Off the Top Rope: Britt Baker on Injuries, a House Divided and Kenny Omega

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterOctober 17, 2019

Off the Top Rope: Britt Baker on Injuries, a House Divided and Kenny Omega

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    Photo courtesy of AEW

    Britt Baker is one of the most impressive people in all of professional wrestling.

    Not only is she one of the leading figures in All Elite Wrestling's developing women's division just four years after first stepping foot in the ring, but she's also done it while completing dental school and starting a full-time practice.

    Bleacher Report's Jonathan Snowden had the chance to sit down with Dr. Baker to discuss life, the impact of the Wednesday Night Wars on her relationship and the glorious art of professional wrestling.

    He also reviewed the best match and promo of the week, took a look at the latest offering from DK Books, tracked the latest battle in the war between AEW and NXT and consolidated a week's worth of wrestling events to catch you up on anything you might have missed. 

    Join us every week for Off the Top Rope and Bleacher Report's exclusive access to the biggest stars in the sport.

Dr. Britt Baker, DMD, on AEW's Women's Division and Her Crazy Double Life

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    Dr. Britt Baker, DMD
    Dr. Britt Baker, DMDPhoto by Scott Lesh/AEW

    The trip to Pittsburgh was about two-and-a-half hours each way—and Britt Baker drove it once a week in the summer of 2014, her conscience heavy with guilt. In the fall, she would start dental school at the University of Pittsburgh. Her life seemed settled. 

    But professional wrestling had a hold on her heart and wouldn't let go. So she got into the car anyway, driving to class at the International Wrestling Cartel to begin her tutelage in the esoteric art of wrestling, a secret hidden from family and friends in her gossipy home town.

    "I was so terrified that my parents were going to hate this that I didn't tell them for five months," she tells Bleacher Report. "I was correct. They were less than thrilled. It's not that they were especially discouraging. It's just what every parent would say. 'Britt, you have a guaranteed successful career ahead of you. You've been accepted into one of the best dental schools in the world. You could get hurt in the wrestling ring and your dental career could be done. Do you understand what you're doing?'"

    Stubborn as only a highly capable person in their early 20s can be, Baker was convinced she could learn both crafts simultaneously. She took on what might be a truly unique double major: learning to fix teeth by day and pretending to knock them out by night.

    "Wrestling kept me sane during dental school," Baker says. "That was the hardest time of my life, and I don't know how I would have made it without the distractions of wrestling to keep me afloat. 

    "I would be sitting in the back of my dental implants class, secretly watching Raw from the night before while trying to pay attention in class. And when I was on the road doing wrestling shows, the guys that I would train with would help me. Andrew Palace and Darren Genaro would be flashing me notecards to help me study for an exam. 

    "I'm setting up the ring and we take a break to study. There aren't many friends like that in the world, people who would use their breaktime to help you study instead of going to get a cheeseburger up the road or just taking a minute to themselves. I was so fortunate early on with the people I surrounded myself with in wrestling." 

    When she's introduced now as "Dr. Britt Baker, DMD," there is a sense of pride. Unlike most wrestling gimmicks built around a trade, Baker comes by hers honestly. And while most wrestling dentists are bad guys, she hopes fans might make an exception in her case. 

    "It's my favorite part of every match, the moment I hear that," she says. "It's an affirmation. Yes, that is who I am. I am Dr. Britt Baker, DMD, and I'm a professional wrestler.  I don't mean to brag or boast, but I love the recognition for it.

    "It was hard. I went to school for eight years to be a dentist. Sorry if the person in the fifth row doesn't like it and thinks I should be a bag guy because people hate the dentist. People might not like the dentist, but they do like people who chase their dreams."

    Baker was brave enough to chase two. And now, living in Orlando, Florida, with her boyfriend, NXT champion Adam Cole, she maintains what would be a back-breaking schedule for most, somehow maintaining her career in the ring and a burgeoning dental practice without seemingly missing a beat.

