Week in Wrestling: Bully Ray’s Throwback Character; Carmella on Her SmackDown Women’s Title

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SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

Bully Ray Is the Ultimate Throwback Character

Can 46-year-old Bully Ray bully his way into the Ring of Honor title?

Bully Ray is WWE Hall of Famer Bubba Dudley, and he remains relevant outside of WWE for the creation of his nuanced character, which first debuted in TNA in 2010.

The character is a rarity in wrestling and although it would not have been an outlier in past generations, it certainly stands alone in 2018. The character is not entertaining. Nor is it designed to entertain. Bully Ray is a throwback heel, reveling in his ability to make you dislike him.

Before he was Bully Ray, he was known solely for his work as Bubba Dudley in the iconic Dudley Boyz tag team. He was defined only as a tag team wrestler until he created Bully Ray in TNA, and even became the top wrestler in the company by owning his character. Bully Ray was a bully on the mic, a bully backstage, a bully when the bell rang, and a bully when interacting with fans. People completely understood what he sold them.

But has too much time passed for this to work on the modern-day stage in 2018? Wrestling has evolved into a business of constant activity. No one does nothing in the ring. Except that is exactly Bully Ray’s M.O.

During ROH’s War of the Worlds shows this past week, Bully Ray lost twice to Cheeseburger. He allowed himself to be counted out after a stare down with a member of the front crowd on one night, then disqualified himself at the next show by using his chain on Cheeseburger.

He has no trademark catchphrases or t-shirts, and he elicits no joy from the crowd. If WWE is entertainment, then Bully Ray is the polar opposite.

The man largely responsible for keeping the Dudleys relevant during their run as Team 3D in TNA, which was an insanely difficult task, clearly relishes a challenge. Only three years away from 50—which was the age of The Undertaker when he defeated Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 31 and the age of Sting five years before starting his run with WWE—Bully Ray is going back to the future for his attempt at the Ring of Honor world title.

The man behind the character has a twisted vision of success, using a concussion storyline to lead to his heel turn in ROH. And he is now attempting to tap into his past to solidify his future.

When you look closely, Bully Ray’s current storyline shares distinct parallels with the past. The year 1997, to be exact. Bully Ray is currently bullying the smaller, gentler, naive little brother in Cheeseburger, which was exactly what he did to Spike Dudley in ECW.

Bubba Dudley has transformed, from his beginning in ECW as a stuttering buffoon, into one of the most genuine heels in the business as Bully Ray.

For all of the sex, drugs, and rock stories in ECW’s lore, a key piece of its narrative was the ability to build stars and storylines. Clearly, Bully Ray—whose real name is Mark LoMonaco—was paying attention.

It will be a challenge to make the character succeed atop the card in ROH.

Bully Ray is working underneath with Cheeseburger. His rise up the Ring of Honor card will have to be organic. Who does he choose next for an opponent? When he was wrestling in TNA, Bully worked with AJ Styles and then in the main event with Sting.

Who will be his AJ Styles? Who will be his Sting? Those two talents helped Bully Ray elevate his status as a heel, and it also benefited both babyfaces. In ROH, my gut tells me Jay Lethal, who is one of the company’s most technically sound—and entertaining—talents, could be the right match. Matches between Bully and Dalton Castle could also be a fun clash of styles. and also adds another interesting angle in addition to the Bullet Club storyline. But Bully would also be a great opponent for rising star Flip Gordon.

It’s hard not to admire how Bully Ray has turned wrestling’s fundamental good-vs.-bad story and transformed that into some of the more compelling aspects of pro wrestling. He has taken pieces of his entire career to create this unique hybrid that otherwise does not exist in 2018.

But will the crowd respond to it in 2018? Will there be a crowning moment, where he forever cements his status as a key stalwart in WWE, TNA at a time when the company had an incredible amount of talent, and ROH?

We’ll set the clock to this December, which is the time Ring of Honor’s signature Final Battle pay per view takes place, to gauge if this run is a success.

Carmella moves from Laker Girl to WWE champion

There is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to WWE SmackDown women’s champion Carmella.

