Written by: McXal
Kayfabe Commentaries – Gabe’s Book Of ROH Secrets
Welcome to a very special McXal Review. Special because I have no idea how this one is going to turn out. I’ve never reviewed a ‘shoot interview’ before. In fact, as a rule I make it my business to avoid watching them. The seedy underbelly of the pro-wrestling industry has never interested me all that much, so listening to guys and girls swap stories of who banged who, or veterans of the ring so jumped up on their own ego presenting such a warped and biased view of events that it’s essentially a really boring work of fiction you end up watching. There are some exceptions (Raven has done a few really top notch ones, and the Samoa Joe/CM Punk joint shoot done with ROH was a terrific watch…and I’ve heard Ric Flair has done a near ten hour shoot with Highspots which is must see), but by and large, I tend to steer clear. I find them at their most interesting when they get right into the nitty gritty, intimate details of what they were thinking going into famous matches, what they felt during those same matches, feuds etc. I don’t want to listen to my favourite wrestlers dish the dirt or make fools of themselves. I want to get a better, more comprehensive perspective on some of my favourite matches and moments by hearing it direct from the mouth of those involved.
Which leads me to this particular shoot interview. After six years at the creative helm of arguably the most influential independent wrestling promotion since ECW, Gabe was sensationally relieved of his duties by Ring Of Honor owner Cary Silkin. On the subject of my favourite moments and matches – Gabe and ROH have been behind many of my absolute favourites. His firing is a landmark moment in ROH history. As soon as I’d heard that Kayfabe Commentaries had signed him up for his first major appearance in the wrestling community since the event, I had to track it down.
Kayfabe Commentaries haven’t been around for too long, but have already garnered some real praise for a number of their DVD releases. I myself have picked up a couple of DVD’s from their ‘Guest Booker’ series and both have been top notch, with the Guest Booker concept proving to be a great twist on the traditional shoot interview. Watching Raven rebook Scott Hall and Kevin Nash running the Outsiders angle in ECW, and Gabe Sapolsky rebooking WWE’s relaunch of the Extreme Championship Wrestling brand was a refreshingly fresh way of getting into some of the finest creative minds the business has seen in the last decade or so. Finding out that Gabe’s chosen destination for his first significant public statement since being shown the Ring Of Honor door was these guys further piqued my curiosity.
Which leads me to my next problem – how exactly does one REVIEW a shoot interview. By attaching a star rating, is one actually rating the interview, or does one end up rating the PERSON? Because in this instance, I don’t want to rate Gabe Sapolsky, the person. Regardless of what he has to say, and regardless of what he chooses to remain undisclosed, he is a man who’s perspective on the wrestling industry closely matches my own. He’s a man who was behind the promotion that reignited my own passion in an industry that I’d lost any real interest in.
And how does one actually talk about the content without revealing it, and negating the need for anyone to actually purchase the DVD? I’ll confess now, there WILL be spoilers in the following review. It’s unavoidable. I figure if you want this DVD, you’ll pick it up to hear Gabe talk about his time in ROH, rather than read a few headline picks and buzz words in a review by some anonymous internet writer.
So yeah, as I said…I’ve never done one of these before. I have to be honest, I don’t plan to do another one any time soon. This intro alone has already taken me over 40 minutes (although it’s 1:30 in the morning now and I’ve been watching crappy WWE highlight shows for the majority of the time. Man alive Scott Stanford is a TERRIBLE host for Bottom Line…and seeing Bryan Danielson on RAW is just so surreal). But I felt it an appropriate way to mark a significant ROH landmark and at least some testament to the superb work Sapolsky has done over the years with Ring Of Honor by getting my thoughts on his own DVD down. Plus, I picked this DVD up for £2 on eBay. That is an absolute steal. The least I can do in exchange is try to drum up some business and demand for it!!
Get ready for Gabe…talking. In a room. With another guy. For nearly two and a half hours.
Gabe’s Book Of ROH Secrets
To set the scene, this is taped in November 2009 – 6 weeks after Gabe’s removal from Ring Of Honor. As I’ve said, his last show was Ring Of Homicide 2, and, although a specific date is never mentioned, this appears to be after The French Connection/Bound By Hate Canadian weekend (and possibly even the Dayton/Chicago ppv taping weekend). Your host is Sean Oliver.
