Cult of ROH: De-Escalation and TV Tapings Notes

A Speculative Look at ROH’s First TV Taping
I can be wrong, and sometimes I’m happy to be wrong. From every source I’ve spoken with the Philadelphia crowd was energetic for both nights of tapings. Thank you, Philadelphia.

The house was packed to standing room only. However, ROH gave away at least a couple hundred tickets, explaining the amazing attendance. One source, who had paid to get in, was actually offered a spare free ticket by a fire fighter on his way in. Apparently his firehouse had been given too many for them to give away. They wound up sitting in the same section. Unsurprisingly, when word of these giveaways got out ROH dropped its ticket prices for the next TV taping. This bodes poorly for how much live revenue is generated by TV tapings, and reasonably hurts the enthusiasm of people who paid over a hundred bucks to sit ten rows closer than those who got in free.

HD monitors were set up in the arena to show segments of live footage shot with HDNet’s six camera setup, and fans who got a look at it generally agreed it looked incomparably superior to ROH’s present production. Not merely picture quality, but in production value. PWInsider put up a little video from inside HDNet’s production room. It looks impressive.

In the ring, Jay Briscoe Vs. Nigel McGuinness was apparently their best match ever against each other, with Danielson Vs. Aries and Danielson Vs. Black both delivering the goods. Enough of ROH’s first six shows have buzzed-about main events that the whole initial slew looks completely worthwhile. ROH answered my criticism of non-repeating main-eventers in the sixth main event, pitting previous main-event-winners Black and Danielson against each other.

Things look good going to television. Now, if only more companies would carry the channel.

A Critical Look at ROH: Escalation
Escalation is infamous for being the Pearce Era’s first bait-and-switch show. Not nearly as bad as what would come later, they offered McGuinness Vs. Black Vs. Aries for the World Title, then made it non-title after the show started.

McGuinness made the announcement in a promo. He was booed for a second, and then the crowd went dead silent. This goes against the live reports I’ve gotten, and will add to the speculation that ROH edits crowd noise. But if they had to swap groans for a brief boo and silence, it says a lot about this “angle.” The crowd was never too hot afterwards, and the disappointment of many has been logged across the internet since then. Most people would rather watch the champion in a title match they’re sure he’ll win than watch him in a non-title match. Pretty much everyone would rather watch that title match if it’s what they paid to see. Even the notion that the match could have a greater number of plausible outcomes without a title on the line doesn’t match how much hotter a good title match can be, no matter how certain one is of the ending going in. The great title matches, like Strong Vs. McGuinness from Driven 2008, can take competitor who is certain to lose and change the audience’s mind during it.

Escalation. show pretty obviously relied on this match. Heck, they put these three guys staring at you on the cover. Unfortunately, the match was weak. You can argue that McGuinness should have rested through this match, but his constant apathy and joking references to how the other two should beat other up while he hung back made it feel that much more perfunctory. If Black and Aries were so stupid that they’d let him hang out on the floor while they strangled each other, they really didn’t belong in the main event to begin with. That perfunctory air pervades the whole match as they moved too slowly and did too little, hallmarks of the new company style, preventing the fast pace that any match with Aries and Black in it really ought to hit. Even legitimately cool ideas, like Black springboarding in to catch McGuinness in the middle of a Lariat attempt on Aries, are a step too slow to mean what they should. The ending might as well have been tacked on. It’s unsurprising that these guys would have trouble with the new company approach, but that’s no excuse for a show you’ve got to pay to watch.

This switch-up began possibly the worst angle of the Pearce Era’s infancy. Aries was awarded a title shot for winning this (not that the crowd was aware one was at stake). His title match was called off on another bait-and-switch show in lieu of wrestling Jay Briscoe and Jimmy Jacobs in a three-way dance that went ten minutes before a roll-up. Later that night Aries interfered in a title match and had his title shot, which no one was certain he still had in his pocket, stripped from him. It was put up as the reward for whoever won the fall in a PPV tag match between the teams of himself and long-time enemy Jimmy Jacobs and the team of Bryan Danielson and Tyler Black. In the lead-up to the event it was changed to a title shot the owner could use at any time, ala Money in the Bank. The night of that PPV they changed the match to a four-corner survival, which Black won after Danielson was K.O.’d by a run-in from Bison Smith. Black won by roll-up after confusion between Aries and Jacobs. Later that show Black tried to “cash in,” but was jumped by Jacobs and Aries, and McGuinness ran away. Black has not tried to cash in since.

It sounds like rubbish for good reason. You can’t hold all that against this one show, but man, knowing this was the start of the trend is bad. It’s funny, too, looking at the last five ROH shows. They’ve almost entirely reverted to a more sporting approach, with minimal interference, and when someone like Sweeney interfered he was often neutralized and the match returned to athletic competition. The TV tapings were six hours of almost entirely straight-forward stuff, with a couple of episodes ending with brawls.

This show is less famous for being the one where Mark Briscoe injured himself. He hit a Springboard Knee Drop and immediately crumpled to the canvas holding his leg. In retrospect, the rest of the match is foolish. The Briscoes and Airborne clearly had a big false finish spot they wanted to get in that would require one Crist to catch Mark Briscoe mid-springboard with a springboard attack of his own. They tried it despite his injury and went as poorly as possible, with Mark hesitating, slipping, falling with his bad leg across the rope and the flying Crist brother landing on top of the leg as he tried to adjust. Still crazier was when Mark insisted on giving Jay the jumping assist off the top rope for his Jay Driller finish. It’s ridiculous that he finished the match, ridiculous that ROH let him wrestle a match at all the next night, and no wonder that he’s been out with surgery ever since.

