On December 26, 2004 ROH Champion Samoa Joe stepped into the ring for what looked like another successful title defense. As streamers flew through the air, challenger Austin Aries waited across the ring from him, ready to take his opportunity to upset the champion.
“I just wanted to go out there and tear the house down. Joe was the champ for twenty months, so I was on him as soon as the bell rang and tried to keep the intensity up. It was a good feeling to be in there with him,” Aries told SLAM! Wrestling in his first interview since the show.
After close to twenty minutes of action, Aries connected on the champion with a brainbuster and started to scale the turnbuckles. As the Philadelphia crowd started to buzz with anticipation, Aries took flight and connected with a 450 splash.
“I was just concerned about hitting the move. I was really focused on the match and the crowd didn’t register until after the match. When the referee’s hand hit the mat, I looked out and saw the audience’s response and that was when I started to really feel the emotion of the moment. The last few seconds of the match I was just trying to follow the gameplan.”
Three seconds later and the 20-month reign of Samoa Joe had come to an end. The crowd exploded and Aries was visibly emotional as he was handed the title.
“It was crazy,” he recalls. “I have never personally been part of something with that emotion, the people did erupt and I think that really spoke about what Joe did with his title reign. He made it so important that when that moment came when he lost it that meant something. You don’t see that in wrestling nowadays, with someone holding a belt that long and building a storyline that people care about. When they do it correctly, this is the end result. People witnessed what they felt was a part of history in ROH, and it was. I don’t know if anyone will hold the belt that long again.”
The emotional impact is comparable to the WWE championship wins of Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, two major influences on Aries.
“It was a big sense of accomplishment. A lot of things ran through my head at that time. I thought of my grandmother, who has passed away, and how she was looking down on me proudly. I thought about the people who have gotten me to this point, and the last eight months. Eight months ago nobody on the East Coast had really heard of me, and here I am holding the ball in the top independent promotion in the U.S. I also thought about Joe, how hard he worked with the belt and what he had put forth. I was thankful for that moment of passing the torch to me. It is somewhat like Benoit and Guerrero’s title wins, I thought about people who say ‘You can’t do it, you’re not big enough.’ Their wins were on a grander scale but at the time I felt like them. The emotion took over.”
The title win resulted in crashing the message board at ROHwrestling.com as people gave their opinion on the title switch. While many celebrated the new champion, others were very unhappy. As for Aries, he is just happy that people are talking.
“It’s great, no matter what they think there is a buzz, and people aren’t indifferent. Sure there are people who are pissed off and say I don’t deserve the belt but my response is ‘give it time and see what happens.’ Some people didn’t want Joe to ever lose it. The important thing is that people care, and have been sucked in enough to care. I think a lot of people didn’t expect me to win the belt, especially on my first try so there was the shock factor. People want to play the booker and say what was right and what was wrong, but the bottom line is that there is a buzz and invested emotions on how people feel, whether they are happy or not, and that’s important.”
There are comparisons to March 22, 2003 when Samoa Joe dethroned Xavier for the title, and many people felt that Joe didn’t deserve the belt compared to other people in the promotion. Joe took the ball and ran with it, making the belt special and Aries is determined to follow in those footsteps.
“I wasn’t following ROH at the time Joe won the title so I’ve heard the comparisons even from people in the company. My title reign is going to be different from Joe’s. I’d like to say I am going to beat his reign and hold it for 21 months or two years, but what he did was amazing so realistically to beat that would surpass anything I could imagine. My goal is to take this company and raise the bar. I am going to follow in his footsteps by defending the belt wherever I can, with honor, and keep this company steaming along. Since I debuted the company has kept building steam and a buzz and I want to keep that going. The other thing is that I am just one guy, sure having the belt makes me the top guy but there are a lot of people on the cards that people are coming out to see. 2005 is going to be an exciting, fresh year and those are all positives.”
