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Thursday, 3 May 2012

On the Rise - a spotlight on FCW and the emerging new stars, an homage to the spirit of Ring of Honor.

It seems that in times of transition between generations in the WWE we see a wealth of talent being ‘promoted’ if you will. It happened in the wake of WCW’s growth when WWE suddenly found its top talent poached. The answer at the time was to look at companies with cult followings and take their rising stars on to greater things, as was the case with ECW and the influx of stars like Tazz, The Dudley Boys etc. This trend however seemed to disappear for a while when WWE finally bought WCW and closed it down absorbing its top tier talent.

In recent years we have seen the WWE continually attempting to launch a new era (which has ultimately made that time into an era of its own right), beginning with Ruthless Aggression and the rise of Brock Lesner, and has ‘re-set’ every two to three years through various twists and tragedies. To list a few, the deaths of Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, the departure of Lesner, the later (semi)rise and departure of ‘next generation’ stars such as Ken Kennedy and Bobby Lashley, the departure and untimely death of Umaga and ultimately and most recently the failed re-launch of an ECW brand, based on the cult following of the original company, (it seems the WWE have managed to kill a lot of the buzz around this through its own show). All this while new competition would begin to rise in the shadows. Increasingly the crowd would begin to show their dissatisfaction with the top guy. I have had an ongoing interest, as a wrestling fan, in ‘who next?’ Who will lead the next generation of wrestlers? And I feel that the ongoing Internet disenchantment with, ‘ why aren’t they pushing ______?’ would seem to suggest I’m not the only one…

With that said it now surprises me that I never paid more attention to the indie circuit. However over the last few months it has felt increasingly that the WWE have decided to once again look to ‘the indies’ for inspiration. Namely Ring of Honor, and though there are young rising stars that have passed through other doors it would seem that the focus on ‘wrestlers wrestling’ is on the rise. The catalyst at the centre of this change has been CM Punk, who to my mind the current roster is been built around – at least at the lower main-event level. One time Ring of Honor favorite and still indie hero today, he has shot to the top of the WWE and dragged some other names with him and it has become apparent since the summer that a slight shift has taken place in regards to the roster and its direction. 

 Daniel Bryan (or for the purists Bryan Danielson), has quickly grown through the ranks in the E and has more or less followed CM Punk’s rise completely; starting out as a young faced fan favourite, who was dubbed as having little to no charisma (this still mystifies me, his very first appearance on WWE television was when asked by Matt Striker to cut a promo he snatched the mic and stearnly said, ‘You want me to cut a promo, you want me to be charismatic well how about this… YOU TAP, OR YOU SNAP!’ The crowd went wild and I knew in that second, with quite a lot of anticipation that he would be a World Champion in WWE). In the beginning I had no idea about his history with ROH and his huge Internet following. It’s funny how much people would complain about Michael Cole putting him down every week, the whole point of that angle was to make Daniel look better and Cole worse. He has gone on to show he is one of the best when it comes to heel mic work and his in ring skill is second to none. It interested me recently to hear that when Danielson left ROH certain fans wondered whether the company could go on without him. His World Heavyweight Title reign has been the most compelling in recent memory and his ‘YES! YES! YES! YES! YES!’ cries as he approaches the ring have Kurt Angle ‘you suck’ or Austin ‘What!?’ crowd chant potential – in fact all the way through the recent ROH 10th anniversary bash the NY crowd were hot with this as a chant. I love Daniel Bryan’s current persona, which to me is a perfect mix of Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit and a little bit of Ric Flair’s cowardice. I could easily see Bryan as a future Undisputed Champion and a true threat to Punk.

NOTE: This section was written prior to Wrestlemania XXVIII, I have written in depth about my excitement about the way that ‘YES!’ has caught on and the impact that this is having on the wider industry. I also, like many, am glad he’s gotten his main event push proper – even if it did have a slight feeling that the section was rushed a little.

In the wake of the current rise of WWE stars to main event level opens up the vacuum of the mid card. Which in the very near future will be filled with more former ROH stars. Seth Rollins (formerly Tyler Black of ROH) has been touring with the main roster recently. Rollins currently holds the FCW championship where he shares the locker room with many other ex ROH faces, who I’ll get to later, and has proven himself as a fan favourite. From what I can gather he was top guy in ROH a couple of years ago and still carries a lot of anticipation leading into his expected WWE main roster promotion, even though we may have to wait a while. His memorable feuds include a run with Austin Aries (current TNA X-division champion) for the ROH championship. I’m excited to see this guy break through. He recently toured with the Smackdown roster where he had a match with Tyson Kidd 
And this is a match he had against Dean Ambrose, another one of FCW’s stand out characters who has had a lot of attention on the internet recently, from last year. This is a PPV quality match – in fact they get longer in the ring here than most main-eventers get at top WWE PPV’s – and the chemistry they have together is outstanding. As a side note I’d also point out that Ambrose is perfect as the creepy heel, but then again, you already know that. 

FCW as an entity is an interesting beast. It is technically the WWE training ground for future ‘superstars’ however it remains as a separate roster – something that, if NXT could take itself a bit more seriously could and looks like will, also begin to do, even if at times FCW in fact feels like a more well rounded product. FCW’s association with the WWE is publicly and intentionally un emphasised and while it is a far cry from the highest of production values bestowed upon ‘The End of an Era’ it is shaping up to be a fairly serious promotion. Even considering the recent set backs in the loss of its television deal and possible reforms, it bridges WWE’s more independently leaning audience and scratches their itch as well as teasing at the possible future. It’s main criticism has been that it schools too much, moulding young wrestlers into the WWE package and even Jake Roberts recently made some remark about the lack of characters in the WWE today saying, ‘They've all been just stirred up in a bucket and everybody's just the same.’ (Busted Open Interview: Jake Roberts Hosts: Doug Mortman and Dave LaGreca on Sirius 94 XM 208)

And while that may, to some extent be true, I feel that FCW is in a place it hasn’t necessarily been before. Its alumni are now prominent, established stars and their heritage is reaching new audience levels – This obviously goes hand in hand with the growth of independent audience generally. We are at a point where Ring of Honour will get an odd name drop from the WWE Champion, and this in turn makes the FCW roster look and feel more established as well, even if WWE insist on inventing new gimmicks for its incoming wrestlers. The Internet nearly exploded recently when Chris Hero recently joined his old Kings of Wrestling teammate Claudio Castagnoli on the FCW roster.

