On the eve of CM Punk’s debut in the UFC in Cleveland, Our Lady of Mount Carmel just down the street was hopping. Inside the gymnasium people of all ages gathered around —pot-bellied men, purple-haired girls, mulleted fellows who rocked a bit unsteadily when talking. One man, who was working a table of paraphernalia with WWF figures from the 1980s, was dressed in Renaissance garb. Looming over the ring was a large framed painting of Pope John XXIII, and Dan Severn — who competed earlier in the night — sat there just below it taking things in like a cattle rancher studying a contrail on the horizon.
Many were drinking cheap beer in red cups.
Shortly after the loveable high-flying Jollyville Fuck-Its, who came out with hubcap necklaces expressing exactly those sentiments, the crowd began chanting "Bro! Bro! Bro!" as a figure emerged down the ramp to the sounds of "Regulate" by Warren G. Here was the other crossover athlete who’d made his way to Cleveland. He sauntered out wearing standard MMA trunks.
The wrestler smiled big, so big it looked like he had an extra row of teeth. He had a Super Mario Bros cap covering his long blonde locks, and sported a luxuriant tan. Matt Riddle the pro wrestler is a cross between Adonis and Jeff Spicoli. He was wearing a t-shirt with "Riddle" on it, "The King of Bros," a spoof of the Budweiser emblem. The crowd let out a cheer, as Riddle — the former UFC fighter who went the opposite way of CM Punk, from the Octagon to the squared circle — stepped through the ropes in his bare feet.
In Cleveland for one weekend only, the overground’s Ying and the underground’s Yang.
CM Punk would fight in front of 18,700 people the next night, and earn $500,000 in disclosed purse to last just 2:16 seconds in the cage. Riddle, who liked to get high so much that the UFC ended up cutting him, was doing it in front of perhaps 250 people, earning around $300.
He was going to test himself against Louis Lyndon, who wore wrestling boots, knee breeches, and a sash. Lyndon launched into a conversation with Riddle before they got started for everyone in Ohio to hear. He was going to tap Riddle out, and make it all seem very effortless. Riddle put his hand on the ropes and listened to his adversary’s words, smiling like he was contemplating nothing more than a few tasty waves, perhaps on Lake Erie itself.
Oh yes, he is the king of bros.
(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
"It’s a little different," he says. "I got into the UFC so fast. So when I first started wrestling, I thought I could be in the WWE in six months, kind of like with the UFC. In pro wrestling, there’s just so many little elements. So many people can wrestle, so many people can fight, whatever, but you’ve got to be able to tell a story with your fight, with your wrestling. That was a big thing I had to pick up."
Even at 210 pounds, Riddle still has his abs — and he can fly around. His attitude is the same (carefree, a little baked), but he seems genuinely better suited for this line of work. The scripts don’t bother him at all. It’s a show, and he’s a showman. He wrestles three times a week, Friday through Sunday, all over the United States. He’s wrestled from Ybor City, Florida, to California, to the beloved Midwest, to Queens. He has lost, and he has won.
Very much like his MMA career. Riddle won essentially five straight fights leading to his retirement from mixed martial arts. Two of them were overturned into "no contests" after his drug test came back showing that he smoked some weed. These days he doesn’t worry about people hearing the blurble of his bong water.
"Not at this level," he says with a laugh. "The WWE does have a wellness program that they do. I think they all have a program, but they're a little more lenient now."
Riddle is aiming for the WWE. He scrunches his index finger towards his thumb and says he’s this close, indicating about an inch. Tomorrow night, when CM Punk makes his debut in Cleveland, Riddle will be in New York City. He’ll take on Anthony Nese, a WWE name, and Ricochet from the Lucha Underground, in a three-way match. On Sunday, he’ll stand in there against T.J. Perkins, a.k.a. "TJP," in the WWE feeder Evolve.
All he wants is to give people a show.
"I would have fought for fight of the night every time in the UFC, because I fought for that crowd," he says. "I’m the same way, when I’m in the crowd, I want to see somebody test their mettle. When I’m out there, I want to test the mettle. That’s one of the things about pro wrestling, I not only get to go as hard as I want and go for fight of the night, I have to do fight of the night three times a week."
