The Best Modern Wrestling Storyline You Haven’t Heard Of
Away from the bright lights of WWE and AEW, another story has captured the attention of the wrestling world. Brandon Bethune details the success of the industry’s hottest angle.
Professional wrestling fans are always primed for a good debate.
One glance at any form of wrestling media and you’ll see plenty of recent examples, such as the uproar at WWE naming The New Day the greatest tag team of all time, before The Young Bucks promptly responded on BTE.
AEW vs WWE is always the major hot topic, with the Kenny Omega vs Roman Reigns debate raging on and mingling into the best wrestling storyline debate, the trials and tribulations of the ‘Tribal Chief’, or the rise of the ‘Hangman’.
However, over the weekend, wrestling fans joined each other to yell in unison, praising what might be the best modern wrestling storyline you probably haven’t heard of.
Enter Matt Cardona and Nick Gage.
On one side you have the former Zack Ryder, a once immensely popular self-made superstar left to rot by the WWE system before his release last year. A man who since then has primarily focused on his action figure passion through the ‘Major Bros Wrestling Figure Podcast’ with fellow WWE alumni Brian Myers (aka Curt Hawkins).
On the other, you have deathmatch king Nick Gage. A man more likely to use glass and a pizza cutter to mess you up than hip tosses and headlocks. Gage has really put himself in the spotlight the last few months through his AEW debut last week and upcoming match with Chris Jericho, and a Dark Side of The Ring documentary detailing his tumultuous life journey thus far.
It’s that journey in not just wrestling, but in life, that Gage is so infamous for, and how he has amassed such a powerful cult following. As MJF so wonderfully detailed in the build to his first AEW appearance, Gage is known for his brutal deathmatch style, once having legitimately died for eightminutes during a CZW Tournament of Death, before then demanding to go back to the ring upon resuscitation.
He’s been through an extreme drug addiction and jail more than once, most notably after robbing a bank. However, the man is back on his feet, and the growth of his MDK fanbase (Murder Death Kill Gang) has made this revered hardcore legend more popular than ever.
If all that about Gage sounds a bit much for you though, then you’ve found yourself at the crux of this story’s beginning.
The two’s clearly conflicting styles, one a safely perceived ex-WWE guy, and another the most non-PG real life deathmatch badass there is, was the cause of the initial conflict.
Cardona challenged Gage on Twitter, to which the GCW Champion responded by questioning who Cardona was. This began a war of words that caused minor buzz, mostly due to the ridiculousness of the idea that Cardona would possibly step in the ring with the unpredictable Gage.
Nevertheless, Gage had plenty still on his plate. AEW’s Jon Moxley, an old foe, had started that rivalry back up through a brawl at another GCW show, so it seemed Gage had bigger fish to fry than tangle with the former ‘Woo Woo Guy’.
Never one to stay out of the spotlight though, Matt Cardona did once again what Matt Cardona does, and forced himself back into the attention of the world.
On June 6th at GCW’s ‘Zombie Walk’ event, Cardona made his move.
After being called out by Gage to step up to him, Cardona posed as Moxley while under a mask, and began to assault Gage in the ring, before unmasking to the dismay of the GCW faithful.
The heat was instant, reminiscent of some of wrestling’s greatest ever angles. Cardona was unrecognisable as the arrogant heel with a chip on his shoulder, somehow feeling so incredibly out of place within the extreme nature of GCW, while simultaneously feeling exactly like it was where he belonged.
The incident blew up online, with fans and critics alike praising the angle for how it manipulated GCW’s rabid fanbase into such a nuclear reaction, not seen in wrestling for a long time. We’re talking before the pandemic, these responses of pure crowd vitriol were usually saved for anti-WWE moments, such as The Fiend vs Seth Rollins at Hell In A Cell 2019.
This was, decidedly, the opposite. A crowd purely riled up through the tremendous manipulation of Cardona and Gage, to create the hottest storyline in independent wrestling.
Despite the angle’s obvious success however, capitalising on Gage’s newfound attention and a well-built Twitter feud wasn’t going to be enough. The jury was still out on whether the heat would translate into a match between the pair.
This was a fair question. Cage’s penchant for violence was seen as far outwith the capabilities of Cardona, an opinion furthered by his apparent fear of the cuts he received during the initial brawl.
This sentiment only fuelled the desire for the match to take place however, and on Saturday July 24th at GCW Homecoming 2021, the bout was set. With the match now scheduled, the question became whether the match could live up the lofty expectations set by the angle and build that preceded it?
The atmosphere on the night was red hot. Wrestling crowds are arguably at their best when they feel like they have a cause to fight for, and the cause on this night was the death of Matt Cardona. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the reaction of John Cena at ECW One Night Stand 2006, or Money In The Bank 2011, a man known for his association with WWE stepping into uncharted, hostile territory against a beloved cult figure.
Cena went up against Rob Van Dam and CM Punk, and Matt Cardona went up against Nick Gage.
The match itself may won’t have been everyone’s cup of tea, but way the bout was worked has to be commended. Instead of giving the bloodthirsty GCW fans everything they wanted from the off, Cardona controlled much of the bout.
This left the crowd in suspense, waiting for that one moment Gage would get his hands and ,more importantly, his weapons on Cardona.
That moment eventually came, with both men suffering through light tube shots, glass windows, and Gage’s signature pizza cutter. Both bled buckets, particularly Cardona who looked even more unrecognisable covered in claret.
Gage fed wonderfully off the crowd and embraced his loyal following, while Cardona fed into the perception of being a chickens*** WWE heel masterfully, making the crowd want him to be punished that much more.
The match became slightly more convoluted as it wore on, with a musical distraction of Chris Jericho’s theme followed by interference from other GCW wrestlers, but once the finish occurred, it was all worth it.
While John Cena fell at the feet of the cult heroes in New York and Chicago, Cardona stood tall in Cage’s playground.
Every great wrestling story needs that one thing to push it over the edge to make it great.
Hogan joining the NWO. Daniel Bryan’s exclusion from the 2014 Royal Rumble. Stone Cold meeting Vince McMahon. And while obviously not on the scale of those, Matt Cardona beating Nick Gage and winning the GCW Championship was exactly what this story needed.
Nobody expected a bloodied and beaten Cardona to come to enemy grounds, and defeat their hero for his championship in the middle of the ring, and that’s exactly what happened.
While your opinion may vary on the fan behaviour in the aftermath, there’s no denying the images of Cardona struggling to hold up the belt because of the amount of rubbish fans we’re launching at him into the ring was fascinating to watch.
This type of fan intensity has not only been lost during the pandemic, but with kayfabe now buried well beneath the ground, it’s extremely rare that this type of resentment comes from anything other than a company messing up. The fact this all went exactly as planned is miracle work, to say the least.
The story and match had been built and paced magnificently, with Gage and Cardona playing their roles to sheer perfection, and the latter’s victory means this story is far from over.
The internet blew up again after this match. From angry GCW fans to meme lords to stunned casuals, everyone had a say on this match and the aftermath.
This storyline has been firing on all cylinders and has accomplished everything it wanted to so far. Matt Cardona is reborn as the anti-hardcore heel. Nick Gage’s stock only continues to rise, and with it the legitimacy of GCW and deathmatch wrestling as a whole.
While maybe not a wrestling a storyline you may have heard of, Matt Cardona vs Nick Gage is 100% a story to your eyes on in the future, as the return of wrestling fans and the work of the independents has allowed greatness in the industry to come from even the most unlikely of sources.
Keep an eye out, otherwise Cage will gouge it with a pizza cutter.