Cult of ROH: Lynn the Champion

Monday morning ROH congratulated their new World Champion, Jerry Lynn. The Newswire broached the topic with:

“April 6th: History was made this past Friday night in Houston at “Supercard of Honor IV” as the venerable Jerry Lynn was able to overcome all odds and defeat Nigel McGuinness for the ROH World Championship.”

When a fan pasted the Newswire onto ROH’s board, I had to leave a little humorous reply.

“Yes, Lynn overcame all the odds by beating a man exhausted from a 1.5 year title reign with two torn biceps, on his third try.”

That joke has been quoted several times since. Bitterness was building against Lynn for months as he built too strong a presence on Videowires, essentially venting his life story, and with commentators constantly comparing him to Randy the Ram even as The Wrestler became less and less relevant. The week it came out it was huge, but in April, after it failed to secure notable Oscars and Rourke was appearing for WWE, we were kind of sick hearing about it. We were sicker still to hear how Lynn was just like the guy locked out of his trailer and risking death every time he got in the ring, especially when his closest resemblance to Randy the Ram was his hair.

It was Lynn’s third swing at McGuinness in singles. At Vendetta 2 he lost in a non-title match. At Southern Hostility he lost in a title match, which was okay, but actually less entertaining than Vendetta 2. Here at Supercard of Honor 4, he won. His reception was rightly overshadowed by fans applauding McGuinness on his landmark reign before he disappeared to heal. On the internet, Lynn didn’t even receive that much warmth. People who couldn’t possibly have seen the victory demanded he be a transitional champion and mocked his reign less than an hour in.

The lack of enthusiasm echoes McGuinness’s own title win. McGuinness choked against Takeshi Morishima at Fighting Spirit and in Japan before dethroning the giant at Undeniable. Undeniable was the least popular PPV ROH ever produced (though from live reports, the upcoming Caged Collision may give it a run for its money), and that was probably the worst of their three matches, a series that declined with each iteration. Fans wanted Danielson to dethrone Morishima, and claimed that McGuinness was too boring with his redundant offense. As we now know, that bitterness swirled around injuries to create an amazing heel champion, though it took months for it to properly take. With crowd pleasers like Vs. Aries at Rising Above, Vs. Danielson at Sixth Anniversary and Vs. Black at Take No Prisoners, McGuinness converted many of his critics.

Can Jerry Lynn do that? Playing any kind of heel responding to his critics will a demand a role too similar to McGuinness’s, which is not an act you’d want to follow anyway, and certainly not playing the same song.

Match quality is a big problem for this sort of conversion, and a sticking point for a lot of his critics. The McGuinness matches were fine, but unremarkable compared to what the former champ did against Aries, Danielson, Generico, Black and Strong. He had two matches with Danielson, one very popular, but other almost unanimously deemed a dud. His match with Aries, ROH’s other go-to guy, was similarly panned. Both his title victory on Friday and first defense on Saturday have been overshadowed by other matches in every live report. Lynn has a decent record of performance in ROH, good enough to be on the shows, but not the pedigree that inspires confidence. For all the talk he’s made over the years of indies requiring more psychology, psychology-fetishizing fans shred his matches for their “masturbatory” mat work and recycling old spots without making them feel special.

The typical argument is that ROH needs to move beyond its fanbase and court a broad audience. They don’t need the great matches or the best wrestlers; they need recognition and star power on television. The ignorant underpinning to this is that Lynn as champ will draw those people in. I bet if you polled everyone who went to Smackdown, you’d get maybe a hundred people who could tell you who Jerry Lynn is. He has been around a lot longer than Bryan Danielson, but is remembered only by the same hardcore nerd fanbase that ROH has been milking for seven years. To the average fan, Jerry Lynn Vs. D-Lo Brown is an old guy wrestling a jobber from WWE.

Recall TNA’s attempts to court the broader fanbase. Raven did not spike PPV sales; only building up a feud between he and Jeff Jarrett did, and that only worked for one show. Christian Cage also did not bump numbers significantly. It was only when they nabbed Kurt Angle, an Olympic gold medallist and former golden boy of the WWF/WWE main event scene, that they saw real results. When former WCW and WWE World Champ Booker T arrived later, he had next to no ramifications on the attention they got. That is the level of established wrestling star you need to garner the non-hardcore audience. Jerry Lynn is no Kurt Angle. He’s not even Raven.

