Although every critic thinks he knows a better way to tell a story, Iâ€™ve written this column for over four years and very rarely have I given into the urge to write â€œfantasy bookingâ€ columns, with one notable exception. But since I recently discussed the ROH world championship and what itâ€™s fate could have been, it got me thinkingâ€¦
TODAYâ€™S ISSUE: Fantasy booking McGuinnessâ€™ world title reign.
What if, instead of choosing to anoint Jerry Lynn as champion when it was time for Nigel McGuinness to step down, Ring of Honor went another way? Note: This entire work of fiction takes place in an alternate universe in which Gabe Sapolsky never stopped booking ROH, and there was no HDNet television show.
Our tale begins in Edison, New Jersey at the Injustice show on April 12, 2008. The world title match between Nigel McGuinness and challenger Kevin Steen went exactly as it did in the real world, with shenanigans the only hope Nigel had of retaining against a highly focused Mr. Wrestling. McGuinness grabbed the rope while wrapping Steen up in a cover, and snuck out of the building with his ROH world title intact, his own dignity be damned.
Days later at Tag Wars 2008, rather than face Steenerico in a tag match with partner Claudio Castagnoli, McGuinness invoked a little-known clause in his contract that stated as Ring of Honor World Champion, he is only required to wrestle once every thirty days, and that heâ€™s only bound by ROH by-laws to defend the title once every sixty days, effectively limiting his risk of losing the title. After six months as Ring of Honor world champion and a narrow escape from the jaws of defeat at the hands of Kevin Steen a few nights earlier, it was clear that fear, paranoia, and desperation to keep the title were now driving McGuinness. He was likely to do anything he needed to in order to remain at the top of the mountain, regardless of how unscrupulous his choices might be.
A few days after Tag Wars 2008 the Ring of Honor Newswire website announced that since Steen hardly received a fair shake in his title match in New Jersey, heâ€™d be entitled to a rematch with the strap on the line. The match was originally set for the Southern Navigation event in Manassas, Virginia in early May, but Nigelâ€™s new, unknown â€œrepresentativeâ€ (clearly a shady agent or lawyer of some kind) sent a memo to the ROH offices stating that early May was nowhere near sixty days from the champâ€™s last defense, and that Steen would need to wait until the Respect is Earned II ppv in Philadelphia on June 7th.
Meanwhile, Larry Sweeney began to crow about giving up all his other interests in order to focus on a â€œvery talented, very powerful, very important new clientâ€ whom he now represented. Sweeney said heâ€™d lay all his cards on the table, should he feel like it, â€œwhen the time is rightâ€. It was no secret that the worldâ€™s greatest super agent, Mr. Sweet and Sour himself, was the one now guiding McGuinness. How theyâ€™d come to a business arrangement nobody knew, but Nigel seemed willing to do anything and associate with anyone in order to keep from losing the gold.
Men on the ROH roster began getting antsy about Nigelâ€™s new modus operandi, and several of them started petitioning the championship committee hard for the next shot at the world title, and with those shots now coming few and far between due to Nigelâ€™s disinterest in being a fighting champion, the pressure was doubled each time he deigned to defend the strap. With the June ppv shot already going to Steen and no guarantee that Mr. Wrestling would be able to get the job done and restore honor to the ROH championship, Austin Aries, Tyler Black, Bryan Danielson, and Erick Stevens were recognized by the championship committee as likely title contenders, so they went to war for the right to face Nigel (should he still be champion after Respect is Earned II) in his next contractually obligated title defense at Death Before Dishonor IV in New York City in early August. The general feeling was that one of the four would come out on top and then face Nigel in a non-title match in July to secure his number-one contender claim.
