We’ve probably all experienced a sensory memory with a song. You hear a few notes or a particular lyric and you can’t help but think about that time you were sitting in your room after a break up, or that time you were screaming along with all your friends and feeling like life was perfect and simple. I would bet that most people reading this column would say that they’ve experienced the same thing with wrestling as well. For many of us, wrestling has been a constant companion for as long as we can remember. As a child we watched larger than life men and we cheered them like conquering heroes. As a teen, these men rebelled along side of us. A little bit ago, I caught a snippet of Wrestlemania 23 on the Network and I remembered everything from that weekend all at once, a brief section of my life flashing before my eyes. Moments I don’t ever want to forget, but regrettably don’t think about nearly as often as I should. I became resolute to chronicle those very moments. This series will hopefully be a memoir and a mixtape, and I hope that what I feel and write will be something that you all can smile about and nod along with because even if you weren’t there, you were some place like it. This week, that place was the weekend of New Years in 2007. The show in question was a Ring of Honor pay per view event called Rising Above.
The ROH PPV era was in all likelihood the crest of my fandom for the company. As I’ve written about previously, I was invested in ROH as a true alternative to what I viewed at the time as corporate sports entertainment. It was a place where skilled artisans who didn’t fit a mold could craft matches without restrictions. When it was announced that ROH would be debuting on PPV, I felt sure that it was only a matter of time until more and more people would flock to the clearly superior product. I’m sure over the course of this, I will write about many of these early attempts at capturing a larger audience, but by the time Rising Above came along, I had started to let a more realistic view point temper my enthusiasm a little bit. I’ve never cared about the business side of pro wrestling. Quarter hour ratings, gates and buys didn’t effect my enjoyment of anything, but it was clear from everyone’s doom and gloom prophesizing that the ROH PPV experiment was not really going according to plan. I personally found my interest waning after Morishima lost the title to Nigel McGuinness. Nigel had lost to Morishima repeatedly and convincingly during this time period, and while his eventual coronation still seemed imminent, it was undeniable that he had lost a good amount of momentum and support. Everyone sort of assumed McGuiness would win the title during the next ROH tour of England, which would have been an amazing moment, but when the tour was cancelled they went through with the title switch in Edison, New Jersey. The show was called Undeniable. It probably should have been called Inevitable.
The beginnings of Nigel’s reign were unfortunately just as rocky as the events that led up to it. Morishima losing the belt pretty obviously meant his appearances in ROH would start to be fewer and farther between, leading to a little unwarranted bitterness from the fans who always wanted the best performers on as many shows as possible. On top of that, before McGuiness could even find his groove as champion, he tore his bicep, leading to an extended absence during which time he was allowed to keep the title. A growing subsection of fans were getting restless. If this seems callous, that’s because it was. Bryan Danielson had just worked through the latter part of his championship run with a shoulder injury (because he is a crazy man) and fans wanted that same level of devotion from McGuinness. McGuinness, who had always put his well being on the line in Ring of Honor, was unfairly dubbed as someone who wasn’t as devoted as the men who had previously held the position of champion.
Slight disclaimer: I do no research after one of these shows gets picked. So my timeline may be off, or certain parts may be fuzzy and vague. I guess I figure that you can get that stuff anywhere, and being note perfect in my recollection of decade old wrestling storylines isn’t really what this whole deal is about. Maybe I’ll put this at the top of the articles moving forward if people complain. Maybe I’ve gotten the whole angle more correct than I’m giving myself credit for. Anyway, this is a long winded way of saying I have no idea what else was going on in ROH at the time. The Age of the Fall was a thing, but they just did a random scramble match here. Morishima and Danielson were feuding and that was awesome but I think I would prefer to write about all of those matches in one fell swoop. I remember literally nothing else leading up to this show.
The show itself is noteworthy for me as it was the first show I’ve ever had front row tickets. I had general admission seats for the weekend, which is what I always get because I don’t really care about sitting close or anything. Until about a week prior to the show, I had no idea where I was going to stay or what I was going to do. Worst case scenario, I had a place I could stay on Long Island, so I could take a late train back out from Manhattan. At that time, this guy named Greg was running all the ROH after parties, and he ended up offering me a spot in one of the hotel rooms that he had rented for the weekend. I went and checked in and was greeted by some people who I had only ever known by message board handles: JSWO, DiggetyDog46, and a few others were my constant companions for the weekend. Mid afternoon we went to the Blind Tiger and started the process of getting nice and drunk leading up to the event. One of the great things about going around New York City with a bunch of wrestling fans is that no one even considers walking from one place to another. You never have to be the first person to suggest getting a cab, even for embarrassingly short distances. The day was wonderful. I was buzzed by 2:00 in the afternoon and the conversation never veered from wrestling for more than three minutes.
