The Ring of Honor talent roster has more glitter thanks to Shelton Benjamin.
Nicknamed the "Gold Standard" during a decade-long WWE stint, Benjamin is shining with his new employer. As ROH's tag-team champions, Benjamin and fellow ex-WWE castoff Charlie Haas have displayed excellent technical skill and brought some much-needed star power as the company tries building momentum for its syndicated Saturday-night telecasts on the Sinclair Broadcasting Group.
In a Tuesday telephone interview, Benjamin said he began working for ROH in September 2010 solely because of his close relationship with Haas and trust in matchmaker/executive Jim Cornette. Benjamin and Haas made their WWE debuts together in December 2002 as the "World's Greatest Tag Team." Cornette helped train both standout amateur wrestlers in a WWE developmental territory (Ohio Valley Wrestling).
"I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do after being with WWE for 10 years," said Benjamin, who was released in April 2010. "Charlie is my best friend and asked me to do this. Between Charlie and Cornette, it seemed like a good idea and something fun.
"Obviously, Charlie and I don't have the pressure of being in the WWE here. We could relax and have fun. I also wanted to explore the wrestling business and do some things I haven't done. I want to grow as a performer and become a better entertainer. ROH gives me the chance to do all of that."
Benjamin acknowledges his inability to develop a character that struck a chord with mainstream WWE fans limited his opportunities.
"The wrestling business isn't just about wrestling moves," Benjamin said. "After being in WWE for 10 years, it's hard for me not to think this way. There is an entertainment aspect beside athleticism. Promos (i.e., interviews) are the big thing. I'll be the first to admit I'm no John Cena or The Rock. I'm not as bad as people make me out to be, but it's an aspect where I could expand.
"On the independent circuit, you can experiment more and try new things, new ideas, new personas. I'm always going to be Shelton Benjamin, but I can tweak things here and there."
Besides his own admitted shortcomings, Benjamin was hurt by stop-and-start pushes from WWE scriptwriters. Most of Benjamin's final four years in WWE were spent in a mid-card role.
"In certain cases, I think (WWE management) abandoned things too soon," Benjamin said. "There were situations where I felt I was on the rise and things were going in the right direction and then for whatever reason the machine just turned off. The spotlight moved away and it seemed like no matter what you did you couldn't get it back. That prompted me to do different things on my own to get their attention again, like dying my hair blond and coming up with the whole 'Gold Standard' thing. I wasn't going to just humbly fall by the wayside and be another guy on the roster."
Benjamin didn't leave on bad terms with WWE. He even worked an impromptu non-televised match last March in Houston after being invited backstage as a guest of Paul "Big Show" Wight. Benjamin was so unprepared for the offer that he had to drive back to his home in nearby Spring, Texas, grab his wrestling gear and return while maneuvering through rush-hour traffic.
"My (entrance) music was literally playing when I tied the last knot on my (boot) string," Benjamin said. "People have called it a tryout match, but it was a one-time thing just for fun.
"I've had a damn good career and made a lot of money. Do I want more? Hell, yes. Do I think I'm completely done with WWE? No, but I definitely needed a break. If you look at WWE history, anyone who is worth anything will usually get a second run."
Benjamin, though, is in no hurry to leave ROH. While continuing his team with Haas, Benjamin is looking forward to a 2012 run as a singles performer challenging for the ROH heavyweight title. The 36-year-old also hopes to impart some wisdom to ROH performers who aren't thinking about their long-term health with the frequent use of high-risk maneuvers.
"Something that Ron Simmons and (John) Bradahaw would say all the time to me: Longevity," said Benjamin, referring to two of his WWE mentors. "You want to be able to work at a peak level as long as possible, thus making the most money for the longest period of time. Some of the things these guys can do are mind-blowing, but I just feel like it's really hard to appreciate them when you're throwing so many into one match.
"That being said, a lot of these guys are not as recognized as me and Charlie so they have to do things early in their careers to grab some attention. But with Ring of Honor having a new TV deal (with parent company Sinclair Broadcasting), this is no longer like an independent promotion. It's the third-largest company in the U.S. right now as far as visibility. I hope Charlie and I can help guys learn to feature their stuff but at the same time not do so much."
Benjamin and Haas vs. Jay and Mark Briscoe; Davey Richards vs. Eddie Edwards; and a three-way match involving Jay Lethal, El Generico and "The Prodigy" Mike Bennett headline ROH's "Final Battle" 2011 Internet pay-per-view show Dec. 23 in New York City. For more information, visit www.rohwrestling.com or www.gfl.tv.