates Veer and Shanky to ban them from ringside. There’s also a sword involved. Honestly, Drew’s 200th match against Sheamus would have us more excited.

Is Sheamus on the card?

Yes, and defending a belt. The reigning U.S. champion takes on Damian Priest, who was elevated from NXT earlier this year, had a prolonged feud with The Miz and John Morrison that included zombies at one point, and then returned to save Humberto Carrillo from a beating by Sheamus. That set up this title match between one of the WWE’s old reliables against one its few shining, new stars … and the possibility that the match could be decided via Drip Stick.

A … Drip Stick?

A small, handheld water gun wielded by Miz and Morrison, aka “‘Johnny Drip Drip,” his self-assigned nickname back when the two were engaged in rap battles with Bad Bunny. It can have a devastating effect on opponents. Or sometimes they do what Priest did recently, which was wipe his face because it’s just, like, water.

Are there other championships on the line at SummerSlam?

Absolutely! The Raw tag-team championships will be defended by AJ Styles and Omos — listed at 7-foot-3 and 400 pounds! — against the delightful pairing of “RK-Bro” teammates Riddle and Randy Orton. And really, there are few things happening on Raw right now that have the appeal of the WWE’s biggest dude-bro, scooter-riding goofball teaming with the serpentine intensity of Randy Orton. Especially with Riddle as the puppy dog-like “try hard” attempting to win Orton’s respect.

It totally works on a human level that so many current angles don’t. Like, for example, anything involving an evil doll.

So Alexa Bliss is still doing her “Harley Quinn, but in The Conjuring Cinematic Universe” thing?

Because there simply isn’t enough mysterious black ectoplasm and temporary demonic possession of opponents in wrestling, so yes she is. The former protégé of Bray Wyatt — one of a few dozen performers who have been cut from WWE in recent months, and a name that could well be chanted during this match — has centered her creepiness around a doll named Lilly, which does spooky doll things like move on its own without the need for batteries. Bliss is wrestling Eva Marie at SummerSlam. Marie has tasked her own protégé — the former Piper Niven in NXT, now saddled with the unforgivable moniker of Doudrop — to try to steal the doll.

Look, we’re not saying the “The Demonic Possession of Doudrop” is the predictable result for this match, but of course, it is.

What about the women’s championship matches?

Bianca Belair, the SmackDown women’s champion, faces Sasha Banks. Please recall that these two closed out the first night of WrestleMania 37 with a really good main event match. The build for this one saw Banks return just after Belair’s scheduled title challenger, Bayley, went down with a serious leg injury. Banks returned as an ally for Belair, which naturally meant she would turn on Belair. There has been some concern about this match happening, however, as a scheduled preview was pulled from recent dates on the Road To SummerSlam live (non-televised) tour.

Finally, the Raw women’s championship is on the line as a superhero takes on a queen.

There’s a superhero?

Well, “Almost Super Hero.” Nikki Cross is now Nikki A.S.H., wearing a mask and doing the “you don’t need superpowers to be a superhero” gimmick. She cashed in her Money In The Bank briefcase and won the belt from Charlotte Flair, who continues to do her “I’m Charlotte Flair and my eventual victory is inevitable” gimmick. Rhea Ripley was added to the mix to make this a triple-threat match for the Raw title. It’s hard to keep a championship on an underdog for too long. Also, as a reminder, Charlotte Flair is in the match.

Is SummerSlam worth watching?

Look, it has been a weird couple of months for the WWE. There have been roster reductions that have made many fans unhappy. The events are just getting back in front of live crowds. There has been a wild disparity in the quality of some of its weekly television products. But if there’s one thing the WWE does better than anyone, it’s sticking the landing on most of its signature events.

This is a stadium show with a few very compelling matchups and some that could surprise. So yes, SummerSlam will be worth your time for Cena vs. Reigns alone. Provided that Goldberg-Lashley match doesn’t take up too much of it. And he won’t. He’s 54. And wrestling Lashley.



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When WWE meets MLB: Team-inspired WWE Championship title replicas to launch in 2022

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Another day, another WWE collaboration. This time the professional wrestling monolith is teaming up with Major League Baseball.

What could MLB possibly have to offer WWE, you ask? Team-centric title belt replicas, that’s what.

On Thursday, WWE announced a multi-year partnership in which it will create team-inspired WWE Championship replica titles. The belts will feature the logos of all 30 MLB clubs from around North America. The merchandise, which will launch in 2022 and be available for all fans to purchase, marks the first official licensing agreement for WWE Championship replica titles between the organization and one of the major U.S. sports leagues.

In addition to the team-branded replica titles, the two sides will collaborate to design and manufacture belts celebrating the league’s premiere events including the World Series, All-Star Game and Home Run Derby. MLB and WWE will also create custom side plates and Lucha Libre masks with team-specific branding.

Custom WWE Championship title replicas are nothing new — it’s not uncommon to see a champagne-soaked belt make an appearance in a locker room or parade post victory, as WWE has been sending them to championship-winning franchises for years (they created a Los Angeles Dodgers-inspired belt in 2020, as well as a Washington Nationals-inspired title in 2019). But this is the first time fans can claim one of the commemorative items for themselves.

“We’ve been continually amazed by the reaction to custom WWE Championship title belts, and we’re excited this partnership will allow us to make them widely available to fans,” said Kevin Moore, WWE Senior Vice President, Direct-to-Consumer Products.

While it hasn’t even been 24 hours since news of the partnership broke, at least one other company is already jockeying to be next in line for a WWE collaboration.

Shoot your shot, Velveeta.



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Jeff Jarrett ranks the top 10 wrestlers who played pro football: Roman Reigns, Goldberg and more

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Jeff Jarrett is a WWE Hall of Famer and third-generation wrestling promoter whom ESPN approached in the run-up to WWE SummerSlam on Saturday for his thoughts on pro football players who had success crossing over into pro wrestling.


