The 10 Greatest ROH Wrestlers Never to Hold a Title

Many great talents have come through Ring of Honor wrestling, dating back to its inception in 2002.  CM Punk, Samoa Joe, Bryan Danielson a.k.a Daniel Bryan, Tyler Black a.k.a. Seth Rollins all got their start in ROH and held titles during their tenure.  Surprisingly, there are many great performers who never held any titles during their time in ROH.  I would like to examine the careers of 10 these men, what they meant to the company, and what the chances are they could hold ROH championship gold in the future.  For the purposes of this article I am defining an ROH title as 1) the world championship, 2) the tag team championship, 3) the television championship, and 4) the pure championship.  There have been other belts that have made the rounds in ROH but they have always been either a gimmick (see the Icon/Love title) or a title that doesn't originate in ROH (such as when the FIP title was being defended in ROH matches).  

I am looking at 5 criteria when compiling this list.  This list is not my personal favorites (though that factors in some amount no matter how objective I am trying to be) but is based on:

1 - How strong was their following?  Did they have a lot of reaction either way as a face or a heel?  Did they get people buzzing?  

2 - How were they booked?  Were they booked like main eventers who just never one the big one, or were they jobbers who lost opening card scramble matches?

3 - How long were they on the roster?  Did they spend several years in the promotion, or were they only there for a few months?  This is also why you won't see people like Chris Sabin, or Kota Ibushi on this list.  Great wrestlers, but their appearances were so infrequent they don't qualify.  

4 - How good were they in the ring?  This is, of course, were the list becomes more subjective, but it simply has to be a consideration.  

5 - how good were they on the mic/as a character?  Another subjective judgement call, but one that must be made for the purposes of putting together a good list.  



Tenure:  2007 - 2010

This strong man turned heads with his big physique and mohawk.  He spent time in Austin Aries's stable the Resilience before going out on his own when the group disbanded.  Stevens never generated a huge following, but did have some memorable moments in the promotion, most notably his fight without honor against Roderick Strong.  He was a solid-if-unspectacular power wrestler who I have very little recollection of cutting promos, which is probably a bad sign.  

Chance of holding ROH gold in the future: extremely low.  He is retired now, and owns a powerlifting gym in Florida.  The chances of a return to ROH, much less a return that involves a title is extremely remote.  


#9  Spanky (Brian Kendrick)

Tenure: 2002-2003, 2005

This lovable odd ball gained a nice cult following for his antics, as well as his impressive in-ring repertoire.  He was quite small, but in ROH that doesn't tend to work against people.  This also allowed him to fill a nice, spike-dudley-esque "plucky, undersized fan-favorite" role.  His tenures were relatively short, and it didn't ever appear that ROH was his highest priority.  

Chance of ROH gold in the future: low.  Though he has currently re-signed with WWE, his relationship with the company remains off-and-on.  What would hurt his chances, would be that even if he did return to ROH, he was never quite over enough to be a title holder, and at 35 it is unlikely ROH would run with him as any sort of champion.  With that being said, there are occasions were past favorites will have a nostalgia title run, perhaps with the television title or tag title.  Still, it's pretty unlikely.  


#8 Kenny Omega

Tenure:  2008 - 2010

Kenny Omega is a gifted athlete, with a good look, who is an average talker.  While in ROH, he put on some excellent matches, including several with then-champion Austin Aries.  He garnered a decent following and looked to be a promising future-star.  Omega appears to be a man who excels and feels most comfortable in Japan.  He has been involved with a few promotions across the pacific and seems to be gaining positive notoriety there.  He was the Pro Wrestling Guerilla World Champion, which was probably his largest accomplishment stateside.  

Chances of ROH gold in the future:  low.  He appears to be happily competing in Japan, with no signs of intentions to return.  Omega has always struck me as a guy who you could build around as a main-eventer, but it's just a matter of how committed he wants to be to a US promotion.  He had a brief tenure in one of WWE's developmental promotions, which was said to be a highly negative experience for him.  

#7 Jack Evans

Tenure: 2003-2005, 2007-2008

If John Cena was the doctor of thugonomics, Jack Evans was the associates degree.  Despite his awful gimmick, Jack was a freakishly talented high flyer who defied gravity as well or better than other beloved daredevils such as Matt Sydal or Pac.  He generated buzz everywhere he went with his innovative risk-taking and sold his ass off in every match.  He was an oh-my-god moment waiting to happen, and created some of the most memorable spots ROH has ever had.  Surprisingly, his days in Generation Next and the Vulture Squad never resulted in a tag title run.  

