Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Working-Class Hero: Revisiting Orange Cassidy's AEW Rollout

This Sunday AEW's Double or Nothing hits PPV, and the World Title match is a triple threat between Kenny Omega, PAC, and Orange Cassidy. There's a lot to love about the potential in this matchup, even without a proper build on TV (and, well, there hasn't been a proper build for this - Kenny had been feuding with Jon Moxley and Eddie Kingston on TV until about two weeks ago, when they rapidly pivoted Eddie and Mox over to the Young Bucks). PAC and Kenny have traded wins in AEW and generally PAC has been portrayed as having Kenny's number, even in the (outstanding) iron man match he lost. Kenny's background in comedy wrestling makes a confrontation with OC incredibly intriguing, because Kenny has pretty much proven he can work most styles of wrestling with anyone. 

And the Orange Cassidy vs. PAC dynamic, well...all week i've been thinking about this perfectly scripted match from last year's AEW Revolution, the last AEW PPV before COVID took away packed arenas. This match was the capper of a near-perfect rollout for a character, and launched Orange into becoming the breakout star of 2020 (as much as there could be one in a pandemic year). 

When Orange got signed to AEW, the indie wrestling crowd popped for the signing, but casual wrestling fans who hadn't seen much of him scratched their heads. Orange Cassidy's gimmick, you see, is that of a slacker who does the bare minimum required to accomplish the task set in front of him. He puts in the absolute minimum effort. His kicks are half-assed. He prefers to wrestle with his hands in his pockets. He even gives a thumbs up with his thumb only half up. He gives off an air of dedicated laziness. 

For the first half year of his employment with AEW, he barely wrestled (in accordance with his gimmick). He accompanied his pals, Chuck Taylor & Trent (aka the tag team Best Friends) to the ring, occasionally popping inside the ring to strike a pose, slouching with his hands in his pockets, aviator shades adorned, while Best Friends' opponents stared at him nonplussed. He'd do his signature spot, where he mimes weak kicks at someone's shins, while the crowd would pop like they were devastating superkicks. Some fans were in on the gag, but many also just thought OC was a curiosity, someone AEW hired because of a funny gimmick, but little more.

After arriving in an AEW ring in May of 2019, he finally made his in-ring debut in October, as part of a six-man tag with Best Friends against QT Marshall, Alex Reynolds, & John Silver. Orange didn't tag in until well into the match, and the crowd's anticipation was palpable, to the point that they erupted with his first tag. Still, AEW didn't give away the store with the first match. OC did some comedy spots and tagged out, pretty much. But it was part of a long, slow rollout and whetted the audience's appetite for more Orange. Always leave the crowd wanting more.

So along comes PAC, a vicious bastard of a wrestler with a jacked-to-the-gills physique, a relentless work ethic, and a wolverine intensity. As soon as he came across Orange Cassidy (or more accurately, as soon as Orange casually strolled through the backstage area, interrupting a PAC interview), PAC instantly HATED him. An easygoing slacker who barely puts any effort in is an insult to a guy like PAC, who spent years toiling away in WWE while relegated to the cruiserweight division. PAC's entire character after leaving WWE has been that of a resentful workhorse with a chip on his shoulder looking to prove to the world that he is the best and was given a raw deal by the major league of pro wrestling (and like all the best heel gimmicks, it's very much rooted in truth). So PAC began to torment OC and Best Friends, eventually getting under the trio's skin enough that Orange was goaded into his singles debut, at February 2020's Revolution. And Best Friends had an ominous warning for PAC: "Orange told us that he's gonna try!"

The match linked below is a masterclass of introducing a character to a new, wide audience by just using in-ring work, and is a pure distillation of Orange Cassidy's entire thing. He opens the match with his lazy shin kicks, making a big production of putting his hands in his pockets. PAC, the human 5-hour energy drink, scoffs and immediately dismisses OC as a joke. But that's where Orange always fools 'em. See, the not-so-secret truth about Orange Cassidy is that he's actually a *brilliant,* supremely athletic wrestler. He lures his opponents into a false sense of confidence and then blindsides them with a dizzying display of high flying moves (with his hands still in his pockets!) or crafty stretches and tie-ups. 

