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Posted in In My Head by Jack at 11:41, Feb 07 2008

Title Changes, Upsets and ROH?s History of Unpredictability

Unexpected: Title Changes, Upsets and ROH?s History of Unpredictability
By ?Riren? John Wiswell

On Saturday the 26th Jimmy Jacobs and Tyler Black lost the ROH tag titles in an Ultimate Endurance match. They were eliminated first. It was a shock to the fans, but not the first shock of the year. Already this year Erick Stevens upset Austin Aries and Bryan Danielson in back-to-back matches. In similar time Chris Hero and Sara Del Ray introduced the new (and unofficial) Intergender Tag Titles out of nowhere.

This element of unpredictability is one of three big things Ring of Honor uses to attract more fans to live shows. Another is importing foreign stars: Kota Ibushi and Go Shiozaki are coming soon, Dragon Gate wrestlers will appear at Wrestlemania, and we?re fresh off Takeshi Morishima?s reign as World Champion. The third tactic is using frequent gimmick matches, which we?ll address in a future column. These elements culminate in additional fan interest to just going to the general (if wonderful) ROH experience. A foreign star is a rare treat, and people are more likely to pay to see a title match in a cage than a regular defense.

Jacobs & Black losing was surprising on multiple levels. Firstly, in the No Remorse Corps it seemed like the pairing of Strong & Romero were getting the emphasis, yet Richards & Romero won the titles. Secondly, Jacobs & Black seemed primed to defend against Kevin Steen and El Generico after a couple of losses to them. Thirdly, if they were to lose the titles in this match, one might have expected the champions to make it to the final two teams in Ultimate Endurance and lose there.

Finally and most importantly, it was really frickin? soon for Jacobs and Black to lose.

Like other fans, I was unhappy as well as shocked. I wanted to see the defense against Steen & Generico; a non-title match just wouldn?t feel the same, and ensuing Newswires suggested even a non-title match wasn?t on the horizon. And heck, I wanted to see Jacobs & Black on DVD to form an opinion before they lost the titles. They were dethroned before I knew how they worked, which was distinctly undramatic. I wanted to like these guys (or hate them) as champions before they ceased to be.

But more than these things I was disappointed because of the unspoken rule that every champion is supposed to have a long reign. Now that I?ve typed it you can rip it apart logically ? it?s obviously bunk. Rinauro & Mamaluke, the Kings of Wrestling and Doi & Takagi all had short reigns as tag champions in ROH. In fact, before the Briscoes reigned from March to December of 2007, they had a reign that was just two shows long ? from Fifth Year Festival: Chicago to Fifth Year Festival: Liverpool. As Stephen Hawking says for Physics, a rule can?t be a rule if it?s only a rule some of the time.

But we do have the psychological expectation of long reigns. Joe had the belt forever. Danielson had the belt forever. Aries & Strong had the belts forever. The Briscoes just had the belts forever. Those reigns were great, so on some levels we associate satisfaction with the length of a reign. It?s intuitive, it?s there and it influences our judgments. That?s fine on one level because it?s intrinsically linked to how we experience our hobby, but dangerous on another level because violation of these sensibilities causes thousands of cases of message board rage and dubious proclamations of giving up on a company.

If a possibility is never exercised in art, then eventually people cease to expect it and it ceases to be a possibility at all. People were so used to champions and central figures pulling it out against seemingly impossible odds that they forgot these were impossible odds. Jacobs & Black falling was a reminder. It went against an arbitrary convention of pro-wrestling, and it went down against the right wrestlers ? these were villains who lost the titles, not heroes, so we shouldn?t have been rooting for them. It worked in a similar way to the Briscoes in 2/3 Falls matches. Then, the arbitrary norm was for every 2/3 Falls match to be split 1/1 and to have a dramatic final fall. ROH challenged that convention and created the Briscoes? ?two-straight? sweep angle. Suddenly you didn?t know if 2/3 Falls matches were going to three falls anymore, and you were anticipating both which team would be the first to beat them at the match as well as just seeing which team could score a fall at all against them. It was interesting, different, and unexpected just because it wasn?t the norm, regardless of whether or not wrestlers should have been able to do it.

I can tell you to think realistically and recognize that Homicide ended Danielson?s long reign at the end of 2006 only to turn around and lose the title in early 2007, but it may do no good. Instead I?ll tell you that this factors into another aspect of Ring of Honor: unpredictability.

