Cult of ROH: Nigel Goes Naughty

This past Saturday Nigel McGuinness went naughty. Whether it was for one night in front of the incredibly hostile Manhattan Center crowd or a permanent thing is yet to be seen, but it will be hard to call backsies on his character’s blatant cowardice and hypocrisy. He recreated what Randy Orton did at No Way Out, trying to weasel out of his match and eventually hitting the referee to keep his World Championship, but in the ROH fashion of giving WWE the finger, the locker room emptied and forced him to restart the match. Though he ultimately retained, he did so by abusing Bryan Danielson’s injured eye, knocking him out and potentially concussing him, after months of protecting himself from just such injuries.

The title match was said to be amazing (wha, Danielson Vs. McGuinness was good? Who could have known?), and McGuinness was said to receive nuclear reactions from the crowd. McGuinness had a very popular run as the dastardly Pure Champion in 2005 and 2006. This direction for the title could certainly work. People have grumbled that we haven’t had a true heel champion in a long time, which is arguable. Takeshi Morishima was a monster, that Vader-type that is clearly a negative figure but is still easy for a lot of people (myself included) to cheer. The truth is that we haven’t had a feel-good title reign in far longer. If McGuinness stays naughty, I hope whoever dethrones him delivers that reign.

ROH has been long for the reign of a good guy champion. McGuinness reigned since October as a good guy, but has only defended the title five times since that victory, counting his turn on Saturday. This was due to unfortunate injuries, but didn’t make it any better for fans who wanted a champion behind whom they could rally, especially not now that he’s healthy and switched over. The fun that should have been McGuinness’ reign was marred with backing out for an arm injury and then a concussion, ripping into hecklers and claiming he’d defend the title to spite them rather than to honor his fans –perfect behavior for the prick he became, but not the lighter shade of grey he was up until then.

ROH’s recent title history exacerbated the disappointment with McGuinness. Of the four World Champions preceding Nigel McGuinness, the two heels reigned for a combined two years, while the two faces reigned for a combined three months. In 2005, fan favorite James Gibson lasted from August 12th to September 17th before dropping the title to Bryan Danielson, who held it from September 17, 2005 to December 23, 2006. The next champion, fan favorite Homicide, held on from December to February, when Morishima won the title and carried it in his teeth until last October. That’s a long time to wait for a hero to win the title, and even longer to wait for a hero to sustain a run with it.

You can cheer the bad guys in ROH, but you risk drawing lectures from sanctimonious fans, and it’s really not the same. You know you’re going against convention when you chant “Chris Is Awesome!” You know the character isn’t on your side and you’re going against what the performer ultimately wants from you. Meanwhile, rooting for good guys is trouble because often they don’t do very well (heels traditionally one-up babyfaces for most of a feud) or act with less common sense (see McGuinness, veteran of abusing Pure Title rules, become dubiously naïve in a Pure Wrestling Rules match against Chris Hero at Death Before Dishonor 5 Night 1). So even if you’ve gotten off on cheering the villains, you can recognize that it might be time for a change in the title lineage.

One can hope whoever eventually dethrones McGuinness (Claudio Castagnoli? Kevin Steen? El Generico? Erick Stevens? Davey Richards? Tyler Black? Austin Aries?) will be the guy we can finally rally around. We could really use that feel-good champion. WWE proved such a sustained run could work in John Cena’s enormous reign, and it’s not like ROH is without guys fans would rally around at the top. With a raise of his arms and a mighty “Hey!” a champion Castagnoli could dispel any of the bitter division Cena might draw. Even Bryan Danielson, who can be conceited and rough, would still draw nigh-unanimous approval from crowds.

And one certain thing about his turn is that a hero will slay McGuinness. ROH loves the hero winning the title, particularly from a villain.

Of its ten World Champions, eight were baby faces when they won the title. That statistic is curious on its own, but more curious when you realize five of those face victors won the title from heel champions. How could there been more heel champions losing the title than heel champions winning it? Because they changed character during their reigns, just like McGuinness did.

We’re not counting Samoa Joe being the aggressor in his title loss to Austin Aries, either. Aries was beloved he won the title, but flipped right back to conceited nature the next show (It All Begins). CM Punk rode the popularity of his farewell tour into an impossible title victory, only to go to the darkside in his victory speech, making it two back-to-back champions with changes of heart.

A few shows later James Gibson won the title from Punk in another heroic title victory. Because Gibson was also on his way out, he lost the title a few shows later to the even bigger hero of Bryan Danielson.

However, Danielson turned heel during his reign, through his animosity to opponents like Roderick Strong and through general arrogance. This set up Homicide winning the world title after a long storyline. Yet another hero slew the villain champion.

McGuinness is the fifth ROH World Champion to have a change of heart. In fact, it would be more novel to have a villain become more honorable over his title reign, as counterintuitive as that may sound.

There is a hidden danger to this turn as well. Just weeks after CM Punk fooled everyone and turned into a snake of a champion, the front row gave him grinning applause. Right now Chris Hero gets warmer receptions than most of his babyface opponents. Because ROH caters to fans that pride themselves on their “insider intelligence,” audiences are much more likely to cheer someone based on the perceived quality of their performance rather than the morality of their characters (see: Christopher Daniels, CM Punk, Alex Shelley, Austin Aries, the Briscoes, Chris Hero and Larry Sweeney). That atmosphere will encourage fans to cheer McGuinness now that he’s a villain, role to which even his most venomous critics will say he is better suited. I would not be surprised to see the Manhattan Center, the same building that pushed ROH to turn McGuinness with its heartless receptions, to cheer him by the end of the year should he hold the title that long.

A fan favorite chasing the heel champion is an old trope of wrestling. It’s said to draw more interest and money. The climaxes of these stories make for undeniably great moments: the majority of live crowds loved Aries, Punk, Danielson and McGuinness winning the title. Now ROH is set for another face turned heel under the glimmer of the gold, and another slew of challengers. For those who want their feel-good reign, we can only hope it’s next.

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