Event review: Ring of Honor Wrestling – “Masters of the Craft”

ROH

Express Live! Columbus, Ohio – April 15, 2018

I had so much fun at my first ever Ring of Honor live event that I barely know where to start. So I guess I’ll begin with some context.

I have pretty much always been a professional wrestling fan, though there were times I was more loath than others to admit it, sometimes even to myself. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly my problem was. I’ve always been fascinated with the storytelling prowess and superlative athleticism that go into the in-ring product, and discovering as a tween that the results were predetermined did little to deter my interest, actually deepening it in scope and intensity as the years passed. Perhaps it was simple seasonal boredom, or a zest to explore other arenas once I’d determined this one had grown stale. I did use my two self-imposed sabbaticals from conspicuous wrestling consumption semi-productively, channeling my energies into innocent albeit voracious video piracy during the lull between the crest of O.G. “Hulkamania” and the WWF/WCW “Monday Night War”, and becoming an unchecked boxing fiend in the period between WWF’s “Attitude Era” and the current WWE product, into which I took an unprovoked leap of faith about three years ago. WWE itself has numerous problems, of course, not the least of which are that A) as a publicly traded company obsessed with image, notoriety, and accessibility, it serves far too many masters, and B) it has more accumulated talent than it knows comfortably what to do with. WWE’s five hours of weekly television nevertheless contain approximately two hours of in-ring action I feel in any way compelled to watch. It’s flashy, enjoyable, technically sound, overly scripted, somewhat predictable entertainment. I value WWE far more as part of a balanced diet than as the only game in town.

By comparison, Ring of Honor, North America’s current king of independent wrestling, runs exactly one hour of traditional televised content per week, an action-packed, syndicated grab bag that is well worth consulting your local listings for. Three quality matches, buffeted by punchy, economical wrestler promos, pithy commentary, and a bare minimum of filler. That’s it. The moment I notice a new episode pop up on my DVR is reliably one of the better of any given week. Ring of Honor television’s fluid timeslot and subprime sponsorship may allude to the company’s status as “not-WWE” (and thus independent) but next to nothing else about it does, and, in those cases, only because ROH is at pains to distinguish itself as something different. The truth is that if I hadn’t taken a chance on ROH roughly a year ago, my current dalliance with pro wrestling on the whole might already be circling the drain instead of gaining strength daily. To wit – every March, “Wrestlemania Weekend” marks the epicenter of the professional wrestling year’s calendar, with indie promotions worldwide putting their best collective foot forward in an effort to gain a little bit of shine from proximity to the pageantry, prestige, and consequence of WWE’s monstrous signature event. This Wrestlemania Weekend, I watched a combined (estimated) eighteen hours of wrestling programming – an admittedly preposterous total which far exceeded my time, say, spent sleeping – and almost 50% of that, including ROH’s twelfth annual “Supercard of Honor” PPV, for which I laid down significant dough to join its streaming channel “HonorClub”, originated from a source located outside Stamford, CT. Something real is afoot here, people.

Anyone who has ever paid this site a passing glance knows I’m not scrambling for something, anything, to fill my spare time. My available spare time is currently nil; it is occupied at my pleasure and on my schedule by a plethora of specific music, movies, books, games, TV, sports and what I consider other worthwhile pursuits. Increasingly, wrestling is at the forefront, and I’m long since past being touchy about it, if, indeed, I ever was. The lost weekend I describe above almost certainly represents the zenith of my pro wrestling fandom so far, though any number of forthcoming internet smarks (“smart marks” are rarely the shy and retiring sort) will surely tell you that, as a WWE, ROH, and budding NJPW enthusiast, I’m exclusively picking low-hanging fruit, maybe even barely scratching the genre’s surface. To them, I’d offer that investing eighteen out of a consecutive forty-eight hours on anything besides breathing is probably sufficient, that low-hanging fruit is, not coincidentally, often the ripest, and that if it is, in fact, all downhill from here, at least I’m starting freefall with a stupid grin plastered to my face. This past Sunday marked not just my first live ROH card ever but my first live professional wrestling event in well over a decade, and, simply put, it was a nuclear blast. The shockingly premium third-row ringside seats surely accounted for some of that*, but I’d known instinctively there would be something more to it going in. And there was.

