By Luke Dorsch @Luke_Dorsch
With the death of the real ECW back in the spring of 2001 an apparent void was created in the world of independent wrestling that fortunately was rectified about a year later in the winter of 2002 with the creation of Ring of Honor. Originally created by RF Video founder Rob Feinstein who was one of the original large scale international “tape traders” (pre-internet and YouTube, it was the only way to really see independent wrestling) Feinstein garnered some positive attention with his infamous series of “shoot” interviews with many of the legends of the industry that are still enjoyable to watch to this day. The early premise of Ring of Honor was to “emphasize unparalleled in-ring action and athleticism, which caters to a niche audience of disenfranchised hardcore wrestling fans.” The Era of Honor Begins was the inaugural show for ROH which took place on February 23, 2002 and featured a wide range of talent including the ROH mainstays Jay and Mark Briscoe, Brian Kendrick, the late Eddie Guerrero, and the “founding fathers” Bryan Danielson, Christopher Daniels, and Low-Ki. They worked predominately in Pennsylvania the first year and moved onto Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, New Jersey, and Maryland by 2003.
I was still ordering tapes at that point being overseas and in the military it was the only way I could see ROH, but when I returned home stateside, ROH ran a show at a local venue called Michael’s 8th Avenue in Glen Burnie, MD which houses boxing and professional wrestling and I was hooked as soon as I went to my first live ROH event. Now, back in the glory days of ECW at the ECW Arena, there was no interaction with the talent, minimal merchandise, and an all-around sense of that “thrown together” feeling which if you ever attended ECW live you’ll know exactly what I mean. But, with Ring of Honor you could meet the guys before the show and get an autograph or a picture or merchandise which is a tradition that ROH still does to this day practically at every show in every city they visit. My first live ROH show entitled The Tradition Continues had “The Phenomenal” AJ Styles vs CM Punk, Raven vs Justin Credible, and ROH World Champion Samoa Joe vs Jay Briscoe.
Rob Feinstein resigned from the company in 2004 after all his legal troubles, NWA/TNA stopped the talent-sharing program they had which prevented the likes of Christopher Daniels and AJ Styles from working ROH for several years because they chose TNA over ROH, Low-Ki and Danielson were working overseas at the time so ROH looked like it was going to die before it even got started. But, Cary Silkin swooped in and bought out the majority of the shares and became the owner; but they were still missing something and that was a star to build the whole thing on. Throughout the years, there has been top level talent that ROH has created some of which are: Samoa Joe, Eddie Edwards, Davey Richards, Austin Aries, Claudio Castagnoli, etc. But I want to look at the individuals who were literal game changers. The first game changer was CM Punk.
CM Punk in ROH was one of, if not the most beloved individuals I’ve ever seen in independent wrestling aside from perhaps Tommy Dreamer in Philadelphia. Punk gave that promotion his heart and soul, and the fans knew it, and loved him for it. Even when we all knew Punk was leaving and he signed his WWE developmental contract on the ROH World Title, we still couldn’t hate him. Why? Because CM Punk always resonated with the people, and ROH fans for the most part are THE PEOPLE.
Everything that CM Punk is/was started in Ring of Honor and the fans felt like Punk was one of them because in a sense he was. When he won, we won and when he lost we lost. He had a memorable feud with Raven in the early days of ROH, his friendship and tag team championship run with Colt Cabana (Second City Saints), his legendary three match series with Samoa Joe which are still talked about to this
day, gaining international recognition for those matches and finally to the infamous Summer of Punk where Punk finally won the ROH World Championship by defeating Austin Aries on June 18, 2005 after agreeing to accept a deal with WWE. Punk turned heel instantaneously, mocking his fellow ROH wrestlers and the fans alike. But even when he was despised, he was over. When it was time for Punk to leave the promotion for WWE developmental it was the most emotional I’ve ever seen a crowd for a professional wrestling event. If you can garner real emotion like that, then its mission accomplished. He lost the title to James Gibson (Jamie Noble) on August 12 of 2005 and the next night was his final match for Ring of Honor, where he faced his longtime partner and friend Colt Cabana in a two out of three falls match in which Punk was defeated, and I’ve never seen more emotion from a crowd, peers, and the wrestlers themselves as the night CM Punk left Ring of Honor. If you’ve never seen it, it’s worth your time.
