Beauty in Wrestling: Of Blood and Honor

When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty
There arises the recognition of ugliness

- Lao-tzu

While it may be said that much of my writing is done from the first person and rarely enters the realm of true unbiased journalism, there is still a great deal of objectivity as well as a sense of putting myself in the shoes of someone with an opposing viewpoint. This piece, however, comes directly from my eyes. My experience with the subject matter. It is a story from my perspective, having witnessed so much of it first-hand. Bear this in mind. I have written about the subject of hardcore wrestling before in a somewhat more objective piece but this one cannot help but be personal. This piece, this story, is about Ring of Honor.

It was an unseasonably warm October night in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Sticky and humid. Uncomfortable to the point that cramming several hundred men and women into a tight space seemed like a poorly-conceived plan. The ceiling was low. The walls were closed in. The natives were becoming restless. I, most fortunately, was happily in the front row. It was the Michael's 8th Avenue ballroom. The smaller one, if memory serves. It was also the night that Ring of Honor came to Maryland for the very first time. Being less than an hour's drive from Michael's, it seemed absurd not to show up.

What was this "ROH" I had heard so much about? I found out for myself, and that night, many things changed for me as a wrestling fan. The style of matches were very different. The wrestlers, from my point of view, appeared to put more of themselves into it than what I had seen before. Everyone was wrestling as if their careers depended on it. Of course, in the American independents, where one must struggle and claw for meager payoffs, this assertion was not far off. As such, they put so much heart into the show. It was overwhelming. The show was also lacking, thank God, the cartoonish nature of professional wrestling to which I had become accostomed over the course of my twenty-something years.

Ring of Honor was a pleasant surprise in a time when I thought I had seen everything. It wasn't that I was sick of wrestling. Never have been. Still loved it. However, as someone once said, if you eat the same chocolate cake for dessert every night, no matter how delicious, you can't help but want something else. Ring of Honor was something else. It was -- I don't know -- tiramisu.

Time went on. I bought the complete collection of Ring of Honor shows. Not only were technical wrestling, amateur, lucha and other athletic styles showcased, but the commentators made a point to tell the fans that this was what Ring of Honor was all about. A mission statement of sorts. After the initial shows, I watched Crowning a Champion. It was a pivotal moment in early Ring of Honor history in which the first ROH Champion was declared. It was a gorgeous moment as Low Ki bested Doug Williams, Christopher Daniels and Spanky in an iron man match. In spite of this wonderful moment, shortly before this landmark match was a bunkhouse brawl between the Natural Born Sinners and the Carnage Crew. I saw it and I was stunned. And sickened. And disappointed. After only five shows under the "athletic fighting spirit" motto, one of the Sinners put a crossface variation on DeVito with barbed wire across the face and partially in the mouth.

Years later, in a Wrestling Channel interview with former ROH head Rob Feinstein, it was revealed that Feinstein pushed for his promotion having hardcore wrestling. In fact, he wanted it from the start and believed they waited "too long" before the hardcore weapons style was featured prominently in the fifth event. Feinstein has not been with the company for a long time. Nevertheless, the style is now fully integrated into Ring of Honor.

My problem with hardcore wrestling is no surprise. All the classic reasons and nothing more. I wasn't attacked by a young Necro Butcher in a little league baseball game and have held a grudge ever since. The Sandman never caned my mother in a parking lot. Only the typical reasons for the typical dislike of the style:

1) Injury. Obviously, one can only fall through a flaming table and crash through light tubes so many times until injury begins to take its toll. How many wrestling careers have been cut short by taking huge risks? Careers generally end through wear and tear. It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that having one's skull crushed time and again by chairs or diving off scaffolds can speed that long. Even something more common to professional wrestling like excessive blood loss can be dangerous.

2) Perception. One of wrestling's biggest hurdles is that of public perception. Standard stigmas attached to wrestling are "it's all just fake" and "anyone watches is a dumb-as-a-post hillbilly." If wrestling did not have enough problems in the mainstream public, the overuse of hardcore hurts perception by a great deal. Think about it. When do you hear about wrestling in the news? Usually around two times. One being Wrestlemania. The second being controversy over someone going against the often-used phrase of "Don't Try This at Home."

