Cult of ROH: Aries the Champion

Today in Cult of ROH, Austin Aries is the first two-time World Champion in company history. This leaves us with two topics: what does this mean, and what’s next?

I’m overjoyed with the title change. While I was neutral bordering on hopeful for Lynn, Aries’s is the best act in the company. This move makes him the center of everything, and right now ROH needs a vibrant center. People enjoy hating him where many simply loathed Lynn. More importantly, ROH’s problem of so few heel challengers for a face champion is remedied – now Lynn, Black, Danielson, Strong, Stevens, Albright, Steen, Generico and the Briscoes are viable challengers. He has a very healthy and reasonably pushed roster of faces to play off of, in addition to Nigel McGuinness sniffing for a shot, which is all the better given their history of incredible title bouts. Pulse Glazer has already written an extensive list of those who might dethrone Aries.

The general reaction, both live and on the internet, has been overwhelmingly positive. Aries is one of the top three in the company, along with Danielson and McGuinness, and though he’s never reached the perpetual godfather status like Danielson, people recognize his contributions and talent.

But even when fans complimented the booking decision, a question came up. Since Xavier ROH fans have enjoyed thinking about who would beat each new-crowned champ. Even Glazer’s list is preoccupied with who could dethrone him. The topic is buzzed about by people who have no desire to see him lose the belt this calendar year. It’s being called the “Summer of Aries,” not because people expect it to last a few months or want him to drop it in August, but because people’s excitement is comparable to that for the Summer of Punk. Aries as champion can easily define ROH’s summer, and fair or unfair, it’s a season we’re looking forward to much more than Lynn’s Spring.

Rather than jumping on who might dethrone him (a question endeavor given how Aries, Morishima and Lynn weren’t predictable wins from the outset of Joe, Homicide and McGuinness’s reigns), I’m interested in how this reign could go. Already ROH is teasing that Aries doesn’t want to defend the belt often, and in a stipulation for the upcoming Six Man Mayhem he’s in, they’ve re-established the precedent that if you beat the champ in a non-title match, you get to challenge him. It’s a classic setup that works with this healthy roster of challengers. Here’s how it could go from there.

Aries begins his reign only defending once a weekend. He even takes some Fridays off entirely, though management is sometimes able to force him into a tag. His team losing a tag helps validate an upcoming challenger. In his place, the Tag Team Titles can main event Friday shows, further pushing the American Wolves as a main event team. From all the buzz their few defenses have gotten so far, we know they’re capable. Some Fridays may even see Aries wrestle in semi-main events against guys he’s managed to stonewall from getting automatic title shots.

Early on, his challengers are obvious. Lynn chases him for redemption, as he wants wrestling a certain way and through his failure the scummiest guy in the company has his belt. Lynn fails in his first try when Aries catches him in one of those normally masturbatory pin series attempts he’s been using for decades, and he uses this to berate Lynn as being too old and coming apart. It allows him to sink on the card and wrestle in less demanding matches for a while as he builds himself back up for a second shot.

There are the big challengers. Danielson challenges and fails in a guaranteed great match. McGuinness gets more complicated stuff, maybe a questionable ending or two. These matches don’t require much input, as the wrestlers themselves will deliver. They’re automatic Saturday night main events. Danielson is destined for something more than just the one challenge, though.

Aries completely stonewalls Tyler Black, citing how many times he’s beaten the kid and all the titleshots he’s blown. Black is forced to finish his feud with Jacobs in their gimmick match series before entering a rematch of an HDNet main event: Aries Vs. Lynn Vs. Black Vs. Danielson. Like before, it’s one pin to a new champion. Danielson comes in showing more physicality and frustration, having lost his big singles challenge. Black nearly pins him a couple of times before things fall outside. There, Black wipes Danielson out with one of his dives. With only Lynn and Aries left standing, they go through some nearfalls and into that chaining pin series we set up. Aries catches Lynn in the middle of one and escapes with the title, and something to hold over Lynn’s head.

When Danielson comes to, he destroys Black in rage at being cost the title again, especially at being cost it by the guy who is surpassing him. It sets up a non-title feud for Black and Danielson that will be more personal than their series last year, with Danielson as an actual heel in the proper markets – something that has shown to work against the sympathetic and flashy Black.