When ROH officials booked the new anti-establishment champions in Ultimate Endurances, most fans (myself included) expected the champs to retain and make ROH suffer, even though it wasn?t realistic for them to get by seven teams in two matches, especially when they?d declared war on all of ROH. A booker could write it, but within the ?kayfabe? world, it was highly unlikely. The Age of the Fall losing showed that just because you?re champions doesn?t mean you?re immortal. Jacobs & Black can go right back into the normal tag scene and compete against any one team now; they may well win the titles back in fair competition. It?s not like the Age of the Fall was slapped around by two guys. They weren?t hurt seriously hurt in the loss, but we were reminded not only not to take things for granted.

This theme of unpredictability isn?t new. Very few people thought Austin Aries was going to dethrone Samoa Joe at Final Battle 2004 (though with every year since that event, the number of people who ?knew? it was going to happen seems to grow). Even fewer people thought CM Punk would dethrone Austin Aries just before heading off to WWE ? everyone I talked to thought that was Punk?s last night. One thing these title changes provided was a great moment for each live crowd. People swept up in that excitement would be more likely to come back and try ROH again. But these events also showed that Ring of Honor will not always be predictable. In 2004, Joe would not beat Aries just because you were sure they?re going to do Joe/Ki 2 for the title. In 2008, the Age of the Fall were not going to win two Ultimate Endurances just because you were sure this was the beginning of their reign of terror.

And it?s not like the new champions are unstoppable. Rocky Romero and Davey Richards lost to the Briscoes on the most recent Pay Per View, Undeniable. What?s to keep Jacobs & Black from winning the titles right back, ala the Briscoes in 2007? What?s to keep Steen and Generico from snapping up the titles? Can Richards & Romero weather challenges from all of the other factions?

You don?t know, and you won?t know the answer unless you go to the next show and see them defend (or huddle around a message board for live results). This is much more entertaining in one sense than sitting back for months, sure that Jacobs & Black will reign on, and only buying shows for matches that get 4+ stars from F4W, DVDR or this fine site. This is something different from what ROH did with the tag titles from March to December.

This is the anti-long reign, and something like this is essential to a company that prides itself on valuable titles. It keeps us from assuming too much about reigns and should lend greater drama to live matches if it?s executed properly. Much of wrestling is in the execution. The Briscoes? win at All Star Extravaganza 3 could have been amazing if not for one bad fall that left us simply grateful that Mark Briscoe was still alive. If ROH?s tag teams drop the ball then it will be another stroke for wrestling critics who think they could book the company better than Gabe Sapolsky.

It?s also essential to Ring of Honor?s portrayal of unpredictability. They want fans to predict that great matches will happen, and things like Danielson/Jacobs and Danielson/Black being surprise show-stealers certainly help that cause. However, they also need fans to think the outcomes are at least partially uncertain. This is particularly hard since they cater to a niche audience that recognizes the patterns of wrestling booking better than the average WWE viewer.

WWE is a huge business. It rides decades of cultural exposure and memories to attract millions of viewers for most of its televised shows. It has a notch carved into the marketing world such that it can advertise and generate considerable revenue off of most of its endeavors. By virtue of being on free television for millions of people every week, a small fraction of the audience being willing to attend shows means thousands pay to get in to each event.

But ROH doesn?t have that exposure or power of marketing. It cannot rely on television provoking additional hundreds or thousands of people coming. They cater to a more informed audience, and that means making more important matches: matches between top stars, title matches, gimmick matches, and anything else that people are more inclined to want to see rather than only read about. If this is an ROH where Bryan Danielson will always beat Erick Stevens and where the titles will always be retained in Ultimate Endurances, you?re more likely to skip a live show. But if Stevens can beat Danielson and the titles can change hands in Ultimate Endurance, aren?t you more likely to give them a chance for the price of General Admission?

Like yours, my mind is complex. I?m fully capable of reacting positively to one aspect of something and negatively to another aspect. I don?t need to pretend something is just good or bad, especially not in a subjective hobby like ours. The title change had disconcerting attributes, but it was part of a much more interesting whole. And ROH gets to bank on at least one thing ? I?m damn sure going to buy the DVD to see how it went down.

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