3) Overdose. You know when The Undertaker has an opponent or two outside of the ring and leaps over the ropes and crashes into them? It happens. Not a lot, though. 'Taker saves it for special occassions to a huge pop. If he did it every night, people would lose interest. It would also prompt far more insane stunts. This, in principle, is also true of hardcore wrestling. If it is done rarely and only under certain circumstances, it can actually be quite good. The problem is hardcore becoming a key feature in a promotion.

In fact, it isn't even so much a dislike of the style as it is a dislike of the style when it goes too far, happens too frequently, or becomes too prominent in what I had hoped would be a "pure wrestling" promotion.

In 2004, Ring of Honor presented a show called At Our Best. It was a strong effort from all involved. I was there live in the cheap seats. In the main event, in a match called Scramble Cage, wrestlers took insane dives and terrible risks in an attempt to end the show on a high note. What actually occured was the Carnage Crew spike piledriving Angel Dust off the top of the cage, shoving him head-first through stacks of tables.

When that happened, I walked out. As I left the arena with most of the fans still inside watching the end of the main event, I said to myself, out loud for some reason, "That just can't happen at a Ring of Honor show."

As time passed, I let it go. I attended Round Robin Challenge III and Generation Next. These events featured the legendary Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat in his new role as rival to CM Punk. Naturally, I had to see the Dragon perform. As the weeks went on, Steamboat moved on to his next feud: Mick Foley and hardcore wrestling.

Foley had made apperances at ROH shows and called it "Ring of Hardcore" instead. Steamboat, the pure wrestler, took exception to that. It was a marvellous feud with surprisingly good mic work from Steamboat as well as Foley's classic promos coming to life on this new stage. The feud took the real life debate between fans of pure wrestling and fans of the hardcore style and created a living argument. Neither played classic heels (although Steamboat clearly couldn't be the favorite against the far-too-likeable Foley) and presented their cases for their fighting styles.

The promos mirrored real debates amoung fans. It felt like we were receiving not only a wrestling feud but a lesson in the business. It was very clever. Along with the promos, they had representatives of their styles fight the other to see who would come out on top. I cheered for Steamboat's boys all the way. I did not like the fact that to reach the feud's conclusion, we had to see Carnage Crew vs. BJ Whitmer and Dan Maff in a hardcore match with trash cans and thumb tacks, but at least that was the finale. At Final Battle 2004, Steamboat and Foley reached a compromise that hardcore wrestling could happen "some of the time." They shook hands and parted ways.

With the decision met and the hardcore vs. pure wrestling feud ended on a compromise, I hoped this would lighten the load of hardcore wrestling in Ring of Honor. Less than two months later, I was talked into attended an ROH show in New Jersey. It didn't take much convincing. It was the first part of ROH's three-part Third Anniversary celebration. The double main event featured two cage matches, including Scramble Cage. They repeated the "walk out" ending but with Carnage Crew going through the tables and taking the loss this time. I have not been back to an ROH show since.

I spent the rest of 2005 watching Ring of Honor solely through DVD. It was still my favorite promotion, but I felt as if live shows were through for me. I didn't like the hardcore element of Ring of Honor, but I had to admit that continually returning to live shows was my own mistake. There was no sense in driving up and down the East Coast only to be disappointed and making the long drive home. Watching with the option to fast forward through some of the more outrageous hardcore segments allowed me to enjoy the product better anyway.

In January of 2006, Ring of Honor World Champion "American Dragon" Bryan Danielson faced off in a special challenge match against Chris Hero. At that point, Hero was one of the few big names in the indy scene that had never been booked for ROH. I certainly didn't mind when I heard the news. After all, Hero, for all his faults, had become a tremendous heel in IWA - Mid South. I figured he would bring incredible white heat to the title match, and when Dragon soundly defeated him, Hero would simply disappear.

It didn't happen that way. Hero came in surrounded by wrestlers from Combat Zone Wrestling. I was disgusted as I watched the video. I hated CZW. Its brand of ultra-violent hardcore was a disgrace to professional wrestling. Even regular hardcore wrestlers could be turned off by its style. This was the beginning of a long interpromotional feud between CZW and ROH. To the credit of the bookers, the way it was handled was pure genius. After all, CZW was everything ROH was supposed to be against. The fans legitimately did not like each other. The atmosphere was old school. Some of the fans were wrapped up in this story to the point that they were dying for their respective promotions to come out on top. I could appreciate the clever booking by ROH head Gabe Sapolsky.