Chances of ROH gold in the future:  low.  Like Omega, he is another ex-pat who appears to like competing elsewhere.  He is currently in Mexico's AAA and has been there for almost 7 years.  It's not impossible by any stretch, and he certainly has the following to carrying the television title or the tag titles with a partner, but it looks unlikely that Jack will be returning to ROH any time soon.  


#6 Kenta Kobayashi (aka Hideo Itami)  

Tenure: 2005-2006, 2007-2009

Kenta seemed like the perfect fit for Ring of Honor from his earliest appearances.  His high energy, crisp grapples, and ultra-stiff strikes made him a beloved member of the roster during his tours-of-duty in ROH.  THe language barrier didn't serve to be as big a problem as it would have been had he been in a promotion that put more emphasis on mic skills.  He was a very "buzzy" wrestler that drew smart marks from far and wide when he would be booked at an ROH show.  The only thing that kept Kenta from carrying a title in ROH was the short length of his runs with the company, and the knowledge that, ultimately, he was a Pro Wreslting Noah guy, first-and-foremost.  

Chances of ROH gold in the future:  Low.  He is now signed with WWE, performing as Hideo Itami.  If this doesn't work out, which is sometimes the case with WWE signings, there is a chance he lands back in ROH.  It seems more likely, though, that he would end up returning to his homeland to compete in the land of the rising sun.  


#5 Jimmy Rave

Tenure: 2003-2007, brief runs in 2009, 2011, 2013

At one time, Jimmy Rave was arguably the person who generated the most heel heat in all of ROH.  It was strange, becuase he was a fairly average in-ring wrestler with unremarkable mic skills.  But something about Jimmy Rave just made fans blood boil, and allowed him to be someone the fans loved to hate.  Perhaps his most notable moments were when the fans would shower him with hundreds of rolls of toilet paper during his first run in ROH.  Rave also had some great rivalries with CM Punk, AJ Styles, and Nigel NcGuinness where he played a pitch-perfect heel who the fans got the satisfaction of seeing defeated.  I had Rave pegged for a nice heel run with a singles title, or perhaps a tag title run with Alex Shelley, but neither ever came to frution, though Rave did have some opportunities at both.  

Chance of ROH gold in the future:  Low-to-Moderate.  Rave was a key heel character throughout many of the early years of ROH.  He has never quite gained the cult status in other promotions he did in ROH, so it seems like a place he could return to and thrive if he wished to.  Sadly, in real life Jimmy has dealt with many awful experiences including substance abuse problems which perhaps makes the hope of a return to the toilet paper days unlikely. 


#4 Cedric Alexander

Tenure: 2010 - current

Cedric Alexander has evolved from a promising-but-raw youngster to a bona-fide burgeoning talent on the precipice of stardom.  People started to really take notice of Alexander after the completion of his C and C Wrestle Factory days, when he struck out on his own in 2014 and promptly started stealing the show no matter where he was booked on the card.  His mic skills need improving, he seems soft spoken and somewhat timid, but his wrestling is second to none.  He takes huge bumps, moves with incredible agility despite his size, and has power to spare.  

Chances of ROH gold in the future:  Very High.  I would be willing to wager that Alexander carries his first piece of ROH hardware sometime in 2015, and if not, it will be ROH's loss.  He has generated a strong following, consistently puts on good matches, and is only 25 years old, which bodes well for his future.  


#3  Alex Shelley

Tenure:  2003 - 2006.  Sporadic appearances 2007-2008, 2010, 2014

Alex Shelley is one of those rare wrestlers that can do it all.  He is a great talker, with excellent comedic timing and facial expressions.  He can sell with the best of them, and he is a great mat technician, flyer, and striker.  I have often wondered what has kept him from being a perrennial title holder in the various promotions he has appeared in.  During his primary run in Ring of Honor he was a member of Generation Next, but perhaps was overshadowed by fellow stable members Austin Aries and Roderick Strong.  He was later a member of The Embassy, which was never quite able to gain traction as a real title threat.  Since 2006 he has made intermittent appearances, putting on stellar matches (most notably his matchs with partner Chris Sabin against the Briscoe brothers in 2007 and 2008) but never stuck around long enough for title consideration.  

