Despite my best efforts, I had no one to go to a wrestling show with. That should be the title of my memoir. This time I was in Dayton, OH, tooling around with nothing to do. I was staying with my friend Lyle, who was a recovering meth addict living in an apartment building that looked sort of like a storage unit with a sliding glass door. He had a job operating a forklift. He had a shift a few hours before the show, so I was kicked out of his house and forced to explore the city. I smoked cigarettes and walked around and probably ate dinner at an IHOP or something. A dude I met once in a bar was an IHOP waiter in Lakewood, OH and said that one time Batista and HHH ate there. They both ordered the same massive egg white omelette with every sort of meat you could imagine. This wasn’t too long after that, so I think I had some sort of bizarre fantasy of sitting in the IHOP alone, and seeing a cadre of rasslers come in. Even in my fantasy I’d not talk to them, I’d leave them alone, but I’d be sitting close enough to overhear whatever they were talking about, and it would make for a good story to write or tell later down the road. It never happened.
I loved spending time with Lyle, who was the most conservatively minded recovering addict and Grateful Dead fan I knew. We’d talk on the phone, or on AIM, and the conversation would shift so suddenly, one second he’d be telling me about some String Cheese Incident show and I would have no idea what he was talking about and the next minute he’d be giving me some economic treatise straight out of an Ayn Rand wet dream. I remember one time the big idea was tax returns should be in gift cards to shopping malls so that everyone was forced to stimulate the economy. It was something like that, I can’t really remember. I’d never be able to follow along, I’ve never had a mind for politics, but I’d nod politely while not having the nerve to argue, nor the words to make my arguments make sense. I always felt like I was in a movie or a sitcom when we would talk, chatting with some character that was fully formed and exactly what I wanted out of an acquaintance. The kooky neighbor that I could call up any time I wanted and laugh and argue and just say words with no point other than enjoying each others company and wanting it to continue.
I stopped at a bar after I ate. I didn’t know anyone at the show and it was still a few hours from starting and drinking out of boredom was a pretty standard theme of my mid-twenties. I got a nice buzz going. I’d sober up over the course of the show, I was sure, and I didn’t think I’d drink once I got back to Lyle’s house because I didn’t know if he’d be up for drinking with me, and drinking alone in front of someone in recovery seemed a little awful, even for me. I’d sober up as the night went on, I’d try my best to time my smoke breaks with my bathroom breaks, and everything would be cool. I talked to the bartender about wrestling for a bit, and I spent too much money on the jukebox. I can always tell how drunk I am by how much I spend on jukebox songs. I remember playing Heroin by the Velvet Underground, and a bunch of Morrissey songs, and I crooned along under my breath when no one was looking.
My most vivid memory of this show, which wasn’t a very good one overall, didn’t even happen in the ring. At intermission, two brothers, both probably under twelve, started to rassle with each other. One was wearing a Briscoes shirt. They were putting on enough a show to get a small, bored crowd in general admission to pay attention to them. It came to a sudden end when the older of the two took his younger brother and gave him the stiffest DDT I’ve ever seen on the tile floor. It was unreal. The crowd popped like an And1 mixtape audience watching one of those old skateboarding accident videos. The younger of the two got up a bit woozy, but generally no worse for wear. The indestructibility of youth.
This was going to be my first experience seeing Takeshi Morishima as Ring of Honor World Champion, and to be honest, I was pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. The Homicide win at Final Battle 2006 was the most feel good moment in my experience with ROH, and was a rare true culmination of a narrative in professional wrestling. Homicide had been on the outskirts of the ROH/CZW feud, almost like Sting during the nWo stuff in WCW. When Cage of Death happened, a lesser company would have made it a finality; Homicide would have entered a conquering hero, vanquished all evildoers, and rode off towards an ever setting sun, content in his abilities. Instead, Cage of Death merely set the table for the next great arch. Bryan Danielson, long balanced on a razor’s edge, left ROH in the lurch and put himself above the company he was champion of. Homicide, the man who pulled ROH from the brink of death, was bloodied and maced by Jim Cornette, a man who had begged him to help, simply because he had asked for Cornette to reinstate Low-Ki. This was practically Shakesperean by wrestling standards. It led to the aforementioned wonderful moment in New York, but the money was in the chase. Homicide was destined to be a footnote.
That being said, there was buzz that night that perhaps Morishima was destined to be an even smaller one. As I’ve written about before, BJ Whitmer always seemed to be in the main event when ROH came to Dayton, and this was no exception. The room was buzzing that Morishima’s win was just a political move with NOAH, and a way to get the ROH Title some more buzz and prestige. Dayton had been home to many great title matches, but never a change. People felt as though it might happen. For a moment, as the lights dimmed and the familiar music started up, it dawned on me this is what it must have been like to be a fan during the territory days. A local hero was getting his shot, and the champion was someone you’d only read about in magazines, or heard talked about. You didn’t know what to expect, and through that ignorance, hope was born.
