In early 2014, Matt Riddle had just won his fifth straight MMA fight — even if two of those wins were overturned for positive tests for marijuana — but he was tiring of the politics, the injuries, and the drastic weight cuts.
He'd been a fan of pro wrestling since the age of seven. It was really the only sport, if you want to even categorize it as such, that was watched in his household. He already subscribed to the WWE Network, the streaming service that allowed him to watch the pay-per-views at a fraction of the price. And while watching WrestleMania 30 in April 2014, which was built around the quest of Daniel Bryan's attempt to win the WWE championship, he made a decision.
Years earlier, Riddle had thought about doing pro wrestling, but in looking around at the landscape and tipping the scales at 205 pounds, Riddle thought he was too small to make big money. But Bryan, who is much smaller than he is, ran though two monsters in the main event — 6-foot-4, 240-pound Randy Orton, and future movie star Dave Bautista, who is about 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds. There were other guys smaller than him on the show, and some guys were doing matches filled with MMA moves or offshoots of such move.
"I feel like it clicked that day," Riddle said recently on The MMA Hour.
"I thought I could do that and do it better," he said. "I'm in my prime. Nothing was working out in MMA."
Riddle also had some motivation in the form of UFC President Dana White, who cut him after his second positive marijuana test and then buried him on the way out.
"That didn't hurt," Riddle said. "I was just more disappointed. I spilled a lot of blood and broke some bones for that company, and to be talked down to, that was disappointing. But for me, it was more the fact he said that I'd never be able to earn money being a loser and this and that. And I can honestly say, I'm making more money than I ever did in UFC, and doing it on my terms and loving life. Granted, I'll never be Dana White rich, but I don't want to be. I'm not that kind of guy."
Riddle, now 31, is one of the biggest stars in independent pro wrestling, a subculture of promotions all over the world featuring talent that ranges from awkward beginners to people often as good — and in many cases far better — than those in the WWE. He is getting steady work, doing four matches most weeks, and as the "King of Bros," his nickname, he's doing well on the T-shirt selling front. He's a true independent businessman, making his own schedule, such as taking a week off for Easter, or taking dates anywhere in the U.S., Canada or Europe that he wants to travel to. If there's an opponent he wants to face, he can often just ask and his name is big enough that he can get his wish.
Riddle is coming off his first year as a name pro wrestler, where he not only won Rookie of the Year by a record number of votes, but also Most Improved Wrestler. He holds a championship belt in Progress Wrestling, one of the name U.K. promotions, and the WWN championship, a conglomerate of smaller promotions that are mostly running up and down the East Coast. In many ways, he's the not just the King of Bros but the King of Flo — the Flo Slam streaming site which broadcasts a wide variety of different promotion events.
His rapid success in picking up the sport has been compared with Kurt Angle and Owen Hart, who were great performers almost instantly, taking to pro wrestling like a duck takes to water. Part of it is being in his comfort zone and being unique, doing a style based on being an MMA fighter. His gimmick is essentially what he was in UFC, going shoeless and without knee pads, wearing MMA shorts, and doing a style based on submissions, open handed strikes, elbows, knees and kicks, closer to a worked version of the old Pancrase rules of the ‘90s.
Though he didn’t perform at the WWE events that drew sellout arena and stadium crowds, Riddle was all over Orlando three weeks ago for WrestleMania, doing seven matches over those few days, facing elite talent from all over the world.
What's funny is that Riddle started in MMA and was in the UFC, the top organization, instantly, after an impressive performance after being chosen for The Ultimate Fighter. He had no pro fights at the time, but he had a good look and was a Division I college wrestler. In pro wrestling, he's been in for about two years and hasn't been signed by WWE, but seems in no rush to get there.
"It's funny, but when I did MMA, I got to the UFC so quick, so when I started (pro wrestling), I assumed I'd get to the WWE, but it's taken me longer to do it,” Riddle said. “But I'm not too surprised. It took a couple of years getting the people's respect and their trust and becoming that character for them. I'm definitely not disappointed. I think it's better this way, for pro wrestling, to come up slowly and to build your way up. In MMA, if you go right to UFC and win fights, you're the man. In pro wrestling, you can't just get that push."
When Riddle decided to make the move, he sold his house in Las Vegas and he and his family moved to the Northeast to start training at the Monster Factory Gym in Pennsylvania. He bought a less expensive home and used the difference in money to fund his early training. Sean Waltman, who was X-Pac in WWE during the peak of pro wrestling's popularity in the late-’90s, saw him as soon as he started training and immediately recommended him to WWE. He got a tryout where he was heavily praised, but not signed, since he'd only had a handful of matches and they were leery about the marijuana test failures in UFC.
