It would be disingenuous of me to write this without being honest. I never saw anything in Fred Rosser besides a lower preliminary match wrestler. Nothing about his in-ring style or charisma gave me any inclination he would last in the wrestling business. The first time I saw him on my television was twelve years ago, he was known as Darren Young, and he was being coached by CM Punk on an odd hybrid competition show produced by WWE.
Frankly, I still didn’t get it after his unceremonious release and subsequent return to WWE as a part of the Prime Time Players.
I admit I was wrong about Frederick Douglas Rosser III.
In 2022, he has become one of my favorite performers and has been embroiled in one of the best feuds in all of pro wrestling. A feud that has flown under the radar for the better half of a year.
Fred Rosser returned to televised pro wrestling in 2020 as a member of the NJPW Strong roster. A move that barely registered with most hardcore wrestling fans. For NJPW and their LA Dojo, it was a smart move. Rosser is an alumnus of arguably two of the most successful training programs of the last several decades for professional wrestlers, Florida Championship Wrestling and the WWE performance center/original NXT. Say what you will about current-day WWE and how they cultivate talent, but the early incarnation of their system had its benefits for the business. Fred’s knowledge of the business, both in and out of the ring, has undoubtedly benefited trainees and Young Lions as well as the seasoned performers who cycle in and out of the NJPW Strong multi-verse.
NJPW Strong is a weekly televised show on NJPW World and FITE.TV. The show’s premise is to familiarize an American audience with New Japan Pro Wrestling and its roster and give the young talent the opportunity to work in front of live audiences with various levels of experienced opponents. Each one-hour show will feature three to four matches showcasing talent from the LA Dojo system and from abroad. Many of the wrestlers are working their way through the Young Lion program headed by the legendary Katsuyori Shibata. The veteran wrestlers are there to lend their expertise and help create an entertaining television product. In addition to Rosser, veteran wrestlers such as Christopher Daniels, Josh Barnett, TJ Perkins and Tom Lawlor are regulars on shows. The likes of Daniels and Barnett, combined with the rotating roster, allow the young wrestlers to gain experience with true ring generals.
Adding Tom Lawlor to the roster furthered the chances that Strong would have instant credibility among American independent wrestling fans. Tom Lawlor spent the better part of the last decade visiting virtually every mid-major and major independent promotion in North America and abroad, stints in Ring of Honor and MLW honing his craft and creating an unmistakable aura for himself. It is clear, from both his work in and out of the ring, Tom is a voracious consumer of professional wrestling history. His character is a modernized throwback to the shitbag heels of yesteryear. He draws as much inspiration for his style and persona from the likes of Stan Hansen as he does Yugi Nagata. Lawlor has an innate ability to draw the ire of the crowd through simple pre-match rituals. His unwashed appearance is no mistake. His every move is a tribute to the greats who came before him. He’s a real piece of shit and he loves knowing you believe that of him.
In 2021, NJPW USA held a tournament to crown its first Strong Openweight Champion. In that tournament, Fred Rosser lost in the second round to Hikuleo, while Tom Lawlor bested all of his opponents, including Brody King in the finals to win the New Japan USA Cup and be awarded the Championship belt.
Tom Lawlor and his merry band of miscreants, Team Filthy have spent the subsequent twelve-plus months dominating the roster at every turn. Filthy Tom, as he likes to be known as, would win matches against various opponents, including Clark Connors, Chris Dickinson, Karl Fredericks and Fred Rosser. Rosser’s loss and how he earned an eventual rematch are the essence of pure, chaotic pro-wrestling storytelling and what inspired me to write this.
Tom Lawlor vs. Fred Rosser
The essence of pro wrestling lies in the ability to garner an emotional response from the audience in attendance and at home. The hatred between Fred Rosser and Tom Lawlor is as palpable as anything I have watched in my wrestling fandom. Tom Lawlor relishes the role of the scumbag we all have known at some point in our lives. If you haven’t known someone like him, either consider yourself lucky or look at yourself in the mirror because that scumbag may be you.
One of my favorite films from my youth is ‘My Bodyguard.” It is not a critically acclaimed masterpiece, but it is an excellent telling of the underdog story. In the movie, a very young Matt Dillon plays the role of a school bully named Moody. Moody is a smarmy little bastard who chooses the most fragile to take apart. He steals their lunch money, terrorizes their girlfriends and belittles them. He’s a real motherfucker. Not to ruin it for the uninitiated, but Moody gets his in a glorious and entertaining fashion. ‘Filthy’ Tom Lawlor reminds me of Moody, right down to the grungy denim.
Fred is sympathetic, not in a traditional way, but inspiring way. He owns the nickname “Mr. No Days Off.” Through all the adversity his life has experienced, Fred Rosser has stood up and stood the test of time. He wrestles with a simmering intensity. There is no significant distance between the character Fred plays and the person who lives inside him. It is not a stretch to say Fred Rosser has moved into my top ten favorite wrestlers to watch in 2022.
Fred “Mr. No Days Off” Rosser earned the initial Championship match against Lawlor after several tag and multi-person tag match victories over the contingent known as Team Filthy. Then, in a non-title match, Fred pinned Tom earning him the opportunity to challenge for the Championship. The result of that match was not only the first time Lawlor had been pinned in a Strong ring but it also garnered a reaction by Lawlor that will be burned in my memory bank for years to come. After the match, Team Filthy overpowered Rosser. Once subdued by Team Filthy, the next moments not only surprised me, but took me back to my youth and the grimy territory days of pro wrestling where reality and fantasy sometimes ran perfectly parallel. Brandishing a pair of scissors, Tom savagely cut swaths of Rosser’s hair in an attempt to humiliate, intimidate and neutralize his foe.
