It was a busy weekend for grappling fans. UFC 202 brought mixed martial arts action on Saturday night, live from T-Mobile Arena. In Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the WWE presented both the NXT Takeover on Saturday and its annual SummerSlam extravaganza on Sunday. And at the intimate Sam’s Town Live on Friday and Saturday, fans got a chance to see some of the best pro wrestling on the planet, with two nights of action from Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Friday night the Boulder Highway casino was home to Ring of Honor’s Death Before Dishonor pay-per-view, featuring stars of both ROH and NJPW. Like the bigger WWE, ROH has weekly free TV shows and monthly pay-per-views.
The advent of PPV in the 1980s and the move towards monthly PPVs in the late 1990s changed the wrestling business. Weekly television, which in the old days drove attendance at untelevised events, now pushes viewers to spend the extra money on a monthly PPV or network subscription. So the Friday matches were, as champion Jay Lethal said, when wrestlers “step up their game,” giving fans a reason to buy the viewing access.
And the card didn’t disappoint. Two untelevised “dark” matches, taking place as the crowd filtered in, prepared the audience for the televised portion of the event. The crowd can do a lot to make a good match great and a great match legendary. When the audience sits on their hands, even the best matches are just two guys flipping around and swinging at each other; when the fans are engaged—chanting, clapping, and screaming—it becomes theater.
The audience knows this, so there’s a thrill as ring announcer Bobby Cruise primes us. The opening anti-piracy slide gets a pop (a pro-wrestling term for crowd reaction) all its own—we are live, and about to make history. An opening video package narrated by ROH “Matchmaker” (and former champion) Nigel McGuinness brings us up to speed on the headlining Jay Lethal/Adam Cole championship match, and then the wrestling starts.
And this—the action in the ring—is where ROH really excels. The opening tilt, a four-corners survival match to determine the No. 1 contender for the ROH television title, is a good example. The match showed the best of what ROH has to offer: power moves, quick pacing, and high-flying acrobatics. It’s one thing to see Donovan Dijak, billed at 6 foot 7 inches and weighing in at 270 pounds, catch the diminutive Lio Rush mid-move and hurl him to the ground; it’s another to see the big man himself take to the air, diving out of the ring. That move was enough to garner the first “holy shit” chant of the night.
Which brings us back to the crowd. While part of their involvement is simply cheering on the good guys and booing the bad guys, that kind of duality went out of fashion in the 1990s. Today’s wrestling fans show their appreciation by chanting in unison. “Holy shit” is a sign of respect for a particularly impressive athletic or uncommonly brutal-looking move, and is given to both “good” and “bad” guys indiscriminately. Towards the end of particularly good matches, as both wrestlers are lying on the ring floor and near-spent, a “this is awesome” chant shows fan appreciation better than mere applause. Over the course of Friday night, seven spots earned “holy shit” honors; only two matches got “this is awesome.”
Successful pro wrestling has to mix high spots, signature moves, and storytelling, which is where it differs from mixed martial arts. Both have athleticism and personal rivalries, but MMA gets its thrill from the competition itself, whereas pro wrestling is about putting on a show, which means giving the audience a balance of what they expect, what they want, and what they won’t believe.
The appeal of ROH was distilled into one match Friday night, in Lethal’s title defense against Cole. There was a compelling reason for them to fight: Cole ambushed Lethal and shaved his head at a previous ROH event, and afterwards Lethal demanded a chance to humiliate him in front of the world, compelled by his sense of honor. The cost? A title match. Lethal’s quest for vengeance, above all else, even his own safety or title, set the tone for the storytelling in the ring. The champion took big risks early, which showed how desperate he had become to defeat Cole, who showed a wiliness and determination to become a two-time ROH champion and make good on his boasts to do just that.
Lethal’s ferocity helped him dominate early on, but as the battle raged, the tide shifted back and forth, with both wrestlers getting in offense. This is another area where pro wrestling delivers: You won’t see a star quarterback hit a Hail Mary pass for the win at every game, but even if your favorite wrestler loses, you’ll get to see most of his signature moves.
In an earlier interview with Seven, Lethal talked about some of the pressures of competing as ROH champion. He’s been on top for over a year, defending the belt in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Europe, closing out the card night after night. This match showed why; he and Cole put on a great performance that told a real story and kept the crowd riveted. After several false finishes, Cole triumphed, becoming the new ROH champion and spurring a run-in from Kyle O’Reilly, with whom Cole also has a troubled history, setting up the next card-topping rivalry.
We tell kids all the time that it’s not whether you win or lose. That’s a lie in one sense, and a truth in a deeper one. While Cole got a strong reaction on lifting the title skyward, the fans ended the night with a hearty, sustained “thank you, Lethal” chant that followed the New Jersey native back to the locker room after his defeat. He may have lost the title, but he still owned the crowd.
The following night’s event was less intense. The four hours of wrestling will be seen on screen as four weekly episodes of ROH’s TV show. While the action and talking are inherently entertaining, they are arcing towards the next big PPV: next month’s All Star Extravaganza, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Cole was out first, with his Bullet Club brethren, to gloat in his victory, before being interrupted by Lethal. The former champ’s appearance triggered another round of pro-Lethal chants, and set up a match for later that night, which in turn set up an encounter at the PPV. The ROH wheel never stops spinning.
Saturday night’s pacing was slower than the PPV’s, with pauses between matches and even an intermission halfway through. No spoilers, but fans can look forward to good TV, with some great matches, storyline advancement, and some unbelievable spots. One, involving Dalton Castle’s Boys, got perhaps the longest “holy shit” chant of the weekend.
In addition to hosting ROH when it comes to town, Sam’s Town Live has monthly WWE PPV viewing parties and monthly television tapings from Paragon Pro Wrestling. Every seat has a good view of the action and is close to the ring, which makes a difference—It was electric to be around 50 feet from Adam Cole as he took the ROH title. As a spectator, you were really right there.
And that is why, with major wrestling events on PPV at home and a huge MMA card happening on the Strip, ROH was able to pack the Sam’s Town venue two nights in a row. Judging from the crowd interest, this won’t be our last chance to enjoy ROH in Las Vegas.
Find full results of Ring of Honor’s Death Before Dishonor here.