Hero, now renamed Kassius Ohno, has the same support group as Punk and Bryan, he also shares CM Punk’s Chicago heritage and carries the same fire that he brought in his early WWE presence. He has put a lot of work into his character already, only having been active with the organisation for a few weeks, which is impressive in itself. His gimmick centres around his initials K.O, which is self explanatory, the extra catch that makes it that much more interesting is the eccentric edge that he has given it. Kassius Ohno is Mick Foley mic tactics crossed with Chicago/CM Punk/ROH attitude. Below is a clip of his debut promo;
It’s the way he lingers on those words, it gives the whole thing a deliberate yet improvised sensation and in my mind is one of the best promo’s since Punk’s now infamous ‘shoot’. I have a feeling Ohno’s rise to the main roster will be faster than most; he really brings a lot of status with him.

Similarly Claudio Castagnoli, rebranded as the more manageable Antonio Cesaro, has been making his mark. Though I’ve admittedly had less involvement with Cesaro, he like Rollins has had a taste of the WWE undercard. His background has been across a variety of indy platforms and his in ring prowess in undeniable, as seen here in a triple threat match against Ohno and Bo Rotundo. 
 Both these guys seem to have really good singles characters, although a personal notion I would like to put out there would be NXT getting its act together and having a season of tag teams much like they did with the, ahem.. divas… But seriously, I feel an NXT tag team tournament would help rebuild the broken tag division, and having the reformed and aptly named Kings of Wrestling win it would up the anti in that division. However with last week’s Smackdown debut for Cesaro this looks unlikely. With a quick look at the way that he has been introduced, WWE are again hiding his immediate connection with the company pushing his European rugby player image which creates a distinction with his ‘real’ history that many smart fans will already know. I was pleased to see his ring attire cross over to his televised WWE debut however, and his in ring performance was pretty interesting by comparison to the three other squash match style intros the E have been parading of late.

I understand that while these guys all bound by their ROH background, the FCW roster is also housing wrestlers form other established organisations but there is something important happening (or has been happening) in ROH. I feel that the style that ROH embodies is shaping wrestling globally as ‘ROH originals’ have established themselves in the mainstream. Within ROH currently there are a number of inspiring performers (adversely to this blog’s suggestions actually housing ex WWE superstars Haas and Benjamin), including ‘Die Hard’ Eddie Edwards, Roderick Strong, and the current champ Davey Richards, who all seem great in the ring. However there is one man currently ruling the ROH roster. 

I didn’t want to like Kevin Steen - he is the ‘Internet Snark’ lived out as a wrestling character but his mic work, especially that seen on Young Wolves Rising (the 10th Anniversary show), steals the show. His wrestling skill also seems surprising although this is kept to a minimum for sensational over the top assaults. His use of props utilises ROH’s spirit of knowingness while also referencing the past – the ‘Jim Cornett’ with his tennis racket was/is great and Steen plays it with a sarcasm that comes off as wit, how threatening can someone make a tennis racket look? Well when Steen ambles around with it (displaying the face of current ROH Champion Davey Richards), it actually does appear to be menacing, but that comes down to the wrestlers demeanour and intent. The downside to Steen’s persona however in my mind is the nWo style anti establishment idea. I feel like his hatred is misplaced, why would he want to destroy ROH? Because he wants to re build it in his form… well on the other hand perhaps there is something to that. For all that ROH has achieved it does feel as if its own prestige is outweighing it somehow. The top guys in the company don’t really carry the same explosive personality as other names to pass through the gates and although the in ring ability is stellar, the charisma does seem lacking; perhaps this is something that Steen’s persona alludes to? Regardless of all that Steen delivers on sheer creativity and although I cant quite see him with WWE I’m sure he will have a bright career (although I’m sure many said the same of Mick Foley). With the spotlight on Ring of Honor getting brighter, It seems that the company is attracting stars in their own right, the forthcoming PPV will see another return of in ring legends and fan favourites Lance Storm and ‘Fit’ Finley and with the looming title match between Davey Richards and Kevin Steen perhaps its time once again for personality to rule in the Ring.
The influence that CM Punk and now Daniel Bryan have within the WWE will undoubtedly alter the companies direction somewhat, and though its obvious that the E are pushing their internationality through the richness of the current roster, it should be noted that the characters being produced are either informed by the WWE Champion’s connections – see the emergence of Cesaro, or by his influences – see Lord Tensai; if CM Punk is the Bret Hart of his era then Tensai would surely be his Yokozuna (by extension in this scenario John Cena would be Hulk Hogan returning at Wrestlemania to ruin the event). There are a number of ROH alumni leading the pack, and though it’s true that TNA got there first with Hernandez, Samoa Joe and AJ Styles, WWE seem to be utilising the talent better now. Perhaps this next three weeks will be memorable in more ways than one, there are potentially two era defining main event matches running parallel to one another, ten years in the making, at one end of the scale the WWE championship between CM Punk and Daniel Bryan at the other the ROH Championship between Davey Richards and Kevin Steen. Ten years in the making, two new era’s rising.