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The Return of Alex Shelley

The Return of Alex Shelley

TO SAY THAT Alex Shelley has been everywhere and done almost everything in wrestling is an understatement. The Detroit, Michigan, native has plied his trade in Ring of Honor, IMPACT Wrestling, and New Japan to much success—and even cropped up in NXT for a brief time in early-2020. Away from the ring, he has worked just as hard in pursuit of academia and his day job. Now, after some time away, Shelley is on the cusp of a return to the ring as part of Major League Wrestling. PWI recently caught up with him to find out just what it is that keeps the former Motor City Machine Gun coming back for more.

PWI: A lot of fans are excited to hear that you are returning to wrestling again. Why is MLW the right place for that to happen?

Shelley: It’s the right place, right time. They contacted me about a year and a half ago, and it didn’t really work with my schedule because of my career outside of wrestling. But now, it does. On top of that, for me personally, I want to be creatively inspired. I want to be challenged. And I want to be excited about the wrestling I am going to produce. And when I saw the MLW roster, that appealed to me, as well.

PWI: MLW has announced that you will face TJP at the Fightland event on October 2 as part of the Opera Cup tournament. TJ is someone you are quite familiar with. What can fans expect from that match?

Shelley: I’ve known TJ since 2004. We both competed in the Jeff Peterson Cup in Florida when TJ was (wrestling as) Puma at the time. He was a guy who I had actually watched before I met him. I had watched CMLL and PWG, and he had been in both places. I thought he was very good. Then, I found out he was close to my age, too, When we first met at that Peterson Cup in Florida, Chris Hero and I had been sparring in the ring that day for close to an hour before the show started, just training. When we were done and got out of the ring, TJ came up to me and said “Where did you learn to do all that?”

A group photo of the 2005 Super 8 participants. On the right, Alex Shelley poses behind a crouching Puma (TJP), whom he’d first met the year prior. (Photo by Joe Zanolle)

Now, keep in mind, this was a peer of mine. He had more experience and better training than me—albeit different training. But that’s really where our bond was formed: over a love of wrestling, and technical wrestling in particular. And, if that doesn’t give you an idea of how this match will be, then I don’t know what will.

PWI: You touched on it earlier, but you do have a career outside of wrestling as a physical therapist. That obviously comes with its own responsibilities and was a key reason why you had to step away from IMPACT Wrestling earlier this year. A lot of wrestlers don’t plan for careers away from the ring. Is it something that’s been difficult for you to balance?

Shelley: I think it was different for me and for where I fell generationally. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, even though I’m still only in my late-30s. I remember very, very clearly around 2008, in TNA, due to the way the company was structured and how they operated at the time, I remember thinking that I don’t want to do this here forever. I don’t enjoy it. I love wrestling, love it so much, and I’ve given so much to it. But that environment just wasn’t good for younger wrestlers. That’s when I started making a contingency plan, and the obvious answer was to get an education. So, I got my first Bachelor’s degree in 2012. Then, I went to Japan for a little while, and Japan was an amazing experience.

But I fell in love with learning then. And, even though my first degree was in business, I got to thinking about physio. Everyone gets injuries, whether you’re a wrestler or not, right? New Japan had two trainers who went on the road with us, and I was around them for years. They helped the wrestlers get into the ring. Like, if you saw what goes on behind the scenes, with the amount of work that these guys put into the wrestlers, and what the wrestlers are then able to do after treatment, it’s very inspiring. And, at that point, I got very inspired to go in that direction.

Alex Shelley and Kushida teamed up in New Japan to form the two-time junior heavyweight tag champions, Time Splitters. While in New Japan, Shelley was inspired to pursue physical therapy as a vocation away from the ring. (Photo ©2013 New Japan Pro-Wrestling, LTD.)

And I thought, Well I guess it’s time to get another four-year degree (laughs). So, I went back to school after my New Japan contract was up in 2015, and that was all she wrote. But I was splitting my time between wrestling and school, and it was so exhausting. I was in Ring of Honor at the time. I gave them all I had, but wrestling requires a certain amount of mental study outside of the ring. I wasn’t able to do that as much as I would’ve liked. Because I couldn’t. I had to learn all sorts of stuff about joints and anatomy and systemic illnesses and oh, my gosh! That was easily the most stressful period of my life. But I got through it, and now I’ve got a degree in Physical Therapy. Now, I’m able to work in physio 40 hours per week and wrestle, too. And I’m not saying it’s easy—because it’s not—but it’s a grind that I love because I love both fields.