That’s right, it’s me. Good ol’ Double J. That’s J-E-double F, J-A-double R-E-double T, world’s greatest singer, world’s greatest wrestler and, today, world’s greatest pro football writer. Ha-HA!

ESPN reached out to me on the eve of WWE’s SummerSlam and with NFL training camps in full swing to ask me about two of my favorite subjects: wrestling and football. “Double J, no one knows the wrestling business like you do, and we know you’re a huge football fan. We want you to give us your top 10 pro wrestlers of all time who played professional football.”

Good of ESPN to turn to a real expert. Haha! Damn right I know wrestling and I know football. I’m the third generation of my family in the wrestling business, and I’ve been a football fan ever since I can remember.

Wrestling long has attracted great athletes from other sports, and I can tell you it is as popular in NFL locker rooms as football is in wrestling locker rooms. I’ve been fortunate enough during my Hall of Fame in-ring career to come across a number of great athletes, but football obviously lends itself to the ring. It produces guys with speed, power and agility as well as guys of various sizes. What other sport could give you a guy as big and rugged as Ron Simmons and a highflier such as Brian Pillman?

The rules ESPN gave me are these: Only guys who took snaps in professional games could be included. A lot of guys participated in NFL, USFL and CFL training camps who never made those leagues for various reasons. So you won’t find superstars such as Vader, The Rock or Brock Lesnar on my list.

Here are my top 10 wrestlers who played pro football, many of whom I was in the ring with myself:

1. Bill Goldberg

Football credentials: Atlanta Falcons, NT, 1992-94. Played in 14 games, with one start.

Goldberg’s undefeated streak, on that stage on the worldwide scale, will never be duplicated. And it’s still paying dividends to this day. I wrestled Bill on a Monday Nitro in Milwaukee with Green Bay Packers players surrounding the ring. I took a spear and a jackhammer. And, of course, a 1-2-3. And you’ll see Bill on SummerSlam this weekend in the co-main event.


2. Roman Reigns

Real name: Joe Anoa’i

Football credentials: Edmonton Elks, DT, 2008. Played in five games, with three starts.

I’ve known the Anoa’i family since the 1970s. Roman’s father and uncle were the Wild Samoans, multiple-time WWE tag team champions. Rikishi was another of his uncles, and of course Rikishi’s sons, the Usos, are Roman’s cousins. So to say Roman has the business in his blood is an understatement. And ever since he became the “Tribal Chief” and the “Head of the Table,” we’ve really seen him take his game to another level. Now, when you call yourself the head of the table in a family that includes The Rock, that’s a bold statement in this business. We’ll just have to see where that leads.


3. Wahoo McDaniel

Football credentials: Houston Oilers, RG, 1960; Denver Broncos, LB, 1961-63; New York Jets, LB, 1964-65; Miami Dolphins, LB, 1966-68. Played in 105 games, with 91 starts and 13 interceptions.

I grew up a fan of Wahoo, but my family liked to talk about his football success more than his wrestling success. Legitimately one of the toughest guys on the field and in the ring. And man, that chop of his — the best in the business. I’m glad I was a little too young ever to take one of those. It’s too bad he didn’t get to use that with pads on.


4. Lex Luger

Real name: Larry Pfohl

Football credentials: Montreal Alouettes, OT, 1979-81; Tampa Bay Bandits, OG, 1984; Memphis Showboats, OG/OT, 1984-85; Jacksonville Bulls, OT, 1985. Played in 14 games for the Alouettes and an undetermined amount of games in his USFL career.

I’m not sure Lex gets the credit he deserves. He drew money for a very long time. There was a period when he was as big a star as anyone in the business. He stepped right off the football field and became a main eventer. We wrestled many, many times. I’ve taken many a press slam. A very powerful guy who threw me around with ease.


5. Ron Simmons

Football credentials: Ottawa Rough Riders, DT, 1981; Tampa Bay Bandits, DT, 1983-85. Statistical data not available.

Any list like this has to include Ron, the first Black world heavyweight champion. And, I mean … DAMN! He definitely left me saying damn after getting hit with one of his clotheslines. He’s another guy who for his size had such incredible agility, quickness and speed. He worked a little snug too. You knew when you’d been in the ring with Ron.


6. Ernie Ladd

Football credentials: San Diego Chargers, DT, 1961-65; Houston Oilers, DT, 1966-67; Kansas City Chiefs, DT, 1967-68. Played in 112 games, with 76 starts, and registered 33.5 career sacks.

“The Big Cat” was a little bit before my time. But you look up his football credentials and have to say he is as good a football player as anybody on my list. Three-time All-Pro? Wow! He was listed at 6-foot-9 and 290 pounds. I know he feuded with Andre the Giant and with Wahoo. He was one of the few guys back in the day who was anywhere near comparable in size to Andre. Ladd is in the Chargers Hall of Fame as well as the WWE Hall of Fame. That’s plenty good enough for me.


7. Steve “Mongo” McMichael

Football credentials: Chicago Bears, DT, 1980-93; Green Bay Packers, DT, 1994. Played in 213 NFL games, with 171 starts and 95 sacks.

Without a doubt, “Mongo” had the most upper-body strength of anybody I’ve ever been in the ring with, and I ain’t kidding! He really could throw you around. I worked with him and against him in the ring many times. And nobody told football stories like Mongo. You’d just be glued. I don’t recall where we were, but I can remember being in a wrestling locker room in WCW and he and Kevin Greene were spinning yarns about offensive linemen and sacking quarterbacks. Mongo had so many stories about the great Bears defense in the 1980s. You could listen all day.


8. Brian Pillman

Football credentials: Cincinnati Bengals, LB, 1984. Pillman appeared in six games.