Not that it should matter what name value Lynn has to the individual fan. What matters is if he entertains you, because no mentally healthy person watches wrestling like a stock market. Has Lynn been putting on the matches you have to see, and out of all the contenders, is he the guy you wanted to get the belt?

Did you want him as champ more than Tyler Black? Perhaps so after the Pearce administration so woefully fumbled what Sapolsky put in place, turning crowds that begged for Black to win it into crowds that were sick of seeing him fail to seal the deal. This is another source of the bitterness. The new ROH has handled Black atrociously, dumping water on his fire in favor of somebody else. Now that Lynn is that somebody else, you’ve got comparisons between what is and the gilded thoughts of what could have been. That’s a comparison few people ever win.

Did you want Lynn more than Roderick Strong, who has never gotten the accolades he deserves? More than El Generico, who night-for-night gets a bigger live pop than Lynn? More than Bryan Danielson, ROH’s last surviving Founding Father? More than seeing Austin Aries or Jimmy Jacobs doing something more explicitly heelish with the title than McGuinness did?

These conflicts mostly break down to four questions and how you answer them.

Is Lynn the best performer in ROH? No.

Is he the best talker? No.

Is he the best athlete? No.

Is he the biggest name? Arguably, but you’re not going to win over a bunch of people who don’t like him by saying other people do, and in a company that is still anti-establishment, this is the worst one to be the only quality you’ve got.

There is another spectre over this reign, however long or short it lasts. McGuinness was hurt and ROH management might have been forced to switch the title here. That Lynn might not have been ROH’s first choice makes people fed up with ROH all the more spiteful for letting themselves get in this position, and gives further ammunition to those that hate the new champ. This ought to be diffused by Gabe Sapolsky’s recent blog where he revealed that Cary Silkin was considering Lynn as champion as early as October 2008. Instead, haters have responded with further umbrage that the company entertained this so early. And the sad fact is that it doesn’t even matter if it’s true; this is the kind of rumor that will follow him if he disappoints.

Wrapped up in these conflicts, we need to avoid taking some insane personal offense at the guy winning. Fortunately for all their potential immaturity, most fans have displayed refreshing maturity in not complaining about Lynn’s age. A wrestler is great regardless of his age, as Steamboat, Michaels and the Undertaker showed us last weekend. Often age brings the experience to maximize what you already can do, and Lynn is certainly is impressive enough physical condition that he can go.

And personally, Lynn has put a good face forward since winning the belt. In his victory speech his acknowledged those who don’t want him as champion and said he’d try his best regardless. In an interview with Between The Ropes on Tuesday, he said of himself, “I think I have a lot to learn yet and I have a lot of room for improvement.” When asked, he said he didn’t think he was one of the best wrestlers in the world. When Bryan Danielson’s name came up, he paused to say he thinks Danielson really is one of the best “on the planet.” While readers may think Danielson is obviously better than Lynn today, it’s a great show of character for him to say anything like it.

This is not the champion you want when top heel Nigel McGuinness is disappearing for months with serious injuries, and Bryan Danielson may be departing in May. Those are essentially your two top guys. Back when Aries was champion in early 2005, ROH could rely on Joe, Homicide, Punk and Danielson to carry uppercard slack in case he underwhelmed. Similarly when Morishima first became champion, they had Joe’s farewell tour, Danielson’s return and the rise of the Briscoes as a spotty godly tag team to cover as he developed. Now ROH’s tag team scene is at its weakest in years with the champs barely getting book on half the shows, McGuinness and Danielson may be out soon, and Tyler Black isn’t the same darling he was six months ago. In fact, nobody’s stock is significantly higher than it was six months ago except Lynn’s. Lynn’s victory is emblematic of how badly ROH needs guys to step up considerably, and how badly ROH needs to let them do it.

This all brings us back to what we have. Lynn is your new babyface champion. We don’t know how long he’ll be champ, and we can only hope he’s great it. You’ve got Chris Hero, Davey Richards, Eddie Edwards, D-Lo Brown, Jimmy Jacobs, Austin Aries and Claudio Castagnoli in the pool to challenge him, though almost none of them have been built up to worthy challenger status. At first this sounds bad. Yet if Lynn has a few matches so great that he elevates a couple of them, it will go a long way to converting his critics. It worked for McGuinness.

That’s it for this week. You can check out my blog at www.johnwiswell.blogspot.com, of if you’re still jonesing for ROH coverage, check out Vinny Truncellito’s look at the Survival of the Fittest tournament.

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