Cult of ROH: Poor Claudio Castagnoli

This weekend Claudio Castagnoli left ROH after losing his second title match to Nigel McGuinness, or so we thought. He imposed the stipulation on himself after earning the rematch. The stipulation was announced in a newsbit on ROH’s website rather than in a promo or videowire. It felt like a desperation move by ROH to make it seems like Castagnoli might win after they’ve made him look less than credible, and with McGuinness looking at a much bigger title defense on next Saturday’s Hammerstein show. But just a couple of days after his resignation he in favor of becoming the fourth man in that same Hammerstein title match. This angle crystallized my confusion and disappointment with how he’s been used for the last year. I don’t like generalizing, especially in negative criticism, so I’m going to be as specific as possible with this, though I’m sure I’ll get a few glib responses.

If Claudio Castagnoli was as good as he is right now and had never appeared in ROH he would be #1 on my Bring In list. He connects with live crowds like few others, comparable only to Danielson, McGuinness and Generico. I took in Bedlam in Beantown last night and watched him get four consecutive pops for wrenching the same headlock. That’s something. But on top of crowd connections and showmanship, he has a great physique to match great size, giving him a look distinct from other tall guys in Ring of Honor. He’s incredibly strong by ROH standards and plays the power game diversely, especially when wrestling with flyers. There may be no better opponents for athletic smaller guys in the company’s history, best displayed against Dragon Kid at All Star Extravaganza 3 and Matt Sydal at Driven. He is very competent on the mat, especially when he’s in control, and uses his size and personality to make such segments more believable and more entertaining. His years in the Kings of Wrestling made him an excellent tag wrestler. The European Uppercuts are gimmicky, but they’re fun, he uses specific ones in certain settings so variations feel distinct, and he’s built the high-end ones as believable finishers. Those make him a different kind of striker.

His greatest flaw is his English, but his accent doesn’t bother me because I’m an adult. It’s a second language to him. How’s your Spanish? And don’t give me that petulant “Promos are more important now” excuse, because Takeshi Morishima and El Generico had no problems becoming vital players without ever speaking a sentence. I know we live in a time when Great Khali on a microphone is funny, but try not to be a complete xenophobe. At the very worst you give a guy who has trouble with promos a manager and the problem is solved.

Despite his talent, he has had a very rocky road in ROH. The first stumble was nobody’s fault. In late 2006 he was contacted by WWE. He had the height and the look. It made sense. So he and Chris Hero had to drop the tag team titles and ROH got Hero ready for a new direction. Except then something went wrong with the WWE deal that still isn’t clear, and suddenly Castagnoli was staying in ROH. It was really awkward, and many fans of the Kings of Wrestling asked why ROH had even broken them up at Final Battle 2006 if they obviously knew he was staying by that point. Yet they had a new direction for Hero and apparently didn’t want Castagnoli following it. Fine.

Castagnoli went into singles and redeemed himself as a somewhat humorous power guy. His character saw the admiration of fans and a few opportunities from ROH as a sign that he could be a different man now. The redeemed himself from playing the traitor in the CZW feud, and participated in one of my favorite matches of 2007 at Wrestlemania weekened, doing some amazing things with Dragon Kid in the ROH Vs. Dragon Gate tag match.

Ever since then I’ve been baffled by complaints that Castagnoli flops in big matches. He more then held up in that main event. But let’s look at the “big matches” he’s been given since the WWE snafu.

His first would be at Respect is Earned, where he tagged with Matt Sydal to lose to the Briscoes. This was most people’s match of the night live, and was overwhelmingly more popular than the main event tag – which contained Bryan Danielson, KENTA, Nigel McGuinness and Takeshi Morishima. Those guys slipped that night, but Castagnoli and crew picked up the slack.

His next PPV appearance at Driven was in a phenomenal singles match against Sydal, where he worked agile power, bumping like a madman and keeping up with the little guy in ways Hero couldn’t in their singles match. I’ve seen too many casual fans flip out watching this DVD to buy that he disappointed here.

