Cult of ROH: The Illusion of Stiffness

Pulse Glazer’s excellent column on Strong Style, Shoot Style and King’s Road tried to dissuade people from the misunderstanding that Strong Style is hitting people really hard. I’ll take it a step further: hitting people really hard isn’t a good thing.

Harley Race, one of the great wrestlers in North American history, was notoriously stiff. Low Ki and Samoa Joe are legends in Ring of Honor (if a company that’s only been around for six years can have legends), and helped define its style. They, too, were stiff. But they were not great because they were stiff. They gave the impression of doing serious damage, putting emphasis behind their strikes and intensity into their approaches in matches. The positive factor was not whether Low Ki was really kicking someone as hard as he possibly could. It was the impression that he did.

Professional wrestling is essentially a performance art. Like opera and ballet, it takes certain aspects of human expression, then exaggerates and focuses them to tell certain stories. In the basic professional wrestling match two men portray characters that are trying to get pinfalls, submissions or count-outs through various methods within the time and rule constraints. The point is to make it seem like the characters are trying to surprise each other with roll-ups, hurt his shoulder to the point where he will give up, or take a guy’s head off with a kick. The point is not to actually kick the man in the face. It’s certainly not to do it as hard as you possibly can. Wrestlers need to make the best impressions while doing the least real damage.

In the moment most fans are actually paying more attention to the perception of impact than actual damage. Roderick Strong hits a flying boot and slaps his thigh as hard as possible; if the kick looks like it connected, the sound of his slap will be enough for the audience to suspend disbelief, and probably yell, “OHHHH!” I’ve freaked out in childish glee over that kick plenty of times, even though I know how it’s done. It doesn’t matter within the context of a match. That’s the art of it.

But sometimes fans demand drastic damage or they won’t react, and they judge the quality of wrestlers based on how hard they hit. It’s painful to watch a crowd that won’t cheer unless the guys chop each other into hamburger or break their necks. In something like stiffness, the positive quality is the perception of damage, not that it’s really being done – if we start to prefer only what really injures wrestlers then we’re becoming sick and should probably go watch that “real” stuff elsewhere. And while it’s up the wrestlers to decide what they do, they’d be better off if we didn’t demand stiffness.

The goal should be something like Bret Hart’s punches. He talked about the pride he took in them in his pre-WWE collection documentaries. They usually looked on target, they were fast, and they gave a visible sense of impact. They also almost never actually hit the other guy. Hart commented that, despite looking like he punched a man in the face five times, he wouldn’t have a black eye the next day.

This should be the goal: violent-looking strikes that do little or no actual damage. But this takes a lot of talent and practice, and with the wave of HD programming it may soon be even more difficult to pull off. We’ve all read the rumors of WWE asking its guys to work “snug” now that they’re in high-definition. Furthermore, it’d be impossible for somebody like Brent Albright or Kevin Steen to throw a Flying Shoulder Tackle and not connect. At least some of the time wrestlers have to take some risk and damage, even moreso when they bump.

While Bret Hart’s approach should be practiced where possible, there is another, one summarized by William Regal. Regal famously said, “I hit people very hard in very safe places.” We may question that seeing some of the shots he’s taken at people’s heads lately, but the core makes sense: if you have to connect, try to do so at a part of the body that won’t break, sprain or be concussed. Chopping has gotten ridiculous lately (especially in ROH, where Roderick Strong, Erick Stevens and Go Shiozaki seem to want to skin their opponents), but those strikes almost always land on the chest, which is one of the safest places to hit on the male body.

Samoa Joe fell more into this style than is commonly recognized. He dared anyone (in his Straight Shootin’ interview) to find an opponent of his who couldn’t work the next night because of something he’d done. Joe tried to work a physical but safe style, even if he epitomized stiffness for a lot of the fans. And like most of the people I’ve mentioned in this article, he had a sense of character and brought a lot more to matches than the ideal of some stern palm strikes and kicks.

Regal also increases the surface area of his impact. If you watch his matches carefully you’ll notice that he tries to throw his entire forearm and bicep into a European Uppercut, so that even if it hits the opponent in the face the force of the blow will be distributed across a wider area. That way he can hit fast and hard but still not deliver optimal punishment. This is essential thinking in a performance art like professional wrestling where you’re giving your body to someone in more or less unprotected situations. Claudio Castagnoli already throws very similar European Uppercuts in Ring of Honor. He also does another vital thing.

