I’m still settling in after my move, still getting back in the swing of things, and trying to get out an interesting piece for my fellow wrestling fans. While I’m almost done with Jonathan Snowden’s Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling, I’m still confused by the concept. It’s more of a history of professional wrestling, intersecting with MMA, and burdened with the typical ECW Press mixed message of printing books about professional wrestling while diminishing the same.
The pre-1900 portion of the book is interesting. As it progresses, it seems to cover the same material anyone who’s read Dave Meltzer over the past twenty years would already know. While it has strong quotes and a solid research base, I’m just not getting the definition of “tough” and I’m not sure why there’s so much time spent on history when I’d rather read about the exploits of “shooters”.
But a book that touts Strangler Lewis as one of pro wrestling’s toughest guys, as quoted by Lou Thesz, and then returns the favor on Thesz, with a quote by Lewis, the catch-22 involved appears on yet another level. Then again, the typical MMA approach on Kazushi Sakuraba is mind-blowing: here’s a guy that is touted as a legend, deservedly so on certain levels, but his pro wrestling influence was undeniable. Sakuraba was tough – taking on the MMA world’s biggest names – but in a book directed at professional wrestling fans, does the mainstream fan know Wanderlei Silva or Mirko Cro Cop?
And what’s the deal with the WWF’s Brawl for All?
Is Bart Gunn tough because he won it, or is it just a big embarrassment because he won it and not Steve “Dr. Death” Williams or a handful of others?
And what’s up with having two “tough” guys in each chapter, but no apparent ranking system, not sense of measuring toughness, and a history that never delves into details or depth – at the expense of learning more about particular guys.
I really expected more.
Another possible subject of a piece would be Kevin Steen – Mr. Wrestling, Wrestling’s Worst Nightmare, and the current ROH World Heavyweight Champion. I’ve been watching the Descent into Madness 2 Disc Set, the Live Strong DVD (from Belle Vernon, PA … where a certain Living Legend appeared) and The Nightmare Begins DVD (from Charleston WV … where Steen first defends his belt, against Eddie Edwards).
There’s a lot to appreciate with Steen. He’s been battling across the indie scene for years, earned a reputation in his home base of Montreal, had established himself at the elite level in Tag Team wrestling, had earned the moniker “Mr. Wrestling” long ago, can brawl with the best of them, and his low-key yet over-the-top heel character is utterly unique.
With his faction of Steve Corino and Jimmy Jacobs, the dynamics vastly surpass the efforts of The Age of the Fall. This is a heel faction that transcends ROH, and a faction that has history behind it and talent driving it. Corino is one of the best color announcers around, and Jimmy Jacobs is one of the most awesome talents on the indie scene.
With Steen at the lead, there’s an underlying sense of danger, ‘what can happen next’ and a well-built packaging that makes it clear that ROH doesn’t want its Champion to be its Champion, with a Cornette/Steen feud that has a lot to offer.
The flip side of it is that Steen is seemingly in a cookie-cutter mold of modern heel, more so than a “third way” alignment that transcends both heels and faces, as would be done in Mexico and sometimes in Japan.
Sure, Steen is battling Roderick Strong in Rostraver Township, PA, and battling Eddie “Die Hard” Edwards previously in Mountaineer land.
But there’s something lacking in the in-ring dynamics…. Strong isn’t playing heel enough, and there’s too much sense of action putting the spotlight on Steen. There’s a screwed-up sense of emotions involved. I sense and see that ROH is trying to thread the needle to get a Champion that is anti-establishment yet pro-fans, but that’s a line that cannot clearly be drawn in a wrestling world still living in the shadow of the nWo.
Cool heels trump babyfaces. Cool heels overwhelm more traditional heels.
Even a heel like Strong, accompanied to the ring by Truth Martini (a heat magnet of some repute), has little chance of doing anything but giving Steen more fan support. And especially since Steen’s schtick seems too tame, too ‘in the box’, and much too predictable.
Corino does everything he can do to play up the situations, but Bill Berger is too straight as a company man, too interested in playing out the company line of a modern day professional wrestling promotion, too pat in the disdain and feigned disgust, to get the viewer riled up in the right way.
Kevin Steen as the Champion whom ROH wants to dethrone is a strong story.
Kevin Steen as a Champion we are told should be dethroned, all the while having a 2 Disc DVD set marketed for both his and ROH’s benefit, that seems so … well, so obvious.
Is Kevin Steen a monster?
Because he bites the ROH World Championship belt?
Because he hates Jim Cornette?
Because the ‘evil’ he portrays, augmented by Steve Corino and Jimmy Jacobs, is so heelish?
Now, I’m not going to suggest that they turn up the violence, the blood and the insanity, but there’s got to be a little more unpredictability in this situation. Wrestler’s pulling a chair and proclaiming a sit-down strike is lame. CM Punk declaring a personal day is clever.
In the day of Twitter, YouTube and various social media, why isn’t the anti-social Steen doing a little more, stirring up a little more, stealing some lines and angles from guys the WWE recently fired, and all-around making himself out as a controversial figure that obviously should be causing ROH embarrassment.
Cornette does a great job building it all up, but the smoke and mirrors are reflecting too little at the core.
Which is odd, since ROH has the fanbase that can be manipulated and a straight-laced reputation that it can play off of a little more to make what Steen can do a little more obnoxious.
Yet one more aspect of it all came to my mind recently, especially in regard to Snowden’s book, and especially regarding conversations I’ve had over the years with a guy who ROH honored at Belle Vernon, and a guy whom Snowden utterly ignored as one of the toughest guys in professional wrestling:
Whatever happened to working return matches?
That’s one of the ongoing annoyances I’ve had with ROH. The booking is trying to make use of a rather static roster, and yet we’re not getting matches around the circuit. We’re not getting reasons for guys to fight each other and feud, and we’re definitely not getting any sense of ‘program’ with the Champion and challengers.
ROH’s last iPPV had Kevin Steen taking on Eddie Kingston.
Two guys who can talk, who can put together great matches, and they blow through three angles in one night. That’s the sense of dimensionality that is lacking with Steen: the sense that ROH should be ramping up the challenges to the Title, overwhelming Steen with contractual matches, and also in the sense of bringing in guys and either mixing up the DQ’s and close losses, or otherwise creating situations where Steen (like it or not) has to fight Rhino repeatedly, has to face surprise opponents, and once someone seems to have a chance, have that guy matched up quite a few times just to make it clear that ROH is doing everything to dethrone the Champion.
(Even if it means setting up situations where Steen can see patterns, lose the belt and gain it back two nights later, or otherwise screw around with ROH like he’s getting screwed around with.)
Eddie Kingston battling Kevin Steen should not have been a one night stand.
And more indy (and mainstream) promotions should be studying up on the days when real, tough, draw had the Championship belt and had to get people’s attention; people paying for parking, tickets and return tickets; and people not merely looking for a free match on TV.
There were ways that things were done to generate interest. It’s one thing for the WWE that has a built-in audience watching weekly. It’s another thing for a promotion that should be screaming at mainstreet intersections for attention.
And, if an evil, nasty heel Champion can’t do anything controversial to generate more attention, who can?