Chances of ROH gold in the future:  Moderate.  Shelley is primarily working in Japan with tag partner Kushida, in the Time Splitters.  I still think there is a chance Shelley lands back in ROH one of these days and has a tag title run or television title run.  There is nothing imminent by any means, but he seems to keep good relations with ROH through his various appearances and his matches are always well received.  


#2  ACH

Tenure:  2012 - present

I'm just gonna say it.  ACH has "it".  He is a lightning fast in ring wrestler with an innovative move set, natural charisma and a great connection with the crowd at his appearances.  He talks well, has a good sense of humor, and can play face or heel equally well.  He has been an ROH staple for several years now and, like fellow up-and-comer Cedric Alexander, appears to be positioned for a title run of some sort in ROH in 2015.  

Chances of ROH gold in the future:  very high.  I see no reason why ACH doesn't carry a title in ROH in 2015 barring a serious injury on contract problem of some sort.  period.  Though his resume is similar to Alexanders as I mentioned before, I give ACH the nod due to mic skills and charisma.  


#1 Paul London

Tenure: 2002-2003, brief appearances in 2014

Paul London finds himself at #1 on this list not so much because his tenure was that long (it wasn't), but because his tenure was one of the first to feel important to Ring of Honor as it was developing its identity. He was one of the first stars, along with Low Ki, Christopher Daniels and Bryan Danielson that carried the promotion through its vulnerable early days.  He garnered a nice following during his stay in ROH and he was the first wreslter who left for WWE where the loss truly felt like an "ROH guy" leaving.  He represented an idea; he carried the ethos of what Ring of Honor was all about and his exit from the company was a watershed moment where ROH fans learned what was going to become a reality for the entirety of the company; great wrestlers would come and carry the torch in Ring of Honor, but those great wrestlers would also eventually leave.  The promotion carried on after Paul London left, and managed to thrive even in his absence.  Ring of Honor's ability to embrace the memories of former stars, while moving forward to create new ones is the primary reason it is still going strong today.  

Chances of ROH gold in the future:  moderate.  From an interview I read with Paul, it sounds like things didn't end on a great note with ROH during his last appearance there.  With that being said, I think he will always have a spot in the pantheon of ROH greats, and someday, just maybe could carry a title to show it.  

Posted on March 2, 2015 .

Quote the Raven: Forevermore

Professional wrestlers who are successful often connect with the fans by embodying an idea.  They serve as an avatar of a concept or value that people have a strong emotional reaction to.  This cuts both ways; it can be a manifestation of the things people love or hate.  Once in a great while, they can represent both.  

    In the mid 1990s the WWE(F) and WCW were stuck in a creative rut, somewhere between the good-natured golden age of the late 80s and very early 90s, to the yet-to-arrive edgy attitude-era of the late 90s.  During that transitional period the two biggest players in the industry were making over-the-top parodies of an already over-the-top product.  They had caricatures of dentists, garbage men, and mummies-mislabeled-as-yetis.  Few if any performers managed to channel an idea that the fans cared about.  

    But in a bingo hall in Philadelphia, a small promotion called Extreme Championship Wrestling was doing something different.  They were still using the bombastic characters and story-telling devices that were central to professional wrestling, but they were shaping their product to allow it to speak to its audience.  They weren't repo men or maestros.  They were relatable, archetypes, pumped up to epic proportions.  One of their most successful, controversial, and memorable characters was Raven.  

    Scott Levy's grungy anti-hero, named after the atmospheric Edgar Alan Poe poem, was the incarnation of angst.  From his ripped jean shorts to the flannel tied around his waist, he was the standard-bearer for disaffected youth of the 90s.  The fans had a highly polarized reaction to him.  Many were drawn to his cerebral, cult-leader charisma.  Others were repulsed by his self-centered psycho-babel.  Either way, he was one of those rare characters that every ECW fan had an opinion on.  His persona was obviously relevant, as people either saw Raven as a larger projection of their own feelings, or as a representation of someone they recognized from their own lives, and hated with a passion.   

    While his style certainly captured the counter-culture of the times, his words and actions were what allowed him to connect with the fans.  Anyone could throw on a Sandman tee-shirt.  Not just anyone could cut a promo that gave form to the abstract ethos of a generation.  Raven channeled the anger, disgust, and apathy of the American adolescent in the 90s.  Like many young people, he was a paradox.  He would decry the selfishness of the American way, while asking where his slice of the pie was.  He was furious at the established mores of his culture, but too cool to try and change them.   