“Flyin’ Brian” was a mercurial talent. He was great in the ring and probably left a bigger mark with his work on the mike. It’s a tragedy he suffered a motorcycle accident that cut his career short, so we’ll never completely know where his loose cannon character would have gone. But you can’t argue he had a big impact on the business in a relatively short time.


9. Moose

Real name: Quinn Ojinnaka

Football credentials: Atlanta Falcons, OG, 2006-09; New England Patriots, OG, 2010; Indianapolis Colts, OG, 2011; St. Louis Rams, OG, 2012. Played in 62 games with 20 starts.

I first met Moose at a tryout camp in Windsor, Ontario, in 2014. I was like, this is a diamond in the rough. He had all the tools. He still had the body of an offensive lineman at that time. You see him now and he’s lean, but he still has all that power and explosiveness. The sky is the limit for him. If we do this list again in five years, he could be at the top.


T-10. Monty Brown

Football credentials: Buffalo Bills, LB, 1993-95; New England Patriots, LB, 1996. Brown played in 43 games with 13 starts. Seven of his NFL starts came under coach Bill Belichick with the 1996 AFC champion Patriots.

“The Alpha Male!” Monty became a big star for us in TNA. A very charismatic guy who worked hard and became an excellent in-ring performer. He had a presence about him that you either have or you don’t. His finisher, “The Pounce,” was basically a flying football tackle. What a physique.


T-10. Pacman Jones

Football credentials: Tennessee Titans, CB, 2005-06; Dallas Cowboys, CB, 2008; Cincinnati Bengals, CB, 2010-2017; Denver Broncos, CB, 2018. Appeared in 146 games with 104 starts, 17 interceptions and five punt returns for touchdowns.

My buddy Pacman! He had about a dozen matches in TNA and actually was a world tag team champion with Ron “R-Truth” Killings. Pacman had a skill set not many guys could match. Incredible speed and leaping ability. Bad Bunny got so much credit for how well he performed at Wrestlemania, and he deserved it; but I promise you, he couldn’t have kept up with Pacman.


Honorable mention (listed alphabetically): Dick the Bruiser, Kevin Greene, Tito Santana, Steve “Dr. Death” Williams

Jeff Jarrett is a member of the WWE Hall of Fame and the Impact Hall of Fame. His “My World with Jeff Jarrett” podcast can be downloaded wherever you get your podcasts.

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WWE Money In The Bank: John Cena returns, Big E and Nikki A.S.H. win briefcases

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On a Money in the Bank pay-per-view that overdelivered, Edge and Roman Reigns did that and more for over 30 minutes. The energy was high, the crowd was plugged in and both men could have convincingly walked out of Fort Worth, Texas with the Universal championship in hand.

But with Seth Rollins‘ interference on two occasions, Edge’s fate was set. Reigns emerged from the main event of Money in the Bank with his title intact, and Edge and Rollins brawled to the back of Dickies Arena, both feeling the other had cost them the title. Reigns got on the mic, stating definitively that the whole world could now acknowledge him.

Then a very familiar series of horn notes blared through the arena’s PA. John Cena emerged to perhaps his loudest and most positive reaction to date, bounced back and forth between the ropes and then stared Reigns down. With a single “You can’t see me” hand gesture, a SummerSlam main event was seemingly cemented before the Money in the Bank broadcast had even faded to black.

It was a landscape shifting night on several fronts. Nikki A.S.H earned a shock Money in the Bank win on the women’s side, and Big E claimed the men’s Money in the Bank briefcase. Charlotte Flair returned to her perch as Raw women’s champion and new SmackDown tag team champions were crowned as well.

But for as quickly as Cena’s return will overshadow the rest of the night, and the main event in particular, the match between Reigns and Edge deserves considerable praise.

As the bell rang, they simply stared each other down, slowly circling. “Let’s go Roman” and “let’s go Edge” dueling chants rang throughout the building. Each man sought to gain the mental advantage rather than the physical advantage early on as they shoved each other in the face.

But once Edge sent Reigns shoulder-first into the post, it was on. They traded punches. Edge kicked Reigns out of the ring. Reigns hit a Samoan drop on the outside and then, as Edge struggled to get back into the ring, Reigns took total control. He wore Edge down and then, in the middle of the ring with a sleeper locked in, Edge buckled down and broke the grip. Reigns locked it right back in. Edge fought his way back up with body shots and bounced off the ropes before Reigns connected with an uppercut to the jaw, with Edge barely moving, draped over bottom rope. Reigns connected with a Drive-By kick.

Both of them had the crowd in their hands. Edge fought his way back, dodging a Superman punch and connecting with an Edge-O-Matic slam, both getting two-counts. An Edgecution DDT similarly gained Edge a two-count.

When Edge locked a Crossface on Reigns, and Reigns finally got to the bottom rope, referee Charles Robinson had to pry Edge off — and that wasn’t the last time Robinson would loom large.

As Edge charged forward for a spear, Reigns locked in a standing guillotine. Edge drove Reigns into the corner, but Reigns locked it back in. Edge started fading, but as he dropped to his knees, he desperately sent himself and Reigns tumbling through the middle rope.

Reigns went for the spear through the barricade, but missed and crashed through alone. Edge then successfully speared Reigns through a different wall, slung Reigns over his shoulders, tossed him back into the ring and covered him. Another two-count.

Reigns scrambled his way out of a tie-up with an uppercut and Superman punch, but on the punch Edge stumbled into the referee, taking Robinson out.

Reigns stomped a brace out of a folding chair, looking to return the favor for what Edge had done to him at WrestleMania and repeated to his cousins, The Usos — a crossface with the brace across the mouth.

