King of the Ring

Austin Cooper is understandably pissed about Bruce Ballard's interference in an earlier match against Dash Decker, Bruce's tag partner. Austin enters the ring dead set on ripping the challenger a new asshole, and for nearly all of the first round (of five) he gives the upstart something to think about, mainly how much life sucks at the hurting end of the champion's wrath.

Austin has been at Rock Hard Wrestling for five years. That's almost four more years than Ballard. I can't trust my arithmetic or history, but except for maybe Ethan Andrews, Coop has fought more matches in this ring than anybody. Longevity and toughness reinforce Austin's claim to the championship belt, and he means to keep it out of the hands of upstarts like Ballard even if it means resorting to the occasional cheap shot.

After an embarrassing loss by submission at the end of Round 1, Ballard turns the tables on the champ in Round 2. With his Ric Flair Woo! heralding each successful blow, Bruce shows he can play the heel as well as anybody on the roster. At six feet, he is also one of the taller men in the company, a big plus factor for me (though opposite my expectations and prejudices, my list of favorite underground wrestlers consists of a lot of shorter, lighter fighters). Ballard seems to enjoy his destructive powers and evens the score by wringing a submission out of a suddenly vulnerable-looking Austin.

In the break between rounds 2 and 3, presumptuous Bruce pulls the still contested belt to his waist, as if trying it on for size. Not a smart move. Austin erupts in rage; "Put My Belt Down!" he screams, punching Ballard on the shoulder and stomping him flat to the mat. He smashes the belt's medallion between the challenger's shoulder blades before restoring the trophy to its place of honor at the corner post. Then he executes three body slams, counting them out like they're spoonfuls of cough syrup. Bruce hurts in places he never knew could hurt, but the champ is not done with him. Austin threads Bruce through the ring ropes, clutching the head back over the top rope and jabbing his knee to the spine.

By the midpoint of the match, both wrestlers are perspiring--exquisitely, I'd say. They are throwing heaps of energy into well-executed moves. It's axiomatic that Rock Hard Wrestling has the handsomest wrestlers in underground wrestling, with high-key lighting that guarantees not a dimple or bead of sweat is missed. My one complaint is that transitions between holds, the holds being fine in themselves, are too often nonexistent. What in the world motivates Austin to release a painful submission hold that appears to be doing the trick--or would be if sustained a minute longer--and to switch to a different hold?

Such segues are difficult to pull off, I realize. Given the high technical quality of RHW's matches, I come to expect more serious attention to ring psychology and coherence. The wrestlers should not simply move from one hold to the next as if they were reading them off of cue cards. I want a clearer sense that one action stems from another and why and that it is consistent with a discernible strategy or with the state of mind of the wrestler.

Round 3 breaks the tie, but Round 4 restores it, as expected, 2 to 2. Each wrestler is under pressure entering the decisive Round 5, a six-minute near-standoff. Ballard initiates the action, in part in response to Cooper's berating claim that Bruce "will never get ahead." Are these words prophetic? or merely the carping of a vengeful champion who has let his past successes go to his head? I won't say. I will say that Coop and Ballard achieve a tense balance of power in the opening minutes of the final round. In the end, one man gets the quavering submission he's been looking for, and the loser is left in the ring alone, barely conscious after an exhausting ordeal.

Austin and Bruce are two of my favorite talents on the current roster. They have a lot of heart, muscle, and stamina, not to mention sex appeal, all in strong evidence in this potentially pivotal contest. And this is a fine, entertaining match. Austin's a hard worker--and as ubiquitous as Starbucks: he wrestles at three major underground wrestling companies that I'm aware of, and he's a key player at each. I think of Bruce more as a babyface than a heel, but this video shows off his mean streak. He exudes boy-next-door hotness, but this boy likes to fight. Plenty of other experienced wrestlers must be waiting in the wings too, men with their own claims to glory, chomping at the bit for the top spot: Zack Johnathan comes to mind, for instance. For now, though, I'm in no hurry to see the current holder lose the crown.


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