McGuinness and Lynn jockey against each other for contendership while others move up. Generico gets an obligatory titleshot and tears the house down. Aries has to destroy him to keep him down, making him pass out rather than tap out in the Horns of Aries, and after the match looks to do more, allowing the jerk super-face Steen to step in for his little buddy. This sets up trios tags for Aries, Titus & King against the duo and whatever third partner they can find, as well as a potentially more serious program for King & Titus down the line. Until now they have been the heel jobbers, setting up faces to challenge the American Wolves. They can truly begin to climb the ladder in serious showings against Steen & Generico, especially if King pulls an upset or two.

Inevitably, Strong challenges to get the validation he’s always wanted. Aries denies it to him again and again, using more devious tactics than against anyone else. King and Titus are set to watch Strong, and Strong will have undercard feuds trying to get rid of them as he chases Aries. Strong is the guy he actually fears. Attempting to get himself DQ’d, walking out for the count-out – you know the game.

There will always be international dream matches. Any Japanese visitor would be interesting: a returning Kota Ibushi or Katusuhiko Nakajima, or NOAH’s new champ Go Shiozaki returning for one last go at his best opponent. Aries VS. KENTA was already scheduled for the near future and that can easily become a title match, or ROH can roll the dice and leave it non-title with KENTA having to win to secure a title shot on his next visit.

In-between all these matches are some filler. Your Fridays and off-weekends can be occupied by guys like Cabana, Stevens, Albright and Dutt challenging in non-title matches, hoping to win an actual titleshot. Here we resurrect an idea the new ROH tried and failed to execute with McGuinness: making it uncertain whether challengers can win non-title matches. This requires contenders to actually jockey against each other, some winning and some failing. It’s not a bad idea to have someone like Albright turn heel off of failing in a preliminary challenge. You can kick this off by having KENTA win the non-title challenge match, then having the next guy lose. Videowire promos should focus on how Aries is trying to shut opponents out, as opposed to McGuinness’s shut-outs, which were so underplayed they came off as weak booking. These matches fill in the gaps between challenges by existing top guys like Danielson and Lynn, and accentuating rising characters like Strong.

None of this answers that question: who do you want to beat Aries?

The above could last you the rest of the year. That gives you all the time you need to build someone else, and that person is Kenny Omega. A good friend of mine made the observation that Omega is like Bryan Danielson in that he is always “on.” He’s perpetually deep in character, whether it means getting slapped around by a blow-up doll or fighting when it’s hard to see through his own blood. He is a phenomenal athlete, innovative with offense and brings more energy to the ring than any other ROH rookie. He’s already signed to an exclusive contract with ROH so bigger companies can’t steal him, and at present he’s seasoning himself overseas. It’s time for ROH to properly use him, pushing past his entertaining rivalry with Kenny King to serious challenges that refine him, the way Black was refined in 2008 and Aries was in 2004. An upset over the giant Brodie Lee and an athletic rivalry with Chris Hero could help. Playing understudy and tag partner to someone like Strong would also help, especially if the two had a failed run at the American Wolves. Strong & Omega Vs. Richards & Edwards for the tag titles is a worthy main event. His biggest singles victory is getting the upset in a rematch of his first Canada showing, in Omega Vs. Black Vs. Danielson, but he has no huge singles victory.

Later in the year, Aries is having a harder time keeping his challengers in line. Too many are popping up and he is forced to defend the belt twice per weekend. After one or two weekends of this, you get Omega’s shot, earned by a winning streak rather than facing Aries. This way it will have been almost a year since they have met at all, leaving it feeling fresh. He’ll still look like chum in his Friday night title challenge, with someone like Strong or Black getting their last shot on Saturday. And in the shocker, Omega catches Aries on a Friday night, when the champ overlooked him for the competition he’d been dodging.

With that unexpected title win, Omega can turn around with several immediate challengers. Aries wants his belt back, and Black and Strong are baffled that he stole their title. One, more likely Black, may turn as they chase him. At the same time Davey Richards and Kenny King will have been built to the point where they can play as the new generation of singles star challengers.

Omega isn’t the definitive pick, but a good hypothetical. If Aries has the long run we hope for, management should review who crowds are reacting to as they build up multiple challengers. To have a plan and not remain illogically faithful to it are equally good ideas, and if Omega crumbles under pressure, other guys will be built to take his place. Perhaps it really will be Strong or Black’s time, or another rookie entirely will upset him. But whoever does actually beat Aries, and however long his reign actually goes, ROH has achieved something important in putting the title on him. In October we were worried how Pearce would change Ring of Honor. At Wrestlemania we were worried for McGuinness, and afterwards we were hesitant about Lynn. Now the fans aren’t anxious. They’re excited for what comes next.

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