Welcome to the latest edition of Off the Top Rope. Every Thursday, we offer you compelling analysis and an interview or feature focused on some of the most important newsmakers in the sport of professional wrestling.
Independent wrestling's ultimate bad boy Joey Janela didn't close the show at All Elite Wrestling's inaugural pay-per-view, Double or Nothing, this May. He's hoping that will come in time. But he definitely left a heck of an impression in the new promotion's opening match, the Casino Battle Royale.
Not only did he take the craziest fall of the entire night, a reckless crash through a table courtesy of a Luchasaurus chokeslam, but he also had a lit cigarette stapled to his forehead by the dastardly Jimmy Havoc.
You did not read that wrong.
I'll repeat it for emphasis—he had a lit cigarette stapled to his forehead.
Such hijinks are typical of the world that spawned him, the gritty "garbage" matches that often include much wilder stunts and decisions somehow even more questionable. But it was something new for mainstream wrestling, a level of violence not seen since the last time wrestling had a good old-fashioned war: the famed Attitude Era of the late 1990s.
The 30-year-old Janela, it turns out, isn't looking to usher in a new era of ultra-violence, instead preferring to adjust what he does for a wider audience.
Bleacher Report had a chance to sit down with him last week for a wide-ranging discussion, covering everything from his influences to the fact that he still lives at home with his mom.
Jonathan Snowden: How does it feel to be one of those overnight successes who were 10 years in the making? Did you ever think about just walking away from this life and getting a regular job? At some point, it must have been kind of disheartening.
Joey Janela: It's definitely humbled me a bit. The few times I felt like quitting when I was younger. Wrestling really wasn't going anywhere, and I was taking off work and stuff on the weekend to make $25 and putting it all toward gas. It really isn't ideal, but I stuck with it, and sure enough, I've found myself in a position where I can make a living wrestling and make it to the mainstream.
JS: What are some of the ways you used to pay the bills while trying to get to the position every independent wrestler craves: earning your living from wrestling alone? Someone told me you used to deliver pizzas a couple of years ago?
Janela: I don't know when was the last time [I delivered pizzas]. Maybe three years ago? I tried to get a job at a factory. It was going to be a job making those gold credit cards, like Visas. That didn't work out and that wasn't ideal for me. I tried Uber and delivering pizza. I had pretty much done it all or tried to. Most of the time I found myself getting fired. That was basically my run in real-life work.
JS: This must be a pretty nice change. Has your life changed a lot since signing with AEW?
Janela: For sure. There's a lot less to worry about now. I used to throw all my money to wrestling. Now I'm living comfortably. I'm still living at home, but I'm usually not home at all. Usually I'm here like once a week, so it's not a bad deal.
JS: Home, like with your parents?
Janela: I still live with my mom, but I'm never home, really. When TV starts, I'm gonna get my own place and stuff, but right now my mom, she doesn't mind, and I don't mind, either.
JS: You are so closely identified with the indy scene that I wasn't sure I'd ever see you in a mainstream promotion on a channel like TNT. Did you imagine yourself reigning as the king of the underground shows forever? Or was this always your goal, wrestling on a national stage like this?
Janela: Absolutely. If you're not in the business to make a living and get to that point, I don't know what you're doing it for. Some people say they do it for the love, but there's got to be an endgame when you're killing yourself week in and week out.
My body right now is not as bad as you think it would be, but I've been doing this for half my life now—15 years. I feel it. I have to get adjusted, get massages and all that stuff to make sure I'm good to go every week for TV and for the future.
You need to make money and you need to have an endgame to make it to a mainstream, national wrestling company. It's never been closer for a lot of these new people getting into the business.
I remember when I first started it was almost unattainable to get to that point, to get to WWE. Yeah, TNA was still in town but to get to WWE was so hard. Really just the cream-of-the-crop guys made it in: the CM Punks and Bryan Danielsons. It was almost unattainable back then.
Now there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and if you work hard enough and bust your ass, you can not only get to a national wrestling company, now you have your choice of them.