Then there was the opener of Man Up, the show everyone loved. Further undercutting the “pushed down our throats” argument, he was the one who got pinned, going to a record of 1-2 on PPV. He and Marufuji were the glue of that match while Hero played the hilarious bastard around them, making the match a rousing success that elevated everyone in it and started off ROH’s most critically successful pay per view offering.

Off of pay per view, he won the Race to the Top tournament. He had a killer (though short) match with Mike Quackenbush and shot up into the finals against El Generico in Generico’s best singles match to that point. They performed a fireworks spectacle of finishers, capping off the entire two-night tournament and making each other viable singles stars.

Castagnoli rolled around to face Morishima at Death Before Dishonor 5 Night 1 in one of Morishima’s best title defenses. From getting the crowd to believe in a nearfall three minutes into the match, to Castagnoli’s Suicide Dive, to all the fake-outs on Powerbombs, this had me spellbound and remained one of my favorites of the entire year. People left buzzing that Castagnoli could or should be the one to dethrone Morishima.

In PPV continuity he was an interesting but middling character. But they were building something out of PPV continuity. So how did ROH follow that big match up?

A singles title rematch? No.

Semi-mains against Danielson? No.

What he got was more fighting Chris Hero on the midcard, a guy they had no intention of elevating. Only today, in July of 2008, does it seem like he’s taking off for meaningfully. That feud went on forever, even after it became painfully obvious that whatever chemistry they had elsewhere wasn’t working here, and even more painfully obvious that ROH was booking it to be one-sided. Castagnoli won every singles match against Hero, which might work in WWE, but in competition-based ROH, beating a guy who is at your midcard level over and over for an entire year is boring and only hurts both of you. There was no reason for the story to continue, and the longer it went the more often Castagnoli was pulled down and away from main event status.

When they finally rolled it over to Castagnoli Vs. Sweeney, ROH once again showed a painful lack of foresight, delivering no real conclusion. Their one “match” at Final Battle 2007 was a tease. When Daniel Puder injured Castagnoli’s leg, Castagnoli returned to give him a Giant Swing and never see him again. No match, no resolution. The one other time he’d ever be in a match Sweeney, Sweeney ran away and afterwards Castagnoli just forgot about it. That was the end of a storyline running from December 2006 to April 2008.

Some people have used the Hero feud to say Castagnoli didn’t deserve to be on top. Considering an overwhelming number of people still think Hero should be on top, it’s a pretty bunk argument. Castagnoli’s European Uppercuts aren’t believable, but apparently Hero’s Roaring Elbow and Big Boot are. Castagnoli who played a lovable face, whereas Hero played the heel everyone cheered. Nevermind that Hero was dead weight for their feud and these matches were laden with the nonsensical crap, like going so long that whatever excitement the crowd had died off or deciding to start working the arm five minutes before the finish, that has been present in his matches around the indies for years. It was a dud of a feud, but the blame lies with both of them for never getting it off of the ground, and even moreso with ROH management for making the damned thing go on forever. Had it gone two or three matches in two months it could have been forgotten about and both guys could have moved on to more meaningful things. We know Castagnoli could be gold with other opponents, and Hero has legions of fans that will attest that he could have done better with others.

Castagnoli had an amazing exhibition match against Naomichi Marufuji at the Glory By Honor 6 shows. Critics sung about it. It was funny, then it was serious, had tons of athleticism and nearfalls, and shockingly, Castagnoli actually won. It was Marufuji’s second loss in almost two years in Ring of Honor, and his only loss since becoming GHC Heavyweight Champion in NOAH. The match went long enough, built well and gave him arguably the biggest win of his ROH career. It should have revitalized him as a main event player. But by his next title shot in May of 2008, fans complained that he wasn’t a main eventer.

Let’s look at where Castagnoli was placed on cards between Glory By Honor 6 last year and A New Level.