Carmella is 30-year-old Leah Van Dale. She has lineage in the business as the daughter of Paul Van Dale, a former wrestler who had a cup of coffee in the WWE as an enhancement talent in the early 1990s. Like Charlotte, she is also a former fitness instructor and personal trainer, and also came to the WWE Performance Center untrained before working with Sara Amato, who is one of the top trainers in the industry.

She offers one of the most compelling stories on the current WWE roster. Initially designed to stand in the corner of Big Cass and Enzo Amore in NXT, Carmella stood out to Paul “Triple H” Levesque for far more than her look. The “Princess of Staten Island” was willing to put in the work, and the argument could be made that she has just as bright a future in the women’s division as Cass does on the men’s side. (The charismatic-but-problematic Amore, meanwhile, worked his way out of the company, bristling people with his backstage antics before being released when he was accused of rape. Amore’s attorney announced Wednesday that his client would not be charged.)

The self-proclaimed Staten Island royalty grew up roughly 200 miles from New York in Worcester, Massachusetts, which has served as a WWE mainstay throughout Vince McMahon’s time running the company.

She was a cheerleader for the New England Patriots for three seasons, and she also spent a season in Los Angeles dancing as one of the famed Laker Girls. But now, her charisma and work ethic undeniable, she has been able to receive the spotlight on her work as SmackDown women’s champion.

“This is a lot more meaningful,” said Carmella. “I was a part of the team for three years with the Patriots and one year with the Lakers, and I had a great time. Both of those organizations are at the top of their industry as the best sports teams ever. Obviously I’m used to being part of the best, but it was time for me to step out onto my own. I was a manager for a lot of my time in NXT, I was the very last draft pick in the draft in 2016, but now I am the SmackDown women’s champ. And I beat Charlotte Flair twice.”

Along with The Miz, Carmella was part of a Red Nose Day event last week at Speedway Academies in Newark, New Jersey, that raised awareness about child poverty.

“We expected to come, have some fun, and learn about Red Nose Day, but I really learned a lot,” said Carmella. “These kids were so educated on this topic and they had these presentations that taught us a lot about childhood poverty, how to end it, and how one dollar goes a long way. They were all different ages, too, and they all came together for this amazing cause.”

The Miz also spoke with Sports Illustrated about the event, and he shared that the children at the event were enamored with his dance moves during the school’s Red Nose Day dance-off, but Carmella recalled that part a bit differently.

“He had really, really embarrassing dance moves,” said Carmella.

She was also asked if there are any similarities between Vince McMahon and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, but Carmella showed no interest in answering the question.

“To be honest, I’m not even focusing on that right now,” said Carmella, who now prepares for a match against Asuka at the Money in the Bank pay per view in June. “I’m focusing on keeping my title nice and shiny and focusing on my next opponent. Charlotte is not my next opponent. I beat her twice. She’s done, see ya later.”

Tom Petty once sang that the waiting is the hardest part, but for Carmella, who held the Money in the Bank briefcase for the longest time in WWE history before cashing in, she says she relished her role as the company’s first-ever Ms. Money in the Bank.

“I loved every minute of it,” said Carmella. “I’m the longest-ever to hold the briefcase, so again I made history. Not only was I the first woman to win Money in the Bank, I was also the second and also the longest. And did I mention I beat Charlotte Flair twice?”

In other news…

• Kenny Omega announced this past Monday on SI.com that he will be running the New Japan show on June 29 in Daytona Beach at the CEO Fighting Game Championships.

Omega expressed doubt about whether people would be interested in the event, but ultimately decided to trust his instincts.

“I thought it might be reaching a little too far,” said Omega. “Originally, I didn’t even know if people would accept me showing up to the event. But everyone has been so accepting, it is astounding. And this started when I went to CEO three years ago, which was before a lot of my accolades.”

The worlds of professional wrestling and fighting games, Omega learned, are a lot closer than he imagined.

“We did the showdown with Xavier Woods, which people liked, and it’s been really cool to work with CEO Gaming. I wanted to be more active in the fighting game community because it’s a hobby and a passion, so I was grateful to put some new eyes on this event.

