A feud currently rages between admirers of "old" Ring of Honor and defenders of "new" ROH, especially this year with the change in ownership. The mere fact of the feud is evidence of this promotion's importance to North American pro wrestling. It's worth fighting over. For me, ROH offered a glimmer of hope that there could be life in American wrestling after WWE. Yeah, I loved the old ROH, and yet I love the new no less. Tyler Black, Roderick Strong (who won my heart completely when he spit in Davey Richards' face in Bitter Friends Stiffer Enemies 2: the balls!), the Briscoe Brothers, Austin Aries, Rhett Titus, I'd stack these wrestlers up against anybody's, with no apologies--but, sure, I understand fans' emotions over a personal pet enthusiasm when it suddenly goes big, flashy, and commercial. I follow ROH not least of all because, apart from underground wrestling that caters expressly to gay men, no promotion offers such a wide array of eye candy--studs who can mix it up in the ring too ... just the way I want my candy.
Death Before Dishonor VIII was shot in Toronto on June 19th, 2010. In Canada, as in Mexico and Japan, pro wrestling is practically coequal with the national identity. DBD8 offers seven brutal matches, with a running time six minutes longer than The Godfather. This is pro wrestling on an epic scale. And it's a credit to the writers and performers at ROH that the action never seems plodding and repetitious.
For openers, El Generico charges to the ring demanding that his grudge match against former best friend and tag partner Kevin Steen, scheduled for later in the evening, be moved up to the front position. Steen's manager Steve Corino comes out to remind Generico that "This is Pay per View!" therefore, presumably, the schedule is unchangeable. But then Steen busts through and a slugfest ensues. This is a great love story, pro-wrestling style. Brokeback Mountain has nothing on this. For sixteen years these two guys were best of friends, but Steen's jealousy drove a wedge between the two, and for six months now both men have been haunted by remorse over their failed partnership. They simply need to hammer away at each other now in order to exorcise their old failed love (and that, my friends, is the color commentators' make on the fight, not mine!) Talk about your hot angles!
Before the night is over we get Rhett Titus stripped down to a black G-string and kicked in the balls--well worth the price of a DVD all by itself--but I'm not going to attempt to summarize DBD8 in its entirety, just over three hours' worth of action, with very little talk and filler. This is, after all, a real wrestling show, not WWE Raw (WWE Jaw is more like it). There's a lot to like about the matches on this eighth installment in the Death Before Dishonor series, but the one I want to focus on is my favorite, the main event, Taylor Black's world title defense against the challenge of Davey Richards.
Here's the recipe for a dream match, as far as I'm concerned. Something on the line. Two competitors well matched in fire and prowess, if not in size. Opposites in temperament. Muscle bulging up under the skin. Buckets of sweat.
Richards, 207#, enters first, wearing long red tights and a T-shirt that reads "Wolf by Nature," and mounts a turnbuckle to wave a fan's American flag over his head. Short, brawny, and rugged, he howls like a wolf, an icon of authenticity--at least as much as you are likely to get in pro wrestling. Then the champ enters, 222#, bare chested in skimpy black tights, brandishing the belt, to a mix of cheers and boos from the crowd. Black has been controversial since his win over Austin Aries back in February. For many on the "old ROH" side of the debate, Tyler Black has come to symbolize what is wrong with the "new ROH"--a champion for show, with no grit. Black is indeed the best looking champion to hit television screens in 25 years, since the golden days of Kevin Von Erich, but like Von Erich Black is not merely a pretty boy--the man has the chops to deliver in the ring. But as one commentator observes, the ROH fans cheered for Black to become champion, but when he did, they started cheering for him to lose it. It's the way it goes--in pro wrestling, in politics.
With their differences in demeanor, Richards all snarling aggression and Black all intent professionalism, this is like a fight between a bulldog and a black lab.
At the center of the ring, Tyler extends his hand for Davey to shake, an old-school show of sportsmanship. Davey glares at Tyler, expressionless except for a look that suggests he's got a bad taste in his mouth. He refuses the handshake and backs up to his corner. He screams at the crowd that the belt is deservedly his--a pitch that resonates with a number of fans. Meanwhile, Tyler braces himself at the center of the ring, his fight face on, ready to prove himself worthy of the belt he holds.
I know a few fans of the "old ROH" school who were actually won over by this fight. Here Tyler Black shows his stuff. He meets the ferocity of Davey Richards without flinching. He acts honorably. But when the fight gets "personal," he doesn't hesitate to slap the challenger across the mouth. He proves that beneath the affability and poise, he has a temper that can flare up and put a few dents into the most pugnacious of opponents.
Another thing I like about Ring of Honor is that it doesn't shy away from mat wrestling. Sure, high flying provides spectacle. Gimmicks like razoring and slamming fluorescent light tubes to foreheads are astonishing--at first, anyway--but like all gimmicks they wear thin in time. If MMA has a lesson for pro wrestling, it's that the fans will buy mat grappling, done right, which is the heart of what makes wrestling (still) a martial art. Given my kinks, of course I like the frottage of wrestling, the grunting weight of man on man, skin chafing up against skin, muscle compressing muscle, perspiration slicking it all together. But this is more than a feverish cuddle between dudes. This is males' evolutionary urge to jockey for position.
Half the fans chant "Fuck you Tyler," the other half, "Let's go Tyler." (As one guy points out during the match, here is something else that distinguishes ROH from its competitors: ROH lets the fans take sides, while other big promotions pretty much tell the fans whom they must cheer and whom they must revile.) In the heat of battle, Black and Richards provide plenty of exciting reversals. The two fighters are equal in aggression and drive. Richards loses a tooth to one of Black's high kicks, and from there the match only intensifies.
If you have any doubts about whether Black deserved to win the belt back in February, I suspect that this fight will do at least something to build some respect for the man. The thing is: ROH has easily six competitors on its roster who could be the top dog. These fighters are close in capabilities and aggression. Black and Richards are (still ... even now that this fight is in the record books) two of those fighters. Ring of Honor has no shortage of talent.
Note: The DVD contains an awesome bonus disk: the June 18th Buffalo Stampede in New York, with eight matches featuring hotties Eddie Edwards, Tyson Dux, Shawn Daivari, Pee Wee, Roderick Strong, Claudio Castagnoli, Cheech, Austin Aries, Kenny Omega, Kenny King, Rhett Titus, the Briscoes, and Tyler Black--as well as a bonus 2009 match pitting Richards against Black in Coral Springs, Florida.