    "Both of my worlds are very understanding of the other," she says. "I have an agreement with the dental office I work for that we'll be closed on Wednesdays. Because I'll be in whatever city AEW Dynamite is in. And AEW is OK with me flying in super-late Tuesday night after work or even early Wednesday morning. They are also really good at getting me on the first flight back to Orlando Thursday morning. I get right off the plane and go to work. I am still able to work four days a week as a dentist."

    Right now, she is careful to keep her two worlds apart. While she'll talk to patients about wrestling if they bring it up, she's aware that many people might find her dual roles off putting. Sometimes, however, what happens in the wrestling ring isn't easily contained in the ring. Take, for example, a black eye suffered recently at the hands of her burgeoning rival, Bea Priestley. 

    "The black eye was very interesting," Baker says. "I was getting pretty creative just hiding it. I had my mask on most of the day and we use dental loupes, which are magnifying and have a little light on them. I made sure I had those on all day. Because, it's a whole thing. 'Oh my gosh, what happened to your eye?' and 'What do you mean you're a professional wrestler? I didn't know this!' So, I tried to make it an easier day."

    While a black eye can be manageable, more serious injuries pose potential problems in both fields. Earlier this year, her parents' worst fears came true when Baker suffered a major head injury at an AEW pay-per-view in Jacksonville, Florida. 

    "For five days, I could not see out of the outer corner of my eye," she says. "I had no peripheral vision. It was just black. That terrified me. Doc Sampson, our head doctor for AEW, would call me every day. He's an excellent physician. And, every day, I was so frustrated.

    "I was starting to wonder if I was going to be OK, but he was very reassuring, explaining that this is a concussion symptom and I would eventually get my vision back. He told me, 'You got hit really bad, really hard, but it's going to be OK.' But people can tell you that all they want—until it actually comes back, it's scary. 

    "You can't see and you need your eyes for everything. Especially being a dentist, working in someone's mouth and even drilling on their teeth. I was terrified. Obviously, I couldn't work in the dental office when I couldn't see. That's a lawsuit waiting to happen and not safe. So, it was tough.

    "But that's the nature of the game in professional wrestling. People get hurt. It's not ideal, but it happens. Accidents happen. It was a reality check reminding me, 'Hey, be careful.' But, at the same time, I love it. And, when you love what you do, you can accept the risk."


    On Wednesday, Baker fought Riho for the AEW Women's Championship, an enormous accomplishment for a woman just four years into her professional career with a mere three weeks on television.  

    "It's very stressful and exciting," Baker says. "It's baptism by fire. You're wrestling in front of 100 people one week and suddenly you're in front of 10,000. I have so much to learn, but I'm in good hands. I feel like I have the best coaches, the best production crew, the EVPs, Tony, everyone who has a hand in this is one of the best people to be working with in wrestling. 

    "(AEW owner) Tony Khan is super-hands on. He is everywhere and will be texting creative ideas all the time. He's absolutely fantastic. I can't say enough good things about Tony Khan. He makes every person on the roster feel appreciated. He is happy you are part of his company."

    There is a lot of experience to lean on backstage at an AEW event, including agents Dean Malenko, Jerry Lynn and Dustin Rhodes. Perhaps the most integral figures for women looking to live up to bold promises about equality and opportunity are Kenny Omega and Michael Nakazawa, dual-lingual wrestlers who help the contingent of Japanese competitors like Riho communicate with their American counterparts.

    "Kenny Omega has a huge role in the women's division," Baker says. "He agents a lot of the matches and he's brought his passion for the Japanese joshi wrestling to our world and it's amazing. I don't have a ton of experience with joshi wrestling, but I love it.

    "I'm learning from Kenny by watching how he puts matches together. How lucky can I be? That was one of the selling points for AEW to me when Brandi and Cody (Rhodes) told me he'd have a major role with the women's division. I was a huge fan.

    "I was the girl staying up all night to watch Wrestle Kingdom even though I had class the next day. Now I work with Kenny Omega, one of the best wrestlers in the world and a creative genius. Some of his ideas just amaze me. There seems to be no end to his creative insanity."


