Matt Cardona Explains Why He Doesn’t Need AEW or WWE 

Matt Cardona Explains Why He Doesn’t Need AEW or WWE 
Photo courtesy of the National Wrestling Alliance.

When it comes to unique paths to professional wrestling success, Matt Cardona might have the most intriguing journey of all. Not long after making his in-ring debut, the talented New York native caught the attention of WWE and worked through the company’s developmental territories. He moved up to the main roster in 2007, was renamed Zack Ryder, and worked as part of Edge’s entourage before teaming with Curt Hawkins to win the WWE Tag Team titles. While his early WWE success was nothing to scoff at, things didn’t seem to really click between Ryder and audiences until he started working a new angle as WWE’s “Internet Champion.” 

“I didn’t know exactly how big it would end up getting, but I certainly knew there was something to it,” Cardona said of online success. The now 36-year-old veteran of the squared circle is the current NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion, the Impact Digital Media Champion, and he has featured for various high-profile independent promotions where he also holds titles. Cardona will defend the NWA “10 pounds of gold” against Nick Aldis in March at The Crocket Cup in Nashville, Tenn. “I knew that WWE wasn’t using social media the way it should be used,” Cardona said. “Instead of using a platform like Twitter, they would create their own WWE Universe. Nobody wants to go to WWE Universe. They want to be on the real platforms.”

Cardona wasn’t the first wrestler on social media, but he was perhaps the first to let audiences see his actual self — an approach unheard of in 2011 when his YouTube show caught fire. “I was the first person I think to let people in on my real life and kind of mix Matt Cardona with Zack Ryder and eventually blend them so they were the same guy. I think the fans really connected to that, especially when I started the YouTube show and I pulled back the curtain. I guess I was still in character as Zack Ryder, wearing the headband and the glasses, but I was showing a side of me they weren’t seeing on TV where I was losing in two minutes. I was showing my action figure collection or my love for ‘Star Wars’ or things like that. That’s how I think everything really started.”

Cardona got over with fans — big time. The reaction to his Wrestlemania 32 victory where he captured the Intercontinental Title was explosive, and fans were clearly with him. The WWE? Perhaps not quite as much. Cardona continued with WWE until 2020, but never quite got the push he had earned. Since then, he’s found success in Impact, Game Changer Wrestling and the NWA, and he’s turned his love for toy collecting into a hit series, The Major Wrestling Figure Podcast. Recently, Cardona talked about his unique career path, toy collecting, and who was to blame for his WWE shortcomings. He also talked about working in the NWA and his plans for 2022 and beyond in this Web Is Jericho exclusive. 

What did it mean for you to win the NWA title? “Listen, I’m not gonna lie. I did not grow up a fan of the NWA. I thought it was old and dated and boring. And even now I think it’s old and dated and boring. But there is no denying the legacy of that championship. All the great champions that came before me like Ric Flair, Harley Race, Ricky Steamboat … and to be included in a list of names like that, man it’s an honor. I’ve waited 19 years, and I’ve busted my ass for 19 years to be a world’s champion. And not just any world’s champion, but the NWA world’s champion. The history and the legacy and tradition cannot be denied, and I’m honored to be the champion.” 

In 2011, I proved that you can use the internet and social media and good old fashioned hard f*cking work to change your position in a major wrestling company. I’m very proud of that. Now, 10 years later, I want to prove that using those same things you can be a successful pro wrestler in places besides WWE and AEW.

Matt Cardona

There’s a lot of options right now for fans of professional wrestling, and you’re working for a few of them. What’s your take on the state of pro wrestling in 2022? “Pro wrestling is booming. There is pro wrestling on TV almost every night of the week in some way whether it be streaming or on actual television. With the indies, there’s so many promotions running every single weekend. I think it’s the best time to be a wrestling fan. It’s also the best time to be a wrestler, because there’s so many options. But at the same time, there’s so much competition, so it’s a double-edged sword. You gotta find that way to stand out.” 

I remember you winning the Intercontinental title at Wrestlemania 32, and the reaction was off the charts. We’ve seen other wrestlers get over in WWE — Daniel Bryan and Rusev come to mind, where it’s like the company won’t let an organic run happen, and they want to control the narrative. What is your take on that? Why is that the way that it is? “I don’t know if that’s 100% how it is. I can definitely only speak for myself, and I know that once my whole YouTube run kind of ended — getting pushed off the stage by Kane in a wheelchair and seeing all my TV time disappear and my merchandise disappear — I’ll admit, I was a little bitter. But now looking back, and even a couple years ago I realized this. There’s nobody to blame but myself. I could’ve easily went up to Vince McMahon’s office door and knocked and asked, ‘What’s going on here?’ But I didn’t. So I will hold myself accountable, because to point fingers and to point blame and to be bitter and to be negative, that’s not gonna make me any happier. That’s not gonna change what happened. That’s not gonna change my future, and I realized that a long time ago. I think a lot of wrestlers need to realize to hold themselves accountable instead of pointing fingers.” 

