Low Ki vs. American Dragon (ROH Round Robin Challenge 3/30/02)

Match Reviews

This review was commissioned by Dan Vacura over on my Ko-fi account.

In more ways than one, it feels like an unpolished product. In fairness, a lot of that stems from happening in a company that’s in its infancy. My nostalgia for 2000s ROH doesn’t go nearly so far as its first year of existence, and there’s a lot of early weirdness on display here. They haven’t figured out the announce team yet, the fans chant “Ring of Honor!” instead of ROH, and worst of all everything’s happening under blinding lights instead of being cordoned off with massive black curtains. We’re very much situated in a company still searching for its identity, and a lot of those small things have yet to be refined. Even the whole idea of being an “honor-based” company feels so much more blunt and ridiculous here than later on. Although peak ROH was never exactly subtle about this point, they do at least get better than implying that the action in-ring is the evolution of what Greco-Roman wrestling pictured centuries ago.

These are all points on presentation, but the truth is that this same lack of polish finds its way to the in-ring product as well. That may seem like an odd criticism to levy at two wrestlers like Low Ki and American Dragon, who even at this early stage of their careers so much better at the raw physicality of pro wrestling than a million imitators and contemporaries since. But I find that there’s a lack of confidence in the overall construction of the match than any one singular moment. Everything they do looks great and generally lands flush, but it’s the motivation behind those actions that often leave me questioning.

The primary issue seems to be a lack of focus on what they’re trying to achieve here. It’s an example of how the numerous influences that made the 2000s super indies such a thriving environment for pro wrestling acts as a bit of a double edged sword. To be entirely fair to these two, it feels like a classic folly of youth and inexperience, both as individual performers and as a scene in general. That melting pot of styles doesn’t feel synthesized quite yet when it’s deployed in this bout. It’s what leads to strange little intrusions like a very gritty, almost shoot style-influneced early section suddenly having Dragon bust out a lucha La Campana. Or later on, in a much more damaging move for the match, why such a closed quarters mat based encounter begins to veer towards a more obvious, and also more dull American indie bombfest. It all speaks to a certain lack of commitment and confidence with the tools they’re working with, and also to a potential overambition–wanting to do it all instead of doing one thing perfectly.

That’s what Dragon and Ki get wrong here, but their legacies are predicated on the things they get right. And by God, do they get so much right.

I’ve already spoken about the physical intensity they bring here. These are two wrestlers who already have so much poise and comfort working a very hard-hitting and struggle-filled style. It’s what makes the first ten or fifteen minutes of this match feel nearly transcendent. All that clean technique to not only grab a rich variety of holds, never once leaning too long so that something becomes lazy or repetitive, but to also manipulate leverage. Small things like hooking a leg to take someone down to the mat, grabbing a limb at just the right angle. At its best, this match really does feel like some of the finer shoot work out there. Just this raw scrap for leverage and momentum, searching for that winning hold.

But the striking too, my god. The obvious thing to point to here are Ki’s kicks. That big one that cuts off the early mat work and sends Dragon spilling to the floor stands out, as does his follow up Kawada kicks to the face that seemingly start to bruise Dragon’s skin almost instantly (unless it’s a trick of this shoddy footage). But it’s there in smaller moments too, the way Ki has no trouble kicking from the ground to escape a hold or how both he and Dragon throw these short headbutts down on the mat to try and work their way out of trouble. It really does feel breathtaking at its best, all these small interactions that feel weighty, significant, and just visually interesting to behold.

They do so goddamn much on the mat, that it plays into the disappointment I feel when these two finally get up to their feet and aim for something less intricate and interesting. At the very least, it’s heartening to see them eventually work their way back towards that, with Dragon being presented as more adept on the mat, and thus wanting to ground things for the finish. That climactic Cattle Mutilation he grabs too is one of his best ever, Ki really gets twisted up into a gross angle that stands out among the hundreds of times Danielson’s locked that hold in.

But even the sense of pacing here feels mostly right. That patience to work their way through the mat section, really give that space to breathe, so that all those big bombs down the stretch really do at least feel like they pop in contrast. Or how well they incorporate strikes here as real honest game changers instead of just blind pissing contests where they stand and trade. It doesn’t always come together to make the neatest thing, but each individual piece on its feels miles ahead of so much else in wrestling.

It’s not entirely the finished product here. That just makes it so much more impressive that their “work in progress” stands above so many others’ “best possible effort.”

Rating: ****1/4

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