The tag of somebody being an “ex-WWE” wrestler is not exactly a rare one. In the United States, in the 21st Century, WWE was practically the only major wrestling company until the advent of All Elite Wrestling in 2019. As a result, there are quite a few former employees of Vince McMahon running around the wrestling scene. Some of them have became bigger stars after leaving Stamford. Others did… not.
The case of Matt Cardona since leaving WWE has been a fascinating one, and in the process, has been an object lesson in how to draw heat that maybe, perhaps, has become a bit of a lost art in modern pro wrestling.
The former Zack Ryder, perhaps more known for his innovative use of YouTube as a promotional tool, and his fandom for collecting action figures than his in-ring work, was released from WWE on 4/15/2020, following a 15-year career there. Cardona briefly worked for AEW from 7/29/2020 – 9/5/2020, in a small role as “Friend To Cody Rhodes” that culminated in an 8-man tag match at the ALL OUT 2020 pay-per-view event.
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He then made his way to Impact Wrestling, primarily feuding with his former WWE partner Brian Myers (aka Curt Hawkins). So far, nothing that would set the wrestling world on fire in his post-WWE days, a stint marked by a distinct lack of the insults and criticism of his former employer that has marked the departure of so many who got cut from World Wrestling Entertainment.
All this changed when Cardona decided to pick a fight with someone that most people would not want to pick a fight with: deathmatch icon Nick Gage, and the company for which Gage was World Champion at the time, Game Changer Wrestling.
Nick F’n Gage
The legend of Nick Gage has grown over the last few years, due not only to his infamous death and revival during a Combat Zone Wrestling event in 2009, but also his connection with fans both live and on social media following his release from prison in 2016 following his 2015 arrest for violating parole stemming from a 2010 bank robbery. Earlier this year, Gage was the subject of an episode of VICE TV’s Dark Side Of The Ring that boosted his profile. A match versus Chris Jericho in the main event of the Fight For The Fallen 2021 episode of AEW Dynamite on 7/28/2021 didn’t hurt his growing fandom either. He is by far the most beloved member of the GCW roster, and as the World Champion at the time, the easiest target for an interloper ex-WWE guy to start a feud with on a “mere indie” like GCW.
The feud began as most do in this day and age: on Twitter, with Cardona calling out Gage and GCW, for several weeks over social media. The feud became live at GCW’s Zombie Walk event in Atlantic City on 6/6/2021, after a no-contest GCW World title defense between Gage v. Jimmy Lloyd. A hooded figure attacked Gage with a double-arm DDT, the signature move of AEW superstar Jon Moxley (himself a former WWE talent), who’d already challenged Gage for the GCW title earlier in the year. When the hood came off, it was revealed to be Cardona, who then challenged Gage for his title at GCW’s Homecoming Part 1 the next month.
— GameChangerWrestling (@GCWrestling_) June 6, 2021
Not long after that, Gage responded to Cardona by interrupting a live taping of Cardona’s Major Pod Network show, leading to a (very worked) brawl, which was convincing enough for a nearby police officer to question both men, unaware that this was a performance.
After weeks of more callouts and feuding over social media, GCW Homecoming Part 1 rolled around, at the Showboat in Atlantic City on 7/24/2021. A white-clad Cardona appeared, wearing purple latex gloves around his hands, a display case of action figures at ringside. Security led Cardona to the ring, in stark contrast to Gage, who let the crowd mob him during his entrance, Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” ringing out in the arena.
The crowd absolutely despised Cardona from the second he appeared, booing and throwing up middle fingers in unison. This continued through the match, with Cardona trying to wrestle a WWE match as Gage wanted a deathmatch. For the first half of it, Cardona deftly avoided any damage to himself, even gingerly hitting Gage with a fluorescent lighttube before recoiling in horror. As the match went on, Cardona did take Gage’s offense of lighttubes, pane glass and Gage’s signature pizza cutter to the forehead, Cardona’s white garb getting more pink and red as the match wore on. Cardona was even crying in anguish at one point in the match, learning the lesson of “Fucking around and finding out.” However, interference from Rickey Shane Page and his villainous 44OH! stable helped Cardona, and after two lighttube bundles across Gage’s back with a Radio Silence finisher, Matt Cardona was the 21st GCW World Heavyweight Champion.
Instantly, the crowd threw trash, debris, bottles and cans, full and empty, towards Cardona. As if Cardona was Hulk Hogan just forming the New World Order with Scott Hall & Kevin Nash at Bash At The Beach 1996, he relished it by flipping off the crowd and getting the hell out of Dodge. It was the most heat any wrestler had gotten in … quite some time. In an era of corporate pro wrestling ownership, such reactions are not as common as they were in wrestling’s past.
