Something truly extraordinary happened on July 24th, 2021. At GCW’s Homecoming show from the Showboat Hotel, Atlantic City, NJ, the then-GCW World Champion Nick Gage stepped into the ring with Matt Cardona, the former Zack Ryder of WWE fame. Ryder had previously made a surprise appearance in GCW, attacking Nick Gage, which led to a war of words and finally an all-out war in the ring, which saw both men slice each other up, Gage bringing out his trusty pizza slicer in a moment I’m sure none of us ever expected we’d see Cardona endure before his surprise debut in GCW.
However, the most-talked about moment game courtesy of the end. As Ricky Shane Page and his cohorts attacked Gage, allowing Cardona to hit the champ with the Ruff Ryder, the unthinkable happened. Matt Cardona was the new GCW World Champion. And all hell broke loose.
The reaction from the live audience was something of the kind that I haven’t seen in such a long time. The fury and ferocity of the audience’s reaction was startling in its power. The heat was palpable through the screen. As Cardona held the belt up for all the GCW faithful to see, the ring became awash in bottles, cups and all sorts of trash flying through the air. Cardona made a quick exit. I don’t blame him. One false move and the whole place could have gone apeshit and torn that room apart.
In the aftermath, the internet wrestling community took to social media with the same kind of passion and divisiveness that they usually reserve for the argument of ‘flippy wrestling: yea or nae?’ Many people were genuinely caught up in the heat of the moment and praised GCW and all involved for providing a genuinely heated moment, the likes of which we rarely see anymore. Other people derided it, however, believing that the whole incident was a matter of complete disrespect to the talent involved and, more than that, was dangerous was with it.
So, let’s ask the question: was it heat or did the GCW audience really hurt the business?
Know Your Audience
GCW has a reputation for being one of the top independent promotions right now, and with good reason: they have the support of a die-hard, passionate and super-intense fan base that see the promotion as a real alternative to the rest of wrestling, just like ECW fans did so many years ago.
The ECW comparison isn’t just lip service either. Yes, the level of violence and the explicitness of language used on GCW shows are valid points of comparison. But there’s a deeper point at play here, and that’s the culture built around the promotion. Just like ECW, fans of Game Changer Wrestling more often see themselves as fans of more extreme cultural entertainment; anti-authority, rebellious and inclined to tell people to get fucked rather than take any shit from anyone.
Paul Heyman used to say that ECW was Nirvana agains the hair metal of the WWF and WCW. To look at a modern equivalent, GCW is like Death Grips, back when that group was fucking with their record company and releasing an album behind the company’s back featuring extreme, aggressive music and an album cover featuring an erect penis with the album cover written on it. It’s a case of ‘fuck you—or else.’
This is why Nick F’N Gage is the outlaw hero of GCW; he’s a guy who has been sliced, diced and battered for years and is still standing. He robbed a bank and served jail time for it, only to emerge back into pro wrestling like some pizza cutter-wielding Robin Hood. Fuck with him at your peril. This man is over with his audience.
In fact, he’s not just over; he’s held to levels by his beloved MDK (Murder Death Kill) group of fans that only messiahs have only been held at. They hang off his every word and action and often join in, holding up chairs for Gage to slam opponent’s heads into and screaming along to his elaborate introduction word for word. This is a man that can do no wrong for the GCW audience. He leads them and he epitomises them.
This is the world Matt Cardona stepped into. And this is why it worked so brilliantly.
A Heel Is Born
Matt Cardona is not known for death match wrestling nor even particularly independent wrestling as such. What he is very well known for is performing as Zack Ryder for WWE, a role he performed as for 13 years, from his main roster debut in 2007 until his release in 2020.
The push for Ryder was so stop-start that it became very difficult for Cardona to gain real traction in his career. In fact, it was only when Ryder went into business for himself and took to using YouTube and social media to proclaim himself WWE’s Internet Champion that he really proved that he had what it takes to be a star. He certainly wasn’t getting the support from WWE to do that.