There's a particular sequence mid-match where PAC has Orange beaten down and is ready to his his finisher, a dazzling flip from the top rope called the Black Arrow. PAC climbs to the top turnbuckle, and just as he's about to leap off, Cassidy...slowly rolls to the other side of the ring. Frustrated, PAC marches to the opposite turnbuckle, and Cassidy rolls back to the other side. This goes on for a bit, and it's hilarious, but it also infuriates PAC, to the point where he eventually cuts off OC at the ring apron, at which point Orange looks at PAC and starts laughing his ass off. He's used the comedic break in the action to not only fluster his opponent, but also rest and recuperate, and as soon as he explodes into his fired-up babyface rally, the audience explodes with him. 

Of course, PAC eventually wins the match by locking OC into his submission finisher, the Brutalizer, which is right and good. This is not the match where Orange gets his first win. Again, you dole this stuff out slowly. You give PAC the win to solidify his credentials as a heel bully bastard. Meanwhile, the crowd now knows what Orange Cassidy is capable of, and they love him all the more for it, making him a huge star in defeat. 

Orange Cassidy often gets sneered at by some wrestling purists because they don't like his comedy act, but in reality, his whole gimmick is a brilliant reinvention of one of the prime tenets of old-school wrestling: get the most out of the least. Get the most audience reaction out of the least amount of in-ring work. Preserve your body and keep yourself in shape for the next match, the next stop on the tour. There's been talk this week about how Randy Orton is one of the best wrestlers around, not because of his moveset, but because of his expressiveness, how he can control the crowd reaction with a shoulder shrug, or a flash of anger across his face. If you don't see how that also obviously applies to Orange Cassidy, i'm not sure what to tell you. 

The brilliance of Orange Cassidy is that he's actually *not* lazy; he busted his ass learning the craft of pro wrestling, and then crafted an expressive character that allows him to get the most out of the least amount of work. He works exactly as hard as he needs to, when he needs to, and then fucks off and does his own thing when he doesn't *have* to work. He's the 8 hours work/8 hours rest/8 hours for what we will May Day poster made flesh. In a time where so much of the public discourse is centered around whether or not people "want to work" vs. whether or not employers exploit workers by not paying them what they're worth, Orange Cassidy's gimmick makes him the ultimate working-class hero in pro wrestling. He's a goddamn star.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Golden Champions: How the Omega/Ibushi Story Continues Across Continents

As a lifelong comic book reader, long-term storytelling in pro wrestling is something that really gets me going. When a wrestler jumps from company to company, they often find themselves reinventing themselves or creating new characters to work. But occasionally, a wrestler or two come along who are so invested in long-term creativity that they make damn sure that everything they do in the ring serves to slowly advance their career character arc, and in a "sport" that is basically a grunting, sweating theater in the round, it can be really fascinating to follow. Take the story of The Golden Lovers, the closest thing you'll find to a long-term, epic romance in pro wrestling. 

Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi are two of the most purely talented pro wrestlers on Earth. They also may or may not have been in a relationship back when they were a tag team called The Golden Lovers in Japanese comedy promotion DDT. The short short version (which is still long, long, long) of the story goes like this: 

Back in 2008, a young Kenny Omega, nerdy, in his mid-20s, and still relatively young in his wrestling career, saw a video of Kota Ibushi wrestling in Japan and became instantly enamored with him, recording a super-enthusiastic promo challenging Kota to a match in DDT. For whatever reason, everyone kinda went for it, and that year, Kenny flew to Japan to meet his destiny. They wrestled a wild match that went into a parking lot and featured moonsaults off parked cars and vending machines and other wild shit. Kota won the match and they basically fell in love with each other. DDT signed Kenny with the idea that he would become Kota's rival and they would have shitloads of insane matches with each other, but they swerved the promotion by saying "NO we're in LOVE and we want to be a TAG TEAM because we LOVE EACH OTHER so much." DDT said, "oh, uh, what's your team name?" "We're THE GOLDEN LOVERS and WE'RE IN LOVE." DDT: "Oh, shit, so you're not just saying that, huh?"

