Welcome to the first installment of the ROH Microscope, our newest #ROHNation regular feature here at Place to Be Nation. Here we’ll do a deep dive on a particular match or series of matches.
The setup for our first installment is the following. Lio Rush, the ROH Top Prospect Tournament winner, would normally face the Television champion as a reward for his victory. With Ishii and the belt in Japan, the decision was made that Rush would face the Ring of Honor World Champion instead. Kevin Kelly does a nice job putting over how the Top Prospect Tournament winners have fared in the past in these opportunities, planting the seed that we could see something special.
That ‘special’ aura or vibe was first lost on me when the match was initially announced. On paper your kneejerk reaction is that Lethal retains and that this is just something to keep him busy on a big weekend of wrestling. There is no other lead-up to this encounter. But that actually plays into Lethal’s attitude and the story they tell in the match. Ultimately it’s the crux of the post-match encounter with Colt Cabana as well.
Lethal notes “This is going to be an easy night” pre-match as he’s walking around the ring. He tries to hide a smile at a “Best in the world!” chant as Bobby Cruise announces both guys. He bows to a “Lethal! Lethal!” chant. Lethal is put over as calm and cool and he comes off very genuine with it, as compared to a lot of times you see exaggerated cockiness from a heel that seems forced and fake.
Will Ferera is somewhat out of place on guest commentary here (his friendship with Lio is the main reason he’s there), but his note about young wrestlers needing to be able to overcome the crowd siding with a more established (read: bad guy) wrestler was pretty spot on. KK asks though “How does he NOT take this kid lightly?” referencing Lethal’s recent wins over AJ Styles and Michael Elgin.
To start, Lio goes for a quick pin after a leg sweep, which Lethal kicks out of before even “1” and flashes a more annoyed glance than a stunned one, but its not bad psychology. Rush is the big underdog and the smaller guy here. At every opportunity he should try for the cover. Corino prematurely notes that Lethal’s strategy is to toy with the youngster even though Lethal himself hasn’t done anything like that yet in the match.
When Lio scouts a move like Lethal’s cartwheel dropkick, Lethal looks initially shocked but then leans on his experience and in the next sequence will outsmart Rush and just pulverize him. He looks bothered by having to even deal with him.
Lethal offers a hand to help Lio up, but it’s a fake gesture. He goes to the opposite corner and just laughs.They trade shooting each other off and Lethal is content to just push Rush down, using his size without overly exerting any energy. He also sniffs out Lio ducking off the whip and Lethal grabs the ropes, blocking the sequence and then slams Rush down by his hair.
Rush gets to pay this off quickly as he rolls up the gloating Lethal, then rolls through and fires himself off the ropes for a kick to Lethal’s head. Now Rush gets to gloat a bit, mocking Jay’s deliberate arm gesture and then offering HIM a hand, which Lethal quickly slaps away in anger. Then they start slapping each other in the face, which heats up the crowd and Jay throws Rush into the corner, striking him down and stomping a mudhole that would make Stone Cold proud. Corino exclaims “Welcome to ROH!” Lot of intensity there and it came off like he was legit pissed at this young guy mocking him like that.
Lethal starts his control now, suplex with an elbow drop off the rope and then again off the irish whip he just uses his size to smack Lio down. A confident and grinning Lethal continues on but we get a nice hope spot from Rush as he shows off his agilty with the matrix-type duck and hits a flash kick to the back of Lethal’s skull, which pops the crowd. Lethal rolls outside after taking a rana, but again outsmarts Rush because as soon as Lio starts to run back off the ropes for a big move, Lethal is back in the ring and right behind him, eager to meet him head-on off the ropes and he again just shoves him down. No clothesline, no powerslam, just almost demoralizing Rush by pushing him down.
Lethal leans through the ropes and crows to Kevin Kelly “Is this the best they have to offer? Ring of Honor is running out of ideas!” Lethal chops at Rush but after a quick roll-through, it’s Rush who hits an enziguri from his knees to again kick down Lethal and again get the crowd to gasp a bit. Rush doesn’t do much here while briefly on top, but Lethal to his credit sells his forearms and strikes pretty well. And really, this match, similar to Rush’s Top Prospect match against Punisher Martinez, isn’t about sustained Lio Rush offense. It’s all about counters and speed against a bigger, more athletic opponent. This means a lot of kicks to the head, but that is certainly more believable than Rush suplexing Lethal around.