You’d think that would make Cardona tailor made for GCW; a man screwed by the corporate system, using his own innovations to get himself over. Think again. He’d too long been caught in the corporate WWE machine. He’d not proved himself to the independent hardcore audience. Instead, he’d had the audacity to come out and take down GCW’s most beloved star and think he could get away with it. Gage and gang had not had the benefit of a nice, comfortable position with WWE, sitting in catering and still picking up checks. They’d had to put themselves through hell to become legends. Yet, Cardona had the temerity to complain about his position in WWE, a company most of the GCW faithful have no real respect for anyway. Who the fuck did this guy think he was?
The quick answer: he thought he was better than Nick Gage. Why was Gage getting all this love and respect and not him? He’d been in the WWE, for chrissakes! In his mind, that was worth far more than Gage and the pitiful GCW faithful.
In truth, Cardona, I’d imagine, has lots of respects for the GCW audience and for Nick Gage, as well as the independent scene generally. But what better way than to get massive heat as a heal, in GCW, than to present yourself to that rabid audience as everything they detest. GCW essentially functions as a form of opposition: Cardona knew he wasn’t going to convince anyone, not initially anyway, that he was hardcore. But he knew he could lean into being Mr WWE and the fans would be screaming for his blood.
It was clever booking, and I take my hat off to whoever came up with it and whoever is responsible for bringing Matt Cardona, Nick Gage and GCW together in the first place. Because genuine heat breeds genuine excitement. There’s shades of Mick Foley’s brilliant heel run in ECW in 1995 here, except that, whereas Foley was the anti-hardcore protester, crying for the love of Uncle Eric Bischoff, Cardona is using his WWE association to suggest, as a heel, his superiority over other, supposedly lesser, types of wrestling. Of course he can beat a shitty little independent wrestler—don’t you know he was in WWE???
In an age where people still live under the shadow of The Outsiders and want to be perceived as a tweener, a cool heel, both Cardona and GCW did their best to make Cardona appear as a hateable figure to their audience, but one that the audience would gladly pay to see his ass get kicked—or sliced!
Commentary on the night of Homecoming made it very clear: Cardona was a ‘captain of the football team’ type, a rich, soft little nerd who didn’t just collect rare wrestling figures but video blogged them. Hell, Cardona promised to come out and fight in street clothes and he came out in some sort of Broadway theatre version of street clothes that served to enhance his perfect tan. Commentary noting that Cardona’s purple gloves looked like a prolapsed colon was an unexpected laugh-out-loud moment.
In short, they had set out to make Matt Cardona the complete anthesis of GCW and it’s fan culture, and they succeeded. Both GCW and Cardona knew what they were doing.
How To Protect Everyone and Make Money Doing It!
There’s one other factor to consider. Not only had they made Cardona look like Mr anti-GCW (and his constant flipping off the audience and swearing at them on the night was the icing on the cake), but the fact is, very few, if anyone, believed that Matt Cardona was going to walk out the winner of the match. Many didn’t even believe that Cardona was going to walk out.
How could he? GCW and Nick Gage had done such a good job of building a devoted audience and completely setting up Cardona as a soft WWE boy that the result seemed inevitable. Gage was going to tear the former Zack Ryder into absolute strips. How could he not? He was Nick F’N Gage! Sure, Cardona was going to take an absolute beating and it would be brutal; he’d probably earn the respect of some people for putting himself through the ordeal. But at the end, it was expected Cardona would put over Gage and would be gone—a one shot and gone-type scenario, a way to keep Cardona’s name out there and to potentially bring more eyes to GCW.
Indeed, Cardona took a hell of a beating, even tasting the pizza cutter a few times. Yes, the match might have been a little restrained by Nick Gage standards, but it was far beyond any extremes Matt Cardona had crossed in the past and he must be commended for that. But he committed the ultimate sin for the GCW audience: he won.
