Cult of ROH: The Pearce Era, Episode 1

For the next few weeks we’ll take an in-depth look at ROH’s new DVD’s. The French Connection, Bound By Hate and Escalation are the first shows of the Adam Pearce era, surrounded in controversy over in-ring changes and booking qualms. They are all available on rohwrestling.com and I invite readers to follow along with me. These looks are not match-by-match reviews and will spoil outcomes as we examine what really has changed and how well it works. This is the difference between consumer advocacy and critical writing: I will recommend buying and skipping shows, but our topic is how they work, not reviewing them.

Just looking at the match-listing for The French Connection you can see the promise. Strong Vs. Richards and Danielson & Aries Vs. Jacobs & Black were both high-profile re-matches, and while the ending of McGuinness Vs. Go Vs. Steen Vs. Generico was extremely predictable even back before it happened, it should have been quality. The first time ROH hit Canada they delivered one of their best match-quality shows of the year, so even if you didn’t know this was in another venue, you had to be psyched.

The first thing everyone wanted to know were the outcomes. Since then the pro- and anti- camps have exaggerated a lot of results, it’s useful to simply look at how the seven matches on this show actually went.

1. Erick Stevens pinned Eddie Edwards cleanly.
2. The Briscoes beat Kenny Omega when his partner, Kenny King, walked out on him for no good reason and then watched him get beat up while hugging Rhett Titus. Did King plan to turn on Omega and blow a match that might earn him bookings? Did they plan to have Omega piss King off way more and just not do it well? No clue.
3. Necro Butcher beat Brodie Lee by DQ when the Age of the Fall ran in and beat him up. Post-match security did jack squat to prevent them from beating on him.
4. Jerry Lynn beat Delirious cleanly, though Delirious was a little off early on when Jacobs was booted from ringside for interjecting himself. Delirious registered the change so little a minute after it happened that it didn’t truly factor in.
5. Richards beat Strong after several distractions throughout his match and a kick to the head from Edwards.
6. Aries & Danielson beat the Age of the Fall when Aries choked out Jacobs with a Last Chancery while holding a chain around his neck in front of the ref, which was straight up insulting.
7. McGuinness retained his title cleanly after a 2-on-1 situation where he and Go beat on Steen and Steen rallied to eliminate Go. All three eliminations were reasonably clean.

Four of the seven matches had something funky with their endings, be it a tag match becoming 2-on-1, a run-in DQ, or Aries blatantly strangling another man with a chain and the referee just not paying attention. We’re not counting the main event title match where Steen wound up fighting against the odds because that was a very expected outcome for an elimination match. Regardless of that match, though, if this became the average ROH would be moving in an awful direction. Even good efforts can only overcome so many crap finishes, as seen in TNA where a string of clean finishes does nothing to dispel their stigma of meaninglessness.

Most of these matches had more big-picture storyline to them. There is story to limb psychology and rivalry between two men, but this was more about Sweet & Sour or the Age of the Fall being cheating jerks. Omega and King’s match against the Briscoes was a catalyst for an issue between them. There was a sense of the bigger picture beyond any one match or show that went beyond the commentary, though it victimized the quality of matches and the execution was questionable in several places.

Setting up an issue between rookies King and Omega was promising, though King ditching his partner came off as immensely arbitrary. You could recognize that the chain in the Aries match was to set up the Dog Collar Match the next night, but for crying out loud the ref had to look at Jacobs to see he was tapping and somehow missed the weapon. So the new ROH gets a nod for good intentions, but a big shake of the head for the way they did it. You can’t just want to do this sort of thing. As I wrote about in a recent column, execution is key. If this is the of storytelling Pearce wants the roster will have to get a lot smarter about doing it, and his composition on how these angles go down needs a lot of work. They get the benefit of the doubt for these first few shows, though it may make shows skippable. It certainly didn’t help this one.

A big point of contention starting that weekend was the inclusion of count-outs. For the first show, though, they barely factored in. They didn’t end any matches and simply forced some guys to get back in the ring earlier, cutting off some of the outside brawling that had become a cloying cliché. That was a plus, at least for the first new show.

From the bottom of the card things were pretty generic, give or take a few high spots. Things were mostly too clipped or story driven to even get a sense of how in-ring changes might work. Nothing exciting, nothing particularly fresh, nothing offensive – it was filler waiting for high profile main events, so if you wanted to know if Adam Pearce was going to ruin your workrate paradise, you had to look to the final three matches.

The original Strong Vs. Richards from Battle of the Best felt like it went down a certain way for the Japanese crowd. On The French Connection they weren’t quite as sporty, didn’t go as long weren’t quite as physical or intense, but it would be greedy to expect the same match. The re-match saved some of the high impact, which made sense given it was only third from top on the show. It built and accelerated reasonably, ending at a great pace. Nothing that challenged the better spots of Northern Navigation, but still a good showing for the Canadian crowd. The problem lay in the multiple distractions and interferences, cheapening the pleasure of an athletic contest. On a better show, it would probably be praised more.

The original Danielson & Aries Vs. Jacobs & Black from Respect is Earned 2 was one of my favorite tags of 2008, so I had a lot of expectations for it. Perhaps that was why I noticed the character change in Jacobs, who was no longer aggressive or even an effective opportunist. He was a chicken, running from Aries – a man he’d fearlessly charged, battered and bloodied for months, had challenged to a Best of Three gimmick match series, and here for some reason was scared to even exchange punches with. Even weirder, he seemed to target Danielson, frequently aiming for him instead of the man he pledged to destroy. The tactless change in character was very unappreciated. The commentators proffered the excuse that Jacobs didn’t want Aries to get his hands on him until the next night, but that was amazingly arbitrary and cut the legs out from underneath a high-profile rematch.

