Professional wrestlers are entrepreneurial by nature. In theory, they are in control of their characters, brands, and above all else, careers. This is especially true on the independent scene, as the men and women of the business are afforded seemingly infinite freedom in each of these respects. 2021 has been a bustling year in indie wrestling, especially as the scene has come out of the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. One can consider the scene in question a kingdom all its own, and looking back on 2021, Matt Cardona made the year his own. This was a path whose paving began in 2020 and culminated in one man’s reinvention. Let’s take a deeper look.
2021: The Year of Matt Cardona
A Challenging Yet Humble 2020
In early 2020, the world was rocked to its core due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many industries, professional wrestling included, were heavily impacted. In April of that year, WWE released several people due to budget cuts. Matt Cardona, who had been known as Zack Ryder for over a decade at that point, was one such name. “Long Island Iced Z” saw success in the company, including two tag team title victories, as well as separate United States and Intercontinental title reigns. However, many fans considered his run in the company underwhelming, especially given the groundswell of support he generated in mid-to-late 2011. To longtime viewers, “The Ryder Revolution,” as paved with good intentions as it was, was derailed due to forces beyond his control.
Cardona’s release didn’t affect him much in the short term, however. During his interview with Renee Paquette on the latter’s Oral Sessions podcast, Cardona expanded upon his release, even mentioning that he didn’t re-sign his deal that was set to expire that August. Furthermore, he was interested in exploring other options. “I already set up my Pro Wrestling Tees store,” said Cardona. “I was ready to make it live. And then as soon as I got released, I hit it live – let’s go.” From there, the Long Island native expanded his brand.
Case and point, consider The Major Pad Network, co-owned by Cardona and Brian Myers, the latter formerly known as Curt Hawkins in WWE. Figure Wrestling Federation, MC! True Long Island Story, Majorland, Game Marks Podcast – if you’re in the wrestling podcast know, there’s a chance that a show you listen to is part of this larger network. Save for a handful of All Elite Wrestling appearances and matches, 2020 was quiet for Cardona on the in-ring front. However, as companies postponed shows and ceased operations, he used this opportunity to build a wrestling media empire. Meanwhile, he was planning for the year to come, which would be nothing short of career-defining.
Matt Cardona Goes to the Extreme
In 2021, Matt Cardona hit the ground running from an in-ring standpoint. He debuted for IMPACT Wrestling at Hard to Kill in January, picking up a victory over Ace Austin. Not long after, he entered a feud with Brian Myers. On TV, Myers was a nefarious character and his demeanor wasn’t received well by the more straitlaced Cardona. Their grudge went on for months, carrying into the summer. Along the way, other members of the IMPACT roster, including Eddie Edwards and Hernandez, became involved. However, it was on the independent scene where Cardona stirred the most controversy.
In May, a social media feud of sorts developed between Matt Cardona and Game Changer Wrestling stalwart Nick Gage. At first, matters seemed innocent enough, with Cardona open to fighting Gage. Cardona went so far as to create his own art inspired by Murder Death Kill (MDK), the term applied to Gage’s fan base. Meanwhile, Gage was not as jocular with his banter, threatening to physically harm the “Always Ready” Long Islander and referring to him by his WWE ring name. In no time at all, matters became hostile and wrestling fans online were in tune for every moment. If anyone thought this rivalry would stay confined to the digital space, they would be proven wrong.
The following month, on June 6, GCW Zombie Walk took place from Atlantic City, New Jersey. In the main event, Gage successfully defended the GCW World Championship against Jimmy Lloyd. It’s important to note that the evening prior, at the company’s Tournament of Survival 666 event, Gage called out Cardona, or “Zack Ryder” as he referred to him. Gage laid out an open invitation to his new rival. Despite this, the fans in attendance were left disappointed when Cardona didn’t answer. At Zombie Walk, a hooded figure appeared Gage, mimicking the body mannerisms of Jon Moxley, who Gage had a separate run-in with at Draft Day earlier that year. The figure caught Gage with the Paradigm Shift, leaving the world titleholder laying. Afterward, the hooded figure revealed itself to be none other than… Matt Cardona.
To say that this was met with a vocal reaction would be an understatement. The GCW faithful showered Cardona with a torrent of jeers and derogatory chants. Cardona soaked this response in, not unlike a flower basking in the Sun’s glow. He was also not shy about flipping off the crowd as he made his way to the back. In one night, Cardona became the most hated man in GCW, and given that the company had no shortage of vilified names – the 44OH faction, in particular – this spoke volumes. As history will show, this was only the beginning.
A Royal Metamorphosis Follows
Matt Cardona accepted the “warm welcome” from the GCW faithful the only way he knew how: to get under their skin as much as possible. He did this by referring to the company’s fans as the “GCW Universe” for starters. Moreover, he teased the possibility of capturing the GCW World Championship and rechristening it the “GCW Universal Championship.” Suffice to say, this action figure enthusiast did little to endear himself to a new audience. Not only did Cardona’s continued behavior raise the ire of the company’s fans but its top champion.
