The drive from Cleveland to New York City is a long one. It’s long no matter how you do it. The only way to make it quicker is to have a friend in the car. Good conversation, tons of music, and loads of cigarettes. When ROH announced a pay-per-view, I knew I was going. I bought two tickets because I knew someone was coming with me. I had no idea who.
This is always met with some controversy amongst wrestling fans, but I’m pretty tight lipped about my wrestling fandom. Less so now, I guess. I write a column about wrestling and have a Twitter account that talks about it constantly. Back in my twenties, however, I was a little more secretive. I was in school, surrounded by tons of people that were thinking profound thoughts every day. I was starting a career. I was making friends that I would have for the rest of my life. Okay, none of that was true, but that’s what I was led to believe was happening. Truthfully, my shyness regarding wrestling boils down to something that most people can relate to: I was desperately afraid of being uncool. And sadly, once I got out of high school wrestling was pretty fucking uncool.
At some point, you have to learn to be yourself in front of your friends, you know? Thankfully, they make something that helps with that called beer. My friend Andrew was one of the first who found out about my secret little passion. We got hammered one night and we were bullshitting and talking about high school and got on the subject of DX and Steve Austin and the Monday Night Wars and everything else and one thing led to another and the next thing you know I’m showing him 6/3/94 and Samoa Joe vs. Necro Butcher and Jimmy Loves Lacey and everything else I could think of. We only stopped watching wrestling so we could go to Taco Bell for the second time that day and the woman in the drive thru remembered us. At the time neither of us really thought that was the least bit depressing.
It didn’t take much strong arming for me to convince Andrew to come with me to New York to see the ROH debut pay-per-view. I had a free place for us to stay for the weekend and I would do all the driving. Typing that out it sort of seems like I basically paid for a weekend getaway for a classmate just so I would have someone to go to a wrestling show with me, but I honestly think he was pretty in to the whole thing. The ride up we talked about movies and theatre and books. Oh, and Morrissey. We talked about Morrissey for like six straight hours. While listening to more Morrissey. We were obsessed like teen girls with a boy band. We asked each other hypothetical embarrassing questions like what we thought his favorite breakfast foods might be. We gave ridiculous answers. We sang along at the top of our lungs and we didn’t give a fuck that neither of us could sing at all.
We ended up having a whole day in New York leading up to the show and despite being relatively poorish midwesterners we managed to have a pretty grand old time. We went to a couple book stores, and ate at a Chinese Buffett. At about 3:00 PM, a dude walked up to us and asked when lunch was. We already ate, was our slightly confused reply. He looked distraught. Fuck, he said. I missed it. We made a hasty retreat, only for him to end up standing in line next to us for the show. He kept punching his hand and telling us he was here for the wrestling. I guess he got his lunch, he certainly had a lot of energy.
Normally, I would spend a little time giving everyone some background on the show and what was happening in the company at the time, but really, there had been complete radio silence about what was going to happen at the show. I’m going to write about the main event, and I think I’m just going to jump right in. Okay, I lied. Before we get to the main event, I want to talk briefly about the opening angle which set up this whole thing. I don’t want to judge or be snarky, but if you were putting on your first ever pay-per-view and potentially reaching an entirely new audience, would you really make the first person they see BJ Whitmer? Would you then let BJ Whitmer cut a promo about how in ROH they don’t cut promos and let their wrestling do the talking? The crowd was fired up, no denying it, but I think we all would have cheered anything. Hindsight is 20/20 I guess, but it’s sort of baffling watching it now.
Maybe you’ve read my piece talking about Rising Above, which came out a couple of weeks ago on this very website, but it’s really incredible seeing how different the reaction is to Nigel McGuinness on this pay per view. When he comes out after Whitmer’s match against Morishima, it was like Jesus and Stone Cold Steve Austin had a British baby. The reaction he gets is huge, probably even bigger than the one Danielson gets just a few moments later, which is crazy because he had been out for a while prior to this.