For all the criticism of Castagnoli as a one-move wrestler (which is bogus: the Ricola Bomb, Middle Rope Elbow Drop, Horse Collar, Alpamare Waterslide, Cravate, Les Artess Lift, Big Swing, Match Killer and Bicycle Kick make regular appearances in his matches), he makes his European Uppercuts special. He has various executions for them, right after Diamond Dallas Page’s heart: a top rope or springboard version, a running discus version, the Guerilla Press version, as a counter to an opponent on the top rope, to a seated opponent. More importantly he knows when to pause, gesture or otherwise play to the crowd to make them important. There is a greater sense of variety to his uppercuts than there are to Nigel McGuinness’ Lariats (through that redundancy will probably help McGuinness’ current character). Multiple versions can legitimately end a match, while normal ones with lesser intensity serve as perfectly acceptable opening offense. This sense of gravity played an essential role in his best ROH match to date, last year’s World Title match with Takeshi Morishima at Death Before Dishonor 5 Night 1. There were a lot of great things about that match, but one of them was Castagnoli’s sense of when to hit Morishima with full-force (like his crazy suicide dive). The pacing of intensity prevented them from going overkill, helped build to a great finishing stretch, and kept them from having to wear each other out or do unnecessary harm to each other.

I figure I can get away with mentioning Bret Hart and William Regal in relation to ROH since most of us fans would give up anything to see them visit. Even if Regal is fired for substance policy issues, I guarantee long threads begging to bring him in. Regal also trained Bryan Danielson, the perennially loved grappler who has drastically improved at striking since his return in 2007. It came naturally along with him tightening up and quickening his mat game. Danielson will charge into an elbow or a flying knee, and will generally do something to connect with the audience on a big blow.

Danielson has his flaws, though. His match with Morishima at Glory By Honor 6 Night 2 was one of the best I saw in all of 2007, but he threw many of the weakest stomps to the testicles I’ve ever seen (and at a not inconsiderable target). His still-unnamed “MMA Elbows” put a lot of viewers off. Sometimes he nails them viciously (on Roderick Strong at Vendetta; on Nigel McGuinness at Unified), but other times they’re slow to the point where even if he is truly hurting the other man, the fans don’t believe it, or disregard it. That’s a peril of ROH’s niche market that WWE doesn’t have to care about; a larger percentage of these fans think critically, even when they’re suspending disbelief.

Even crazy stiffness doesn’t always work. The smark environment Ring of Honor fostered creates some extremely fickle crowds. Check out Battle of the Icons, featuring perennial favorites Samoa Joe and Homicide. It received plenty of complaints, not the least of which was that Homicide hit a bunch of really weak Lariats to end the match. Check out the post-match interview and observe the welts on Joe’s chest, then go read that criticism again. In that case, the crowd didn’t believe something when it was actually real. That ending was an example of something going really wrong with the style of striking. People weren’t drawn in enough, the story of the Lariats weren’t built up enough, and when they actually occurred they weren’t delivered appropriately such that fans were disappointed or even thought they looked fake even though they were seriously landing. Short of catastrophes like injuries, this is the worst thing that can happen in a pro wrestling match – really hurting the other guy without looking like you are.

The Necro Butcher is beloved to a lot of people, but he often embodies this problem. His fans look passed any of his flaws or weaknesses in order to praise him, just like Bryan Danielson’s fans, Chris Hero’s fans, HHH’s fans – all the cool guys get this treatment. This is not an attack on him as a person or suggesting he’s worthless as a wrestler, but his punches frequently look weak or downright miss. See Reckless Abandon, where Bryan Danielson was curled up in the corner, not moving, and Butcher still whiffed with half his punches. See the perplexing lauded Eye of the Storm match, where Go Shiozaki had him on his knees and Butcher threw slow-motion punches at his belly. This sort of thing has taken me out of his matches for years, and though he has some reasonable fans, a common answer to this criticism is that it doesn’t matter what it looks like because he really hurts people. Fans will overlook anything, but really, it’s fine that it looks unbelievable because the real person is hurt? If he can incite crowds so well regardless, he might as well actually miss and look like he’s missing. He’s been improving lately and looked like a real force at the Sixth Anniversary Show, but our point is this insipid argument.

This argument is an end-route to believability, most often used by fans of the offending wrestler. In essence, it was good to them in that they believed it, even though others didn’t believe it because it looked ineffective. The former group believes it not because of any merit in the execution they just saw, but because this man actually hurt someone in the past. This ignores the safety of the wrestlers, further ignores whether or not what they are doing right now actually looks good, and (if momentarily) posits that this is good because one of the real people has hurt the other. Professional wrestling is supposed to be about the impression created by the actions of the moment, and this meta-justification is a violation of the realm of the art, besides being pretty repulsive. It’s like saying the special effects on The Crow were really good because the prop gun actually killed Brandon Lee. If that disturbs you then you’ll begin to understand why hearing stiffness praised bothers me.

None of this is to say I don’t love a match where two characters rip each other apart. The intensity of Strong and Stevens on FIP’s Redefined was inspiring. But if Strong and Stevens had actually hit to hurt a sensitive body part every time in that match it would have ended far sooner and looked far worse. It worked because of the art of the match.

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