In the winter of 1987, Big Van Vader made his New Japan Wrestling debut to a capacity crowd against Japanese Wrestling legend Antonio Inoki.

But, what was expected to be a competitive matchup would end up as quite the opposite, as Vader would squash Inoki in less than five minutes. What ensued was an all-out riot where fans tore up their own seats and launched them into the ring in disgust. This incident would result in NJPW being banned from the venue for two years.

In the summer of 1996, Scott Hall & Kevin Nash, known as the Outsiders, would take on the trio of Sting, Lex Luger & Randy Savage in the main event of Bash at the Beach 1996.

The draw of this event was the teased reveal of the mysterious third man. Near the conclusion of the matchup the hero of the people, Hulk Hogan, would saunter down to ring and would proceed to hit the leg drop on Savage. Hulk Hogan, as exclaimed on commentary, had betrayed WCW and his fans. Fans littered the ring with soda cups, beer cans and other miscellaneous garbage as Hogan cut a scathing promo on them.

In the summer of 2021, in one of the first major indy wrestling events following the COVID-19 pandemic, Matt Cardona (formerly known as WWE’s Zack Ryder) would face GCW Champion, and indie folk hero, Nick F’N Gage.

The match was a bell to bell brawl, intensified by the utterly vicious Game Changer Wrestling fans surrounding the ring. Matt Cardona’s white shirt became more and more blood stained as the match would go on. Due to the interference of 44OH and Rickey Shane Page, Cardona would proceed to batter Gage with two stacks of fluorescent light tubes and hit Radio Silence on Gage to score the one-two-three!

As the announcer begrudgingly confirmed Cardona’s victory, the boos and jeers of the audience would begin to rain down on Cardona, along with about ten coolers worth of beer cans and water bottles! As security ushered the Long Island Iced Z to the safety of the backstage area, Nick Gage would sit in the middle of the ring, amongst the broken glass and garbage, dejected.

Matt Cardona is now the biggest heel in modern independent wrestling… and that is just fantastic! But how exactly did we get here?

Coming off the heels of his highly touted episode of Dark Side of the Ring and his recent All Elite Wrestling debut, the name on everyone’s lips is Nick Gage. It’s admittedly hard to explain why Gage has the rapid following he does, but ultimately it comes down to the demarcation between kayfabe and reality.

Kayfabe is defined as “the fact or convention of presenting staged performances as genuine or authentic.” In the world of modern pro wrestling, the show ends when the wrestler’s step through the curtain and take off their gear. They can turn off the gimmick, and Heroes & Villains can share a hug.

However, for some, the show doesn’t end there.

Some wrestlers, to this day, simply choose to present their authentic selves in and out of the squared circle. Nick Gage, is most definitely, one of those people. Despite his gruff and intimidating exterior you will be hard-pressed to find a more accepting and more genuine person on the modern indy scene. Not shying away from embracing his troubled past, including a bank robbery, prison stints and addictions, choosing to wear them as a proud badge of honor. It’s that level of genuine connection that made fans write Gage letters while he was serving time. Nick Gage, albeit in an extremely violent line of work, shows that regardless of your past you can always scratch and claw your way back to a better life.

Nick Gage has gone from a Deathmatch Wrestler to a Folk Hero, and all because he’s always represented the common man and the struggles we face every day.

Enter Matt Cardona.

The story of Matt Cardona, formally known as Zack Ryder, is one predicated upon self-worth and persistence in the face of an unforgiving machine. Cardona was a signed WWE talent from 2006 to 2020, and certainly left quite the impression along the way. Serving as enhancement talent for the early part of his tenure, most notably serving as one of the Edgeheads alongside, then World Heavyweight Champion, Edge.

This moderately prominent position wouldn’t last long, however, and despite various re-packagings along the way Cardona was never used to his full potential. Barely featured on TV, more often than not used as a jobber or to fill space in battle royales, it appeared the clock was about to run out on his dreams of top-tier relevance.

This would all change when Cardona launched his own YouTube series known as Z! True Long Island Story in February 2011. The series was a down-to-earth, comedic and unrestricted forum for Cardona to get over his personality and charisma, as well as his affinity for pro wrestling action figures.

As the series’ popularity grew, so did Cardona’s and eventually, his merchandise was outselling the likes of John Cena. The chants of “We Want Ryder” would echo throughout arenas all over the country, especially if Ryder wasn’t on the show’s card that night. This eventually became too loud for WWE to ignore and that very same year when he would defeat Dolph Ziggler for the United States Championship. It was a textbook feel-good wrestling moment and one that the fans responded to with gusto! For anyone following Cardona’s story up until that point, it was a majorly satisfying payoff.

