Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic

On “Black Friday” I took advantage of Ring of Honor’s fantastic sale and snagged a stack of ten DVDs loaded with pro wrestling goodness for around $10.00 each. The first tasty treat I tore into was Death Before Dishonor III, featuring ROH champion Austin Aries defending against CM Punk on his alleged final night in the company before departing for WWE.

TODAY’S ISSUE: Aries vs. Punk at Death Before Dishonor III, 18 June 2005

A memorable piece of entertainment must do more than flicker across the screen or assault your senses with colors, shapes and sounds. It should capture your imagination and keep you anxiously awaiting the next moment, whether it’s the punch line to a comedian’s joke, a plot twist in a suspenseful movie, the answer to a radio quiz, or the winner of the big game. This is exactly what Aries/Punk accomplished.

The entire Death Before Dishonor III show was built toward the main event. At this point, long-time heel CM Punk had earned the respect of the fans through his efforts and his contributions to the success of Ring of Honor. Now that he was on his way to the supposed big time, his supporters wanted nothing more than to see him achieve the one goal that had eluded him throughout his independent wrestling career – winning the ROH championship.

Throughout the event Punk shared favorite moments from his Ring of Honor career, effectively building the drama of his departure and enhancing the excitement for the match later in the night. The announcers lamented his exit from the company and questioned their ability to call the title match down the middle, since they were so moved by his ROH tenure coming to a close. By the time Punk and Aries hit the ring the arena was electric, and the crowd was abuzz with the feeling that something big was about to explode that night.

Punk was showered mid-ring by streamers tossed from the crowd amid alternating chants of “please don’t go” and “thank you Punk”. From the tears in his eyes, it was clear that Phil ‘CM Punk’ Brooks was not acting at that moment, but was genuinely touched by the admiration and support of the ROH faithful. If you want a crash course in how to capture emotion and draw in an audience, this is a great moment to study.

When the bell rang the tension in Morristown, NJ was palpable.  It was Punk’s very last shot at the Ring of Honor world championship he’d never held, and he would surely be haunted throughout the rest of his career, no matter how successful, if he couldn’t get that monkey off his back.  After three consecutive losses in grueling, classic matches against then-champion Samoa Joe, Punk almost needed to win the title from Aries in order to move forward with the next chapter of his professional wrestling career with his peace of mind in tact.

However, Aries looked to be the fly in the ointment, not the least bit impressed by Punk’s saga coming to an end on this night.  Playing off the crowd’s reactions, Aries kicked up his heelish persona a notch, determined to stain Punk’s Cinderella story.

They started out with a nice chain wrestling and hold-reversal sequence, setting a slow but intense pace from the opening bell. The stakes were too high for either man to commit the first error, and their cautious wrestling styles made the match seem that much more important to both champion and challenger; that cherished “big fight feeling” was definitely in the air.

When they transitioned from mat wrestling to striking, Punk and Aries really laid into each other with some extra fire. Suspending disbelief, my favorite part of being a pro wrestling fan, was easy to do while watching this performance. Aries protected a kayfabe neck injury and as much as he tried to keep Punk away from it, the challenger wisely continued to focus on the champ’s neck. Each time Punk drilled Aries between the shoulder blades, he sold it like he was in tremendous pain. That sort of consistent selling makes for a more realistic and enjoyable experience for the fans.

Punk landed a few vicious dropkicks directly to Aries’ head and neck before switching to a twisting headlock. His strategy of attacking Aries’ neck made particular sense considering Aries’ well-documented condition. As Punk utlized wear-down holds, they seemed to grind Aries down and sap his strength unlike the way so-called “rest-holds” sometimes appear in other companies.

In a nice sprinkling of seasoning, the commentary team explained that since this was intended to be Punk’s last night in Ring of Honor win, lose, or draw, ROH management declared if he were to win he’d immediately vacate the title and a tournament to crown a new world champion would begin on upcoming shows.

Punk countered a brain-buster attempt into a nice swinging neck-breaker and followed up with a nerve hold and striking elbows and knees to Aries’ neck. After one such elbow, Aries’ sell was so convincing that I thought for an instant he might actually be suffering a stinger; a great example of their outstanding psychology thus far. Adding just the right amount of insight to help tell this thrilling story, the announcers discussed the numerous tough title defenses Aries had survived in recent weeks and all the devastating maneuvers to his neck he’d endured at the hands of ROH’s top wrestlers.

Seeing an opening, Punk attacked with fury. When Aries found himself on the floor outside the ring, Punk launched through the ropes at Aries, nailing a tope suicida and flattening the champion. Punk quickly got his man back into the ring and continued the assault. But Aries wasn’t done yet, and as both men stood on the ring apron, the champion delivered a Death Valley Driver to Punk, who landed on the hard edge of the canvas outside the ropes. Ouch.

