Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – Is ROH on HDNet a good thing?

Ring of Honor Wrestling on HDNet. How exciting! My favorite promotion ever has finally acquired a television outlet after over seven years of producing outstanding, hard-hitting, entertaining professional wrestling shows. It will now be available to far more fans than ever before, which is like a ROHbot’s dream come true. Or is it? Ring of Honor hasn’t quite been itself lately thanks to a decision made by owner Cary Silken to drop Gabe Sapolsky as booker and change their creative direction, and the debut of ROH Wrestling on HDNet was my first look at Silken’s “new vision” for the beloved independent promotion. How have things changed?

TODAY’S ISSUE: Ring of Honor’s premier on HDnet.

Right off the bat I’ll say the production is light-years beyond anything Ring of Honor has ever utilized. However, as I was recently explaining to yet another potentially new fan of the indy phenomenon, you don’t tune to ROH for pyro, huge arenas, enormous stage sets, or mainstream celebrities stopping by. The only reason to watch Ring of Honor is for the wrestling action and the simple-yet-effective characters performing for your entertainment. If these enhanced production values were icing on the rich and delicious in-ring cake of Gabe Sapolsky’s version of Ring of Honor, the HDNet premier would have been an amazing accomplishment and I would send the YouTube link to everyone I know. However as I’ll discuss below, the product they aired on HDNet was not exactly the ROH I know and love. But let’s start from the beginning…

First of all, Mike “Hog” Hogewood is not only the worst wrestling commentator I’ve ever heard, he’s actually counterproductive to the goals of the company. For example, when Brent Albright drilled Rhett Titus with a plancha from the ring to the floor outside, this genius declared, “Good thing there are mats out there…” which is the worst possible thing he could have said. Wrestling announcers are supposed to highlight the toughness and determination of these men by discussing how hard a wrestler just fell, how the mats outside the ring are aesthetic only and not thick enough to provide any real protection, and how amazing it is that they have the heart to keep gutting it out and competing because that’s how much a win means (especially in ROH, where wins and loses are NOT trivialized like in other companies). This sort of explanation of the action would increase the dramatic effect of high-risk moves or big impact spots. A commentator should not explain how safe a fall to the outside was, or how little a maneuver actually damaged the victim.

A couple of Hog’s annoying, often-repeated gems were saying a move “really hurt him!” and following near-falls, “He REALLY wanted that three-count!” He also emphatically stated, “That boot on the neck does not feel good!” and that the crowd “had absolutely no use for Jimmy Jacobs” during the main event. It was just awful stuff. I found myself hoping his mic would go dead or that Dave Prazak would muscle in and take over the show. But it was clear that Mr. Prazak was instructed about how far he was to go in his commentary, and unfortunately, taking the reigns didn’t seem to fit his job description for the night. The poor guy who’s given so much to help ROH succeed, sounded like his soul was being gnawed upon throughout the broadcast. There is no good reason they couldn’t have kept Lenny Leonard for the HDNet show. Leonard and Prazak have done a wonderful job on many DVDs and all the pay-per-views to date. They enjoy a terrific balance and work very well off of each other, while Prazak sounded like he was humoring Hog, which he likely was. But it was the first time out for this new tandem, so maybe Hog and Dave will find a better rhythm as they work together more often.

The very first wrestler on screen was Delirious, whose wild antics and incoherent rambling make him something of an acquired taste, and a very bad choice to lead the way. I’m a Delirious fan, in fact he’s one of my favorites, but I think he should have been introduced first in a vignette that explains a bit about him, and held off TV until the third or fourth episode. He’s gold between the ropes, but for new fans who have heard about how ROH is the “real wrestling” alternative and were looking forward to seeing more “normal” characters, Delirious is too gimmicky to bat leadoff. They should have turned to a Ring of Honor godfather like Bryan Danielson, Austin Aries, or maybe the reigning world champion Nigel McGuinness to open the first broadcast. Even Sweet & Sour Larry Sweeney, who cuts a dynamite promo every time out, would have been a better choice to start things off than Delirious, who certainly set the tone early that Ring of Honor is unique, but not in the way that would have been most effective.

