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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Ring of Honor's 'Supercard of Honor' stakes its claim on WrestleMania weekend

Posted By on Tue, Apr 10, 2018 at 4:23 PM

click to enlarge Supercard of Honor sold out the UNO Lakefront Arena
  • Supercard of Honor sold out the UNO Lakefront Arena
There was a whole lot to love at Ring of Honor's Supercard of Honor at the UNO Lakefront Arena Saturday. A capacity crowd of nearly 6,000 was the promotion's biggest live audience ever, and thousands more watched via livestream.

I'm a man of appetites. What I want, I want in abundance; I want more of it until I'm sick with it. Ring of Honor overdelivered on Saturday night, giving me so much great wrestling that I had to tap out before the main event. It's a little embarassing, like reporting on a New Year's party and leaving before midnight, but pacing and length are crucial components of a good show, and surfeit was Supercard's only shortcoming. I wasn't the only one; at 11:30 p.m. when I fled exhausted to my friend's waiting car, the parking lot was full of departing fans.
In the main card's opener, Jonathan Gresham had a fast-paced, extremely technical match against Chuckie T. Gresham is one of the all-around better wrestlers in the business from a pure in-ring performance standpoint; he reminds me a lot of early-twenty-teens Jay Lethal, whom we saw later that night. By that I mean Gresham's a smaller guy with a good look and a top-of-the-line skill set, but his personality hasn't yet fully connected with fans. I think he has the charisma, though, and he's right on the edge of megastardom, which makes him a pleasure to watch, akin to seeing your favorite local band about to break out.

The second and third matches featured wrestlers from New Japan Pro Wrestling, and were big pieces of why I chose to attend Ring of Honor over WWE's NXT TakeOver. Ring of Honor's ongoing talent-sharing collaboration with Japanese powerhouse New Japan has been a runaway success, providing New Japan an even better foothold in the Occident and drawing fans like me who will attend a Ring of Honor show just to see the demigods of New Japan.

click to enlarge Ibushi (left) vs. Page met sky-high expectations
  • Ibushi (left) vs. Page met sky-high expectations
Punishment Martinez, a tall, stringy Misfits-looking dude who arrived in a coffin, took on New Japan's Tomohiro Ishii, "the Stone Pitbull." At 42, Ishii is not in his prime, but age seems to have only made him meaner. He has several lifetimes' worth of credibility as a tough guy, so his hard-fought loss helped elevate Martinez without diminishing Ishii's legend.

The next match, "Hangman" Page vs. Kota Ibushi, was Cody's pick for the match of the night when I interviewed him, and it lived up to the hype. Ibushi is a very beautiful wrestler. His body and face are perfect, the latter oddly expressionless in a way that somehow only enhances his appeal. His homoerotically charged "Golden Lovers" tag team has made him a queer icon, and anyway it's not like I could root for someone who comes to the ring swinging a noose (as "Hangman" does). This was fifteen minutes of brilliant, fast-paced storytelling, punctuated with some breathtaking big moves. The crowd chanted "Fight forever," and Ibushi's eventual victory, after which his uncannily serene, flawless face creased into a shy, doll-like smile, was exhilarating. Page has in the last several months gone from unremarkable to extraordinary, justifying Cody's praise, and this match was one for his career highlight reel.

click to enlarge The official event shirt celebrated women's wrestling
  • The official event shirt celebrated women's wrestling
Ring of Honor is following WWE's lead in trying to elevate its women's division, and Supercard of Honor's main card included the finals of a tournament for the promotion's new "Women Of Honor" Championship. The 46-year-old Sumie Sakai, who's been wrestling for 21 years and still can go with the best of them, overcame the big, dominant Kelly Klein, who hadn't been pinned in almost two years. A slightly botched finish didn't diminish the moment.

The Briscoe Brothers are ... problematic. From including Confederate flags in their ring gear to embracing homophobia to get the fans riled up, these two real-life chicken farmers would be a lot easier to write off if they weren't among the best tag-team wrestlers of their generation. I leave it to loftier minds what lines should or shouldn't be crossed — last week Jay Briscoe snatched away a fan's rainbow flag and used it to choke out his opponent— but I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to see these two scary, simian-looking prodigies perform. They were up against a cobbled-together team combining two of wrestling's purest heroes, hyper-talented everyman Jay Lethal and Hiroshi Tanahashi, the glam-rock John Cena of New Japan. This match was outshined by others on the card, but it was still awesome to see these four go at it.

I'm going to elide a few matches here, including a long segment that played off the Louisiana Boxing and Wrestling Commission having supposedly banned the "piledriver" move and a crazy, high-risk ladder match showcasing the Young Bucks. The Young Bucks are controversial within pro wrestling because they like to break the fourth wall, deliberately and provocatively playing with fans' suspension of disbelief by setting up sequences that seem to satisfy extreme "what if?" hypotheticals rather than convincingly flowing from an effort to win a sporting contest. Some of my closest pro-wrestling friends despise the Bucks for this. I can see why it's troublesome, but I get a kick out of it, and a six-man bout including multiple metal ladders allowed the Bucks to do their queasily improbable thing with wild abandon, resulting in an exciting, frenetic multi-car-pileup of a match.
click to enlarge Fans filled the ring with paper streamers to honor Kenny Omega
  • Fans filled the ring with paper streamers to honor Kenny Omega
I want to talk about what was, for me, the main event: Cody vs. Kenny Omega. Ring of Honor is a "serious" wrestling promotion that tends to sell itself on the more sports-like aspects of pro wrestling. For this reason, seeing Cody use the dirtiest, most old-school bad-guy b.s. tactics was not only outrageous but immensely titillating. The ways Cody hammed up his "heelishness" would have fit right into any of the more backwoods regional pro wrestling shows I've attended over the years, from Bayou la Batre to Pascagoula to Dulac. Cody kicked Kenny between the legs when the referee wasn't looking, raked Kenny's eyes, and distracted the referee while Cody's wife Brandi slapped and choked Kenny. A stupid mascot with a bear head snuck up and grabbed at Kenny's ankles. It was preposterous.

At one point Cody took offense to something a fan said, grabbed their drink and spit a mouthful of it all over the first row. To me, these kind of over-the-top antics are what make pro wrestling so timelessly entertaining, in part because they work: the audience was livid. They'd paid to see a dream match, and Cody was refusing to fight fair! It was masterfully done, and when Cody ran out of dirty tricks and distractions, Kenny Omega finally kicking his ass was a sublime 6,000-person mass catharsis. "Kill him, Kenny!" a woman shouted. "Kill him! He spit on me!"

This match went nearly 40 minutes. I'd wondered how Cody would match up against Kenny Omega, generally considered the best wrestler alive, and the answer turned out to be marvelous. Cody dug deep into pro wrestling's carny roots to remind everyone in attendance what a wrestling villain should be: a genuinely hateful jerk whom you long to see get his just desserts.

When it was done, I'd hit my limit — WrestleMania, which would go 8 hours, was the next day — but I left feeling very clear that Ring of Honor is no longer just a large, unusually good "indie" wrestling promotion. WWE built its monopolistic pro-wrestling empire via cable TV dominance, but in the age of the internet Ring of Honor is maturing into a serious contender for wrestling fans' eyeballs and attention.

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