By Rick Morris
I would like to congratulate the Ring of Honor wrestling promotion on their acquisition by Sinclair Broadcast Group. It’s been reported that a friend of our FDH LOUNGE program (Tuesdays, 7-9 PM EDT on SportsTalkNetwork.com), past guest and ROH Executive Producer Jim Cornette, was instrumental in working through some of the key points of the acquisition. One wonders how Jim’s left-wing politics are going to fit with the prevailing attitudes at Sinclair, but that’s a different story for another day!
With Smackdown’s migration to cable in 2010, the new ROH program will be the only national (or quasi-national, since the station is in 35 markets and details on further syndication are still up in the air – although the online version of the program will be pushed heavily) over-the-air pro wrestling product in the marketplace. While getting dropped by Mark Cuban’s HDNet was seen as a huge setback, this resulting move has the chance to be an incredible step forward.
I’m not in the subculture of ROH hardcores, but I’ve been to two shows in 2006 when they were in Cleveland and I enjoyed them immensely. It’s got the right blend of storylines, athleticism and just a bit of humor. For those who aren’t as familiar with the product – inasmuch as it’s commonly regarded as the third-biggest promotion in America, but a distant #3 behind WWE and TNA (itself a distant #2) – it’s not a gross oversimplification to refer to it as similar to the Japanese product in that it is stripped of over-the-top “sports entertainment” gaga.
Having set all of that up, it’s clear that my recommendations are not going to impress the diehards, the ROH completists who own every DVD of every card. I’d wager that most of them don’t want any abrupt changes in the product. I too would like to see the current gist of the promotion, with its emphasis on athleticism and technical excellence, remain intact. But we all know that the wider success of this promotion is going to rise or fall on expanding the audience behind the tiny-but-passionate core that has sustained it through its first nine years. Both the fans and those in the front office are going to have to move beyond their own comfort levels for this project to really succeed with this new opportunity.
Ever since Vincent K. McMahon took the WWF national in 1984 and shattered the territorial system, lack of cooperation has been ingrained in the DNA of the business. Pro Wrestling USA, a coalition of most of the top promoters who were facing opposition from McMahon in 1984-85, collapsed due to the fact that none of them wanted to be in a position of working at the behest of anyone else. When the NWA was forced to regroup on the fly in 1994 after the notable defection of ECW, it was never able to rise above the level of a loose coalition of otherwise obscure indy promotions because they could not attract other notable indies to join them. For that matter, indies haven’t worked together to very much effect in the two decades since the final destruction of the territory system.
Quite simply, the splintering of top talent in the business must be reversed in order for ROH to take big steps forward. They have so little margin for error as it is since almost every present full-time wrestler with great notoriety is under contract with either WWE or TNA. ROH has to practice ruthless pragmatism here. And that leads to the first recommendation.
1 Bring Gabe Sapolsky back into the fold with a buyout/merger with the Evolve promotion. Cary Silkin doesn’t own ROH anymore and while he’s in an advisory capacity, Sinclair can keep a lid on whatever bad blood might exist between the former owner and his star booker if they are committed enough. I won’t make any recommendation about how his role would coincide or overlap with that of Cornette or present ROH booker Hunter Johnson. But they are undeniably all better together than they are separately. They have enough creative talent to do what is so tough to pull off believably after more than 15 years of it permeating the industry: the work-shoot. Sapolsky can come in on-camera (for a limited time, before turning the lead role over to one of his wrestlers) proclaiming the superiority of the Evolve brand and wearing T-shirts that say “Evolve or Die.” The story from his perspective would be that ROH ran him out of the house he built and the promotion’s fans didn’t care. Evolve wrestlers would come in with a chip on their shoulders about being perceived as lesser talents simply because their promotion didn’t have as deep of a history. The story basically writes itself. Once the war gets settled, all wrestlers can migrate to the face or heel roles that work best for them at the present time rather than the temporary shoehorning of being on the face ROH or heel Evolve squads. Concepts and themed shows from both promotions should be used going forward. If there are personal issues involved that make this recommendation unrealistic, then those matters exemplify like nothing else ever could the reason that Vinny Mac will always be able to define the pro wrestling business (which he disdains even referring to as such) in the public’s mind.
2 Utilize wrestlers from other promotions to the greatest extent possible.
Now, it’s true that at various points along the way, ROH has used talent that is outside of their own “core.” But, now more than ever, there should be no reason for ROH to fear using talent that is not completely exclusive to them. What kind of a threat can PWG, CHIKARA or other leading indies be to them at this point? Now, I’m not 100% sure these other promotions would be cool with letting their talent participate, especially without the other circuits being able to exploit for their own advancement, but that’s why good negotiations are so important. It absolutely goes without saying that Sapolsky’s Dragon Gate USA promotion should be the one that gets to conduct jointly-promoted cards. I wouldn’t do anything that involved the NWA, since that amalgam is such a complete and utter mess with too many grubby, fat fingers in the pie.
3 Sign a few “name” wrestlers from the last boom to come in as uber-heels looking down their noses at everyone. This is the recommendation that will truly have the hardcores calling for my head. But there’s no better way to get over the Evolve faction as mega-heels, hook casual fans and super-establish your eventually triumphant ROH face faction than by having Sapolsky use his pull to bring in a group calling itself the “Household Names” that goes against everything hardcore wrestling fans love. How’s this for a crew? Diamond Dallas Page as the mouthpiece, the New Age Outlaws, Bob Holly and “Big Vis” Nelson Frazier coming in with the following mission statement: “We’ve been on national, over-the-air television before. We belong here, not you pathetic no-names. You claim to be the best of this generation, but you have to prove it to us.” Let them get heat for a few months, with some Evolve wrestlers who will eventually turn face visibly swallowing their disgust at working with them for the common aim of destroying the ROH wrestlers and have them put the faces over huge in the end. While the “OMG! Workrate!” choads (and I say that affectionately) probably just had a heart attack, a few months of having a few matches on the card that are no threat to steal the show could easily be balanced out by excellence in the other spots.
None of these recommendations are extremely likely to be followed, as history tells us ROH will probably prepare for their important next stage with only minor tinkering around the margins. Such evolution will probably yield a product I will enjoy, but if you’re only reaching the tiny subset that I’m in that’s predisposed to like the product, you’ve lost the battle already. In the words of that great pro wrestling philosopher Tony Robbins, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”