But Edge blocked it, headbutted Reigns repeatedly and then got Reigns with the crossface and the brace in his mouth again. The Usos stalked towards the ring, but their opponents from earlier in the night, The Mysterios, were right behind them. They fought and chased the Usos to the back, and it was left to Edge and Reigns, seemingly alone.

But then Rollins, aggrieved with Edge for “stealing” his opportunity, kicked Edge in the neck and finally broke the hold. Edge cut off Reigns’ spear with a successful spear attempt of his own. A new ref charged to the ring, but Reigns kicked out at the absolute last moment.

Rollins came back once more and though Edge was able to kick him off the apron, Reigns speared Edge and then pinned him to retain his title.

Rollins attacked Edge post-match and got in Reigns’ face, screaming he would be next.

Edge got back up, brawled Rollins to the back and then Reigns had his moment to gloat. But as soon as he dropped the microphone from his lips, Cena’s music hit.

What’s next: Reigns vs. Cena and Edge vs. Rollins at SummerSlam. Outside of a non-match against “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 36 last year, Cena hasn’t been involved in an actual match since January 2019. This year alone, Cena has starred in a Fast and Furious franchise movie, and he’ll feature prominently in the upcoming DC comic book movie The Suicide Squad, which happens to have a release date of Aug. 6, just a few weeks before SummerSlam. To say this match is an attraction with off-the-charts mainstream appeal would be an understatement.

Edge vs. Rollins has the chance to be a show-stealer, and the intermingled build-up to these two matches on SmackDown in the coming weeks should be spectacular.


Men’s Money in the Bank ladder match: Big E def. Drew McIntyre, John Morrison, Kevin Owens, Matt Riddle, Ricochet, Seth Rollins and Shinsuke Nakamura

Big E’s career in the WWE has certainly had its high points. He’s been NXT champion, United States champion and Intercontinental champion. He was an integral part of making The New Day, the most popular act in professional wrestling.

But the one thing that’s been lacking, at least since he has been a part of the Raw or SmackDown rosters, was that final boost to the top tier. And at Money in the Bank, by grabbing the briefcase that earned him a future world title shot at the moment of his choosing, Big E finally has that moment within his reach.

The match itself was absolutely incredible. It started with Matt Riddle and Ricochet doing all kinds of acrobatics, taking out Seth Rollins and John Morrison, respectively, with flips to the outside of the ring, and it rarely slowed down.

Morrison jumped off the top turnbuckle, leapfrogged a ladder for leverage and spun himself into Shinsuke Nakamura. Morrison and Rollins teamed up for a considerable stretch, crushing Nakamura and then Riddle with a ladder. Morrison did a backflip to drive Riddle head-first into a ladder on the ground.

The team-up was seemingly over once Owens backflipped off the second rope into a ladder held by both Rollins and Morrison, but they recovered quickly and hit a double team Falcon Arrow to Owens that sent him spine-first into the blunt side of a ladder.

Rollins made the first climb for the briefcase, but got stopped by Ricochet and Big E.

Nakamura and Riddle kicked each other in the head simultaneously, setting both of them up for a double Claymore from Drew McIntyre. Then it was a Future Shock DDT to Big E and a reverse Alabama slam to Ricochet, face-first onto a bridged ladder. McIntyre went into a running flip over the top rope to the outside onto all of his competitors.

And then, once back in the ring, McIntyre hit another Claymore to Rollins. As the only one left in the ring, McIntyre climbed the ladder until Jinder Mahal’s pair of lackeys inserted themselves into the match to attack McIntyre as retribution for damage done in recent weeks. Mahal had a chair waiting for McIntyre once he was outside the ring, and McIntyre was neutralized. It was anyone’s match once again.

In a moment, that will be played on WWE highlight reels from now until forever: Ricochet came off the top of a falling ladder, landed nimbly on the top rope, bounced to a seemingly impossible height and flipped onto everyone standing on the outside.

Somehow, the pace quickened even more in the final moments. Riddle connected with multiple RKOs in tribute to his absent tag team partner Randy Orton, only to get caught by a Rollins stomp. Nakamura hit a GTS on Rollins. Morrison brought his drip stick water gun and squirted Nakamura in the face.

Owens hit stunners first on Morrison and then Nakamura. Ricochet avoided a stunner of his own, only to land himself directly in a pop-up powerbomb. Owens climbed the ladder, but Rollins caught him, attacked his leg and then gathered him up into a powerbomb position. Rollins then dropped Owens over the top rope and back-first onto a ladder bridged between the ring apron and the commentary table.

Rollins climbed, but Big E stopped him midway up. Big E gathered Rollins for his finishing move, the Big Ending, and connected on an elevated version of the move to great effect. With no one left to stop him, Big E grabbed the briefcase down and won the match.

What’s next: Big E could easily aim for Roman Reigns or Bobby Lashley, or hold onto the briefcase for however long he likes. He’s had exactly zero world title shots since his main roster debut in April 2013. He’ll make this one count.


Women’s Money in the Bank ladder match: Nikki A.S.H. def Alexa Bliss, Asuka, Liv Morgan, Naomi, Natalya, Zelina Vega and Tamina

Since she started in the WWE five years ago, Nikki Cross has often been overlooked despite consistently impressive in-ring performances.

She was seemingly sidelined into a comic relief superhero character as “Nikki A.S.H.” (Almost a Superhero) in recent weeks, but embraced the silliness. Now she’s Ms. Money in the Bank.

Cross took advantage of the chaos of six other competitors fighting atop three ladders, climbed over them and snatched the briefcase before anyone else could realize what had happened.

The highlight reel packages for the Money in the Bank and title wins for Bliss and Asuka, and the SmackDown women’s title victory of Naomi, was a great way to set the stakes and label the clear favorites in the match. It also took the spotlight off of the other five competitors and made the surprise ending all the more impactful.

