While ECW was perhaps under appreciated in its day, that cannot be said in the modern era. The relatively small organization is now a heavily promoted part of the WWE library and its influence on the professional wrestling industry is constantly acknowledged. ECW has gone from the fringe to the standard and its influence is no longer the cutting edge. So, the question becomes, where was the new frontier founded? If ECW’s revolution has ceased, the new superstars of wrestling must have developed their style and contemporary views of the business somewhere else. The truth is you don’t have to look too far from where ECW ended. Enter ROH.
“We Don’t Imitate…We Innovate”
Almost exactly a year after the collapse of ECW on February 23 2002, The Era of Honor Began. Rob Feinstein and Gabe Sapolsky founded Ring of Honor, a so-called “Super Indy” where all of the best wrestlers not signed to the WWF could find a bigger stage than their local shows. Of course, the stage was not all that big at first, but it would grow consistently for the next few years. Feinstein invested as a means to save his RF Video business. RF Video had grown by selling videos of ECW’s
non televised shows but had lost their security after the WWF had purchased the company and its trademarks. After a failed bid to work with Philadelphia’s CZW, he and former ECW staffer Gabe Sapolsky began to formulate a new promotion. Sapolsky, using some of the ideas that were being considered for ECW’s never realized new direction, began designing the promotion of the future. The “hardcore” style had moved away from it’s roots and now meant blood and guts to the fans instead of meaning a focus on Professional Wrestling. CZW took the violent aspects of ECW to an even further extreme and in response, ROH moved in another direction. A ring of honor. In ECW’s later days, one of their top stars was “The King of Old School” Steve Corino. Corino serves as a blue print for ROH, while not denying the violent nature of the show, Corino began to restore the respect for the more technical side of wrestling. As the WWF transitioned into the WWE, it took the “extreme” feel for itself. And as mentioned before once the cutting edge becomes the standard, new frontiers must be opened. Though seemingly starting at a deficit, ROH took advantage of a massive opportunity. With only one major wrestling company operating in the U.S., ROH was able to contract talent that would have been gobbled up by WWF or WCW only a few years prior. The WWE itself was in a confused period, letting go of talent they could have surely used. ROH had an abundance of wrestlers to work with, in
their first show alone they booked the likes of Bryan “Daniel Bryan” Danielson (I’ve always wanted to type that), Brian “Spanky” Kendrick and Eddy Guerrero. The market was simply full of talent.
“Joe’s Gonna Kill You”
As the talent wass established, a shift in the presentation began, especially after the rise of one particular Submission Machine. Samoa Joe’s rise through the ROH ranks was fast, and after defeating Xavier for the ROH Title, he would soon bring it to England. After another victory on May 17 th , 2003, he would proclaim himself the ROH World Heavyweight Champion. Joe’s near two year reign as World Champion had two major effects. First was ROH’s commitment to the title. A conscious effort to bring back the “NWA shine” to the titles, ROH focused on the feuds surrounding them and allowed Joe to take the role of a classic World Champion. No passing the belt around and no doubt that he was the top guy in the world. To this day, Samoa Joe is the longest reigning ROH champion, even when counting combined title reigns, of which there are very few (ADAM COLE BAY BAY). Competitors like CM Punk and Austin Aries were established as threats by taking Joe to the limits, not by taking the belt off of him. Joe himself was also a stark contrast to the day’s Sports Entertainers. Joe was not the cut, muscle bound wrestler that the WWE was more often promoting at the time. Punk and Joe recount this themselves in a 2005 shoot interview, speaking about how the biggest promotion in the world was losing the mix of talent and personas that had once driven their greatest success. The eighties and late nineties WWF thrived on its roster depth, something it was rapidly losing at the turn of the millennium. While WWE was becoming a pale version of what it was only a few years earlier, ROH took advantage of wrestling fan’s frustrations and the now omnipresent internet community.