The visual of Rosser being held down and brutally attacked was not only disturbing but beautiful in its execution. The moments after the attack, once the heels had left the ring, are more important to the story than the act that took place before them. A physically and emotionally broken man is shown on our screens. In the silence, you can almost read his thoughts. The realization of the humiliation he had just endured and awakening to the fact he survived. Fred Rosser in 2021 and beyond is the epitome of a survivor. Overcoming the hate-filled attack from the grimy school bully. The nuance of this story arc, intentional or not, was going to have only one conclusion. Tom Lawlor would pay for his actions. In the immediate, the promo that aired after the attack was so great. The rawness of the emotion exhibited by Rosser was as line blurring as I can remember. The production value of censoring the majority of what Rosser said planned to do to Lawlor only added to the drama.
Lawlor followed up with a promo of his own that gave me chills.
Speaking about how he has been looking for someone to put him out of his misery, someone to dig his grave for him, felt real. The heel realizing his actions were only going to lead to one conclusion. Tom finally ran out of excuses and had to face his foe at Strong: Detonation in November of 2021. In what was eventually voted the Strong match of the year by fans, Rosser took Lawlor to the limit but eventually was unable to answer the referee. A match that lasted almost a half hour and was a brutal exhibition of violence became the tent pole for which this feud would live under.
One of the real tragedies here is for a match that is as good as this one is, only 19 Cagematch inmates have rated it. This speaks to the lack of audience a quality show like NJPW Strong draws on a weekly basis. The absence of buzz for this feud is a shame because these men have put their heart, body and soul into every aspect of it.
With the loss, it would have been understandable for this feud to end and both Rosser and Lawlor to move on. Instead, what we witnessed was some very compelling storytelling with more, um, hair-raising moments. Rosser, ever the competitor, was not satisfied with just one opportunity and the fact he did not lose via pin or submission but by referee decision, his justification for a rematch was baked in. Lawlor was having no part of it, though. Once again, Fred would have to take the long, arduous road to a rematch with the Champion.
In a brief departure from his fight through Team Filthy to get to Lawlor, Rosser had a match in January (air date: February) with Gabriel Kidd that remains on my list of best matches of the year. Before his sabbatical from pro wrestling, Gabriel Kidd had a transcendent start to his year. His match with Rosser was a brutal example of what each man can do when given the freedom to work his style. Rosser won the match but lost an eardrum in the process. When he returned to a Strong ring, he had his sights set on one thing, the Strong Openweight Championship.
Throughout the next six matches for Rosser, five were against some combination of Team Filthy. Four of these five matches resulted in losses. The final match in this series was a handicap match with a rematch for the Championship hanging in the balance. Rosser fought his heart out against the West Coast Wrecking Crew, but the tag team experts proved to be too much for him to overcome. The visual of broken and beaten Rosser on the mat while Lawlor and company posed over him seemed to signal the end of the journey for our hero.
Like any good story, the setup to the climax is paramount. This story is no different. With Rosser prone on the mat, a cocksure Filthy Tom Lawlor enters the ring and offers to give Rosser one more chance at the belt. But there is a catch. A humiliating catch. Rosser must allow his head to be shaved again if he wants that chance. Fred had finally grown his hair back to its original length. He has spoken of what his hair represents and how he takes pride in it. Lawlor used this opportunity to belittle Rosser, but in the end, the chance at reaching his goal outweighed any importance the temporary loss of his hair would mean to Fred. In an act of sheer, beautiful defiance, Fred grabbed the clippers and cut his own hair, never taking his eyes off of his disgusting foe. Instead of being demoralized, Fred used the moment as a springboard to push him to the next level. During this segment, Tom Lawlor absolutely lived up to his nickname by picking up a clump of Rosser’s hair from the mat and putting it in his mouth!
In the end, Lawlor proved to the crowd and the audience at home what most of us already knew, the lengths he will go for pro wrestling know no bounds. After no-selling the haircutting and denying a rematch, Lawlor rethinks his decision and adds the stipulation that if Rosser loses, he has to leave NJPW Strong for good. Ladies and gentlemen, we have heat and stakes, the two most important elements of a well-told pro wrestling story.
Rosser and Lawlor would meet one more time, appropriately enough in Philadelphia on Filthy Tom’s birthday. The match was a physical fight that ultimately saw Fred Rosser finally defeat his nemesis for the Strong Openweight Championship. His goal was achieved; Rosser celebrated the win with his family, including his grandfather, and a 2300 Arena full of fans. It was the culmination of a story well told. The new Champion breathes new life into Strong and opens up the possibility for new challenges.
Will this feud go down in history as one of the most unforgettable? No, that distinction is reserved for higher-profile rivalries. But, if you are looking for something to rekindle your passion for professional wrestling, you could certainly do worse than this battle for supremacy of the NJPW Strong Openweight Championship.
The story coupled with the visuals are some of the most memorable moments of the last few years.
Underrated? Without a doubt.
Undeserving of praise? Not a chance.