Cult of ROH: Curtain Jerkers

Back in his WWF and WWE days, fans complained about Rob Van Dam opening too many shows. They wanted him in the main event and considered “curtain jerking” to be an insult to their hero. But the opener is one of the most important matches on a show, not always in being the longest or most featured match, but introducing the promotion to that audience for the night and setting a tone for the show.

When some people talk about great openers they immediately think of the best matches to have gone on in the first position. Bryan Danielson Vs. Spanky from Best of the American Super Juniors is a perennial favorite opener for this reason. It’s a great match with a lot of interesting technical wrestling, exchanges and energy. It stole the tournament rather than setting the tone for it – the other preliminaries couldn’t match it and Dragon Soldier B going the distance was something of a completely different shade. So while Danielson Vs. Spanky might be one of the best-wrestled matches to have gone on first on an ROH show, it isn’t necessarily one of the best openers. It depends what you want (or what the host company wants) from an opener.

ROH’s Injustice has a fabulous ten-minute opener between Jack Evans and El Generico that does not come close to Danielson Vs. Spanky for technical merits. Evans and Generico began with a little dance-off, the commentators joked around and led us into moderately paced high-end offense, getting more intense towards the end until Evans set up a move, got caught, Generico hit two Yakuza Kicks on opposite sides of the ring and a top turnbuckle Brainbustah! (I refuse to spell it any other way) and grabbed the pin. By the ending sequence they were establishing visible beats, and doing something in every beat, which let the crowd cheer and get more invested with every action, even if neither wrestler was getting crushed with anything. Generico has teased and failed to deliver that Brainbustah! so often that instead of chanting along with the “1-2-3,” the crowd went nuts and basically wet themselves.

ROH then took that climax, had Evans and Generico part amicably, and sent Nigel McGuinness out to ruin the moment. Already lively from the match, the crowd dug into McGuinness. They were furious when he attacked Generico. They gushed for Kevin Steen when he came out to make the save, and got behind every sentence he spoke into the microphone even when he tripped over his words. Sitting at home two months later, having accurately predicted most of the outcomes of the night two months prior, I watched and was seriously enthused for a match I hadn’t heard one glowing report over.

That is the magic of a great opener. If the opener clicks you can roll it over into enthusiasm for upcoming matches, or reinvest the crowd’s enthusiasm in a vignette right there, like they did with McGuinness and Steen. Not only was the crowd livelier than they had reason to be for the next match, but this added anticipation to the title match later that night. This wouldn’t have been possible if Jigsaw Vs. Mitch Franklin, the second match of the show, went first. Even that match, which wasn’t terribly interesting, felt better having followed something that engaging.

ROH tries to do this a lot, and thanks to a passionate roster they pull it off when it’s most necessary. See Unscripted 3, a show that was supposed to be Trios Tournament but had to be re-booked on the fly when several wrestlers were in a car accident. Austin Aries and Tyler Black went out in front of a disappointed crowd with the goals of making it up to them and making them receptive to the rest of the show. It would only get worse if these people didn’t enjoy themselves now; they’d go down the slippery slope that would destroy the show no matter how good the midcard was. It was one of the first examples of Black being a standout, as they electrified the building with a quickly built and relentless match with similar visible beats to Evans Vs. Generico. The crowd was at a fever pitch by the end. Then it was up to the next match on the card.

Opening matches for ROH have a different feel than in others. Since it’s a DVD-based product each show is essential a Pay Per View, so there is a slight anticipation of something heavy here. Because ROH drops a more competitive match in this spot from time to time, there is always the potential for something great right off the bat. The crowd is at its freshest, and so if anyone can connect to them (as Evans and Generico did), they get the most potential to work with. These are the ingredients for a sleeper hit match when two guys like Homicide and Davey Richards (from Fifth Year Festival: Liverpool) or B.J. Whitmer and James Gibson (from Nowhere to Run) go out there with something in mind.

Gibson Vs. Whitmer brings us to another thing openers can mean. All those ingredients give wrestlers who have recently suffered bad losses or have been overly criticized a now-pressure platform on which they can rebuild credibility. By going a little longer than the normal opener they were able to tell a richer story, It had more technical work and crispness than was normal for Whitmer’s work (though perhaps not for Gibson’s), and drew particular attention because most people were looking ahead to the marquee main events. CM Punk and Jimmy Rave were finishing their blood feud in a cage match that night, so people weren’t thinking too much on Gibson and Whitmer until they went out and tore it down. The low expectations for an opener actually helped them not just for that show, but in the longrun. When rumors began that Whitmer was retiring from ROH this showed up on almost every list of his best matches.