Sadly, such is life, the ride couldn’t last forever. One can only wonder why WWE pulled the plug on the Ryder Revolution. Granted, it is a weird image when your audience is chanting for someone else during a marquee match featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. So began the slow but steady implosion of Matt Cardona’s WWE run.

To recount every misstep taken with Cardona during the latter half of his run would take more time than I have here, but needless to say, as a fan of his, it was beyond deflating.

WWE seemed to take some form of sick glee in taking away his momentum, and through a combination of losses and embarrassing booking, slowly but surely erased the “We Want Ryder” chants. Not to say Ryder’s story would end immediately there, but aside from a few stop-start pushes, and brief midcard title wins, nothing would match The Ryder Revolution of 2011 ever again. Cardona’s run in Vince McMahon’s wrestling empire would come to an end just last year where, amidst layoffs during the Covid-19 pandemic, Cardona would find himself with a pink slip.

This would lead to Cardona hitting a welcome second wind and as soon as his non-compete clause had evaporated, would soon make his return to prime time television. It’s clear through both his online presence and in-ring work since his release that Cardona looks visibly happier and energized.

Working on a limited appearance deal for both AEW and Impact Wrestling, Cardona was quickly establishing himself as a presence in pro wrestling. He would help Cody Rhodes fend off the Dark Order, feud with his former tag partner (and podcast co-host) Brian Myers, and even get to fight side by side with his real-life fiance, the Hot Mess, Chelsea Green in a mixed tag team match.

Now, hearing all of that laid out, albeit, in a condensed fashion, you might be wondering why a room of angry and raucous fans wanted this man’s tan head on a pike.

It began with some back and forth exchanges on Twitter, with Gage immediately writing off Cardona as very little of a threat. Cardona would respond to this as cheekily as possible which would only incite more rage from the leader of the MDK gang and his followers. A few tweets later it was clear a major league beef was brewing, and Gage threw down a direct challenge to the former Long Island Iced Z to show up at GCW.

Whilst this is going on, Gage is embroiled in a recently reignited feud between himself and Jon Moxley, that is still yet to be resolved, and has been constantly defending his GCW World Championship even throughout the pandemic! Add to that, his newfound following due to his Dark Side of the Ring episode, so it’s been a good year to be The King of Ultraviolence!

So when Matt Cardona, dressed as a druid, would crash the party at GCW’s Zombie Walk Event on June 6th and plant Nick Gage on a glass-covered ring, it was clear this wasn’t some one-off Twitter feud, this was going to be a war. As Cardona exited Atlantic City that night to a chorus of “Fuck You Ryder” chants, it was clear that Matt Cardona was most definitely a pilgrim in an unholy land.

To put it simply, the overly produced, flashy and primetime TV style of Cardona was a definite far cry from the freeform, gritty and eclectic chaos of Nick Gage and Game Changer Wrestling. A toy collector with tan skin, a six-pack and spiked hair, was the last person any indy fan would want in a Game Changer ring… and Cardona knew this.

He would immediately lean into this newfound heat and began antagonizing Gage at every single turn. Whether it be through parody merchandise and more taunts on social media, Matt Cardona made it his personal mission to piss in Nick Gage’s corn flakes. What began as some playful social media banter and ballooned into one of the most effectively worked feuds of the modern era. This would lead to Gage attempting to jump Cardona at a live taping of his podcast and would need to be ejected by security and other wrestlers present.

This would all culminate on July 25 in Atlantic City on Night One of GCW Homecoming where Nick Gage would put his GCW World Championship on the line against Matt Cardona in the main event.

The match is an unrelenting 15+ minutes filled with light tubes, panes of glass, deliberate masochism and one of the hottest indy crowds in recent memory. Every man, woman and even children in attendance all wanted one thing, that being the untimely demise of Matt Cardona.

However, one run-in from the 44OH and screwjob from Rickey Shane Page later, Cardona would have his hand held high as garbage pelted the ring. In a scene comparable to that of the MLB’s 1979 Disco Destruction Night, the GCW faithful banded together in sheer blind rage in the face of their mighty folk hero having fallen at the hands of the spiky-haired action figure collector.

It was a sight to behold and one that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Cardona would cut an intense post-match promo where he definitively promised that this wouldn’t be a one-off and that he “loves” the GCW Universe (but he loves Chelsea more).

It’s rare in modern-day wrestling to have a heel that fans truly hate with a furious passion, and it’s even rarer to have one on the independent scene where the fans often gravitate towards talent regardless of ethical alignment. To see the once-beloved internet darling of the 2010s now be viewed as the literal antichrist of the independents is quite the transformation.

So the fact that I can sit here at my laptop and write, with all sincerity, that Matt Cardona is now in the front running for the biggest heel in independent wrestling right now is a wonderful thing indeed.

Matt Cardona got pelted with garbage and booed out of Atlantic City… and that is just great.