How very odd. Two hearts, out of body, simultaneously beating side by side.
[adinserter name=”366 left”]To the right, a ring-worn Tommy Dreamer, hanging out rust-bucket-casual behind a gimmick table of ECW DVDs. To his left, all-too-recently TNA World Heavyweight Champion AJ Styles, seemingly incognito-intent with a Georgia Bulldogs ball cap and leather jacket, signing photos and selling DVDs at the table next door.
Dreamer remains the identifiable heart of Extreme Championship Wrestling, even thirteen years after the body flatlined in bankruptcy court. Wherever he travels, be it one night jaunts into a WWE or TNA ring, or a special appearance at an ambitious indy, “E-C-DUB” chants ring out as if the letters were his very initials. They may as well have been, given the weight of the Philly cart he voluntarily dragged to asunder lengths.
By that token, Styles qualifies as his TNA equivalent: not only a Green Beret in kickpads under a Dixie-land flag, but the most loyal soldier enlisted. With deserters and discharges throughout the ranks, Styles kept firing away into the mist, his aim only as good as the company targets of growth and success could allow. That TNA’s braintrust built the scopes themselves should not in any way diminish Styles’ ethic: such were his performances that, as a soldier, if he ran of bullets, he’d opt to bludgeon the armed adversary with his weapon rather than retreat.
Dreamer and Styles, side by side, at Combat Zone Wrestling’s 15th anniversary gala in Voorhees, NJ this past Saturday night. For Dreamer, still active in his early 40s, it’s not much of a surprise to see him around a promotion with ECW’s guttural spirit. Without devaluing Dreamer’s hard-earned name in comparison, and without cheapening the brand of wrestling that CZW has made an indy fixture, it’s more perplexing to see Styles spending his Saturday night in anything other than a TNA ring.
By now, Styles’ conspicuous absence from TNA broadcasts, caused by an expired contract and a failure to come to terms on renewal, has become a stand-upon summit for TNA critics, perhaps above all other company blunders: how could these people let AJ Styles, the “Phenomenal One” from day one, slip through their treadless fingers?
For his part, Styles, brought in to headline against company champion, throwback-minded Drew Gulak, had little to say about the stalemate between he and his currently ex-employer.
“There’s nothing new on the TNA front, no,” said Styles with disbelieving and regretful grit, between signings at the table. He shares the confoundment of the CZW show-goers who suddenly found a bona fide star occupying the same venue as their local heroes. With his casual attire and cheery-neighbor demeanor, Styles almost feels more like a fellow fan surprised by the contract impasse than the wrestler himself.
To many fans, both wide-eyed kids and starstruck diehards alike, Styles’ appearance was simply welcome, contractual specifics be damned.
“No steps back, you just gotta move forward,” Styles said of his circumstances. Hey, TNA’s loss is virtually everyone else’s gain. If Carter clutches the checkbook like a sick child, the indy scene will only fill Styles’ weekends with paydays, cash waved in reverence.
For CZW, having hosted Styles before in their annual Best of the Best tournament, they could hardly call a freelance advent a ‘homecoming’, but once the long-standing cornerstone of a national promotion made his entrance to a remixed rendition of VAST’s “Touched”, he may well have been a Marine returning home from war. Lord knows the battlefront horror stories he’d try to repress out of diplomacy.
The ringing chants of “F–K TNA” weren’t likely to induce a bout of PTSD, either. What may seem a denouncement of a company’s head-shaking decision was more a raspberry-buzzed dismissal: “Man, screw those guys; they let *him* go? Their loss!”
Possibly a record crowd for the Flyers Skate Zone had turned up for the anniversary event, with many viewers not even afforded seating; it literally seemed CZW had doubled, and then some, the usual crowd for any of their monthly shows, even the serial spectaculars that promise the best in eye-popping wrestling or flesh-tearing violence.
There was a time when Styles was the one to watch in the indies, before TNA showcased him in match one back in 2002. Aside from appearance, the new-found forward-combed Pixie cut and five o’clock shadow of his 2013 redemption run, this was venerable Styles.
The classics came out against Gulak, a loathesome heel who fancies himself a grappler of fairground and coliseum yore (he doesn’t even wear kneepads, dad gummit!). The Pele kick. The flipping dropkick. The Superman forearm. Modern touches finished the portrait, like his vicious looking Calf Killer leglock. An unfamiliar wrinkle was displayed a single-arm facelock-turned-spiking brainbuster. The sometimes finicky fans oohed at that one.
For a few moments, the fight took to the crowd, both men lost in a sea of humanity that a Biblical icon would strain to part. Several minutes passed before the blob of hollering tenants spit them out over the railing. Between the tour of the rink and intricate sequences in the ring, it was easy to see Styles a man of high expectation. Good luck poring through TNA’s archives of matches that he didn’t give unencumbered effort; this one doesn’t make the cut either.
Sadly, like all visiting icons, a title change wasn’t in the cards. Before Styles could hoist the dazed Gulak into the Styles Clash that snared his first NWA World Title over a decade back, Gulak’s valet, top-flight indy talent Kimber Lee smashed Styles with the title belt for a disqualification. That earned her and Gulak matching Clashes, ensuring the hero’s measure of victory, moral in actuality.
[adinserter name=”366 right”] Earlier in the evening, when Styles took part in an intermission signing session, he thumbed through the ECW DVD collection during a lull, a fan like any. A bystander asked if he watched ECW during its existence, and he’d admitted he did, even if it was on at two in the morning. The same man asked if he would have ever wanted to work there.
Without pause, Styles gosh-darnedly grinned, “Definitely, but back then, I wasn’t ready.”
Had Styles been ‘ready’, and ECW understood what he brought to the table, there’s little doubt he’d have been on board with one call. What stops others that know his value from making the same call is of great mystery.
Justin Henry has been an occasional contributor to Camel Clutch Blog since 2009. His other work can be found at WrestleCrap.com and ColdHardFootballFacts.com. He can be found on Twitter, so give him a follow.
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