The Cornette Conclusion (Issue 85)
This month, I was given the opportunity to respond to Michael Campbell's unflattering description of the current state of Ring of Honor in last month's issue. When I saw that piece, I knew it wasn't going to be favorable, considering that the lead quote was from the one wrestler out of a dozen who didn't re-sign when his contract was due this summer. Still, by the time I finished reading, I wondered, as my dear Aunt Lola used to say, "Who shit in his cornflakes?"
While Michael speaks in great generalities, the specifics he mentions fall into categories of, "It's not like it used to be", "Their talent isn't the same", and most importantly "None of the old ROH fans like this". The last thing that anyone in Ring of Honor wants to do is piss off any of their fans, old or new, but recently it has become almost fashionable in some quarters to criticize ROH for points that are about as valid as those made by some folks in their U.S Presidential election campaign.
The column spent almost the entire first page stringing together disconnected events over five years, to make a point that he set out to make. Michael makes leaps of logic when he equates a cranky New York City audience rumbling about a slow-paced match as "indicative of their wider discontent".
There's great detail about how much the fans cheer for Kevin Steen, as if this is some failure on Ring of Honor's part. From the start of my relationship with Kevin Steen being acknowledged on TV, I have said that I recognize that fans like Steen, for all the reasons the article cites. I've also acknowledged that he's a great wrestler, and a fine athlete to move that weight around like he does. I've also made it clear that I think he's a detriment to ROH for pushing the envelope too far, being too violent, being an insurance liability, a loose cannon, and a pain in the ass. That sounds like a lot of relationships between promoters and fighters over the last 100 years, but if people are standing and screaming about a wrestler, I don't care if they're cheering or booing. I don't call it a "problem", and I'm not "confused" by it. The great thing about ROH is that we let the fans cheer and boo who they want; if a wrestler has the fans screaming and chanting for or against him, he gets more chances to do just that.
It's up to Steen's opponents to step up and present enough of a challenge to him that the crowd cheers them as well; New York City and Providence went ballistic for Eddie Kingston when he was beating the hell out of Steen, Baltimore rallied behind Mike Mondo when he challenged for the title, and the same city hit their feet when Rhino gored Steen in a TV brawl. Furthermore, The Briscoes often have the majority of the crowd support against Steen and his group, especially in the Carolinas. So all in all, I'm confused by the several paragraphs about fans cheering the World champion being bad for business.
A GREAT MIX OF TALENT
The article also talks wistfully about past ROH talent that have moved on. That includes Samoa Joe to TNA, CM Punk and Bryan Danielson to WWE, Nigel McGuinness to retirement (and our announce desk), and Austin Aries (having been let go in 2010 for refusing to stop publicly berating the previous ownership and office, it's not surprising he's now publicly berating the new ownership and office) to TNA. Those are big shoes to fill, but sometimes, you just get a magic combination; every hundred years or so, The Rock and Steve Austin show up at the same time. I, too, long for the days when I could turn on Georgia wrestling and see every big name in one place.
But this does a disservice to Davey Richards, Eddie Edwards, Roderick Strong, Jay Lethal, and the other ROH stars over the past few years, who have consistently put on great match after great match. The Richards versus Michael Elgin contest in March was said by many to be better than anything at WrestleMania; how good do the matches need to be for this group of young warriors to distinguish themselves from their predecessors?
We are also accused of being "more akin to fake MMA than realistic pro wrestling", but this is also an exaggeration. In 2011, Davey Richards was not only having the best matches anywhere, but he was also ROH World champion for much of the year. Davey is an MMA practitioner, so naturally, his matches had that flavor, especially with former partner Eddie Edwards. Coincidentally, in June and December of 2011, matches between those two drew two of the three or four biggest gates, crowds, and pay-per-view buy-rates in ROH history.