PWI: You have been everywhere and done everything in wrestling. And you have a Monday-to-Friday job away from the ring. So, what keeps you wrestling? Is it that desire to be creatively inspired, like you talked about earlier?

Shelley: Yes it is. It’s very much a love of creativity. But also, wrestling is supposed to be fun. Wrestling is a sport, and what do you do with sports? You play sports! And I was that kid that grew up playing sports. I loved it because I loved helping people, and I loved pushing myself, and loved just being in the moment and feeling that stress—not the bad stress, but the good stress, which is what you feel when you’re in the ring. You almost go into autopilot … And I think that’s the most fun. And to be paid to do that is such an honor, such a privilege. And to be able to use your body and to help other people, I mean, to anyone who has ever spent one minute watching me, thank you so much!

Alex Shelley attempts a submission on Mark Haskins at Ring of Honor’s Free Enterprise PPV in February 2020. Though Shelley is well known for his high-flying abilities, he’s also a sound technical wrestler. (Photo by Ring of Honor/Zia Hiltey)

PWI: Away from wrestling and physical therapy, you’re a big music guy. You sing and play guitar, and are a big punk rock fan. What kind of stuff is Alex Shelley listening to these days?

Shelley: For the most part, I revolve around the same things. Like, the bands that I like are going to be making music until the day they die because that’s just what they do. But, lately, there’s been this whole West Coast indie punk rock scene that’s popped up in the last ten years, and there’s this band called Wavves … f’n awesome man! It’s basically one guy. But he put out a new album not that long ago, and I love it because I can learn to play it, too, you know? It’s all basic chord parts, but so well structured. When I look at Wavves or Together Pangea or Fidlar or Guided by Voices or Electric Six … bands that I’m a huge fan of, they don’t tend to veer too far off [the same chords], just the strumming pattern is different. But they make the most out of the least, and it’s just so cool.

PWI: It’s quite clear that being creative is a big thing for you. With wrestling, your education, music … it’s a fire that burns pretty bright within you. You’re obviously going to bring that with you to Major League Wrestling. What can fans expect from you in MLW?

Shelley: I don’t want to say anything finite because it’s going to change from opponent to opponent. I’m going to wrestle TJP differently than I’m going to wrestle Calvin Tankman or Matt Cross. But I can promise you this much: Whatever I’m doing, or whoever I’m in there with, I’m going to work my ass off!

(MLW Fightland takes place this Saturday, October 2 from the 2300 Arena in Philadelphia, PA)

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ALTERNATE “500” COVER: Lulu Pencil

PWI December 2021 Alt Cover - Lulu Pencil

ALTERNATE PWI “500” COVER: Lulu Pencil

Alternate Cover: December 2021 PWI

While our December 2021 PWI “500” issue is already printed, we were recently given an interesting suggestion by indie powerhouse Parrow:

Parrow suggested that the 500th best wrestler in Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s celebrated annual ranking be given their very own cover variant. And, honestly? This sounded like a terrific and fun idea—especially because this year’s #500 is joshi cult favorite (and fellow journalist) Lulu Pencil.

After we suggested this might work, the “Pencil Army” was out in full force, calling for us to make Parrow’s wild idea a reality. And, with the help of Gatoh Move (and Baliyan Akki in particular), we did.

Our thanks to Akki, Gatoh Move, and the many ChocoPro fans who wanted this. Who knows? Maybe it’ll become an annual tradition. Click the enlarged image below to download a full PDF version, suitable for printing and attaching to your print copy of the December 2021 issue.

PWI December 2021 Alt Cover - Lulu Pencil


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WHAT’S N(E)XT For WWE’s Beleaguered Third Brand?

Finn Balor vs. Kevin Owens in 2015
Finn Balor vs. Kevin Owens in 2015
Finn Balor connects with a Pele kick on Kevin Owens at an NXT house show in 2015. Indie veterans such as these two men are no longer the priority for the black-and-yellow brand, per recent reports. (PHOTO BY STU SAKS)


WHEN VINCE McMAHON paid a visit to the Capitol Wrestling Center earlier this summer, there were those who met the news with curious contemplation … and others who met it with downright dread. Many believed that the Chairman’s presence in Orlando on a “scouting mission” meant that change was afoot for the yellow-and-black brand. And, in the coming weeks, that proved to be decidedly so. A rash of NXT talent was released not long after this, accompanied by rumors that McMahon and his inner circle (that includes John Laurinaitis, Bruce Prichard, and WWE President Nick Khan) had decided that it was time for NXT to change the way it was doing business.

