Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, Nigel McGuinness, Adam Cole and Kevin Owens. A litany of talented wrestlers; a veritable who's who of the wrestling business. What do all of these current WWE names have in common? Each has reigned as the Ring of Honor (ROH) World Champion.
With a spotlight on this stellar and impressive past, it is pertinent to also rewind back a few months to the morning April 6th 2019, to the fabled bright lights of Madison Square Garden. New York's MSG is the mecca of professional wrestling in the United States, a staple of the business spanning decades and decades as the infamous home of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Yet on this day, independent wrestling's 'can do brigade' are set to host a pay-per-view the likes of which has always been deemed impossible.
In the home of wrestling's juggernaut and tyrant, ROH will combine forces with New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) to host the inaugural G1 Supercard. For the first time since 1960, 'The Garden' will play host to a wrestling event that has nothing to do with a member of the McMahon family.
However, if we fast-forward 24 hours from here we may just have found our starting point for this article. It had been done. The unthinkable had happened, the likes of which we may never see again, yet only one half of the partnering promotions could feel satisfied with their work. Heralded for its superb matches and top-of-the-line angles, NJPW had shone in its MSG debut, whilst its brother in arms has teetered and faltered. Wrestling journalists clambered to get their thoughts to post, not knowing that this would be the catalyst for many recurrences of these thoughts as the year wore on. Larry Csonka labelled it "a tale of two shows, with NJPW delivering bangers and a NJPW experience, while ROH failed" whilst Sean Radican bluntly stated it was "really good show, but the ROH portions of the show weren’t very good at all". A painful appraisal of ROH's first-crack at the big time, this must surely have left management and long-term fans alike wishing they had stayed in their familiar 'bingo halls'.
Before we continue to look at the past 12 months of Ring of Honor, it is important to shine a light on the promotion's origins and fandom. Founded after the demise of Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), ROH came about due to RF Video needing a new promotion to lead its video sales. Failing to gain a foothold in established promotions, RF Video created Ring of Honor and set about creating 'great' wrestling that catered to the hardy, devoted and loyal fans craving an alternative to the glitz and glamour of the WWE.
Establishing its own 'Code of Honor', ROH sought to distinguish itself from fellow promotions. A set of rules dictating how wrestlers should conduct themselves during matches, the Code of Honor aimed to infuse Ring of Honor's matches with a feel similar to Japanese Wrestling. Said rules centred around respect, clean competition and a 'may the best man win' mentality. As ROH began to establish itself, fans latched on to it as if it were their saviour; ROH was the antithesis of the capitalist WWE. Often referred to as 'The Home of Independent Wrestling', ROH gained a foothold throughout the United States of America, providing a proving ground for eager young talent, wily veterans and savvy technicians of the squared circle.
Over the years the promotion grew, and by 2018 it had launched its own online streaming service and established a mutually beneficial working relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling. This brings us full circle to April 7th in New York City, and the aftermath of ROH's "failed" shot at the big time. However, this was not the only event conspiring against independent wrestling's favourite son. 2019 had also see the launch of a new wrestling promotion, driven and controlled by some of ROH's finest - Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks. All Elite Wrestling (AEW) sought to bring independent wrestling to the mainstream, creating a genuine alternative to the might of the WWE. Ring of Honor must have thought: 'Wait, is that not what we have been doing all along?', the only caveat being that AEW were bankrolled by a billionaire with similar desires.
Thus begun the exodus of talent from ROH to AEW. The Young Bucks? Gone. Cody Rhodes? Gone. Hangman Page? Gone. Christopher Daniels, Scorpio Sky and Frankie Kazarian? Gone, gone and gone. A roster gutted of main event talent, but a company more than used to losing its top stars.
The list of superstars that began this article have more than ROH World Championship reigns in common. Each of those superstars is now employed by the WWE. The departure of stars is an all too familiar sight to Ring of Honor's Chief Operating Officer, Joe Koff. Speaking to Wrestlezone at the turn of 2019, Koff said:
“Throughout the years, ROH has provided our wrestlers a unique platform to showcase their talents to a worldwide audience.
“We are proud of the wrestlers who have not only gone on to enjoy successful careers outside of ROH but, most importantly, the ones who continue to make ROH the most forward-thinking promotion in the industry.
"Changes are a natural process of wrestling and any organization, but there has never been a shortage of exceptional and deserving men and women willing to take advantage of those opportunities. Our incredibly talented roster will continue to move this company forward." So, how have the roster fared in bringing Koff's words to reality?
Well, attendance figures suggest they have fared poorly. If you remove the anomaly of April's collaboration with NJPW, attendances are down... way down. The company's Death Before Dishonor PPV sold 450 tickets compared to 2000 at the same event in 2018, and anyone who viewed the Final Battle PPV could not help but stare at the deluge of empty seats.
Whilst the aforementioned loss of talent can partially be to blame here, many diehard ROH fans have pointed the finger at a current roster member, Matt Taven. Few were supportive of the performer's main event push with attendances falling heavily during his time in the main event. Whether this is directly related or a coincidence, Taven's critics in the wrestling world have been hard to ignore.
To say Taven is not a good in-ring hand or charismatic performer would be a lie, but simultaneously few would argue he was the right man to hold ROH's top title in 2019. Fightful hit the nail on the head when they ended the year saying: "(ROH) moves weren't made at the right times. Matt Taven isn't terrible, but he has absolutely no business being the company's World Champion in 2019, let alone being the champ for six months."
Whilst for the majority their finger-pointing at Taven comes from a place of disagreement, the seedy underbelly of internet wrestling forums suggest some criticism came from a place of hate. This can be tough to see when aimed at an industrious and hard-worker like Taven, but ROH's lineage and history breeds a lofty expectation within it's fanbase. How well does a name like Matt Taven compare to the likes of CM Punk, Samoa Joe and Cody Rhodes? I'll let you decide that.
That said, there appears to be a semblance of wrestling renaissance ready to explode in 2020. With the WWE trio of Raw, Smackdown and NXT, as well as AEW and NJPW, the wrestling universe have a plethora of options to fill their niche interest. Currently, ROH risks being left behind with its legacy being its redeeming characteristic.
Finances are not an issue, and despite a lacklustre 2019 the Ring of Honor name still holds merit and credibility. Can a new decade spawn a revival of some sorts? Can ROH hold on to a mercurial talent like Marty Scurll and recruit a few big names to bolster their ranks? Can they revive the Pure title and regain the swell of the glory days?
The future of ROH could go in many directions, but you can almost guarantee whichever direction it takes will have some sort of immediacy. 2020, what do you have in store?