*Express Live is Columbus, Ohio’s premiere venue for non-arena concert business, and, as a veteran of dozens upon dozens of shows there, my knowledge of the space’s configuration made me uncertain of how good our wrestling seats would end up being. What a pleasant surprise then. The losing wrestlers often exited ringside opposite where they’d entered and, in so doing, passed by a few feet from where I sat. I shouted congratulations to one and all as they made their way out of the throng. Hell, I shook Young Buck Matt Jackson’s hand like a reunited frat brother after his hard fought victory in a spectacular eight-man tag that was arguably the match of the night. If not for the stationary ringside cameraman that often unwittingly blotted out my direct in-ring view and forced me to crane my neck in chiropractic improvisation, the whole thing would’ve been just perfect. As it was, still flat awesome.

I’m a metal guy, so it stands to reason I’m a small club guy. Call the venue intimate, cozy, or whatever have you. I’m probably on the pit periphery somewhere waiting for the figurative sparks to fly. Express Live is no outhouse, flophouse, or National Guard armory, and Ring of Honor is no fly by night local outfit, though even as it flourishes in the present it still celebrates an amazingly fertile and consequential past. Having recently marked its sixteenth year of existence – of, as its weekly pre-show announcement proclaims, “Creating Excellence” – ROH has long since outgrown what, as a neophyte capable of educated guesses, I can only assume are its own humble origins. Express Live’s wrestling configuration, which, it should also be said, periodically hosts WWE’s white hot feeder promotion NXT, is impressive in its ingenuity and clever use of space. I rewatched the card, dubbed “Masters of the Craft”, via the aforementioned HonorClub streaming service and found little difference in terms of production quality between it and the weekly shows I routinely catch in syndication. This is not the WWE turning some room of 16,000 into an immersive multimedia extravaganza that effectively camouflages periodic outbursts of solid wrestling. It’s a smaller scale show with a subjectively much bigger heart, held before 1000 or so of the proudly loud and actually faithful, without a substandard seat in the house. The metal kid in me loves and instinctively relates to this dynamic. You feel engaged, you feel involved. You feel…something. It’s in the air.

“Masters of the Craft” began with two dark matches before segueing into the program proper. The three-man broadcast position occupied what looked to me to be the very corner edge of Express Live’s concert stage, a precarious space maybe eight feet square. Normal play-by-play commentator Ian Riccaboni was joined for the event by wrestler turned talk show pest Caprice Coleman and bullpen color commentator B.J. Whitmer. The large LED monitor used for entrance videos sat atop the same stage from which I’ll see Primus, Mastodon, and Flogging Molly once summer finally breaks its embargo and decides to begin in earnest. The ring, noticeably smaller than WWE’s to both facilitate more fluid action and fit challenging size restrictions, was nestled in Express Live’s pit section, flanked beyond the perhaps dangerously reduced extracurricular ringside area on two sides by rows of fenced-off fans and on the other two by cement walls. Our event, technically a second tier pay-per-view for HonorClub VIPs in addition to a tour stop, started with a hype video touting Ring of Honor’s impressive history, abundant passion, fan experience, and overarching connection between wrestlers and audience, ending with the tagline, “Honor is real”. You said it, buddy. The night’s theme music, highlighted by a clipped guitar riff that that seemed to cry out for the call and response audience participation of a classic New Age Outlaws intro, materialized several times throughout the night, making only that momentary impression. I was kinda proud that all but a few crowd members seemed able to resist the temptation to yell, “Oh you didn’t know?”, said number dwindling grudgingly with every music cue replay.

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Dark MatchBesties in the World by pinfall over some jobber team: Conspicuous by their absence from “Masters of the Craft” was the tag team “Best Friends”, an extremely popular duo of tall, imminently competent wrestlers (Chuckie T and Trent Beretta) whose gimmick is that they spontaneously hug at the match’s most fraught moment to thunderous applause. Anyway, those guys weren’t here. Bootleg version “Besties in the World” won a neat but uninspiring dark match against two dudes whose names I never caught for the honor of a tag team title shot during the main card against The Briscoes. Nice work, boys. Spend the next ninety minutes making your funeral arrangements.

Dark MatchJosh “The Goods” Woods by pinfall over Facade: Billed as a “Future of Honor” qualifying match, this was a pleasant meeting between indie journeyman Facade (known as the “Neon Ninja”) and Woods, the athletic MMA impersonator who actually won last year’s FOH tournament. Guess the rub from that victory didn’t stick if he’s back to qualifying again.