I still hated it. Unlike so many other fans, my dislike of CZW was (and is) so great that I didn't even want to watch ROH triumph over its enemies in the ring. I did not want to get caught up in the feud. I only wanted it to end. The legitimate dislike backfired for me. How can CZW be so volatile that I couldn't lose myself in such a brilliantly-executed feud? Maybe it is time for a history lesson.

CZW may be the perfect example of hardcore wrestling gone wrong. I have seen CZW. For research for a previous column, I forced myself to watch some more. For research for this column, I wrenched my eyelids open like a scene from A Clockwork Orange and watched even more. CZW features trash wrestling including (but not limited to) putting empty plant pots over a wrestler's head and crushing both it and the head with a chair, crashing through flourescent light tubes, a dangerous amount of blood loss, throwing wrestlers off balconies and scaffolds, powerbombing through ironing boards, fire, and a lot more. Nearly every major independent wrestling promotion has one or two of these dangerous stunts every so often. CZW does this during most of their shows. Desperate for a buck, the CZW wrestlers perform these godawful stunts.

Let's look at the history of Combat Zone Wrestling and delve deep into this mess. CZW appeared during the height of hardcore wrestling. When ECW folded, CZW took their ball and ran with it to ridiculous extremes that would make many ECW fans cringe. They went too far and too often. So much, in fact, that the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission actually had to ban use of certain hardcore tools such as barbed wire and the aforementioned light tubes. Forced to pack up their implements of destruction and move elsewhere, CZW showed up in Delaware. Dover to be specific. Frankly, it did not take too long before the citizens of Dover could not handle CZW's brand of "wrestling." Minors could attend. Deathmatches were common. Blood was everywhere. I can't say that I blame Dover for not taking a liking to CZW's style.

Years ago, the town council in Dover passed an ordinance (one against, eight in favor) against CZW. If I am reading the report from the Delaware News Journal correctly, the ordinance was amended to allow professional wrestling but not "ultra-violent" wrestling. The ordinance goes a step further than the previous one in Pennsylvania that banned barbed wire and a few other nasty weapons. Dover's law states that the only foreign object that can be used is a boxing glove.

As a long-time wrestling fan, I know it's a shame when town councils actually have to go to legal lengths to stop this madness, but the alternative was simply worse. The fact is that CZW was doing more to hurt professional wrestling than the Dover council ever did. A promotion can only bring Cage of Death matches to a city for so long until the citizens get squeamish.

"What's the Cage of Death?" someone might ask. It's one of the CZW matches I forced myself to watch a while ago. Basically, it is a combination of a steel cage (not too bad), a scaffold match (very dangerous but not too graphic), a plethora of weapons in the cage (we're getting there...), and an entire ring covered with thumb tacks with almost no actual canvas showing. There we go. Way too much at once. Another match, one I watched just now to better prepare myself for this article, involved "Sick" Nick Mondo vs. Wifebeater. The match included dozens of those aforementioned light tubes and a weed whacker. I don't blame you, Dover. Frankly, I think CZW owner and wrestler John Zandig just can't get enough blood. Even if it is his own. A few days after Dover banned his product, Zandig took part in a match in which meat hooks were shoved into his back.

With that lengthy introduction to Combat Zone Wrestling's product out of the way, one wonders -- as I know I do -- why Ring of Honor would get in bed with this kind of filth? It's possible that ROH booker Gabe Sapolsky and CZW booker John Zandig are friends outside of the business. It's possible Zandig or Sapolsky just came up with it as a way to increase sales. Of course, it's also possible it was done to combine the two major forces in independent wrestling in the area so to combat and shut out Rob Feinstein's new promotion. Whatever the reason, it meant that CZW was going to become a part of ROH, and even if Sapolsky didn't allow too much so-called "ultra-violence" in the feud, it still meant that CZW would forever be a piece of Ring of Honor history.

And there it is. The hardcore wrestling aspect of Ring of Honor has been magnified. One might say that this CZW vs. ROH feud could be a way of Ring of Honor saying they are above that style, but it is far more likely that, much like the Foley/Steamboat handshake, the symbolic conclusions reached won't last. That the addition of CZW to ROH, even for a short time, will have even more rammifications to the promotion I love so much.

Does placing an ugliness next to something beautiful amplify the latter...

...or does it corrupt it?