Brian CagePhoto courtesy of AEW
It was “Steve Austin Appreciation Night” but Brian Cage only had eyes for one wrestler—and it wasn’t the immortal Stone Cold. Then 16, Cage had driven down to Sacramento with his brother to see his favorite wrestler Chris Kanyon, “Who Better Than Kanyon” sign in tow.
The innovative, underappreciated move machine had even spotted him in the sixth row and made his night with a thumbs up.
“I stood up on my chair, waved my sign around,” Cage said. “He looked at me and he saw the sign, and I knew that was it, mission accomplished.”
Wrestling fans remember the show almost 20 years later for Kurt Angle’s unforgettable milk-truck moment, taking a page out of Austin’s book by driving up to the ring and spraying the bad guys down with milk.
Cage remembers it for a life-changing interaction after the show went off the air. As they were leaving, they’d spotted Kanyon to the side of the titantron and, encouraged by his brother, he desperately sought one more interaction with his hero.
“I ran back down the stairs, blowing through man, woman, child, doesn’t matter. And I actually ran all the way down to the floor and hit the guard rail and fell over,” Cage said. “He’d seen me coming and said ‘Here you go’, and he gave me the “Who better than Austin” shirt he’d made for the event to give Stone Cold.
“I still have it to this day. I got it signed by him. The night was so important, special to me. And that was the reason why I wanted to be a wrestler. To return the favor and make some other fans like that. Memorable and special.”
The night began a life-long relationship between the two men. Cage wrote a long message and sent it through the “Contact Me” section of Kanyon’s website. The site’s webmaster actually forwarded it to the wrestler and the two began corresponding, meeting in person the next time WWE came to town.
“We developed more and more of a friendship,” Cage remembers. “He knew I always wanted to be a wrestler and helped me out with plenty of ins and outs in the wrestling world. And then in 2006, he got me into Deep South Wrestling (a WWE developmental territory at the time) and I actually stayed with him for a while. I give a lot of credit to him as far as how he influenced my wrestling style. How he helped me get some extra opportunities.
“He was so underrated, so underutilized. He trained like every celebrity who’s ever worked in WCW. He had so many great ideas. He has a bunch of little unknown accolades. And he was such a nice dude. There’s not a lot of nice guys in the wrestling business. He helped out so many. And helped so many people break into the businesses, and get jobs or get opportunities.”
Kanyon’s 2010 suicide hit Cage hard, but he carries his friend’s memory and legacy with him into the ring every time he wrestles.
“He was the first person, significant in my life, to ever pass,” Cage said. “When I started wearing gauntlets, I found a way to put his symbol on them. Of course, he’s where the catchphrase ‘Who better than Cage’ comes from. A lot of my moves are his, or variations of his. He was a really good dude, really phenomenal talent. I owe a lot to him.
Brian Cage @MrGMSI_BCage
Fact: the emblem I have on my gauntlets is the logo kanyon had on his tights. That’s my respect to him in every match. #RIP #Missyabud
“Everybody wants to have the match of the night, including myself. But if I can’t have a match of the night, I always try to have some really awesome, cool, unique spot or move or moment. Something that sticks out to somebody in the audience just like ‘the Innovator’ stood out to me whenever he was on Saturday Night or Nitro, or Thunder. Where you think ‘Oh my God, that one spot was a major trip.’ Or ‘I’ve never seen that before.’ I always try to get that at least. And I’d say more often than not, I do. And that comes from Kanyon.”
Cage will be thinking about his mentor as he steps into the ring Wednesday night at Fight for the Fallen to challenge AEW world champion Jon Moxley. The former WWE superstar has something Cage believes belongs to him—his position at the very top of the company.
While the belt itself would look good draped over his shoulder, Cage already has one of his own (the FTW title given to him by his new coach, Taz). It’s Moxley’s status at the top of the industry he both covets and intends to take by force in the middle of the ring.
Cage was uncertain at first about his partnership with Taz. He’d never had a manager or mouthpiece before, so when All Elite Wrestling boss Tony Khan put them together initially, the wrestler wasn’t sure how exactly it would work.
Photo courtesy of AEW
“The first thing you think of when you think of Taz is him suplexing fools, bop right on the head, and just being a hard ass and badass,” Cage said. “It wasn’t until I was literally standing next to him as he was cutting a promo that I was like, ‘Oh yeah, Taz would cut up some pretty awesome promos back in the day.’
“You just don’t think of him as a promo guy, right. You just think of him as a fricking Suplex Machine. But when we came back through the first tunnel the first time, I’m just like ‘Oh my goodness, why didn’t I think about this earlier?'”
Taz, too, was skeptical at first about coming out from behind the broadcast desk where he calls AEW Dark with Excalibur to become an on-camera talent again. He didn’t want to do it just to do it. It had to make sense and it had to have real potential. There were two men, he told Khan, who could tempt him: Cage and Jeff Cobb.
“There’s a plethora of things to go through with Brian, in no particular order, please, from his athleticism to his power, his experience,” Taz said. “He’s a 15-year pro. He’s not a young guy in the industry. He’s a former heavyweight champion from elsewhere, so he’s had the taste of being a champion. He’s just a perfect potpourri of everything you need to be a quote, unquote ‘top guy,’ from speed, experience, ability, technical prowess, a complete look. It’s just, it’s all there.