    Baker's rise in the sport comes as Cole reaches new heights of his own in NXT. The two are equally wrestling-obsessed and watch the rival company's competing shows together the day after the events. But Baker admits the dueling Wednesday night broadcasts aren't ideal.

    "We are texting and calling each other for encouragement right up until the moment we go out the curtain," she says. "It can be a little heartbreaking when it's the biggest night of his career or the biggest night of my career and we can't be there. Because we're each other's biggest fans and, as a fan, you want to be there and feel the energy. You want to experience it. So, it's a little discouraging.

    "But we sit at home and watch each other's matches. We actually watch each other's whole show. We support each other's company. My boyfriend is basically best friends with The Young Bucks, so he's very supportive of All Elite Wrestling."

    Baker, like most in AEW, keeps a watchful eye on fan reactions. She's noticed some grumbling among hardcore fans, upset that the promotion hasn't featured women as frequently as they have men. But she urges patience.

    "You have to take it with a grain of salt when people, for lack of a better term, bitch and moan about what is and isn't on the show," she says. "Fans are always going to find a reason to grumble. They want one thing week one, you give it to them week two, and then they don't want that anymore. Some fans are very hard to please.

    "AEW, we're still so new, so I encourage people to sit back, relax and kind of breathe with us. We're going to give everybody what they want. Sure, there's only one women's match on the show. But maybe there is only one tag team match, too. Enjoy it, let us establish what our brand is, then form your opinion.

    "Right now, it's fresh and new. Try to enjoy the ride."

                

    Britt Baker returns home next week on AEW Dynamite as Pittsburgh temporarily transforms into Brittsburgh. 

Match of the Week: Kenny Omega vs. Joey Janela (AEW Dark)

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    In AEW storylines, Kenny Omega is struggling to find his way. After losing to Chris Jericho in a grueling bout at Double or Nothing in May, he was unceremoniously destroyed by a debuting Jon Moxley. 

    It was enough to send Omega into a tailspin, breaking the former IWGP champion mentally and spiritually.

    In the ring, though, he is finding his way. Against an opponent with plenty to prove in Joey Janela, Omega raised his game to heights only he can reach. The result was one of the most remarkable matches of the entire year.

    It was an unsanctioned bout that didn't count on their AEW records, but the two men wrestled it like it was a pay-per-view main event and not a match on AEW Dark, a YouTube show available for free to anyone.

    The bout was a modern twist on ECW, a match filled with high spots, plunder and plenty of both guts and glory. Imagine the very best technical wrestler in the world wrestling Tommy Dreamer in a match where basically anything goes. That was this match in a nutshell—a must-see for anyone who loves wrestling.

    Runner Up: Kota Ibushi vs. Evil (New Japan: King of Pro-Wrestling)

Hard Times Promo of the Week: Darby Allin

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    The first time I saw Darby Allin wrestle, I knew he was a star. Admittedly, I was late to the party. He'd already spent years wowing crowds at super-indies like Evolve, waiting for the opportunity to take his unique energy to a bigger stage.

    My first visit to Planet Darby was on a stage so small there wasn't even room for a ring. He and his wife, the wrestler Priscilla Kelly, were taking on another couple in an intergender bar fight. There were maybe 100 people there, and none of them could take their eyes off of Allin and Kelly.

    When they closed the match with Priscilla spitting directly into Darby's open mouth, I knew I had to meet him.

    His personal magnetism was evident, his weird energy was of the time. He wasn't cosplaying a skateboard kid with a barely disguised death wish. He was that kid on stage and off. Sans makeup and in a sharp black suit the next day, he was every bit as interesting as I'd anticipated.

    His energy was even more powerful in conversation, his passion for performing so strong that he couldn't even hope to hide it in a post-modern haze of ennui or irony. Why, he asked, did wrestlers limit their influences to previous wrestling matches and angles? He intended to look all around him to inform his art with the present and not the past.

    Although not immediately identifiable, it's this perspective that makes him feel different. Fans are getting a taste of it right now on AEW television.

    AEW provided the platform, and Darby used it to make himself the first breakout performer in the promotion's short history. He may not have beaten Chris Jericho for the championship but check back here in six months and we'll count coup then. 

