Off the Top Rope: Brandi Rhodes and the Battle for Inclusion in Pro Wrestling

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterSeptember 5, 2019

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - JULY 24: Brandi Rhodes attends WarnerMedia's A Midsummer Daydream TCA afterparty at Spring Place on July 24, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. 596650.  (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for WarnerMedia)
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Welcome to the second edition of Off the Top Rope. Every Thursday, we offer you compelling analysis, a look at the best wrestling you might have missed over the previous seven days and an interview or feature focused on some of the most important newsmakers in the sport.

       

Hoffman Estates, Illinois — All Elite Wrestling returned to familiar ground in the suburbs of Chicago on Saturday, trying to recreate the magic that launched the brand's leading stars into the wrestling stratosphere at last year's All In.

Mission accomplished.

All Out was a five-hour extravaganza, mixing diverse wrestling styles to create a show unlike anything fans had ever seen from a mainstream promotion. From the old-school southern shenanigans of Cody Rhodes and Shawn Spears to the state-of-the-art stunt spectacular performed by the Young Bucks and Lucha Brothers, it was a wrestling show that had something remarkable for every fan in the building.

The energy was electric—and contagious. The live crowd couldn't get enough, and the building was full to bursting with fans who felt invested, not just in individual wrestlers or storylines, but in the entire enterprise.

Something special is brewing in the wrestling industry, and AEW is at the heart of it.

Last week, Off the Top Rope's Jonathan Snowden talked to one of the event's architects, All Elite Wrestling executive Brandi Rhodes, about the launch of a new wrestling promotion, her savvy use of social media and her role in building a women's division from the ground up.

This week, we continue that conversation with a discussion of one of the most multifaceted talent rosters in professional wrestling history.

Jonathan Snowden: I'm assuming you're often the only woman in the room when a lot of important decisions are being made. Is it kind of your duty to keep an eye out for the other women on the roster and help make sure they aren't pushed in directions creatively that a man might not realize could make them uncomfortable?

Brandi Rhodes: That's the goal. I haven't had any situations like that yet, but we're about to start weekly TV. So we'll see some of the ideas. But there have been for myself at times in wrestling, times when I had to say, 'Hey, wait a minute, I'm not really comfortable with that' or, 'That doesn't work for me.'

It's interesting to see how a lot of people don't see the other side of the coin. Since they haven't been there. Someone might suggest your character say something that they'd never say. It doesn't occur to them that there are people who think differently about something, from another perspective.

I think it probably will be helpful to have me there. I'm also someone who is always looking at things from different angles. There's always two answers. Cody and I run a lot of things by each other. We're able to help each other see things differently than we would singularly.

JS: What's an example of a time you remember when you were asked to do something you didn't feel right about doing? Is there a moment that stands out?

Rhodes: Ideas that made it seem like I wasn't particularly faithful to my husband. That's an area I don't like to go. It's just not for me.

And the fans, they know us. They know Cody and I, and they like our relationship. So, I would never want to kind of scoff in their faces and make it seem like it's something that it's not.

KultureCity's Sensory Activation Vehicle at AEW's Fight for the Fallen
KultureCity's Sensory Activation Vehicle at AEW's Fight for the FallenPhoto courtesy of KultureCity

 

JS: You guys have a slogan, "AEW is for everyone." I know just how real that is, and I wanted to personally thank you for your commitment to sensory inclusion. We have two kids on the autism spectrum, and going to an event like yours can be kind of terrifying. But we came out to Double or Nothing, and the sensory room you put together with KultureCity made a huge difference. Why was this so important to you? Because I was told you championed the cause.

Rhodes: Thank you for sharing that with me. I love hearing from people who had wonderful experiences with the sensory room. It really makes me so happy.

KultureCity actually reached out to me. I didn't know anything about them or their mission, because it was really vague to me what they represented. I met with [CEO] Julian Maha, and he told me that when we said "AEW is for everyone," it might not be true. He said: 'You're missing a big part of the market. You're missing people with invisible illnesses.' I said, 'Wow." Because we 100 percent were, and we hadn't thought about it.

It's just one of those things people don't think about unless it personally affects them. It can easily slip your mind unless you're confronted with it. But I've been to countless wrestling shows over the last seven or eight years. I've been a part of many meet-and-greets where someone had a need like this and no one knew what to do. Personally, it was embarrassing when we didn't know how to help people and they would just have to leave.

So, when Julian brought this up, I was all for it. If I can keep those moments from happening for any family, I'm all for whatever it takes to make that happen. We are fully in with KultureCity and doing everything we can to get them to as many events as possible.