Lethal holds the ropes to prevent a whip and then reverses and just slaps Lio in the mouth. Out on the apron, Lio moonsaults himself to the outside to avoid a springboard dropkick from Lethal. This puts Rush outside and in my least favorite part of the match, Taeler causes the distraction and Lio kind of flushes away any guile and savviness he has by slapping her on the butt. This is the opening for Lethal as Rush kind of quickly jumps back on the apron and NOW gets dropkicked off and then Lethal hits his dive through the ropes.
Lethal typically grabs an advantage in his matches off this kind of distraction, but this would have been a cool opportuntiy to have Rush out-smart him by moving out of the way – maybe Taeler takes a bump here and Rush gets the edge – instead of what we get, which is more bullying from Lethal. Backbreaker and a cover by Lethal and then he just kind of pushes Rush to the ground again.
Lethal does the pretty popular heel move of opting to grab a headlock instead of a running strike on his opponent seated in the ring (that reads like a move list category for a wrestling video game). Lethal works this headlock rest spot in and with each break, Rush fires off a slap and Lethal just re-grabs him in the headlock. Finally, Rush breaks and reverses into a big swinging DDT, his biggest move in the match so far.
Things pick up now, but the crowd is not rallying behind Rush yet. Lethal goes up top, but Rush hits the running enziguri up there, sending Lethal the outside. Now we payoff the big dive that Lethal has previously countered and Rush hits his huge somersault senton and lands right on his feet after rolling off Lethal. Rush quickly throws him in the ring, which I like the urgency of if he’s covering, but opts to hit another seated spin kick (number three by my count). Rush goes up top but Lethal avoids and hits the Lethal Combination and then opts to pick Rush up off that mat during the count. This seemingly never bodes well for the heel, but Lethal just grins. Nice little segment to create a bit more doubt to the outcome.
Lethal twice says ‘Not yet” almost passively, and just smiles. He slugs Rush down continually here and asks Todd Sinclair to start a knockout count. He then stops Sinclair during his count, and super kicks Rush. This sets up for the Lethal Injection, but Rush is still out, struggling to get to his feet. Lethal screams at him to get up (even telling him “This is your moment!”) and then slaps him in the head. The crowd has reacted well to each of these mocking head slaps in the match. He goes to run off the ropes but Rush holds his tights. Lethal turns and Rush explodes with slaps and chops, which admittedly aren’t the best but they stun Lethal. Eventually another spin kick connects, which knocks Lethal down. Rush hits the reverse rana (for reference – it’s the move Bayley used on Sasha Banks at TakeOver: Brooklyn) which sparks things with the crowd. He goes up and hits his huge frog splash and gets a close 2.9999 count. There’s an art to a big nearfall kickout and Lethal waits until nearly the last moment to really suck you in. Crowd was in on that so Rush finally has some backing.
“This is awesome” chant as Rush works to get Lethal on the turnbuckle. Couple more strikes and Corino puts over the head damage via all those kicks for Lethal. That is excellent continuity and commentary. Ferrera makes an astute comment here too, noting that Rush is going for Rush Hour – his finish – off the top rope, just as he had done in the aforementioned Top Prospect Tournament vs Punisher Martinez. A big power move makes sense here too – Rush needs a knockout blow and this one has worked on a bigger guy before. Lethal slowly, given they are both balancing on the top rope at this point, turns this into a cutter off the top rope. This gets a “Holy shit” chant. I’m kind of on the fence on that one. Good move, fair enough counter, end of the day – it’s a cutter, something we’ve already seen in other matches on this show, albeit not from the top rope of course. Now Lethal is alive, and I kind of wish he was selling a bit more after this last sequence, and he hits the Lethal Injection to retain his title.
Final thoughts: We’ve seen a lot of big guy/little guy matchups before but this was more unique with Lethal’s arrogance backed up by his intelligence in the ring and his athleticism in never allowing Rush the upperhand. Lethal also never stooged or made himself look weak. He instead found different ways to make Rush look good, like quick counters and the three big spots. Lethal’s mannerisms, like his dismissiveness or pulling Rush up on a two count, helped build a believable upset and in the end, we got a great ROH title match out of that story. Tremendous performance by Lethal with Lio there every step of the way.