JS: I know you're used to having a lot of creative freedom on the independent scene, especially in the shows for Game Changer Wrestling that you helped create and run. How has your experience in AEW been so far?
Janela: So far, they've given me a lot of creative freedom. The agents, like Jerry Lynn, have been great. At All Out, we had Tommy Dreamer. He just wanted to know where we were going with stuff and that was it. It was no different from calling a match at any company. We really haven't crossed the line yet. And we won't, especially with TV coming.
JS: I wonder where that line is? At Double or Nothing, you had the famous spot where a cigarette was stapled to your head. The match with Jon Moxley was brutal. And the three-way match (against Jimmy Havoc and Darby Allin) at All Out was beyond bonkers. Have they given you any idea yet where the left and right limits are?
Janela: The three way, I think it was good, harmless fun with some craziness in there. We were within the boundaries of a PG-14 environment. And, if we had done it without the staple gun, I think the match could work in a PG environment. For the most part, the craziness was contained.
I'm not really big on people taking chairs to the head. I know how bad concussions can be. When I was younger, I did take chair shots to the head. That's a no-no for me now.
JS: It's been funny for me to watch your ongoing feud with former wrestling manager Jim Cornette on social media. While he's been insulting you as a "mud show" wrestler, I actually think you've had one of the best years of anyone in the sport. What do you make of it all?
Janela: With my knee injury, you have to realize, I haven't even had the full year to work. So, I'm really happy with what I've done. I had two good matches at Joey Janela's Spring Break, with Marko Stunt and Jungle Boy, when I wasn't 100 percent ready to be in the ring again. But I had to get in there and do what I had to do.
For a month or so after that, I was hurting. I did a show in Alaska two weeks later and I could barely walk because of the cold and the way my knee was doing.
It lit a fire under me, and now I'm better than ever in the ring. I think I'm having a great year. Guys like Jim Cornette, of course they're not going to watch the matches that people say are great matches. They're going to watch the matches where the craziness happens and try to pull out things to engage his followers. It is what it is.
I think me and Cornette, we rub each other's back when it comes to getting each other publicity. So I have no problem with it.
JS: Every time he posts something about your belly or wrestling skill, a small army of people follow behind in the mentions. It's almost scary.
Janela: I'd rather deal with Jim Cornette than his followers, that's for sure. It's fine. I don't care if people want to s--t on my physique. I've gotten in better shape in the last year and I am looking to get into even better shape for TV. I'm starting to diet now. But, when you talk about my wrestling, that's where I draw the line. Other than that, have fun.
JS: I've been most impressed with you in the kind of old-school match that you'd think most of your critics would love. You and David Starr went an hour at Beyond Wrestling's Americanrana 19 in July, and it was one of the most incredible bouts of the entire year.
You spent almost the entirety of the first 10 minutes doing really old-school Ole Anderson-style armbars and matwork—and it was amazing. Then it became one of the best hardcore matches of the year. That's what I love about you. You never know what to expect. Are you trying hard not to have a template you follow in every match?
Janela: I don't have a set move set or a formula. A lot of these guys, they get lazy. They develop a formula which they use every match. And it makes their matches lack excitement.
I've always been a good technical wrestler. I'm pretty good at adapting to my opponent. I wrestled a match with Zach Sabre Jr. a couple years ago where we went to a 30-minute time limit draw. Thirty minutes of technical wrestling. That's the kind of match my critics are never going to watch, because they don't want to admit I have that aspect.
Starr is one of the best wrestlers in the world and easy to wrestle. And that's what happens. The crowd was very involved from the beginning of that match, because we'd built a storyline over three years. They showed us the proper respect and were into the story we were telling.
The match was organic. We didn't call it in the back. We just went out there and did it. We talked about the high points, what we were going to hit and the rest was done in the ring organically in the ring. It was one of the finest performances of my wrestling career. Fans were telling me the hour flew by, which is something that's hard to do in a one-hour match. I'm happy with it.
JS: October is coming up fast, and that means TNT and television. That's something, a production on this level at least, you've never really done. Is it daunting to try something new like this?
