Revisiting the acclaimed ROH match between Samoa Joe and Low Ki.
There is rarely such a match as when you are honestly forced to contend with what exactly went on in those participating minds before they went in. What they planned. How they sought to execute it. And how they would follow it up.
In 2002, Ring of Honor prided itself on being the peak of independent wrestling. In their own words “We don’t imitate. We innovate.” They were based around elevating pro wrestling in the aura of sports and not entertainment. Of course, it was all still a performance otherwise it would simply be a combat sport. But there were no wacky characters in ROH. No dramatic wedding angles or larger than life storylines. It was based around people coming together to prove themselves superior to the other in the ring.
This match was anything other than pro wrestling. JR Goldberg, in his zine of Methlab Battlearts, talked of how certain matches felt “eldritch” compared to what pro wrestling should be or is. How these matches almost make you uncomfortable, not out of dissatisfaction, but from how different they are to what’s expected.
I had never seen a match like that until this one. And I only want to see more now.
Ring Of Honor’s First Fight Without Honor
Ring Of Honor has a rule from which its namesake comes: The Code of Honor. It is based on ensuring that the match, both in storyline and to the fans, will not end in overt melodrama. While throughout the years it has had varying degrees of success at fulfilling this promise, when you saw the two men in the ring shake each other’s hand, obeying the first tenant of the Code, you got the feeling that you were watching what ROH vowed: A promotion where sport came first.
Then the first Fight Without Honor came. Having just lost his title to Xavier who had joined the newly formed Prophecy with the likes of Christopher Daniels, Low Ki was set to fight a “hired gun” of the Prophecy in the form of Samoa Joe.
These two men had a reputation for something: Violence. Be it Samoa Joe’s vast array of submissions and sheer intimidating aura. Or just the disgusting *thud* you would hear whenever Low Ki laid a kick into someone. These opposing wrestlers built a name on being fighters. And so, “sport” would have to be put aside for their match.
When the two squared up in the first match that was not beholden to the Code Of Honor, you watch as both Low Ki and Samoa Joe do not begin by shaking one another’s hand. Instead, they perch like two predators crouched down from one another on the corners of the ring.
Remember what I mentioned about this feeling “different” from your average wrestling match? When Low Ki, while pinning Joe down on the ground, begins laying in with quick jabs, I honestly winced. There was not a *crack* or the telltale sound of a strong style move. Instead, it simply looked like what both men were trying to emulate: A pit fight rather than a wrestling match. There’s no need to look dramatic or impressive here. You just need to make it look like you’ll do anything to win.
Throughout the match, both men aimed for an MMA style of wrestling. Grapple holds, submission locks, and shoot kicks were thrown around with abandon. But that “different” feeling kept emerging throughout. Low Ki collapsing into the ropes anticlimactically after taking a barrage of Samoa Joe’s leg strikes made you feel as if the smaller man’s body simply gave out instead of the usual sell. The lack of character moments was replaced with the two refusing to take a moment to breathe and always going towards the other’s throat.
Finally, the ending of the match will always sum it up for being the first match that didn’t feel like a match. In a return for Joe’s earlier kick assault, Low Ki begins nailing Samoa Joe with a flurry of precision knee strikes to the head that are then contrasted with a chaotic and wildly swinging set of clubbing hands. To which Joe’s body completes the return by giving out. Low Ki goes for the pin.
And he gets it. There was no Warrior’s Way to finish this match. A finisher wasn’t needed. Samoa Joe endured an array of physical strikes and his body simply couldn’t take it anymore. There’s something strangely melancholic about this ending. You watch any wrestling match and you can feel the energy when the ending is coming. It’s a build-up. When this match ended, however, it was an end to a fight, not a match. It didn’t need a build-up because in a fight, a single strike of any sort can make a difference.
Now, the two were obviously still putting on a wrestling match. No matter how well you do it, you can tell the difference between real violence and performance. I have watched death matches, ladder matches, barbed wire matches, you name it.
But none of them ever brought forth the feeling that, even for a brief moment, this was something not quite pro wrestling. They didn’t need weapons to accomplish this. Just skill and reputation.
The following Fights Without Honor began diving headfirst into full-on extreme violence with weapons, blading, and other assorted amplifiers. And I enjoy them. But I will always remember the scene at the end of this match. Of Samoa Joe crumpling up after being hit with one clubbing blow after another.