As many feared would happen, Nigel again employed dirty tactics against Steen to retain the gold at Respect is Earned II. Late in the match, McGuinness held Steen in the London Dungeon submission hold well after Steen grabbed the bottom rope, and many fans wondered why referee Todd Sinclair took so long to start a mandatory five-count as Steenâ€™s shoulder was torn to shreds. Prazak and Leonard even begin to openly speculate on DVD commentary that Nigel now had the senior official in his pocket, putting absolutely nothing past the conniving Brit. By the time Sinclair finally saw fit to break the hold, Steen was a goner, and easy pickings for the champion to finish off with a rebound jawbreaker lariat, a devastating Tower of London to the ring apron, and a final London Dungeon for the submission victory.
Something was certainly rotten in the state of Denmark, as Nigelâ€™s stranglehold over the most treasured and valuable commodity on the independent wresting scene grew tighter and tighter with no end in sight while the four challengers vying for the next shot at McGuinnessâ€™ strap were champing at the bit to get their hands on the world champion. After a round-robin of singles matches between Aries, Stevens, Danielson and Black spread out among several shows and known as the â€œChampionship Chaseâ€, Tyler Black shed his canâ€™t-win-the-big-one image by defeating all three men and emerging victorious with the only unblemished record in the series, destined for a rematch of the Take No Prisoners ppv main event in which he endured brutal punishment at the hands of the champion.
Regardless of his Age of the Fall affiliation, fans were desperate to see him break through and restore dignity to the title that had been defended proudly around the world by many great men before McGuinness had cast the ROH world title into shadow. But before the young phenom would do battle with the reigning champion for the gold, Black had a non-title match to win. Such were the terms of the â€œChampionship Chaseâ€, which suddenly seemed to reek of Sweeneyâ€™s skillful but shady machinations.
In fact, it was revealed online that Nigelâ€™s contract stipulated the champion had some say-so in the selection of title contenders, and in order for Blackâ€™s shot at Death Before Dishonor VI to happen in August, he first needed to defeat Nigel in a singles match at an early July show that would be known as Right or Privilege? which set a new precedent: from now on a number one contender in Ring of Honor was required to defeat the reigning champ in a non-title singles match before being authorized to cash in his title opportunity. And if the would-be top contender were to lose any fall to the champion before their title match, including in a tag team environment, heâ€™d forfeit his number-one contender status and the champ would have nobody to defend against. Nigel and Sweeney were playing the game beautifully, frustrating the other men on the ROH roster and the fans alike, but keeping Nigelâ€™s title out of jeopardy as much as possible.
At Right or Privilege? it quickly became clear that Nigel had one goal, and it wasnâ€™t to defeat Black to nullify his number one contender status; McGuinness simply wanted to put Black on the shelf through any means necessary, namely, via injury. Blatantly cheating throughout the match with Sinclair conveniently â€œmissingâ€ several calls, Nigel conceded the match via disqualification, but not before heâ€™d shattered Tylerâ€™s ankle with a chair and wrenched his shoulder from the socket. Blackâ€™s valiant efforts in the face of both injuries endeared him even more to the ROH faithful, but on this night and for the foreseeable future, the young lion was out of luck. McGuinness was now under the impression that Blackâ€™s inability to compete in August gave him a clean slate, with no contenders to challenge his throne, so he made plans for another two months off from defending the strap.
However, ROH management announced that there was still a contractually mandated title shot scheduled for Death Before Dishonor VI, which caused Cary Silken to declare that any former world champion is always entitled to a single shot at the reigning champ regardless of the stipulations in Nigelâ€™s contract. But as soon as the â€œAries or Danielsonâ€ argument heated up, Sweeney informed Silken that since those two both failed to win the Championship Challenge, they couldnâ€™t have the shot in early August. Rather than fight against Sweeney, Silken announced that another former ROH world champion had recently become available for indy bookings once again, none other than James Gibson.