With CM Punk leaving, ROH was lucky that “American Dragon” Bryan Danielson was coming back stateside and returning to his home promotion. Danielson was the next giant star that Ring of Honor created which was around nine years before the “YES” movement. Bryan Danielson became the ROH World Champion on September 15, 2005 by defeating James Gibson (Jamie Noble) at Glory by Honor IV. With his signature music Europe’s Final Countdown Danielson was a no nonsense wrestling purist and the fans ate it up. While as the world champion Danielson worked predominately as a “heel” and had classic matches with Roderick Strong, Nigel McGuiness, Naomichi Marufuji, KENTA, and his 60 minute time limit draw with Samoa Joe. After losing the title to Homicide, Danielson left ROH for a stint with Pro Wrestling Guerilla winning their title as well. When he returned to ROH he was received as a returning hero, and became the top face of the company. Danielson got over because the fans knew he was the “best in the world” even garnering the chant practically every time he performed in the ring. His ability to get over as the heel champion or as the returning face proves that Danielson was something special, and we would all see just how special he became. Danielson’s final appearance had him face his longtime rival Nigel McGuiness one last time at the Hammerstein Ballroom in another classic match at Glory by Honor VIII. Afterwards, the locker room emptied and all the boys came out to show their appreciation to Bryan, and the capacity crowd sang along word for word as The Final Countdown played at an ROH show one last time. Aside from Punk and perhaps Samoa Joe no one’s absence was felt more than Bryan Danielson. I feared for the promotion at that point. Bryan Danielson was the most “over” guy in the whole promotion and he had been for years at that point.
Before Bryan Danielson departed Ring of Honor there was another future superstar or two already making serious waves in the promotion, one such individual was Tyler Black (Seth Rollins). Black won the Survival of the Fittest tournament in October of 2009 (one month after Danielson left) and outing such talent like Kenny Omega, Roderick Strong, Claudio Castagnoli, and Kevin Steen to win the tournament and go on to defeat ROH World Champion Austin Aries on February 10, 2010 to claim the championship. Black entered as a tag team wrestler teaming w/ Jimmy Jacobs and Necro Butcher to form the original “Age of the Fall” but it didn’t take long for Black to stand out as a top tier singles wrestler. Within 2 years of his arrival he was the ROH World Champion, he held the title for over 200 days and switched from a heel who was over, to a beloved baby face, to a reviled champion. Tyler Black’s reign was reminiscent of CM Punk’s as it was known at the time that he would be transitioning to WWE’s developmental territory fairly soon (FCW). Black was in ROH from 2007 to 2009 and with his departure, once again ROH was looking for their next big star. The writing on the wall would dictate that Eddie Edwards or Davey Richards would be the next star of the promotion, and they were popular but they were never superstars, the next superstar would’ve been an unlikely candidate. Enter KEVIN STEEN!!
Kevin Steen was originally brought in with his tag team partner and longtime friend El Generico, and the duo were instant fan favorites, out working everyone on every show on a weekly basis. The duo was so unlikely for success because neither man fit the blue print for what a successful professional wrestler looked like. El Generico was a skinny masked man who wouldn’t break kayfabe and speak English, while Kevin Steen simply didn’t have the body for a successful pro wrestler. They picked up tag team gold in ROH defeating the aforementioned “Age of the Fall”, which put them over the top as the guys of the company. The brass (rightly so) agreed with Steen and Generico’s plan to split the team up and turn big Kev a heel, which was the smartest thing they’ve ever done. Kevin Steen and El Generico started a cross promotional feud that lasted for the better part of two years and captivated the minds and hearts of the entire professional wrestling community. Mr. Wrestling became Wrestling’s worst nightmare, and after losing to Generico he was sent home for the better part of a year. When he would finally return it was all systems go, ROH had no choice to officially make Steen the top guy in the company as he defeated then champion Davey Richards to win the championship in May of 2012 at Border Wars. He successfully defended against all challengers including former champion Eddie Edwards, Davey Richards, Eddie Kingston, Jay Lethal, and of course the infamous Ladder Wars title match against El Generico at Final Battle 2012; which marked the final appearance of El Generico in Ring of Honor as he would become Sammi Zayne in NXT no long after. Steen remained the top guy in ROH even after dropping the strap to Jay Briscoe and turning full on baby face. Being still under contract he remained in Ring of Honor until 2014 when he finally was offered a developmental deal with NXT and the rest is history. No one else had the attention and respect of the ROH faithful more than Mr. Wrestling Kevin Steen since CM Punk departed a decade earlier.