If the rumored in-ring style changes are true, this tag was one of the best examples. Danielson spent almost too long in peril, Jacobs was too evasive, and the Age of the Fall’s offense was so subdued that it felt like it was waiting to become something as good as the original match. The dual layers of Jacobs and Aries’s intensity and Black and Danielson’s athleticism from the original match were essentially cast aside for a very simplified story that you could get on free WWE TV. Maybe these guys weren’t used to it or maybe I’ve just seen more creative stuff this decade, but when Aries inevitably rescued Danielson they had an almost cartoonish comeuppance and the conclusion barely matched the passion of the opening of the original match, much less its conclusion.

The final match was a four-man elimination match for the ROH World Title. Its biggest flaw was Gabe Sapolsky’s fault, since he was the one that booked four champions vying for only one guy’s belt. Even before the show was taped you knew what was going to happen. Given that to work with, they fell into a lopsided tag-like dynamic between the two bad guys and the two good guys until someone got eliminated. The entire match was a huge step down from the Death Before Dishonor 6 main event, and perhaps McGuinness’s best challenger, El Generico, was underutilized and then disposed of far too quickly. They tried to rally drama in Steen fighting against the odds, but it didn’t click with the crowd, nor was it on par with his Injustice performance.

McGuinness is at the point in his reign when letting a guy come back only to overcome him yet again is only going to work with really dramatic structure and execution. Doing it to Steen for the fourth time doesn’t cut it. It may have been a new booker, but it was the same roster in the same positions. There is no imaginary reboot for the level of performance or what’s expected here. What they really put on was a decent if undramatic match that followed a very recognizable pattern. The deliberateness of the match with everyone having cookie cutter roles and never going full bore come off as further evidence of the switch to a new in-ring philosophy that’s not promising.

Despite all that, condemnation at this point is silly. For one, look at the guys in these matches: McGuinness, Danielson, Aries, Jacobs and on. If anyone on the show could wrestle however they wanted, it would be them. Strong and Richards weren’t particularly impeded by whatever was going on backstage. Off nights happen, and there were at least two matches the next night that blew all of this away (which we’ll look at next week).

A few other obvious shifts popped up outside of the ring. Foremost was Dave Prazak making a jarring turn into a droll heel commentator. An actual dynamic in the booth is a good idea. Yet Prazak sounded like a tired, half-hearted man who botched his own jokes and almost made fun of himself for his lack of reasoning in changing his heart (he declares in monotone that he now loves Nigel McGuinness because he realized he’s the best wrestler in the world). This is not the Prazak I’ve heard praised so strongly for commentary in FIP. Hopefully he will loosen up and grow into the role.

Nigel McGuinness also joined the commentary team for a couple of matches and came off like one man too many on the mic, with little to add, weak insults for rivals Necro Butcher and Jerry Lynn, and a palpable hesitance to carry a topic. He is a long, long way from contributing on commentary like CM Punk once did. Like a lot of The French Connection, it was a good idea with lame execution.

Lastly there were several quizzical interview segments with Kyle Durden, a student wrestler turned backstage interviewer. Here he said a bunch of Rhett Titus’s catchphrases at him in the guise of an interview with all the grace and creativity of a fifth grader with his first tape recorder. In another segment he attempted to interview a silent, brooding Erick Stevens who came off as nothing like a bad ass. Interviews to better establish characters are a good idea. This is not how to do them.

The changes all need serious work: in the familiarity of wrestlers using much more obvious roles, for the commentators carrying the stories and new dynamics, and for the actual writing. For those things devoted fans will give the company time. If you look over this show you’ll notice that outside of King dumping Omega (a rookie dumping a rookie), there’s really no plot development and all the emphasis is on things that will come later – the eventual conclusion to the Jacobs/Aries feud, someone posing a real threat to McGuinness, Sweet & Sour running amok and so-on. You couldn’t expect too much, but when you realize how much story was shoved down this show’s throat, it’s staggering to think how little progress there actually was. You really won’t be lost if you miss this.

For The French Connection itself, though, I still have the coldest criticism: you can skip it. And that’s bad because I loved the Respect is Earned 2 tag, the original Richards Vs. Strong was phenomenal for an ROH singles match without Danielson, Aries or McGuinness in it, and the title match had a lot of talent to it. This is a show you shouldn’t be able to skip, and you can. Next week we’ll look at Bound By Hate, with more changes, a very controversial title match ending, and two matches better than anything on this show.

That’s it for this week. Check in next week for that look at Bound By Hate, and my non-wrestling blog over at www.johnwiswell.blogspot.com. Also on the Pulse this week:

-In case you missed it, there’s my Top 100 matches, in handy Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4. Really, you should read it, especially before you call me negative on this column, but really just to remember that 2008 was a really good year in the ring.

-Vinny Truncellito argues in favor of ROH PPV’s, which I do enjoy more than the average WWE or TNA offering – not only partially because I enjoy paying less than half the price.

-Jonathan Kirschner follows the career of Hallowicked, one of Chikara’s finest wrestlers.

-And Phil Clark grabs Wrestle Kingdom 3, an NJPW show with visitors from Mexico, TNA and beyond.

Hope you all had a happy new year. I look forward to sharing the year in wrestling with you.

Tags: , ,