They did make a great choice of opponent for Delirious in Jerry Lynn. Lynn is a grizzled veteran with some name appeal, and unlike a lot of “legends” on WWE and TNA television today, he is still in phenomenal shape and near the top of his game. Reminiscent of Mickey Rourke’s Randy “the Ram” Robinson character from the film The Wrestler, Lynn is plugging along and entertaining fans with quality performances some 20 years into his career, never phoning it in, and clearly loving his job. Just as the Stars of Honor DVD helped ease new fans into the ROH universe by highlighting matches featuring wrestlers they would recognize from WWE and TNA television (CM Punk, Samoa Joe, Matt Hardy, Antonio “MVP” Banks, Christian Cage, James “Jamie Noble” Gibson, Brian Kendrick, Jay Lethal, Christopher Daniels, Homicide, and Low Ki), utilizing a former ECW world champion in the first match made a lot of sense.

Prazak worked hard during the opener to provide some logical motivation for the meaningless contest, explaining that Lynn believed he needed a win against Delirious to help strengthen his claim to another world title match, and talking about how coming to ROH has reinvigorated Lynn’s career. But he had a tough road to hoe as Hog just seemed amazed by the simplest maneuvers and was all over the place with his comments. It was painfully obvious that Hog doesn’t watch much wrestling, which makes his choice as lead commentator for this important series all the more baffling. I imagined Prazak slipping Hog notes about the names of certain moves like the “Panic Attack”, because when Hog called them it seemed quite unrealistic that he’d know those names based on the rest of his inane commentary.

The match itself was an exhibition, good enough yet unremarkable, with Lynn securing the victory via his cradle piledriver finisher. But considering how short the contest was compared to ROH’s usual fare, that it had no storyline reason whatsoever for occurring (a 10-second clip of Nigel challenging Lynn to defeat a “hand-selected” Delirious before he’d consider giving the veteran another shot at the title would have been more than enough to provide this contest with some meaning) and didn’t really tell a story via ring psychology or even boast a single highlight-reel moment, ROH could have chosen a different match to kick off the HDNet era.

They should have booked Lynn against Erick Stevens in a big-man-versus-little-man match, or Kenny King in a cocky-young-gun-versus-seasoned-veteran affair, or Bryan Danielson in a mutual-respect contest. Delirious/Lynn wasn’t bad by any means, just a bit less impressive than what was required for one of the most important curtain-jerkers in Ring of Honor history. However, the match did demonstrate a few of ROH’s strengths like the in-ring focus, the more straight, professional wrestling approach versus the big two’s infamous “sportz entertainment” style, and the fact that ROH’s standard modus operandi involves clean finishes without ref bumps or foreign objects coming into play. So they were off to a good start when they needed a great one, but we got what we got, and the show rolled on.

Next, Tyler Black cut a decent promo that was nearly meaningless for new fans who don’t know the history of the Age of the Fall. Before his interview they should have shown a two-minute video package taking a look at the history of the faction, starting with the “Project 161” hype and their dramatic, brutal assault on the Briscoes in their debut following the ladder war at Man Up. Next in the montage would be the AoTF winning tag team gold, then focusing on Black’s singles successes and near misses which earned him his own babyface following and made Jacobs jealous, then describing the breakdown of the relationship between Jacobs and Black following Jacobs’ “I Quit” match against Aries at Rising Above, ending with Jimmy’s vicious attack on Black, alongside Aries at Final Battle. This short piece of exposition would have given the main event a great deal of credibility and importance.

The second contest was Sami Callihan versus Kenny King in another exhibition match. Both Callihan and Prazak failed to properly enunciate Callihan’s “New Horror” moniker, so it sounded like they were calling Sami the “new whore”, which didn’t do him any favors. This was my first look at Callihan, and while his ring work was fine, he didn’t do anything to help get over WHY he considers himself the New Horror, or what that even means. Losing to King certainly didn’t make him seem all that horrifying. I wanted to like Callihan, but he didn’t give me much to get invested in because he was clearly there to job, and apparently his gimmick wasn’t a focus of Silken or lead booker Scrap Iron Adam Pearce. King, on the other hand, did a wonderful job of representing his character in the “Smacktalk” segment before the match, and looked like a superstar every moment he was on screen. The “pretty-boy pit bull” is a big, ripped, athletic and agile athlete with a defined personality and the ability to cut a promo. A man with those tools should succeed in any promotion, and I look for King’s waist to be adorned with ROH gold before the end of 2009.