The 30-year old Riddle is a father of three, with twin six-year olds and a three-year old. On an indie show like this one in AIW (Absolute Intense Wrestling), he can earn between $300-$500. He drove in to Cleveland for this match with Lyndon because it was an easy shot from Allentown, Penn., where he lives. Normally he’s a fly-in. He’s still climbing the rungs.
"I think this is the plan," he says, opening his arms to the roomful of chanting fans watching Alex Daniels (and his "Realists") take on "Big" Mike Elgin. "Right now in 2016 I’ve done everything in my wheelhouse. I wanted to wrestle in Evolve. In 2017, I want to be the Evolve champion, and I want to get to Japan. Those are my goals."
Big Mike is telling Daniels that he is big all over, a good phallic joke for a good phallic crowd. The cult of pro wrestling on the indie circuit is never so alive.
"My long-term goals, the WWE is it," he says. "All the bigger organizations are there, but right now this is good for me. People might not like to believe, but the indies are where the smart fans are. This is where you get the diehard."
The indie fauna know all about Matt Riddle, and they embrace him in Cleveland — just like they do throughout the circuit. They chanted "Bro!" in California a week earlier, too, in PWG (Pro Wrestling Guerilla) that he had never performed in front of. He’s the king of bros for a reason.
"When William Regal came to the ring with me when I first started wrestling, I hopped in the ring with Regal and I was like, ‘hey bro!’" he says. "And if you know wrestling, if you talk to Regal or anybody at that level, you don’t call them ‘bro.’ You say, ‘hey Mr. Regal,’ or ‘hey sir.’ But I was like, nope, no respect whatsoever. I was like, ‘hey bro, where’s my job?’ So the ‘bro’ thing kind of got over."
Riddle’s last fight in MMA was in early 2014, a Titan Fighting Championship match against Michael Kuiper. He won via TKO. Before then he spent all his time in the UFC, having come up through TUF 7. He beat John Maguire and Henry Martinez cleanly, and he beat Chris Clements and Che Mills with the residue of marijuana in his system.
It wasn’t the drug busts that got to him so much as the grind itself. The whittling down of his body to make weight. The dire seriousness that comes with fighting. And there was something else. It was the burden of empathy, he says, that did him in the most.
"I lost interest a long time ago," he says. "I felt bad beating people. Like, when I beat Che Mills, I felt bad. Dude has a wife, dude has a kid, he just got fired from the UFC because I beat him and he got half his money. I have three kids, I need to eat the same as anybody, but I felt bad. I lost interest. I hated cutting weight, I loved fighting. Fighting was so much fun. It’s amazing."
Riddle still teaches kids jiu-jitsu during the week, and he has a fight team that earlier this year went to China. His hands are still very much in the mixed martial arts. His heart, not as much.
(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
Riddle gets a bit of a bad beat against the dreaded maritime fighter Lyndon, who employs less than forthright tactics against him. At one point Lyndon uses his sash to slap Riddle, and at another he fairly strangles the UFC interloper with it. Though he has no reason to be, Riddle is a good sport. He doesn’t cry foul to the referee, who somehow stood oblivious to the sequence, giving the crowd the sneaking feeling that there might be some ineptitude in play. Riddle does a flying armbar in a burst of offense, but Lyndon is a savvy wrestler.
Then, bad goes to worse for Riddle. Right when he was mounting some momentum, looking to capitalize by flinging himself bodily into Lyndon on the turnbuckles, the referee acted as an unsuspecting buffer to the blow. He was lecturing Lyndon about something when Riddle came flying in. It was lucky didn’t knock the referee out. Our "King of Bros," rightly outraged, grabbed the referee and gave him a good piece of his mind.
And that’s when the controversy started.
