The best wrestling inspires empathy.
All wrestlers aspire to create a persona or a moment so powerful that it inspires those watching to emotionally invest in their simulated struggles. It motivates every aspect of a professional wrestling performance—from the timing of offense to the expressiveness of one’s selling. The best wrestlers achieve this almost instinctually. The connection becomes so strong that the action in the ring becomes almost secondary.
That being said, I feel for Nigel McGuinness.
It’s easy to feel for the guy. Easily one of the best workers of the 2000s, Nigel McGuinness’ career found itself consistently hindered by bad choices and worse luck. Watching back a lot of his work now, over a decade removed from his peak, and the tragic waste of his potential becomes clearer than ever. Here’s a guy who got to rise to the top in an era of our generation’s super workers but never quite got to share in the same levels of glory as his contemporaries. For the most part, this happened to him because of things beyond his control.
Nigel’s final successful ROH World Championship defense against KENTA at ROH’s Seventh Anniversary Show feels like a concentration of so many of the issues that led to Nigel’s eventual downfall as a performer.
In no world was it responsible for this match to push through. Just the night before, while wrestling in a tag team main event match, Nigel tore a bicep. This would be the second bicep tear that Nigel suffered during his year long plus reign as ROH World Champion. At the start of his reign, he had torn the bicep in his other arm—an injury which famously prevented him from defending the title in New York City. Most of Nigel’s heel persona and character as champion got built around his very real injuries and the heat that he garnered from clinging on to the title while missing significant championship defenses.
Perhaps Nigel or Ring of Honor creative or both felt that another instance of Nigel missing a title defense in New York would be one step too far and so he ends up here wrestling without arms. His arm is visibly bandaged and Nigel’s movement looks restrained and awkward. He winces when KENTA kicks him in the arm. He grimaces in pain every time he bumps too hard on his arm.
The man is in pain and I feel for him.
This match isn’t really good in the traditional sense. There’s no genius layout here that makes the most of Nigel’s injury. The quality of Nigel’s offense takes a noticeable dip. He’s unable to hit any strikes with his arms with any kind of authority which robs him of his transition move of choice, the lariat. He instead settles for some softer headbutts which don’t strike with anywhere near the reckless abandon he used to throw when working with someone like Bryan Danielson. For the sake of Nigel’s health, that’s for the best but its to the detriment of the match.
There is something strangely watchable about this match though. It’s effective in the same way a good horror movie is. Most of it I spend cringing in anticipation that something goes horribly wrong for Nigel and I feel for him as he endures the experience. Many critics like to talk about the illusion of struggle being a marker for quality pro wrestling. The reality of struggle can have the opposite effect as Nigel is barely a functional wrestler here.
But I can’t look away.
It’s easy to feel for Nigel even when the match itself does little to support that. Sure, KENTA works over the champion’s arm to play off the real injury. But then the match goes into a heat segment where Nigel begins to work over KENTA’s arm but without the same snap and speed that made similar segments so effective in the past. KENTA has to sell the arm work but his put on pain pails in comparison to Nigel’s agonizing reality.
Despite being a defiant heel, still flipping off the crowd as he goes after beloved import KENTA, I just want Nigel to be okay. My thoughts for him transcend the kayfabe of the match and enter a strange meta space where I root for Nigel the performer to have better choices made for him. I wish that he didn’t have to work so hard running one of the most grueling schedules in ROH history. I wish that he’d had the opportunity to drop the championship before his body got driven into the ground. I wish that he’d lose the title here so that he can have some time to just rest.
There’s an attempt to heat things up with a pretty fun finishing stretch here. The two dodge and counter their signature offense with the highlights being Nigel both kicking out of and nailing his own Go To Sleep. But by the time Nigel locks in the London Dungeon and modifies it to get the win, it feels like a strange ironic joke. KENTA’s the one tapping out to an arm submission? Sure.
I wouldn’t disagree with anyone who say that this match is bad. There’s too much working against it for that to be false. But I find it a unique artifact in ROH’s history and Nigel McGuinness’ career. All the worst aspects of both feel concentrated in this match yet Nigel’s perseverance wins me over. Even as he makes a horrendous decision to perform—aggravating an injury that would later cost him a WWE contract—I can’t help but feel for the guy.
And in the end, that’s what wrestling’s about.
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