In recent years, WWE’s third brand had become the place where hardcore fans could go to get their fix of a more streamlined WWE product—one that featured great action, fresh characters, and simple storytelling. So confident were WWE brass in the NXT product’s appeal that they decided to move the weekly NXT show from the WWE Network to the USA Network and go head to head with the debuting AEW Dynamite. The theory behind this was that the mix of the WWE name and the style of product that NXT offered would be enough to steer hardcore and casual fans away from AEW programming. This theory proved disastrously wrong.

Enough has already been written in PWI and elsewhere about the Wednesday night ratings war that it doesn’t need to be repeated here. But, simply put, WWE lost. It turned out that given the choice between an alternative WWE product or a totally alternative product from someone else, wrestling fans went with the new company. As a result, WWE quietly moved NXT to Tuesday nights and surrendered Wednesdays to the All Elite upstarts.

In the aftermath of this, WWE downplayed any real significance of the move—or, indeed, the ratings loss—but, for a man who gets angry when a sneeze gets the better of him, you can be sure that Vince McMahon did not take kindly to the defeat.

As the creative driving force behind NXT, Triple H had built the brand on delivering a product that paid homage to the past, but also very much looked towards the future. It could be said that without his direction, many of the top independent and international names who found their way to Orlando would not have had the chance to do so otherwise. As the summer of 2021 rolled around, however, the word coming out of Stamford was that those same indie and foreign talents who Triple H signed (and the creative direction that pushed them), would be forced to take the blame for NXT’s poor performance on Wednesday nights.

Fast forward to SummerSlam weekend and an interview conducted by Ariel Helwani for BT Sport. In the interview, Nick Khan confirmed that changes would indeed be coming to NXT, and would begin to appear within a matter of weeks. These changes, Khan explained, would pretty much amount to a full reboot of the brand, alongside a change in the types of wrestlers that NXT has typically been hiring. Out with the more traditional “Indie guys” and in with younger and taller talent who can be molded into the WWE archetype.

Two decades ago, WWE’s developmental system turned out two world-class wrestlers, practically from scratch, in Batista and Randy Orton. Going forward, the company wants to focus more on turning bigger, taller, and fitter individuals into superstars. (PHOTO BY GARY DINEEN)

So, what does all of this mean for NXT as we know it? In all truth, probably a massive shift. Much of NXT’s appeal has always been that it was different than its older siblings, Raw and Smackdown. To stray too far from this could prove to be a fatal decision.

Or it could be an inspired one that will freshen up a product that had grown a little stale. Takeover 36, held the night after SummerSlam, felt like a swan song for the brand in some ways. But only time will tell if it leads to bigger and better things. One thing you can be sure of, though: With roots now firmly planted in McMahon-land, change is coming. And we all wait to see what’s N(e)XT.

For more on the potential changes coming to NXT, check out the latest episode of The PWI Podcast with Al Castle and Brian R. Solomon.

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What’s The Deal With The Weekly Ratings?

What’s The Deal With The Weekly Ratings? — PWI’s Weekly and Monthly Top 10 Lists Explained

FOR ABOUT AS long as we’ve been compiling weekly and monthly wrestling ratings—online and in our magazines—we’ve been asked about the criteria used for determining them. How do we narrow each roster down to a top 10? And, for that matter, how do we choose who ranks in the overall categories?

As with our annual rankings, such as the PWI “500,” the individual rankings are primarily based on what goes on between bells and between the ropes. Per our official ratings page:

Criteria for ranking includes championships held/defended, win-loss record, push, and technical ability.

Some of those criteria are clearer than others. Championships held and defended, as well as wins and losses, are objective metrics. Push is a little more squishy and subjective, as what constitutes a push (or momentum, influence, etc.) will vary from promotion to promotion. Technical ability is another pretty tenuous way to evaluate a wrestler, even if there’s a general consensus about what solid move execution might look like. And, as we know, this is not always the case.

Evaluation becomes even trickier when comparing wrestlers from across promotions, as we do with our top three categories (Heavyweight, Women’s, and Tag Team rankings). That’s a big part of why we have a weekly and monthly ratings committee, along with a team tasked with putting together our triad of annual rankings.