It’s been a remarkable shoot to the top since Aries wrestled on the afternoon “Do or Die” card on March 13th in Elizabeth, New Jersey in hopes of earning a shot at the ROH roster. Aries feels that what really established him on the East Coast Wrestling scene was the annual ECWA Super 8 Tournament. The night saw him defeat Shawn Davari and John Walters before losing in the finals to “The Fallen Angel” Christopher Daniels.
“It was an awesome experience. That is what really put me on the map, when Jim Kettner called me and offered me a slot he told me it was going to catapult me and it has. Before that no one out East knew who I was. If I wasn’t in the Super 8 I wouldn’t be ROH champion right now. I was contacted when I called Tom Pritchard about some WWE dark matches and he told me Jim was trying to get a hold of me. I called Jim and he asked me to send him a tape, and he liked what I sent him. I really seized that moment. Working Davari was nice because we were familiar with each other. That was the first time I worked John Walters, and that was the easiest match of the night, we meshed well. Nobody expected me to beat him. Working Christopher Daniels is great, he is a professional in every sense of the word and his experience that he brings to the ring is great to learn from.”
After that tournament, his Ring of Honor superstardom began in a tent in Philadelphia on May 22nd, 2004. At the start of that show Aries, Alex Shelley, Jack Evans and Roderick Strong stormed the ring and announced that they were there to take the spots of the established talent. They dominated the show, beating Special K in a six-man tag and going 45 minutes in an 8-man tag against John Walters, Jimmy Rave and the Briscoe Brothers.
“We were excited and carried that show from the get-go. It was one of my favorite nights, the tent atmosphere was unique. Something like losing the venue (The armory ROH booked was closed due to arms storage) would cancel just about anyone’s show, but this company went out, got a tent and dealt with the cards. At the end of the night it added to the experience. We saw the effort they put in to getting the show together and it made us want to give it our all. I think we did that and it established us as guys who can be in the top rankings in ROH and we have done that. I didn’t know any of them very well before we formed. I knew Alex from his IWA:Mid South work and met Rod the week before. We all live in different parts of the country so we don’t hang out a lot, but when we get together we have a pretty good vibe. They are all really cool guys.”
Aries feels that the eight months since that event has really seen all four collectively seize the opportunity and put on some great matches both as a group and individually. That came to an end on the 26th when Aries and Strong turned on Shelley. Evans was in Japan and as of this writing hasn’t made clear where his loyalty lies. The question is, why turn on Shelley? Chicks dig him and he made Generation Next cool.
“That’s what people like to think, maybe he thinks so in his own mind. The fact is, he missed three shows in a row. We took care of business. Alex Shelley may have been looked at as the leader of GenNext but he was simply the mouthpiece and there is a big difference. We will see how he does on his own, how Jack stands on this when he gets back.”
Some fans feel that Shelley signing with TNA this year affected his push and Aries was instead given his push and title run. Aries disagrees.
“You would have to understand that with Alex signing with another promotion, it’s a promoter’s prerogative to be careful about how far they push someone. At any point if TNA wanted to yank him they could have. From that respect they did have to protect themselves, and it would be hard to put someone in the top position who could be yanked and leave you with nothing to do about it. It probably did hurt him in ROH, that’s doesn’t mean he isn’t enjoying what TNA can give him. As far as my push goes, I don’t really worry about that. I felt that I had the ability and talent and with the right situation I could show people that, and I did. So I don’t think my push had anything to do with his TNA stuff.”
One of Aries breakthrough performances in 2004 was the 75-minute two-out-of-three fall classic with “American Dragon” Bryan Danielson on August 7, 2004. The match built slowly but kept the packed Ramada ballroom in Philadelphia enthralled.
“That was my longest match, I had done some 30-minute matches and the eight-man GenNext tag was 45. I knew with Dragon’s style being more methodical and mat based, I could pick up the tempo when I felt like I could and otherwise it was just pacing myself. We ended up going 75 minutes, it didn’t feel like it when I was out there. If you watch the tape, you can see I am moving pretty slow trying to conserve my energy towards the end of the match.”