Even before Steen left the company WWE had signed a plethora of talent from Ring of Honor alumni like: Cesaro, Sammi Zayne, Seth Rollins, AJ Styles, Gallows and Anderson etc. and it hasn’t stopped there. More recently WWE caught some heat by making offers to contracted talent, notably reDRagon (Bobby Fish & Kyle O’Reilly) Donovan Dijack, Lio Rush, and others. But the talent raid didn’t stop there, they took behind the scenes talent like head of creative Christopher Scobille (Jimmy Jacobs), on air play by play commentator Steve Corino, and Kevin Sullivan. Sullivan and Corino are both employed at the Performance Center where they’re trainers and behind the scenes talent, Bobby Fish has already signed a deal with NXT and it looks like the same could be said for his partner Kyle O’Reilly. Never before has there been a talent raid on Ring of Honor like they’ve done recently.
The last superstar I’ll mention is the only 3 time Ring of Honor World Champion, a guy who literally grew up watching ROH’s early days and thriving to be like CM Punk and Samoa Joe and the others, and that’s Adam Cole. Fans have been expecting Cole to sign with WWE for at least 2 ½ years since his shoulder injury in 2015 when he didn’t immediately re-sign with ROH but he didn’t. Cole worked Pro Wrestling Guerilla where he is that promotion’s longest reigning champion, and he worked Ring of Honor and became the leader of the American faction of the Bullet Club. Cole really broke out into the “superstar” lime light when he returned to ROH in 2016 as a member of the Bullet Club. Last summer at ROH Global Wars Cole hadn’t been around since losing a fantastic match to Kyle O’Reilly at Supercard of Honor which led many of us to speculate on his future plans. He made his return and quickly defeated longtime ROH champion Jay Lethal to become a two time champion. He dropped the title at Final Battle 2016 to O’Reilly in another fantastic match. But O’Reilly opted not to resign and to test free agency and the title was returned to Adam Cole in Tokyo at Wrestle Kingdom 11 in January. Cole would get as over as he’s ever gotten this year especially after his “Being the Elite” appearances and great character work, Cole followed suite and didn’t opt to resign with ROH and is “testing free agency”. So, with the departure of Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly, Bobby Fish, Lio Rush, Donovan Dijack, and all the backstage talent what’s left for ROH?
ROH has to completely build new talent…..or do they? They did catch one of the bigger fishes on the independent scene and that’s current ROH Champion Cody Rhodes, he may not be the best “in ring” worker and his matches sort of all feel the same, you can’t argue with this guy’s legitimacy or star power. Cody is super popular everywhere he goes and he is super appreciative of the opportunity that ROH has given him. Aside from Cody Rhodes who is already established, who else does ROH have to build? Well, The Young Bucks of course for one. The Young Bucks have already had some of the most memorable matches in ROH this year, the two matches with the Broken Hardy’s and their long time feud w/ Roppongi Vice, the Bucks have transcended what it means to be a star in independent wrestling and the same could be said for the former ROH TV Champion “The Villain” Marty Scurll. Marty is also super popular right now and can apparently do no wrong. Ring of Honor also has someone they were seemingly close to losing at that’s the Party Peacock himself current co-holder of the Six Man Tag Titles Dalton Castle. Dalton is the most flamboyant performer ROH has ever had going all the way back to its inception. He’s a legit bad ass amateur wrestler who’s personality and theatrics are fantastic every time you see him. ROH also has some of the talent of NJPW at its disposal several times a year, KUSHIDA is the current IWGP Jr Heavyweight Champion, the BOSJ winner, and the current ROH TV champion and of course Jay and Mark Briscoe and Jay Lethal. That being said, there’s something missing. Aside from the guys I mentioned, they have David Starr (whom they didn’t sign) Jonathan Gresham, Chuck Taylor and Trent Beretta, the Motor City Machine Guns, War Machine, and Matt Taven & The Kingdom. I enjoy everyone I mentioned but none of those guys are like a CM Punk or a Samoa Joe or a Kevin Steen. Ian Riccaboni is good but he’s not like Kevin Kelly (who is now in NJPW full time) or Steve Corino. Colt Cabana and Riccaboni do their best but it’s not the same. It seems like every time ROH gets it going, WWE just takes all their guys and says, “See you next year”. How long can they keep this up? Doubters have already said that ROH should have died years ago and they’re just holding on. They’re not just holding on, Sinclair Broadcasting bought out ROH years back and syndicated them nationally but as the great Jim Cornette is quick to point out, even though they bought the product, they still haven’t beefed up the TV show, so it’s a viable competitor with WWE. Ring of Honor may not have a plethora of known talent at their disposal, but their PPV’s are far superior than WWE’s month to month, and they still are the #2 wrestling company in the United States. ROH reaches more homes than TNA or GFW or whatever it is by far, this may seem like a dark period for Ring of Honor fans, but stick with them people, ROH has yet to disappoint and I still think they may surprise us all.