"The ref got in my way like a jabroni, so I pulled him out, I was yelling at him, and then I felt somebody tap on my shoulder and I’m like, who’s that?" Riddle says moments later, still chiding his own innocence when playing it back in his head. "So what’s a natural reaction when somebody taps your shoulder? To turn around and see who’s tapping you. I turn around and Lyndon met me with a kick to the pelvis, or the groin region. After that, my motor skills completely didn’t work. He cradled me up. I couldn’t stop the one-two-three."
Riddle is in remarkably good spirits considered the way things went down. He’s manning his merch booth with his cousin, and he doesn’t linger on getting duped. In fact, he has learned to roll with the punches on the indie circuit.
"It’s part of the game, man," he concedes. "That’s how she goes. I’ll get ’em the next time."
He turns his head back and forth, jaw-to-jaw, showing that remains in near-mint condition. "I only took two bumps tonight," he says, as gleefully as if he’d won. Riddle doesn’t mention how his "pelvis" is doing, but it’s clear he’s not going to let a little pain get him down. His voice is none the higher, and he knows that’s testament enough of his uncanny ability to recover with a quickness.
(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
"I’m doing great," he says, standing near a row of old wrestling DVDs and VHS tapes that are for sale after the fight. "I wish I would have made this transition sooner after the UFC fired me. I’m having a blast."
Shayna Baszler is getting ready to take on Heidi Lovelace for the women’s AIW title, and the crowd is way into it. The chants roll up at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, as Pope John XXIII administers his blessings. The action is swift. Baszler, who is in Cleveland with her buddies Jessamyn Duke and Ronda Rousey, is yet another crossover athlete to ply dual trades in combat theater. She fares far better than Riddle on this night. Baszler, galvanized by each slap Lovelace delivers her — like a common sadist, she actually asks for more — scores a monstrous victory that gets the faithful off their feet.
Rousey even emerges from the curtain for a brief moment to lift Baszler up in celebration, which again incites a roar from the crowd. Rousey, the recluse, is alive and well.
Riddle, though, is just taking things in. He is a fan of pro wrestling, just as he was a fan of the UFC when he fought in the Octagon. He partakes in what he cheers for, is all. He never was a big star in the UFC, and he may never be in the wrestling ring, either. But he’s doing what he loves.
"I’ll be honest, $300-$500, that adds up three times a week," he says. "And another thing is where people make money is the merchandise. A lot of people see me, and they think about the Ultimate Fighter, but they don’t realize I have three kids, a wife, a dog. I’ve got bills."
He sells a shirt. He’s now made in the range of $320 in disclosed income for the fight. Down the street at the Quicken Loans Arena, CM Punk will make more than 1,500 times that amount in 24 hours. The ballyhoo will go to Punk, whose good friend Colt Cabana is sitting nearby. While Punk lies down to sleep that night about to make half a million dollars for a couple of minutes of work, Riddle will be driving east into the morning, back to his next gig.
His eyes bloodshot.
"It’s just how things work," he says. "I think with CM Punk, one door shut with the WWE, and a door opened with MMA. And my deal was kind of shutting in MMA…or, I wouldn’t say shutting. It was open a crack. I could barely see through it. I just shut it and then went into pro wrestling."
It suits Riddle to do what he’s doing. He likes the theatrics, and he likes the idea of orchestrating destiny. He was recently offered $20,000 to take an MMA fight in China, but he said no. He simply doesn’t want to do it anymore. He’s Matt Riddle, the UFC fighter who now performs in the square circle. He chose to be that for his gimmick because boots and tights and all the typical wrestling accoutrements would have cost him nearly a thousand bucks.
Going barefoot saves him a little money.
"This one isn’t too bad," he says, pointing to the bleachers in the well-lit gymnasium as if to say, these are my people. "PWG was interesting. My favorite was Ybor City, Florida, it’s in a bar, and there’s a stage, a big wrap-around bar, and you wrestle in the bar. So like when you do a dive, you dive into the bar where people are drinking pitchers of beer and everything else."
No hard feelings. The referee cost him a bout. Riddle is on to New York. But first a quick trip to the back of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where he sparks up a conversation with his cousin and some wrestling friends out in the clear September night. He’s in his element, the ring’s great Spicoli, the one-time UFC fighter, the modern day king of bros.
(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)