Introduced as ‘unemployed, the first thing you notice about Gabe is that there still seems to be a real sense of disbelief, of hurt and of genuine disappointment that he is no longer in the job which he was/is so very clearly extremely passionate about, and has spent the last six years of his life living and breathing. Throughout this interview, regardless of whether you agree with his creative direction, his booking decisions and his justifications for some of the things he’d done and had planned…he exudes an obvious love and pride in the Ring Of Honor product, brand and legacy that he helped to build. For the first, and last chapters of this DVD as he discusses his firing, then contemplates his future WITHOUT Ring Of Honor, he cuts a forlorn and lost figure. Smiles and jokes demonstrate an acceptance of his fate, but the hunched shoulders, the sad eyes and the sweeping, retrospective thanksgiving speeches provide an insight to a man who had his dream job, lost it and now has a massive question mark over his future.
Yet in the middle three chapters the ponderous and reflective Gabe fades away, and he lights up, buzzing with enthusiasm as he breaks out his actual booking folder (complete with nerdy stickers) and gives you an intensely personal look into his plans and his philosophies on dealing with the gruelling job of booking ROH – an environment he describes as having to write ’40 pay-per-views a year’. It’s the Gabe of these middle chapters that is of most interest to me. Even now, cut adrift from the promotion, he continues to say ‘us’ or ‘we’ (only rarely stopping to correct himself), and, robbed of the opportunity to actually turn his stories into reality, revels in the chance to at least document where he wanted to take the company as they exited 2008 and began a new year. He laughs, he curses, he makes sweeping generalisations, at times seems arrogant (‘so what, I DID sell a lot of DVD’s…’), at times humble, at times vulnerable. I have to be honest and say there were several times I disagreed with him (e.g. his plan to book ANOTHER Steel Cage Warfare match at Final Battle ’08 weekend, so soon after Glory By Honor 7, and justification thereof was particularly hard to get behind). But it’s very clear that he’s a man that NEVER lost sight of the importance of fan support, the importance of presenting a product that the audience could get behind. After, as he repeatedly states, an impressive six years in the job, resisting the temptation to descend into egomania, to believe he knows what the fans want better than they do etc is a quality one can’t help but admire.
The rigid structure of this DVD, much as with KC’s ‘Guest Booker’ series, makes it exceedingly difficult for this to degenerate into an smutty, dirt-dishing, snide or b*tchy DVD…but you get the feeling this wouldn’t have been the case even if Gabe had been given free reign to say and do exactly as he pleases. If you’re looking for an interview with a bitter, angry man you’re barking up the wrong tree. If you’re looking for Gabe to blast all those around him and blame everyone else for what happened, you’re going to leave disappointed. Outside of a few light-hearted jokes at the expense of Paul London, Low Ki and Super Crazy, the only guy Gabe has ANYTHING negative to say about is himself.
It would have been an elephant in the room had this interview started with anything other than Gabe’s account of why he was fired. Obviously KC and Gabe’s prime focus is to outline all we missed out on for the remainder of ’08, but by allowing Sapolsky to talk about his dismissal straight out of the gate (literally, it’s almost the first question…no fluff at all), it gets everything out in the open. By being open and confronting all the questions head on, it leaves the viewer then free to concentrate on the real substance of the interview – that being Gabe’s “book of secrets”.
And, when it comes, Gabe’s response to his firing is truly fascinating. He comes across as open and honest about the whole situation, freely discussing his flaws and the errors he made along the way to his dismissal. We get the admission that his ‘behaviour’ hadn’t been great and he could be difficult to work with (I would imagine that’s a response to the mass of rumours around the internet about his notorious show day tempers, tantrums and histrionics). He as good as reveals that one of the primary reasons behind his sacking was his inability to cut down the roster and keep costs down (although he goes into great detail as to why). He confesses that he has real problems booking Ring Of Honor pay-per-views and writing the storylines and shows around the complicated ppv taping/air date schedule.
Perhaps most interestingly, there is no apparent animosity towards owner Cary Silkin at all. Indeed, in the closing chapter of the DVD, he even eulogises about all Cary has given to Ring Of Honor for several minutes. He gives Silkin credit for his desire to progress, noting he was always the one opposing Cary when he wanted to run double shots, or run the Midwest, or go overseas, or run pay-per-view. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very obvious that he was deeply hurt by his firing (amongst all the jokes that his discussion with Cary in the weeks prior to his departure about the need to shake things up, change his writing style etc was taken a little too literally), and you get the feeling that, had this interview been done right after his sacking the content would have been a little more ‘juicy’. He retains his jilted defiance, but there is no apparent grudge to bear nor axe to grind – which is highly refreshing in an era of ‘you sacked me, I’m telling the world how it “really” is’, overly sensationalist shoot interview.