When people ask how we compile the PWI “500,” I like to tell them that we’re using objective metrics, but evaluating those metrics as subjective human beings. Yes, we’ll look closely at win/loss records and lengths of championship reigns. But we’re not running some formulas through a computer programmed to spit out the list. Instead, we try to take into account the meaning behind the numbers—what they represented within a promotion and the industry at large. Randy Orton may have a poorer win-loss record than his AEW equivalent, but he may have main-evented more shows, faced tougher competition, and put on better matches.

PAWD Wrestling champion Trish Adora applies an armbar on Tony Deppen during their February 14 Iron Match. (PHOTO BY JAYLEE PHOTOGRAPHY)

Historically, we placed a great deal of weight on WWE’s place at the mountaintop. And, to some degree, we still do. The company is the industry leader throughout the world, and it will likely continue to be for quite some time. But, as a publication that has always viewed wrestling as a sport, we’ve also noted some changes in how it’s being presented. We’ve even expanded our definition of what constitutes a world championship.

The COVID-19 pandemic has leveled the playing field somewhat in that regard, making it so that WWE talent didn’t automatically wrestle dozens more matches (especially televised ones) than any other American talent. Additionally, streaming services like IWTV and WRESTLE UNIVERSE have greatly expanded the influence of independent and international pro wrestling. These changes are all reflected in our ratings.

All of these things are taken into consideration with our weekly and monthly ratings. After all, the “500,” “Women’s 100,” and “Tag Team 50” are, essentially, annual extensions of those regularly updated top 10 lists.

One fairly recent change to our rankings is the blurring and blending of gender lines. Previously, women would only appear on the overall Women’s Top 10 list. In more recent years, women have crossed those imaginary lines and thrived. Some have won heavyweight titles traditionally associated with men. Meanwhile, women’s tag team wrestling has become far more prominent, between WWE’s introduction of multiple tag championships, the revival of the Knockouts tag team belts, and the efforts of promotions like Japan’s World Wonder Ring Stardom.

As those wrestlers have thrived, PWI has tried to recognize their efforts. The “500” is once again open to women who compete in intergender matches, and our tag team rankings are no longer segregated by gender. Since opportunities for women are still fewer, we’ve opted to continue with our overall Women’s rankings, with the caveat that they focus more on women’s divisions and promotions than on any intergender competition.

Syuri & Giulia, collectively known as ALK, are, at the time of this writing, the reigning Goddess of Stardom (tag team) champs. They’ve stood out recently as one of the world’s premier tag teams, regardless of gender. (PHOTO ©STARDOM)

Is this a perfect system? Surely not. And it’ll likely continue to evolve as the old ways do. In the unlikely event that promotions like WWE, AEW, New Japan, and Lucha Libre AAA get rid of gender distinctions, we would almost certainly follow suit. Until then, we’re doing our best to reflect the current state of the industry.

To that end, we’ve continued to grow our weekly and monthly ratings by adding new categories. For example, we list the top 10 contenders to the IWTV Independent Wrestling World title and have recently added an official countrywide ranking for Australia. If you have any suggestions for our ratings page, feel free to drop me a line at

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“Punk Appears Or We Riot” (Metaphorically)

CM Punk, Starrcast 2019

“Punk Appears Or We Riot” (Metaphorically)

LOOK … CLICKBAIT HEADLINES aside, I’m not suggesting that fans will actually riot at a wrestling show in the year 2021. But the hype surrounding this Friday’s edition of Rampage—the follow-up to last week’s celebrated series premiere—has officially reached a boil. And, much as I don’t expect actual, physical unrest at the venue, All Elite Wrestling had better deliver what fans expect, or the company is going to have one upset fanbase on its hands.

Let’s take a look at the facts, shall we? The show is in CM Punk’s hometown of Chicago. The United Center holds 23,500. That’s an awfully big venue for a one-hour show in which nothing of note happens. And the fact that so much hype surrounded the announcement of the live event is another tip in the direction that the rumors are, in fact, true.

If Punk shows up on Rampage, this will be his first official wrestling appearance since his 2014 WWE departure. Even at his most popular, the former world champion was not everyone’s cup of tea. But, for the thousands of fans who still chant his name at WWE live events, his returning to the ring would be a very big deal.