The match was seemingly framed around Bliss from the start. She stood motionless — and emotionless — on top of the second rope as everyone else entered the match. As the rest of the competitors in the match scrambled outside to grab ladders, Bliss skipped around the ring, paused directly underneath it and motioned her hand upwards, as if to summon it to herself. But that was quickly forgotten as Asuka attacked her.

Liv Morgan made the first move towards the ladder as Tamina and Zelina Vega briefly held it, unfolded and aloft, until they realized what happened and let the ladder (and Morgan) fall.

Bliss seemingly utilized her spooky powers as Vega climbed a ladder and reached for the briefcase. Bliss climbed the other side, did mirrored hand movements and led Vega down the ladder without touching her. That spell was broken when Natalya powerbombed Bliss into the side of the ladder and then to the ground.

Naomi continued on that theme as she powerbombed Morgan into Vega, who was laid over a flat ladder sitting on the middle rope.

As Natalya climbed to the top of a ladder in the middle of the ring, Vega locked in a sleeper hold at the top of the ladder and then reached up, but could only get her fingertips on the briefcase. Morgan broke up the effort, and the ladder slowly tilted towards the ground.

It erupted into chaos in the middle of the ring. And Cross, who climbed a ladder on the outside, flew over the top rope and onto the other seven competitors.

Bliss locked in a Sister Abigail set-up for her DDT on Cross, but Natalya and Tamina, collectively the women’s tag team champions, worked together to stop Bliss and then took her out of commission with ladder shots. They then buried Bliss under a pile of ladders, and the rest of the participants joined in and built the pile higher.

Morgan tried to take advantage of the chaos. Tamina interrupted, then Morgan did a spinning head scissors to Tamina. Morgan hit a suspended Flatliner on Asuka to put her alone in the ring once more, but by the time she realized it, she and Naomi climbed the middle ladder.

Tamina and Asuka climbed a second ladder off to one side. Natalya and Vega scaled a ladder on the other side. Cross joined the middle ladder in the midst of it all, climbed over Morgan to the top and then unlatched the briefcase, becoming Ms. Money in the Bank.

What’s next: The women’s Money in the Bank briefcase has been cashed in quickly on a number of occasions, and a surprise win like this would seemingly carry more benefit if Cross continued to build tension over a long stretch. She might get more serious. She might get even sillier. But it will undoubtedly be a more compelling story than it would have been had any of the favorites won the match.


Raw women’s championship: Charlotte Flair def. Rhea Ripley (c)

Sometimes, wrestlers have to work to get a crowd behind them, and there couldn’t have been a much steeper hill to climb than the one Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley faced at the outset of their Raw women’s championship match.

As Flair and Ripley circled one another, attempting to build tension, the crowd broke out into “We want Becky!” chants, referring to Becky Lynch. Whether it was rumors of Lynch as a late replacement for the women’s Money in the Bank ladder match, or photos she posted on social media outside the arena a few hours before the show, the crowd in Fort Worth made it clear that they had little interest in what was going on in the ring.

In response, Flair did a couple loops around the ring with her middle finger held high towards the audience. And then she and Ripley went out and put on one of the best women’s matches of 2021 thus far.

Flair’s show of defiance seemingly stunned the crowd, though there were a few more instances of short chants for Lynch breaking out. But the massive chip on their shoulders seemingly fueled Ripley and Flair to the kind of performance they should’ve been having for the entirety of what’s been an inconsistent, at best, rivalry.

The first moment of real peril was Flair locking Ripley in a Boston crab. A scramble ensued as a Figure Four attempt was rolled through by Ripley but fed Ripley directly into a big boot by Flair.

Ripley used some acrobatics to maneuver Flair into an dazzling deadlift vertical suplex, but she didn’t hold that advantage for long.

As the crowd completed their 180 flip on this match, digging into dueling, “Let’s go Rhea, Let’s go Charlotte,” chants, Flair connected flush with her signature moonsault off the top to the outside. Then, as Ripley seemingly set herself up for the Riptide and a win, Flair turned it over into a DDT. Flair tried to pin Ripley with her feet on the ropes, but got caught off by the ref.

Flair connected on a Natural Selection coming out of the corner, but Ripley kicked out just before the three-count. Flair locked in a Figure Four for the second time, but Ripley fought her way out again.

Undeterred, Flair brought the action to the outside, determined to end the match. She sent Ripley’s skull first into the ringpost, then trapped Ripley’s knee between the stairs and the post and smashed the stairs with three kicks.

That set up a Figure Eight in the middle of the ring. Ripley tapped, and Flair became a 12-time world champion.

What’s next: This was a chance to “make” Rhea Ripley, and for whatever reason, WWE went in a different direction by putting the title back on Flair. Ripley might mount one more challenge, but it seems unlikely for her to regain the title any time soon. And as good as this match was, the type of anti-Flair sentiment carried by much of the WWE universe is not going to dissipate any time soon, no matter how good the matches are. Maybe the restless masses will get what they want and Lynch will come back to renew their tensions for the massive showcase that is SummerSlam.


WWE championship: Bobby Lashley (c) def. Kofi Kingston

Bobby Lashley spent exactly zero time in peril in his WWE championship defense against Kofi Kingston.

In a match eerily reminiscent of the one-sided match in which Kingston lost the WWE championship to Brock Lesnar, Lashley thrashed Kingston from bell to bell in a clear indication that any distractions were in the rear-view mirror.

Gone was any sign of the man who lost clean to Xavier Woods just a few days ago on Monday Night Raw. Even though the match was seemingly setting up for tomfoolery, as MVP tried to grab Kingston’s feet at the start of the match, it was all Lashley, all the time.

Kingston got his only real offense in as he barely got out of the way as Lashley charged in, with a double stomp that didn’t fully connect. Lashley tossed Kingston all over the ring and ringside, getting particularly brutal when he winged Kingston into the ringpost on the outside at full speed.

