MILWAUKEE — Inside the hallway of Fiserv Forum, just out of sight from the thousands of fans who have filled the arena on this Thursday night in November, there is a loud altercation coming from the Milwaukee Bucks‘ tunnel. There are mere minutes before the players take the court.
Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews are tied up, arms interlocked. But in an instant, Lopez has Matthews in a chokehold, simultaneously attacking with a fury of fists. Matthews is on the defensive, but Lopez hesitates just long enough for Matthews to break free and retaliate with shots of his own.
The tables are turned.
The curly-haired center is trapped in a stranglehold, and as he gasps for air, Lopez summons his last remaining strength to reach out and tag Thanasis Antetokounmpo.
Thanasis jumps into the fray, throwing the shooting guard to the ground and freeing his 7-foot partner. As Matthews gingerly crawls away, Lopez slowly rises and moves to finish off his foe.
But this time it is Matthews who calls for a switch, and a new challenger appears. It only takes one move — a Sweet Chin Music superkick — and Lopez is on the floor, motionless. Giannis Antetokounmpo delivers the final pin as teammates look on in silence.
Applause then erupts as the reigning NBA MVP rises to his feet for his curtain call. Lopez takes his hand and gets up sprightly, joining the ovation for the night’s victor.
Less than a minute has passed since the tussle broke out, but the Bucks are now ready to take to the hardwood after executing one of the least traditional pregame warm-ups in the league.
Not much is different about the Bucks this season. Once again, they have one of the league’s best records and the likely MVP. But some things have changed. Two of their few offseason additions have reunited in Milwaukee and introduced a rowdy, new pregame tradition to one of the NBA’s most consistent teams.
Back when Matthews and Lopez were teammates on the Portland Trail Blazers, they started beating each other up in faux wrestling matches before rushing out onto the floor. They brought the routine to Milwaukee this season, and it has exploded in locker room popularity.
“It’s a vibe of brotherhood,” Thanasis said. “We’re all together having fun.”
In many NBA arenas, the tunnel is the site of pregame huddles and chants, a final moment of privacy before stepping onto the court. The San Antonio Spurs meet outside of their locker room in the AT&T Center hallway for a quick huddle before trotting off to the court for business. The Chicago Bulls once juiced up their pregame routine by including mascot Benny The Bull in their team huddle. And in Milwaukee, they throw punches.
“Honestly, it’s just kind of evolved with Giannis getting in on that and guys getting in on that,” Matthews said. “It just kind of gets you loose before you get ready to go to battle.”
Prior to a game at the Oklahoma City Thunder, Matthews hit Lopez with a Stone Cold Stunner. In Chicago, Matthews took Lopez down with a folding chair. The entire team stomped out Kings mascot Slamson the Lion in Sacramento. And in Memphis, a bedrock of professional wrestling, Giannis cracked Lopez upside the head with a Cobra finisher.
Robin Lopez didn’t get enough of Slamson the Lion during pregame, and after the contest they wrestle a second time.
“I think everybody enjoys it. It’s just fun,” Lopez said. “Wes is the knowledgeable one about wrestling, so he keeps me on my toes. Occasionally, I have to look up some moves to know what I need to be expecting.”
Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, Matthews idolized the WWE stars he saw on television: Stone Cold Steve Austin, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels.
Thousands of miles away in Athens, Greece, Thanasis and Giannis were doing the same despite having to wait for the opportunity to tune in.
“You could go from like Rey Mysterio to Eddie Guerrero to The Rock,” Thanasis recalled. “It was crazy [trying to follow stars across eras], and back home they don’t have wrestling on TV. It’s specific channels you have to have.”
Catching your favorite wrestling act is easier these days. Clips of the Bucks’ shenanigans have spread across social media and caught the attention of WWE performers.
“Matthews’ Frog Splash is top notch,” Dozovic told ESPN. “I would call it a five-star Frog Splash, just like Rob Van Dam back in the day. So this man is already trained. Very high praise.”
“But they need a little work,” Knight added. “A little bit. Not a lot. It was good.”
Matthews is prepared to put in the work. He already is looking for ways to get more creative.
“It’s not a scripted thing,” Matthews said. “Actually, I said the other night we might be running out of material and we’ve got to start going back in the archives … to watch some old wrestling footage.”
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer didn’t learn of the high jinks until more than 20 games into the season, when his children showed him the viral videos.
“I had no idea what they were talking about. And then they showed me, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I cannot believe they do that,'” Budenholzer said. “It just seems really strange, and I don’t know what the right word is. Just different. And I joked with somebody else that I’m just going to pretend that I don’t know that it’s happening and act like they don’t do it.”
“I’m not engaged on it,” the coach added. “They didn’t run that one by me.”
And while there is little concern from the front office or coaching staff regarding potential injuries or accidents, players are still taking precautions.
“We will stay in front of [hazardous objects] so something never happens,” Thanasis said. “I know it looks so dynamic in the video, where you’re like, ‘Oh, shoot!’ But in reality, it’s just playful. We’re just having fun.”
Giannis pummels Lopez with a string of silly punches outside the locker room, following up with a King Cobra finisher. Matthews jumps over the laid-out center and bounces off imaginary ropes to set up Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s signature move, The People’s Elbow.
Of course, his teammates help Lopez up off the ground — as they always do.
The Bucks go on to defeat the Lakers 111-104 en route to a league-best 25-4 record. And while Milwaukee gets the win on the court, Matthews gets the win on social media.
His pregame elbow gets #PeoplesChampApproved that night when The Rock retweets the video with the caption: “Love seeing these guys have fun! #1 in the conference. Confident, happy and hungry.”
— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) December 20, 2019
The on-court success and The Rock’s endorsement spurs the Bucks’ wrestling ringleader on to even loftier ambitions.
“[Hill] ain’t gonna do it because he’s too cool. But the goal is to get everybody in and try to have like a Royal Rumble,” Matthews says to George Hill before walking out of the locker room.
“If I can be Rey Mysterio Jr.,” Hill responds, “I’m in.”