It was perfectly done. Cardona was pretty much beat when Ricky Shane Page and his boys ran out and attacked Gage, Ricky Shane Page having lulled Gage into a false sense of trust first before nailing him with a low blow. One Ruff Ryder later and Matt Cardona was the new GCW World Champion!
It was cleverly done. Cardona wasn’t made to look superior to Gage. He had to have people interfere on his behalf to win. At the same time, the fact that Cardona has to cheat only doubled down on how much of a heel he is. And the audience quickly let him know about it…
So: Heat or Hurt?
So, Cardona and GCW knew their audience well and worked them neatly so that they would provide genuine heel heat for Cardona. But I’m sure no one really expected the fan’s reaction of pelting the ring with trash afterwards in what turned a cool story into a great wrestling MOMENT. Because, really, when was the last time you saw an audience, in the smart fan era that we’re in, invest in a match and a story to that level? I’m sure it went beyond the wildest expectations of those involved.
Apart from the fact that, as you’ve probably guessed from the frothing tone of this article, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing: setup, match and aftermath, if I try to look at it objectively then I can see that whole setup was lesson 101 in obtaining heat: give your audience a reason to hate your hell and then make it so that they’ll spend good money to see the likelihood that he’s going to get his ass kicked. Simple.
There are those that have stated on social media though that the heat argument does not defend what they feel was an essentially disgusting act by the fans. Let’s take a look at the reasons given.
I’ve seen people say that throwing rubbish into the ring was an act of disrespect after Cardona and Gage had just wrestled for their entertainment. I don’t get this argument, admittedly. If I was being facetious, I’d say that I’m sure Gage has had worse things thrown at him over the years. But really, in what way was it disrespect? Ok, no one likes having people’s trash and drinks thrown all over them. But wrestling, for better or worse, is all about the fan reaction. That’s the real barometer of success; that, and whether they’ve paid good money to see you. The fans were that invested in what they were watching that they totally flipped their shit when their hero lost and the heel won. By the barometer of wrestling fan reactions, the moment had been a complete sense. Remember the Hulk Hogan heel turn at Bash at the Beach ’96? The trash throwing wasn’t the be all and end all of that moment but it sure put the icing on the cake.
The other argument is that the wrestlers could have got hurt by bottles being thrown. This argument I have some sympathy with although, again if I was being facetious, I’d ask if bottles being thrown are that concerning after the two wrestlers had thrown each other through glass and Cardona had been cut with a pizza slice.
On a serious note though, a glass bottle thrown with force is enough, if it catches someone on the head, to cause concussion, break bones or lacerations and, in a worst-case scenario, killing someone. Where I differentiate my argument though is that I don’t think anyone in the audience was looking to hurt one of the competitors at all, and certainly not to that extent. I don’t think they really thought at all, to be honest; they were completely caught up in the moment and acted on impulse. We’ve all done stupid things in the heat of the moment. I don’t think that dismisses the argument of it being a moment of true heat and, thankfully, as no one got hurt, it doesn’t ruin the moment for me.
So I disagree that the moment was anything other than one of the greatest moments of audience heat I’ve witnessed in a long time. That crowd was a like a peak-ECW crowd and the emotion and energy on display was exhilarating. Of course, what happens next will be interesting. Because this was a genuine moment, you don’t want it to become forced in future as this would only devalue the original moment. If fans feel that this is the expectation now and do it because it’s what they think they’re meant to do, that will ruin the majesty and surprise of what happened in the first place. It’s got to be organic or not at all.
It made me realize a sad truth too, as a long-time wrestling fan. An ever bigger issue than the amount of people that tried to deny the excitement of what happened is the issue that, because wrestling has become a lot less heated in terms of fan reactions to heels and the action put in front of them. That so many people commented on how shocked and surprised they were to experience a moment that reminded them, in a modern way, of the experience of watching wrestling in the past, is a sad indictment of the current state of pro wrestling.
Would I want to see trash thrown at the ring all the time? No I wouldn’t. But do I want to regularly see fans as completely invested in the moment and excited as they were by Cardona and Gage?
Every damn time.