“There were some wrestling fans there that only knew WWE, and there is nothing wrong with that; I was one of those guys, too. But because of my role at CEO, it encouraged people there to watch more of what I do. My introduction to CEO was also an opportunity to introduce people to pro wrestling. I believe what I can do in the realms of pro wrestling can be entertaining for people who aren’t even wrestling fans.”

Omega still marvels at the idea that he is organizing the show, which he still says will be fantastic despite New Japan talent being triple-booked that evening with a Ring of Honor pay per view in Baltimore and a RevPro show the following night in southern England.

“I have free reign, but we are competing with ourselves that weekend,” said Omega. “ROH and RevPro in the U.K. are using our talent that weekend, but I’ve put together a card I’m really proud of for CEO. It’s going to be great. Even if you haven’t watched us before, there is at least one thing on the card that you’ll be able to take entertainment in.”

• Tickets for the upcoming All In show sold out in an astounding 29 minutes and 36 seconds this past Sunday.

The Young Bucks were present at Sunday’s press conference in Chicago for the show, which takes place at the Sears Centre in Chicago’s northwestern suburbs on September 1.

The Bucks also spoke to the War of the Worlds crowd after the cameras stopped rolling this past Wednesday in Lowell, Massachusetts following their victory over Los Ingobernables de Japon’s Bushi and Hiromu Takahashi in the show’s finale. The fact that another main event was put in the hands of the Bucks only shows how much faith Ring of Honor has in Matt and Nick Jackson.

The pair of brothers from California now challenge IWGP tag team champions EVIL and Sanada at New Japan’s loaded Dominion show on June 9 in Osaka, Japan. The card also includes Chris Jericho-vs.-Tetsuya Naito and is headlined by Kazuchika Okada defending his IWGP heavyweight championship against Kenny Omega. Although the Bucks were almost always in Omega’s corner for his big matches, they do not plan to be by his side in Osaka.

After the win over Bushi and Takahashi, the Bucks opened up about their goal to finally claim the IWGP tag titles at Dominion after seven different runs with the IWGP junior heavyweight tag team titles.

“That was just a little example of what we’re going to do in Osaka when we go for those heavyweight titles and defeat EVIL and Sanada,” said Nick Jackson after the match ended with a Meltzer Driver.

Matt Jackson then added, “On a serious note, I think that we can all agree that the two men standing in this very ring are the greatest tag team in the world today. Obviously, we could sign a contract and work for absolutely anybody in the world, right?”

Nick quickly interrupted.

“We’re definitely not going to NXT, Matt,” said Nick.

“I don’t think anyone here thought that anyway, Nick,” added Matt. “What I’m getting to is, we can wrestle for any organization in the world but we choose to wrestle for the very best wrestling on the planet, Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling.”

An interesting storyline would be for the Bucks to finally win the IWGP tag titles in June, only to lose the belts to Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi at All In.

• “Mean” Gene Okerlund will star in a Mountain Dew Kickstart commercial with Kevin Hart, who recently debuted as the new face of the brand. In the commercial, Hart taps into the spirit of the late, great “Macho Man” Randy Savage while being interviewed by Okerlund.

Okerlund connected Tuesday with Sports Illustrated, and he shared the story of how he partnered with Mountain Dew Kickstart, which he believes is the result of a connection through the “most electrifying man in sports entertainment,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

“I think a good word was put in to Kevin by my very dear, close, personal longtime friend Dwayne Johnson. These guys work together, they talk on a daily basis, and maybe they thought ‘Mean’ Gene was the right guy to hold the stick in this Mountain Dew Kickstart commercial.”

Okerlund filmed the commercial with the wildly popular Hart. Although he does not have a line in the commercial, his presence adds legitimacy to the spot, which is exactly the role he served in the often-turbulent storyline world of WWF and WCW.

“Working with Kevin Hart was a big thrill,” said Okerlund. “This has nostalgia, and it also has the magic Kevin Hart brings to a character that is very similar to the late, great ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage. On the set with Kevin Hart reminded me, quite candidly, of the superstars I interviewed in the backstage interviews. This was from a different era, not today’s type of interview.”

