A girl named Rachel worked with me at the Beck Center for the Performing Arts. She ran the front desk, and some times when I would go in and do the weekend matinees I would see her and smile and she would smile back. She was thin and had long thick brown hair, the kind that I associate with girls raised on farms, like if you stared at it long enough you’d inevitably find a hidden piece of straw. Occasionally we’d go out for a cigarette at the same time and we’d make small talk, facing each other, our backs pressed against brick walls so that people could walk in past us. We’d always stop talking when we saw someone coming, like we’d been caught doing something wrong even when the conversation was completely innocuous.
It was October and the weather was getting colder, sweater weather, and I’d exhale smoke and try and find the moment where the smoke was all out and the steam from my breath was still going. I’d go back to work, getting ready for some show or another, doing a job that I had just the barest understanding of. I’d think about going back and talking to her at the desk but always found a reason not to. I would put on headphones and finish up everything I needed to do with an hour to spare, and I’d sit around and listen to The Pogues and read Jim Carroll poetry and wait for the actors to come in.
On Sunday mornings I’d come in and have to pay more attention because the cleaning was always done by someone doing community service after getting a DUI, and I guess the house rules were that I had to be watching the stage while they cleaned it to make sure they served the community in an appropriate fashion. Mostly they were middle-aged white men who would finish without saying a word and then wait for the bus on Detroit Avenue. One Sunday, Rachel came and sat with me. We didn’t really talk, she just said hello and sat down, and then she heard the phone ringing and she ran off. Later that day, this guy Damien who was the parking lot attendant came up to me and handed me a note from Rachel that had her number in it. I remember making some quip about how I felt like this was some weird unnecessary high school shit, and Damien just shrugged. We parted ways and I knew I had just said that stuff to protect myself, because I could hear my heart going boom inside my head, and seeing her handwriting and the subtle curves of the 2s and 6s in the phone number made me think entirely to deeply about what she was like outside of her life behind the desk where I always saw her.
I played it cool for a few days because I knew I wouldn’t see her at work and I called on a Wednesday night and we had a phone conversation with the number of fits and starts you’d expect from two people who didn’t really know each other. I think I thanked her for the note, which seems incredibly polite but as soon as I said it I furrowed my brow and bit my lip wished I could wish words back in to my mouth. I asked her out on Friday, telling her I had plans in the evening, but we could meet up late and do something fun. Cool, she said, that works perfectly, I also have something to do but I’ll probably be done around midnight and we can hang out after. I hung up, procrastinating on figuring out the details, my heart soaring, feeling that feeling you only get when you know someone wants to spend time with you. A constant smile in your stomach and the gentlest ringing in your ears.
The plan I had on Friday that made me push back a date was the first ever Ring of Honor show in my hometown of Cleveland, OH. I suppose I had learned my lesson for the time being about taking girls to rasslin shows. Instead, I’d go with my friend Mike, and a few others, a small group. I think I was the only person who’d ever been to an ROH show before, but interest in wrestling was sort of back amongst my peers. The ECW One Night Stand pay-per-view and the Hardcore Homecoming tours had reminded people of a time for them when wrestling felt hip and cool. I suppose that looking back, it’s the first instance I can remember of wrestling appealing to me out of nostalgia. I wasn’t alone.
I stopped at a bar on the east side of Cleveland and bought a few beers and chatted with the bartender, this guy Erich I knew. I left and bought a can of Steel Reserve for the bus ride to Mike’s dorm room and a two more for after the show. When I met up with Mike, we looked at the ROH website to figure out the card. I remember Mike told me he knew who was going to be good based on the prices of the shirts. For example, the Carnage Crew shirt was only eight dollars, so they were garbage. To be honest, it was actually a pretty ingenious system. It cut right to the heart of everything.
The show was being built around the first title defense of Bryan Danielson, who had recently won the belt. Danielson had won it a month previous in Long Island. I’ve never really thought about it like this before, but I suppose this was sort of a pattern for ROH, in that the title change would be at the big East Coast shows, while the build up for the first defense would kick off the midwest dates. I was excited to see what Danielson was going to bring as a champion. ROH was coming off a string of tremendous champions. Samoa Joe’s reign was in the recent past, and had done a ton to put ROH on the map before starting to make his mark in TNA. The Summer of Punk was fresh on the minds of the fans, and Punk had recently starting in OVW. There was a guy outside selling VHS tapes of his debut. James Gibson was the man who had lost the belt to Danielson, and upon his defeat went directly back to the WWE.
It was not a stretch to say that the ROH title was seen as a stepping stone, a spotlight, a grand stage for talented performers to ply their craft without restrictions and get noticed. the pervading school of thought at the time was that Danielson, as pure a wrestler as their was in the world, was not capable of showing the requisite personality to reach the heights of the men that had come before him. People filed in to the Gray’s Armory and wondered if this was merely a consolation prize, a lifetime achievement at 24 for someone who would always remain on the indies.
Or perhaps it was a conscious choice, a champion capable of in ring heights higher than anyone, but one that was sure to stay in ROH. People chatted in line, and had theories upon theories. Low Ki sold his shirts out by the side of the building, the one with the cartoon ghetto pirate. BJ Whitmer was pacing in the parking lot next door, talking on a cell phone.
The match starts with some arm work from Dragon, which Aries reverses and leads to an early stand off spot, which actually works to their advantage, as the crowd was very quiet and the stand off as an applause cue got them back involved. Aries has what I can only describe as the beard equivalent of Mr. T’s haircut. They briefly go over the history of Aries and Danielson, which at this point had Aries up 2-1. The last Aries victory had been the story line excuse for Danielson taking an extended break from ROH to find himself, so this is being set up not only as a stout way first defense, but as a way to exorcise some demons as well.
