ROH has been an essential part of my wrestling fandom for all of my adult life, and here are my reflections on their history and impact they had on the wrestling business, and me personally over the years.
In January 2001, Extreme Championship Wrestling went out of business and was soon followed by World Championship Wrestling in March 2001. Wrestling, for the first time in its history, only had one dominant promotion in Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF, which later became World Wrestling Entertainment in 2002). The wrestling scene was suddenly faced with a massive problem: Lots of talent, but nowhere to work. This was a void that Ring of Honor would soon fill.
Not long after ECW and WCW closed their doors, a significant independent wrestling show was being held by APW (All Pro Wrestling) on October 26 & 27, 2001 – The King of the Indies Tournament, where the top upcoming independent wrestling stars would gather and compete in a single-elimination tournament.
The finals of the tournament came down to The American Dragon Bryan Danielson facing off against Donovan Morgan, and people at the time were talking about how these young wrestlers were pushing the boundaries of the art form in North America, bringing a more Japanese style of wrestling here for the first time.
Dave Meltzer, Bryan Alvarez, Nick Bockwinkel, and Red Bastien were all in attendance, and something remarkable happened: Red Bastien said that the talent he saw was as good, if not better than the wrestlers in his day.
After the match between Danielson and Spanky (Brian Kendrick), Bastien and Bockwinkel stood and applauded, and Bockwinkel went to the promoter and told him that he would be making a huge mistake if he didn’t put Bryan Danielson over in the finals, and thus the finals were changed from Donavan Morgan defeating Low Ki, to Danielson defeating Low Ki. Other participants in the tournament were Doug Willians, AJ Styles, Super Dragon (PWG Owner), Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian, Spanky, Adam Pearce, Samoa Joe, Bison Smith, and Vinnie Massaro.
A young Chico Alvarez (Bryan Alvarez) worked the undercard on both shows, a few years before he launched the F4W Online website. Little did everyone there know that two people saw this on DVD and decided that they could run a promotion with this talent in the tournament.
In the aftermath of ECW dying, Rob Feinstein needed a new company to be the flagship of his RF Video business, and while other hardcore companies did okay with that style of wrestling, they didn’t take off as ECW did. After Feinstein failed to get CZW to work with him, he started his own promotion with Paul Heyman protégé Gabe Sapolsky called Ring of Honor, and on February 23, 2002, the Era of Honor Began.
The first Ring of Honor show featured a match with Eddy Guerrero facing off against Super Crazy, and given Guerrero’s superstardom and Super Crazy’s ECW fame, you would think it would close the show. However, ROH had something else in store. While Guerrero and Crazy had a great match, little did the audience know what was coming in the main event.
The finalists of the King of the Indies, Low Ki, and Bryan Danielson, faced off against Christopher Daniels in a triple threat match. To say they tore the house down would be an understatement, as they had an absolutely outstanding wrestling match that still stands out today, and suddenly something seemed very different on the independent scene.
With the distribution network in place through RF Video, ROH was firmly established as the top independent company in the United States, and everyone was talking about the main event.
Ring of Honor was a success in these early years because it did something else no other promotion was doing on a large scale – bringing in the absolute best independent wrestling talent from around North America, with the occasional international star, booking compelling, simple storylines, and making each show tie into the next while providing independent supercards every show. The in-ring style wasn’t invented by ROH, but it was brought to an entirely new audience who ate it up and kept buying DVDs to see it.
The formula worked. Not long after the founding of ROH, a few months later TNA Wrestling began, and they had the X-Division, which stared AJ Styles (who was also in ROH at that time), Christopher Daniels, and Low Ki as their first major stars. This was not a coincidence. ROH and TNA shared a lot of talent in their early days, and while TNA had a slightly higher profile, it was not making money and was soon bought out by Panda Energy and Dixie Carter.
ROH did not have huge financial backing but was soon the 2B to TNA’s 2A in terms of promotions in North America (though TNA eventually grew beyond ROH with their TV deal with Spike TV in 2005). That said, ROH still struggled financially, but Feinstein was able to secure funding to keep the promotion afloat in one Cary Silkin. ROH, however, kept doing what they did best – producing quality wrestling shows, pushing young talent, and featuring guys that WWE wouldn’t take a second look at because they were “too small” or “too short,” or “didn’t have the right look.”
While WWE was trying to make stars out of Luther Reigns, Snitsky, and Mike Knox (from 2002-2006ish), ROH was having Samoa Joe dominate the world title scene in ROH for nearly 2 years, firmly establishing ROH as the promotion that you watched if you wanted the best in-ring action and long term booking.
Two of the standout feuds in that era occurred in 2003 with CM Punk feuding with Raven, and Homicide feuding with Steve Corino. Punk was also jointly feuding with Christopher Daniels and his stable dubbed the Prophecy, where they were like a religious cult that believed it was Daniels’ destiny to win the ROH Championship. This would never happen though, as Christopher Daniels, AJ Styles, and others were all pulled from ROH shows in 2004, just as Samoa Joe was getting into the peak of his reign as ROH Champion.