    While Raven certainly captured the teen/young adult psyche well, to accept the character as simply an angry youngster would be to trivialize the grander scale that Scott Levy was performing on.  Raven tapped into the cultural milieu of Generation X in a very specific, and, by professional wrestling standards, a very nuanced way . He was the spoiled spawn of the self-esteem movement; an entitled, self-aggrandizing figure, intent on placing all the responsibility for his failings squarely in the lap of his parents.  He eschewed the idealism so central to the teen years of his baby-boomer parents, for unapologetic self-indulgence and pragmatism.  The Raven character shook off the last vestiges of his childhood, stared at the approaching millennium and...shrugged.      

    Even beyond the great promos, the to-cool-to-care body language, and the pitch-perfect look, what made Raven truly special was that ECW understood him.  Paul Heyman allowed Raven be involved in story-lines that accentuated the complex nature of the character.  He also allowed him to behave in ways that a self-absorbed slacker really would, which gave the persona a layer of authenticity rarely seen in professional wrestling.  He was allowed to be tough, but not above cheating if the opportunity presented itself.  He gathered minions, manipulating them into doing his bidding, while at the same time being willing to dish out sadistic punishment when necessary.  His rivalries, gimmick matches, and story-arcs all functioned within a framework where Scott's strengths as a performer were maximized to their full potential.  His character in ECW was one of the deepest, most timely, and unique characters to ever be involved in professional wrestling.  

    Sadly, Raven was misunderstood and misused in WCW, and WWE.  Once Raven was brought to the mainstream, he wasn't allowed to weave the complex, twisted web that was his staple.  He was thought too weird, too dark, or too un-flashy for the arena crowds.  He had brief periods late in his career when Ring of Honor and TNA used his skills appropriately, but by that time he had become an anachronism, an elder statesman of a time-gone-by.  Still, perhaps it is poetic justice that the ultimate misfit had a huge cult following in a counter-culture promotion but was rejected by the masses.  Perhaps Raven wouldn't have had it any other way.  

Posted on January 3, 2015 .

Xenophobia, Repurposed

Professional Wrestling has a long history of xenophobic themes and story arcs.  “Foreigners should be feared” is as ingrained in the collective psyche of the average wrestling fan as “villains cheat” and “heroes don’t tap out”.  Just in the Wrestlemania Era there are countless examples of people portraying evil, dastardly or bizarre characters hailing from different countries and/or minority cultures; The Iron Sheik (Iran), Papa Shango (Haiti), Kamala (Uganda), Giant Gonzalez (Argentina), Mohammed Hassan (Muslim-American), Eddie Guerrero (Mexico), William Regal (England), Rene Dupree (France), Nikoli Volkov/Boris Zubov (Russia) just to name a few.  Even the beloved Bret Hart portrayed a heel for a brief time built around his Canadian heritage.  

This is no surprise.  The business of pro wrestling has always catered to the whims of its largest sociological demographic.  Historically, the fan base has been disproportionately caucasian, low to lower-middle income, lower education level laborers and their families.  These bombastic tales of foreign masses “invading” the United States and changing the American way of life would have resonated strongly with many in this group.  The ethnocentricity of wrestling remained unchanged for several decades. 

Yet now, in 2013, a funny thing happened on the way to the ring; the xenophobic storyline was turned inside-out.  

After a several month layoff, Jack Swagger resurfaced, but instead of being his former persona (a mean, somewhat generic tough-guy heel) he is now the controversial “Real American” Jack Swagger.  Additionally, he is managed by a character named “Zeb Coulter” who is a more over-the-top (if that’s possible) Glenn Beck-type, fiery rhetoric and histrionics in-tow.  They are currently feuding with Mexican wrestler Alberto Del Rio, largely built around Del Rio’s Mexican heritage and Swagger/Coulter’s hatred for immigrants.  What makes this story special, however, is that the Mexican wrestler, Del Rio is actually playing the face, and the white Americans, Swagger/Coulter are being booked as the heels.  Perhaps the most fascinating thing of all is that the audience is embracing it.  

A story like this would have been utterly unthinkable 25, 15 or even just 5 years ago.  Not only would the idea have been a non-starter at brainstorming level, if it had somehow made it onto the program, the fan base would have fervently rejected it.  So what could possibly account for the rapid paradigm shift?  