Coast to Coast by pinfall over The Dawgs: ROH’s most pointedly annoying tag team faces its most ostensibly rising one. Some nice individual spots, both comedic and technical, in a fun curtain-jerker that foreshadowed better things to come.

TV TitleSilas Young by pinfall over Cheeseburger: The evening’s first appreciable, specialized crowd involvement came in the form of jeers for classic heel Young, the grizzled, self-proclaimed “Last Real Man” of pro wrestling, in favor of the 138-pound ultra-underdog Cheeseburger. Young’s early incredulousness at having to defend his title against a fluttering gnat melted away into incredulousness that, despite his best efforts, he couldn’t seem to put the anthropomorphic New Jersey pool skimmer away. After Young won with a shocking roll-up pinfall, newly minted WWE Hall of Famer Bubba Ray Dudley (known in ROH as “Bully Ray” for pesky legal reasons) came out to rake Cheeseburger further over the coals. The confrontation got physical and the fray was eventually joined by aerial dynamo Flip Gordon for storyline reasons that escape me. Just to be in the presence of an ECW original like Bully Ray left me a little starstruck. It was a pleasure to watch the part time wrestler turned ROH “enforcer” mercilessly mock the loser, the crowd, the city, and, in particular, an especially mouthy guy in the front row across from us, so intensely, it must be said, that I thought the “fan” must be some planted wrestler about to make his shocking debut.

Tennille Dashwood, Deonna Purrazzo, and Sumie Sakai by pinfall over Brandi Rhodes, Madison Rayne, and Jenny Rose: The one in-ring area in which ROH lags behind the WWE product is its Women’s Division. With its history of forward-thinking innovation, ROH nevertheless largely missed the boat regarding the upsurge of women’s wrestling in recent years and was forced to scramble, cobbling together a just-completed tournament to crown an inaugural women’s champion. The WOH competitors do solid, if occasionally rather sloppy, work, but the biggest name among them (Australian narcissist Tennille Dashwood) wouldn’t make the WWE female roster’s top ten. This is appropriate, since the WWE released her a couple months ago. The match’s other big name was Brandi Rhodes, another former WWE employee and wife of “Bullet Club” (U.S.) leader Cody. The match’s undisputed highlight came in a sequence where Dashwood kicked legit giant-headed Bullet Club mascot “Bernard the Business Bear” from the ring apron, the first of four consecutive rapid-fire attacks to the outside before WOH champ Sakai beat Rhodes with, perversely enough, her husband’s finishing move. Afterward, a truly painful verbal exchange between ROH vet Purrazzo and rival/theoretical badass Kelly Klein helped demonstrate how far the division still has to go.

Bullet Club (The Young Bucks and Adam Page) and Flip Gordon by pinfall over SoCal Uncensored and Shane Taylor: The show’s first half closed with a boom, as the most hyped and popular faction in wrestling today dominated a blockbuster eight-man tag match against the company’s preeminent heel collective. Hired gun Shane Taylor traded on his Cleveland bonafides by shouting “O-H!” before a thunderous fall-away slam, with the crowd’s incoming volley of “I-O!” among the evening’s three loudest overall moments. Hyper-athletic high spots and double teams abounded in a briskly paced, eye-popping, 20+-minute match, punctuated by an utterly nuts, ahem, “human centipede” spot comprised of all eight participants locked into a boston crab and 7 linked triangle leg chokes, with a four-man “Superkick Party” and mega-piledriver aided by two top rope spikes thrown in for dessert. Just wow.

Tag Titles The Briscoes by submission over Besties in the World: This was less a wrestling match than a televised (mock) execution. Despite lacking devastating bulk or stature, the Briscoe Brothers are still the most palpably intense tag team in wrestling today…by a mile.

Jay Lethal by pinfall over Jonathan Gresham: The stealth match of the night was this back and forth chain wrestling marvel between ROH standard-bearer Lethal and the ascendant, ever-dangerous technician Gresham, who have spent the past month+ of television developing a hell of a rivalry based on high workrate and grudging mutual respect. Any scolds out there still getting undue mileage from their worn out “wrestling is fake” protests should be sentenced to twenty minutes of being alternately stretched by Gresham and knife-edge chopped by Lethal. You won’t walk for days, nor, probably, sleep on your stomach ever again. Also notable for the wealth of audience participation, including not one but three dueling “Let’s go Lethal!/Let’s go Gresham!” call and response chants. I took part in all three, the first for Lethal, the others for Gresham, who was finally pinned on a roll-up after a heroic effort. Afterward, Lethal took to the mic to thank his rival for, “bringing out the best in me”. Just a terrific interpersonal story, simply and emphatically told.

