Saturday, 20 July 2013

Sweet Sixteen

On July 3rd Ring of Honor announced that their world title had been vacated. The reason given was that champion Jay Briscoe was too banged up to compete. I wrote at length on the subject at the time. The short form of what I said is that vacating the belt for anything other than a serious injury would harm its lineage and credibility.

The championship had been built up over the course of eleven years as something that the holder would fight to retain at all costs. That's part of what makes it such a respected title. That Jay Briscoe was stripped of the gold portrays him as a lesser champion and damages the title's, and the company's, credibility.

ROH will be holding a sixteen man tournament to crown a new champion. They announced one or two competitors a day over the course of a fortnight. The first round bouts will be held at the July 27th TV taping in Providence and the August 3rd All Star Extravaganza V show in Toronto.

I have mixed feelings on the field of entrants, which is to be expected with a tournament like this. The first eight names revealed got my hopes up and made me think we were going to see a memorable series. In order they were Michael Elgin, Brian 'Spanky' Kendrick, Karl Anderson, Kevin Steen, Paul London, Roderick Strong, Adam Cole and Sonjay Dutt. Those eight include the favourite to win the whole thing (Elgin), the promotion's top heel (Cole), and surprise returning stars (Kendrick and Dutt). The order in which they were revealed seemed to hint that ROH was taking the approach of entering one current member of the roster followed by an outsider. Had they stuck with that approach I think they could have put together a fantastic tournament.

Sadly they didn't. The announcement of Dutt's involvement was followed by BJ Whitmer's name. That’s the same BJ Whitmer who has been synonymous with the term "space holder" throughout his Ring of Honor career. His being awarded a spot in the tournament was as unsurprising as it was uninspiring. Tommaso Ciampa, Jay Lethal, Mike Bennett, the winner of a match between Silas Young and Adam Page, Matt Taven, ACH and Mark Briscoe were the final seven. It was, in my opinion, a pretty weak second half.
Under different circumstances Mike Bennett would have made a fine ROH world champion
Ciampa, Lethal and Bennett were all obvious entrants. I was hoping ACH would be entered as a sort of wild card so I'm pleased he's got a spot. (which he won by fan vote, seeing off competition from Caprice Coleman, Cedric Alexander, Tadarius Thomas and QT Masrshall). Matt Taven, as good as he is, is a mid-card champion. He's in that role for a reason, specifically that he's not yet ready to be a top guy. Not only that but ROH isn't going to put both of their singles straps on one wrestler, so his involvement serves to give away one guy who's definitely not going to win.

I've nothing against Silas Young and Adam Page. I've actually been hoping ROH would use both men more for a while, mainly because they need to start prepping their next batch of stars for the talent exodus I feel is going to hit them soon. But so far they've been used mostly as lower mid-card guys. Whoever progresses to the tournament doesn’t stand a chance of winning.

I should probably address my desire for every entrant to be perceived as a potential winner. It's fine for companies like WWE and TNA to load up tournaments with no-hopers. Those companies will always have the winner be a John Cena or a CM Punk, a Kurt Angle or an AJ Styles. Storylines take priority over work rate in sports entertainment, and so tournaments and series can involve some guys who are obviously there to make up the numbers.

ROH is supposed to be different. It's supposed to be the wrestling company that puts the sport of wrestling above everything else. With that in mind wouldn't it make sense for the league to only want to feature their best names and have everyone involved be seen as a candidate to win?

It's hard to see the inclusion of guys like Young, Page, Whitmer and Taven as anything other than a cost saving measure no matter how proficiently the "giving an opportunity to a younger talent" line is trotted out. This was a perfect opportunity for ROH to bring in outsiders and put together a special and memorable summer event. I was hoping they'd bring in one or two Japanese stars (it’s been announced that New Japan’s KUSHIDA will be All Star Extravaganza, could he not have been put in the tournament?) and perhaps even a Brit or two, but no. Instead we have SBG saving money and the possibility of a final involving BJ Whitmer.

Mark Briscoe's involvement is a bad call for a different reason. Had the belt been vacated for another reason his inclusion would make sense. He has the star power to warrant a position in any such tournament in Ring of Honor. But the ROH title was vacated specifically because Mark and his brother Jay were unable to compete. If Mark can wrestle it raises the question of why Jay can't, which in turn raises the question of why Jay was stripped of the title and why this series is happening to begin with. Mark's inclusion seems like a scheme designed to convince us that the Briscoes aren't headed to WWE. It's a bad call from ROH. I'd rather have had Jushin Liger or Dave Mastiff than him.
KUSHIDA should have had Mark Briscoe's spot
If the Briscoes are sticking around they should have been held off events until after a new champion is crowned. If this is a way of giving the team, or just Mark a send-off it should have been skipped. I’d rather the integrity of the belt be retained than a tag team wrestler be given a going away party in front of the fans.

