Sunday, 27 April 2014 13:49
Ring of Honor's Jay Lethal: Lethal Injection is a two disc set, featuring nine matches from 2003-2005 and 11 matches between 2011-2012. To keep it focused, I'm focusing on the first disc.
ROH has produced a large number of compilations over the past year, and I understand that compilations by an indie promotion are meant to capitalize on former names now thriving on other (bigger) stages, but the underlying criticism I have about ROH's compilations is that watching the best of the best almost always gets repetitive. Plus, it's awkward to watch the old, then follow the new, and realize that there is a difference.
Wading through the stack of stuff and the stack of compilations, I realize that Lethal and his recent "turn" and new association with Truth Martini puts him in relevance. He's a guy that has world class talent, a body of work and excellence, and a backstory that a lot of current fans may not know. A very good choice to review, indeed.
Lethal, as the ROH hardcores know, was initially in a faction called Special K and went by the name Hydro. It was a raver-inspired bunch of spoiled brats with athleticism and a big bodyguard, but Hydro was the one touted as the best. His ascension from that faction to a player in the ROH promotion isn't just an interesting one, but a brilliant one and the main points are here on this DVD.
Lethal, as a key member of Special K, comes forth from a match from very early 2003, and really shows his potential, but also highlights probably one of the best incarnations of a young group of heels (aside from FIP's YRR) in a long time.
(Yeah, throw EVOLUTION in my face. I'm no-selling it. It's not the same thing.)
What I like about this glimpse at Special K is the underlying indifference of this faction, spurning the “honor” of ROH, spurring a sense of “heelishness” that makes you want to see them get their due, and with their bodyguard named Slugger – who appears to be an interesting cross of 911 and Mr. Hughes with dreadlocks – there’s a great dynamic of a bunch of young punks protected by a monster.
Along the way, the announce crew does a brilliant job of establishing the group, the potential of that guy named Hydro, and the sheer anarchy of this faction. But before we go further, there’s a sign in the back of the arena, and it is monumental: "We don't imitate, we innovate."
Wow… that is eyebrow-raising. It really hits me as across the industry, we live in an era where professional wrestling is content, not creative; where professional wrestling is following the leader, not establishing an alternative; where professional wrestling still clings to a booking concept three generations of fans outdated, and constantly rejects any notion of starting a new cycle.
Sure, ROH isn’t so likely to put the belt on Cheeseburger, but the way this business works, I wouldn’t be so surprised. The main point is that a decade ago, there was creativity in professional wrestling, especially as presented by Ring of Honor circa 2003-2005, had a mid-card storyline in place that would eventual elevate a fresh young face to main event status.
This storyline is based on having a strong champion, based on having a tier of elite wrestlers, and based on the development of this story, the investment of time and talk, the involvement of the fans, and the inevitable establishment of Jay Lethal. Can a Hydro become a Jay Lethal in 2014? My pessimism rises to mind, but let’s take a look at some of the main points in that development and how it happened in ROH a decade removed.
Special K vs The Ring Crew Express & The Outcast Killaz
This is a pretty good example of Special K in action, focusing on the talent of Hydro, in a ring full of good talent and innovative talent and otherwise forgettable names. I really enjoyed the enthusiasm of the announce crew and their focus on innovation (the atypical dives, the interesting twists on things, a sunset flip powerbomb that looked a lot like the Canadian Destroyer and a variant of the F-5), on the shenanigans of Special K and the presence of Slugger. Special K as a heel faction stirs up the emotions and the potentials, but that’s a path long forgotten. The pin was clever and visual, which are two things that aren’t said these days all that much.
Hydro vs Alex Shelley
Many may have forgotten the initial version of Generation Next and Alex Shelley as the head honcho. In 2004, Hydro proved himself by hanging with Shelley, and what was awesome was the way the crowd rallied behind a guy who was with another heel group, but who was getting a bit of a spotlight and was getting some steam from all the accolades. That, plus he can really go. Another match with really strong commentating: spelling out the story on both sides of the match, getting into the details, and overall, a sense that Hydro is becoming more and more serious in his approach, distancing himself from the raver crew.