First Blood MatchMatt Taven via bloody knuckles over Cody: Lots of entertainment value and amateur psychology to be had in this grudge match between the chief of “Bullet Club’s” North American chapter, Cody, cheered wildly here despite nominally being the company’s biggest heel, and his own personal antagonist extraordinaire Taven, the whining, preening head of perennial six-man threat “The Kingdom”. With the stipulation that the first combatant to bleed would lose, the match covered an impressive number of bases, with Kingdom-mate T.K. O’Ryan overly greasing up Taven’s face ala boxing cutman Stitch Duran before the bell rang, to the repeated referee entreaties, following almost every single stiff blow, to “check him!”, to the introduction at various moments of a class ring, a roll of nickels, a table, a stake-sized splinter from said table, and even, to top it all, a woodsman’s axe. A well-booked match that kept the surprises coming, the end saw Taven henchman Vinnie Marseglia emerging from beneath the ring with bad intentions but soon enough running for his life from an axe-wielding, obviously scorned Brandi Rhodes, while Cody, sick of being repeatedly denied by his opponent’s impermeable skin, removed his handwraps for a little bare knuckle on forehead “ground and pound” action, only to accidentally, and fatefully, cold cock the dastardly Taven’s (stolen) Six Man Tag Championship belt.

Defy or Deny Four-WayMarty Scurll over Dalton Castle, Punishment Martinez, and the Beer City Bruiser: Dear heavens, this was a main event. You can try as an exercise to select four more different and colorful characters from the Ring of Honor roster, but I definitely don’t like your odds. As befits a four-way elimination summit meeting between the strutting peacock world champion Castle, proto-Undertaker headsman ghoul Martinez, rotund brawler BCB, and explosively charismatic overt “Villain” Scurll, this match had a little bit of everything, all stops pulled, no “F”s given, no “feeling out” process necessary. Consider the over 300-pound Bruiser’s rolling cannonball delivered from the ring apron onto a no doubt surprised Martinez, or the 6’6” future NXT star’s (I’m calling it now) spinning heel kick from the top rope rebuttal, or the still underrated champ Castle, his left hand mummified from the previous weekend’s PPV encounter with Scurll, dead-lifting the Bruiser into a pulverizing German suplex, or “The Villain” himself, freshly crowned as ROH’s biggest star if not (yet) its champion, engaging in all manner of dastardly trademark shenanigans to the unflagging delight of the “whoop-whooping” crowd. After a Scurll-improvised impromptu turf war that degenerated into an avalanche of diving flips between Castle’s hysterical attendants “The Boys” and BCB’s tag team partner “Kingpin” Brian Milonas, who weighs as much as both Boys plus the triplet brother they never had, the scrum boiled down in short order to a rematch of the “Supercard” world championship encounter. Scurll saved his most singular schtick for last, “rebreaking” Castle’s bandaged fingers to gleeful chants of “You Sick F%$k!” before winning on a roll-up.**

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**Because Ring of Honor seems to protect established finishing moves much more than some other former federations I could name, a lot of their highest profile matches tend to end suddenly, via roll-up, small package, etc., rather than explosively. Personally, I think this strategy goes much farther toward keeping both wrestlers strong than, say, Roman Reigns inexplicably kicking out of five F-5s only to finally succumb to Brock Lesnar on the sixth. That sort of thing defuses emotional investment and strains credibility, even in a predetermined match. Hell, especially in a predetermined match. Finishers should be finishers. Kick out of one and you’d better actually be Superman, rather than just playing Iron Man on TV. My $.02.