It’s been a winding road for the 26 year old, who broke into the business under Eddie Sharkey and Terry Fox in Minnesota at the age of 22. Austin feels that starting late gave him an advantage.
“I did the college thing and played baseball there. A good friend of mine called me up out of the blue and told me he was training in Minnesota. I went and visited him and checked out the camp, and that was it, I packed up and moved onto his couch because I realized at that moment that is what I wanted to do. I was late getting in by today’s standards. That seems to be a trend right now and I am not sure if it is good or bad. Kids are breaking in young which is good in a way because by the time they are 25 they have seven years experience. But there aren’t as many veterans as there used to be. I’ve heard that today’s Indy scene sometimes looks like a bunch of kids in their backyard. In my case, I do wish somewhat that I had gotten in a bit sooner, but coming in more mature helped me as far as how to conduct myself. The learning curve was also quicker.”
The Sharkey/Fox camp was an experience.
“Terry didn’t do much in-ring teaching, while Eddie taught you how to be a worker because he was always working you. He would tell you you were the next Sean Waltman, which was flattering until you heard him tell the three people behind you the same thing. He’d say ‘Get a mask and you’ll go to Japan kid.’ There are lots of funny stories about Eddie. He is an old carnie worker who wanted to make his money. He made his reputation with guys like The Road Warriors and a lot of guys in that area. Terry Fox is an old AWA hand and a good fellow. He was limited in what he could show you as well. A bulk of the training came from just working with everyone else and learning on your own. I would love to have had the types of training facilities that are available now like the Inoki Dojo, Chaotic Wrestling in Massachusetts or the ROH camp. These are well-run camps. I learned the basics and the old school mentality that I have in Minnesota, from there I have just gotten to work amazing workers who are better than me and that is where I have improved. In the last eight months I’ve been able to wrestle guys like Homicide, American Dragon, CM Punk, Samoa Joe. That’s only going to make you a better wrestler.”
Aries grew up a wrestling fan, his early memories are of going to the Mecca in Milwaukee with his father when stars like Hulk Hogan and the Road Warriors ruled. “I have been as long as I can remember. My earliest memory is watching Blackjack Lanza and Bobby Heenan vs. Hulk Hogan in a cage at the Mecca in Milwaukee. When I was four I touched Jesse Ventura’s ass because my Dad had told me that the wrestlers padded their asses with cardboard so it wouldn’t hurt. I was over the railing and I touched it, and it did feel like there was cardboard.”
The glory days in Minnesota have passed and today the area’s wrestlers get no press, regardless of their talent. Aries doesn’t regret moving to the East Coast.
“I miss my family but I don’t miss the area or the cold. I don’t miss the wrestling scene — it is really dead there. A lot of talented people around the time I left bolted. Either the promoters don’t have a clue, or the ones that do don’t have any money. There was no promotion to the press, nothing in the magazines or exposure for the boys, the promoters were just trying to make their money. We pretty much had to learn and grown on our own. There isn’t anything big there that is making people stand up and take a look. I told Jim Kettner if you want to be a really good wrestler that nobody will ever hear about, move to Minnesota.”
Although his early days were filled with monster wrestlers in the AWA, Aries favors smaller wrestlers like himself as influences such as The Dynamite Kid, Guerrero, Benoit, Jerry Lynn and Dean Malenko. The success of smaller wrestlers in the business helped Austin believe he could make an impact on the business.
