When Chris Hero was signed to WWE in 2012, the wrestling world was ignorant of the machinations of the corporate giant, buzzing away in the background. No one foresaw the swathes of talent absorbed into that sinister bloodstream, multiple companies left haggard and crumpled at the feet of an industry monolith.
No one expected the surreal, quick sweeping changes that would distort and shift the independent scenes away from their images in the past decade. Instead, what was seen was another unique signing, a tinge of curiosity at the idea of Chris Hero performing, and potentially succeeding, within WWE’s mythical ring.
Chris Hero, in many ways, was wrestling’s foremost everyman. He wrestled in a plethora of locations and promotions, typically as often as he could. He was a wrestling historian, familiar with odd and intricate moves, tidbits of wrestling knowledge strung together over his (at that point) nearly fifteen years of experience; he was a sound wrestler in love with the art of wrestling. He’d also achieved a relative level of success anywhere he wrestled, his technical expertise and brutal move-set netting him championships on multiple continents.
However, there was worry in Hero’s signing with WWE. Standing outside of WWE’s prototypical wrestler mold, there was lingering doubt that he would be taken seriously by his corporate governors. Hero, now Kassius Ohno, would at least be given a fighting chance to turn the opinions of his detractors in his direction.
Initially, Kassius performed well. Aside from the name change, there were enough tools within Ohno’s kit allowing him to maintain some semblance of a stylistic core. He had come in at a strange time, as focus shifted over from Florida Championship Wrestling – an underwhelming development brand well out of the average fan’s range – into NXT, WWE’s soon to be independent wrestling masquerade.
While he would spend years afterward chasing the company’s reapproval, Ohno was trying to make the best of his time in that twilight era of NXT. It had become clear though, that Ohno was an awkward fit in the view of his superiors. Their thoughts, stringent and inflexible, couldn’t be made to bend under the weight of Ohno’s pro wrestling artform.
Twenty-one months after his acceptance into pro wrestling’s North American megacorporation, Kassius Ohno departed. A wayward student exiled from his master’s dojo, Chris Hero was released back out onto the vibrant and healthy landscapes of independent wrestling. Determined to regain the acceptance of WWE, he penned love letter after love letter, wrestled match after match – a man possessed by ardor and fanaticism for his sport.
Hero was biding time with world-class performances, against any opponent, any style, in any place that happened to hold a wrestling ring. The Hero of old had returned in triumphant fashion, galvanized by a desire to right a critical mistake, to prove that he was beyond undeniable.
This period of four years between Hero’s release and re-signing was a swan song for himself. His best years were spent with his best opponents, his most engaging stories brimming with raw, uncut feeling. But, the euphoric highs of his peaks came with messages of sorrow, fleeting notions that this Chris Hero would disappear.
Watching him compete and be utterly astounding was bittersweet, knowing that the genius stowed away in Hero’s body had been mistreated, and was likely to be mistreated again. Locked under the keys of WWE’s discretion, Hero’s epics felt like elegies, lamentations for a brand of wrestling soon to be buried in a sterilized performance center. Fans, crowded around his matches, cheered in delight as he elbowed checkmarks into unblemished boxes – reestablishing, proving, and confirming himself.
Eventually, Kassius Ohno re-signed with the company, the career renaissance of Chris Hero shot and killed on arrival. He languished in NXT, dressed in ill-fitting jerseys, snubbed from marquee events, before finding his way onto NXT UK (the sub-brand to NXT’s sub-brand).
There, he seems content with his role – tying other nobodies into pretzels at his whims – on a show that is itself a mockery of British independent wrestling. Romantically, perhaps this is what he wanted, a sensible pocket of his own in a place that makes no sense, a steady paycheck in the insular bubble of WWE.
In retrospect, watching those final instances of Chris Hero is ominous, like seeing a drunkard gaze lovingly at the blurry basin of another glass, or seeing an overeager, veteran boxer stagger into punches that he knows will knock him out.
The wrestling world watched Chris Hero drift away into a recognizable place, all-too charted waters, content with his decision, knowing this time the inescapable familiarity that awaited him.