Sunday 21 October 2012

The Past is Another Company

I'm a fan of Ring of Honor. I like the company's realistic presentation of pro wrestling. I like their believable and logical approach to storylines. I like the company's young, athletic roster.
Well, I used to like these things.
While I remain a fan of ROH I am not happy with its current predicament. Reading comments on the ROH World (the premier ROH fan site) chat room shows I'm not alone in my opinion.
Ring of Honor made a name for itself as a company that portrayed wrestling as an athletic, competitive sport. Its priority of pushing talent was clear from the start: the best workers would rise to the top based on their performances and fan support. Politics, we were told, would not be a factor in Ring of Honor.
Over the years this was proven to be true as the likes of Bryan Danielson, CM Punk, Samoa Joe, Nigel McGuinness, Austin Aries, AJ Styles, Davey Richards, Kevin Steen, El Generico and others rose to the top based on their ability to wrestle a compelling match rather than play politics. Some of these men have more on to more political promotions (WWE and TNA, mainly) and met with success there.

But others haven't and never will. This isn’t to say that those who have moved on have had to learn how to play politics, more that some people are blessed with a marketable look than others. It's hard to imagine El Generico headlining RAW, for example.
The current state of Ring of Honor is something I've discussed before. I still want it to succeed and provide a genuine alternative to both WWE and TNA but it isn't going to do that in its current slump. Under the direction of Jim Cornette (and, allegedly, Hunter 'Delirious' Johnston) ROH has had a critically disastrous two years. Things have been bad commercially as well but it's not fair to blame that on Corny.
Cornette has stated that the rise up the card of Michael Elgin, Kyle O'Reilly and Adam Cole is proof that ROH is dedicated to finding, pushing, and rewarding the finest young talent. While I won't argue that all three men are excellent choices to carry the promotion forward and becomes its next crop of headliners I wouldn't go as far as to say that they have been used flawlessly. Nor would I say that having only three examples of well-pushed youngsters is a good position to be in. Especially for a promotion that was originally supposed to cater to the needs of unknown, talented grapplers.

O'Reilly and Cole should have had a far longer run together as Future Shock and O'Reilly's heel switch should have been held off until next year at the earliest. Meanwhile Michael Elgin's glacially paced rise through the ranks has seen him enter some cracking, white hot performances but now runs the risk of seeing him go off the boil because management have held off that final shove for too long.

Pacing things properly and sticking to a plan is all well and good but if waiting too long often does more harm than good. There are only so many times he can challenge for the ROH world title and fail before fans will stop seeing him as the next big thing.
Cornette has also said that ROH fans who dislike his approach to booking the company are simply pining for the past. It seems he thinks this because fans talk fondly of the era of Danielson, Punk and Joe. The trouble here is that ROH was better when those men were around.
This guy's had his day
ROH wasn’t better solely because those men were present but they certainly helped. The company's philosophy of showcasing talent based on ability rather than name value has evaporated over time. The hiring of Wrestling's Greatest Tag Team was a good move: Haas and Benjamin have star power but are also capable of wrestling the style that made ROH famous. Rhino, though? Mike Mondo? Matt Hardy? These are men hired more because they're former WWE employees (and-or Cornette favourites) than because they can continue the legacy of Jamie Noble, Chris Daniels, and Low Ki.
Cornette himself is the biggest difference between Ring of Honor then and now. Understandably he cannot see this. He sees his booking ideals as necessary changes for the continued expansion of the promotion rather than a dated style that Ring of Honor had evolved beyond from its very first show. Corny is very good at booking the style he enjoyed when he was young but he seems incapable of helping the sport to evolve. Perhaps that's why he had such a problem with ECW back in the 90s: it was wrestling changing before his eyes and he couldn’t understand why fans responded so enthusiastically to it.
As I said, Cornette himself is the chief difference between what is considered ROH's golden age and its current output. He made appearances for the group during its early years but he had no backstage influence (or none of note anyway). What made ROH a success initially was the vision of Gabe Sapolsky.

Gabe’s approach to finding and showcasing young and-or unknown talent gave a new generation of wrestlers a place to expose themselves. It’s noticeable that his current booking interests (Dragon Gate USA and EVOLVE) have made very little use of former WWE, TNA, WCW and ECW talent. Even men he previously worked with in Ring of Honor have been somewhat of a rarity.

My point (yes, I do have one) is that it was Gabe Sapolsky as much as the guys in the ring who helped to make ROH a success when it launched. It was his booking, his talent selection and his vision for the future of professional wrestling that helped the company stand out.

Ring of Honor can’t have it all. It can either be company that mixes veterans and youngsters with a traditional approach to feuds and pushes or it can be the home of young wrestlers. The latter is what it used to be but it involves those in charge taking a risk and giving up any and all name talent they have not created themselves. Personally I think it’s a risk worth taking, but in order for it to truly work they need a booker who hasn’t been around for decades who wants to bring change to wrestling. That ain’t Corny.

One final thought on Jim Cornette: there’s a reason nobody has ever referred to themselves as “a Jim Cornette guy.”

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