“You do get that combination in this business from time to time. It does happen. It’s not the first time we’ve seen it. But with Brian, it’s like at another level. I mean, if you look at him, he looks almost like a professional bodybuilder. He is in that realm, big time.
“When I came up, with guys that were pure bodybuilders. I’ve seen guys in pro wrestling not last, that were bodybuilders, because their body can’t take it, or they don’t have the flexibility and the agility. Brian has all of that and a freaking bag of chips… I’m not trying to be a hype man. I know that’s kind of my persona with Brian on TV, but this is a shoot. Like, this is how I really feel about the guy. I’m a believer.”
The two had some stumbling blocks at first, different visions for what Cage should be from a presentation standpoint. Taz, as you might guess from his own career, saw his new protege as a sparse, almost Spartan warrior in black trunks with little in the way of adornment. Cage, as you’d imagine from his self-given nickname “Mr. Get My-S–t In” wanted the pyro, the elaborate costumes and all the trimmings.
“He sees me as a big unique monster with a full presence on my own,” Cage said. “He thought that there was no reason for me to be in anything but black trunks and black boots because can I stand out alone without it. I don’t need it all, the glitz and glamor. And that makes a statement.
“And though he may not be wrong in that, I like a bit of flash and flair. I want all the pyro. I want my gear to look cool and different, stand out and be real busy. But I want my stuff to be cool. I always feel like I want to do more than I probably should. As does this whole generation of wrestlers.
“It wasn’t like any big real heated battle. After my first couple of outings, he was like, ‘All right, nah, you know what you’re doing. It’s good, man.’ And it is good. We’ve clicked really well now. Now I rib him and always act like I really want to do some more and more elaborate stuff. Whether I do or don’t, I always just act like I want to pour extra sauce on everything. Just to agitate him, just to rib him.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Taz enjoys the modern style of wrestling, willing to concede that the level of athleticism in the sport is higher than it’s ever been in the past. He doesn’t see his relationship with Cage as a one-way street. They are working together and it’s the combination of their abilities that makes the partnership a truly dangerous one.
“A lot of guys who are old-school, they look at it like, ‘Ah, this is wrong. How are these kids are doing this all wrong?’ I mean…shut up. Stop. OK, listen. There’s nothing wrong. Professional wrestling is, and it’s always has been, about creativity. OK? And that’s the beauty of being a pro wrestler. You create what you want to create.
“I have no problem with the way pro wrestling is today. I have no problem with the different gimmicks. There’s less talent that have that hardened, badass, violent vibes to them. I think social media plays a lot into it. Because you kind of want to be reality-based on your social media because you don’t want to insult people’s intelligence. Wrestlers are, more or less, embracing fans publicly. Which you should because they’re the people at the end of the day who pay the bills, so you need to respect the fans. My generation was a little different. It was a long time ago.”
In his day, Taz would respond to hecklers not by doing more to appease them, but by antagonizing them with an extended chin lock, asserting his dominance. It’s that edge he hopes to deliver by osmosis to Cage, his mere presence rubbing off on the younger man, a signal to fans that this is a wrestler to be taken seriously.
“It works really well because a lot of people know me and know what I can do,” Cage said. “But at the same time, I’m not going to be naive to the fact that there’s a lot of people who don’t know me. So, I could go out there and tell you how good I am as almost every wrestler does. But if you pick somebody that everybody does know, like the Taz, and you have him get on the mic and tell everyone how good I am, that means something. Somebody who is a big shot that they know comes in and goes, ‘Oh my God, this guy’s amazing.’ Whether I am or not, you’re going to buy it and believe it a bit more.
“Taz out there hyping me up, it gives me a little extra bit of credibility to people who don’t know me. And then, it’s up to me to back up what he says when they see me in the ring and actually see what I can do and what I’m capable of. I feel like it’ll make the dynamic that much more cool. Then they’ll go, ‘Oh crap, Taz wasn’t lying at all, he was telling the truth.’ They might even think he was underselling Brian Cage. That’s what I hope to see.”
Cage has spent 15 years doing just about everything there is to do in wrestling. In that time, he’s crossed paths with almost everyone of note in the business. But one notable exception will be staring him in the eye at Fight for the Fallen.
“Before I tossed him through the car window, Moxley and I had never touched,” Cage said. “So, this will be a brand-new match for me. And he’s pretty unpredictable and has a different style and something that I’m not used to. I’ve only seen this guy on tapes. Maybe I’ve been in a couple of locker rooms with him before, but we’ve never touched and now here’s the big, first-time meeting.
“I almost like it better that there’s no practice match, for lack of a better word. Because it makes it more real. It makes it more dramatic. It’s authentic, it’s original. And I think it puts you under a bit more pressure and makes you strive to perform. At least for me, the pressure makes you perform better. So that bit of anxiety, or a bit of nerves, it helps you turn that switch on to be able to perform.
“I always want to evolve. I always want to improve in every facet and every angle. Honestly, there’s a lot of stuff that I haven’t even been able to do yet. I haven’t been here very long and I haven’t been spending a lot of time in my matches that I’ve had. So there’s still a huge playbook that people haven’t seen.
“I’m ready for this. I hope Moxley is too. I’m ready to show the entire world who I am and what I can do.”
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report and is the author of Shamrock: The World’s Most Dangerous Man.
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