A Hero’s Exit
The WWE’s release of Kassius Ohno is a shocking case of missed opportunities, but who’s to blame?
On most occasions, when World Wrestling Entertainment announces on their website that a wrestler has been let go from their developmental contract before he or she can move up to the main roster, it is met with indifference and minimal curiosity. However, the news that broke on Saturday, that the WWE had released NXT’s Chris Spradlin, dropped more than a few jaws among many wrestling fans. Spradlin, who had been wrestling for WWE under the name Kassius Ohno, seemed to be one of the company’s most coveted and brightest stars at the NXT developmental level going into this year. His experience on the independent circuit was almost legendary to go along with the fact that he was still in his early 30s and stood at the respectable height of 6’4”. He was also the next in line of Ring of Honor alumni such as C.M. Punk, Bryan Danielson, Tyler Black, and his former tag partner Claudio Castagnoli to raise his game on a worldwide scale. Spradlin was expected by many to become the next indy guy done good in the WWE, but that has seemingly come to a sudden and stunning end.
Before he was knocking NXT talents out cold as Ohno, with his signature discus elbow smash, Spradlin was well-known in wrestling circles all over the world under the name of Chris Hero. That ring name came to him in 2000 during his third year as an active wrestler when his most recent ring name, “Wife Beater,” incited a boycott at a wrestling show in Wisconsin and garnered media attention. Even at the advent of his career, Hero, a tall kid from Dayton, OH, was not afraid to emerge from the surging bully pulpit that was the independent wrestling scene in the late 90’s and early 00’s when pro wrestling had reached the peak of its popularity. When the WWF purchased WCW and ECW and declared victory in the Monday Night War in 2001, the indy scene became even more populated with former stars from the now defunct national promotions along with new blood heavily influenced by ‘90’s wrestling. And if there was a major independent wrestling show that could be bought on DVD back in the 2000’s from whatever random territory, there is a good chance that Chris Hero was on that show.
The many pit stops that Hero made in his independent wrestling career are well represented by the variety of wrestlers who mentored him as he was coming up. His first trainer was the legendary Les Thatcher followed quickly by another Paul Bunyan in the wrestling industry, Dory Funk Jr. His first break came at IWA: Mid South in Indiana where he was taken in by two former ECW guys, Ian Rotten and Tracy Smothers. While IWA: Mid South carries a legacy for ultraviolent backyard wrestling involving light tubes and flaming tables, Hero was able to rise above a lot of the trash and made himself a local treasure. His wacky marathon matches with the likes of C.M. Punk, Colt Cabana, and the Suicide Kid at IWA: Mid South became the stuff of internet legend. Hero is even featured and interviewed on Punk’s DVD documentary as a major reason for Punk’s own ascendance as an eventual superstar.
From there, Hero would continue to travel the world and make a name for himself, along with soaking in wrestling knowledge like a sponge. He trained under William Regal and Fit Finlay to learn English catch wrestling tactics while getting Lucha Libre tips from Skayde in Mexico City. By the time a new promotion out of Philadelphia named Chikara opened its doors, three wrestlers featured in its debut were Punk, Cabana, and Hero in a win over Mike Quackenbush and Reckless Youth, who created the promotion. It was at Chikara that Hero, now donning a Superman-style insignia on a T-shirt with baggy pants as his signature look, found his most famous partner in Claudio Castagnoli. They originally teamed with a wrestler at Chikara named Arik Cannon to form The Kings of Wrestling. When Cannon left the company, Hero and Castagnoli continued together as the two teamed off and on for several years to spectacular results.
Another Philly-based promotion where Hero and Castagnoli would win tag team gold was at Combat Zone Wrestling, where a partnership with Ring of Honor, which had by this time become the premier independent promotion in the United States, put Hero on the national map. Hero fired the first shot in the ROH vs. CZW feud, challenging ROH Champion Bryan Danielson to a match, where he eventually lost. While billed as a fan favorite on CZW, Hero was depicted in Ring of Honor along with Necro Butcher of The Wrestler fame as the despised outsiders trying to spark a hostile takeover in CZW’s name. This epic feud featuring every major wrestler in both promotions lasted almost all year in 2006, which culminated in one of the most famous indy matches in U.S. history, a Cage of Death match between Team ROH and Team CZW in which Homicide won in defense of ROH.