BUT, don’t think you’ll buy this DVD and see a self-pitying, miserable and apologetic Sapolsky all the way through. Do not confuse an admission of fault for total submission and white flag waving at his detractors. To me, one of the most interesting parts of the whole 140 minute interview is his robust defence of the slight that he was ‘burnt out’ – a claim I completely support. To me, ROH’s downtime began in late-2006 after Glory By Honor 5 and the Danielson/KENTA epic (and the subsequent Road Of Homicide storyline bust) and, whilst ’07 was an improvement on this (largely thanks to the stunning Briscoes/Steen-erico feud) there was, once again a fall slump after the Man Up ppv with the underwhelming Briscoes/AOTF feud, Nigel’s delayed title win then injury problems, the hugely problematic West Coast weekend and a string of average shows before Rising Above/FB07 rectified the situation and ended the year with a bang. In my opinion, Ring Of Honor’s 2008 (up to Ring Of Homicide 2 since that’s where I’m at) has featured some of the snappiest writing, best creative stuff and actually, most enjoyable top to bottom shows we’ve seen in years. So, to me, I was delighted to see Gabe fight his corner.
He refutes the criticism that ROH is boring and lacks characters, pointing out that in his (admittedly niche) market great matches sell DVD’s (and the logic that WWE already has great characters like John Cena and The Miz you can watch for free), so without TV there’s not always room. But holds up the Rhett/Daizee/Delirious as only the most recent example that ROH can excel in character-driven aspects of professional wrestling should he need to. Like Gabe, I’ve taken a lot of flack from my own reviews for defending and holding up 2008 ROH as good stuff. This was the Sapolsky I WANTED to see. Defiant, proud of his achievements in difficult times with a roster which had been stripmined of many of the gems he helped uncover (London, Joe, Punk, Sydal, Homicide, Shelley, Spanky etc).
I also found it fascinating that, for all the criticism/credit Adam Pearce got for shaking up Gabe’s “stale” product Gabe notes that he himself had already started that process in Danbury and Edison at his final shows by trialling new talent, new show structures and beginning new character arcs for Age Of The Fall etc.
BUT, discussion of the circumstances around his removal is a relatively minor part of this DVD. Which is both to KC/Gabe’s credit…and to their detriment. The central 90 minute portion of the interview features Gabe going through, show by show, the run in to Final Battle 2009. I’ve been following ROH since the very beginning. Even now I’m behind by nearly 2 years, I still own EVERY DVD release, I jumped through hoops to track down DVD’s of every single 2009 ROH on HDNET episode and will probably do the same again for 2010 come January 2011. And you know what? Even I found this laborious process tough to sit through. I love ROH, but listening to Gabe/Sean run through the planned line-up for a random Dayton show, or debate which night of the St Louis/Nashville double shot to run the Daizee/Rhett angle was a tough ask. Of course it’s interesting to see how closely new Booker Adam Pearce stuck to Gabe’s plans, but they were very thorough and exhaustive. Certainly something for the fanatics only.
To me, the real joy in learning the secrets of Gabe’s ‘Book’ wasn’t finding out what matches he wanted to run in Montreal then compare them to what ROH ended up doing. No, what I found fascinating was getting a really detailed look into how Gabe’s mind works. It was an insight into how the creative force behind the wrestling product I’ve spent the majority of the last 7 years following went about his business. I found it interesting that, in the 2 weeks before a show he’d meticulously plan out his line-up, including bell and segment times. Whilst the wresters ‘didn’t always stick to his times’, those long shows were by design. He clearly held the firm belief that longer shows sold more, and wanted to give the paying audience (both live and DVD-purchasing) as much bang for their buck as possible. It was fun to see him laugh about booking himself into a corner and having to job out both Kevin Steen and El Generico (both hometown favourites) on the Montreal debut.
As I said before, the Gabe Sapolsky who opens his folder, flicks through the pages and discusses his elaborate plans and theories is a completely different guy to the awkward, reflective and deflated guy who fidgeted awkwardly, hunched his back and talked about his firing through false smiles and forced jokes. He comes alive to defend his controversial theories on card pacing, buzzes around on screen as he laughs about arguing with the wrestlers in the 30-Minute Iron Team Match in Danbury over the amount of falls he wanted. And he almost itches with disappointment that he wouldn’t get to pay-off the job he’d done building up Tyler Black for most of 2008 by giving him the World Title at Final Battle.