I haven’t gotten a chance to write about a Morishima match for this yet (which changes now, I suppose), but I should get this out of the way: I think his reign as ROH Champion was by far the most dynamic in ROH history. I think he did more to anchor shows than anyone else, I think the reign grew organically as it went on, and I think the match quality was unbelievably high. His performances throughout are incredible, and really deserve a deep dive at some point. He’s a monster heel that consistently dominates but still shows tremendous vulnerability. He doesn’t cut promos because of the language barrier and he still manages to project how important the title is to him, how hard he fights for it, and ultimately how lonely it is at the top of the mountain. Even in this opening segment, the way he grabs the belt back from Danielson is just perfect. It’s so forceful and immediate, but there is no bluster or staredown after. It’s not a sports entertainment moment, or even a pro wrestling moment. It’s a real life moment. It’s like he’s almost hurt that the person who just helped him would have ulterior motives, but at the same time, it’s just confirming everything he already knew: he can’t trust these people, no matter what, they just want to hurt him. To prevent that he has to hit them as hard as he can. He has to bleed, he has to soak up everything they can throw at him, he has to get hit in the face. At the end he knows he’ll still be on top. It’ll all be worth it. In that moment, we not only see Morishima, an unstoppable wrecking mahcine of a man, but we see Morshima, a boy who grew up stared at and picked on for being bigger than everyone and having a baby face. We see Morshima, a man who has found a way to channel that rage, and a man that still has a little voice inside that constantly says even though you’re big and strong, they’re still just pointing and laughing. It says, go, Morishima, shut them up. Show them. Later, in the main event, Bobby Cruise announces all the contestants, and Morishima is met with a smattering of boos. He looks out at the crowd, the houselights are on, and he sneers and nods his head. He knows what they think, and some part of him agrees with them, but another bigger part shows nothing but steely resolve. The look isn’t one of obvious hurt. It’s one that says I’m going to destroy what you love. I’m going to prove you right.
KENTA and Danielson start this one out, and somewhat surprisingly go to the mat, and jockey for position a little bit. Dave Prazak mentions how KENTA’s only losses in ROH have come at the hands of Danielson, which is a nice little stat that I don’t think I had ever actively thought about, but works really well in the context of this match. Morishima tags in, KENTA motions to the crowd, asking if he should tag in McGuinness, and Morishima shouts and snarls in a way that the entire universe would understand as “bring it on, I don’t give a fuck who I have to hit”.
Nigel slaps himself once or twice to try and get the fighting spirit flowing before trying failing to shoulder block Morshima. Morishima presses the advantage, and takes McGuinness over to the corner to get Danielson tagged back in, who goes back to the mat. Again, it’s amazing watching Danielson work on these DVDs, as he so clearly “gets it” beyond anyone else. He looks so ready, and he is the only person in this match who has gone in with a plan to introduce himself and his style to a wider audience. Nigel and KENTA and even Morshima are content to run through their spots, and trust that what they’ve done before will work again. Danielson has repeatedly and subtly worked on the mat to show how he is a different kind of wrestler than what people have seen prior, and shown why he can lay claim to a “Best in the World” title. It’s awe inspiring.
As they get back to their feet, McGuinness is able to gain some advantage by going to some hard strikes, and looks to be setting up Danielson for an early bomb in the corner before a distraction from Morishima leads to a jumping European uppercut from Danielson. McGuinness, more stunned than hurt, pops up immediately and hits Danielson with a headbutt, Morishima clubs away at Nigel and KENTA once again hits a big kick flying off the ropes. Everyone is back to their feet, and we have a four way Mexican stand off as the illegal men bregrudgingly go back to their corners. It’s a fun dynamic they’ve established: Danielson is the most dangerous wrestler, McGuinness hits the hardest, KENTA beats anyone once he gets a head of steam, and Morishima is bigger and tougher than everyone else, but not necessarily as skilled.
Dragon goes back to working Nigel over on the mat, and it’s incredible. Everything is so deliberate and painful looking. It’s like watching Thatcher now, kind of. Maybe not. With Thatcher, one of the best things is watching how much of a struggle he makes everything. Danielson here looks as though he knows he could stretch the entire world if he was asked. Everything he does has an inevitability to it. If I had a time machine, I’d make them fight. It would be awesome.
Morishima is in and crushes McGuinness with a hip attack off the ropes. I know a lot of people got on him for his cartwheels and his dropkicks and what not, but it is pretty incredible watching him run the ropes. It’s like watching Buddy Rose, just constantly in complete control of a body that wants desperately to defy that control. Danielson gets in a cheap shot in the corner before offering some half hearted verbal encouragement. Dragon, for all his greatness, does not give good apron. He checks himself back in, and finds himself once again on the losing end of a strike exchange with McGuinness. Morishima tries to stem the tide, but eats a lariat for his troubles. KENTA is finally in, and runs through his offense. It’s funny, I’m sure the pace of this hot tag was fine in 2007, but watching it back now, it’s hilariously slow. Titus O’Neil goes faster than this on Superstars. That’s not a critique necessarily, just a weird thing about how wrestling has evolved. Danielson uses that step up moonsault thing he does to get the advantage back, and Morishima takes over with the aforementioned cartwheel and missile dropkick. It’s sort of like an actor being able to cry on cue, you know? Just because you can cry whenever doesn’t mean that every scene needs that. Even so, it’s pretty impressive and not everyone can and I understand completely why you’d want to show that off. KENTA, to his credit, sells the missile dropkick like he got hit with a shotgun. Of course immediately after that he hits Morishima with a powerslam out of nowhere, so it’s all for naught.