One explanation would be the changing demographic of the wrestling audience and the nation as a whole.  As the United States continues to diversify at a unprecedented pace, all aspects of the market will have to adjust.  At one point, professional wrestling seemed impervious to this changing dynamic, but as the WWE has rebooted to try and reach a younger population with a “TV-PG” product, they have inevitably drawn a more diverse group of young people.  Vince McMahon is, after all, an expert businessman, who has always thrived because of his ability to evolve.  So it’s no surprise that he would create a show that capitalizes on this new market.  

Another reason the Del Rio/Swagger program has been successful is that it reflects the struggles of the diverse audience.  It is not enough just to have minorities portray good guys and carry titles; to truly connect with any person the material must speak to their own existential experience.  The Del Rio/Swagger storyline is probably very meaningful to the Latino portion of the audience because it is a retelling of their own challenges.  Swagger and Coulter are the consummate bigots; self-righteous, judgmental, and inflexible.  They assault Del Rio with stereotypes, leveling their rhetorical dagger at Del Rio’s work ethic, morality, value as a member of society.  Del Rio is portrayed as a self-made man who has worked hard, acted responsibly and realized the ever-elusive American Dream.  

It goes without saying that many Latinos have experienced prejudice on some level, and could easily identify with Del Rio.  Most Mexican immigrants would tell you, wether legal or illegal, that the intention of coming to America is to work hard, receive a fair wage, and be able to fulfill their familial responsibilities.  For their “side of the story” to be demonstrated in the traditionally racially intolerant world of professional wrestling is a powerful symbol of the direction of American dialogue.  

In the end, xenophobia has not only been named (ideologically speaking) but has been transformed into something wholly different.  As the wrestling audience continues to grow more diverse we are bound to see more revolutionary storylines that seek to capture the American narrative from a multitude of other perspectives.  The sociological themes that have dominated the storytelling for so many decades appear to be losing their footing.  In the very near future, professional wrestling may not only cease to be an endearingly-backward piece of American kitsch, but may develop into a grandiose retelling of the American experience of diverse populations.

Posted on July 11, 2014 .

Stone Cold American Idealism

In the industry of professional wrestling, some people get over with flashy moves.  Others create clever catch phrases that worm their way into the collective conscious of the fans.  Still others will resort to being arbitrarily controversial or just plain weird.  In a way, Steve Austin used pieces of all these approaches, but more than anything, Austin got over in his own unique way.  Steve Austin got over by being American.  

Before you start emailing me about Hulk Hogan, “The All-American” Lex Luger, and even “The Patriot” Del Wilkes (I can’t remember the last time I thought about that guy!) I want to clarify what I mean by being American.  The aforementioned trio, and a handful of others, have gotten over by intentionally associating themselves with patriotism.  They wore outfits with the flag on them.  They came out to songs declaring their love and devotion to the United States.  They got over with American imagery and rhetoric.  But they didn’t get over by channeling American ideals.  

How could Steve Austin be more “American” than the wrestlers mentioned earlier?  He rarely spoke of his home country in his promos.  He generally dressed in black and his music was hardly the “Star Spangled Banner”.  What Austin seemed to understand was that American wrestling fans loved what America represented more than America itself.  

First of all, Austin was the embodiment of Rugged Individualism.  He associated with no group.  He relied on no partners.  He was the lone wolf, his survival hinged solely upon his own skills and hard work.  This philosophy makes for a difficult existence, but it produces toughness, self-reliance, and inner strength.  This idea resonates with Americans because it’s woven into the fabric of our history.  Many fans view themselves as individualist, either consciously or unconsciously, and to see this idea played out in the vibrant and bombastic world of professional wrestling is deeply satisfying.  

Austin was also unapologetically blue collar.  His interests were simple; hunting, fishing, and drinking beer.  He didn’t concern himself with notions of intellectual development or existential meaning.  Not surprisingly, this “common man’s confidence” spoke to the wrestling fans of his time period, and continues to do so today.  The sociological makeup of the wrestling fan base is disproportionately blue collar.  Inevitably, people are going to identify with those they see as part of their cultural group, and Steven Austin was a natural standard bearer for the American laborer. 

Finally, Steve Austin had a deep hatred for authority.  The most affective story lines involving Austin, were also those involving his antithetical foil, Vince McMahon.  Vince was a rich, educated, powerful, well-groomed Yankee who imposed his will on all those under him.  Austin not only bristled at this authority, he openly rebelled.  Wether it be the federal government or corporate suits, most wrestling fans despise people having power over them.  The American ethic is built around the idea of individual freedom and responsibility.  Fans got to live out their workplace fantasies when they watched Austin beat up his stuff-shirt boss.  Again, in respect to the sociological makeup of the fan base, it is likely many viewers worked at a job where they had a direct supervisor, whom they likely despised.  The notion of personal freedom is expressed most fervently when it is threatened.  

