Back in 2004 (a whopping five years ago!), I nearly gave up on professional wrestling. At the time I felt like many young fans seem to feel today as they watch Shawn Michaels and Triple H take up air time with teenage antics and merchandise shilling. The difference between now and then, perhaps, is the quality of the wrestling. Although I imagine it is not a hard-and-fast rule that WWE presents a better product here in 2009 than it did in 2003 and 2004, I got a lot less enjoyment out of wrestling at that time.
Enter Ring of Honor. I purchased all of ROH’s 2002, 2003, and 2004 shows in 2004 and 2005, but by late 2005 and into 2006 I began noticing that I enjoyed their shows less and less. I still remember one purchase that made me hesitate to ever buy any shows again (for those curious, my purchase included ?Black Friday Fallout? and ?The Chicago Spectacular: Night Two,? both of which (literally) put me to sleep when I tried to watch them). Although I became a bit interested again when Takeshi Morishima defeated Homicide to become ROH champion, I don?t own any of ROH’s 2008 or 2009 shows. The decision to stray from the Honor Fold certainly wasn?t a conscious decision?and I imagine several factors were involved (financial factors and academic factors)?but nonetheless I?ve become a bit disillusioned with ROH for several years now.
Why am I telling all of you this?
I recently purchased a new writing desk and a few other pieces of furniture in preparation for some large writing projects coming up in my future (i.e. my doctoral dissertation), and in the process of moving old furniture around and emptying out old containers and boxes, I stumbled across my collection of ROH’s 2003 and 2004 shows. Although I spend most of my time these days pushing my way through the history of Western philosophy, when I?m not trying to make sense of Heidegger or (most recently) Foucault, I?ve discovered why it is that ROH saved my love for wrestling back in 2004 (the part of the story that’s missing above). Back in 2003, 2004, or early 2005, I used to give one or two of the following reasons when attempting to shill ROH on a soon-to-be ROH DVD purchaser:
(1) ?The matches are so much better than WWE right now. Seriously, there’s no comparison. Sure, I?m happy that Benoit and Guerrero are champions, but nearly every match on an ROH show is at least worth seeing (i.e. above **3/4).?
(2) ?Ring of Honor respects professional wrestling as a sport! This means it respects its fans and its wrestlers. It allows them to perform at their peak.?
(3) ?Ring of Honor features every kind of wrestling you?d want to see: (a) blood baths, (b) technical matches, (c) spotfests, (d) tag team matches, (e) some combinations of the above, (f) NO GIMMICKY MATCHES!!?
(4) ?Ring of Honor makes me less embarrassed to be a fan. It has simple storylines that don?t verge on creepy or annoying.?
(5) ?They have long title reigns! Samoa Joe has been ROH Champion for over a year! Almost two!?
I think you get the point. The problem, of course, is that none of these things are actually true (except the last one, I guess). Very few of ROH’s matches are really, as it turns out, worth ?going out of your way to see.? Professional wrestling, as it turns out, actually isn?t a sport. Every brand of wrestling provides gimmicky matches (even if they aren?t something-on-a-pole). ROH has always had plenty of embarrassing, creepy, and annoying storylines (sometimes storylines which were and are more confusing, annoying, and/or silly than World Wrestling Entertainment . . . Gabe Sapolsky pretending to be a drunk, sex-fiendish commentator, for one!). Lastly, I?ve learned that long title reigns aren?t always the best booking/promoting decisions . . . although they are the perfect way to legitimize and create a star (a fellow by the name of John Cena comes to mind). I don?t want anyone to think that I?m criticizing ROH any more than I do other promotions here; in fact, I could probably just summarize this entire paragraph with a strange epiphany: ?Ring of Honor is *gasp* not all that much different than World Wrestling Entertainment. People just have a higher chance of killing themselves.?
But something else, I think, made me come back to professional wrestling in 2004; it wasn?t just the fact that I was under some sort of ?ROH is Awesome!!!!? illusion that the above list represents.
