El Phantasmo: The Artistry of the Modern Wrestling Villain

If pro-wrestling has taught me anything, it’s that if I were attracted to men, I’d fall for the bad boy every time. They’d seduce me with their devilish charms, I’d be convinced I can change them, and then they’d leave me crying on the curb because you can’t tame a rebel. I’d convince myself things would be different and then “ooh look at him in the leather jacket kicking a guy in the nuts while the referee was distracted by a gust of wind”. Bad guys do bad things but the way they go about that has had to change and evolve over the years. Whereas once upon a time, merely insulting the local sports team might be enough to get the pitchforks out, now people will just roll their eyes and give a courtesy boo (unless you pick on Seattle in which case all bets are off). The modern villain needs to adapt to a wrestling industry that is far different to the one from forty years ago. Few have done this better than El Phantasmo.

El Phantasmo is a Canadian born wrestler who began to turn heads while in the British organisation Revolution Pro Wrestling, before hitting the big leagues with New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2019. Joining Bullet Club, who had swung back into a fully evil stable after The Elite’s departure, Phantasmo quickly fit in as one of the group’s top Juniors alongside The Man of a Million Abs, Taiji Ishimori. Together they won the Jr Tag Team Titles, with ELP going on to win the Super J-Cup tournament in 2019. It’s his recent back-to-back success in that tournament that showcased his villainous prowess.

Credit: New Japan Pro Wrestling

The 2020 Super J-Cup was a one night empty arena tournament featuring competitors from different American promotions as well as New Japan’s American outfit. Due to the nature of the event, ELP had to play the heel for the length of the two hour show, without an audience to feed off. Because he was in three matches, he had to be creative in his evil ways so as not to become boring; repeating the same spots all night.

And he succeeded with flying colours.

The story of his first round match was that of ring rust. Having not wrestled since February, he was overmatched by a more prepared Lio Rush and spent the match working as a desperate cheater, the ring rust evident. He struggled to keep up with Lio and lacked his usual smoothness, including intentionally botching his entrance flip and signature rope spot – an important trick to draw fans into believing the defending champion and clear favourite could lose in the first round.

So he went for every typical underhanded trick he could to take advantage. Lio had most of it scouted, but eventually fell to the deadly combination of a ref distraction, eye poke, Falcon Punch to the crotch and small package pinfall. Despite what El Phantasmo would say, he scraped through the first round. Lio looked strong in defeat, ELP looked like a jerk, and the second round could build off of the story of the first.

Round two placed him against underdog Blake Christian. The more skilled and experienced Phantasmo wrestled a more controlling match, testing the referee’s patience as he pushed the leniency of the rulebook. Christian had also legitimately broken his nose in his first match against Rey Horus. So ELP incorporated this on the fly, using the injured nose to kill hope spots. Every time Blake built some momentum Phantasmo would grab and squeeze the nose. Simple but effective.

Credit: New Japan Pro Wrestling

The final was against another injured opponent in ACH, but El Phantasmo was far more fixated on exploiting the injury in this match. Instead of targeting the weak spot on occasion like he did with Blake, this time it was his sole focus. Even before the match had started, Phantasmo assaulted ACH from behind during his entrance and broke the Super J-Cup trophy across his bad back. Every chance he got, he would focus on the injury. He’d tear away the bandages – using submissions he might not normally – even taking the match outside of the ring and suplexing him on the entrance ramp. Even though there were two straight matches where injuries were involved, Phantasmo told different stories and played the antagonist differently each time to bring forward a new story.

And this is all ignoring his finest work during the whole night, which occurred before he even stepped in the ring.

New Japan Pro Wrestling doesn’t always have the licensing rights to broadcast certain theme songs. For example, Togi Makabe enters the ring to a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’, which is amazing live, but on NJPW World we get a studio dub to avoid copyright issues (except for the very rare occasion when the stars align). Will Ospreay’s ‘Elevated’ was randomly dubbed over for months due to license disputes, and whenever CMLL tour for Fantastica Mania we get a whole lot of the same song dubbed over every entrance.