JS: Inclusion seems to be important generally to this company. From Nyla Rose to Sonny Kiss to the Chinese superstars from OWE, you've been finding talent where most mainstream wrestling companies don't even think to look for it. Are there barriers you're intentionally breaking down, or is it just a matter of being open to talented performers, whatever their background might be?

Rhodes: It's not something we set out to do. We never said, 'We need to check these boxes.' That's not a good way to find the best talent, in my opinion. As long as you keep in mind that what you're looking for is the best person, regardless of anything else, you're going to find the best of the best. And I think that's what we've got here.

In our case, we were very, very lucky. A lot of talent just kind of fell in our lap, which is wonderful when you don't have to search very hard for such talented people.

Our agenda was always to have an open mind about everything. When you have someone like Sonny Kiss, who is very much on the surface who he is, there is no way we're going to say, 'Maybe he should be different, do different moves or act a different way.' He is who he is, and who he is is perfect. He's very talented, and we absolutely love having Sonny as part of the roster.

JS: You guys have made great use of social media. Before I was familiar with the wrestling work of many of your young performers, I met them on your YouTube shows Being The Elite and The Road to All Out series. Both those shows are great at making you really care about the people who make up this company.

But is that possible with some of the foreign talents? I think Riho and [Hikaru] Shida had a really compelling match at All Out—how do you present them on a YouTube show the same way with the language and cultural barriers that might be there?

Rhodes: That's always a challenge, as many people have seen in wrestling over the years with characters when English isn't their first language. However, there have also been plenty of examples where it hasn't been a factor at all because they've been able to express themselves in other ways.

There are things we have in mind to let people know more about some of these wrestlers and how they came to be, what their background is and who they are in the ring. It's something you'll have to see as we roll it out, but there are definitely plans.

JS: AEW launches on TNT on Oct. 2, just a few weeks after WWE takes their NXT brand into the mainstream on the USA Network. Old-school wrestling fans have seen a version of this before, but for new fans, this may be the first time they've been asked to make a choice. So, with WWE just a click away, why should fans choose to take a leap of faith with AEW?

Rhodes: We've been at the cusp of something amazing in wrestling, something we're calling a revolution. This is the first time in almost 20 years that there has been another brand that is this strong and on prime time.

The fanbase has expressed that they've wanted this and needed this for so long. It's been proven with the sellouts we've been having at multiple arenas throughout the country that people really, really do want this alternative.

We vow to bring that alternative in many, many ways. We've talked about it across many mediums, and we'll stay true to our belief that bell-to-bell wrestling is the most important thing.

Our roster is so diverse, and I think our show will be different than anything people have seen. We just hope to continue this movement, and fans will come with us and tune in every week so we can keep doing what we're doing. That's what makes this possible: the fans. As long as the fans keep rallying behind us and stick with us, we're going to do really, really well.

       

Brandi Rhodes is the chief brand officer for All Elite Wrestling and a standout performer. You can follow her on Twitter and YouTube for further glimpses into a life well-lived.

     

Match of the Week

Young Bucks vs. Lucha Brothers (AEW All Out, Aug. 31): These teams have been squaring off for months, to the point where their combined excellence has become almost routine. A ladder match successfully upped the ante, ramping up the danger, level of difficulty and excitement in ways that would have been unimaginable just two decades ago when Edge, Christian and the Hardy Boyz set the standard for all to follow.

With all due respect to WWE's legends of the form, this match surpassed even their best efforts. It was consistently innovative, daring and almost too much for several people in my section at Sears Centre, who hid their faces in their hands and literally begged for someone to stop the match before someone died in the ring.

No one did, but only because the performers executed some of the most bonkers highspots imaginable and almost never missed a beat.

Runner Up: Walter vs. Tyler Bate (NXT UK TakeOver: Cardiff, Aug. 31)

      

Ref, I Have Until Five!

It was the belt held by some of the best to ever lace up a pair of boots. Men like Jack Brisco, Lou Thesz and the great Terry Funk carried it from town to town, all over the world, flying the banner of the National Wrestling Alliance.

And 25 years ago last week, Shane Douglas threw it down and declared the old days dead and gone.

It was a moment concocted by Paul Heyman, then known as Paul E. Dangerously, and launched a revolutionary new promotion called Extreme Championship Wrestling. We had five questions with Douglas about one of the most infamous nights in modern wrestling history—and made them count.

Jonathan Snowden: It was a moment that will live in infamy. How did it come to be? And how hard was it to keep it a secret?

Shane Douglas: The idea was hatched by Paul Heyman, and only he, Tod Gordon and myself were in the know. As such, it was easy to keep the "secret" because none of us were going to leak it. Plus, I had not made my decision about what exactly to say until after the Scorp match in the final. So, no one could leak it because no one knew what I was going to do, including me.