There were elevated Flatliners, Dominators and multiple attempts at The Hurt Lock. Try as he might, Kingston couldn’t offer a sufficient defense. Lashley went so far as to let Kingston up and let him out from The Hurt Lock, only to inflict more damage.

After an uncomfortably long stretch, during which Lashley put his finger to his mouth to quiet the crowd as well as a chunk of the audience that was cheering for more, he slapped the Hurt Lock on once more. Kingston was on his knees and couldn’t even stand, but tapped out to end his suffering.

What’s next: Lashley has been built up once again as an unbeatable champion. As we look forward towards SummerSlam, there are two paths: He could face the Money in the Bank winner, especially if there’s a built-in story for someone like Drew McIntyre or Big E, or he could try to topple a returning legend in a showcase match. The latter option seems likelier.


SmackDown tag team championships: The Usos def. Rey Mysterio & Dominik Mysterio (c)

Name a better pair than The Usos being jettisoned to the kickoff show despite being more than worthy of a prime pay-per-view slot, and then stepping up and over-delivering. I’ll wait.

The now seven-time tag team champions defeated Rey Mysterio and Dominik Mysterio to win the SmackDown tag team titles with a little bit of creativity and a lot of rule bending.

It took the crowd a while to fire up, and they struggled at times to get behind Rey and Dominik, who have largely had this run inside the Thunderdome without live fans in attendance. But the collective performances of all four participants slowly brought the crowd energy up throughout the match.

They came alive and exploded into “this is awesome” chants in the closing minutes. Jimmy Uso absorbed a 619 for his brother Jey and saved the match for his team. Then Jey superkicked and top-rope splashed Rey, which the audience thought was the end. When Rey kicked out, the energy spiked again.

Finally, in a chaotic ending, Jimmy dropped Rey face-first onto the top turnbuckle, rolled Rey up for a pinfall, and Jey added illegal leverage to Jimmy’s back by sticking his legs under the bottom rope to get the three-count.

What’s next: With the cheating finish, there’s likely to be a rematch in the short term. But for now, pending Roman Reigns’ Universal championship defense against Edge later in the night, Reigns and his family have increased their power and influence over the rest of the SmackDown roster.


Raw tag team championships: AJ Styles & Omos (c) def. The Viking Raiders

AJ Styles and Omos successfully retained the Raw tag team championships, following the most complete match of Omos’ career thus far.

Omos picked up the pinfall victory after delivering a standing choke-bomb to Erik, and then, rather than his customary one-foot cover, put all of his weight onto Erik to secure the win.

Generally, it doesn’t seem right for Styles to play the fool, even to an established tag team like The Viking Raiders. He’s a two-time WWE champion and still one of the best wrestlers in the world, with the swagger and charisma to match. That was clear as the now-returned WWE fandom largely cheered for Styles over the course of this tag title match.

Styles did take the majority of the damage in this match, bumping around like crazy as Erik and Ivar put on a strong performance of there on. But there was one particularly impressive moment when Omos threw Styles feet first over the ring, and into a hurricanrana on the outside to Erik.

Omos is still clearly raw and inexperienced, but his moveset is expanding and his presence is undeniable. He effectively hit a scoop slam and a military press over the course of the match and then closed out strong. After a Styles Clash was stifled, and the Viking Raiders hit a Viking Experience on Styles, Omos broke it up by grabbing Erik by the throat and tossing him backwards into Ivar to stop the count.

Then Omos ended the match, quickly and effectively.

What’s next: If Styles and Omos are indeed the long-term plan, start building some of the other teams up to benefit both the champions and their challengers.



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Money in the Bank: No clear favorite for briefcase winners in 2021, Reigns faces Edge

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When Monday Night Raw emanated from Capitol One Arena in Washington D.C. on March 9, 2020, the idea that it would be the last WWE show in an arena with fans for 494 days wasn’t remotely on anybody’s mind.

With the exception of two nights of WrestleMania 37 action held at an outdoor football stadium, the only fan interaction that the stars of Raw and SmackDown have had has come via virtual screens inside the WWE Thunderdome, which was put into place in August 2020 and moved around the state of Florida.

But finally, on Friday night’s edition of SmackDown at Toyota Center in Houston, WWE fans will be back in the building. SmackDown kicks off a weekend of shows that marks WWE’s full-time return to the road that peaks on Sunday, with the Money in the Bank pay-per-view at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

Sunday’s card is sure to shape the trajectory of both Raw and SmackDown for the rest of 2021, especially with August’s SummerSlam supershow on the horizon and the opportunity is high for several new stars to break out.

Universal championship: Roman Reigns (c) vs. Edge

Edge and Roman Reigns were on a collision course for a clash of epic proportions at WrestleMania 37. Edge was riding high after winning the Royal Rumble, and Reigns was on an unbelievable upward trajectory as he got more and more locked in as Universal champion and the WWE’s most unbeatable villain. But a funny thing happened along the way — Daniel Bryan made just a little too much noise, and became a natural fit standing in the middle of their story. A triple threat match was born.

The match itself was one of the highlights of WrestleMania weekend, with chaotic energy and the kind of uncertainty about the result that’s been somewhat lacking in Reigns’ title defenses of late. That Reigns has been able to stay red hot despite the somewhat predictable nature of his rivalries is all the more impressive. But at the moment in that match where his Universal championship seemed most at peril, Reigns stacked up both of his challengers and defiantly left Tampa with his title intact.

Edge disappeared from WWE TV, and Bryan made his final push towards the title alone, and was then sent packing himself. Cesaro made a frustratingly brief step into the spotlight, only to similarly fall short, and then Edge made his triumphant return, ready to get his one-on-one opportunity.