    Because Darby Allin is a star.

Wednesday Night Wars: Week 3 Showdown Between AEW and NXT

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    Photo courtesy of AEW

    It's Week 3 in the Wednesday Night Wars, as AEW went head-to-head with NXT on national television once more.

    The wrestling world has turned its attention to this midweek battle for supremacy and both brands have brought their best. 

    The result has been a spectacular win for fans. Among the promotions, though, there can be only one winner.

    Let's run down each show in the two major categories that combine to create great wrestling television.

               

    Wrestling 

    As Arn Anderson once said, "it's on the marque." Everything else is built around the action in the ring, and both brands specialize in modern, exciting action. 

    • As is becoming the norm, AEW promised an incredible card and somehow delivered excellence even beyond our expectations.

      The best technical match was the barnburner between Kenny Omega/Adam Page and Pac/Moxley. One day after announcing he was still the top performer in the world at AEW Dark, birthday boy Omega teamed with Page to again steal the show. 

      The Elite beat Pac and Moxley in a slobberknocker that saw all four at the top of their games, a combination of high-flying action and enough storytelling elements to build future matches between the quartet. 

      But the match we'll all remember was the main event, a star-making performance from Darby Allin, the 22-year-old prodigy who literally wrestled much of the event with his hands behind his back. He gave champion Chris Jericho all that he could handle, even without the use of his hands, forcing The Inner Circle's Jake Hager to interfere and preserve Jericho's reign.

      Allin is a star.

    • NXT has a different approach. Most of the matches don't feel like a big deal, bordering on being simple, competitive squash bouts with obvious winners. They are well-executed, with the winners looking like stars, but it's hard to compare positively with AEW using this approach.

      Two bouts stood out: the rubber match between Keith Lee and Dominic Dijakovic and the main event battle of attrition featuring Damian Priest's upset win over Pete Dunne. Lee and Dijakovic have good chemistry, but their clash was marred by a sports-entertainment finish setting up a three-way dance with Roderick Strong next week.

      The main event had some mild shenanigans at the end, but it was an excellent back-and-forth contest worth seeking out.

    Advantage: AEW

            

    Presentation and Storytelling

    • This was the best night yet for AEW's commentary team of Jim Ross, Tony Schiavone and Excalibur. The three men are starting to figure out where they fit in and when it's time to hit their spots.

      Ross seemed engaged throughout and Schiavone, in particular, always seems to chime in just when he's needed.

      There was an excellent vignette that told much of the story I shared in my Cody Rhodes feature piece earlier in the month and set up his title challenge against Chris Jericho nicely. AEW shines here with these videos. Their shoulder programming generally is top notch. 

      The co-main event set up a match next week between Pac and Jon Moxley and generally made everyone involved look amazing. The main event further cemented Allin as a star of the future while establishing Jericho and The Inner Circle as bad actors willing to cheat to win. Solid, basic storytelling.

    • NXT did a much better job of building its characters this week and further defining who the key players are and what they're about. Johnny Gargano felt like a big deal for the first time and Shayna Baszler cut one of the best promos I've seen from her, telling a returning Tegan Nox, "Let's be honest, you're running out of limbs to rehab."

      When Mauro Ranallo is on, he's one of the best announcers in the sport. An enthusiastic Mauro is a lot of fun to listen to. A Mauro who is trying to namedrop the Brazilian stink bug makes me think about reaching for the mute button. He walks a continuous fine line between excellence and utter disaster.

      This show did an excellent job building for next week and teased future bouts such as Io Shirai and Rhea Ripley that have fans salivating. NXT's best effort yet as an overall show.

    Advantage: Even

              

    Overall

    As good as NXT was, AEW is going to be hard to beat when they are loaded for bear the way they were Wednesday night. No one on NXT can match Jericho, Omega or Cody Rhodes as overall performers, and the undercard wrestlers on TNT are given the time and freedom to make something special of their segments. 

    Given the opportunity to shine, great talent is always going to deliver something worth watching. So far, AEW has done this every single week. 

