Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – Another level…

On May 10th, 2008 indy darling Ring of Honor debuted in the famous Manhattan Center in New York City for one of their biggest live events ever, aptly titled A New Level. This show was a landmark event for one of the Internet’s most beloved promotions, and they filled one of the largest venues they’d ever performed in. Did the wrestling action make the most of this opportunity to impress a big crowd?

TODAY’S ISSUE: ROH presents A New Level.

The show started with a bang, jumping right into a three-way bout for the Full Impact Pro world heavyweight title. FIP, for those who don’t know, is ROH’s sister promotion. Many wrestlers work for both companies and championships are cross promoted, as was the case in this match. The contest featured defending champion Roderick Strong and his longtime nemesis Erick Stevens, still in the midst of their epic war over the FIP strap at that point, and Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Go Shiozaki, today the current reigning GHC heavyweight champion. Shiozaki never fails to impress during his U.S. incursions, and he was a welcome addition to this battle for the belt.

These are three strong guys who strike very hard, take a wicked beating, and never stop charging forward. As you’d imagine, the three put on a hard-fought, entertaining battle as Strong survived a doubly dangerous challenge to his FIP crown. Two months after this event, Stevens would reclaim the FIP world heavyweight title from Strong, and less than a month later Shiozaki would end Stevens’ second FIP world title reign and hold the belt for 119 days with five successful title defenses to his name. But on this night, it was Strong who outlasted the other two sluggers and maintained his hold on the FIP gold by sneaking in the back door and rolling Stevens up in a cradle from behind for the victory via pinfall, just seconds after Stevens had drilled Shiozaki with the Doctor Bomb, and appeared to have an advantage. Shady as it may have seemed, any win for the champ against two deadly opponents is a good win!

If it weren’t for some other very good performances, the second match on the card would have easily stolen the show. The tag team contest featuring Kevin Steen and El Generico against former ROH world tag team champions the No Remorse Corps (Davey Richards & Rocky Romero) was an outstanding performance, in fact it was so much fun that I had to go back for a second look before moving forward in the DVD. I don’t remember hearing too much about this match before, but it was clearly one of the top matches of 2008. Intense, hard hitting and exciting, this is the kind of action that ensures I’ll never regret my decision to pay for all my wrestling; you’d have to sit through a lot of sportz entertainment nonsense on television before finding such a high quality match for free in the “big two”. After a fantastic give-and-take sequence, Steenerico hit their package pile-driver/brain-buster combo on Davey Richards for the pinfall. Absolutely amazing wrestling action, and the NRC’s loss furthered the angle that would result in the end of their stable and eventually allow for Richards’ current push and rise up the card as a singles main event threat. You can’t ask for more than that from one match.

More tag team action followed in the form of a three-team scramble as the Sweet & Sour, Inc. duo of Chris Hero and Brent Albright met the student/teacher combo of Delirious and Pelle Primeau, and the Vulture Squad of Jigsaw and Jack Evans. Fans of ROH will correctly guess that this was something of an unstructured spotfest, but at least it was a fun one. Delirious managed to hit Chemical Imbalance II on Hero for the victory, and because I’m a Delirious mark and not a big fan of that version of Hero, that finish worked out nicely for me. Hero was starting to morph into is “That Young Knockout Kid” gimmick here, and working out the kinks of his rolling elbow strikes while the Vulture Squad flew around the ring, Primeau showed his usual heart and determination in the face of much larger opponents, and Albright was really big and powerful.

After the bell rang, the best was yet to come when Larry Sweeney verbally assaulted Albright and blamed him for the loss. Albright did mistakenly deliver a half-nelson suplex to his own partner during the match, but he had just been blinded and thought it was Delirious in front of him, not Hero. Albright was never pleased about being optioned into S&S by former HANGM3N stable captain Adam Pearce without Brent’s consent anyway, so when Sweeney got in his face here after giving him grief for weeks leading up to this event, Albright finally had enough. The submission technician let loose on the entire S&S squad, including a foolish Sara Del Rey who tried to attack Albright along with everyone else and paid the price for her poor decision. Brent cemented his brewing face-turn then and there, and the crowd ate it up.