Gibson had just come off a disappointing title match loss but was still viewed as far up the card from a “curtain jerker.” That was indicative of another feature in ROH: cycling talent down the card. They made sure to have Bryan Danielson open at least one show when he was champion. Nigel McGuinness opened the first Wrestlemania weekend show this year, and visiting NOAH star Go Shiozaki opened the other. Claudio Castagnoli wrestled in openers on his road to a World Title shot. On Without Remorse Bryan Danielson and Austin Aries had to wrestle Erick Stevens (who they’d both recently lost to) and Jay Briscoe in the opener for the right to get into the Ultimate Endurance later that night. Putting high-profile stars into openers gives all openers the potential to be more important, even if some aren’t. It’s similar to the old ECW, which was very conscious of changing who was where on cards to keep elevating guys. If Danielson and McGuinness can open shows now and main event later, other guys who look great down there are more acceptable when they’re elevated.

Between the ingredients for a hot match in standard openers and all the cycling of important talent down the card, one thing ROH can do in openers is introduce a changing character or a new wrestler. This especially can be done anywhere on a show; new guys almost never debut in the opener on WWE television, and guys like Erick Stevens, Tyler Black and Eddie Kingston debuted towards the middle or ends of their respective shows in ROH. A debut can be plugged in anywhere, especially if it’s going to be short. But openers have fresher crowds and there are fewer impressions on what the first match is going to be like. WWE wrestlers have often commented that it’s easy to “get over” when you’re the first guy the crowd sees – those are the guys in the first matches in ROH, though more often in WWE they’re the people cutting promos.

So ROH saved things like introducing Chris Hero’s wacky character to the Pay Per View audience. They deposited him in the opening four-way opener of Man Up, where he didn’t have to lose, could seed further tension with Castagnoli, and add some necessary light-heartedness to a show that would grow more and more serious. His character was easily memorable for being such an ass compared to his serious competition, and it added another later to a match that could have been all exhibition.

Similarly Davey Richards debuted in the opener of Destiny, against Jimmy Rave. It was an unexpectedly long and competitive match, wherein Rave highlighted all of his opponent’s offense: flying, striking, surprising athleticism, chain wrestling and innovative moves. It was perhaps the best match on Destiny, only rivaled by Bryan Danielson Vs. Homicide for the World Title – a pretty good job for a new wrestler, and the perfect way to introduce someone.

Richards is my personal favorite curtain jerker. This bad boy debuted at Destiny in a shocking match that I’ve re-watched more than anything on that show. That match launched him into relevance, but he kept coming back to the first match. His opener against Jack Evans Glory By Honor 5 Night 2 kicked that show off the right way with some competitive flyer Vs. striker/grappler material. Their rematch in the opener of Death Before Dishonor 5 Night 1 that ran at an even faster clip and managed to highlight how Evans had improved, even though Richards was far his junior in ROH exposure. He opened Dedicated against Rocky Romero in a great little striking battle and mat game. His opener against Homicide from Fifth Year Festival: Liverpool should have been longer but worked so well through crowd interaction and teasing key moves that it didn’t need to be. Even his little pseudo-squash over newcomer Silas Young at Motor City Madness 2007 was impressive, as it remains one of the most entertaining of the “established guy beats up new guy” openers. I know I’m in good hands when he starts the show.

There’s just something about an entertaining opener that makes the rest of the show better.

-For something utterly different check out my blog, the Bathroom Monologues. Follow the link or use the URL:
-Pulse Glazer profiles the entire ROH roster from Albright, Brent to Strong, Roderick. No update on whether Tom Zenk will be hired to round out their alphabet.
-Mark Allen runs down his top five favorite Intercontinental Champions (Jericho, Ramon and Hennig will always be kings to me).
-Vinny Truncellito looks at the great talkers (but where the Hell is Nick Bockwinkel?)
-The complete line-up for Naomichi Marufuji’s four-show visit later this month and in early August is out. Vs. Roderick Strong should be off the chain!

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