Instead, WWE officials pushed Evolve, an independent group that they are affiliated with, to use him on their shows to get experience and to test his attitude.
When he came to Evolve, a group that featured some of the best performers in wrestling, he had to be carefully protected due to his inexperience at first. But within a few months he was hanging with the best, and a few months after that, was one of the best himself.
His style isn't typical pro wrestling and he doesn't even consider what he does as pro wrestling.
"When I first started, they wanted me to do a pro wrestling style, clotheslines and dropkicks, that I can do. But I'm not a pro wrestler, I'm an MMA fighter,” Riddle said. “Once I started working for Evolve (in late 2015), they didn't want me to do clotheslines, or dropkicks or cross bodies, nothing. They wanted me to go out there and do MMA, do a fight. That's when I started doing open palm strikes, kicks, hard forearms, European uppercuts hard. Everything's hard. I hit somebody, it's hard. It's not soft and it's not a work. I don't consider what I do as pro wrestling. I consider it sport wrestling. When I hit you, I hit you, but I don't kill you.
"When I kick someone in the head, I don't kick you in the head, but to the body. The body slams, that's real,” he continued.
"If you like pro wrestling and MMA, you'll see I'm making sweat fly off fools and slamming them on their heads."
At first, Riddle had to deal with skeptics. In pro wrestling, there is a mixed reaction of fans to MMA fighters.
"The best part about coming from an MMA background is that I didn't come over to pro wrestling to be an over-the-top character," he said. "I came to be myself."
After gaining a reputation in Evolve, he debuted last year in PWG, a group that runs out of Reseda, Calif., which is the Broadway for aspiring wrestlers. It's a specialized world of about 400 fans who fly in from around the world and the hardest ticket in pro wrestling to get. The feeling is if you make it there, you can make it anywhere. He made it instantly, and that put him in the elite group of traveling true independent businessmen in wrestling who can make a solid living and would be able to wrestle regularly against the small group of some of the most talented wrestlers in the world.
Recently, he attended a WWE NXT event, and even though he's never been on any television platform in the U.S. and his only time on a WWE canvas was a private tryout two years ago, when he walked in, the place was chanting "Bro!" at him. He was already more popular than many of the performers on that company's show.
"I'm in no rush [to get to WWE],” Riddle said. “I'm doing very well. I get to see my family every week. If I was working for WWE, it would be rough. My schedule is very relaxed and I do well.
"There's things I want to do first, and there's things you can't do if you are there. I'd like to wrestle in Japan and work for New Japan (the No. 2 pro wrestling company in the world). I'd like to wrestle guys like (Katsuyori) Shibata and (Minoru) Suzuki and the high level New Japan guys. And I can wrestle in Europe or I can go to Japan. That's the real good part of wrestling indies. You can wrestle anyone anytime unless you sign with WWE."
He also noted that his favorite U.S. opponents are people like Kyle O'Reilly, who does a pro wrestling style with a heavy emphasis on kicks and jiu-jitsu submissions, and Jeff Cobb, who wrestled in the 2004 Olympic games.
Suzuki — who is the same Minoru Suzuki who was one of the real innovators of MMA 24 years ago in Japan with the likes of Bas Rutten, Ken Shamrock and Masakatsu Funaki — and Shibata, both have extensive MMA experience and incorporate that into their pro wrestling in Japan. It's more realistic, and some would argue more exciting than WWE, but also more dangerous.
In one of his seven matches in Orlando, Riddle even did a pro wrestling match against another former MMA champion: Dan Severn, the 58-year-old UFC Hall of Famer.
"I told him we'll do Pancrase rules, open palm strikes, kicks. We went at it," said Riddle. "I don't know if you've seen the match, but I enjoyed myself thoroughly."
He doesn't expect to ever fight again, saying he doesn't have the desire, but still loves MMA.
"It's the greatest sport ever," Riddle said. "There's only one sport where you can test yourself against another man or another woman, go out, give 100 percent. You can't even tape your ankles and you can't even wear knee pads."
But it was the other stuff that surrounds fighting that wasn't as much fun.
"The politics of MMA I'm not a fan of," he said. "I love the politics of indie wrestling. As long as you're a good guy and a nice person, it's great."