As I rewatch the Ring of Honor shows from 2003 and 2004 again . . . I?ve begun to realize what brought me back: ROH taught me to see what is actually fun and fascinating in professional wrestling. Fun and fascinating?
Fun: Ring of Honor taught me, against its will perhaps, to enjoy the ridiculousness of professional wrestling, a spectacle that takes advantage of every racial, sexual, and gender stereotype; a spectacle that tries to incorporate controlled explosions into its matches; a spectacle that produces the most homoerotic music videos known to man (just Youtube ?The Fantastics? and you?ll see what I mean) while simultaneously attempting to be hyper-heterosexual; a spectacle in which slaps are manly; in which faces ridicule heels for being ?gay? right before embracing one another’s sweaty, muscled bodies; in which Irish whips actually work; in which a guy can pour beer all over himself in front of an adoring crowd; in which Julius Smokes can scream at a legend like Jushin Liger: ?I hate your Japanese ass!?; in which Jerry Lawler puts on one of the greatest matches ever using only punches and a piledriver; in which fans buy into ?hulk-ups? and ‘shoulder straps? and ‘shaking ropes? and ?eating spinach?; in short, in which the strangest and most hilarious juxtapositions occur, all the while attempting to pull off a legitimate atmosphere in which two half-naked people pretend to fight each other.
Fascinating: I find it fascinating that ROH bills (or billed) itself as ?pro-wrestling as a sport!? for so long. My fascination has nothing to do with whether I agree or disagree (as you already know, it’s the latter); my fascination revolves around the very claim itself and its relationship to a spectacle like World Wrestling Entertainment, which barely mentions the word ?wrestling? any more at all! How is it that a self-consciously artificial spectacle like Ring of Honor claims for itself an authenticity it denies to other companies? (Some of Steve Corino’s promos on the 2003 shows are riddled with ‘smart mark? references; Colt Cabana tries dancing with Dan Maff in the middle of a match; Gabe cracks a joke on commentary: ?Shouldn?t the booker tell these guys that the second match shouldn?t steal the show??) On the other hand, how is it that authenticity slips into WWE feuds like CM Punk and Jeff Hardy’s? How does, opening the question up to its most general shape, professional wrestling manage to create a condition of possibility for itself and a fan base for itself, both of which oscillate back-and-forth (sometimes within seconds) between artificiality and authenticity, sometimes drawing attention to the very fact of oscillation itself? When Ferris Bueller looks at those of us watching his day off, when a theater actor breaks the ?fourth wall,? when the author of a novel appears as a character in that very novel (sometimes as the novel’s villain!), these actions put artificiality into a similar sort of play with a claim or a desire to maintain a veneer of the authentic.
In short, the very strangeness of professional wrestling (both the fun and fascinating) drew me back to wrestling . . . and continues to draw me back (no matter how much reading gets in the way). Returning to ROH brings me back to that feeling, and while I may not enjoy the shows as much as I did five years ago, nonetheless, I can enjoy Dan Maff’s stoogey selling, Homicide’s bi-polar character, Samoa Joe’s cocky grin after knocking someone out, Colt Cabana’s antics, and CM Punk’s prelude to his current character on Smackdown. In addition to experiencing that feeling, I also begin to see what puts a large distance between fans who wanted to see John Cena head to Smackdown, who seem so bored with D-X, who think that WWE does not seem to care about its in-ring product, and me . . . a wrestling fan who could really careless about those decisions, who remains fascinated by the fact that crowds still somehow care about D-X, that John Cena and Randy Orton pulled off a compelling and convincing and moving Iron Man match at Bragging Rights, that WWE actually IS working to promote and create new stars. In some ways, I feel sorry for those who can?t see these things, who demand that CM Punk defeat the Undertaker, who desire to see Matt Bourne wrestle John Cena for the WWE Championship, who think that D-X should retire.
Maybe someday, they?ll see what I see.
Until next month, friends. Take care . . .