“The bottom line is it is about entertainment. Big guys are always going to have their place in the sport because of their larger-than-life image. But the small guys take these big guys and put on entertaining matches with them. You have a lot of huge guys in the WWE who aren’t really good workers. They are young and pushed because of their size, but the top guys are Guerrero, Benoit, Jericho. I knew at 150 pounds I wasn’t going to make an impact in the WWE — you need to look like a wrestler. But I don’t think that because someone is 6′, 225 they shouldn’t be taken seriously as a wrestler. If they understand the business and the mentality of it, that is more important than being 6’6″, 275. How many arenas did Dusty Rhodes sell out? These days he wouldn’t be looked at twice and laughed at but he sold out arenas. You couldn’t understand a word he said on the mic but you gave a shit. There is too much emphasis on how people look. The Road Warriors were special because they were the muscle-jacked guys who would just kick your ass. Lex Luger was over because he was the total package and ripped. Now everyone looks like that, so who is special?”
At the same time as breaking into the business, Aries was involved in a band called “Zeno’s Revenge.”
“I was three months into training, when I was training, I got a call from some friends from College. They wanted to start a new band and wanted me to be the singer because I was notorious as the Karaoke champion of Winona. I funded many bar and beer runs on those shows. I hadn’t started wrestling yet and it was a two-hour drive so I thought I would give it a shot. It was a lot of fun. I had been in choir since I was small. Wrestling and singing are similar in that you are in front of people and letting out all your emotion. We covered heavier stuff like Godsmack and Metallica, and you really belt that out and let the angst out. That lasted for a year, we did a lot of local gigs. At the time I was making better money doing that then wrestling, I was making $20 a show for wrestling and $100 for singing. In the end, I knew I wanted to wrestle. With wrestling it’s all in your control where in a band you rely on other people. In both cases you have to put your all into it. The lifestyle is different, I was trying to eat healthy and hit the gym four times a week, and then spending my weekends in a smoky bar drinking like a fish. It was opposite of what I wanted to be doing for wrestling. We did our last show, it was a great experience. My voice isn’t going anywhere so I can sing in the future if I want. I’ll be the new Jericho and kick him out of Fozzy.”
Fans compare Aries to former wrestler Dan “Casual” Sexon, but Aries insists there are obvious differences. “I haven’t seen Dan for awhile, but he had one of the coolest mustaches I have ever seen. That guy was all about style and pizzazz. People think we are the same guy, but I don’t have a moustache and he doesn’t have a tattoo. Our personas are completely different. Dan ‘Casual’ Sexon and ‘The Piston’ Ted Dixon were a great tag team. They were great entertainers.”
His name is a combination of his astrological sign and a major influence. “I am an Aries (his birthday is April 15, 1978). If you read horoscopes and astrology I embody what an Aries is. Austin came from writing down a bunch of first names. I really dug Austin Idol back in the day, he had a cool look and I liked the name so I yanked it. People think it was because of Steve Austin but that isn’t the case.”
From there Aries began to develop his style. He is currently best known for his excellent all-around technical wrestling as well as his finishing brainbuster and 450 splash and a submission hold where he fishhooks his opponent, inserting his finger and pulling back. Aries talked about how he chose those moves.
“In Minnesota, if you did the 450 everyone thought you were God. I remember one time I did the Tajiri handspring elbow and people flipped out. I spent a couple of days at a camp with a crash mat and was doing some crazy stuff, I did a shooting star and landed on my head, but a 450 was easy. I know now its not a big deal, people miss it all the time but I kept it. In the match with Joe the 450 was the cherry. I was a big fan of Jimmy Garvin so that is where I got the brainbuster from, when it is done well it looks really good. The fishhook came from sitting around with Lacey one day, I tried the move, didn’t put my finger in her mouth just her chin hooked. I started using it and one time my finger slipped and started to go into his mouth so I just fishhooked him and kind of liked it.”
Like many wrestlers, Aries’ girlfriend is also in the wrestling business, Lacey of Special K in Ring of Honor. Although it seems that relationships between those in the business seem doomed to fail, Aries feels the positives outweigh the negatives.
