Cult of ROH: Assessing McGuinness’s Challengers

Nigel McGuinness is now the fourth longest-reigning ROH World Champion in history and yet it feels like his reign is just beginning. He won the title from Takeshi Morishima in October, but injuries and a tour of Pro Wrestling NOAH hindered his presence in Ring of Honor. He went full-blown heel at the Sixth Anniversary Show against Bryan Danielson, revitalizing his reign and making the other half of the roster much more reasonable opponents. But just who is viable? His upcoming schedule is:

April 11: Nigel McGuinness Vs. Austin Aries Vs. Roderick Strong Vs. Erick Stevens (Title Match)
April 12: Nigel McGuinness Vs. Kevin Steen (Title Match)
April 18: Nigel McGuinness & ?? Vs. Kevin Steen & El Generico
April 19: Nothing booked yet (free: Kevin Steen, Austin Aries, Chris Hero, Brent Albright, Delirious, Necro Butcher, Claudio Castagnoli, Silas Young, Adam Pearce)
May 9: Nothing booked yet (debut in Virginia; free: Bryan Danielson, Austin Aries, Jimmy Jacobs, Tyler Black, Necro Butcher, Roderick Strong, Davey Richards, Rocky Romero, Naomichi Marufuji, Takeshi Morishima, Jay Briscoe, Mark Briscoe, Delirious, Claudio Castagnoli, Erick Stevens, Go Shiozaki)
May 10: Nothing Booked Yet (Hammerstein Ballroom Show; free: Bryan Danielson, Austin Aries, Jimmy Jacobs, Tyler Black, Necro Butcher, Roderick Strong, Davey Richards, Rocky Romero, Naomichi Marufuji, Takeshi Morishima, Jay Briscoe, Mark Briscoe, Delirious, Claudio Castagnoli, Erick Stevens, Go Shiozaki)
June 6: Nothing Booked Yet (Roster unknown)
June 27: Nothing Booked Yet (Roster unknown)

June doesn’t even have all its shows announced yet (unless they run two singleshot weekends), so there’s no sense in looking beyond that. The next four shows clearly have an emphasis on Kevin Steen, someone McGuinness hasn’t wrestled yet and someone who seems bound for multiple titleshots.

Ring of Honor loves Kevin Steen. I just finished Proving Ground, and in addition to his match they gave him two backstage segments. He gets more promos than most of ROH’s champions. They made his character guarantee a title win in 2008 for a reason – they want him on top.

He’s getting his first crack at McGuinness on April 12th. It’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll lose. ROH has already scheduled the two in a tag team match on the 18th, just a week later – presumably when Steen can get his revenge and return to title contention, or be even further upset by the champion. He has the entire year to win a title (if he even makes good on his promise), and especially if McGuinness runs long with the ROH World Championship, Steen has a champion he can revisit multiple times in multiple main events, and possibly big weekend main events down the line.

Steen is that type of challenger Pulse Glazer and I discussed in a recent ROH Weekly – the sort of guy ROH will put in feature main events. ROH has bigger shows and weekends; Death Before Dishonor, their Anniversary show, Wrestlemania weekend, whenever they visit a foreign country, Glory By Honor, Final Battle and Pay Per Views. Generally these boast more prominent main events. Lesser guys can have a crack at titles on other shows, but a certain level is necessary for these. Steen is one guy ROH clearly envisions as a future big weekend main-eventer. Bryan Danielson is one right now, and he main-evented ROH’s last big show against McGuinness, at the Sixth Anniversary Show.

Danielson is a guaranteed money main-eventer. ROH crowds love him, and continue to believe that he can beat anyone no matter how many times he loses. ROH invested a lot in him and he’s paid off. People will pay to see him challenge for the title even if the likelihood is that someone fresher will actually dethrone McGuinness. Their matches at Unified and Driven are legendary in ROH. Danielson is due another match if McGuinness lasts as champion. In fact, ROH is probably planning it. Keeping that rivalry valid was a reason why they had McGuinness go for Danielson’s head at the Sixth Anniversary. McGuinness still hasn’t beaten him honestly and decisively, and that’s something you can always hold over the head of an egotistical heel champion.

Austin Aries has now lost two title challenges against McGuinness, and both times the decision was clean. He does not need another shot and is getting one anyway in Friday’s four-way elimination. However, his matches with McGuinness were great and if the reign goes long nobody would object to seeing it, but especially since Aries is in the upcoming elimination title match, he’s about done. The emphasis for his character is shifting to a story with Lacey and the Age of the Fall, a good change for him with several good possibilities for match-ups. It would take McGuinness running extraordinarily long to warrant another match (as good as it would probably be).

With Aries a little played out in this title scene and being pushed into something else, we have Claudio Castagnoli. Castagnoli he has been held to such a high level for so long that he’ll fit at the top. On undercards he dominates rookies and lesser wrestlers, and Larry Sweeney refusing to let his men wrestle him only further helps his credibility.

Besides, he’s destined for a titleshot. He’s already pinned McGuinness in a four-way. ROH is building him, and he’s a favorite to dethrone the champ. Of course, CM Punk was a favorite to dethrone Samoa Joe and Roderick Strong was a favorite to dethrone Bryan Danielson. It may not work out for Mr. Castagnoli, but right now it’s only a question of how many times Castagnoli will challenge for the title.