But what was booked as a failed insurgence by Hero turned out to be a welcome mat for bigger things as Hero was signed by Gabe Sapolsky, Ring of Honor’s head booker at the time, to continue as an active member of the roster in late 2006. There he continued his tag team run with Castagnoli as The Kings of Wrestling, and they won the ROH Tag Team Titles from Austin Aries and Roderick Strong. The duo went their separate ways at Ring of Honor as Hero joined another heel stable, the late Larry Sweeney’s Sweet & Sour, Inc. From there he would feud with his former partner Castagnoli, Strong, Nigel McGuinness, and Brent Albright. After a successful tour with Pro Wrestling Noah where he had the unfortunate fate of being in the same ring when Japanese wrestling legend Mitsuharu Misawa died in the ring, Hero would abandon the shirts and pants in favor or standard tights and use an elbow pad he claimed that Misawa had given him to knock out his opponents with. By 2010, Hero and Claudio had reunited at Ring of Honor as The Kings of Wrestling and would go on to hold the ROH Tag Team Championships for two days short of an entire year. It was not until rumors spread of Hero and Castagnoli’s impending exits to go to WWE that The Kings of Wrestling dropped the belts to two former WWE stars of their own, Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas.
After endless trips at IWA: Mid South, Chikara, Combat Zone Wrestling, Ring of Honor, the criminally underrated Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and as many as 15 different countries overseas, Chris Spradlin finally got his big break by agreeing in principle to a WWE contract in early 2011. But from the very outset of his agreement with the biggest wrestling company in the world, things never seemed to fall into place correctly. While Castagnoli immediately debuted in FCW, the WWE’s former developmental league, as the foreign snob Antontio Cesaro, Spradlin’s deal was halted by what has been reported as a failed steroid test. Spradlin had to wait several months before officially signing a deal, even wrestling at Ring of Honor two more times while in this holding pattern. When he debuted as Kassius Ohno at FCW, the promotion was scrapped in favor of WWE C.O.O. Triple H’s newest pet project, the rebranded NXT.
Even under the brighter lights of Full Sail University and overpopulation of new, hungry talents at NXT, Ohno and his hard-hitting strong style seemed well on its way to superstardom. After an NXT taping in August of 2012, Seth Rollins and WWE Champion Punk worked a long dark match against Ohno and his former tag partner Cesaro in what was described as a fantastic match that had fans salivating for more. As eventual stars like Cesaro, Rollins, Bray Wyatt, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, Curtis Axel, and Big E. Langston moved on up to the big stage, it seemed like only a matter of time before Ohno’s name was the next one to pop up at a Raw or Smackdown near you. He even got a gracious rub from a feud with his former trainer Regal, who had already helped boost Ambrose’s stock in a feud one year earlier. But like his mysteriously cloudy entry into the company, as fans continued to wait for the call-up in 2012 and 2013, signs of distress between Ohno and the WWE began to surface. There were reports that his commitment to toning up his body and working on his Ohno character was under serious question by many at Florida as well as Triple H himself.
When the WWE opened their state-of-the-art Performance Center in July, the NXT wrestler selected by the company to speak on behalf of the stars of the future was Xavier Woods. Meanwhile, word was on the street that Ohno was reluctant to train at the newly built facility and that the bloom was already off the rose. Spradlin had the unbearable burden of being given a storyline injury off of NXT television not because of medical problems but because his superiors were imploring him to get in the gym and improve his work ethic. He returned from this suspected probation in October to wrestle Wyatt Family member (and former ROH mate) Luke Harper on NXT in a losing effort. It turned out to be his last match with the company, being released a month later. How ironic that a wrestler whose reputation was built on his non-stop drive to spread his name all over the world finally reached the pearly gates of pro wrestling and was done in by a perception of laziness?