We stopped for dinner and more drinks at a bar closer to the Manhattan Center, and everyone started comparing tickets. I mentioned that I had GA tickets and there was an uproar. I couldn’t possibly sit GA, I was told. I didn’t mind. No no, give us one second, and before I could object, JSWO and someone else I can’t remember were off. A couple minutes later, I felt a tap on my shoulder and I turned around to Green Lantern Fan handing me a ticket for the front row. I was told the ticket was $70 if I gave up my GA ticket, and I was just drunk enough were spending the money I had ear marked for food for the weekend didn’t seem like the biggest deal. I had new friends, and they invited me to sit with them for the low low price of three meals and a ticket on the LIRR. How could I pass?
I don’t think I’ve ever really paid attention to the commentary on this match before, but it’s interesting that they mention how the fans have started to turn on McGuinness because he was getting injured a bunch. It’s sad in hindsight knowing how McGuinness’ career ended, and as far as I remember this match predated the dedicated heel turn they did with Nigel. As far as I can remember, the hatred of Nigel in this match was from a very dedicated minority, and most people were just pumped to have a title match. The next night was a different story, but for the PPV people were just keyed up for a potential classic. Truthfully, I wasn’t super excited for this match. I hadn’t really loved Nigel outside of his matches with Danielson, and Aries never appealed to me. Like, I understood he was a good wrestler, but I never felt invested or connected to him like I did with some of the other ROH originals. Immediately after the first lock up there is a pretty audible “Fuck you Nigel” chant, so maybe my memory was wrong. Aries’ hair was probably at its all time worst here. That has nothing to do with the match, but I think it bears mentioning. He snaps over on some mat work, and I imagine Jim Ross saying that Aries is quicker than a hiccup. They mention how Nigel is still recovering from his arm injury, and talk about Aries’ offense might be focused there. Nigel takes over and back Aries in to the corner but we get a clean break. McGuinness immediately looks towards the group of fans that were jeering earlier. I think he was pretty visibly thrown by their vitriol. Aries goes back to the arm and Nigel takes a powder to again jaw with the fans. Aries reminds him of the task at hand and gets bitch slapped for his troubles. McGuinness gets hit back and rolls to the outside, and once again shifts his focus to the crowd. This leads to the only spot from this match I vividly remember, as Aries hits that bottom rope tope to the back of McGuinness, who gets absolutely destroyed by the barricade. I’m sort of sad they split the camera angle up on this, as the camera switch takes away from the sheer speed and impact of this whole thing. Has there ever been a wrestler better at not protecting himself than McGuinness? The two moments of his career that stand out to me are both centered around him fighting every human instinct and reaction and keeping his hands down while his face and brain slam in to metal at unhealthy velocities.
I feel sort of dirty watching this as it’s clear that he is immediately concussed. I feel dirtier thinking about how if he was still wrestling, I probably wouldn’t think twice about that spot, and dirtier still that my initial reaction to watching this on tape was still to pop by myself in my living room. Anyway, Nigel is cut, and they are brawling on the outside. McGuinness, despite probably having zero idea where he was, does a better job with those rebound spots than Dean Ambrose. They go down to the mat and I think it finally dawns on Aries that he has to adjust a little bit as he takes McGuinness down and they trade some shots before he goes to a hammerlock to work the arm again. The cut on Nigel’s eye has spread blood around and it reminds me of Daryl Hannah’s spray paint makeup in Blade Runner. The crowd is now 100% behind Nigel, which may be a microcosm of the problems of Indy wrestling fandom in the mid 2000s.
Nigel puts Aries in a headscissors, which is basically like trying to powerbomb Billy Kidman, but he keeps his arms up to block and rudely gestures as he tries to recover. Maybe Nigel isn’t as hurt as I think because he smartly starts to work over Aries in the corner closest to the group of fans giving him shit. It earns a sarcastic cheer. Nigel seems able to wrestle again, and goes off the ropes for before putting Aries in a head scissors again, blocking it again, and flicking him off again. This time he eats a kick in the chest for his troubles. Aries tries strikes for a bit, but Nigel is covering up, so Aries goes back to the arm. I’ll give Aries credit. I’ve always sort of viewed him as a “get my stuff in” guy, but everything he has done here has felt pretty organic so far. Especially the tope, which is just a great example of taking the weird suspension of disbelief inherent for pro wrestling enjoyment and still managing to hit a signature spot in a way that seems opportunistic and realistic.