(Though let’s be real: nobody should throw debris at wrestlers, if for no other reason than either the wrestlers or another spectator could get hurt in the process.)
Cardona hit upon such a simple formula to get over as a heel – be the opposite of the values the fans uphold and flaunt it. This was a formula that worked numerous times during the 90s in Extreme Championship Wrestling, where the WWF and WCW were seen as the Great Satans of pro wrestling. GCW is pretty old school in this regard: the faces (Nick Gage, Alex Colon, the Second Gear Crew) are cheered, the heels (Cardona, 44OH!) are booed. In an age where the Cool Heel Who Wants To Get Crowd Pops is still somewhat normal, it’s a refreshing throwback.
The weeks that followed had plenty of eyes on GCW, and handwringing about what had happened in Atlantic City on the internet. Cardona for his part defended the GCW title twice – against Sam Stackhouse, a regional indie wrestler, at Off The Rails in Las Vegas on 8/20/2021, and at The Art Of War Games in Hoffman Estates, IL, on 9/4/2021.
It was at this latter show the heat went nuclear. Following a violent War Games match between Nick Gage’s Team MDK and 44OH!, Cardona entered the arena wearing an ensemble resembling Randy Savage in his Macho King phase, both outfit and molded plastic crown saying DEATHMATCH KING, along with a custom “GCW Universal” title belt, complete with a spinner plate on the belt face a la John Cena’s. Cardona then squashed his chosen opponent, WWE megafan and nuisance indie manager Frank The Clown (also wearing gear taunting GCW and Nick Gage), in 11 seconds, to retain the title. Afterwards, Cardona was set upon by G-Raver and his hooded entourage. Cardona dealt with most of the hooded ones, but the last one was revealed to be the man Cardona pretended to be in June, Jon Moxley, who used the same double-arm DDT Cardona appropriated previously, through lighttubes to pin Cardona and take the GCW title.
Since then, at GCW Get Lost ALot on 9/24/2021 in NYC, Cardona tried to weasel his way into the Jon Moxley v. Nick Gage title match on 10/9/2021, but instead was forced to defend his own Internet Title (a gimmick that’s been part of his vlogging since forever) against Effy, which Cardona lost in 30 seconds. At the 10/9/2021 show in Atlantic City, Cardona regained the title from Effy in a match with his GCW career on the line, following help from his fiancée, Impact Wrestling’s Chelsea Green. Cardona & Green’s feud has now moved on to Effy & his partner Allie Katch, although he also recently lost to Alex Shelley at GCW’s recent outing in Detroit, on 11/12/2021.
A Traveling Act
Cardona is taking his act on the road as well. At the joint promoted Reverse The Curse show between Beyond Wrestling & Women’s Wrestling Revolution on 11/7/2021, Cardona wrestled a 20-minute match against Ted Goodz, screaming “I DID IT FOR YOU VINCE!” in victory. At the end of the show, Cardona (with “Smart” Mark Sterling and VSK) attacked Rickey Shane Page after the latter called out Cardona for acting a fool in GCW. No word yet on whether Cardona will be antagonizing Beyond quite the same way he has in GCW, but it seems like a good bet he will.
Matt Cardona won’t be a fixture of GCW forever, and he isn’t the sort of heel that a promotion can build its business and storylines around for years to come. Indeed, at GCW’s last show on 12/17/2021, he and Greene “quit” the company. (For my money, in GCW, that honor would fall to 24-year-old Atticus Cogar, 44OH! member and near-winner of not one but two of GCW’s deathmatch tournaments this year.) He is, however, part of the advertisements for GCW’s upcoming event on 1/23/2022 at the Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC, a show that sold out within minutes of tickets going on-sale. It’s the largest crowd ever for a wrestling show in that space, which has held WWE, ECW, New Japan and Ring of Honor events in the past. Despite the kayfabe quitting, Cardona is promising a “WrestleMania entrance” at this event. So it’s clear that there is still very much a working relationship between Cardona and GCW, and that Cardona’s work has been integral to its recent run of attention and success.
Cardona’s biggest value is the re-education he provided to wrestling fans of the simple lessons in getting over as a hated heel in a company. Be what the fans are not or don’t like, go after the most beloved guy in the company, and crank it up to 11. Being an effective heel has become something of a lost art, although there are others who do it very well (New Japan’s Jay White comes immediately to mind). In the end, Cardona is giving us an object lesson in generating and maintaining the ever-elusive heat, and we would all do well to pay attention for the future of the business.