After the HonorClub broadcast signed off, Scurll remained in the ring to bask in the the audience’s approval. As has apparently become tradition, he allowed the crowd to chant-cajole him into singing a song, but was unsurprisingly interrupted by the returning SoCal Uncensored, whose gimmick the last six months or so has been to spoil everyone’s good time by any means necessary. “Heavy Metal Rebel” Frankie Kazarian mocked some of Scurll’s recent karaoke faves – N’Sync, 98 Degrees, and the like – before demanding he sing Slayer’s “Raining Blood” instead. That got my attention. Of course, Scurll’s Bullet Club brethren soon stormed the gates to even the odds, hitting finishers and handing out high fives to the crowd like Halloween candy as a humble Scurll, who, in the midst of closing “thank yous”, had already announced from the ring that he was soon moving to America full time with designs on eventually becoming a U.S. citizen, broke out in a hilariously Cockney-accented attempt at “Real American” to send everyone home happy. Thirty years later and it seems I still can’t ever fully get away from Hulk Hogan. You are a villain, Marty.

Even during the years I wasn’t much paying attention to wrestling, I still gave occasional thought to seeing the WWE live. Heaven knows I’ve had enough opportunities. Each year in Columbus sees the erstwhile Federation roll through two to three times for high visibility events, the most recent as of this writing being February’s “Fast Lane” PPV. I was out of town that time, and legitimately torn, though it was the exception on both counts. Most PPV Sundays, I am at home or a friend’s house, contentedly watching away. All Raw Mondays or Smackdown Tuesdays, I’m faithfully watching, albeit on a DVR delay that allows me a free hand to trim the occasional filler. Why didn’t/don’t I go to those live events? For the same reason I snapped up tickets to “Masters of the Craft” the minute they went on sale, only inverted. I fully intend to one day attend a WWE “Wrestlemania” or “Royal Rumble” PPV live, because those are events that so big that they become true occasions by sheer force of will, the sorts of things you truly do need to see to believe. You’ll witness some great wrestling, surely, and the electricity in those rooms is palpable even when watching at home. ROH works smarter, on a much smaller scale, and produces amazing results on a personal level. Everything about the promotion’s prevailing “indie” spirit innately appeals to me – the intimacy of the room, the investment of the fans, the workrate of the performers – and filters through to the final product. Its closest analogue is not WWE at all but, rather, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), the the dearly departed Philadelphia-based insurgent that, in its focus on bloody realism and compelling in-ring quality (and variety), pushed the envelope as the generation’s indefatigable last super-indie before finally, in the words of its wunderkind creator Paul Heyman, becoming, “the first casualty of the Monday Night War”.

ECW is so fondly remembered to this day, some seventeen years after its downfall, that the ubiquitous chant that once burst forth from a converted bingo hall in South Philly has remained nationwide audience shorthand as a response to something astounding happening in the ring, or just a rallying cry of approval from the assembled hardcore faithful.*** Indeed, a couple of folks tried to get an “E-C-W!” chant rolling during the early stages of “Masters of the Craft”, only to be stymied by the pointed indifference of the fans around them. “E-C-W!” is simultaneously an affectionate Pavlovian callback to a much romanticized time in recent wrestling history and, it must be said, a not particularly subtle dig at the quality of the event currently taking place. When, while driving down Knoxville, Tennessee’s main drag, I once hung my head out the car window to yell “Slayer!” at a line of people waiting to get into some nu metal show or other, it wasn’t just because I happen to really like the band Slayer. The people around me didn’t utter a peep in response to the “E-C-W!” provocations, although we hardly shut our mouths otherwise, and, soon enough, it stopped even being a question. Match after match, spot after spot, performance after performance, Ring of Honor wrestling, in all its free-flowing fun and breath-halting impact, spoke for itself. “This is a farce!” I heard some guy in the row behind me remark to a friend during a dizzying sequence in the eight-man tag when four combatants in rapid succession tried hitting moves from the top rope only to find empty canvas and plywood beneath them. “This is a farce!” Then he must’ve thought it out for a moment. “They’re really working in there,” he finally allowed. “And it sure is fun.”

***In the summer of 2000, I had the pleasure and privilege to witness one of ECW’s last handful of traditional house shows live. If the end was nigh, there was little interest among the assembled hooligans to dwell on any unpleasantness. Instead, we drank in the atmosphere and treated the night like an Irish wake, a raucous, communal celebration of a life well lived. Ring of Honor thankfully doesn’t share ECW’s financial problems, but I see tons of other (positive) similarities where it matters most.

Ring of Honor doesn’t need anybody to speak for it, though, moments later, we did anyway.

“R-O-H! R-O-H! R-O-H!”

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