CM Punk, Starrcast 2019
CM Punk fields questions at Starrcast 2019. (PHOTO BY GEORGE NAPOLITANO)

Of course, AEW hasn’t merely let fans quietly speculate about Punk’s rumored return. Instead, the company has doused gasoline all over the proverbial fire. The most obvious example has to be Darby Allin’s on-air willingness to fight “The Best In The World.” But there have been other hints.

It’s safe to say that more than a few fans purchased tickets for Rampage who may not otherwise have done so. Add to that the countless wrestling enthusiasts planning to stay in this Friday night to catch the second episode of AEW’s second cable series live, as it airs. Suffice to say, those folks wouldn’t take kindly to all this hype being for naught. The goodwill that has been earned through a particularly strong stretch of programming—one that saw Dynamite averaging more than one million viewers per week—could easily be squandered.

CM Punk reluctantly shakes the hand of “American Dragon” Bryan Danielson after their singles match at ROH Reborn: Stage One. (PHOTO BY WAYNE McCARTY)

In other words, if Punk doesn’t show up this Friday night, the company had better have something else in store, whether that’s a major title change, a huge storyline development, or another game-changing debut (Daniel Bryan, anyone?). While it’s perfectly fine to tease debuts or dream matches, this is a critical point for AEW. As the company continues to grow, reputation is important. And the last thing fans want to see is a bait-and-switch of this size.

Of course, this is all speculation at the moment. But one thing is for sure: Between Kenny Omega, Christian Cage, and Adam Page, things are already pretty crowded near the top of the card. The addition of CM Punk would make the main-event scene on Dynamite that much more competitive.

And, honestly? That might be a good thing.

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From The Desk Of … (April ’21)

From The Desk Of … (April ’21)

By the time you read this, 2020 will officially be in the rearview mirror. This was a difficult year for wrestling. Government-mandated shutdowns led promotions around the world to shutter their doors … some never to reopen. Economic concerns forced reliable venues to close, as well as some journeyman independent grapplers to hang up their boots for good. With independent wrestling events shut down worldwide, the #SpeakingOut movement offered survivors of abuse and assault a receptive audience to share their stories. While the movement was inspiring, the alleged conditions that led to it were, of course, anything but.

WWE and AEW continued to operate, running shows throughout the pandemic. Each company was impacted at various points by COVID—not only because of lost revenue, but by talent and crew who either contracted the virus or had to quarantine after being exposed to it. Fans and pundits alike continue to debate whether running shows in 2020 was actually a good idea, but you know what they say about hindsight.

Personally, 2020 was a year of tremendous highs and lows. If you’re a regular reader, you likely know that I was tapped by Stu Saks to take over the role of Editor-in-Chief of Pro Wrestling Illustrated. It’s been an absolute joy to work on this magazine full-time. I’ve learned so much about the history of PWI while aiming to help it evolve. But, away from PWI, this has been the most challenging year I could have imagined.

Back in April, my grandmother, who had long suffered from dementia (and lived in a nursing home), was taken from us by COVID. Hundreds of thousands of families this year came to know the pain of mourning that was delayed, isolated, or otherwise less than ideal.

Around the same time my grandmother passed, my wife Megan was struggling with escalating G.I. issues that were clearly more serious than the acid reflux her doctor had initially suspected. It took us months of specialist appointments and tests to learn that she was actually battling advanced bile duct cancer, which had spread to her liver.

Megan, who hasn’t yet turned 35, is the kindest, most thoughtful person you could meet—the kind of person who feels a real responsibility to the world around her. She’s devoted countless weekends to helping shelter animals. She offers to babysit for free because she loves kids (and their parents). She even learned how to make her own soap because she heard recycling plastic was bad for the environment. As you can imagine, her diagnosis has hit all of us—Megan, myself, her loved ones—pretty hard.

I know that many of our readers have battled a horrific disease like cancer (or loved someone who has). Please know that my thoughts are with you. Witnessing Megan’s battle, doing whatever I can to support her, I see the toll serious illness can take.

As an optimist, I’d like to leave you with this: Now, as always, professional wrestling offers me a measure of comfort through the dark and unknown. Whether you’re a lifelong fan or someone who just picked up this magazine on a whim, I sincerely hope that the squared circle provides some light for you, too. And I hope that PWI, even if only in some small way, helps enhance and enrich your enjoyment of this beautiful sport/art form/catharsis we know as professional wrestling. Thank you for reading … and thank you for being a fan.