    Winner: AEW

Last Week in Wrestling

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    Missed your favorite wrestling shows over the last week? Here's everything you need to know from last week in the sport of kings.

    WWE

    • The promotion held a draft in which Superstars were selected to perform exclusively on either Raw or SmackDown. The red brand's top picks were Becky Lynch and Seth Rollins, while its counterpart went with Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar.
    • Former WCW executive Eric Bischoff left WWE after a brief stint running SmackDown. Bruce Pritchard takes over as executive director for the show.
    • WWE Backstage launched on Fox Sports 1.
    • Bayley defeated Charlotte Flair for the Smackdown women's title. She turned heel, debuting a new haircut and attitude. It involved slaughtering her inflatable waving people and cursing at the live audience.
    • The Viking Raiders defeated Robert Roode and Dolph Ziggler to become new Raw tag team champions.
    • Seth Rollins set the Firefly Fun House on fire.  
    • Boxing champion Tyson Fury and Braun Strowman officially signed their contracts to throw hands at WWE Crown Jewel on October 31. 

    Other

    • Jon Moxley was stripped of New Japan's U.S. title. Lance Archer defeated Juice Robinson for the vacant belt.
    • Kazuchika Okada defeated Sanada to retain his IWGP title. He will meet Kota Ibushi at the Tokyo Dome on January 4, 2020.
    • Kelly Klein regained the ROH Women of Honor title from Angelina Love at Ring of Honor: Glory By Honor 2019.
    • Riho beat Britt Baker to retain the AEW Women's Championship.
    • The Young Bucks will meet LAX at the Full Gear PPV on November 9.

Hands off the Merchandise: 35 Years of WrestleMania

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    Photo courtesy of DK Books

    WrestleMania is called The Showcase of the Immortals, and WWE has spent almost 35 years making sure that's more than just hyperbole. No major sport does as much to venerate its legends and preserve its history.

    Or at least their version of it.

    With WrestleMania in 1985, Vince McMahon reinvented the megashow, taking a traditional concept and invigorating it with the kind of madcap energy specific to its New York-centric brand: colorful, celebrity-laden and larger than life. 

    Pay-per-view extravaganzas come and go. Only WrestleMania is forever.

    The latest coffee-table book from DK is proof of this. Every classic moment, from Hulk Hogan's iconic body slam of Andre the Giant to Daniel Bryan's improbable run to championship glory, is present and accounted for. The DK and WWE partnership is hardly new at this point, but somehow they manage to find new tidbits and photos I've never seen to make each of these books a unique treat.

    It's a richly illustrated and well-written rundown of each show, complete with reminisces from the wrestlers themselves to add color to what otherwise might be a dry history. DK is a master of the form, and fans are in good hands with the experienced Brian Shields at the helm.

    The result is a book sure to inspire plenty of smiles—and more than a few trips to the WWE Network to relive the memories.

Three-Count: A Look Ahead

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    Photo courtesy of AEW

    AEW Dynamite (October 23, TNT)

    • Pac vs. Jon Moxley: These two couldn't get along during their tag team match Wednesday against Kenny Omega and Adam Page, and they will settle their differences next week in Pittsburgh. Wins and losses matter in AEW, making this match of particular importance to Pac, who is seemingly close to earning a title shot. Prediction: Moxley emerges victorious after outside interference by a member of the Elite.
    • Private Party vs. Lucha Bros: Wondering if the Lucha Bros were babyface or heels? Wonder no more. They announced their presence on the villainous side of the ledger with a brutal attack on SCU. They will likely do something equally dastardly to the up-and-coming tag team that upset The Young Bucks in the first round. Prediction: Private Party comes to an end and the Lucha Bros advance to the AEW Tag Team Tournament finals.
    • SCU vs. Dark Order: We don't know a lot about Dark Order, the one notable failure on the part of AEW's creative team. They've had such a golden touch that the one bust really stands out. Prediction: SCU gets the upset and earns the opportunity at revenge against the Lucha Bros.

          

    Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.