Thursday 23 February 2012

Decade of Honor - Duckman Reflects on The Past 10 Years of ROH

February 23rd 2002 – The Era of Honor Begins, Murphy Rec Centre, Philadelphia.

March 4th 2012 – ROH 10th Anniversary Show, Hammerstein Ballroom, New York – live on iPPV

In just a little over two weeks Ring of Honor Wrestling will celebrate its tenth anniversary with a show from the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York which will be broadcast around the globe live on IPPV. Today ROH is a very different entity from the one that first rocked the US independent wrestling scene with state of the art matches featuring the likes of Low-Ki, Bryan Danielson, Christopher Daniels and countless others back in 2002.

I doubt many of the fans who filed into the Murphy Rec Centre back in February 2002 to witness the very first ROH show would ever have believed that the company would survive for ten months, let alone ten years. The story of ROH’s survival and it’s evolution as a promotion is one almost as compelling as the matches that set it apart from all other wrestling promotions in North America.

For those of you not familiar with the story of ROH allow me to set the scene. It’s 2001. The wrestling world as we knew it had been turned upside down. WCW was on its last legs. Booked into a creative and financial oblivion by the likes of Eric Bischoff, Vince Russo, Kevin Nash and Hulk Hogan, WCW was hanging on for dear life in the face of unparalleled competition from WWE which was riding higher than even in its glory days of the mid to late 1980s. The writing was on the wall – one of the biggest and at one time most successful wrestling promotions in the world was about to reach the end of its days.

WCW spluttered to a sad but unsurprising conclusion in March 2001and the decision was made that there was no place for professional wrestling on the new AOL/Time Warner network. The sale of WCW to Vince McMahon became one of the biggest stories in the history of professional wrestling but sadly that too never reached the creative and financial heights it was surely destined to achieve.

Across in Philadelphia (one of the true hot beds of pro wrestling) things were looking just as bleak as they were for those plying their trade in Atlanta. ECW was not faced with the same creative issues as WCW and had for years been THE cutting edge wrestling promotion. Paul Heyman’s creative direction took ECW from just another independent promotion and turned it into the third largest wrestling company in North America.

However for all Heyman’s undoubted booking genius, on the financial side of the business, things were not so positive. Laden with debt, struggling to find a TV deal and seeing all of it’s money players move on to WCW and WWE, ECW was fighting a losing battle – a battle it would never recover from and on 4th April 2001 the company was declared bankrupt before eventually being purchased by Vince McMahon for a relative pittance.

So far, so bleak, right? Thankfully two men who had been heavily involved in the ECW phenomenon were not about to take the death of ECW, and what would be a serious slump in the wrestling business in general, lying down. Rob Feinstein and Gabe Sapolsky had worked with ECW for years and with Feinstein’s RF Video relying on the production of ECW videos as one of it’s major revenue streams, it didn’t take long before the idea of starting their own wrestling promotion was formed. The antithesis of ECW. Ring of Honor.

The premise behind ROH was simple. This was a chance for professional wrestling to be presented as a serious sport. It would be based on athletic competition and fair play. ROH would provide a platform for the very best independent workers from all over the country and the world to ply their trade, hone their skills and work in an environment that many would call ‘old school’ but that retained an element of the ‘new school’ that other promotions could not match.

ROH offered something different to it’s fan base. None of the childish gimmicks that WWE all too often relied on (and still do now to an even greater extent). No stupid booking. No insulting the intelligence of the paying audience. It was time to bring a new type of pro wrestling to Philadelphia, with the focus on the workers in the ring. The same young, hungry and talented wrestlers who would go onto become the corner stones of today’s wrestling scene.

As with any great story the life of ROH was not without it’s pitfalls and problems. Some of the early shows were at best shambolic and while the main event level matches delivered, those elsewhere on the card weren’t always the greatest. This was a promotion with a lot of young wrestlers learning their trade, along with a booker and other staff behind the scenes who were running their own wrestling company for the first time.

However ROH were able to carve a very particular niche over the next two years as ROH began to bring in the best talent from TNA to work on their shows. The booking of Gabe Sapolsky was beginning to come into its own and with classic world title matches between Samoa Joe and CM Punk capturing the imagination of wrestling fans everywhere the future looked bright for ROH.

That was until the company was rocked by a scandal in 2004 involving Rob Feinstein and his questionable use of the internet. If you guys are into that kind of story then by all means go ahead and Google it. I’m not going to spend any time on that particularly embarrassing incident for Mr Feinstein and Ring of Honor. I’ve got nothing to add to what’s already been said by countless others down the years. What I am going to focus on is the fall out from this incident and in particular the effect it had on the fledgling business relationship between ROH and TNA.

ROH had made fantastic use of TNA contracted wrestlers on its shows with AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels both being main event players in ROH who delivered time and time again where it really mattered to the ROH fan base – in the ring. TNA’s reaction to the Feinstein incident was to pull all their contracted talent from all ROH shows. The effect on any other promotion would have been fatal. With the wrestling scene at the time contracting at an alarming pace and the general bad press and fan reaction to Feinstein and ROH in general this could have spelt an early end for ROH. Thankfully, as they would do time and time again in the future, ROH survived.

