2013 began with a very unique occurrence in the world of pro wrestling. On Jan. 6 in Toronto, Ring of Honor and Dragon Gate USA, two very well-respected outfits among professional wrestling fans, saw both their champions in the same ring, facing off against each other.
It wasn't exactly as expected. The match that was promoted by independent wrestling outfit Smash Wrestling was to be a 1-on-1 non-title encounter between Kevin Steen (ROH champ) and Johnny Gargano (DGUSA champ). Instead, it became a tag team contest between Steen and Tyson Dux vs. Gargano and “Hacker” Scotty O'Shea.
Fans and critics in the audience may have thought that this move was done to protect both champions of different organizations, while still salvaging the match and leaving fans who bought tickets happy. In this scenario, Dux or O'Shea could have taken the fall.
Interestingly, that wasn't the case at all. At the end of the match Gargano pinned Steen cleanly in the middle of the ring.
Wins and losses may not necessarily matter in pro wrestling, especially as it pertains to singles champions in a tag team match, but there is significance to this moment in pro wrestling history.
To fully understand why, we must backtrack to when this match was originally conceived. Both Steen and Gargano had never faced each other in the ring. Smash Wrestling Promoter Sebastian Dastranj saw this as an opportunity to create a “dream match” scenario, went ahead and contacted both men to book the match.
Travel wasn't an issue for either wrestler. Both wrestlers live roughly 5-6 hours away from Toronto -- Gargano in Cleveland and Steen in Marieville, Quebec. Steen worked in Baltimore during the same weekend for Ring of Honor, so his travel ended up being slightly longer.
The first challenge would be how the match was presented. Could it be booked as title vs. title? Could both men represent the organizations where they are champions? Would either company be upset their champions were being used in this fashion? Dastranj explained.
“I mostly spoke with both the wrestlers about the match and I had one or two short conversations with (DGUSA Vice President) Gabe (Sapolsky). Neither promotion nor wrestlers tried to prevent the match from happening. To be honest, I think they all just wanted to make sure that I was someone who was going to promote this professionally and not abuse the privilege of using their champions in a matchup. There was never a moment of tension.”
On posters, websites or other materials promoting the match, there were no ROH or DGUSA championship titles or likeness used. The hook was more implicit. The names of the wrestlers and the letters “vs,” between them would be enough.
“The buzz really shocked me,” said DGUSA champ Johnny Gargano. “I think it's something that people want to see, and I'm surprised it took this long to book this match somewhere. There's money floating around in the air for dream matches like this.”
Though both Gargano and Steen are signed to contracts to their respective organizations, they are freely allowed to take bookings with independent promotions so long as those matches do not appear on TV or pay-per-view without prior consent from their home organization. Smash Wrestling is currently only available on DVD, so this wasn't an issue.
The next challenge was the outcome. How would you book this match? Do the heads in each organization care about the outcome? Do the wrestlers? Must this end in a finish that protects both parties involved? Dastranj explained his booking logic.
“At the end of the day, it's the main event and you want to send the fans home happy. Good guy wins. Nothing to do with politics or being worried about keeping someone strong. I don’t think neither wrestler loses credibility. Both are at the top of their game and respected by their peers and fans alike. You just let these two guys go out there and do what they do best.”
When contacted for comment, DGUSA Vice President Gabe Sapolsky was quick to point out that this match does not extend to his borders.
"I don't think anything should be made of this unless it is an angle being worked by DGUSA and ROH, and it's not. I believe both champions should be respected and protected. When Samoa Joe was ROH Champion when I was booking, he came to me about protecting the title to raise the prestige of it. I would say the plan worked. It should be upheld for the major independent wrestling titles today. The way I was raised in the business at least, have the courtesy of consulting with high-profile promotion of whatever major champion is involved."
Dastranj did just that.
"Gabe and I communicated and it was very cordial. At the end of it he said, ‘Thank you, I appreciate it and I look forward to working together sometime.’ It really put me at ease about the whole thing."
The day of the show, plans changed, as they often do in pro wrestling. Dasranj had a dilemma. Up until one hour before the show started that match was on, as scheduled. Then...
“One of the individuals from the match ended up severely injured the night before” Dastranj said. Steen ended up revealing during an in-ring promo during the show that his back was hurt. “He couldn't walk or get up off a chair properly backstage. In most events he probably would have canceled due to injury, but in this case he didn't want to short change the people who came out for this match. I was worried some fans would think that we advertised a singles knowing we would go with a tag match (all along). Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Ontario Independent wrestling standouts Tyson Dux and Scotty O'Shea were added to the match. All four men put on a brutal brawlfest-style match, which delighted the crowd of approximately 300 and made them forget about the original singles match altogether.
At the end of the match, Gargano pinned Steen. Both men after the match made it clear they would welcome the opportunity to face each other 1-on-1.
“I was happy I was able to work with Johnny,” said ROH champ Kevin Steen. “I have no concern over the finish and if there is a backlash of any kind, I'll deal with it.”
“Most (pro wrestlers), especially in the independents, don't care about politics,” Gargano said. “We want to go out there and give the fans their money's worth. We want to go out there and steal the show. That's what I had in mind as soon as the match was announced. It wasn't 'I can't do this, or he can't do that.’”
Greg Oliver, who is a pro wrestling historian and operator of SLAM! Wrestling, had this to say about matches involving two champions:
"Fans are always intrigued by belt vs. belt matches, especially for competing organizations. The old NWA vs. WWWF or NWA vs. AWA matches were always intriguing and dream matches both for the fans and the magazines. In today's industry, especially with so many titles, it can be hard to set up something original."
A famous example is Bob Backlund, who as WWWF champion met Harley Race and Ric Flair (when they were NWA champions) in title vs. title affairs, as well as NWF champion Antonio Inoki. Many matches of these types saw a time-limit draw, or a finish that wouldn’t signal a definitive end.
In today's pro wrestling landscape, the idea of a WWE champion facing any other company champion simply wouldn't happen, which gave this match a special flare.
“It's rare for me to face a champion of this caliber,” Steen said. “Usually I travel to local events and I face the local indy fed's champ … and win their belt.”
Were companies protecting their interests in this match? Perhaps. Was the promoter looking for a way to increase ticket sales and buzz with a “dream match” scenario? Likely. Despite the match change, was it entertaining? Highly. Fans and wrestlers alike left the venue on this day feeling happy with the note they left in the history professional wrestling.