The match was the sort of fare seen on HeAT and Velocity a few years ago, but it succeeded in establishing King as a force to be reckoned with. As with the opener, I would have liked the match to go a few more minutes, but Callihan and King did what they could and Kenny came out smelling like a rose. King finished the New Horror with his “Coronation” maneuver, an inverted Death Valley Driver. There was nothing bad about this match, but again, it was a bit flat and remained in the “good enough” category. It seemed as if they were intentionally holding back.

In another backstage segment, Jimmy Jacobs gave his two cents regarding the main event against his former stable-mate. Jacobs is a far better promo than Black, and his interview cranked up the anticipation for their impending showdown. We went back to the ring for the third contest featuring Brent Albright, a powerhouse who can wrestle and always brings the intensity, against “Addicted to Love” Rhett Titus. With his amorous antics proving partly responsible for Delirious’ heel-turn, Titus is a fine example of a wrestling character that isn’t too gimmicky. He’s not a warlock, a clown, an Academy Award come to life, a minotaur, a leprechaun or a savage from some remote corner of the world. He’s a would-be lothario who loves the ladies and imagines himself as the object of every woman’s lust. Chances are you all know a guy with a little bit of Titus’ self-image and can relate to a babyface who wants to kick Rhett’s teeth down his throat, which makes for a solid wrestling character. In the tradition of Ravishing Rick Rude, the Hollywood Blonds, Hot Stuff Eddie Gilbert, and Shawn Michaels at the start of his first singles run, Titus knows exactly how to perform his role and gives it his all, actually convincing the viewer of his narcissism.

Before they got on with the match, we were treated to a short video history of Ring of Honor that mostly featured the mainstream stars who have passed through ROH, seemingly to help legitimize the promotion in the eyes of casual fans tuning in for the first time. The package was well done, and was another good example of their improved production. It’s nice to see ROH looking this sharp; the production quality is finally on par with the quality efforts put forth by wrestlers performing at Ring of Honor events for years.

The match was a lot more back-and-forth than I expected it would be, and that shows Silken and Pearce do have plans for Titus, since he fared far better in defeat than Sami Callihan did in the previous bout. When they went home, Albright showed off his strength and explosiveness, drilling Titus with a ura-nage and following up with the dreaded combination of his half-nelson suplex and crowbar submission finisher, forcing Titus to tap out. I really enjoyed this match the second time I watched it. Not a bad little outing from either man, and it helped establish both of their characters. Good stuff.

Before the main event began they finally aired a short video clip detailing the most recent events that transpired between Jacobs and Black (and Aries) but they left out the rise of the Age of the Fall, and as I mentioned earlier, that really would have helped tell the story of the match. Think about watching WrestleMania V without knowing anything about the tournament a year earlier or the ascent of the Mega-Powers, instead only seeing the part where Savage attacked Hogan in the locker room after Miss Elizabeth was kayfabe injured. You’re missing Act I of a two-act story that way, just as new ROH fans watching this show missed out on the total storyline arc of the Age of the Fall.

Jimmy Jacobs versus Tyler Black has the potential to be a legendary feud in ROH, but their main event match here, while solid, was bereft of the emotion, intensity and violence it should have included considering it was their first singles contest since Black was excommunicated by Jacobs. This battle should have demonstrated Ring of Honor’s ability to deliver a huge explanation point in a vendetta, but instead they worked a fairly decent wrestling match, and nothing more. It was reminiscent of a main event from WCW Thunder in 2000; the action was pretty good, but it didn’t have that special quality ROH fans have come to expect, especially in such an emotional situation. Black’s reversal of Jacobs’ End Time guillotine choke finisher for the pinfall was an anticlimactic finish which came just when they got some momentum going. He should have won with something more demonstrative, like the Phoenix Splash, God’s Last Gift, or his superkick. You’d expect an explosive finish in such a huge match.