Before Morishima’s music hits, there is a tepid chant of “New World Champ.” Morishima enters slowly, in a fur coat and black cowboy hat, and he looks for all the world like some massive savage, captured and thrown into a gladiator arena, unsure of his surroundings but wary. There was something so innately interesting about him. He was pampered and put together in a way that should have looked affected, but instead came across as totally earnest, as though this is how he thinks a champion should look, like a former bouncer wearing a new suit for his job at the bank. Yet for all of that, he can’t fight against his baser instincts, and attacks Whitmer violently before the bell. Streamers are being thrown and Whitmer, the hometown hero, is already crumpled on the floor, being tossed into a barricade, being assaulted with a steel chair. The crowd is stunned.
Looking back, this is pretty great introductory storytelling. ROH fans had been conditioned to a specific type of title match. It would start off slow, as two skilled warriors would test each other out before the action escalated throughout the match. Even violent brawlers like Homicide would work like this. Now Morishima, a man from the land that is supposed to share these ideals, to above all else have respect within wrestling, is coming in and essentially saying “fuck your codes”. The crowd is stunned into early silence. Even as Whitmer finally mounts some offense, Morishima simply shrugs off chops and clubs away with his forearms. He’s not a wrestler in these early moments, he’s a force of nature, always moving forward. He’s an overgrown child, acting out and showing off.
Credit is due to BJ Whitmer as well. Moreso than a lot of ROH wrestlers at the time, he was willing to change up his early formula, which really adds to the match here. A few people in the crowd start chanting Morishima, which gets immediately drowned out by many telling them to shut the fuck up. Morishima absolutely kills Whitmer with some hip attacks, and starts to interact with the crowd a little bit. He’s gained more confidence in the ring. Even in unfamiliar towns, in small buildings, against strange opponents, he has realized that his fists hurt others the same. He can still beat people, he’s still bigger, and stronger and somehow quicker and surely meaner than anyone. At this point, Morishima is a 290 pound cat playing with his food. Whitmer hits him in the face, and for the first time, we see Morishima truly angered and not just workman-like. He kills him in the corner, accompanied by ugly, primal screams and a sense of true unadulterated violence. Morishima has yet to sell anything in this match. Getting annoyed with Todd Sinclair has been the only thing that has stopped the onslaught.
In that brief moment in time, Whitmer gathers himself enough to fight Morishima like he would Andre the Giant or King Kong Bundy and duck a slow, looping right and drop kick the knee in order to get the bigger man off his feet. Whitmer sends Morishima crashing through the ropes and finally stands tall after a tope. In a nice personal call back to the opening moments, Whitmer throws Morishima into the barricades. Still desperate, he tries for a suplex on the floor, but it is not to be. In a spot I am sure is intentionally reminiscent of Vader, Morishima powerbombs Whitmer on the outside, leaving him to clutch at the back of his head. Lenny Leonard is shocked on commentary, basically talking about him like Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers but with the same haircut as Eleanor Friedberger.
Whitmer sells the powerbomb with the appropriate gravitas and cannot even run corner to corner without falling into a heap. His heart won’t let him quit in his hometown, and he still kicks out, and we see frustration for the first time on the part of his opponent. Morishima hits a missile dropkick, but I couldn’t see his facial expression so I don’t think I can properly judge how impressive it was. Only DVDVR will laugh at that joke.
Shortly after, Whitmer gets a truly credible nearfall after a frog splash and an exploder suplex. It doesn’t get a three count, but it gets the crowd to finally chant his name, which I suppose is a real moral victory. Morishima hits the Amaze Impact and glowers and the crowd applauds politely. Rewatching this on video, it seems like they were almost intimidated in to showing appreciation. It’s perfect.
And just like that it’s over.
Whitmer, clearly rattled, and at a loss for what to do next, goes for a chokehold. I’m sure he realized how bad an idea this was as his feat left the ground and his head hit the mat. He kicks out only to be picked up again and eventually meet his destined defeat. Morishima keeps his title. The title will fly back to Japan. There will be no title defenses the rest of the Fifth Year Festival. Christmas is ruined. The champion broods in the corner. He bites into the leather on the belt and scowls, watching the people who cheered against him and hoped for his demise file passively out into the cold Ohio night. Someone, somewhere, plays his music.
The next day I slept late and Lyle was up when I got up and we sat around and wasted most of the day, which I had no complaints about. Our friend Doug called, he lived in Miami, OH and said there was a party and we left for it almost immediately. On the back roads as we drove down, the worst ice storm I’ve ever been in started and we skidded and white knuckled our way to Doug’s apartment. I turned the stereo down, afraid that hearing a song I liked would distract me and break my concentration, and we’d spin out of control and get stuck in some field, frozen by morning because no one was as stupid as we were, and no one would be out in this shitty terrible Ohio weather. When we got there I smoked a cigarette with the window down and the heat from my car on at full blast and I watched the little tiny bits of hail melt as the landed on the inside of my car. We only went to the party for a brief moment before Doug found out some girl he thought would be there wasn’t coming. We spent the rest of the night playing cards and talking about girls and summer plans that seemed closer than they actually were. I fell asleep in my winter coat on the couch with an ashtray on the floor and the faint hum of a Brian Jonestown Massacre record being played through the wall. They salted the roads overnight.