The future of ROH was up in the air, but Doug Gentry bought Feinstein’s stake in the company and then sold it to Cary Silkin soon thereafter. Upon the news of what happened with Feinstein, TNA Wrestling immediately pulled their talent from all ROH shows, but one chose to stay with ROH over TNA – CM Punk. This became significant later, as Punk would go on to become one of the biggest stars in ROH history.
Under Cary Silkin, ROH expanded its global presence, launching its own DVD store, selling DVDs from SHIMMER, Pro Wrestling NOAH, FIP, and other promotions alongside their own shows. ROH co-promoted shows with FWA in the UK, and in Japan with Pro Wrestling NOAH and Dragon Gate. While losing the relationship with TNA hurt ROH, it wasn’t long before the relationship was restored, if only for a short time, when in 2005 they began sharing talent again.
In 2007, ROH announced that they had secured a Pay-Per-View deal to show 6 PPVs, 60 days apart, and this, in turn, ended their relationship with TNA, who didn’t want their talent competing in a company that also ran PPVs, but the legacy of ROH had already been established at this point. There was one place you needed to prove yourself if you wanted to prove you were an up-and-coming talent in wrestling, and it was Ring of Honor.
ROH’s slow expansion continued as they headed towards the 2010s, having seen their biggest stars in Christopher Daniels, AJ Styles, CM Punk, Low Ki, Homicide, Bryan Danielson, and others all move on to bigger things, but ROH continued to build new stars and expand into new markets, doing shows in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and all over the Eastern United States. ROH was firmly a part of the wrestling culture now, being a place where talent could get paid, learn their craft, and advance to bigger companies like TNA and WWE.
In 2009, ROH signed a TV deal with HDNet (now AXS TV) and brought ROH Wrestling to TV stations across the US. When the two-year contract between ROH and HDNet ended, ROH was in a difficult position. Their TV deal was gone, and thus a significant revenue stream had disappeared for the company.
Again, ROH was in trouble, but Cary Silkin had a solution that was announced on May 21, 2011 – ROH was purchased by Sinclair Broadcasting, and the modern era of ROH had begun. Gary Juster, who promoted house shows for Jim Crockett Promotions and WCW had a connection with Sinclair through Joe Koff, who helped produce the Syndicated mega show, Battle of the Belts, for Championship Wrestling from Florida.
Sinclair saw ROH as a chance to produce cheap one-hour programming for their syndicated channels and hoped to expand the ROH audience from drawing 500 people for house shows to around 750-1000, where they could make a nice little profit. That increase never really came under Jim Cornette, but one significant thing happened in 2014 that would see ROH rise to newer heights that it never saw before: In February 2014, around ROH’s anniversary, they announced a partnership with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
NJPW worked with ROH to present supershows that saw talent from both companies face each other, and eventually crossover in major story arcs, as some would start in NJPW and continue in ROH, while others would start in ROH and continue in NJPW. NJPW and ROH became linked very strongly in this period, seeing the Bullet Club, a stable formed by Prince Devitt (WWE’s Finn Balor) grow in popularity as The Young Bucks and AJ Styles, who both worked in ROH, joined the group and brought them to ROH shows.
Titles from both promotions were defended and changed hands on each other’s shows, talent was exchanged frequently, and suddenly wrestling stars were refusing to sign with WWE and chose to stay with ROH and NJPW together, as they were making good money and had creative freedom they didn’t have elsewhere.
Working with NJPW propelled many ROH stars to new heights, seeing Kevin Steen gather enough attention to be hired by WWE, for example, along with the Young Bucks helping sell incredible amounts of merchandise to the point that Hot Topic started selling NJPW shirts. All this hype behind NJPW and ROH making as much money as they were as partners saw the popularity of NJPW grow significantly in the United States, and they went on to have their own TV deal with AXS TV that lasted several years, seeing Mauro Ranallo and then Jim Ross commentate on older NJPW shows with English commentary.
Soon, the ROH commentary team of Kevin Kelly and Steve Corino were actually calling the NJPW shows live on NJPW World, and again, thanks to Ring of Honor, NJPW was exposed to another new audience – ones that couldn’t get past the language barrier to shows, and now had Kevin Kelly there to guide them and tell the stories.
All the attention ROH and NJPW were getting saw their momentum rise until they caught the eye of one Chris Jericho, who was pointed in their direction by Don Callis. Soon thereafter, Chris Jericho debuted in NJPW, attacking Kenny Omega, and Wrestle Kingdom that year saw several thousand more international tickets purchased for the show.
Cody Rhodes had left WWE at this point a year or so prior, and chose ROH to be his home base soon thereafter, joining Bullet Club and igniting a feud with Kenny Omega over leadership of the group that saw them draw ROH’s largest crowd ever of just over 6000 people for the Supercard of Honor 12.
Cody Rhodes, in this time, would make a bet with Dave Meltzer, in a now-infamous tweet where a fan asked if ROH could draw 10,000 people to a show. Meltzer indicated that it would be possible, but unlikely for quite some time, and Rhodes took that bet. On September 1, 2018, that show materialized as All In, the largest independent wrestling show in the United States of all time.