JS: Was there an exit plan in case one of the other wrestlers got mad about it? It had to have shocked many.

Douglas: Keep in mind that our locker room was lockstep in our belief in the promotion. There were some shocked faces when I got back to the dressing room, and some closest to me did ask, 'What just happened?'

[NWA boss] Dennis Coralluzzo returned to the dressing room and was understandably pretty miffed. But again, Paul's brilliance shined through when he deflected that anger by quickly putting the camera in Dennis' face and had him do a promo stating that I was still the NWA champion. Clearly, Paul had convinced him this was all an angle designed to elevate the NWA title, along with its new champion: me!

      

JS: Wrestling has always had this hint of nostalgia. I could easily see you trying to breathe life into the NWA rather than stomping on its corpse. Why was it the right time to ignite a new torch instead?

Douglas: With the benefit of hindsight, looking at the legacy ECW has left on the industry, we can see this was the only real choice that made sense. ECW was, as Taz would later coin the phrase, the FTW promotion. We could hardly have become that, or set the trajectory we did that night, had we chosen to become a subsidiary of the NWA. Can you imagine the NWA board giving Paul Heyman the leeway to do all that we saw him do after that night? I can't!

Looking through the lens of that night, one thing was clear to me back then: the entire industry needed an enema. It had become way too cartoony and had begun to lose the same kinds of fans that are missing today. To get them back, we couldn't just bring the pendulum back to the center or the safe spot. We had to create something that was over-the-top insane yet still firmly rooted in the best traditions of professional wrestling.

I believe that is exactly where the industry has settled again today. The business has truly come full circle and is right back where it was when ECW rose up. It's going to be very interesting to see what AEW will bring to the industry.

JS: You made a career of taking on the establishment, whether it was the NWA or later WWF. Do you kind of enjoy feeling the heat?

Douglas: Actually, that was never my intention. I merely responded to those things I saw as unfair in the industry. I believe that was one of the things Paul Heyman saw in me when he conceived "The Franchise." He had seen the same s--t I had and was prescient enough to know there was an audience that would respond to the ECW approach.

JS: Extreme Championship Wrestling was such a diverse promotion. When a lot of people think about "extreme," they focus on in-ring wrestling and hardcore stuff. But, in a way, your rhetoric was every bit as extreme. Do you feel you get the credit you've earned as one of the leaders of this movement?

Douglas: I get a ton of respect from the fans for my career and my contributions to ECW. I always wanted to learn both the industry and the craft of professional wrestling. While some of the other guys were focused on, shall we say, the more esoteric parts of the wrestling audience, I stayed focused on things like why a particular shot was done the way it was, why one wrestler was pushed over another or why an angle was played out the way it was.

I never assess my career on the basis of the credit I did or did not receive. I am proud of my career and consider myself as very fortunate to have had the opportunities I have had. I am also proud of the legacy we left with ECW. It's a legacy you can see and hear every time an E-C-Dub chant erupts in an arena.

Shane Douglas was the ECW heavyweight champion and wrestled for both WCW and WWE in a career that has spanned 37 years (and counting). You can hear his unique industry insights on the TripleThreat Podcast (exclusively on Vince Russo's The Brand) with co-host John 'Poz' Pozarowski.

     

'Hard Times' Promo of the Week

Chris Jericho was on top of the world as he cruised Tallahassee, Florida, in a limousine on his way to a local LongHorn Steakhouse. Jericho was the new AEW world champion, and to the victor go the spoils.

Afterward, however, there was a bit of a problem: he couldn't find the belt. As the internet mocked him savagely, Jericho leaned into the storm and made the moment his own.

Here's a taste of his genius, delivered in a hot tub with a scarf on, because it's Chris Jericho and he can:

"Now, as I sit here in my palatial estate, in my beautiful mansion, getting ready to have a little bit of the bubbly, I'm just imagining what I would do to that son of a b---h if he was here right now.

"And as a result, I am launching a worldwide investigation, using the top private investigators in the world today, to find out who committed this crime. And trust me, as the AEW champion ... I promise to regain and restore and find—and reclaim!—the AEW championship and once again give you another reason to finally give me the 'thank you' that I deserve.

"You're welcome."

Update: He got it back!

      

Three-Count: Looking Ahead 

WWE Clash of Champions (Sept. 15, WWE Network):

  • Seth Rollins (c) vs. Braun Strowman for the Universal championship
  • Becky Lynch (c) vs. Sasha Banks for the WWE Raw Women's championship
  • Randy Orton vs. Kofi Kingston (c) for the WWE Championship

      

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.

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