On Saturday night, former UFC fighter Matt Riddle, just three and a half years into his pro wrestling career, officially made his first appearance with WWE, appearing in the front row during the NXT TakeOver live special from Barclays Center in Brooklyn. While WWE has long had an unofficial policy of telling new recruits not to announce their signing in advance, this one became incredibly obvious after Riddle canceled on not just an Irish booking the day of TakeOver, but also the upcoming Pro Wrestling Guerrilla Battle of Los Angeles tournament, which is one of the biggest indie wrestling weekends of the year. If you were going to cancel those bookings without a public explanation, there was only one reason that made sense.
Besides, Riddle always seemed destined for WWE, anyway: Coming off an NXT tryout camp as a rookie he was recommended to Evolve (now a WWE affiliate) booker Gabe Sapolsky to get some seasoning outside their system. With just a dozen matches under his belt in eight months, all at school shows put on by his trainers at The Monster Factory, it was definitely an interesting experiment in a promotion that prided itself on its in-ring quality. But between Evolve at the time focusing heavily on mat-based chain wrestling and Riddle being a complete natural in the ring, it worked. In the next year and a half, as he quickly progressed to being an almost disturbingly complete performer, he became one of the biggest stars on the indies, if not the biggest. He went everywhere, and in the process, he had a wide array of great matches with a large variety of opponents, from regional standouts to international stars.
“From the minute he walked in the Monster Factory he had a smile on his face because he genuinely loves pro wrestling,” Monster Factory owner/trainer Danny Cage told Deadspin. “He was destined for greatness. It was just a matter of time. He is a part of our DNA now and vice versa.”
Asked how soon he realized Riddle was picking up wrestling abnormally quickly, Cage replied that that it was “a couple weeks in,” adding that “Sean Waltman contacted me about coming by to watch some training. Then the ball got rolling on getting him in for a tryout. A couple months in Sean called me and asked if he was ready. I told him he was. The rest is history.”
There were just two things that could get in the way of Riddle going to WWE: Whether he wanted to give up what he told Vice Sports in February is a “six-figure income” for the uncertainty and rougher schedule of a WWE developmental deal, and what WWE thought of his very open marijuana usage and advocacy. It was failing two tests in three fights that got him cut from the UFC in the midst of what would have been a four-fight win streak without the failed drug tests overturning half of those victories. (Though it probably didn’t help that Riddle’s defense of his pot smoking before his final UFC fight was inelegant at best.) In WWE, marijuana positives come with a $2,500 fine per infraction and no suspension, with the mood of the time determining any unofficial punishment beyond that. As for Riddle’s income, it’s probably not an exaggeration (or at least not much of one) that he was making six figures in a year: He was as in demand as anyone on the indie scene and thus able to pick his spots, plus he always did gangbusters selling merchandise at his table, especially after the show. Combine that with being home with his kids most of the week—something he stressed as important in a new documentary short that Evolve released on Saturday night—and it feels like a hard lifestyle to give up.
So, what happened? Per Riddle’s wife Lisa, in a video that she posted to Youtube before quickly deleting it, New Japan Pro Wrestling made an overture towards bringing him in last month and he let Sapolsky know, leading to a call from WWE’s Paul “Triple H” Levesque minutes later. The NJPW contact was especially significant because Riddle had reportedly been slated for last December’s tag team tournament, only to be pulled because of NJPW’s parent company having concerns over his pot advocacy. NJPW was about a year removed from Matt Sydal being arrested at customs for possession and subsequently deported, so it was understandable, but it made the change of heart even more momentous. Regardless, Riddle hammered out a deal, and he’s reporting to the WWE Performance Center outside Orlando in a couple weeks. It was time, too: Riddle wasn’t necessarily getting stale on the indie scene, but but he had done just about everything he could do, in part because he was willing to go everywhere. Fresh matchups were lacking, and he seemed to have consciously taken less high profile bookings after this year’s WrestleMania weekend, where he wrestled a whopping 11 matches in approximately a 54-hour period from Thursday afternoon through Saturday night.
Riddle’s appeal is, in large part, just how darn genuine he clearly is. The guy in the ring, the “King of Bros,” is not a gimmick. He’s the real Matt Riddle, and not even amplified the way many wrestlers are exaggerated versions of themselves. Daniel Bryan became a huge star in WWE in large part because it jumped off the screen that he was genuinely one of the nicest and most honest people on their television shows. Riddle, while having a very different persona, has been the same way on the indies, with countless fans telling stories this past week of the long lines at his merchandise table and how he’d have equally long conversations with fans long after shows ended, even if they weren’t buying anything. Hell, this past Friday, at his last indie show before starting with WWE, his table was so crowded for so long that Melrose Ballroom employees looked visibly frustrated with the delay in getting everyone out of the building.
The “King of Bros” nickname might sound like a pejorative—think of all the worst bro stereotypes. Riddle, while “bro” is undoubtedly an accurate description—and not just because he addresses everyone as, you guessed it, “bro”—is absolutely not that. Riddle is an upbeat, perpetually positive, inclusive, laid back bro, someone you want to see succeed because of not just his talent, but also his overall demeanor and how he treats fans. “To see him finally going where he not only wanted to be but needed to be is very satisfying,” explained Cage. “We are very proud of him. I could not be happier for him. Now the world will get to see what we all knew for years. The bro is something that doesn’t come around too often. Now go kill it!”
Riddle leaves something of a void atop the indie scene, an incredibly versatile top star who could give a boost to any promotion and connection with fans of all sorts all over the world. In Evolve, especially, where he had become their signature star, and which was also hit hard by the losses of Keith Lee (also to NXT) and Zack Sabre Jr. (to a full-time NJPW contract) in the last few months. Unlike any time before, though, the indie scene is so deep that it’ll be more than fine—and Evolve’s WWE connection will undoubtedly help them in recruiting new talent. There’s no need to worry about the indies replenishing. Hell, for an example, just look at the card Riddle headlined in his final indie match, at Joey Janela’s Lost in New York against resurgent 50-year-old Pierre Carl Ouellet (or “PCO”).
The second match saw the wrestler KTB issuing an open challenge that was answered by an incredibly young-looking “fan” in the front row who looks like he’s barely five feet tall. Asked his name (Marko) and how old he was, he told KTB that he was “old enough to fuck your mom,” and then they were off to the races, with the diminutive relative unknown wowing the crowd and live internet pay-per-view audience with an incredible array of high flying moves before barely losing. Marko, who’s actually 22 year old Marko Stunt from Mississippi, was mostly unknown outside of those who watch Southern Underground Pro out of Nashville, though he gained fans during the Scenic City Invitation weekend in Chattanooga earlier in the month. He had already picked up some steam from those shows, but his performance in New York earned him not just a standing ovation, but also a huge slate of new bookings, including a spot in the battle royal on the “All In” spectacular in suburban Chicago on Labor Day Weekend. Not only is he now on the biggest indie show ever, in front of 10,000 fans, but his match will air live on regular basic cable TV on the event’s WGN America pre-show.
So while the King of Bros sails to new heights in WWE, he leaves the indies a better place than when he arrived, in a boom that, with new levels of visibility, can make careers overnight.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.