He was asked if Hart would have fit in well with Bobby “The Brain” Heenan’s famed Heenan Family.

“Well, Kevin would have to change some of his values to fit in there,” said Okerlund. “Bobby Heenan was not above doing some underhanded things, things that were shamefully wrong. But still, he did entertain the hell out of us.”

Okerlund was close with the legendary Heenan, who passed away this past September after a 16-year battle with cancer.

“I met Bobby in 1969,” said Okerlund. “That was through mutual friends before I even started in wrestling. Then, in April of ’71, I started working with Bobby. I worked with him all the way through the AWA, his entire tenure at the WWE, and then again at WCW. He and I spent a lot of time on the road, on the ropes, and having a cool one together.”

Heenan’s death was difficult for Okerlund, as was his deteriorating condition from the effects of the cancer.

“I first found out about this in 2001,” said Okerlund. “We were dining at a little restaurant in Orlando, and I thought Bobby had a slur to his voice. I asked him if he’d had a cocktail or two, and Bobby said that he hadn’t had a drink in three-and-a-half months but that it was related to the diagnosis of his throat cancer, which he lived with until 2017. He suffered, but he was a great guy and he certainly made his mark on professional wrestling. Bobby was a one of a kind, extraordinary talent.”

Having started in the pro wrestling industry in 1971, the 75-year-old Okerlund has spent the majority of his adult life working in the business, which remains home for him.

“I’m still traveling a lot, doing comic cons and appearances, as well as my occasional television appearances for WWE,” said Okerlund. “So the product itself is great for me. I’m not a young man, and it gives me a little boost throughout my day.”

Okerlund noted that filming the television commercial was a joy, and he looks forward to championing Mountain Dew Kickstart to anyone looking to quench their thirst.

“I enjoyed just being on the set and rubbing elbows with Kevin,” said Okerlund. “Kevin is so entertaining, and his interplay with all of the people on the set, and we believe in the product. I’m not a young man, so Mountain Dew Kickstart helps me through a long day. It’s nice to have a little boost to help you out.”

• Monday’s Raw underscored a simple but undeniable fact in pro wrestling: wins matter.

By no means is this breaking any new ground, but the recent booking of Seth Rollins and his surge in popularity as a babyface directly relates to compelling matches in which he has emerged the winner. Instead of winning one week and losing the next, we are now far more invested in Rollins’ current run.

Even on a far smaller level, far away from the main event, are Tyler Breeze and Fandango of the Fashion Police. They lost on Raw to the B Team of Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas, which completely negates their recent win over Cesaro and Sheamus.

Also, it was great to see AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura work the best match of their series last night on SmackDown. Although overexposure remains their biggest adversary, last night’s match helped progress their story.

• Daniel Bryan lost cleanly in his Money in the Bank qualifying match last week on SmackDown to Rusev. The manner in which he lost did not seem correlate to Bryan’s star power.

Bryan is not yet knee deep in a program, and he cannot be a part of the Money in the Bank ladder match.

Plus, fewer people care about him losing to Rusev because people like Rusev. Had Bryan been in the Money in the Bank match and did not win, the response from an angry fan base could have been problematic for the finish of the show. WWE was smart to book Rusev to defeat him, as even hardcore Bryan fans will likely be more forgiving of the decision since it allows the opportunity for Rusev to be part of the match.

• A common lament by wrestling fans is the lack of managers in modern day wrestling. Stokely Hathaway, however, continues to restore meaning to the managerial position.

“I’ve heard that I helped managers make a comeback in wrestling, and that’s always jarring for me to hear,” said the 33-year-old Hathaway, who is far more humble outside the ring than he is when standing ringside. “I never wanted to look at myself as only a manager. I’m an entertainer.”

Hathaway’s Catch Point stable consists of Chris Dickinson and Jaka, who are the reigning EVOLVE tag team champions, and Dominic Garrini. He is no stranger to the wrestling ring or the broadcast booth, and even at 5’8”, he stands as a larger-than-life figure throughout the indies.