Finding his second wind, Aries lashed out with strikes and whips into the hard metal barricades, but Punk would not allow himself to give even an inch in this all-important match, and quickly answered back. The two warriors now displayed a sense of urgency, as each had been hurt so far and both must have felt the championship slipping away.

Aries landed a twisting body press from the apron to the inside on Punk’s lower back, followed immediately by a second rope quebrada for a two count, and the intensity continued to grow as they pounded each other mercilessly. By now Aries was greeted with a chorus of boos with every attack he launched at Punk. The crowd was voracious in support of the challenger, exploding when he kicked out of pin attempts and erupting with venom when Aries delivered more and more punishment to the future ECW champion.

Following Aries’ chest-first bump into the exposed top turnbuckle and a stiff lariat to the back of his head, both he and Punk were on the mat as the referee counted to ten. When they both beat the count and got to their feet even the announcers were losing their cool, caught up in the moment. Back and forth the action roared, and Punk and Aries both showed the effects of the beatings they’d levied upon each other.

Punk looked to win it with the Shining Wizard, but the champ had more gas in his tank and kicked out of the attempted pinfall. The challenger next attempted to set up the Pepsi Plunge from the top rope, but Aries reversed into a devastating super brain-buster, but still couldn’t get the elusive three-count. Aries headed to the top again, but Punk cut him off with rights to the face as the crowd sang along with each blow. The match was like a roller coaster ride at this point, and all it needed was to hit that one last double loop-de-loop and bring it on home.

Aries delivered his own Pepsi Plunge off the top and nearly lost his mind when Punk kicked out yet again. The champion then nailed a picture-perfect 450 splash (a thing of beauty to behold), but Punk absorbed the impact and reversed into the Anaconda Vice. Aries escaped via rope-break, so Punk hoisted the champ onto his own shoulders and delivered a TKO and a flying knee strike. The back-and-forth nature of this match was like the final round of a Rocky movie; each man took the other’s best and kept on coming.

On and on they went, utilizing high-impact attacks, strikes, and submission holds, trying to put their opponent away for good and call it a night with the ROH title belt in their possession.  The match psychology was aided immensely by the story of the night (and really, the story of Punk’s ROH career), as the crowd was right with them all the way.  From the sound of things, Aries didn’t have a fan in the arena.  Punk was constantly urged on and recharged by the support he got from the crowd.

Finally, after an emotionally draining ride, multiple pin attempts, several counters and reversals, and a tremendous display of heart and determination by both men, Punk executed a Pepsi Plunge off the second turnbuckle and covered Aries for the 1-2-3 to become the new Ring of Honor Champion. His victory was the perfect exclamation point on the show-long story.

Aries showed a great deal of respect to Punk, surrendering the belt, shaking his hand and even embracing his foe before stepping aside like a man to give Punk his moment in the sun as the crowd chanted “we will miss you” to the new champ. THIS is one of the things I love about Ring of Honor; the two embattled warriors who mere moments before were dead set on destroying each other were now professional enough to exchange mutual admiration and respect for each other’s skills and will to win.

Punk fell to his knees in the center of the ring, awash in praise and adoration from the audience.  He started to cut a promo like a typical babyface champion, declaring his new piece of hardware the most important wrestling title in the world. I could almost feel the fade-to-black and the closing music coming, until…

Punk flipped a switch and immediately turned heel, shocking the live crowd and me equally. He proclaimed that in much the same way as the Devil had once convinced mankind he never existed, Punk had drawn them all in, making them follow him hook, line and sinker. He did what he had to do to claim the championship and now that he had the belt, he could reveal to the fans who’d supported him along the way that they were nothing more than Punk’s puppets, and he hated every single one of them.

He then threatened to take the coveted ROH title belt with him to WWE, and claimed there was nobody in the locker room that could stop him. This of course was a harbinger for Predictable Pro Wrestling Convention # 172: the return of a former babyface.

The Fallen Angel Christopher Daniels returned to ROH after 16 months out from a kayfabe injury caused by Punk himself, and wanted his revenge. The two threw hands for a bit until Punk tucked his tail and ran, in true heel champion fashion, before Daniels would get the chance to nail his patented Best Moonsault Ever. The jilted crowd begged the referee to ring the bell so the Fallen Angel might reclaim the ROH title before Punk ran to Vince McMahon with it, but Punk was not about to defend the belt after just having won it, so Daniels would have to wait for another day.

The brand new champion was transformed from a conquering hero in an epic story of desire, passion, and success to the most hated man in the company in a matter of two minutes, pulling the rug out from under us all and kick-starting the Summer of Punk. The phenomenal storytelling, drama, and emotion of this arc were truly a tall order for a wrestling company to produce, but they pulled it off in spades.

Any professional wrestling fans who haven’t yet checked out Ring of Honor are missing out on a fantastic promotion with superior in-ring action, believable personalities, amazing crowd loyalty, and rivetting stories like this one. Five words: what are you waiting for?

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.” – Truman Capote

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