My final complaint is the omission of the American Wolves. After the first eight names were announced I was convinced Richards and Edwards would be amongst the latter batch of entrants. The kayfabe reason for them not getting included is that they asked to stay out to focus on the tag team titles. Which, y'know, is as stupid as it sounds. I kayfabe terms what wrestler in their right mind would turn down the chance to become the world champion in favour of wrestling some tag matches? Tag team titles can be challenged for at any time. A vacant title only rocks up once every eleven years.

This seems like another diversionary tactic. The Wolves' contracts apparently expire in early August. Should either or both leave (and that's not impossible) that would make them unavailable for the second round of the tournament. So if both were entered and decided to head on over to WWE it would create a situation where ROH would have to eliminate two favourites in the first round. There would be ways around that looking strange, such as booking the Wolves against a favourite like Elgin or a guy who could benefit from a boost like Ciampa, but both going out so early would stretch credibility just a little too far, even by the elastic standards of pro wrestling.

Of the men entered I don't think there are many potential winners. I was keen for Lethal and London to be a part of proceedings but I don't think they'll win. They deserve spots based on their work and standing within the company. Only Adam Cole and Michael Elgin seem like they could leave Philadelphia on September 20th as the new champion. While there's nothing wrong with that it does mean that the final seems predictable. The tournament is structured so as to allow a Cole v Elgin match to cap things off.

A predictable final doesn't need to be a bad thing. Tournaments in wrestling work best when they involve some upsets and surprising outcomes. ROH can still give us some of those and the final of Cole v Elgin, they'll just have to have the upsets come earlier on in the brackets.
The first round brackets
The trouble there is that ROH have left themselves precious few ways of doing that with the first round matches they've announced. The TV tapings in Providence will play host to Adam Cole v Mark Briscoe, Jay Lethal v Sonjay Dutt and Karl Anderson v ACH. Cole, as a favourite for the finals, is unlikely to lose and Anderson is a strong favourite in his match. Only Lethal v Dutt could give us a surprise outcome: Dutt is well respected enough to convincingly beat Jay without infuriating fans. Having him go through to the quarter finals to face Cole or Briscoe would be a good move.

I suppose ACH could beat Karl Anderson. He has his status as an ROH regular in his favour: it means ROH can guarantee they won't have trouble booking him for later matches. Anderson's career in New Japan could make him tough to get for later matches in the tournament. That said Anderson winning would see him go through to a match with the winner of Elgin v London. That's almost certainly going to be Elgin. That would allow Elgin to get his win back from his previous encounter with Anderson.

All Star Extravaganza V will see five first round matches. They are Bennett v Whitmer, Steen v Kendrick, Elgin v London, Strong v Taven, and Ciampa against the winner of Young v Page.

Again here are few opportunities for surprise. 'The Sicilian Psychopath' will clearly go over whoever he ends up facing because he's being presented as a rising star and Young and Page are not. For the record my money's on 'The Last Real Man in Wrestling' Silas Young to progress. Not that it matters.

The winner of Whitmer v Bennett is almost as inconsequential as Young v Page. The winner will just be losing to Ciampa in the following round. Neither can be considered an obvious winner so there can be no upset.
Tommaso Ciampa, practicing his Hardy Boyz impression
London defeating 'Unbreakable' seems unlikely. Elgin would benefit more form the win even if it weren’t a tournament match. London winning wouldn't be a huge, star-making moment if it occurred: he’s a star from the company's early years and is therefore seen as someone superior to the majority of the current roster by most fans (and they're not entirely wrong).

This leaves us with Steen v Kendrick and Strong v Taven to see surprise wins. Strong and Steen are the respective faves. Taven could conceivably win because he's been consistently presented as someone who defies the odds since winning the TV championship in February. Just last week he pinned Eddie Edwards, for example. Throw in some Truth Martini and Hoopla Hotty shenanigans and 'MTV' could beat 'Mr Ring of Honor'.

Kendrick has the same status as London amongst ROH fans. He could win. If this were not a tournament match I'd have no idea who to pick as a winner. The only trouble with Kendrick getting the surprise win is that it would leave 'Mr Wrestling', the regular with the company and former super-hot face (he's cooled, admit it) with nothing to do. I don't think Steen will win, but I can see him being booked in an incredibly competitive semi-final loss to Elgin.

However you look at it, that the biggest "shock" of the tournament would be seeing ACH or Sonjay Dutt progressing beyond the second round indicates that something, somewhere has gone wrong. As does the fact that ROH have failed to bring in any suitably big names or create brackets that make me think we may not see the Cole v Elgin final that seems so likely. Just because it's the match everyone expects to close the tournament doesn't make the lack of effort okay.

Nothing about the announced names and brackets has swayed me from my original pick of Michael Elgin. Only he and Adam Cole are in positions to be crowned champion and have the lengthy reign ROH desperately needs someone to have to restore credibility. Elgin is the favourite of the two because he's the face that’s been ready for a title reign for over a year. I can imagine a scenario in which Cole wins after interference from Steve Corino and-or Matt Hardy, setting up a Cole v Elgin feud culminating in a title change. But that would be harmful to the belt and the company's image. And ROH wouldn't risk that. Right?

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