Reckless Abandon: 1st match of 8 – Vs. Seth Skyfire
Unscripted 3: 4th match of 9 – Vs. Chris Hero in 2/3 Falls
Rising Above: 6th match of 9 on the PPV – Vs. Chris Hero in a possible retirement match
Final Battle 2007: 2nd match of 9 – Vs. Larry Sweeney, finally getting his hands on Sweeney
Proving Ground: 3rd match of 10 – Vs. Ruckus
Transform: 6th match of 10 – Vs. Austin Aries
Breakout: 2nd match of 9 – Vs. Adam Pearce
Without Remorse: 5th match of 9 – Vs. El Generico
Eye of the Storm: Absent
6th Anniversary Show: Absent
Double Feature Night 1: 2nd match of 7 – four-way Vs. Erick Stevens, Nigel McGuinness and B.J. Whitmer
Double Feature Night 2: 1st match of 7 – Vs. Davey Richards
Take No Prisoners: 1st match on the PPV – in a four-way Vs. Tyler Black, Delirious and Go Shiozaki
Dragon Gate Challenge 2: Absent
Supercard of Honor 3: Absent
Bedlam in Beantown: 5th of 9 – Trios tag against Larry Sweeney’s faction
Injustice: 6th of 8 – Kota Ibushi
Tag Wars 2008: 4th of 8 – tagging with Nigel McGuinness against Kevin Steen & El Generico
Return Engagement: 3rd of 9 – w/ Pelle Primeau Vs. Adam Pearce & Brent Albright
Southern Navigation: 3rd of 9 – four-way against Damien Wayne, Nigel McGuinness and Brent Albright

From November to May, for half a year, Castagnoli never wrestled in one main event or semi-main event. The mystery of why people didn’t view him as a main eventer is solved.

The highest he got was the 6th match, which he wrestled 3 out of 20 shows. He spent November to May being lucky to wrestle on middle match of a card. When someone like Aries or McGuinness wrestles on the undercard it energizes things because they are viewed as important and will go straight back up the card afterwards. Perpetually putting Castagnoli in short matches that were too long to be squashes but too short to be meaningful, was a great way to dampen excitement.

When he got his title match against McGuinness at A New Level, barely anyone recognized that he had a winning streak because he hadn’t had nearly any notable competition. ROH made Samoa Joe credible by having him go smashmouth with Low Ki and AJ Styles. ROH made Kevin Steen credible by throwing down with the Briscoes and either beating them or nearly beating them every time out. Having the best match of Ruckus’s ROH tenure and beating up Davey Richards is nice, but it doesn’t make a career.

Beyond building him as a big deal, this meant the guy didn’t get main event experience wrestling in the six months before wrestling for the title in one. Tyler Black main-evented Final Battle 2007, Proving Ground and Transform, wrestled in the semi-main against Bryan Danielson at Breakout, another semi-main at Without Remorse and the main event of Double Feature Night 1 before wrestling for the title at Take No Prisoners. He had ample top-card experience in running the gamut of ROH’s best guys. And yes, the Take No Prisoners match was amazing. Black’s run is an example of one of the many things ROH has gotten right. Castagnoli’s remains one that simply should have been right.

Castagnoli was given two really notable matches in early 2008. One was against El Generico at Without Remorse. It rocked all the way to a 20-minute draw, and again was the best singles match either guy had been in for a while. But there was no resolution to the draw. They didn’t go to management and demand a longer time limit. There was no rematch. The only other time Castagnoli got in the ring with him was in a tag that emphasized his feud with McGuinness. The obvious chemistry between them was dropped.

What was truly frustrating about the match was that it was one of few of Castagnoli’s appearances that got real time. Generico is an amazing talent, and coupled with time? It was brilliant. But the common thread was his matches going around ten minutes, too long to be squashes and too short to be impressive. He could only aim to be good in front of hyper-critical audiences that demanded greatness. When he rolled out of that kind of run and into a titleshot, it’s easy to see why some would turn on him.