Ultimately, any wildly popular professional wrestler has to find a way to connect with the fans.  Even the heels have to be able to identify something the viewers hate, and project it convincingly.  The best wrestler, is one sensitive to the collective psyche of the fans.  Austin was particularly memorable because he captured the ideas of a nation that prides itself on ideas.  

Posted on July 11, 2014 .

The Royal Rumble

The Royal Rumble event inaugurates the most important two months in the professional wrestling calendar.  For wrestling fans, it is the Olympic torch lighting, the tip off of March Madness, and the first night of Hanukah all rolled into one.  The Royal Rumble match itself is a unique, exhilarating spectacle that sets countless story arcs into motion.  

But the Royal Rumble match also serves as a microcosm for Capitalist economics.  The coordinated chaos, regulated in the ring by the participants themselves, is emblematic of market forces.  In the interest of brevity, I will highlight some of the more demonstrative examples. 

The event pits people against one another in a dynamic, multi-faceted competition.  The Royal Rumble’s appeal comes from it’s ever-changing nature.  It starts with two people in the ring, battling to throw each other over the top rope.  Every 90 seconds another combatant is added (to a total of 30 wrestlers) and the only way to win is to be the last man standing when all 29 other people are eliminated.  At any given time, a wrestler may have to focus on 1 other challenger or 20.  It may be ideal to go on the offensive, trying to tip a vulnerable wrestler out of the ring, or it may be better to skirt around a large scrum.  The challenges of survival are always evolving.

The marketplace is also in a constant state of flux.  The amount of challengers waxes and wanes.  If someone focuses too much on one other person or entity, they open themselves up to attack from others.  Additionally, no 2 competitors are the same.  There are some who are nearly exhausted (could be likened to those drawing a early number), those comparable to each other, and those yet to come (the coveted numbers 29 or 30).  

The event is fair, but also skewed.  Everyone gets a chance.  That’s fair.  Everyone draws a number randomly.  That’s also fair.  But the numbering system plays a pivotal role in determining outcomes (or would if wrestling wasn’t scripted).  If you are entrant #1, you are at a significant disadvantage compared with entrant #30.  

This too is true of the marketplace.  It doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  The number drawing is a great metaphor for the extraneous factors one can’t control about their fortune.  You have no influence on if you are born into a wealthy family that can bankroll your startup fees, if you have contacts with success in a similar field or if you have the physical resources to accomplish your goal.  This is the random, if somewhat unfair nature of American Capitalism.  It’s not to say the poor kid at community college (entrant #1) can’t win against the wealthy kid at Yale, (entrant #30).  It’s just going to be harder.  

The demands of the immediate situation create strange friends and stranger enemies.  Not surprisingly, those who create alliances (albeit temporary) tend to be more successful.  Often, the ad hoc teams are not built on friendship, but necessity.  If Cody Rhodes and Sin Cara are staring across the ring at 7-foot-300-pound Kane, it is in their best interest to put past feelings aside and double-team the much larger competitor.  

Conversely, people who would be close friends in other situations become bitter enemies while competing directly against one another.  Many tag-teams have split because of the Royal Rumble event.  

These odd alliances and rivalries are typical to the market as well.  The best way for smaller companies to topple a giant in a particular field is to work together, however there are inherent risks when putting trust in other competitors.  Because business relationships are not rooted in camaraderie or altruism, the bonds are tenuous at best.  

The winner is often not the strongest competitor, but instead the most resourceful.  I mentioned Kane earlier.  He has never won a Royal Rumble.  Neither has the Big Show, Andre the Giant, Mark Henry, The Great Kahli, or One Man Gang.  The biggest wrestler is not always the winner of the Royal Rumble.  The most successful competitor usually combines strategy, opportunism, intelligence, flexibility and, often, ruthlessness.  The victory goes to those who can evolve. 

This is true of businesses as well.  Large, powerful companies fold when they can’t keep up with the rapidly changing environment (see Blockbuster or Circuit City among others).  Ideas become small businesses when they are novel, which become large companies when they are shrewd, which sustain success when they are flexible.  The Royal Rumble and the free market are ultimately exercises in Social Darwinism.  Adaptation is a competitor’s greatest strength.  

