Major League Wrestling turns heads in primetime showcase
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Alexander Hammerstone grimaced in pain as he kept a hand pressed on his championship belt against his right leg. The Major League Wrestling heavyweight champ suffered a gnarly sprained ankle early in a title match and gutted out the rest of the bout on one good wheel.
Most impressed with Hammerstone’s fortitude, his opponent, Jacob Fatu.
Fatu couldn’t believe Hammerstone, sitting backstage as his left ankle was wrapped, wanted to keep wrestling even though the injury could have shortened the match.
“You were like, ‘I told you no! Keep going!,’” Fatu said, reliving the in-ring conversation.
The match tore down the house -- in this case, the South Philadelphia venue more commonly known as ECW Arena — and the Fatu-Hammerstone match delivered on the brutality promised in the main event of Vice TV’s first MLW primetime wrestling special.
“I was going to have some drinks with the boys,” Hammerstone said, “but I don’t know about that anymore.”
Hammerstone can rest his ankle and relax with a cold one when he watches the match at 10 p.m. Thursday on Vice as part of MLW’s “Fightland” special that airs after the wrestling documentary series “Dark Side of the Ring.”
Pulling the strings behind the curtain from the staging area, MLW founder Court Bauer immediately knew as he watched six different camera angles of the match on a monitor Hammerstone was hurt on a bicycle kick.
“Check on Hammer’s leg, is he OK? Let me know, give me a little thumbs up, quietly,” Bauer says over his headset to the referee.
The ref checks on the hulking Hammerstone and, sure enough, flashes a fast thumbs-up that the wrestler is hurt but can continue. Hammerstone is later examined by a state athletic commission physician, while one wrestler barks orders to clear space -- “We need to get rid of that coffin!”
In the wild world of professional wrestling, one must move props before giving them for a match well done.
His back dotted in confetti, Hammerstone wasn’t in that dire of shape -- there was a casket match earlier among the 15 bouts run on Saturday -- and he chatted with his girlfriend while veteran wrestler Davey Richards helped tape the ankle.
Hammerstone won’t miss much time and will surely be healthy enough to defend his championship when MLW returns in November to Philadelphia. MLW has largely chugged along since its rebirth in 2017 as the best American wrestling company outside the billionaire-run AEW and WWE. Bauer has leaned on company stalwarts like Hammerstone and Fatu, developed future major promotion stars, and incorporated nostalgia acts such as The Blue Meanie and Savio Vega to separate itself from other lower-leveled promotions Ring of Honor, the NWA and Impact Wrestling.
Brian Heffron made his pro debut in a 1994 match in Wallaceburg, Ontario, Canada, and performed as The Blue Meanie for more than 25 years, cycling through most major and independent promotions. Heffron has been in the thick of the ebb and flow of the wrestling world -- the company where he made his name, ECW, went out of business in 2001 -- enough to know that Bauer has MLW steered on an upward path.
“The thing that bums me out is that everyone is so focused on AEW and WWE right now, but here you have MLW, who’s putting on just as good, or maybe even a better product than the two big two,” Heffron said. “I think MLW is definitely more intriguing than WWE right now. Hopefully, this next venture they’re doing with Vice TV leads to more growth.”
MLW’s weekly series “MLW Fusion: Alpha” airs Wednesdays on YouTube, and Saturdays and Mondays on beIN Sports. The “Fightland” special includes the Hammerstone-Fatu championship match and a four-way bout with former WWE star Tajiri for the MLW world middleweight championship.
Bauer says MLW is in the black — even as it filmed infrequently without fans for 16 months because of the pandemic — and hopes a ratings hit with Vice -- wrestling is big again with the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic -- could lead to a more stable rights deal and pump the company with needed cash.
“In some ways, we’re still a free agent,” Bauer said of a TV deal.
The rights money could help MLW afford to sign blossoming young talent like Brian Pillman Jr. and Maxwell Jacob Friedman, who now wrestle for billionaire businessman Tony Khan in AEW.
“We couldn’t afford to keep them,” Bauer said. “But as our rights deals get better, we’ll pay the talent. We always tell the talent, we’ll grow with you. If you believe in the system, trust the process. This is why all the promoters want you, because we’ve got you.”
And maybe run larger arenas. Philly’s old wrestling home was stuffed with fans in Vince Papale jerseys and Blue World Order T-shirts, and if they turned around at the right time, they would have spotted two of the female wrestlers standing in the concession line.
Bauer wrote programming for years for WWE and does all the heavy lifting in MLW. He gathered members of the 5150 faction and made his words scream off the page with his direction: “You want to do this now?! In my ring?! Ring the bell!” The 43-year-old Bauer also filled in at rehearsal for the night’s show when a wrestler was late and seemed ready to take a bump himself.
“As Vince McMahon taught me, that’s what you do. You show them how you want it,” Bauer said. “If they don’t see it visualized, you can’t assume what you’re telling them is going to be executed. You’ve got to walk them through it so they can feel it, sense it.”
MLW can sense its shift into a major player as it prepares for live events the next several months in Philly.
“We’ve been the best-kept secret in wrestling for a long time,” Hammerstone said. “It’s time to get in front of more eyes, and if tonight is any indication of what we’re going to do moving forward, it’s going to be some pretty big things.”
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