On June 11, The Major Pod Network held a live event in Baltimore, Maryland. Wrestling and memorabilia fans were in attendance, but it also attracted an unexpected guest. An irate Nick Gage stormed the event, his sights set on Cardona. Gage attempted to power his way through security and patrons alike. Response from attendees varied from pleas to let them fight to demands to throw Gage out. Ultimately, Gage was ejected, but GCW took notice. Ultimately, it was decided that Cardona would face Gage, for the world title, at GCW Homecoming Night 1 on July 24. This was a hotly anticipated match and the contrast couldn’t have been more apparent.
Matt Cardona was entering his first GCW match as an unwanted outsider. Despite being gone from WWE for over a year at that point, he still had a “sports entertainer” stigma. Couple this with his aforementioned demeanor and he was nothing short of unwelcome. Meanwhile, Nick Gage had been GCW’s consistent “ace,” for lack of better terms, since 2017. Representing Eastern Block, “The Man, The King, The God” embodied the heart and soul of the company. Fans took to his brand of deathmatch offense, but his special connection with fans made him a legend in the company. This dynamic rendered their upcoming title match all the more intriguing, even to those that had never seen a GCW event before.
All Hail the Deathmatch King, Matt Cardona
The GCW World Championship match between challenger Matt Cardona and titleholder Nick Gage was as violent as expected. Heading into this match, it was evident that Cardona was in an unfamiliar environment. For example, when Gage attacked with his signature pizza cutter, Cardona responded in horror. The Long Islander believed he had been legitimately carved up in the center of the ring. All the while, the fans in attendance motivated their champion, wanting to see the boastful outsider put in his place. This would have happened, however, had it not been for Gage’s longtime rivals in the 44OH. With this unexpected assistance, Cardona smashed a series of light tubes over Gage’s head, following up with Radio Silence to capture the GCW world title.
What followed was a borderline revolt from the crowd. As Cardona attempted to celebrate in the ring, he was pelted with everything from soaring beer cans to airborne pizza cutters. He was quickly given the belt before being rushed out of the venue by security, fearful for his safety. Cardona would provide follow-up information, stating that medical staff was lacking in the venue. He also struggled to treat cuts he endured throughout the match, needing to resort to using hotel towels in lieu of traditional medical solutions. During the match, his white shirt slowly became red due to blood loss. Nonetheless, this match and subsequent title win further emboldened the self-proclaimed “Deathmatch King.”
Cardona would find himself in the crosshairs of other GCW stars; yes, his rivals in the promotion began with Gage but they didn’t end with him. Enter EFFY, who rubbed salt in the wound of Cardona following his GCW World Championship loss to Jon Moxley at this past September’s The Art of War Games. At Get Lost Alot later that month, Cardona was forced to defend his Internet Championship for a shot at the GCW world title. In half a minute, “The Deathmatch King” fell to a man he considered a “peasant” in EFFY, losing the Internet title in the process. This sparked a new feud with not only “The Feminist Icon” but his BUSSY teammate, Allie Katch, before Cardona’s real-life fiance, Chelsea Green, became involved. After all, what is a king without his queen?
Matt Cardona’s 2021 – In Closing
It’s easy to see that Matt Cardona had a 2021 that few wrestling fans expected. He entered an unfamiliar avenue in professional wrestling, became a world champion, and reinvented himself from a character standpoint. His success wasn’t limited to GCW, either. On October 2, everything came up Cardona at Absolute Intense Wrestling, as he became the Absolute Intense Champion. Cardona also recently appeared for the National Wrestling Alliance, setting his sights on the current NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion, Trevor Murdoch. The villainous “King of Long Island” hasn’t been shy about taking what he wanted on the independent scene; a far cry from the happy-go-lucky, fist-pumping WWE Superstar fans knew roughly a decade prior. Those that watch IMPACT Wrestling can tell you, though, that this is only part of the story.
In the IMPACT Zone, Cardona’s demeanor and morals are considerably more white hat. In addition to his feud with Brian Myers mentioned earlier, he’s been involved in prominent storylines such names as W. Morrissey and current IMPACT World Champion Moose. Depending on how this particular story ends, Cardona may end up with more world title gold before long. On IMPACT, instead of the egotistical “Deathmatch King,” he’s more along the lines of a matured Zack Ryder, maintaining a sense of righteousness sans the shades, headband, and proclamation of “Woo Woo Woo, You Know It.” Cardona’s endeavors in IMPACT and those elsewhere is very much a tale of two cities. Following 2021, Matt Cardona has an interesting story heading into the New Year.
Pro wrestling is an art form, meaning that it hinges on creativity. The men and women that viewers strive to not only hone their craft but evolve over time. Matt Cardona did exactly this throughout 2021, though it was done in a way few, if anyone, expected. What this resulted in, however, was success in the ring and outside of it. 2022 could very well be another major year for “The Major Brother,” and whether or not a crown rests upon his head, all eyes will be on “The Deathmatch King.”