The other notable match was against Austin Aries at Transform. If you’ve seen it then you’ve probably been disappointed by it, and you can probably tell what was wrong with it: it was too short. Why this had to be match 6 out of 10 on a card with no ROH title matches was beyond me, and why it had to be around fifteen minutes is even further beyond me. Aries was the only top name Castagnoli wrestled in singles in those six months, and whatever he could have picked up or sharpened was cut down by a time limit on a match that even felt too short in the way they were trying to build. Castagnoli winning was notable, even if Aries was in a slump at the time. But with the time allotted they couldn’t build to an important finish. When Aries and Stevens went over twenty minutes and destroyed each other at Proving Ground, it meant something. When Danielson and Black went over twenty minutes at Breakout, it meant something, even though Black lost. Those were uppercard matches with due attention and time to tell great stories. For whatever reason, Castagnoli’s big win on his road to a title shot got jack. Neither Aries nor Castagnoli deserve to be attacked for putting on a good match in too small a spot.

Arguably Castagnoli beating Kota Ibushi at Injustice was important. Ibushi is a Japanese star. However, Castagnoli wasn’t the first choice – he was a last-minute replacement for Aries. So a few weeks before his title match he was the understudy to an international dream match. And Ibushi went 3-1 on his tour. Davey Richards, on a rare night when he wasn’t being treated like a doofus, also got to beat Ibushi. Ibushi rebounded from those two losses only to lose again in a tag match against the Briscoes. Beating Ibushi in the middle of a three-loss streak was about as inauspicious a victory as they could give him over a foreign star. When the two had a good match instead of a great match, it was hardly enough to give Castagnoli buzz.

But there was hope going towards A New Level. Castagnoli pinned McGuinness in a four-way, the sort of thing that previously guaranteed a title shot.

Except both guys got amnesia and the next time Castagnoli mentioned a title match the story became him having to prove himself. Cabana pinned Samoa Joe at Survival of the Fittest and got a title shot. Strong beat Danielson in a tag match and got a title shot. But apparently these two could forget it even happened. Castagnoli came off this lowercard winning streak having to “prove” he was worthy to a guy he’d beaten.

The story was questionable, but the build in videowires was interesting. There was a videowire where he talked in his broken English and gave a log the Giant Swing, so he was still funny at least some of the time. But in another, when McGuinness called him a joke, he grabbed the jerk by the neck and made him look legitimately scared. McGuinness kept calling him a joke and saying how he’d prove the guy didn’t deserve to challenge. By disproving that in the ring, even if he lost, they had everything they needed to make Castagnoli look like a force again.

Instead we got the A New Level match, where Castagnoli submitted cleanly to McGuinness. How hard would it have been to open the match with Castagnoli blocking and throwing the champion around, proving he was stronger? Then have McGuinness bail and try to slow things down, only to find Castagnoli was also a threat on the mat? And ultimately have McGuinness outsmart him or hit a lowblow and escape with a roll-up? Above all those questions, though, the most pressing is who thought the appropriate response to a storyline saying Castagnoli was just a funny guy was to have him submit cleanly to a normally underhanded champion?

By A New Level internet fans were already all over Castagnoli. I read dozens of complaints that he was being pushed down their throats when the truth was, if anything, he hadn’t been built enough. People like myself had only been excited for the match because we had faith in the man as a performer, not because of any brilliant story or marketing. People unlike myself complained that he wasn’t a big enough star to challenge for the title at the first Hammerstein show, an ironic complaint to couple with him being pushed too heavily – but at least it was kind of true. Even in the eyes of his fans he hadn’t been positioned properly.

A New Level failed to meet the expectations of attendees. It’s since received glowing reviews on DVD, strengthening the suspicion that certain guys were required to have absolutely amazing matches just to get to a pass from the crowd. But for that weekend all the internet had were reports that his match was supposedly a dud. Castagnoli was labeled a failure.

Necro Butcher also had a supposed dud against Takeshi Morishima. In one of the more obvious examples of hypocrisy the ROH message board has hosted, two threads popped up: one stating A New Level proved Castagnoli wasn’t good enough, and the other saying you couldn’t hold the match against Butcher.

The other squabbles over Castagnoli are ridiculous. That people were tired of “Hey!” even if crowds loved it and people were crying during Ric Flair’s “Woo!” at Wrestlemania.