Janela: It's taken me 15 years to get to this point, and I'm ready to learn other phases of the business. I'm not too nervous about it. Every time I've gone out for a pay-per-view for AEW, I've smoked it. I don't think it will be any different on TV. I think I'm going to excel on TV.
A few years ago, people were doubting my ability, saying I was just a stuntman. I proved a lot of those people wrong, and they became huge fans.
Now I'm dealing with that on a larger, mainstream level. A lot of people who watch the TV show are going to be surprised at how much I grasp every element of professional wrestling. It's going to be fun doing a lot of interviews and stuff I haven't done too much of. And it's also going to be great on my body, giving it a rest and not having a crazy schedule like I've had over the last couple of years.
Outside of TV and outside the ring, I may still have a bit to learn. But, you know, these guys knew what they were getting with me. What you see is what you get. I'm not really a character. Joey Janela is Joey Janela, inside the ring and outside.
You can follow the further exploits of Joey Janela on Twitter and, starting October 2, on AEW television. Tickets are on sale for the promotion's next PPV Full Gear and weekly events across the country.
Match of the Week
Baron Corbin vs. Ricochet vs. Samoa Joe (WWE Raw, September 9): I've been pleasantly surprised by this year's edition of King of the Ring. WWE has done a great job of mixing storyline progression and stellar wrestling into a single combustible stew.
Love him or hate him, Corbin has been a remarkably steady presence in the tournament. One of the few true heels left in wrestling, the knock on the NXT product has always been his lack of world-class work inside the ring.
It didn't feel that way at all in this match. He not only more than held his own as the base for much of Ricochet's cool offense, but he also even managed to win in the most despicable way possible, pulling The One and Only out of the ring after his 630 Splash onto Samoa Joe and stealing a pinfall thanks to his opponent's hard work. Now that's quality evil!
Runner-Up: Alex Hammerstone vs. Go Shiozaki (MLW Fusion, September 7)
Hard Times Promo of the Week
Cody Rhodes has become one of wrestling's great heroes, not just because of his excellent body of work inside the wrestling ring, but also because of his galvanizing personality outside it. He's taken us into his life and his battle with the wrestling industry, making that fight our own.
Rhodes feels like a real person. We love his television persona, sure. But it's the real Cody, the one we've grown close to on social media, who truly shines—and that's the Cody Rhodes who was present for a sitdown interview on the latest episode of Road to TNT.
I'm admittedly biased because I saw this filmed in person when I was at Cody's beautiful home in the Atlanta suburbs for a feature profile coming soon to Bleacher Report, but it's typical of what is quickly becoming that series' signature style: just two guys having a conversation about life and sports.
It's as good as wrestling programming gets.
The Illegal Double Team Hot Take
I've seen a lot of criticism online about AEW's decision to book Rhodes into a title match against the promotion's inaugural champion, Chris Jericho, at the next pay-per-view Full Gear.
And, of course, I understand where that criticism is coming from.
Rhodes, along with his running buddies from Being the Elite, have been publicly acknowledged as AEW executive vice presidents. And that's not just in name only. I've seen firsthand just how much responsibility Cody is carrying on his shoulders as they attempt to launch a new brand into a space that has been very unwelcoming in the recent past. In a very real sense, he isn't being chosen to represent AEW at the top of the card—he's chosen himself.
But was there really any other decision to make?
I've been to each of the promotion's first four cards live and, while it's technically true that Rhodes has put himself into the main event, it's also pretty clear he and the rest of the AEW team are just listening to the audience.
He's captured their hearts in a way that doesn't happen every day. To AEW's fans, Cody isn't just another wrestler. He's family.
Rhodes, Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks aren't EVPs who happen to wrestle. They've earned those positions by being some of the top acts in the world. Pretending otherwise, and refusing to promote them as AEW's top stars in the name of fairness, would just be a terrible idea—it would be promotional malpractice.
Jonathan and Kristina Snowden host Illegal Double Team, a weekly podcast about wrestling and life. Available wherever podcasts are found.
Three-Count: Looking Ahead
WWE Clash of Champions (September 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