Cult of ROH: Meet Tyler Black

I first watched Tyler Black in IWA:Mid South a few years ago. I thought he was a talented, gangly-looking guy with some fun moves and nice athleticism. Every match he had seemed okay-to-good, and always left me thinking how much better he’d be in a couple of years (or how much better he’d be when Low Ki let him get in some offense). The most memorable aspects about him were that he hated his parents, did some really funny thrash dancing, somehow turned the small package into a headdrop. Amongst Mid South wrestlers, this qualified him as a great man.

My budget tightened up and I don’t feel right about torrenting the indies like others suggested, so I cut out Mid South. Black disappeared from my mind until I saw him on a seemingly random Pro Wrestling Guerrilla DVD, having a wild tag match against the Murder City Machine Guns. I was more impressed with Sabin and Shelley, but he was looking good, and apparently he was on TV. Unfortunately that TV was Wrestling Society X, on way past the hour at which I paid attention to television. Due to their pell-mell programming I missed him the few times I remembered to tune in.

Then he debuted at ROH’s Man Up. While some people claim to have seen it coming, I didn’t talk to one person before that show who thought that Project 161 was Jimmy Jacobs, Tyler Black and Necro Butcher. I was distraught that I’d have to watch Butcher in my favorite little company, but intrigued by Black. Had he improved like I’d hoped he would?

****ing yes he did. A little while later I brought Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s BOLA 2007 (in this ROH columnist’s opinion, the most reliably entertaining annual tournament in any company in America) and was blown away by his preliminary match with Alex Shelley. He wasn’t coasting. Shelley led more of the match, but every time Black got a chance, he did something impressive. The dude could fly, bump, counter, and timed his stuff immaculately. It was the best singles match I’d seen out of Shelley in over a year, and I love me some Alex Shelley. When people asked about Black’s ability on the ROH boards I brought up this match as credentials for Black. If he could do that here, he was ready. I was pretty amused when Gabe Sapolsky e-mailed to yell at me for mentioning another promotion.

I decided to hold off on other promotions and just see him in ROH (again, more wallet constraints than some transcendent critical ideal). He had raw potential but was mostly overshadowed by his teammates, only truly showing his worth at Unscripted 3. That night he and Austin Aries went out in the opener to apologize for a gutted card and wrestle in front of a disappointed audience. The form of their apology? One of the company’s best openers of 2007, wherein Black matched Aries’s phenomenal pacing so that they could play with counters and hit big things in meaningful ways. It was ridiculously fun for a last-minute match, and if you check the DVD, you’ll see they cheered up the crowd.

Then the Man Up DVD came out, and I got a look at an extra – Tyler Black Vs. Jack Evans. I love Evans, but he hasn’t gelled with his opponents as well in ROH since mid-2007. His frequent absences hurt his originally phenomenal relationship with live crowds. Somehow, the two clicked. Black was in place for everything Evans did, Evans took Black’s offense (like the Basement Leg Lariat) like a champ, and the worst part was the run-ins turning it into a trios tag. I wanted to see that match continue. Hopefully we see this match in proper form when Evans makes his next return to the company.

He and Jacobs were in an unenviable position at Final Battle 2007. They were in the main event against the Briscoes, who dominate most matches and at that point had become stale as champions. Crowds were so familiar with their act that if they went on in a main event an even mildly tired crowd would sit on their hands. Even though a title change was possible, this didn’t have the energy that a main event title match should have. People had seen too much of the Briscoes’ stuff. The most interesting thing about the match was Jacobs fighting against an injury, leaving Black in a strangely heroic role against both of the brothers. Black showed then what he showed again Wrestlemania weekend, adapting with pure athletic ability. A little innovative offense and giving his opponents whatever they wanted let the match flow far better than it could have.