Nigel starts working the arm here, which I guess he did in basically every match, but at least at this point in his career he was using that London Dungeon thing so it made a little sense. I would always laugh when his matches were basically nothing but arm work until he hit a lariat. Nigel wipes some blood off his face and throws it at some hecklers, which is pro wrestling as fuck. Are both these guys lefties? That has to be uncommon. Lariat number one from Nigel. This crowd is probably a godsend for this match, because it gives Nigel something to do while Aries figures out how to push the narrative forward a little bit and work around the unfortunate circumstances. Aries reverses a submission and Nigel screams and stamps his feet like a little boy impersonating Jim Breaks. Nigel hits a back elbow once they’re on their feet, and sells the work that Aries has done on the arm. It slows him down just enough to let Aries hit a dropkick in the corner in a sequence that again made more sense than a lot of ROH main events. Granted this segment immediately leads in to Nigel countering another tope in to a Tower of London from the apron to the floor, so you learn to take the crunchy with the smooth I suppose. I’m sure I was shouting myself horse by this time so don’t let my complaints now fool you, this match was kicking everyone’s ass.
McGuinness keeps the momentum as they get back in the ring, but the work done his arm prevents a quick cover after a lariat. He takes Aries over to the corner for the Tower of London but Aries takes the tape off the injured arm and hits a missile dropkick. McGuinness is able to counter the running dropkick in the corner and get the Tower, but only for two. He looks exasperated. It’s strange, I feel like this match has lost something in it’s pacing the more McGuinness regains his faculties. It’s not his fault I don’t think, it just has become very rhythmic; a bomb, a hold, a reversal, a bomb. As I type this, Aries blocks a lariat, blocks another one, and hits a plancha. I lied to you earlier, I remembered this next spot as well, with Aries flipping to the outside after getting lariated while crotched on the ropes. Everyone stood up, and from my angle I couldn’t see him land, so it was like he had been clotheslined in to a bottomless pit while McGuinness collapsed in to a bloody heap in the ring. It’s basically all for naught as Aries counters a European uppercut in to a brainbuster on the edge of the barricade. They get back inside and Aries finally hits the running dropkick in the corner, but McGuinness is able to get his knees up on the ensuing four fifty. It’s like these dudes watched Hokuto/Kandori and thought to themselves “Yeah, that was pretty good, but it would be better if we crammed a bunch more stuff in to it”. The ROH Finishing Stretch has now begun in earnest. I can’t keep up, but you can probably imagine. We all bite hard on a roll up by Aries. It ends with an atomic bomb of a lariat by McGuinness.
I look across to see my roommates for the weekend enraptured. One puts up his hand and mouths Five Stars, which even in the moment I find a bit lofty. We start to file out, and we find each other to excitedly go over the evening. I am accused of being contrary for it’s own sake, which might have been true, but on rewatch I agree with my past self. They shrug and we begin the long descent out of the Manhattan Center.
After everything was over, we all wandered over to some lame Irish bar for the after party. Still sort of on high from the show and certainly buzzed from the drinks throughout the day, I texted a girl I knew in New York who I had sort of not really a thing with in the months prior. Shockingly, she showed up. We hadn’t really spoken all that much since she left Cleveland, but it was like seeing an old friend. We talked about anything and everything as wrestlers wandered around us and fans tried to get words in edge wise. She went up to the bar to get us more beers and Roddy Strong started to chat her up. She had no idea who he was and politely brushed him off and sat back down with me. I’ve never felt cooler. At last call we left arm in arm and I walked her to the train and we hugged and parted ways. There was no awkward conversation or misread signals, just two friends parting company after a few drinks. An immense sense of tranquility washed over me as she went down the escalator and I blithely stumbled my way back to the Marriott.
When I got back to the room, two of the guys were still up and excitedly gossiping about how at the party, they saw Jimmy Jacobs and Becky Bayless talking to each other. I tried to listen for a bit, but the longer they went on and the more in to it they got the more I realized that I would never be that sort of fan. Much like I could never get up for the financial side of wrestling, I quickly realized I couldn’t concentrate as I was being regaled with the history of a relationship featuring two people I had never said two words to. It all felt a little bit like high school. I don’t think they noticed when I got up and walked away, or if they did they didn’t stop talking. I looked out the window and was surprised to see our hotel overlooked the New Years Ball being set up. It was probably about an hour until the sun would start coming up. I thought about how I would finish the year by going to a wrestling show. I closed my eyes to sleep as they did a light test for the festivities. Tomorrow would be a new year. I silently made the same resolution I have every year since: drink nicer whiskey, listen to good music, and watch more wrestling.