This had never been an issue for El Phantasmo as he owns the rights to his David Grimason produced theme. ELP had been hyping a new ‘VIP’ version of this track for the entirety of the pandemic (he even Rickrolled fans in July with a ‘release’). Finally he announced that the wait was over, and the theme would debut at the Super J Cup.

But when he made his entrance…silence. The dreaded “sound muted due to license issues” appeared on screen.

As he walked down to the ring, it all became clear. He motioned for us to listen, and then started laughing, and even pretended to cry. Kevin Kelly hinted to it on commentary, and it was later confirmed on Twitter that ELP was holding out for more money before he’d let New Japan broadcast his new theme.

Credit: NJPW World

There was no better possible time to pull this kind of trick. In most situations, such a move would only impact those watching online. Just like Immigrant Song still plays in the arena for Makabe, the audience would have been none the wiser of what was going on, or even confused by the antics directed to the camera. But 2020 makes for unusual situations, and with no live crowd, he was free to focus all of his antagonising onto a streaming audience. He masterfully used a meme about copyright being the biggest bad guy in New Japan and turned it into getting him heat.

This is where the challenges for the modern villain in wrestling lay, in an audience more connected and ‘smarter’ to the business than ever. In the past, bad guys would often move from territory to territory, meaning they were performing to new fans and could keep their act fairly similar without it growing too stale. Then television came along, and you had to develop more tricks. Now wrestlers are connected to the fans 24/7 through social media, constantly analysing what they say and do, and it’s an audience that knows you’re playing a character.

To be an effective heel in today’s wrestling scene, you have to be constantly developing your art. Look at El Phantasmo’s Bullet Club contemporary Jay White, and how he’s developed different aspects of his in ring work to find new ways to make the audience boo him. He started simple, like the tried and true method of stalling for time outside the ring, but over time, his wrestling style has evolved to be a more complete villain. The best example of this is when he intentionally stays down so his opponent can’t hit their big signature move – something the crowd always likes to see – and he does it with a big smug grin on his face as he denies them of that joy. Or take Maxwell Jacob Friedman (MJF) for example: he’s willing to cost himself money for the sake of his character by charging $500 on Cameo because, in his mind, a personal message from him is worth as much as The Nature Boy Ric Flair, who charges the same amount.

Credit: New Japan Pro Wrestling

Everything El Phantasmo does is done to annoy the fans. Whether it’s goading the opponent into making a mistake, or teasing a top rope move only to turn it into a backrake (and increasing the ridiculousness of the setup with each successive rake), it’s to irritate them. Even when he does pull off an athletic feat that should excite the crowd, such as his ropewalking, his arrogance towards his own ability ensures that even a move that would normally get the crowd to cheer is instead met with disdain.

Much in the same way Jay White wrestles, there is no wasted opportunity to get a reaction from the audience. He wants to make sure you’re firmly behind his opponent, because all that matters is seeing ELP get his comeuppance. It extends outside of the ring to his social media, where he will take any and every opportunity to mock other stars and legends, all the while gloating about how good he is.

To me there are three tiers of villainy in wrestling today. There are those who work as a bad guy and get an ok reaction. They annoy the audience but they aren’t that entertaining in the process. Then there are those who are so good at being an antagonist that you can’t help but appreciate them. You want to cheer them because you like their work, but you recognise that as the audience, you too are a part of the wrestling pantomime, and so you boo them to play along.

Then there are the wrestlers that you know are amazing at being the villain. You recognise their talent and respect that, but then they do something that draws a genuine reaction of contempt out of you. El Phantasmo was in that second category for me, until I saw him live and watched how he worked the Australian crowd at NJPW Southern Showdown against Rocky Romero. He was an absolute jerk and I unwittingly bought into it. I normally prefer ELP to Rocky, but that night all I wanted was to see his smug grin smacked off of his stupid face. Then at the recent Super J-Cup, when the “sound muted due to license issues” popped up, he got me again.

El Phantasmo, you magnificent bastard.