Hathaway’s crew has upcoming shows this weekend, as EVOLVE 104 is on Saturday in Summit, Illinois, and EVOLVE 105 is on Sunday in Livonia, Michigan. With Keith Lee’s recent signing with WWE, his match on Sunday against Matt Riddle entitled “The Final War” is appointment viewing. Dickinson and Jaka are scheduled to defend their tag titles on both nights.

“My job is to help the people that I’m with get over,” said Hathaway, who entered the business in 2014 and has a predilection for playing the heel. “The Stokely character lives in his own world. Even though he thinks he’s doing the right thing, that right thing always services him first and everything else comes second. A lot of people take themselves too seriously in wrestling, but I acknowledge the flaws in Stokely Hathaway, who is constantly trying to compensate and overcome them.”

And he has no intention of Catch Point losing the tag titles this weekend at the EVOLVE shows.

“We’re going to do everything we can to win,” said Hathaway. “It’s a no-disqualification anything goes match, and I anticipate we’ll do anything we have to do to win.”

EVOLVE appeared in a story on WWE.com, detailing how EVOLVE made history at WrestleMania AXXESS in New Orleans when its tag titles were defended in a WWE ring.

“People have grand illusions when they get involved in wrestling, and WWE is always the goal but it sometimes seems impossible,” said Hathaway. “To be in a WWE ring and have a WWE microphone in my hand, it was surreal. I have to shout out to Mike Bennett. I spent ten minutes with him beforehand going over my promo, and if it weren’t for him or Drew Gulak or Martin Stone, I don’t know how well it would have went. All three of those guys were extremely helpful while going above and beyond, and it was a great experience.”

• Coming attractions: New Japan Pro Wrestling IWGP Intercontinental champion Tetsuya Naito connected with Sports Illustrated for a Q&A that will run this Friday on SI.com.

Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard and co-host Conrad Thompson returns this Friday at noon ET with a new podcast, with a close look at the “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith.

“We’re going to celebrate the life and times of the British Bulldog, beginning in April of 1987 all the way to the sad end in the ‘Attitude Era,’” said Thompson. “He’s one of those guys that felt like there was always a glass ceiling. He always got the hero’s welcome and could draw huge houses in Europe, but he was never the world champion.”

A particular aspect of the Bulldog’s WWE career to be explored is his transition from tag team into singles wrestling after splitting away from renowned tag team partner Dynamite Kid.

“I don’t know when we’ll talk about Dynamite again,” said Thompson. “He wasn’t around long enough for Bruce to spend much time with him, so this is the episode for us to discuss him.”

Thompson’s “83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff” delivered a hard-hitting episode this week on Bret Hart’s tenure in WCW.

“There is so much from the episode that was taken as common knowledge that we now need to throw out the window,” said Thompson. “I had sort of grown up believing WCW made an offer over $2 million to Bret in 1996, but to find out from Eric that was not even remotely the case was shocking, to say the least.”

WWE Network’s “Something Else to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” will take a close look at “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s run, and next week’s show will look at former WWE creative mind Vince Russo.

“We’re getting our rhythm, but we’re probably two or three episodes out from feeling really comfortable,” said Thompson. “I’ve never been on camera like this, but Bruce and I are having fun figuring this out together.”

Thompson is also running Starrcast, which is the official convention for the All In show on September 1 and will be home to live podcasts, meet-and-greet sessions, the All In weigh-ins, and an ambitious array of events designed for wrestling fans.

“We want to try something different,” said Thompson. “We’re doing everything we can to bring in the talent from All In to karaoke with Marty Scurll to a videogame tournament, Jeff Jarrett doing a panel on TNA, an ‘Empty Arena’ retrospective with Jerry Lawler and Terry Funk, and much more. There are still more events to announce, but the thing I may be most excited about are these silly photo booths to recreate wrestling backdrops from WTBS, an 80s heel locker room from the WWF where you can cut a promo, and an ECW one where Joel Gertner will cut a dirty limerick just for you.”

Tweet of the Week

CM Punk will be right next door a day before the All In show.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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