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A few years ago, I was attending an EVOLVE show in Melrose, Massachusetts that was going to feature Ricochet, who had just signed with WWE. Ricochet was going to be in a match and the fans were getting the opportunity to vote for his opponent, with the three options being AR Fox, Shane Strickland and Orange Cassidy.
As a purist, I was hoping for Fox or Strickland, who would be sure to have a great, athletic match with a performer like Ricochet. I was aware of Cassidy and enjoyed his gimmick years ago when he would make sporadic appearances in CHIKARA as Chuck Taylor's tag team partner, but I thought he would be kind of a waste of Ricochet; he could have his comedy match with anybody.
At that point I suppose I hadn't been paying as close attention to the indies as I had in the past, because I was shocked to see Cassidy, who I considered an occasional comedy wrestler who wrestled a handful of lower-card matches a year, dominating the poll. I couldn't believe that fans were picking him, as I had incorrectly assumed he was an obscure character. In the end he ended up winning the poll in a landslide, and when I went on Twitter and remarked that I was disappointed in the results, I was bombarded with people telling me how GREAT Cassidy was.
As an aside, the match ended up being changed to Velveteen Dream vs Cassidy, which made a lot more sense as their styles matched up well for a unique main event.
During that period something had changed within independent wrestling and eventually that would lead to changes at a higher level. Throughout the 2000s, indie wrestling generated interest from fans mainly because the in-ring action was strong; the wrestling style was more appealing than the WWE traditional sports-entertainment style and the wrestlers were smaller and often more athletic than their plodding big league counterparts.
Over the last five years, the landscape has shifted. WWE largely changed its in-ring style, promoting a faster pace with more high spots that you would normally see on an indie show. To do that they signed up a lot of the key independent names. On top of that, ROH and NJPW signed more key indie talent to exclusive contracts and also exploded in popularity. Eventually AEW would become a major league promotion essentially built entirely on the concept of what made indie wrestling appealing in the 2000s.
So independent wrestling was no longer unique in its style, and to boot most of its known names had been signed to larger companies. As a natural evolution, independent wrestling had to provide wrestling fans with something that they were not getting at the mainstream level, which ended up being a focus on more comedy and more over-the-top, fun gimmicks. The indies were not going to become a beacon of intense athletic competition the way they used to be, instead they became a fun place for people to go, drink beers, and laugh at a unique form of entertainment.
This took Cassidy, who was better known as the more serious Fire Ant in CHIKARA, from using the Cassidy gimmick as a side-gig, to getting in a feud with Chris Jericho on national television. If you go back and watch Cassidy from the early 2010s, his gimmick is the exact same. The difference for him is that the appetite for his act grew within fans as they pined for more comedy and more characters, stuff that they were perhaps not getting at the mainstream level.
There were signs that very surreal gimmicks would become mainstream in wrestling. The original Broken Matt Hardy gimmick was the first real move in that direction. Later, WWE would adopt a similar idea with Bray Wyatt, The Fiend and the Firefly Funhouse segments, which were very untraditional and did end up connecting with fans, giving hardcore fans a chance to laugh at the absurd.
Swimming in the wake of Cassidy would be a new wave of gimmick wrestlers, including PCO, Warhorse, Danhausen, Allie Kat, Effy and other gimmick-heavy wrestlers that have become some of the most popular performers on the independent scene. The gimmicks can often attract non-fans and have ushered in an era of "meme wrestlers" that have proven to be legitimate attractions at the indie level.
When Cassidy was first brought into AEW, it was kind of a controversial signing. Both Jericho and Jim Ross have gone on the record saying they were skeptical at first. There was a general belief that Cassidy would be a hard sell to fans unfamiliar with him, which would be most of the viewers, and that non-wrestling fans would reject his gimmick. In reality, it ended up being the opposite, as Cassidy's character was easily relatable for non-fans and he became a quick fan favorite.
The turning point for Cassidy was his match against PAC took place at AEW Revolution. Cassidy started out his slothful self, and then snapped into overdrive, putting together a very competent match that crowd adored. While critics may cite that Cassidy got over on the indies in front of 300 people, the fact was that in Chicago he was the most over person in the building, a legit major PPV event in front of 10,000 paying customers. This wasn't a small-time "outlaw mud show" event, this was the big time and Cassidy was the king.
The irony with Cassidy is that for traditionalists who scoff at the idea of contemporary indie wrestling and can't stand Cassidy's gimmick, Cassidy is in a lot of ways a throwback to a previous generation. Cassidy doesn't do a lot of flips or crazy high spots, in fact he does almost nothing. However, he gets the biggest reaction on the shows because his character is so strong. Sure, his character may not have worked in previous eras, but the philosophy is the same, to get a persona over so that you don't have to do anything special in the ring to get over.
At the same time, Cassidy is still a competent wrestler who can do cool stuff when the time calls. While his lazy gimmick works, it would have a short shelf life if he couldn't occasionally have good matches. By combining good ring work with a powerful character, he has been able to sustain his popularity and grow it, earning more and more TV time each week.
After the match with PAC it was obvious that whatever people thought the ceiling was for Orange Cassidy, it was probably higher than they imagined. His further feud with Jericho has been tremendous, with his exchanges and segments being some of the most consistently entertaining work in the industry. Could Cassidy ever one day be the world champion? I wouldn't rule anything out at this point.
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