The Royal Rumble and the business realm are attractive to people because of their unpredictability, and the drama created within their framework.  In many ways the Royal Rumble captures the positive aspects of American Capitalism, while simultaneously highlighting it’s pragmatic pitfalls.  What exactly the positives and pitfalls are, is a matter of perspective, but few can say they weren’t entertained by watching it all unfold.    

Posted on July 11, 2014 .

The Midcard

The mid-card can make or break a wrestling promotion.  When done well, it resembles a vibrant, diverse coral reef; the young can be nourished and protected by it, the old can seek refuge within when the light shines too brightly at the top.  A healthy mid-card has a multitude of unique species; the undersized high-flyer, the oft-injured veteran, the promising rookie, and the charisma-less mat technician.  A good mid-card makes use of the imperfect pieces within it.  

When a mid-card is booked poorly, it resembles a wasteland.  “Has-beens” roll along like tumbleweed, catching on the prickly spines of “Never-wills”.  If the mid-card is weak, no matter how flashy the main event is, the promotion is incapable of longevity.  

I have noticed there are several story arcs that work well in the mid-card.  Good booking is reciprocal; it builds the prestige of the wrestlers involved while simultaneously establishing credibility for the mid-card itself.  

The most common (and arguably most important) of these mid-card plot conventions is Up-and-comer gets his first taste of (singles) gold.  This plays out just like it sounds; a talented young wrestler that the promotion feels they could build into a main-eventer begins his championship resume with a solid mid-card title reign. The careers that have been launched this way are too numerous to count.  I am particularly fond of how this was done with “Macho Man” Randy Savage in ’87-’88 (Intercontinental Title), Rob Van Dam in ’98-’00 (ECW Television Title)*, and more recently Austin Aries in ’11-’12 (TNA X-Division Title).  The mid-card title is a perfect way expose an up-and-comer to the audience consistently, build his legitimacy, and test his ability to handle the spot light without putting him in the main event too early.  

Another story arc well suited to the mid-card is Established Main-eventer takes time away from chasing the title to settle a grudge.  In this formula, a legit headliner that is not directly involved in the main-event title picture can move down to the mid-card temporarily to play out a “score to settle” storyline.  This is useful because A) It allows the headliner to stay on the audience’s radar even while he is not involved in the main event, so when he is reintroduced in the title scene it doesn’t seem random, B) it can allow a less established wrestler to get credibility from feuding with a big name star.  There is no better example of this than the ’96-’97 Bret Hart/Steve Austin feud.  At the time Hart was an established main-eventer who stepped away from the title picture to go to war against Steve Austin, who at that time was just an undecorated anti-hero with a cult following.  Needless to say, this feud catapulted Austin’s career into highest rung of the wrestling hierarchy.  I also have to mention that Ring of Honor has historically done an excellent job with this plot convention as well.  One of my personal favorites is the Bryan Danielson/Tyler Black feud from ’08-’09.  

Finally, there is the Sentimental favorite or comic relief gets a moment of glory.  Sometimes, it’s difficult for promotions to know how to use their oddballs.  Let’s face it, redheaded fake luchadors (El Generico), Elvis Impersonators (Honky Tonk Man) and pimps (The Godfather) are not exactly your prototypical main-eventers.  Fans tend to love these characters, but bookers are often hesitant to put comedic wrestlers over their more “serious” talent at the top of the card.  So another way a promotion can push its less traditional talent is to let them carry the mid-card title.  Any of Santino Marella’s title reigns would qualify as an example of how to affectively run this story arc.  

These are just a few of the possible narrative formulas that can be used to give a promotion’s mid-card a wealth of story telling.  The best promotions, like the best sports teams, are built from within.  Good mid-card management is essential to any wrestling company’s success.  

*Rob Van Dam never won the ECW World Championship (accept when WWE resurrected it several years after the promotion went under) but his Television Title reign, solidified his status as an ECW stalwart.   

Posted on July 11, 2014 .

John Cena, Over Medium

In 1986 Hulk Hogan was the defacto ruler of the wrestling industry.  He was every promoter’s dream; a massive physical specimen with magnetic charisma, great mic skills and a marketable gimmick.  His appeal was broad.  Men liked him because he was patriotic and tough. Women liked him because he was charming.  Most of all, children liked him because he was heroic, brave and rarely lost.  His bombastic persona worked, because he fulfilled the fans ideas of what a good guy “should” be.  When he would burst forth from the curtain, “Real American” blasting over the PA system, the crowd would come unhinged. Though there was probably a small fraction of the audience that disliked “The Hulkster”, his support was so strong it was filibuster-proof. This was no fad.  Hulkamania lasted for over a decade.   