Returning fresh off another release from WWE, the new apparent savior of the company vowed to set things right and â€œtake care of that no-good, limey bastard Nigelâ€. ROHbots around the world started predicting that Gibson would be the one to end McGuinnessâ€™ dark reign, and got behind the underrated stand-out performer in a big way. But Gibson wasnâ€™t able to secure victory at Death Before Dishonor VI, falling victim to a Tower of London/London Dungeon combination for the submission after a brutal, hotly contested war, during which Sinclair conveniently delayed counting McGuinnessâ€™ shoulders to the mat following a Tiger Driver that looked to earn Gibson his second ROH world title. Since a defeated challenger is not entitled to a return bout against the champion who beat him (as we were reminded by Larry Sweeney in a backstage promo) and with everything apparently going his way, Nigel appeared to be sitting pretty.
Thanks to Silkenâ€™s new mandate about former champs being allowed a shot at the title, two other previous ROH world champions came back attempting to restore honor to their beloved alma mater. Both Homicide and Samoa Joe returned for one-shots on loan from TNA, but neither was able to wrestle the championship away from the sneaky Brit. Homicide lost after Sweeney made his first public appearance as Nigelâ€™s associate, distracting â€˜Cide and allowing a Tower of London onto a chair, which Sinclair blatantly ignored although his face was two inches from it while he counted Homicideâ€™s shoulders down.
During Joeâ€™s title shot, he seemed to have Nigel beaten, but the champion simply escaped the ring after a Muscle Buster and walked out of the arena. As Prazak and Leonard began to question the refereeâ€™s options (a champion has never â€œrun awayâ€ in the middle of a title match before in Ring of Honor), Sweeney emerged from the locker room area, grabbed a house microphone and explained the new 20-count rule in place for championship matches. Nigel was disqualified for failing to return to the ring (or even the arena) before Sinclairâ€™s very swift count to 20 ended, unfortunately ruining Joeâ€™s chance to rescue ROH from his tyrannical rule. But since Samoa Joe wasnâ€™t able to come back for a rematch due to his TNA obligations, and no doubt Sweeney would have fought tooth and nail against him being granted another opportunity at McGuinness, Nigel was once again safe from yet another threat.
As 2008 began to come to a close, the details of the relationship between Sweeney and McGuinness would surface. When Nigel brought in Sweeney as his new agent, the deal was that Sweeney would only get paid one total amount for his services at the end of McGuinnessâ€™ championship run rather than a weekly or monthly fee. The amount of the transfer from Nigel to Sweeney would depend upon how long Nigel was able to keep the strap, as he sought to become the holder of the longest world title reign in ROH history. The longer he held onto the title, the more money heâ€™d pay Sweeney, and the sooner he dropped the strap, the less pay heâ€™d give the super agent. This was a match made in Heaven; the untrusting temporarily trusting the untrustworthy, and both of them up to no good.
With all the big guns on the roster being cheated or manipulated out of title opportunities and McGuinnessâ€™ reign artificially growing in length by the month, ROH management grew tired of their standard bearer acting without honor and disrespecting their company. Nigel plotted on a regular basis rather than winning matches with skill and guts, and Ring of Honor set out to do something about it. They made overtures to a big-time wrestler and former star of the company who had since gone on to a higher-profile, better paying gig that just so happened to be less fulfilling to him as a warrior. Silken crossed his fingers and waited for a response from the indy icon, hoping his sense of pride and nostalgia would be enough to convince him to give up fortune and fame in order to do the right thing and fall back in love with wrestling again.
Although he had to break his World Wrestling Entertainment contract to do so, former ROH world champion and WWE world heavyweight champion CM Punk returned to the promotion where he fought some of his greatest wars, just in time to defend that companyâ€™s honor at the last event of the calendar year, Final Battle 2008 on 27 December in New York City.