Hydro vs CM Punk
The key here is that Hydro shames punk into a match, on a night where Punk just embarrassed the promotion and its tag team titles. The storytelling was great, from the interplay to the announcing to the ability of the soon-to-be Jay lethal to hang with Punk and make him make the match. All this before the match even begins.
And it continued when the match starts, as Hydro plays to the Code of Honor, and shake hands for the first time. His growth is touted by the announce crew and the build of the match. It doesn’t matter that this is a domination by a top tier talent in ROH. Actually, it does matter. The story is told in the ring and by the talking: "you don't get noticed wrestling guys your level, or lower". How true, how true.
What ROH established at this time (in mid 2004) is a pecking order. Samoa Joe as Champion; CM Punk as a top indie player; a number of guys jockeying for position, and Hydro as a guy who went to the top of the food chain, and demanded a match. This is the way to establish a name as a rising star. This was a time when CM Punk was all about intimidating, and Hydro stood up to him. We saw Punk wipe the mat with jobbers, but Hydro proved he was rising up the pecking order.
As an aside, CM Punk was messing with Ricky Steamboat, and chasing Samoa Joe, the crew suggests that he may be looking ahead, but in the ring, Hydro was taking everything Punk had, and survived, survived, survived. In doing so, it told a chapter in a much bigger picture, and it got the attention of the fans, and more importantly, as seen in promos following.
That’s the kind of connection so sorely missing these days.
Jay Lethal vs Low Ki
Thus begins an interesting sidebar to the Jay Lethal saga: his feud with Low Ki. Here, he’s the protégé of Samoa Joe, and Low Ki is the guy who is a level above, who is no stepping stone, but a foe to be conquered. Oh yeah, and the leading up to Jay Lethal is in the promos before this match. In that era of professional wrestling, that’s still a building block for a long term program.
Jay Lethal & Samoa Joe vs Nigel McGuiness & John Walters
The Pure Title becomes an interesting point of contention in the commentary here, as Joe sees it as a way that diminishes his Title, and the rules aren’t any less controversial to him. It’s interesting that the announce crew can talk about things that lead to longer term conflicts, not just what’s in store for the current match, all the while not distracting from the current match. Solid tag team action, with the always interesting Nigel McGuiness and the interesting glimpse at John Walters, who looks more like a typical Indie guy than I remember, but also had a different sort of style, which obviously played into his Pure Title reign.
Jay Lethal vs Spanky
Now the Pure Title is in Spanky’s hands, and Lethal is challenging. How will Samoa Joe react? Well, that’s the culmination of this disc. Here, Lethal takes the big step to establishing himself as a player. It’s well over two years since the first match on this compilation, and it’s not rushed at all, and with each match, the development of Jay Lethal is evident. Following is Jay Lethal & Samoa Joe vs Low Ki & Homicide, a tag match of brutality and some really dangerous spots. At this time we know Lethal is the real deal, as do the fans.
Which leads to Lethal vs Low Ki (a Fight Without Honor, at Glory by Honor IV (Sept 2005)). Can Lethal finally dethrone his nemesis? How can he with Julius Smokes at ringside? But does he have the fans? Does Samoa Joe have his back? So many questions, but look at that word count!
Jay Lethal vs Samoa Joe
And then there’s the culmination of every good protégé story, or so I’ve learned, and the match between student and teacher ensues. While I’ll let the reader buy the DVD to see this very good match, the story of the match is a story in the ring, with Lethal having a game plan, and an expectation in everyone’s mind that it will either be a Muscle Buster or a Dragon Suplex at the end.
I’ve always liked Lethal, and he’s a guy with that quality called “fire”, which shines from day one. From his time as Black Machismo to his return to his ill-fated unfortunately necessary creatively inspired recent heel turn, he’s proven to be a guy that a promotion can build around.
But realize that factions, tiers of talent and layered storylines can make a talent like Jay Lethal even better.