We know McGuinness and Castagnoli have good chemistry; they had one of the stand-out matches of the Ted Petty Invitational Tournament in IWA:MS last year, they gelled in the fourway at Man Up, they worked effectively as a tag team, and their feud over the Pure Title in Castagnoli’s first year produced some of McGuinness’s more memorable matches. Their European technical sensibilities work well on the mat, they can go blow-for-blow in striking and are both enormously capable at the heavier striking game, and both have multiple finishers that have been built to be believable. The finishing stretches of their matches are waiting to be written.

A singles title match against Erick Stevens must happen. ROH started off 2008 by having him beat Austin Aries and Bryan Danielson in one weekend. He’s in the middle of a bitter feud with Roderick Strong for the FIP title, but that only helps make fans feel even more familiar with him in the uppercard.

Stevens is a phenomenal seller, especially for his size. McGuinness can dominate however much he needs to in order to create a good story and count on Stevens to help it work. Stevens also presents greater size than most of McGuinness’s challengers, and has even more raw power than the champ. His comebacks could be great, as he could feasibly manhandle McGuinness unlike any other challenger, even Castagnoli, who would be more likely to play down his power aspect into single spots (which he does against significantly smaller opponents than McGuinness).

If they play it correctly an unsatisfactory finish (a roll-up, a fluke injury, a lucky pin, etc.) could setup a hot rematch ala what Bryan Danielson and Roderick Strong did in late 2005. If they pull something off like that, the rematch would serve as another big money bout. This match can be executed soon, or ROH can hold off for months until a resolution to the Strong feud is made. If Stevens wins that feud, he could easily ride the momentum to a fever pitch title challenge. They could sow the seeds for that contention, though, on Friday the 11th’s elimination match.

There’s one more distinct challenger. From all reports Tyler Black and Nigel McGuinness stole the show at the Take No Prisoners taping (ROH’s next Pay Per View). You shouldn’t have to steal the show in the main event, but given Black’s totally unexpected victory in the titleshot fourway at the top of the show, people being pissed for Castagnoli not winning, and them following the perennial favorite match-up of Aries Vs. Danielson, they had to steal the show. My Inside Pulse colleague Pulse Glazer was so taken by this match that he has alternately told me Black should have won or should be the guy to dethrone McGuinness. Should he? I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. But given that Glazer’s excitement was shared by so much of the audience, a rematch is essential. If the Take No Prisoners match is anywhere near as good as the live reports, a rematch might suitably headline a major show.

There are three more guys who come to mind. They’re more plausible for lesser shows, going into a Pay Per View or beneath a bigger tag title main event, but they’re all plausible.

It would be a waste not to have Go Shiozaki challenge for the title. He debuted at Eye of the Storm, wrestled three matches in one night when he was originally booked to only do one, and from all live reports, he busted his ass. Ever since he’s been praised for his work ethic on this tour. The last two Japanese guys to have long tours with ROH were Shingo Takagi and Takeshi Morishima, both of whom challenged for the title. Go doesn’t have to win and run with it like Morishima did; he’s already lost a few matches, showing him to be looser. Thanks largely to Youtube, McGuinness’s match with Go from NOAH was received very well with ROH’s internet fans. Doing something similar, perhaps with more give-and-take this time, would make a very serviceable ROH title match. Since he’s available for the Manassas, Virginia show, an international challenger might work as an attraction.

Brent Albright does not have much momentum right now, but he is 1-0 against Nigel McGuinness. They were supposed to clash at Eye of the Storm, before the eponymous storm forced ROH to rebook the show. McGuinness is one of Albright’s best opponents, partially out of chemistry, partially out of how logically Albright approaches countering McGuinness, and lastly out of how much McGuinness has given Albright in the past. In front of the right crowd (one that wasn’t smarkily hostile towards the challenger), Albright could light things up in a semi-main event against McGuinness. The title shot could even be written in as one of Sweeney’s super-agent snags. This would turn Albright face for a night, but that didn’t hurt things at Death Before Dishonor 5 Night 2 against Morishima.

The last guy who could easily challenge on a regular DVD show is El Generico. Now some people (myself included) would love him to supplant Kevin Steen and actually last as a main eventer, but we’ll have to see if ROH has such plans. As a challenger, though, he’s built for McGuinness. His pasty chest is just asking to be welted up by McGuinness’s thrusts and uppercuts. Only Erick Stevens is comparable at selling, and Generico can bump like he’s being killed to boot. Recently released Pro Wrestling Guerrilla matches with Bryan Danielson show how much fire Generico can bring to a desperate cause, and how well he can convey pain and weakness in the arm. The London Dungeon may never look better than when McGuinness is tearing out the Generic Luchadore’s rotator cuff. And beyond how well they might work together, if ROH doesn’t have big plans in the immediate future for El Generico, McGuinness roughing him up and add fuel to anything he does with Kevin Steen.

I’ve neglected a couple of guys who could easily challenge for the belt: Takeshi Morishima and Naomichi Marufuji. Both hold GHC titles, and the reigns of both men are important. Marufuji barely ever lost as it was, and now that he’s got the second most important title in Pro Wrestling NOAH, they’re unlikely to sacrifice him. Morishima losing to anyone in ROH ever again is a pipedream now that he’s being groomed as an ace with the GHC Heavyweight Championship. They’d be good matches, but I’m not counting on them. Puro junkies will have to settle for McGuinness beating Go again.

Those two men aside, McGuinness has a healthy list of challengers: Castagnoli, Black, Stevens, Steen, Generico, Albright and Go could all do something. Given that McGuinness’s character can duck challengers and ROH has already conditioned itself to run shows without ROH World Title matches thanks to his previous unlucky streak, it’s a strong list. Will one of these men dethrone McGuinness? Will his reign actually last long enough to fight all of them? That we’ll have to watch for.

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