In 2008 there were seemingly rapidfire reports of amazing performances: something amazing with Bryan Danielson, a killer end to the Briscoes feud at Wrestlemania weekend, and something life-affirming at a Pay Per View taping. He wasn’t just winning over cities; he was impressing them so much that they thought they were the first to realize his talent. People who saw him wrestle Danielson snickered at those who had seen the McGuinness match, as though he hadn’t been the linchpin at Final Battle. According to live reports across several months, Black had at least three “breakout” matches.

Breakout arrived first at my mailbox. “Breakout” was a pretty goofy reference given that Black had won the World Tag Team Titles in the main event of Final Battle 2007 a couple of months prior. That’s like saying Bill Clinton broke out when he became a spokesman for disaster relief. Good cause, big deal, but we already knew who you were, sir.

The difference was the live crowd of that show hadn’t seen him be that impressive yet, and the whole match showcased how talented the bastard was. He also played the bastard role, the match getting more interesting with every slap he threw across Danielson’s face. Based on a simple upstart story, the match extended to show off Black’s aerial athleticism, his escapist talents and beautiful offense. He fit it all around slapping Danielson in the face, trying to make a point more than win the match. He was a real character as well as an impressive athlete.

At Wrestlemania weekend in Florida, in front of two far more energized crowds, Black was a house of fire. He put on the best tag brawl in ROH since the Briscoes’ Street Fight with Steen & Generico the previous year. He was manic and creative with weapons, but just as capable at switching it up in the ring. For two days I just skipped back and watched his tag match with Jimmy Jacobs against the Briscoe Brothers, rather than proceed to more lauded (and less impressive) matches further along on the disc.

People were rightly skeptical when live reports of Take No Prisoners said that Tyler Black Vs. Nigel McGuinness was better than Austin Aries Vs. Bryan Danielson. As a bad guy, Black was the least likely to win the qualifying fourway and live reports even admitted to hating the decision, at least before the match happened. But they played off of elements of McGuinness’s underhanded history and Black’s upstart nature to create something with a high-energy middle and ending. Few superman-style performances were more engaging than Black’s refusal to stay down, and it would take more than one talented wrestler to keep that story from getting old – especially in front of an easily embittered ROH audience. While I still prefer Aries Vs. Danielson and find it has more re-watch value, Black Vs. McGuinness had moments of energy that the previous match couldn’t touch.

Ring of Honor has a strange environment where its fans are always criticizing and are quick to recognize talent. If they recognize it they will be primed to cheer regardless of the wrestler’s alignment. This was why Chris Hero’s hilarious villain backfired every night, making him more beloved than the good guys he tormented. In many matches, and most especially at Take No Prisoners, Black sidestepped the traditional heel role to give the fans what they wanted. It’s great that he can be an aggressive villain, but in experimenting like that he showed far more potential on the other side of the fence.

The Philadelphia crowd loved him so dearly by the end of Take No Prisoners that people still say if he ever wins the World Title, it must be there. Since I began writing this little retrospective he’s had still more crowd-pleasers. In a re-match against Bryan Danielson down in Manassas, Virginia, where people had never seen a live ROH show before, fans left with glowing impressions of the underdog. Live reports from the recent Respect is Earned 2 in Boston placed him in the best match of the night and still another “breakout” performance.

These frequent reports remind me of last year’s string of impressions on Takeshi Morishima. People were uncertain about him when he won the title. Then he defended against Nigel McGuinness and people were sure McGuinness would win it next time. That was fine until he defended against Austin Aries and people from that crowd were sure Aries would win it next time. Then the same thing happened against Claudio Castagnoli. And Brent Albright. Soon it became evident that it wasn’t just Morishima’s opponents busting their butts, but that he was someone really special. It created a legacy Morishima could build and bank on. Reading the reactions different crowds have to Black’s big matches, you can see the same pattern with him. He’s not convincing you they’ll beat him next time (he’s lost most of his best matches), but convincing crowds that they must see him next time.

A selfish bonus over Morshima is that ROH has Black signed. He isn’t returning to Pro Wrestling NOAH next year. He’s somebody ROH crowds will enjoy for a long time especially (ironic as it is to write) if he keeps improving.

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