Part of the hostility comes from a self-serving, self-loathing vibe in the ROH fanbase. They loved funny heel Hero. Steen is a dick to every crowd, so they love him. McGuinness gave his heart to the fans and they hated him; now that puts the belt on his ass and moons them, someone are buying that he really is the best in the world. Castagnoli stayed a happy guy who loved fans, and while it worked on crowd after crowd, people were more cynical and critical at home. You can’t be happy and funny. You have to be mean and funny. It’s “edgy.” It’s something bigger than just the ROH fanbase. It’s something I loathe about our culture in general.

There is the tired moveset argument, both completely disproved by classic wrestlers like Nick Bockwinkel and Ric Flair, and because Castagnoli has a lot of moves. The Alpamare Waterlside slam, Ricola Bomb, headscissors, suicide dive, middle rope elbow drop, German Suplex, the Les Artess Lift—do you know stupid I feel making this list? Just dignifying some of the so-called criticism against this guy feels demeaning to me. I can only imagine how he’d feel if he made the mistake of reading any of it.

Come to the present. Castagnoli got what he should have gotten in the first place. He was booked to fight Danielson at Vendetta 2 in a big match that got a lot of time and, unsurprisingly, was amazing. If he’d been allowed to get big wins in long, meaningful matches earlier, a lot of voices would have been better to him. But at least ROH was doing it this time. Things were rosy.

Then he announced a self-imposed stipulation to leave Ring of Honor if he lost his second title match against McGuinness. This wasn’t a prerequisite to get the match. This was arbitrary. Nevermind that it took McGuinness seven tries to win the belt. Mind that whatever moved Castagnoli to make this vow apparently wasn’t strong enough for him to pick up a webcam and explain it. No, he phoned a quote into ROH headquarters and let them make an article about less than fourteen days before the match. It is the strangest “Loser Leaves” stipulation I can remember.

Then ROH took this Title Vs. Retirement match and put it on at the middle of the show. Looking at Castagnoli’s last year, you almost had to laugh.

You don’t defend this. Maybe they’ll restructure the PPV for its airing. Maybe it’ll be great in execution. Boy, I hope so, because if the execution is off on a match that burned through nearly all of Castagnoli’s high-end offense, including two Ricola Bombs, then he’s in serious trouble. I hope there’s something huge backstage with Castagnoli later in the show that makes shoving a Title Vs. Retirement match that far down a card worthwhile. I hope for a lot.

Just when Ring of Honor had me at my angriest they added Castagnoli to the four-way at the Hammerstein show. That is the not the venue I’d want him in for a title challenge after the reception of A New Level, but he’ll be in there with great talent. He has proven to work well with Danielson. Black is exactly the athletic potential flyer than Castagnoli can work wonders against; Black Vs. Castagnoli is a singles match I’m highly anticipating. And then there’s the heat machine of Nigel McGuinness in New York City. He didn’t ignite at A New Level, but he has to be able to do it in this situation. There is a high chance of a title change, or at least some kind of red-hot ending.

Castagnoli does not have to win, and I don’t think he will. ROH only has to do something smart. If it goes to a draw when he’s within seconds of winning, if he eliminates McGuinness but someone else wins the belt, or some other creative thing comes to pass, you could create an interesting scenario. Either he’ll be driven to stay and try to convince management to keep him despite his resignation, or he’ll leave for a period more motivated than ever. This can be spun. For the sake of his longevity, it almost has to be.

Alright, that wraps up this week. Let’s take a deep breath and remember that at least Mike Adamle isn’t GM of ROH. If you’re still capable of reading, take a look at:
-Vinny Truncellito looks at the importance of finishers.
-Mark Allen looks at WWE’s attempt to sanitize itself.
-Pulse Glazer argues that Bryan Danielson is a good wrestler. Brave man, that Glazer.
-Check back this Friday for ROH Weekly’s preview of the weekend
-And for something entirely different, there are the Bathroom Monologues at www.johnwiswell.blogspot.com

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Join our newsletter

never miss the latest news, reviews, live event coverage, audio podcasts, exclusive interviews and commentary for Movies, TV, Music, Sports, Comics, Video Games!