Getting back to NWA, you’re going to defend your title against Nick Aldis. What does Aldis bring to the table? And have you ever worked against him before? “I’ve never worked against Nick before. And listen, Nick was a helluva NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion. He put the NWA back on the map and put that championship back on the map. He defended it everywhere and had some marquee matches, and he was a great representative of the company. So I can’t take anything away from him. But it only got the NWA so far, and that’s where I come in. I’m not coming in as an invader or outsider. I’m not here to kill the NWA, I’m here to save it. I’m here to make it relevant and cool. I’m here to make it change with the times. There’s a difference in being nostalgic and living in the past. There’s no reason in 2022, we should be as wrestlers walking to the ring with no entrance music. I get they did that in the ’80s, but it’s not the ’80s. It’s 2022. I understand Nick had this rematch clause. He could’ve chose to wrestle (former NWA champ) Trevor (Murdoch). But he waited. He saw I was coming in. He knew I was gonna become the champion eventually, and he wanted to leech off me. And he’s smart. He knows he can get some buzz off me. Nick is like me. He’s all about that buzz, money and gold. The problem is, I have the gold, and he’s not gonna get it.”

You host The Major Wrestling Figure podcast and you’re an avid toy collector, and there’s been such a boom in wrestling collectables. I’m 40 years old, and I grew up as a kid collecting the Hasbro line. I had the Honky Tonk Man sealed for years, and I kept looking online to see what it was going for on eBay. And for years and years it was never more than like $20. So I finally broke down and took it out of the package to set him up on the shelf. A year later, I see it’s going for more than $100. Do you have a most prized wrestling action figure? Don’t you have a rare Kamala figure? “I do have that moon belly Kamala. But my prized possession is actually from that line. It’s a Greg “The Hammer” Valentine with Rhythm & Blues. It never came out. It’s in a Toys ‘R’ Us ad in a WWF Magazine from the early ’90s. It read, ‘Get the new tag teams.’ And there’s Demolition, the Rockers, Bushwackers and Rhythm & Blues. And it’s that Honky Tonk Man you had, and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. But when the sets came to stores, there’s the Rockers, there’s Demoltion, there’s the Bushwackers, but there’s no Rhythm & Blues. There was no internet then. I was like 5, 6 years old. I don’t realize it got canceled. So I’m making my parents take me everywhere, looking for god damn Rhythm & Blues, you know? It’s not until later, Honky Tonk Man, they put out by himself. Greg, they put out by himself with his blonde hair. Then through toy magazines, you realize, this was unreleased. It never came out and was canceled. But I didn’t know that as a kid. So I was able to track down that figure, the hand-painted prototype, from that ad. That’s my prized possession in my collection.”

How do you find some of this stuff? I’m sure you’ve got the notoriety as a big collector now, but when you’re looking for something super rare, how hard is it to track down? “A lot of the times, when it comes to this pre-production stuff, it’s not so much that I’m looking for it as it is that it appears. A lot of the time, people don’t necessarily know what they have. If they’re the son or grandson of an ex-employee, or they’re the employee themselves who found this box of stuff in their garage or their basement. You would think eBay was the spot to go, and yes, of course, people do put things on eBay. But this high end stuff, believe it or not, I find on Facebook groups. I don’t have everything. The preproduction community is small, but it’s die hard, so things get very expensive very fast. There are times where I’ve lost on auctions, and that’s just the nature of the beast. Fortunately, there are people who come to me, and sometimes it’s great, because they know I’m a die hard collector, and they want me to have it. Or sometimes they think I’m this billionaire, and they try to charge me these insane prices, and I have to pass.”

Is there a rare one you’re still looking for? “So the Hasbro series, it ends in 1994. It was supposed to continue into 1995 as a UK exclusive. They were all gonna have orange cards. There were supposed to be guys like Diesel and Men on a Mission and Jeff Jarrett. And those were just rumors for years. But a couple years ago, the unpainted heads popped up. Then also the drawings. Back then, figures weren’t designed on the computer, they were hand-drawn. So I was able to get the drawing of Diesel and the head of Diesel. But I wonder, is there a hand-painted prototype of the full figure. I don’t know, but if there is, that’s definitely my white whale.” 

Who have you learned from the most in pro wrestling? Is there someone that stands out as sort of a beacon of knowledge that you’ve gone back to over the years? “I wouldn’t pinpoint one particular person. I try to learn from everybody, whether it be someone I’m wrestling for the first time, or a legend like The Undertaker. There’s always something to learn, especially because this business is evolving, and if you don’t learn and don’t evolve, you’ll just become obsolete. I would definitely say Edge was someone I learned a great deal from while being an Edgehead. Of course from the chitchat in the locker-room, but when Brian Myers and I would be his quote-unquote ‘manager’, we’d be out there on these house shows with the best seat in the house while he’s working The Undertaker or Batista. We’re there, and it’s the perfect way to study, because you feel like you’re in the match but not taking the bumps. I mean, we took the bumps eventually at the end where we got Tombstoned, but we’re watching this match and seeing them move around the ring and listening to them talk, it was a great experience.”

So a man of many promotions, what does your future hold for the next year, and where do you see yourself a couple years down the line? “In 2011, I proved that you can use the internet and social media and good old fashioned hard f*cking work to change your position in a major wrestling company. I’m very proud of that. Now, 10 years later, I want to prove that using those same things you can be a successful pro wrestler in places besides WWE and AEW. And there’s nothing against AEW or WWE, and if either of those companies contacted me, of course I’d have a conversation. But I want to prove that you don’t need them to be a successful pro wrestler. If you put in that work and bust your ass and promote yourself, you can be successful. I don’t think there’s anyone that can deny that I’m successful right now. Because whether they love me or hate me or they’re talking trash about me, they know what I’m doing. They know who I am. They know I’m the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion. They know I’m the Impact Digital Media World Champion. They know what I’m doing. So whether they like me or not, they know everything about me, because I’m forcing them to.”

B.J. Lisko
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