Albright Vs. Richards didn’t click and was too obvious in everything they tried. Hero Vs. Strong was actually good until an utterly tactless series of run-ins. The tag title match against Jacobs & Delirious was worthless, and had another interference ending. Even Castagnoli Vs. Danielson underwhelmed.

I’ve long suspected that the magic of Morishima Vs. Danielson matches comes from Morishima being great at his monster role and Danielson being great at brawling when he’s trying to take it to the other guy, and those are complimentary features. Here the match was great when it was Danielson brawling and taking it to the other guy. When it turned even or Castagnoli dominated in slow periods, it was remarkably dull and bore little logical progression from their earlier matches. It looks like an obvious sacrifice to the Pearce Era’s ideal of distinct faces and heels, but aside from a few impressive instances of power (like Castagnoli bodily throwing Danielson out of a Surfboard hold), it was dull. It needed a hot crowd, and instead thanks to a lackluster show with a bait-and-switch title match main event, they were the least invested I’ve heard an audience be in a Danielson match in months. It’s certainly their weakest singles match to date, lacking the comedy of Vendetta 2 and the technical greatness of Northern Navigation. I highly recommend buying either of those shows instead of this one.

Speaking of Vendetta 2, it’s advertised on this DVD in another poorly produced commercial. Battle for Supremacy also has an ad. These use generic music and come off like a teenager just discovered color filters on his video program. There is no context, no mention that the shows take place half a year before the one you’re watching, and even the offense chosen for highlights is weird (is anyone riveted by Roderick Strong slowly stomping a mudhole in Hero’s chest?). I have no earthly idea why these are on the new DVD’s. The best thing I can say is that HDNet will be producing some of ROH’s new content, so hopefully they’ll be in charge of video packages from now on. ROH has always been a company whose production has done its wrestling a poor service. These commercials accentuate that. I have written numerous times and will continue to write that fans at do better jobs than this for free in their spare time.

HDNet’s involvement makes this DVD’s special feature kind of funny. It’s Samoa Joe Vs. Tyler Black shot with ROH’s (then) new upgraded cameras, which have since become somewhat outdated with HDNet bringing in newer high definition equipment for the TV shows. The feature is also less impressive given you can now buy Rising Above 2008 on DVD and watch a whole show in this format, and it also features the Joe Vs. Black match as an extra since it was taped at that show.

As someone who had almost a third of his top 100 matches of the year coming from ROH and who gets frequent accusations of pro-ROH bias, I didn’t find Joe Vs. Black particularly good. It was special in that Joe returned and people who love him will enjoy it, but the actual match is significantly less complex and dramatic than things like what McGuinness (Take No Prisoners), Danielson (New Horizons) and Aries (Final Battle 2008) did with him in 2008. It was essentially fan service to Joe’s faithful with almost no shine for Black. The youngster got one ridiculous kickout, hit some neat moves, and was otherwise gutted and punked out. Joe didn’t merely maul him; he outsmarted him half the time, catching him mid-dive and avoiding big offense.

The frequent comparisons to Joe Vs. Kobashi aren’t apt on three fronts. First, Joe had nowhere near the aura or sense of placement that Kobashi did in this role. Second, Black’s flying didn’t work nearly as well nor did it fit the match as well as Joe did against Kobashi. Black had nothing at any point in the match that was even close to the moment Joe had disrespecting Kobashi in the opening of their classic. Third, the crowd was dead for almost everything after the opening minute and Joe’s actual victory. They were even whisper quiet as Black passed out in the Choke, only coming alive when the bell rang. I don’t care if the crowd was tired from the PPV taping; it’s a chore to watch these people watch this unremarkable little match. It’s fine as something on an undercard that grabs the novelty of one of ROH’s biggest and most beloved stars returning, but it’s nowhere near the quality of what should sell a DVD. And it’s on another, better DVD anyway.

If you haven’t seen the new camera angles, grab Rising Above 2008 or Final Battle 2008 to see them for yourself. They’re quite an improvement, and we’ll probably be seeing them on the majority of ROH’s direct-to-DVD releases for the future. It’s standard definition stuff, now with more mobile cameras and a few new angles, particularly a diagonal pan-away from above the ring (think Randy Orton’s entrance pose on the turnbuckles) that they really, really enjoy using. They get to the action better, and made a good effort and lighting up the arena to look better on your television. It’s another step away from how embarrassing ROH looked in 2002 (and how some indies still look). As the team learns to use this equipment properly, ROH is going to look a lot better in 2009. That’s why I recommend picking up something form this year, and skipping Escalation.

Also around the internet:
-Vinny Truncellito rocks the 2007 King of Europe tournament. This man brings more indies to the Pulse than any other.

-David Ditch interviews the fabulous “Stonecold” Sanshiro Takagi.

-Phil Clark checks in to review the NJPW/TNA supershow. Worth the read, but Goto Vs. Nagata is so much better than he gave it credit.

-And Jonathan Kirschner brings you up to date on Chikara, a ridiculous promotion that may be what you’ve been looking for if you hate everything else.

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