Please, raise a glass for this toast to Ring of Honor and don’t put it down until you have read the whole thing.
I was lucky enough to live close enough to Philadelphia to attend a bunch of early Ring of Honor shows. The first show I went to was Do or Die. I had seen some of these wrestlers on TNA (read about it here) but the X-Division hadn’t prepared me for what a Ring of Honor show would be. These wrestlers put their entire beings into a show for no more than 300 people. Matt Stryker and Tom Carter put on a technical workshop on the level of Angle and Benoit. CM Punk exuded so much charisma and backed it up in the ring. Christopher Daniels was a master at only 8 years in the business. Jody Fleish and Slim J did stereo moonsaults off scaffolding for no reason. In spite of all this, Samoa Joe was all we talked about on the drive north to New York. Samoa Joe. Samoa Joe.
ECW left a void on the throne of independent wrestling. So many pretenders scrambled for the bloody pieces, attempting to recreate the violence and controversy that propelled the regional Eastern Championship Wrestling to national television as Extreme Championship Wrestling. XPW, ProPain Wrestling, CZW, IWA MS, JCW, and others featured hardcore content to varied success, but none managed to truly break out of the pack. They were treading old ground.
But something new was bubbling up in the independent circuit. Something that stood out against the backdrop of blood, broken glass and barbed wire. Something that would change wrestling for the next 20 years.
It all started at the ECWA Super 8 Tournament in 2001.
The main event of the Super 8 (you can watch it here) was The American Dragon (Bryan Danielson) vs. Low Ki. Both had defeated two opponents to get to the finals. The match featured strikes, technical wrestling, hard hitting big moves and a sprint to the finish. The style was a junior’s version of King’s Road, where the performer’s ability had to be matched by their fighting spirit. In the end, Low Ki held the trophy.
A former ECW employee and tape seller Rob Feinstien was in the audience. He needed content for his flagging business. ECW had been his bread and butter, but with ECW folding and hardcore focused CZW not wanting it’s shows to be distributed by Rob there was a void that needed filling. Instead of attempting to re-create ECW, Rob saw an opportunity with this japanese inspired style of wrestling. AJPW was a strong seller, meaning there was an underserved portion of wrestling fandom that just might buy tickets and DVDs to a product that catered to them.
The Era of Honor had begun.
The second ROH show I went to was in Elizabeth, New Jersey at the RexPlex, an indoor sports venue. The ring was set up in the indoor baseball section if memory serves. That night we got to see Low Ki absolutely massacre Deranged, Jeff Hardy get booed out of the building, Samoa Joe defeating Paul London as Paul was just about to join WWE, and Raven vs. CM Punk in a brutal Dog Collar match. It was a memorable night for all the right reasons.
Ring of Honor made a pretty big splash in the independent wrestling world. The fans of puro and technical wrestling finally had something to key in on. Ring of Honor wasn’t perfect by any means; while the main events always delivered, the midcard was a mix of outstanding, mediocre, sloppy and questionable. The inclusion of the gay panic tag team The Christopher Street Connection was especially egregious. Mikey Whipwreck’s students were only good for psychology-absent spotfests that would burn out the crowd. Random appearances by deathmatch wrestlers and Ox Baker left the crowd confused. Tone and storytelling were severely lacking.
It was Raven and CM Punk who added a long-term, coherent and personal feud to Ring of Honor. Punk gave the appearance that he resented Raven because of what his drug and alcohol abuse had lead to for younger wrestlers while still being successful. As the feud played out, Punk revealed that he hated Raven because Raven reminded him of his own alcohol abusing father in one of Punk’s greatest promos of his entire career. Their program has often been called the first real feud in Ring of Honor history.
In mid 2004 it was revealed that Rob Feinstein had been exchanging sexually explicit messages who he thought was an underage boy, but was actually an adult who would expose online sexual predators. At the time it seemed like this was the end of Ring of Honor. Luckily, Feinstein’s shares were bought by Doug Gentry and then sold again to Cary Silkin. Silkin would finance Ring of Honor for most of its term until the sale to Sinclair Broadcast Group in 2011. Booking would be handled by Paul Heyman follower Gabe Sapolsky through 2008.