The energy and animosity has crackled in the air inside of the WWE Thunderdome, and the injection of a full live audience will likely set a match to the fuse of this powder keg on Friday’s go-home SmackDown. By the time they square off at Money in the Bank on Sunday, anticipation for an absolute classic will be sky-high.

How it’s most likely to play out: Reigns gets by with the narrowest of margins, thanks to The Usos getting involved in their cousins’ business yet again.

Looking ahead to SummerSlam: If Edge ends Reigns’ run with the title at 320 days, it would build up to an even bigger rematch at SummerSlam. A loss would leave Edge without a clear dance partner, but his recent interaction with Seth Rollins could be laying the breadcrumbs to a big showcase match. If Reigns wins, the Money in the Bank winner could immediately come into play, but a match against a returning legend — perhaps one with a major DC comics movie releasing in August — would be a suitably major opportunity for WWE’s biggest star of the moment.

Raw women’s championship: Rhea Ripley (c) vs. Charlotte Flair

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WWE Raw women’s champion Rhea Ripley talks her recent run on Monday Night Raw and the return of the WWE Universe.

The theme of this rivalry seems to be, “Anything you can do, I can do better.” The conflict between Rhea Ripley and Charlotte Flair dates back a year and a half, to when Flair won the 2020 Royal Rumble and challenged Ripley, then the NXT women’s champion. Flair won that match, and hung around NXT for a few months, participating in a handful of follow-up matches.

But things got more heated after Ripley won the Raw women’s championship from Asuka at WrestleMania 37. Ripley and Flair met at WrestleMania Backlash, and Flair’s win by DQ worked to further elevate tensions. Ripley has started to channel her inner Flair by discovering new and creative ways to steal victories — new to her, of course, but not to Flair.

A turn towards her darker tendencies has set up an interesting clash at Money in the Bank, between two women ostensibly fighting to prove who the bigger and better villain is. Flair has long proven herself to be a standout baddie, elevating the hero of the moment and making them feel more important with her presence and performance. But this is a different job entirely, as she drags Ripley into deeper and darker waters. While the evolution has been a bit choppy at times, Ripley has shown flashes back to her time as NXT U.K. women’s champion and her ability to be the villain, which should suit her well as she works to get her legs more firmly underneath her on the main roster.

How it’s most likely to play out: Ripley impresses Flair with her ability to cut corners and squeaks out a successful title defense. Perhaps, as two villains, their similarities could lead to a partnership down the line.

Looking ahead to SummerSlam: If Flair wins, Ripley is unlikely to go away any time soon. It could come down to who fills the final women’s Money in the Bank slot. While there’s a chance of a same-night cash-in, the women’s Money in the Bank briefcase could be used to instead build some tension in the long-term. If that’s the case, we could see a multi-way match featuring Flair, Asuka and any number of other potential contenders.

WWE championship: Bobby Lashley (c) vs. Kofi Kingston

Bobby Lashley was arguably the biggest winner of all at WrestleMania 37. Most had Drew McIntyre penciled in to win, but Lashley won a definitive victory over McIntyre, and then continued to persevere through each and every challenge.

The sudden dissolution of The Hurt Business was a head-scratcher at best, but it did feed into the story that’s driven Lashley into his current moment of doubt. MVP, who was a key figure in getting Lashley to the top as WWE champion, had now surrounded Lashley with all of the comforts of success, which led to diminishing performances in the ring.

First it was a tag team loss to Kingston and Xavier Woods. Then, in the final Monday Night Raw leading up to Money in the Bank, Lashley lost to Woods clean in a non-title match. It led Lashley to do some soul-searching, and then he tore up the MVP Lounge and pledged to shed all of the distractions that had been dragging him down.

Kingston has played the perpetual underdog for the majority of his WWE career, and has served as the perfect foil for Lashley’s mental journey.

How it’s most likely to play out: Given how the WWE has presented Kingston since he lost the WWE championship to Brock Lesnar, it’s hard to imagine him having even the slightest chance of walking out of Texas as a two-time WWE champion. Lashley gets pushed, briefly, but clears his head and marches on.

Looking ahead to SummerSlam: WWE wants to make a big splash as live crowds return. One look at the men’s Money in the Bank ladder match lineup shows at least five potential winners who could turn around and instantly cash in on Lashley, including a long-time rival hoping to return to the title conversation in a flash. Putting McIntyre right back on top feels like a mistake, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Ideally, Lashley would get something fresh to sink his teeth into — and there’s a potential winner of the men’s Money in the Bank ladder match who would be a very interesting dovetail into his current conflict.

Men’s Money in the Bank ladder match: Big E vs. Drew McIntyre vs. John Morrison vs. Kevin Owens vs. Matt Riddle vs. Ricochet vs. Seth Rollins vs. Shinsuke Nakamura

The men’s Money in the Bank match is as level a field as we’ve seen in recent years, making this one of the most unpredictable dynamics we’ve seen at this PPV. Drew McIntyre is the only one of the bunch who’s been directly in a world title picture of late, and any of the eight could be reasonably plugged into a variety of stories on either Raw or SmackDown

Former MITB winners: 1 (Seth Rollins)
Former world champions: 3 (McIntyre, Rollins, Kevin Owens)

How it’s likely to play out: McIntyre represents the only boring, uncreative option among the bunch. He has carried an unbelievable amount of weight during the WWE’s pandemic era, and he would do well to take a breather outside the world title picture that he’s occupied for more than 18 months. His recent spat with Jinder Mahal thankfully points towards such a shift.

The other former world champions in the bunch make interesting cases. Rollins has been nibbling around the edges of a renewal of tensions with Reigns, but after his face-to-face moment backstage with Edge on Friday, it seems like he’ll be taking the long way around. Owens made a point during a moment on the commentary desk Friday that he hasn’t really been a serious title contender since 2017, and with his rivalry against Sami Zayn seemingly settled, he could reasonably carve a direct path towards either champion or sit on the briefcase and bide his time. But at the moment, it doesn’t seem like WWE views Owens in that light.