Leading into intermission another import from Japan, Pro Wrestling NOAH’s only Grand Slam winner Naomichi Marufuji squared off against the best in the world, the American Dragon Bryan Danielson in a breathtaking match that had me on the edge of my seat throughout. Phrases like must-see, match of the night, MOTYC, phenomenal, incredible, outstanding, exciting, and breathtaking all come to mind. There were so many subtle maneuvers and psychological nuances during this match that I found myself lamenting the fact that the WWE-bound Dragon will likely soon be performing before crowds of sportz entertainment fans who may not appreciate the art form being executed at this advanced level. After a nail-biter of a contest that hit on all cylinders and truly showcased the best of the U.S. indy scene, Dragon finally achieved victory via his patented Cattle Mutilation submission hold. I honestly would have bought either man winning this very evenly-matched and hotly-contested showdown of company aces. They successfully merged striking, grappling, and high-risk spots in this entertaining hybrid performance that completely knocked my socks off. If you appreciate quality in-ring action with no ga-ga, this match alone makes the DVD well worth the sticker price. If the show ended right here, after four matches, I’d still strongly recommend it. And there was even more amazing action yet to come.

When the show got back underway following the break, they started with a short but impactful angle-advancement piece when Daizee Haze came out to the ring to announce an attendance record only to be quickly interrupted by the lovesick Delirious, who was there to ask her to dinner while sporting his full wrestling gear covered by a black shirt and white tie, and holding a red rose. But “Addicted to Love” Rhett Titus cut off the Lizard Man and made his own advances on the Haze, hitting her with his catchphrases including: Have you seen the size of these thighs? I’ve got shoulders the size of boulders! And the ever popular, The thrust is a must! I realize Titus’ gimmick is a rehash of about 15 or 20 other “Love God” characters from the modern era, but somehow he makes it work and he always delivers in these situations. Since this encounter kick-started a lot of storyline activity, including Delirious’ heel-turn and membership in the Age of the Fall, his feud against Titus, and an eventual return to the light side of the force with Haze as his spiritual guide, this short segment was well worth the time, especially considering it was the lone non-wrestling segment of the show.

Back to the action! The next match featured yet another visitor from NOAH, Takeshi Morishima, who at that time was the reigning GHC heavyweight champion. The Japanese Juggernaut went toe-to-toe with renowned brawler the Necro Butcher in a wild non-title battle with “relaxed rules”, which isn’t quite a no-DQ match, but the referee gives a lot of leeway. When they announce that a match is being contested under “relaxed rules”, you can expect to see chairs, crowd-brawling, and various other activities that are normally illegal in Ring of Honor. The reason for this match and the Dragon/Marufuji contest was that Dragon and Morishima were still feuding at this time, but NOAH officials didn’t want them tangling at this event since Dragon’s status as a former GHC junior heavyweight champion might create a source of contention if he were to wrestle the current heavyweight champ, so instead ROH allowed each man to select his rival’s opponent for the evening. Morishima chose countryman and fellow NOAH wrestler Marufuji to face Dragon, and Danielson threw a big box of crazy at Morishima in the form of the Necro Butcher.

For some reason the indy universe pushes Necro’s weak, silly-looking punches as death blows, and not even the former ROH world champion was an exception. Once a feared, dominant monster, Morishima sold the Butcher’s lame strikes as if he was being drilled by Triple H’s sledgehammer-o’-doom. Still, the superior wrestler won the day as Morishima’s size, power, and will to win was too much for the fighting hillbilly, and after enduring a merciless pounding, Necro fell victim to the Backdrop Driver and that was all she wrote. Being a huge detractor of the Necro Butcher, it was fun to watch Morishima stomp him into paste but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again. That being the case, this was the lowest point of the show and it wasn’t too bad, which is saying something. Thankfully, the next contest would ensure things picked up in a major way…

Next, two concurrent Age of the Fall feuds merged in one match when Jimmy Jacobs and Tyler Black faced the makeshift team of Jay Briscoe and Austin Aries in a no-DQ match for the ROH world tag team titles. Jacobs had recently knocked Mark Briscoe out of active competition for three to six months by impaling Mark’s wrist with his dreaded railroad spike, forcing the younger Briscoe to seek a surgical solution for the damage. As one half of the reigning champs, Jay Briscoe was authorized by management to chose a substitute for his brother rather than relinquishing the tag straps due to losing his partner, so to shoulder Mark’s half of the load, Jay selected Aries. Aries had just seduced Jacobs’ main squeeze Lacey and liberated her from the Age of the Fall, breaking Jimmy’s heart in the process and causing his already limited grasp on reality to completely shatter. Days before A New Level was recorded, Jacobs attacked Lacey outside her fitness center in retaliation and caused her to (kayfabe) disappear, with only vague reports about her well-being and whereabouts surfacing. Needless to say Aries was not pleased, so both Briscoe and Aries had reason to want a piece of Jacobs and his followers.