Now leap forward with me 26 years.  It’s 2012.  There is a new baby face sitting atop the main event card.  He’s not the champion at the moment, but he has carried the belt nearly a dozen times in the last 7 years.  He is also a hulking beast of a man, with an easy smile, a quick wit and lots of merchandise.  Like Hogan, he is patriotic, handsome and brave.  He sports slogans of positivity, like “never give up” and “rise above hate”.  When he sprints down the entrance ramp, his music blasting loud, the crowd goes nuts...kind of.   

Unlike Hogan, John Cena’s crowd reactions are violently polarized.  Chants of “Let’s go Cena” are met with equally enthusiastic chants of “Cena sucks”.  If it were 1986, this type of crowd response would be unthinkable.  How could the top face in the company fail to garner even a simple majority of support?  What took place in the intervening years, that the very definition of goodness (as defined by the wrestling world) is received with partial and sometimes overwhelming hostility?

The Attitude Era, that’s what.  

1985-1995 was the Golden Era of pro wrestling, and it’s narrative was decisively Modernist.  The wrestling universe was populated with clearly defined types of stars; good and evil.  The story arcs were clear cut, the resolution was moralistic, and the crowd knew exactly what their role was.  They cheered for the baby faces, booed the heels, and it was as simple as that.  

In many ways, it mirrored the postwar American culture of the 1940s and 50s.  Americans perceived Western culture to be the embodiment of sacrosanct goodness.  Other religions, philosophies or forms of government, particularly communism was thought of as completely, and utterly evil without any bit of merit.  Capitalism was right, beef was healthy, and Jesus was Lord.  

The period of wrestling from 1996-2006, conversely, was deeply Postmodern in it’s philosophical approach.  The Attitude Era, as it came to be known, was as grey as the Golden Era was black-and-white.  Every tradition and value from the Modernist period was turned upside down and dumped into a blender.  What came out was a nebulous, hodgepodge of characters and story lines, where good and bad blurred into the fickle whims of the audience.  In many ways, the character archetypes were shattered; face and heel were both, at times, prone to cheating, cussing and powerbombing women, while also having moments of great resolve, loyalty, and honor.  

This period in wrestling closely resembles the cultural awakenings of the 1960s and 70s in America.  Those postwar values, so sacred to the generation before, were dissected, altered and sometimes outright discarded.  The revolution of thought created a diverse and ambiguous culture.  From the ashes of Modernism arose a new declaration of values, impressionistic in it’s presentation.  

Which brings me back to John Cena.  Whatever this period of wrestling ends up being defined as, he will be remembered as it’s figurehead.   WWE appears to be  attempting to returning to the Modernist leanings of the Golden Era.  While trying to reconnect with a younger viewer demographic, WWE is creating characters using a more rigid formula of baby face and heel.  The narrative is more simplistic and stark in it’s moral implications.  But are the WWE’s efforts at returning to it’s Modernist roots working?  In some ways, yes.  WWE has become a TV PG program, and is still able to maintain it’s fiscal credibility (though this year has been less than inspiring from a ratings perspective).  But if the face of your company is the barometer of success, a return to Modernism is impossible because John Cena will never be more than half over. 

The reason is, once a culture has experienced Postmodernism, they can never truly return to their former perspective.  Modernism is predicated on accepted naivete and embraced conformity.  Once you have opened the collective conscious to critical evaluation of established values and diverse opinion, there is simply no going back.      The current period is a strange hybrid of both philosophical ideas, and in order for Cena (or anyone) to have sustained, overwhelming support as a baby face, he would have to hold to a set of principles the audience found inspiring, while also having the depth of character to be constantly reinventing himself.  This is an incredible task for anyone, which is why Cena is in the position of being the polarizing standard-bearer of a transitional epoch of wrestling culture.  He will be remembered as the greatest “good guy” from a generation that, unlike the Golden Era, didn’t worship them, but, unlike the Attitude Era, didn’t hate them either.  He will be remembered, as the man who was perpetually half over.  But maybe in this generation, that’s all you can hope for.

Posted on July 11, 2014 .