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Kazuchika Okada vs. Taichi 2/2/2020 - NJPW The New Beginning In Sapporo

So there's this guy in New Japan Pro Wrestling named Taichi. I hate him. He is probably my least favorite wrestler in the company (which is saying something because Jay White is also in New Japan). He's a heel, so it's quite possible that he's doing his job well and I'm being worked, but his character is one of those where you really can't tell if the heat he's generating is "go away, we legitimately don't want to see you ever and think you're bad at your job" X-Pac heat, or if he's working us all to think that he sucks (which, if we're being real, X-Pac sorta did too). Because here's the thing about Taichi: he's lazy as fuck. And not in a chill, nonplussed Orange Cassidy way; he's lazy and also carries himself like he deserves to be handed success on a silver platter, which is annoying as hell.

In a company that consistently produces dazzling displays of five-star athleticism, Taichi barely tries in his matches. He uses chairs and low blows, which is a greater crime in New Japan than in most American companies. He uses his valet, Miho Abe, as a human shield, because he's a coward. He puts more work into his gimmick and his Phantom of the Opera ripoff costume and entrance than he does his ring work, and even then, he can't be arsed to lip-sync his shitty entrance music while "pretending" to sing it. It is the most half-assed ring entrance ever and it is infuriating. In a company where the best in-ring workers get pushed to the moon, Taichi chooses to be a character instead and still mails it in. When Kevin Kelly puts him over on English commentary as a deceptively talented worker who just doesn't apply himself, it sounds like bullshit, because he's never shown me anything other than a disturbing affinity for removing his tear-away pants mid-match.

But Taichi wasn't always a fake opera singer - once upon a time he was Taichi Ishikari, a scrappy journeyman who began his career as a junior heavyweight in All-Japan Pro Wrestling before spending some time bouncing around New Japan on the occasional show, and on one fateful day in 2008, he met, and defeated, a debuting young lion by the name of Kazuchika Okada.

Okada today, of course, is the five-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion and the centerpiece of the promotion, having already, at age 32, held the top championship for more combined days than anyone in history. His matches with Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kenny Omega are the stuff of legend. Heck, on his return in 2012 from a learning excursion in TNA (during which Taichi went on his own voyage to Mexico), the newly-minted Rainmaker immediately challenged, and defeated, Tanahashi to win the IWGP Title and leapfrog the entire NJPW roster - including a certain lip-sync sensation who defeated Okada four years prior.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Ultimate Warrior vs. The Honky Tonk Man 8/29/88 – WWF Intercontinental Title – SummerSlam '88

When it was announced that the Honky Tonk Man would be inducted into this year's WWE Hall of Fame class of 2019, my reaction was “hey, at least he won a title once, not like Hillbilly Jim.” But it also sent me down an unexpected nostalgia spiral for how much I absolutely detested him as a youngster. It was the angle involving his shoving Miss Elizabeth to the mat after a Saturday Night's Main Event Intercontinental title defense against “Macho Man” Randy Savage that got me hooked into pro wrestling for the first time, and for many reasons, he quickly cemented himself at the top of my Most Hated Wrestler rankings.

He was, by most fan-centric standards, a poor grappler. This is all relative, of course—he certainly could take a bump, and his ability to emote in the ring and hit storytelling beats was second to none. But he was never going to tear the roof off the joint with Ricky Steamboat or anything (hell, the match where he beat Steamboat for the belt was all of 4 minutes long). His finishing move was the “Shake, Rattle, & Roll,” a swinging neckbreaker that was a routine part of many wrestler's movesets, but it was Honky Tonk's finisher because...he shook his ass before delivering it, I guess. Or because it was the one wrestling move he knew, aside from “right handed punch,” “left handed punch,” “body slam,” and “kick.” (Just 999 moves to go and he'll match Chris Jericho!)

Thus, his constant claims to the title of “Greatest Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion of All Time” were particularly galling, as his opponents during his title reign were constantly portrayed as his clear superiors. Even during his feud with Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, who was essentially his equal in the ring (right handed punch, left handed punch, body slam, kick, sleeperhold), Honky Tonk was portrayed as the clearly inferior talent.