He also becomes less guarded, and more revealing. For all the tedium of sitting through 90 minutes of show line-ups, you get some wonderful stories. There’s his disappointment at how the Battle For Supremacy show turned out, how Samoa Joe helped them book Liger in 2004, his first conversation with Adam Pearce after Scrap Iron got his job. Seeing his actual writing process, from having complete cards/match times planned out a couple of weeks in advance for the Montreal/Toronto weekend to how far in advance he’d written out specific matches/angles to run at different shows, is fascinating. Seeing the roster page in his folder broken up into an almost EWR style ‘heels/tweener/face’ categories was comical (oh, and if you pause over his potential talent for 2009, you’d see he had in the back of his mind to bring in Stevie Richards, Doug Basham, JJ Dillon and Nick ‘Eugene’ Dinsmore as well as potential returns for Xavier and Dan Puder).
For long term viewers, learning that Gabe genuinely is in touch with how they too felt (hearing Gabe talk about guys only having good matches with Dragon, Aries and Nigel – something I’ve mentioned on several occasions)…and actually, learning that Gabe was still ready to try something different and not try to play it safe, despite being ‘burnt out’ (seriously, his planned end to the Jacobs/Aries feud then future direction for those two was VERY ambitious), made for a fun watch.
To me, the real substance of this DVD wasn’t learning about what he had planned for the remainder of 2008. Whilst that was interesting, I try not to put too much thought into that as I haven’t seen anything after Gabe’s ROH run ended. I can only hope Adam Pearce will be able to successfully utilise the foundations Gabe has laid out, finish Gabe’s storyline archs in an effective and entertaining manner before getting to put his own mark on things. No, the reason I found this one good to watch was that it deviated from it’s initial purpose of divulging Gabe’s ‘secrets’, and instead became a portrait of Gabe Sapolsky, the man and the Booker. There is enough passion to empathise with, enough controversial booking plans to take issue with, enough revealed to find interesting, enough kept back to avoid becoming a trashy piece.
It’s something that only more fanatical of ROH fans will enjoy as it’s definitely a pretty hardcore watch. To me, I would much rather see a 3 hour retrospective shoot with Gabe discussing his whole time in ROH. Personally, I’m more interested in learning about his time in ROH than I am in his removal, or what might have been had he not been let go. It’s unashamedly nerdy and, probably takes itself a little too seriously…although perhaps that’s reflective of Gabe as a person too. If you’ve got a real interest in the inner workings of Ring Of Honor, and you’ve got the stomach for two and a half hours of geek-tacular independent wrestling chat, then this is a DVD you should check out.
I have to be honest. As much as I enjoyed the DVD, I didn’t really know how I felt coming away from it. I never wanted Gabe to leave…but I’m watching this with the perspective of having nearly 2 years distance from the events themselves. You can’t help but wonder how the Gabe of 2010, having landed on his feet at the creative helm of Dragon Gate’s US arm as well as his own interesting EVOLVE concept, free from the rigours of an enormously demanding job, might view things differently today. I wanted the DVD to give me closure on Gabe’s tenure as Ring Of Honor booker. But after nearly 3 revealing hours…it never really provided that.
I can recommend it to the most dedicated and curious of Ring Of Honor fans…and recommend those looking for sensationalist, smutty and embittered burials, detractors of ROH, or those that dislike the ROH style, supposed ‘elitist’ attitude and whatever stay well clear. So in terms of a review – there you have it. My guess is, if you’ve ready this far, and if you’re a regular reader of mine…you will probably enjoy this DVD so if you can seek it out, do so. Speaking personally, for £2 (about $4 I think) on eBay, this was an absolute steal.
But now the conundrum of how to rate it. As I pondered earlier – how to rate this as an interview without rating Gabe Sapolsky the man? The biggest compliment I can give the DVD is that it portrays Gabe in a thoroughly HUMAN light. There is none of the bombast and extravagance so many see as typical of the wrestling business. There is sadness, there is enthusiasm, there’s some humour, regret, success and failure. But is that sufficient? I have to be honest, I don’t think the world needed 3 hours of where Gabe was going with the rest of 2009…however much of an interesting or decent person he may or may not be. As a Ring Of Honor fan I didn’t get enough detail, having to pinch and snatch at details and fun extracts from a sprawling mass of show line-ups, in depth discussion of why every FIP wrestler is underrated etc. And as a casual fan this was too specialised a DVD product to appeal. As Sean Oliver commented on ROH’s target fanbase. This DVD appears to target a ‘niche of a niche’. If you’re a hardcore ROH fan who was just DESPERATE to compare and contrast Gabe and Pearce’s end to 2008 then this is a 5* release. To me, I wanted more. Not more trash. Not more ‘I hate Low Ki’. I wanted more little titbits like Gabe hated the Battle For Supremacy show. I wanted more information on incidents like arguing with guys in the ppv main events if they were put in high profile matches the night before.