The entire show was good but never really cooked, as it all lacked that fire and passion ROH events are known for. I have to wonder what must be running through the minds of those fans who’ve been hearing us ROHbots crow for years about how great Ring of Honor is. They finally got a chance to catch the company for free and saw merely a decent show, not a spectacular wrestling extravaganza. They must be curious as to what we ROH fans are all so hyped up about, and if I had the chance, I’d send them a few DVDs from the Gabe days and ask them not to consider the HDNet version of the company a stand-alone representation of why we ROHbots love Ring of Honor, and pay lots of money to watch it.

One of ROH’s strengths has always been their willingness to let wrestlers slowly develop a story in the ring and not rush them to conclusion. In keeping with the spirit of their uniqueness compared to WWE and TNA, they should have only scheduled three matches for the 60-minute show and given those matches a little extra breathing room as opposed to packing four uncharacteristically short (for ROH) matches into the hour. Still, if the four shorter matches had a bit more urgency and a little more fire, I could look past the amount of time from bell to bell.

Overall, while the production was good and the content was serviceable, passable, “perfectly acceptable wrestling” (which is far less than what ROH was all about under Gabe’s creative vision), they failed to highlight many of their big guns. I was shocked to see no champions on the first show. I would have expected Steen and Generico to defend their straps on this episode, and a video package spotlighting Ring of Honor World Heavyweight Champion Nigel McGuinness as well. In lieu of any champions, they could have shown some footage of the classic battles between Dragon and Aries or Stevens and Strong; anything to breathe some life into the show would have been good. I realize they didn’t want to shoot the moon here because it might discourage fans from purchasing DVDs if they think the free product is good enough, but they should have considered doing something to capture the attention of a casual fan who may have only tuned in this once unless they were witness to something that would compel them to look again next time.

This was a huge opportunity for ROH to expand their fanbase and make WWE/TNA viewers turn their heads, and instead they just produced an “OK” show with nothing remarkable or noteworthy, and upon first viewing I really disliked it. It felt like a zombie, like the reanimated corpse of what was once the greatest wrestling promotion I’d ever seen. I was reminded of Steven King’s “Pet Semetary”; everything looked and sounded like ROH, with many of the same wrestlers whom fans have come to associate with ROH and with Dave Prazak’s voice on commentary, yet there was no life behind the eyes, no spirit in the voice – something was missing. A red and black ring with an ROH logo on the canvas, within which guys on the Ring of Honor roster work short, uninspired matches is not exactly ROH at all, but an echo, a shadow of the former juggernaut of the U.S. independent scene.

But then I cleared my head, waited a while, and watched it again. My opinion softened a great deal the second time around, and now I’m looking forward to catching the next show to see how they follow up. After all, I really didn’t enjoy the first ppv, but by the middle of the second one I was completely hooked. So I’m willing to chalk this one up to finding their niche on television, and see what comes next. Does anyone remember the first episode of Seinfeld? It wasn’t very good, and bore little resemblance to the powerhouse sitcom it would eventually become. Maybe Ring of Honor Wrestling on HDNet will evolve as well. Time will tell, and I’ll be waiting and watching.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” – Unknown

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For more on Ring of Honor’s HDNet debut, check out the following: John Wiswell’s Cult of ROH, Big Andy Mac’s review, Pulse Glazer’s Ten Thoughts On… and Bones Barkley’s version.

Elsewhere on Pulse Wrestling this week…

Norine “the Machine” Stice returns to her traditional Friday night slot for the Real-Time SmackDown! Report .

Jonathan Kirschner talks King of Trios 2009 in this week’s Chikarticles.

Andy Wheeler navigates the Road to WrestleMania in another For Your Consideration.

This Week in ‘E, Mark Allen laments the loss of two more members of the pro wrestling family.

Travis Leamons reviews Ring of Honor’s All Star Extravaganza IV DVD from last December.

Finally this week, Mark Allen looks at Savage vs. Steamboat from WM III in his countdown of the top 25 “WrestleMania Moments” of all time.

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