“The Best in the World”
With their footing finally set, ROH would be able to take advantage of a seemingly directionless WWE. After a brief talent issue in 2004 (we don’t have to get into it here, but you can find it on Wikipedia), ROH was off to the races with new owner Cary Silkin. As the title began to change hands more frequently (not that it has ever been taken lightly) ROH was finally getting the broader recognition that it deserved. What also entered was the problem that plagues ROH to this day, the loss of talent to bigger organizations. After a deceptive and ingenious title run in 2005, CM Punk would leave for WWE, signing his WWE contract in an ROH ring. In late 2006 and early 2007, ROH would lose all of their talent that they had been sharing with TNA Wrestling. This included the likes of AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels and, perhaps most damaging, Samoa Joe. Joe would find himself in TNA for just shy of a decade, where they inexplicably kept him away from their world title for years. Many argued at the time that this was a poor decision on TNA’s part, slowing down the momentum of one of the hottest properties in the business. In 2008, Ring of Honor would lose Gabe Sapolsky as well, and he would be replaced as booker by current WWE producer and ROH competitor Adam Pearce. Regardless of these losses, ROH’s super indy roster was typically able to recover. New stars like Kevin Steen, El Generico, Tyler Black and Adam Cole would mix with ROH regulars like The Briscoes. ROH would stretch this innovation so far and so long that they would run into a new issue, a WWE ready for change.
“The Future is Now”
Entering the second decade of the new millennium, WWE had a reinvigorated outlook and began looking to the Indy scene for new, unique talent. Coupled with CM Punk’s rise to the WWE Championship, WWE NXT was looking to develop the best of the indies into true Superstars, proving with the Second City Saint and the previously signed American Dragon that change was coming to the industry. It is also important to point out that WWE re-established the importance of the WWE Championship with a long, NWA like title reign, this time with CM Punk carrying the gold. Within the space of a few years, top ROH names like Kevin Steen, Tyler Black and El Generico would all head to the WWE. At this same time, Ring of Honor was going through many transitions. Adam Pearce would be replaced by Jim Cornette as head booker in 2010, though Cornette had been Executive Producer of Ring of Honor since 2009. Silkin would sell the company to Sinclair Media in 2011 and Cornette would leave the company in 2012. Hunter “Delirious” Johnston would take over as booker after Cornette’s departure. Ring of Honor was losing consistency and talent, but it isn’t the end of the story.
Though going through a rough patch, losing talent at a rate the company never had before, ROH would re-establish its importance and once again do so through their world heavy weight title. Early attempts to return the buzz to the belt came in the form of a long Adam Cole (BAY BAY)/ Mike Elgin feud, surely two of the best wrestlers in the company. Unfortunately, their name recognition was not quite what it would be a few years later. With a few adjustments, that could be fixed. In 2014, Ring of Honor formalized a relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling. They would also take Jay Lethal, a long time ROH regular, and, giving him the 4 th longest reign in the company’s history, once again infused the belt with meaning. Perhaps as important, Adam Cole, then a member of the still white hot Bullet Club, regained the belt after Lethal’s year and a half of dominance. The deal with NJPW bolstered ROH’s roster, not only allowing the promotion to use talents like Kazuchika Okada, but giving ROH full access to The Bullet Club, something even the WWE could not claim. This partnership continues to this day and has been a great help in circulating new talent into the roster. The loses of talent like Adam Cole, Kyle O’ Reilly and Bobby Fish, which could have been devastating in years past are easier to move past. ROH not only shares talent with New Japan and CMLL, but a massive collective narrative. All of the wrestlers are recognized for what they do in all 3 of the promotions, and while they are not as recognizable as the WWE’s Superstars, they are truly a globally recognized coalition. Ring of Honor has had the chance to do what ECW likely would have had the money lined up, adapt to the world of wrestling as it changes. This adaptation has made ROH a place to look if you want to see the future of
wrestling, and they’ve done so for over 15 years.