I am certain it felt like a slap in the face for Triple H, a bodybuilding fanatic, to hear dispatches that Spradlin was not putting enough time in a facility that the WWE had just spent millions of dollars to make for prospects just like him. But as we all know, there are two sides to every story and we have yet to read a tweet or listen to a shoot interview where Spradlin can detail his obvious struggles with getting along in the WWE. Perhaps the real story behind the release of one of the most decorated and talented independent wrestlers in the last decade lies somewhere in the middle. All told, it is still sad and unfortunate whenever a story like this appears, where a wrestler who seems destined for superstardom and gets so close to the prize falls off the mountain and has to start over again.
There are many Ring of Honor and independent wrestling studs who have gotten their breaks at WWE or TNA to mixed results, but Chris Hero was definitely a cut above the rest along with the likes of Punk, Danielson, Black, Aries, Christopher Daniels, and Samoa Joe. Each one of those wrestlers has gone down a very different (albeit successful) path of his own on the national and international stage, but if I had to link one specific path with what Chris Spradlin might duplicate, it would be that of Aries. Austin Aries tried his hand at TNA in late 2006 with a failed prima donna gimmick that had him running back to Ring of Honor a year later as one the company’s top stars as it entered the pay-per-view circuit. But once he had done all he could do at ROH and signed another deal with TNA, he made the most of his second chance and now sits as one of the company’s most essential stars for the past two years.
I am not saying that Spradlin will wind up donning the Chris Hero symbol once more in a feud with Aries or A.J. Styles on Spike TV, but the options will be there soon whenever his no-compete clause with the WWE expires. Like Punk threatened the WWE within that legendary promo, maybe Hero will go back to Ring of Honor or work in Japan after what seemed like a miserable experience at the WWE’s basement level. Vince McMahon is a man who is renowned for claiming no regrets for the decisions he makes in the WWE’s name, and perhaps he, Triple H, and Stephanie McMahon did Chris Spradlin a favor by letting him back out into the wrestling wild to find his way once more. Thanks to his still youthful age and long-running clout with the IWC, Spradlin won’t have too much trouble finding work and might have enough time to be welcomed back to the WWE by making a bigger name for himself without them. Perhaps this release is not exactly what can be labeled as “best for business,” but it might wind up being better for both the WWE and Chris Spradlin.
The WWE’s stance on releasing developmental wrestlers has always had the optimistic caveat that the door is always open to come back if the company sees an opportunity in making money off of a second try with that wrestler. But when I read the news, I remembered the one time I actually met Spradlin, and like most of his tenure at WWE, it was strange and dislodged. I had gone to see Ring of Honor’s show at a convention hall in Houston, TX, not even a mile away from the Toyota Center, where I later attended the WWE Hall of Fame Ceremony on the eve of WrestleMania XXV. Between the end of the ROH show, which was called Take No Prisoners, and the start of the Hall of Fame show, I was able to catch a picture with Bryan Danielson, who was hurrying out so that he could meet up with William Regal, who invited him to the ceremony (Danielson signed a deal with WWE less than six months later). Danielson was shockingly polite and was very gracious when I said he was a great wrestler and wished him the best in the future. It was a classic “fan meet idol” moment.
As the ceremony ended with Steve Austin’s induction and the arena emptied out, I walked through the sea of fans outside and saw a tall man cracking jokes with friends right in the middle of the lot as thousands of WWE fans blindly passed him up. It was Chris Hero, who had just wrestled in an eight-man tag match as a member of Sweet & Sour, Inc., earlier at the same ROH show. I don’t meet too many wrestlers because I rarely attend shows, but I mustered just enough courage to walk up by him and stupidly blurt out, “You’re Chris Hero!” Hero looked at me with a skittish response (My lack of manners didn’t help things, to be honest) as I extended my hand to say that I saw his tag match and thought he was great. He shook my hand, timidly thanked me, and immediately moved on to other things. Looking back, it almost seems like a perfect fit to what has happened in the past few years: As C.M. Punk and Bryan Danielson are allowed on the red carpet of WWE lore and become newly trademarked legends, there is Chris Hero, at a safe distance from the front door, just looking for something to do.
Antonio Cesaro, Austin Aries, Chikara, Chris Hero, CM Punk, CZW, independent wrestling, kassius ohno, NXT, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, released, ring of honor, ROH, Stephanie McMahon, TNA, Triple H, Vince McMahon, WWE