This was in no small part thanks to Gabe Sapolsky and his booking of new talent like Austin Aries, Alex Shelly, Roderick Strong and Jack Evans. As well as utilising other talents such as the well established ROH World Champion Samoa Joe, CM Punk, Colt Cabana, Jay and Mark Briscoe and other ROH originals. This use of new wrestlers and continually building new stars is something that has become a ROH trademark over the past decade.

ROH and Sapolsky were able to regroup and rebuild. They made the only move they possibly could at the time – they separated from Feinstein and began their own DVD production and distribution company. The stigma of being associated with Feinstein was felt for some time after but ROH were able to survive and in the following years they began to prosper.

To give a full wrestler by wrestler and match by match account of the last ten years in ROH would be impossible. The number of fantastic talents that have come through the company reads like a who’s who of top line professional wrestling talent. The two current main champions in WWE both made their names and honed their craft in ROH. In CM Punk and Bryan Danielson (Daniel Bryan) long time ROH fans have two perfect examples to point to when people criticise ROH or independent wrestling in general. I shudder to think at the depth of the talent pool in WWE and TNA at the moment without ROH.

The quality of the booking and storytelling in ROH between 2004 and 2008 was unmatched anywhere in professional wrestling and resulted in Gabe Sapolsky being voted Booker of the Year by the Wrestling Observer readers for four straight years. Two of the main highlights for me personally were the CZW vs. ROH feud, which was a triumph and resulted in increased business for both companies. And the build up and execution of the ‘Age of the Fall’ angle which was probably one of the greatest angles I’ve ever seen. The shocking scenes of Jimmy Jacobs standing under a strung up and bleeding Jay Briscoe while his white coat was showered with blood is one that will on in infamy for years to come.

Even when Gabe was fired by then ROH owner Cary Silkin in 2008 the company was able to survive, although the creative direction and excitement surrounding the product was not as high as it had once been. However once again ROH survived despite losing the man who’s creative direction had guided the company to critical acclaim while at the same time fighting off the rough economic climate that ROH and other independent wrestling promotions were struggling against.

As always new stars came along to replace those who had moved on from ROH and the likes of Nigel McGuiness, Roderick Strong, Tyler Black, Jimmy Jacobs, Kevin Steen, El Generico, Chris Hero and Claudio Castagnoli forged their positions as a new generation of ROH talent. In recent years while some of those stars have moved on others like Davey Richards and Eddie Edwards have assumed the mantel at the top of the card and continued the ROH tradition of producing fantastic matches in a variety of styles.

The company was also able to secure the services of Jim Cornette. A man who is synonymous with professional wrestling over the last 30 plus years. With Cornette ROH have a man who can perform in front of the camera (as his current feud with Kevin Steen shows) just as effectively as he can behind the scenes. The wealth of experience Cornette brings to ROH is something that should never be forgotten or taken for granted.

Of course the independent spirit of ROH would always remain but the business side of the company has seen significant change. A brief flirtation with PPV was followed by a two year TV deal with HD Net and while neither was able to increase ROH’s business as significantly as the company would have hoped, they did signal ROH’s intent to move forward. In 2011 the most significant announcement in ROH history was made as the Sinclair Broadcast Group purchased ROH from then owner Cary Silkin.

The move was significant as now a TV network owned ROH and with a nationally syndicated TV show in the works ROH was taking steps that ECW was unable to do. They could secure their future, obtain a TV deal, sign their wrestlers to contracts and take the ROH product to the masses. For years the argument had been made that ROH was a niche product and it would struggle to cross over from the hardcore fan base that have followed the company for years. Now, as ROH celebrate their tenth year in existence it’s time to challenge that notion.

With Sinclair’s backing and the booking skills of Hunter Johnson and Jim Cornette at the helm – plus a whole new collection of new ROH stars in waiting with the likes of Michael Elgin, Mike Bennett and Tommaso Ciampa – it’s an exciting time to be a Ring of Honor fan. The weekly TV show has seen marked improvement in production levels and format over the last few months and in Kevin Kelly and Nigel McGuiness ROH have the best commentary team working in wrestling today.

The steady rise for ROH against what many saw as insurmountable odds is a true testament to the hard work and skill of everyone associated with Ring of Honor. All the people who have had a hand in shaping the company, from the people in the office, to the wrestlers in the ring deserve to be recognised for this achievement. The fans of ROH have also played their part. One word can sum up the ROH fan base to me and that’s passion. A passion for true professional wrestling and a passion to see their company continue to make strides forward and continue to grow.

While it may be a very different promotion from the one that debuted back on that cold night in Philly in February 2002 one thing has remained constant – Ring of Honor continues to be one of the most important companies in professional wrestling. A place for new talent to grow. A place where fans can see the kind of wrestling action that they thought they would never see again. A company that is bringing professional wrestling back and bucking the trends of sports entertainment and giving people a true alternative to WWE and TNA.

So that’s my brief history of everything ROH. I’ve missed out tons of stuff but don’t worry, next week I’ll be back with a new article looking at the most important wrestlers in ROH history and putting together my own ROH Mount Rushmore. Trust me, that has a been a bitch to decide. So many great wrestlers and only four spaces to fill!

Thanks for reading and be sure to check back next week for more ROH Decade of Honor goodness. Remember you can follow me on Twitter @WLHDuckman and also you can hear myself, Sir Ian Trumps and Stu Rodgers talking all things professional wrestling each week on the Marks for Xcellence podcast right here

Until next time...



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