This was a brutal war in which Jay bled buckets and all four men took years off their careers in the pursuit of the gold and their individual notions of justice. They managed to maintain some semblance of a wrestling match even while bringing the ultra-violence and the result was an entertaining campaign of carnage in which the viewer could almost smell the hatred between the warriors involved. Just when Aries was temporarily knocked out of action and the AoTF’s numbers game was succeeding against Jay, who was already in quite a weakened state due to his excessive blood loss, Mark Briscoe showed up in the nick of time sporting an awkward cast on his arm and executed his portion of the Doomsday Device, allowing the champs to retain their titles.

Jacobs, of course, didn’t take the loss well at all. So after the Briscoes departed ringside to celebrate the successful title defense, the Age of the Fall viciously assaulted Aries. However, instead of inflicting further physical damage with his spike when he had Aries at his mercy, the demented Jacobs chose to attack him emotionally, laying the blame at A Double’s feet for whatever vile acts Jacobs had committed against Lacey. Nobody in wrestling is better than Jacobs at portraying the sick, twisted madman, and he showed it here. The match made me want the Aries/Jacobs feud to kick into high gear (which it did after this) and also see more battles between the Briscoes and Jacobs/Black. Any time a promoter can entertain you and leave you willing to pay money for more chapters in the story, he’s doing something right.

In the main event, the very European Claudio Castagnoli challenged ROH world champion Nigel McGuinness for his coveted crown. Double C set aside his normal happy attitude and penchant for playing to the crowd in favor of a much more serious demeanor, demonstrating how important the world title is and how badly Claudio wanted to wrest it away from the dominant McGuinness. In fact, the build to this match including Castagnoli’s training montage increased the drama and established the big-fight feel before the opening bell sounded. During the match, Castagnoli gave Nigel a run for his money and came close to unseating the ROH king while enduring a devastating beating in the process. Although he was able to deliver his powerful Ricola Bomb finisher to Nigel, the same maneuver which allowed him to defeat McGuinness just two months earlier in a tag team match, this time the champ kicked out. That’s how good Nigel is, and part of the reason he was able to hold onto the title for so long; he continuously adapted his style and evolved as a wrestler, rising to the occasion time after time.

The Bad-Boy Brit remained true to form in the face of his evenly-matched challenger’s onslaught by working on a body part, wearing down Claudio’s shoulder in anticipation of the moment when he could slap on his devastating London Dungeon submission hold and force Double C to tap out, which is exactly how this championship match came to an end. This was an intense battle that showcased the skills of both athletes and made a fine finale to ROH’s biggest show to date.

In this particular DVD release, Ring of Honor foreswore the usual process of interspersing backstage interviews and vignettes amongst the wrestling action. Commentator Dave Prazak claimed this was because ROH being in the Manhattan Center was so special that they didn’t want to take the viewer away from the unique environment and positive vibe of the show. Something tells me that all the backstage video footage was lost or that they were unable to splice it in before the DVD release was due, but at least they gave a reasonable explanation for the slightly different format of this show. It’s little touches like that which help make ROH a thinking fan’s promotion, since instead of leaving us to wonder what happened, they not only made sense of it but flipped it to a positive thing to boot.

With five of the seven matches being highly entertaining, the tag team scramble match resulting in a satisfying finish and delivering an important storyline moment, and the Morishima squash of Necro Butcher at least sating the more base desires (to see dirty hillbillies getting beat up), A New Level is a strong DVD and a great addition to any wrestling fan’s library. I highly recommend you visit the Ring of Honor online store and purchase this show. Enjoy!

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “My favorite thing is to go where I have never gone.” – Diane Arbus

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