Rhodes, the Bucks, Kenny Omega, and Hangman Adam Page, all members of Bullet Club and considered “The Elite” were present on the show, along with talent from NJPW, CMLL, Impact Wrestling, AAA, MLW, and the NWA. The show sold out all tickets within 30 minutes, drawing a crowd of 11,263 to the Sears Centre Arena in Illinois, and a huge number of buys on Pay-Per-View (50,000). The show was a wild success and caught the attention of someone in the audience who helped Chris Jericho get to the show for his surprise appearance – Tony Khan.
The wheels were set in motion before this in 2018, as Tony Khan hired Chris Harrington, a known presence in the Wrestling Observer/F4W Online community, who studied the business of wrestling and talked about it with Brandon Thurston on their Wrestlenomics Radio podcast. Harrington became the first employee of AEW and served as the man who did the numbers with Tony Khan to determine if running a wrestling promotion would even be viable.
Meanwhile, as Khan was putting together offers for the Elite and Chris Jericho to join his new promotion, ROH and NJPW announced a joint show at Madison Square Garden for April 2019 – the G1 Supercard, where they also sold out immediately, though under the expectation that the Elite was going to be there. The Elite, of course, was signing with AEW and starting a promotion that has changed the business as we know it forever.
While ROH hit its peak, drawing a massive crowd with NJPW to the Garden, that would be the height of their achievement, and they began to struggle in the months to come afterward. AEW was soon announcing their TV deal to bring wrestling back to TNT with AEW Dynamite, and the momentum that ROH had was largely transferred to AEW.
Then the pandemic hit, and ROH stopped running shows for a very long time. When they came back, they came back without fans, just like many of the promotions in the United States, though they handled the pandemic better than most. ROH wanted to make sure the talent and fans were safe and continued with their strict COVID-19 protocols even after many other promotions went back on the road with fans in attendance.
Sadly, for ROH, the shows that did have fans occasionally did not draw very well. While the product upon their return was revitalized and excellent from a creative standpoint, especially with the Pure Wrestling Tournament and the rise of Jonathan Gresham, it seemed like the damage was done. ROH was losing money, and Sinclair was doing the same, and on October 27, 2021, ROH announced they were releasing all their talent and taking a hiatus after ROH Final Battle 2021 with a return scheduled for April 2022.
The mark ROH has left on the wrestling industry cannot be understated. Almost every single major star in wrestling since 2002 had come through Ring of Honor. From CM Punk, AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Nigel McGuinness, and Bryan Danielson, to Kevin Steen, El Generico (Sami Zayn), The Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, and the AEW World Champion – Hangman Page, all made a name for themselves in ROH, as ROH developed and promoted their talent in a wrestling world that didn’t make it easy for guys like them.
From showcasing several NJPW stars to paving the way for AEW to exist to providing almost 2 decades of wrestling excellence, the influence of ROH over the wrestling business has left fingerprints all over every promotion, not just in North America, but all over the world. When WCW and ECW went out of business, the void was filled by a small independent wrestling promotion that decided that they wanted to push new stars and reinvent and reimagine what a wrestling show could be.
Regardless of what happens in the future, from The Era of Honor Begins in February 2002, to Final Battle 2021, ROH was the standard-bearer for excellence in professional wrestling. Ending on a more personal note: ROH is why I am still a wrestling fan. In 2004, when I was sick of WWE and longed for a product that had better in-ring work that was less formulaic, I was looking for a promotion that would offer wrestling like the old WCW cruiserweights, or the technical wrestling of William Regal, or even the brawling of guys from ECW.
While TNA ended up being my first exposure to ROH, and the first time I heard of ROH in 2003, it wasn’t until 2005 that I actually started watching ROH. ROH drew me in immediately with the quality of shows, and I was left wanting more as I couldn’t wait for the DVDs to arrive in my mailbox.
As my fandom in wrestling turned to MMA in 2007 and completely dropped wrestling in 2009 again, the occasional ROH show would still draw me in. In 2014, I came back to wrestling to see Bryan Danielson rise to the WWE Championship, in a turn of events I never would have predicted watching the first ROH shows. It wasn’t long before my WWE fandom waned again, but ROH had introduced me to a new promotion that scratched that itch for great storytelling, great in-ring action, and long-term booking: NJPW. Between NJPW and ROH, I knew I wouldn’t stop watching wrestling again as long as they maintained their quality matches and booking.
Indeed, it was ROH and NJPW that led to me buying tickets to the show in Madison Square Garden, making my first trip to New York to witness the event live. Without ROH, there is a very good chance I would not be writing for Daily DDT, as I introduced ROH and NJPW coverage to the site nearly 4 years ago, and had the encouragement of the editors at the time to do so.
ROH is why I am still a wrestling fan, and like many others with similar stories, ROH provided the kind of wrestling I was craving and not getting in WWE (and to a lesser extent in TNA).
ROH Final Battle ended with Jonathan Gresham winning the ROH World Championship, defeating AEW’s Jay Lethal for the title, with the show fading out, and ROH’s future uncertain heading into 2022, it really felt like the Era of Honor, as we knew it, had ended.