The action starts to break down as all four men are in the ring. You can’t really see it on the tape, but I remember very distinctly that when McGuinness was setting up Danielson for that lariat on the ropes, Morishima just stood and watched and did nothing for like a million years. KENTA eventually gets up and starts hitting people again. Nigel hits a huge dive in to the crowd, which looks great, and has an awesome camera shot that shows the old theatre ceiling of the Manhattan Center. I don’t know, people may think it made everything look small time, but it’s so unique. It stands out. McGuinness gets back inside and he and Danielson trade shots until Dragon absolutely obliterates Nigel’s elbow. Aside from the weird mistimed thing with Morishima standing around, this was the one spot that really stood out in my memory, although I thought it happened way earlier in the match because in my head I remembered them working the whole narrative around McGuinness’ injury and potentially not being able to hit the lariat.
Dragon goes for a diving headbutt but KENTA kicks him pretty hard in the face before going off the ropes and hitting Danielson with the running knee. I’d like to think at that moment Danielson was like “That hurt, I should totally steal this”. KENTA hits Go 2 Sleep as Morishima comes in to double team. They keep cutting to Nigel getting his arm taped up which I totally bought as a real injury at the time. It’s interesting doing this rewatch project, because I always sort of thought of myself as a pretty analytical viewer of wrestling, but I can point to at least one moment in every match I’ve rewatched thus far where I thought to myself “okay, this part is totally real”. Not to be denied, Nigel comes back in to lariat people with his injured arm. The tape they applied is made of magic, I guess. Everyone is dead after a top rope falcon arrow from KENTA. The announcers are talking about pro wrestling as a sport, and how these men are putting their well being on the line. That is probably a little too true. KENTA loves strike exchanges, as do the ROH crowds. It’s like the indy wrestling equivalent of a bitchin’ guitar solo or something.
Danielson hits the back superplex, so we are almost done. Danielson gets Cattle Mutilation locked in, and Morishima, who has been pretty invisible this match intercepts Nigel’s save attempt by hammering the injured arm with elbow shots. God Bless Takeshi Morishima. It’s the little things, you know? Well, I guess more accurately it’s the big obvious things that too often end up being ignored. Anyway. KENTA taps in short order. People throw trash for some insane reason. Danielson grabs the belt and Morishima hits him with a back drop driver. Nigel picks up the belt and tries to be a good sport and Morishima is having none of it and levels him. The last thing that made tape was Morishima swinging the belt around wildly, bodies splayed all around him. It always reminded me of the last scene of Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Leatherface doing his weird dance with the saw as the truck drives away. He stands defiant, triumphant. He will forever.
It took a million years to get back down to the street, and we decided to go to the diner next store for some food. I think there was a big after party, so there weren’t actually a ton of fans there or anything and we got a table right away. Midway through our meal, Morishima walked in. I’ve never really been one to seek out wrestlers and rub elbows or anything, but I went up to him and shook his hand, and before he knew it, I lifted up my shirt to show him a giant tattoo of him giving a back drop driver to some poor soul. His mouth dropped open, in shock I guess, and he started laughing and ran his hand over it and asked in a quiet voice if it was real. When I said yes, he asked me to hold on, and got the girl he was with to take a picture of him leaning down next to it. It must have been quite the bizarre scene. I let him alone after that, but a few minutes later, he came back with Marufuji and KENTA and had me show them. They all spoke in Japanese and left shortly there after. I think he was sort of proud. Also maybe a bit afraid. Thinking back, they were probably all just saying “what a fucking mark” in Japanese. Whatever. I’m going with proud.
We drove back that next day a bit tired, but still amped up about the show. Half way through Pennsylvania I got pulled over when a cop clocked me going 82. I asked him nicely if he could let me off with a warning. I was told on no uncertain terms that he could not, I was not only endangering my my life, but my friends life as well. He left to go run my license and I turn to Andrew to say something like “well that sucked” when he interrupts with “you’ve endangered not only your own life but mine. don’t talk to me for the rest of the trip”. When the officer came back to the car, we were both laughing too hard to even say anything. The cop followed us for like 3 more miles. Once he was gone, we put Morrissey back on. The Last of the Famous International Playboys played for hours. We must have played it a hundred times in a row. Our voices were hoarse by the time we reached the state line. It’s funny how more often than not, the things I most fondly remember from these wrestling road trips is not the wrestling at all.
Feel free to leave your memories of the show in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter @wrestlingbubble to let me know what you think!