Happy to leave behind the land of the â€œmonsters, leprechauns and stereotypesâ€ as he called WWE in his return promo, Punk said he wanted to do right by the company that launched him into pro wrestling superstardom. In that same promo two weeks before his showdown with McGuinness, Punk declared, â€œThereâ€™s a lot of things wrong with the wrestling business today in general and here ROH in particular, and as a former world champion, Iâ€™m coming back for one reason. Iâ€™m here to set things straight and knock that pompous son of a bitch McGuinness off the top of the mountain for good!â€
Of course McGuinness and Sweeney tried everything they could come up with to get Nigel off the hook concocting scheme after scheme and citing by-laws and contractual obligations by the dozens, but ultimately it was decided that the match would go down, with Sweeney barred from the building as well. Also, in one final attempt to level the playing field, referee Todd Sinclair was â€œrewarded for all his hard workâ€ by being given the night off. Finally, after almost a year of scheming, plotting, ducking, hiding, running, cheating, unscrupulous dealings and outright bribes, Nigel McGuinness was forced to face the music. After his run in the land of the giants, CM Punk was much better suited to handle larger men than himself compared to his last Ring of Honor tenure, and handle McGuinness he did.
Two days after Christmas, CM Punk gave us ROHbots a memorable present as he ensured the event in New York would indeed be Nigelâ€™s final battle, at least his last as ROH world champion. Punk survived and countered every strike, hold, and maneuver in McGuinnessâ€™ arsenal, always appearing one step ahead of the champ, or at least able to weather the storm when he wasnâ€™t. Punk hit a Super Pepsi Plunge off the top rope, a devastating GTS, and then even dusted off the Anaconda Vise to force the formerly dominant champion to give up his title by tapping the mat, signaling a new era in Ring of Honor and ending the spell of wickedness and cowardice that enveloped the ROH world championship since Injustice back in April. How sweet it was to see the king forced to relinquish his throne willingly by tap-out, as the clouds above Ring of Honor parted. Finally, justice was done and all the proud warriors in the locker room hoisted Punk aloft on their shoulders and rallied around their new champion, signaling the start of something special in ROH, while McGuinness quietly slunk to the locker room like the snake he was.
The arguments between Nigel and Sweeney over whoâ€™s fault it was eventually led to Sweeneyâ€™s decision to rebuild Sweet and Sour, Inc. with Nigel now a favorite target of the super agent and his gang of thugs and enforcers. After a long vacation and a war against the new SNS, Inc., Nigel regained his babyface status and became a beloved fan-favorite once again. The silver lining of his cloudy reign as champion was that his scheming caused management to rewrite the guidelines for title defenses, selection of number-one contenders, and rules of engagement for other important decisions in the company, leading to an even better, more fan-pleasing and fulfilling pro wrestling product in the end. After all, they say itâ€™s always darkest before the dawn.
Of course, anyone familiar with Punkâ€™s indy work knows he would have been likely to just turn heel soon after rescuing ROH from Nigel anyway, but the moment at Final Battle would have been one for the record books, and besides, thatâ€™s another story for another time. Today, Jerry Lynn is the ROH world champion and Gabe Sapolsky is the Vice President of Dragon Gate USA, while Nigel McGuinness is nursing an injury and planning a return to action. Thatâ€™s the reality, but for a short time, itâ€™s fun to daydream. Hereâ€™s to fantasy and reality both being satisfying, my friends.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.
p.s. â€“ â€œWe are each our own devil, and we make this world our hellâ€. – Oscar Wilde
Elsewhere on Pulse Wrestling this weekâ€¦
Rather than panning Ring of Honor for their recent downturn, John Wiswell highlights what things the indy fed are currently getting just right in this weekâ€™s Cult of ROH.
Hereâ€™s the Rasslinâ€™ Roundtable for WWEâ€™s Extreme Rules 2009 ppv, and PKâ€™s live coverage.
You say you want rankings? Here are Pulse Wrestlingâ€™s official rankings for ROH, TNA, and WWE.
Big Andy Mac reports on the latest episode of ROH on HDNet.
Jake Ziegler reviews the DVD edition of Ring of Honorâ€™s Caged Collision ppv show.
Finally this week, our vaunted news division discusses the possible reason that WWE released Mr. Kennedyâ€¦ Kennedy, and Stingâ€™s retirement considerations.
Tags: Austin Aries, Brian Danielson, cm punk, Erick Stevens!, James Gibson, jerry lynn, Kevin Steen, Nigel McGuinness, Ring of Honor, ROH, Tyler Black