"I can't believe I'm jobbing to this fuckin' guy"
He won the Intercontinental Title in a fluke rollup where he reversed an inside cradle by “The Dragon”and grabbed the ropes for leverage. And he never—ever—won a title defense cleanly. Actually, come to think of it, I'm not sure he ever won a title defense. He'd get counted out; his manager, “Colonel” Jimmy Hart, would interfere with his trademark megaphone; or he'd take matters into his own hands and get himself disqualified with a guitar shot to his opponent's head or back. The result was always the same—the challenger would win but Honky Tonk would hold on to his title, since WWF titles can only change hands via pinfall or submission. (Not counting cage matches, or ladder matches, know what, never mind.)

For all these reasons, as the Honky Tonk Man's Intercontinental Championship reign continued week after week, eventually becoming the longest IC title reign of all time, he became more and more hated with each passing episode of Superstars of Wrestling or Wrestling Challenge.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Zack Sabre, Jr. vs. WALTER 1/14/18 – EVOLVE 99

Indulge me for a moment of gushing: I love, love, LOVE Zack Sabre, Jr. In an era where so much of professional wrestling is dominated by MMA-influenced strikers, high fliers, and the homogenous “sports entertainment” that WWE shoehorns multiple styles into, the ultra-technical wizardry of Sheppey's favorite son is a joy to behold. Look, my favorite wrestler of all time is Bret “Hitman” Hart—it stands to reason that I'd be crazy go nuts for a guy who can stretch dudes to a degree that would have made that crazy old wizard Stu Hart lick his lips and rub his hands together. Add in his leftist Labour politics and I'm completely twitterpated. He often walks to the ring to the chords of “Mother” by the band Idles, getting the crowd to chant “The best way to scare a Tory is to read or get rich.” Heck, his real last name is Eatwell and he's a vegan. Eatwell! Its like he was destined to be the world's most annoyingly flawless man. And his pompous, arrogant heel character lets you know how perfect he is at all times.

Over the past year, while I've finally dived head first into the deep end of the New Japan Pro Wrestling pool, I've gotten to enjoy watching ZSJ stretch the hell out of guys like SANADA, Tomohiro Ishii, and one of my other favorite NJPW boys, Tetsuya Naito. But it was during a YouTube search of his opponent here where I stumbled across this gem from a Knights of Columbus in Brooklyn.

I've been hearing the name WALTER for several years now, and to my eternal shame, I didn't get a chance to take in any of his work until his NXT UK debut (I joke about WWE, but let's be real, there hasn't been this much quality wrestling in WWE on the whole since, well, ever, so it's hard to break out and invest the proper amount of time in the indies when you also have a day job and two bands). But his NXT UK work hasn't shown too much yet, so this past weekend I took some time to look up highlights of his recent independent work. Which brought me to this match from EVOLVE 99.

ZSJ and WALTER have crossed paths several times in their careers, which is right and logical for two European indie journeyman superstars. As teammates, they've held the tag titles in Germany's wXw, and as enemies, they've become familiar with each other all over the world. But this match in Brooklyn from just over a year ago is early on in a series of singles matches these two engaged in all across the independent scene, starting with a white-hot encounter in October 2017 across the country at PWG's All-Star Weekend. That match was given the elusive 5-star rating from Dave Meltzer and featured an arrogant ZSJ taking the role of pigheaded David vs. WALTER's sick-of-your-shit Goliath. Sabre, convinced he can match WALTER blow-for-blow (or at least, convinced that he has to prove he can), absorbs an absurd number of the Austrian's already-legendary chops, gets suplexed from pillar to post, and certainly holds his own, hitting solid kicks and many of his signature holds before trying to tie WALTER up in his signature European Clutch neck-bridge pin, only to fall right back into a Gojira Clutch sleeperhold and immediately tap out. What's fun about this rematch nearly three months later is how the two men, across the country in another promotion, build off their earlier contest, callback to it, and build on it as chapter two of an ongoing series, which, now with WALTER in WWE, is on indefinite hold.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Strike Force vs. The Brain Busters 4/2/89 – WrestleMania V

I know what your initial thought is here. “What the hell – DJ starts off his blog with two epic classics, and for his first WWF/WWE entry, he picks a meaningless throwaway tag team match from a horrible WrestleMania? What gives?”

