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?"