Under Feinstein and Saplosky, Ring of Honor slowly grew. They brought in more talent both from America and abroad, weathered the loss of their top stars as they were hired by bigger companies, told compelling stories while never betraying the commitment to competition. Wrestling was always the draw.
I managed to catch a few more ROH shows, seeing Bryan Danielson win the first Survival of the Fittest tournament, Austin Aries dethroning Samoa Joe, Joe and Ki vs. Homicide and fucking Kenta Kobashi, Joe and Danielson vs. KENTA and Marafuji, and much more.
Ring of Honor was special to me. I have always been attracted to the edges of popular culture. Punk, hardcore, cult movies, independent comic books and role playing games are still a big part of my life. WWE didn’t have much for me, especially in the main event. Impact had great wrestling but was marred by inconsistent booking. Deathmatch wrestling with no story didn’t excite me. Ring of Honor was what I wanted; wrestling first.
Ring of Honor headed into a rough patch booking-wise during the early Sinclair era. Regardless, they still managed to put on some amazing matches with the likes of Kevin Steen, Kyle O’Reliey, Adam Cole, The American Wolves, The Briscoes and others.
Their connection with New Japan and The Bullet Club would push Ring of Honor to it’s highest moments. Ring of Honor hosted All In in 2018, a combination of ROH, New Japan, BTE and the best of the indie scene. This was followed by 2019’s New Japan co-branded show G1 Supercard. ROH helped sell out the mecca of pro wrestling; Madison Square Garden.
Ring of Honor had climbed to the top of the mountain. A pinnacle that would lead to a precipitous fall.
I still watch Ring of Honor shows. I have a stack of DVDs that I have bought over the years. I will throw one in now and again, pick the best couple matches on the show and have a good time. I have to admit, I look for myself in the crowd in those early shows. In spite of my narcissism, all I really want is to be entertained by high quality pro wrestling. I am rarely disappointed.
Some people say that AEW climbed over Ring of Honor to get where they are now. While I don’t think that Tony Khan and The Elite purposefully stepped on CEO Joe Koff, it’s hard to imagine AEW without All In. Just as the 2001 Super 8 launched ROH, ROH helped launch AEW.
While losing The Elite and the New Japan connection and their inability to capitalize on the G1 Supercard were huge losses for ROH, the true beginning of the end was Covid 19. ROH did right by their wrestlers over the last couple of years, paying people what they were owed and putting on the best shows they could without audiences. Wrestlers like Josh Gresham, Tracy Wiliams, Rush and Bandito did everything they could to get eyes on the product. It wasn’t enough. Money from the live shows wasn’t coming in. People weren’t buying the PPVs. There wasn’t enough revenue to keep things going. Just as the Delta variant was coming under control, Ring of Honor had to pivot. On October 27th, 2021, they cancelled all contracts effective January 1st, 2022.
On December 11th 2021, Ring of Honor held their annual “end of the year” PPV. The show was originally titled Final Battle. The addendum “The End of an Era” was added after the October announcement. The Era of Honor had begun nearly 20 years ago. That era came to a close.
Is this truly the end of Ring of Honor? CEO Joe Koff says it isn’t. Their plan is to re-open in April of 2022 as a fan focused product, returning to their roots as an independent wrestling company. No more contracts, no more guarantees. Only the promise to bring in the best available talent and put on the best shows they can. Will this be enough or is it a band-aid on a bullet wound?
Even if Final Battle is truly the end of Ring of Honor, the company’s effect on the world of Professional Wrestling will continue. Ring of Honor’s style has pervaded every level of the sport. CM Punk, Seth Rollins, Bryan Danielson, Kevin Owens, AJ Styles, The Young Bucks, Sami Zayn, Samoa Joe, Roderick Strong, Kyle O’Reilly, Bobby Fish, Adam Cole, Homicide, Christopher Daniels, The Briscoes, Cesaro, Chris Hero, Low Ki, and so many more have brought the Ring of Honor style into the main events of the biggest companies in the world.
Ring of Honor changed wrestling for the better. Those changes will endure. Honor never dies.
And with that, let’s toast to the end of an era. I’m sure your arm is getting tired.
Watch the first ROH main event here.
Here’s a playlist of ROH full matches.