Look, it's easy and fun to write about classic matches. Flair/Steamboat, Omega/Tanahashi – the stories are right there, in plain sight. Deconstructing them is a blast, and hopefully someone who hasn't seen those matches is encouraged to check them out. In the same way, though, it's a fun challenge to look at the undercard and mine the gold that happens in matches that are immediately forgotten because of the overall focus of the show.

The beauty of pro wrestling is in the art of telling an athletic story inside the conventions of a match, and in a 20, 30, even 60-minute contest, there's plenty of time to let that story breathe and develop within three acts. But what if you're on the undercard and the bookers and producers tell you you have nine minutes to tell your tale?

Back in the 1980s peak of Hulkamania-era WWF, the 17-minute main event of WrestleMania V qualified as an “epic” (which is especially amusing when considering that the Flair/Steamboat best-of-three-falls match was on the same day). So working a televised match in the WWF in this era usually meant that you were going to get ten minutes or less to get your point across in the ring. Judging by the quality of the average WrestleMania match in this era, either this was extremely difficult to accomplish, or no one really tried very hard. So it stood out a few years ago, during a writing project where I was watching all the early 'Manias, that the teams of Strike Force (Tito Santana and Rick Martel) and the Brain Busters (Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson) managed to tell a cool little tale with subtle story beats in the span of about nine minutes.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Kenny Omega vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi 1/4/19 – IWGP Heavyweight Championship – Wrestle Kingdom 13

Has a wrestling match ever made you cry?

I'm sure there are plenty of examples of storyline beats before and after matches that have triggered the waterworks – watch the crowd shots when Randy Savage and Elizabeth reunited after Macho Man vs. Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VII, or when the Golden Lovers reunited at the New Beginning in Sapporo in 2018. When Daniel Bryan returned to the ring at WrestleMania 34, I was practically sobbing during his entrance, and don't even get me started on the video package that played before Sasha Banks vs. Bayley at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn. But when's the last time the actual in-ring action brought you to tears? I'm not sure when it was for me, but I know I got damn close at the conclusion of the main event of this year's Wrestle Kingdom 13.

Over 30-some-odd years, I have been fortunate to meet fellow fans across the spectrum of wrestling fandom. Marks who stick to kayfabe, smart marks who follow every dirt sheet or blog. Jaded wrestlers who like to work every fan they meet, and cordial grapplers who are fans themselves, just as eager to mark out over the classics. Fans of Southern wrestling, Lucha Libre, “sports entertainment,” puroresu, hardcore, and “the flippy shit.” Young fans who love it all, and old timers who think that today's matches are more about spotfests than storytelling. No matter what they're into, if they go into their wrestling shows looking for some sort of emotional connection with the art unfolding in front of them, I am their kindred. Like a great song or film, if a match moves me, i'm it's slave.

There are those among my fellow old-timers who would argue that today's popular wrestling matches are more about spectacle than story; more car crash than ballet. And sometimes they're right. But some of those car crashes can tell thrilling stories in and of themselves—maybe not in the same way a classic old-school match may work a body part, but there's more than one way to spin an effective yarn.

The generational debate between old-timer and today's fan framed the main event of this year's Wrestle Kingdom, as a defender of the old guard, Hiroshi Tanahashi, the “once in a century” Ace of New Japan Pro Wrestling, challenged IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kenny Omega for the gold that Tana had worn seven times before, while simultaneously defending his concept of tradition and old school pro wrestling against Omega's desire to “change the world.” To many, the clash seemed a bit like inside baseball, an esoteric debate too cerebral to be worthy of the main event of New Japan's marquee annual event. How could a debate about wrestling philosophy sell tickets, much less get a crowd invested? Well, when the two combatants involved are a living legend and Japan's hottest gaijin wrestler, the match sells itself. It's up to them to figure out what the hook's going to be.

As it turned out, the debate about how best to tell an in-ring story ended up putting my friends and I through the emotional wringer. But interestingly, it's not the story some of New Japan's American audience wanted to see—and maybe that was part of why it was such a roller coaster .