“A girl in the business obviously understand the business and what it entails. It is hard for a lot of guys to sit and talk wrestling with their girlfriends. When you are dating someone who is there, it’s nice. In history it doesn’t seem like a lot of relationships work out, just because there are some devious (people) in the business and it is hard to find someone who stays faithful because we are all just whores for the business. There are positives and negatives in any relationship and as long as the positives outweigh the negatives then it can work.”
Aries has had the chance to work matches for both TNA and WWE. He faced Mad Mikey (Michael Lockwood, aka Crash Holly) in an Xplosion match shortly before his death, and wrestled a number of dark matches for WWE.
“The match with Mikey was really easy and short. He was easy to work with and he knew what they wanted, I just followed along. I wish I had gotten more out of the match, in terms of them seeing if I was someone they wanted to use. I had interest in going there at one time but they didn’t seem that interested. They wanted me to go down on my own dime and work four-minute Xplosion matches which I couldn’t afford to do. In retrospect it has worked out best that way so I don’t regret it.”
He speaks fondly of his WWE experiences, although presently he has no desire to go there.
“The first time I went I worked Shawn (Khasrow) Davari. That worked out perfectly because you are nervous the first time going out in front of a crowd that size. Whether you like the product or not, all wrestlers want to say they stepped into a WWE ring and wrestled a match. I was comfortable working with Shawn because I had done it many times. It was a good experience and we got carte blanche and let me win the match with the 450. We got to have fun and the crowd gave a great response. It was a good experience. The next night I worked Mortis (Chris Kanyon) and that was also an easy match. Another time Davari and I teamed against the Dudleyz. I had a lot of fun in WWE and learned more sitting around the ring listening to the agent like Arn Anderson and Fit Finlay give people advice. People run camps and charge a couple of hundred bucks just to pick their brain or listen. To get to do that for free, see how they run their business, that experience alone was fantastic and wrestling on top of it was great. Looking at a guy like Benoit and Guerrero and the road they took, that is my motto. Right now I wouldn’t be happy signing a developmental deal and being tucked away in a territory for five years waiting to be called up to do nothing. Benoit and Guerrero got experience and knowledge everywhere and stuck with it and became the best there are around.”
What a lot of fans don’t know is that Aries is a strict vegetarian. SLAM! asked Aries how he balances the late night diners and life on the road with his diet needs.
“It isn’t as hard as people think it would be. I’ve been vegetarian for about four years, I ate chicken the first few months and then went completely veg for a lot of different reasons. When I first stopped eating meat it was great because I didn’t really pay attention to my diet, I could just stop in and grab fast food. I can eat at Taco Bell, they have bean burritos and stuff. At Denny’s you can substitute the veggie burger for any of their hamburgers so I get a double Boca burger with cheese, which is 40 grams of protein. Plus my diet is really low fat so I don’t have to worry about my fat content. My biggest concern is eating enough food to keep size on. I was 150 pounds when I broke in, I am about 180 – 202 right now depending, usually 202 when I come out of the curtain. I’ve put on a good 40 pounds and keep working at getting bigger. The more size you have the more cushioning for the bumps.”
Winning the ROH belt as well as his talent opened up doors for Samoa Joe and Aries hopes doors will open for him as well. “I want to go overseas and Japan. The belt puts you in the limelight, people want to have the ROH champ on their shows so it will open up a lot more opportunities for me. Keeping the prestige of the belt is the most important thing to me.”
Aries has been consumed by a business he loves, and intends for it to be his future. Although he doesn’t know exactly what the future holds, he knows wrestling will always be part of it.
“Once I made a commitment to do this, I knew it was a marathon race. I am in this business for the long haul, and if you keep the right attitude, have a passion and work hard good things will happen to you. You look at a guy like Benoit who had to bust his ass for twenty years to get that main event push. He could have gotten frustrated and given up. Sooner or later you have to recognize talent, and with all the experience he built up he made it. If something happens to me and I can’t compete in the ring, I will be in the business doing something; announcing, booking, managing. I am a lifer.”