What I’m trying to say is that, it was too extensively specialist to cater to a wider market, but too superficial and gimmicked to provide for the wishes of fans such as myself. In a nutshell, if I’m rating Gabe the man. He seems like a good guy and a GREAT booker, passionate about his work, grateful for the luck he’s had in his career and indisputably sad that his run had to end. There is an unspoken, yet identifiable awareness that the 2007/8 ROH product is NOT of the same quality of the peak years. But in a roster stripped of Daniels, Joe, Ki, Homicide, Shelley, Sabin, Punk, Cabana, Sydal, Spanky, Gibson and MORE. However, you never once hear Gabe level the finger of blame at his talent. In his mind, it’s the booker’s responsibility to get someone over. If they’re not over, if they’re not improving – that’s HIS fault. Maybe that was his downfall. He took on too much, took everything too personally, over-pushed guys he shouldn’t have (Stryker, Stevens…even going right back to Xavier) because he took it badly if they didn’t get over, then was too attached to cut the dead wood. Like I said, good guy and great booker. But if I’m rating the DVD, it’s good too, but definitely not GREAT.
In closing, I’d like to take note of where ROH is at in 2010. Are they in a better position than they were when they let Gabe go? Probably not. DVD sales are still falling. They’re still just keeping their heads above the water financially, and still struggling to grow and break into new markets as they’d like, and this is with national television. Does that make it a wrong decision? As I haven’t seen any new material, I can’t comment – you’d have to ask Cary Silkin. I’m sure the fresh approaches of the creative minds of Adam Pearce, along with Jim Cornette and Dave Lagana (after the launch of the HDNet show) and then Hunter ‘Delirious’ Johnson will shake up a landscape which, aside from personnel, has remained largely untouched since 2002 and the Murphy Rec days. Only Cary will have the answer as to whether it was the right decision. It’s his company and his money at the end of the day.
As an outsider looking in, I’ve seen late 2008 and the majority of 2009 (i.e. post-Gabe) ROH take some HEAVY criticism. And I’ve subsequently seen 2010 ROH get strong praise as a rejuvenation for the product. For Tyler Black’s title run (something Gabe wanted in 2008 but was delayed by the new regime…and eventually sh*t on by fans as they felt ROH waited too long to pull the trigger), and for Davey Richards ascension to independent superstar, filling the void left by Bryan Danielson (something predicted by Gabe in 2008 and something he himself had outlined he wanted to build on in ’09)…or for guys like Kenny King and Rhett Titus, Kevin Steen and El Generico (guys who Gabe had also earmarked for significant roles in the future landscape of ROH). My point, again, speaking as an outsider, is that everything ROH is getting praise for doing right this year…seems to be stuff that Gabe wanted to run with here, 2 years earlier. That’s not a knock on ROH or a vote of confidence for Sapolsky. Just my observation.
The final question posed to Gabe is, ‘would he go back’. In November 2008 on this DVD, without explicitly saying so, Sapolsky delivered an emphatic yes. My closing thought, and in light of the speculation that, after Adam Pearce’s dismissal, there were discussions about bringing Gabe back, is – how different would Gabe’s answer be now. So much has changed in ROH and independent wrestling, yet so much remains the same. ROH’s problems now are very similar to the ones that led to Gabe’s dismissal. You have to wonder, given that Gabe has undoubtedly winded up on his feet as VP of Dragon Gate USA, getting rave reviews for every show they run (remember the Dragon Gate/ROH relationship spectacularly imploded this summer) and creative force behind EVOLVE, whether he’d wanted to step back in time. To compromise his independence, as he put it, his artistic integrity, to once again work with Cary…AND to work with Jim Cornette and Dave Lagana, who have been growing forces behind the scenes in 2010.
The romantic in me, having sat through nearly 3 hours of Gabe oozing passion and, lets call it what it is, LOVE for Ring Of Honor and of independent wrestling, would love to believe that one day he’d be welcomed back into the fold and to succeed in the job in which he excelled in for 6 years…and, according to all reports, nobody has done any better. The realist in me however…
Tape Rating – *** – I’ve covered extensively why this was such a tough DVD to rate. The subject matter was personal me therefore hard to evaluate impartially. The content was patchy and, at times, a tough watch. And, having sat through the DVD twice, made 17 pages of notes, I can definitely confirm I won’t be doing any more shoot reviews any time soon. Like I said, this DVD didn’t give me the closure to Gabe’s reign that I wanted. So that counts against it. HOWEVER, to the most loyal of ROH fans (of which I, perhaps arrogantly, include myself), this is a must-see. Get it if, like Gabe, you are passionate about the ROH product, and have watch it grow from a minor league indie to the closest thing the modern wrestling spectrum has to ECW. Skip it otherwise…