It’s interesting and sort of genius that they’ve taken the time to set Danielson’s reign up as a sort of inverse to Punk. While Punk won the belt and fled ROH, using it purely to make a splash elsewhere, Danielson is being billed as the champion whose brand is that he has none. Instead of leaving, the early part of Danielson’s reign is based upon him sending open contracts to every independent wrestling company in the world and making the best come to him. Punk used the title to showcase to a larger audience why he was already the best, while Danielson has taken that same title and looked inward, using it as an opportunity to find new challenges, to better himself. Punk’s constant need to prove himself to others was what led to him being vilified, while Danielson only needs the title in order to prove things to himself. Austin Aries is the first obstacle, the one person he couldn’t solve in the promotion he called home. In addition to these personal tests, the Danielson title reign being billed as this pure wrestling, anti-corporate wrestling showcase was a great way for Gabe and for ROH to rebuild a brand they had so carefully cultivated over the past few years and stepped away from briefly over the summer. They differentiated themselves while still allowing plenty of space for narratives as they arose. One of the hardest things in wrestling to give yourself is a blank canvas, and it shows how in control Gabe Sapolsky was that he was able to create that with Danielson.
Aries gets the first nearfall of the match off a missed dropkick, and so far the match has been based around how well these two know each other. Danielson had recently spent some time in England, and you can see some World of Sport influences with little callouts to Steve Grey in the early going here. After fighting over a piledriver, Danielson hits Aries with a backslide for a two count. The force and speed with which Danielson hits rolls ups and pins is an underrated trait within his work. It really makes him stand out as a technician who is constantly working and improving. That is reiterating when he actually is able to counter Aries trying that dropkick out of the headscissors that he did every match. Well, he counters it twice, but Aries goes back to it. I guess there are some things that you just can’t fully prepare for.
Danielson often got comparisons to Johnny Saint, due to him being the most readily available WoS guy at the time and because Danielson did a few spots that were very clearly his takes on things Saint would do, but Steve Grey always seemed like the worker who was closer in spirit to Dragon. While Saint always wrestled with a twinkle in his eye, with matches often built around being a little cheeky and playing with his opponent, Grey took to wrestling as though it were a sport, almost singularly ignoring a crowd, and hitting spots that always advanced his plan, no matter the circumstance. Danielson always seemed a descendant of that particular tree and it shows in this match, as he works Aries left arm in a hammerlock, but presses down on the side of his face for leverage and slams his own body down to the mat repeatedly for that little extra bit of force. Each move a step forward, each twist leading to the next.
Danielson continues to twist the arm as both men get their feet, and watching this now it’s breathtaking seeing how well Danielson subverts patterns to keep the audience interested. Instead of doing basic things like continuing the arm wrench, he stops short in the middle and slams it down on his shoulder, accentuated with his foot slamming on the mat to make sure we are all paying attention. Shortly after, in the ropes, Danielson tells the referee that he has until five, as he would repeatedly over the next few years. It seems a bit silly now that we always complained of how bland he was when it’s clear from every choice and movement that Bryan Danielson knew exactly who he was as champion from minute one of his first defense. It’s unbelievable.
Danielson hits an uppercut and a couple of chops that are brutal looking, and then a knee with Aries draped over the top rope. Aries finally finds an opening by flipping over and hitting a back drop driver, and to his credit he continued to sell the left arm. Aries on offense gets a couple of strikes in, but quickens the pace a touch and starts to go for some higher impact maneuvers to give some nice contrast to what Dragon has been doing. It pays off for Danielson nicely when he is able to counter with the running moonsault out of the corner in to a spin kick, showing that he is adept at multiple styles.
It’s fun to see this with hindsight and see things like the surfboard turning in to the stomp on the back of the knees, which would become such an integral spot in the later title defenses. It’s amazing how natural this all seems to Danielson, like he was just born with this insane bag of tricks and an innate ability to know where and when to use them to make people pay attention. Perhaps that surfboard stomp is an informative moment for Danielson, as after that he works much more like a heel, with cocky looks to the crowd, and an overconfident pose on the top turnbuckle leading to an Aries counter. Aries builds momentum and heads up top, calling for the 450, but Danielson hits the ropes and capitalizes with a the belly to back superplex. Aries gets his most believable nearfall on a countered roll up. Aries rolls through on another 450 attempt, but shortly after gets caught in a series of submissions, culminating in a crossface chickenwing and victory for Bryan Danielson.
As we poured out in to the brisk fall night, I was texting Rachel. I still didn’t have a plan for a date, but I had two tall boys, a swiss army knife, charm and enough beer in me to make me think that all my ideas were fundamentally solid. We met at the Steak and Shake on Rocky River Drive and I got there first and didn’t order but had a cigarette. She showed up a few minutes late, wearing a long green dress and a sparkly necklace and a corsage around her wrist. Her plan that evening, while I was screaming my head off at a wrestling show with my friend and some of his fraternity brothers, was homecoming. We’d spoken and chatted and talked and never bothered to think that maybe we were different ages. I was 21 and she 18 but it felt all of a sudden like there was an ocean between us. She ordered a coffee and I a coke and when the waitress brought them for a brief moment I thought that her choices that evening already seemed inherently more adult than mine. We laughed and talked and gossiped but I felt shy and awkward and in my head and I kept thinking about the note she left for me. When she asked me to go to an after party, a bonfire her friends were throwing, I politely declined. We hugged and I smiled and wished her in all honesty a fun night and I cracked a Steel Reserve as she pulled out of the parking lot and put on my headphones and played a Smiths song on repeat. I was only a few blocks from a game store that was open til one or two most nights. I gave the other beer to the store owner and when that was done he gave me money out of the register to buy him another from the bodega across the road.