Matt Riddle briefly got involved in John Morrison and Ricochet’s falls count anywhere match on Monday, and it’s probably fair for these three to be connected. Riddle might have the slightest of chances as an outside the box pick, but these three all feel a long way from true world title contention. That doesn’t mean you should take your eyes off any of these three during the match itself, because they will certainly have the most eye-popping moments among the bunch.

That leaves the two most compelling candidates of all. Shinsuke Nakamura has regained his crown and his swagger over the last month, at the direct expense of Baron Corbin. Nakamura had a brief flirtation with a conflict with Reigns, and he’d be a fresh face for Reigns to clash with among the current roster of talent. His entrance with Rick Boogs shredding on electric guitar will be incredible, at the very least.

Then there’s Big E. He’s never had a world title match, but he’s seemingly been on the precipice of such elevation for a long time. This feels like it could be a now-or-never moment, in terms of moving towards giving Big E a chance to be a superstar. He has a seemingly unending supply of charisma and a firm grasp of how to squeeze the most out of every moment. Big E also slots in well against either current champion, or as a long-term carrier of the MITB briefcase.

Final prediction: Big E gets his breakthrough moment. The world is his oyster, and the possibilities are vast.

Women’s Money in the Bank ladder match: Alexa Bliss vs. Asuka vs. Liv Morgan vs. Naomi vs. Natalya vs. Nikki Cross vs. Zelina Vega vs. Tamina

SmackDown has been on a clear roll, including some great matches in its women’s division, but depth issues have limited who could be included in this match. Nikki Cross has been winning big matches in recent weeks, but beyond Ripley vs. Flair, the only significant story in the Raw women’s division has been Alexa Bliss’ perpetual spookiness.

A wrinkle was thrown into this match with the injury to Bayley, as Carmella was replaced by Liv Morgan and placed directly into a title shot against Bianca Belair, which will now take place on Friday, rather than Sunday.

Here’s how the field breaks down:

Former MITB winners: 2 (Alexa Bliss, Asuka)
Former world champions: 4 (Asuka, Bliss, Naomi, Natalya)

How it’s likely to play out: Tamina was hastily announced as the final participant in the match on Thursday evening, as rumors of a returning star began to bubble to the surface on social media. With a window to make a big splash on Friday or Sunday, let’s work under the assumption that the field of eight isn’t as locked in as it currently seems.

Sasha Banks, who has been off of TV since WrestleMania, could easily claim a spot with a dramatic return on Friday. She would be an instant favorite, especially considering some unfinished business with Belair.

One of three newcomers to the SmackDown women’s roster — Tegan Nox, Shotzi and Toni Storm — could also step in. In that case, one of them could come through with a shock win. Morgan and Cross have also been lined up for a win in recent weeks on SmackDown and Raw, respectively. But the likeliest winner in this scenario is Bliss, followed by Asuka.

Finally, there’s an outside the box possibility, given WWE’s likely desire to make a big splash with the return of live crowds: Becky Lynch. Lynch and Rollins welcomed a child in December 2020, and the drumbeat for Lynch’s return will only grow louder until it finally happens.

Final prediction: Banks returns, claims the final spot and takes down the briefcase.

Raw tag team championships: AJ Styles & Omos (c) vs. The Viking Raiders

Beyond the absolutely stunning outcomes of one-on-one matches between AJ Styles and Ivar, and Omos and Erik (both won by the Viking Raiders), this appears to be a very standard tag team title defense.

After winning a tag team battle royal on Raw over a month ago, they were seemingly set up as future challengers. Now they’ll get their chance.

How it’s most likely to play out: My heart hopes the Viking Raiders can become a cornerstone for a new surge in the tag team division by winning on Sunday. That would also free Styles to pursue some true dream matches, and stop wasting significant stretches of his prime standing mostly idle. My head says WWE isn’t nearly done pushing this unusual tag team as champions, and Styles and Omos will likely retain.

Looking ahead to SummerSlam: The WWE has a hard time focusing on more than one story in the tag team division at once, so it’s anyone’s guess what happens next.



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WWE Hell in a Cell: Live results and analysis

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This time next month, WWE will be back on the road in the United States, leaving behind the WWE Thunderdome and its digital fans, as well as a predominantly fan-less era of almost 16 months. But Sunday represents one more big night in front of the virtual WWE Universe, with three world title matches including two key Hell in a Cell clashes.

With simmering tensions that date back a full year, Drew McIntyre gets his last shot at regaining his WWE championship and avenging a WrestleMania 37 loss against Bobby Lashley inside the Hell in a Cell cage. Bianca Belair gets a moment in the spotlight as well, making her Hell in a Cell debut as she defends her SmackDown women’s championship against Bayley.

Rhea Ripley and Charlotte Flair renew their tensions over the Raw women’s championship, rounding out the trio of world title clashes.

Two more rematches from WrestleMania are on the docket as well, as Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn and Seth Rollins vs. Cesaro return for another round. And rounding out the card is a one-on-one match between Alexa Bliss and Shayna Baszler, which may resemble a supernatural thriller more than a traditional wrestling match by the time all is said and done.

Follow along throughout the night as Marc Raimondi breaks it down, match by match.


Kickoff Show: Mandy Rose vs. Natalya

Match in progress…


Still to come…

Hell in a Cell match for the WWE championship: Bobby Lashley (c) vs. Drew McIntyre

Hell in a Cell match for the SmackDown women’s championship: Bianca Belair (c) vs. Bayley

Raw women’s championship: Rhea Ripley (c) vs. Charlotte Flair

Alexa Bliss vs. Shayna Baszler

Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn

Seth Rollins vs. Cesaro

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