Tuesday, March 8, 2016

ROH could take some tips from New Japan

Ring of Honor is always a frustrating company for me. They have all the talent in the world with stars like Jay Lethal, The Young Bucks, Dalton Castle, Moose and Michael Elgin all regularly working their shows. They have a deep roster with a healthy mix of veteran talents (The Briscoes, Kazarian, The Motor City Machine Guns) and new stars (Donovan Dijak, Adam Page, Jonathan Gresham). But they also seem buried in a malaise where stories take months too long to develop and characters are never allowed to evolve naturally. And while the hotshot booking of TNA and WWE isn't necessary for a company as wrestling influenced as ROH, the company seems to have no understanding of how to integrate slower building old school feuds with new school storytelling.

Their Japanese promotional partner New Japan Pro Wrestling has been doing just that for years. In many ways, NJPW continues the wrestling as sports focus of Antonio Inoki it was founded upon forty years ago. The style has become more innovative, but New Japan is a company where wins and losses matter. It is a company where status is something that must be achieved. Even the current champion Kazuchika Okada still has nay-sayers, despite having years now as a major main event player in the company. Hirooki Goto and Tetsuya Naito have worked as heavyweights for nearly a decade each, but now both are entering the title picture for the first time. Yet New Japan continues to tell solid stories with their talents as they develop them through the regular storytelling cycle that kicks off at New Year Dash every year and culminates with the next year's Wrestle Kingdom.

ROH and NJPW have worked together for years now, even debuting full ROH
crossover events in Japan now.
Here are a few tips I think ROH could take from NJPW to help keep so much of its program from routinely feeling stale.

  • Tournaments: One of the strongest parts of New Japan's calendar is the four major tournaments it holds every year. The G1 Climax, World Tag League and Best of the Super Juniors are both Round Robin tournaments that allow the company's competitors to wrestle on multiple shows and fill multiple arenas over the course of a tour. The New Japan Cup is a single elimination affair that usually lasts over only three shows, but crowns a new major contender almost every year. ROH has two tournaments annually: the Top Prospect is used mostly to introduce new roster additions while Survival of the Fittest is usually used to set up the #1 contender at the year end show. But while both are solid, they don't really allow for the building of rivalries and establishment of talent that NJPW uses in its tournaments. And while I suspect booking a Round Robin tournament might be hard on ROH's schedule, TNA proved it was possible with their defunct Bound For Glory series. With the right talents in place, they could set up an entire major event with their version of the G1 while also giving fans a big set of shows to follow.
  • Factions: Ring of Honor has seemed weirdly shy of factions in the last few years, even though once upon a time the company was built around warfare between them. Most combat sports, even one on one fights like boxing and MMA, feature teams built for training and support. With multi-man matches common in ROH, three or four man groups focused around their major stars would only help build more matches over more storylines. A revived No Remorse Corps under Roderick Strong could feud with the already established House of Truth or a group built around Veda Scott and Cedric Alexander. RPG Vice could easily put together an American version of CHAOS (especially alongside new TV champion Tomohiro Ishii) while the Young Bucks could seek recruits for the Bullet Club. Not every wrestler has to be in a faction, but it would do a lot to bridge the slower paced storytelling with more opponents to stretch long running feuds. 
  • Titles: Let's be honest. ROH currently has a roster the same size as TNA and frequently brings in international guest stars from New Japan or the UK. But the company only has three titles. Fans have watched their support for talents like Elgin, Moose and Castle dwindle because ROH doesn't really give them significant victories in major storylines. Tournament wins would help them greatly, but an additional title or two wouldn't hurt either. The most obvious belt to add would be a duplicate of New Japan's newest title: a trios title. Coupled with increased factions, it could allow other stars to shine. The retired Pure Wrestling title might also be due for a return. It could be focused into a specific style of wrestling in the promotion, much like the NEVER Openweight belt has been in New Japan. With those new belts, the other current two belts could also be elevated to almost the same status as the World title, making them far greater prizes than they currently feel. 
  • Contracts: New Japan builds its talents around one year or two year contracts signed every February. It's a strangely simple system that few American companies, especially on the smaller scale, ever bother to make. Signing talents to shorter contracts allows easy storytelling over the course of a set period while also allowing the talents to move on to greener pastures should they choose within a few months of an offer. It is a win-win for a company the size of ROH.
Ring of Honor is in an interesting but uncomfortable place now. Sinclair Broadcasting has helped them expand to a far greater reach than they ever had before while their partnership with New Japan continues to help expand both brands. They are doing well in the pay-per-view market TNA and WWE have largely abandoned. But their storytelling fails to appeal to most younger fans, instead bringing in fanbases that still remember seeing old school wrestling as children forty years ago. And while bringing older fans in is great, without expanding their fanbase the company will never reach the level it clearly wants to reach.

My suggestions might not guarantee that rise either, but they would greatly increase the storytelling capabilities of a company often lambasted for its failures to tell stories inside and outside the ring, instead focusing on too many highspots in extended matches. But I know Ring of Honor can be better. I just hope the company makes it happen sooner rather than later.

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