There are elements of our presentation that have similarities to MMA - training videos, the Tale of the Tape, matches focusing on different fighting styles - but all those have been parts of traditional pro wrestling presentation in one form or another longer than MMA has existed. While ROH has promised its fans that we will present pro wrestling as competitive sport with unique personalities, we have tried to have variety up and down the card.
No-one can confuse the World title matches of Kevin Steen with MMA, nor likewise our co-promotional ventures with CHIKARA, or the brawls of The Briscoe Brothers and Homicide. We make an effort to present all styles to our fans, because we know so many of them are die-hard aficionados, but the one thing they will always have in common is that on an ROH event, each wrestler will give his absolute best.
The variety of talent on our cards was also called into question. This is the ultimate no-win situation for promoters; we can't have 40 wrestlers on an event, and to have a new or different name on a card often means a familiar one has to go.
When you look at names like The Briscoes, Richards, Edwards, Strong, Steen, Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin, and then add the young guns who are so much farther up the ladder than a year ago - Lethal, Cole, Mondo, Mike Bennett, Kyle O'Reilly, Tommaso Ciampa, Caprice Coleman and Cedric Alexander, and especially Elgin - combine them with veterans like Rhino, Lance Storm, and Finlay, and add the former ROH names that have returned, like Jacobs and BJ Whitmer - that to me is a great array of talent for a single promotion to have presented in a year's time.
EVOLUTION NOT REVOLUTION
I also don't believe the assertion that ROH has "changed beyond recognition". It is still our mission to present pro wrestling as a competitive sport, let the best young talent shine, let the fans cheer and boo who they want, present a variety of styles of wrestling and fighting, and to put on great matches with the best in-ring wrestlers of today, while trying to find the stars of tomorrow. There have been changes in ROH over the past three years; ROH has gone from no television programme at all, to one on HDNet that had very little availability, to a weekly one-hour show on 60-plus broadcast stations in over 50 markets, reaching almost 30 percent of the country, watched by a million viewers a week overall.
ROH on iPPV had well-documented struggles from the start of the emerging technology. However, Best In The World and Boiling Point were, from a production, video quality, and transmission standpoint, the best two wrestling iPPVs in the history of the medium.
It's tough in today's industry to sell tickets to live events - even TNA and WWE, on their own levels, have learned that. In the past year, ROH has posted some great crowds, including a sell-out in Toronto at Border Wars, as well as at Manhattan Center events. Since going to the Hammerstein Ballroom full-time, none of the crowds we have drawn there would have fit in the old, smaller Grand Ballroom. Baltimore has been a great new stop, with crowds of 400-800 each for eight tapings this year. Chicago continues to support ROH in great numbers. Our debut in Providence sold out.
Our events, in my opinion, are still the greatest live wrestling experience on the planet. In places like Milwaukee, Charleston, and Pittsburgh, the fans are the event. I still remember the insane crowd in Greensboro last December, and when so many people go nuclear at the same time, it's magic. Often, after an ROH event where the fans leave telling me it was the greatest live wrestling they've ever seen, I go home and read from fans on the internet, who weren't actually there, that it was a poor show. I suggest everyone put an ROH live event on your bucket-list and decide for yourselves.
The point is, Ring of Honor's exposure, business, and brand continue to expand, and when you consider what's happened since 2009, it's been a very quick expansion. Changes, and mistakes, have been made, but the positive column has been lengthy. We still have a commitment to presenting a quality programme; we find the best young wrestling talent that we can, and we let them perform with less restrictions than any other major promotion; we try to be as creative and current as possible while serving multiple masters of TV, iPPV, live events, appearances, and merchandise. While Michael Campbell says we need more "inspirational creativity" so as to not be too "old-fashioned", I say we are entering a new era of wrestling, where the younger stars who innovate in the ring can learn the storytelling traits of the past, and combine them to form wrestling's future.
I agree that a "vocal minority" is upset with recent changes in ROH, but they are both very vocal, and the minority. We still want to please them, and hopefully they will be willing to keep an open mind, and let us try.