I have been a rabid fan of pro wrestling for over 30 years. I've seen the sport go through its share of highs and lows. I've watched the biggest events that wrestling has put on, and I've also watched many an event that took place in front of a dozen or so people with no cameras around to film it. You name a decently sized promotion of the last 30 years, and there's a pretty good chance I've watched at least one show that the promotion has put on. Later this year will mark my ten year anniversary of being a columnist online. I love this stuff.
As I said, I've seen all the highs and lows that the last 30 years have given us. Remember that point as I make the following statement, with complete sincerity...
Ring Of Honor, from about 2005 until about 2009 (maybe 2010), put out some of the best overall wrestling product that I've ever seen in my life. It entertained me just as much as, if not more than, any "era" that WWF/WWE has given us, any time through the Monday Night War, or anything else that I've seen. The storylines were good almost across the board. There was every kind of in-ring skill you could think of, from technical wizards to aerial experts to brawlers. There was even a nice dash of comedy thrown in. The crowds were rabid for each and every show, no matter what city they were in.
If you were to ask me what my all-time favorite title reign would be, I might (depending on my mood when you ask) say Bryan Danielson's RoH World Title reign from September 17th, 2005 to December 23rd, 2006. In those 462 days, he successfully defended the title 38 times, which comes out to an average of one defense every 12 days. Imagine if WWE's top champions defended their titles at that rate. Of course, if it were WWE, those defenses would be against the same people over and over and over again, but that's a different argument for a different time. Danielson's reign saw several Match Of The Year candidates, and saw an eclectic group of challengers, ranging from Austin Aries to Kamala to Roderick Strong to Chris Hero to Lance Storm to Delirious to Samoa Joe to AJ Styles, and numerous others. The last four months of the reign saw Danielson wrestle with a separated shoulder, two torn tendons in said shoulder, and a torn tendon in his chest.
If you were to ask me what my all-time favorite event is, I might (depending on my mood when you ask) say RoH's Supercard Of Honor 3 from March 29th, 2008. The card featured eight matches, and if I had to grade them myself, the final five matches (well, four matches and one non-match) were all Match Of The Year candidates, ranging from Nigel McGuinness vs Austin Aries (4.25 stars) to the Dragon Gate Six-Man Tag (4.75 stars). I was in the crowd for this show, but it's one of the rare events that is actually better on DVD than it was in person, because you can focus on everything and not be carried away "in the moment", so to speak.
Not all that long ago, if you were to ask huge fans of wrestling what the #2 promotion in North America was, a majority of them would say Ring Of Honor ahead of TNA. RoH was on such a roll then. They were on pay-per-view, they were rolling out with merchandise, they secured a television deal... things were really falling into place.
Let's fast forward to the here and now. Not only would I rank RoH behind Impact Wrestling, but I'd rank them behind Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, as well. I'd also rank them behind EVOLVE, All American Wrestling (out of Illinois), and definitely behind Southpaw Regional Wrestling.
So what happened?
In my opinion, the beginning of the company's downfall took place in late-2008, when Gabe Sapolsky left the company. As one of the company's co-founders, he immediately became their head booker after his stint as Paul Heyman's "right hand man" in ECW. After studying under Heyman's wing, Sapolsky implemented similar booking tactics with RoH, wanting to accentuate the strengths of his workers, while looking to hide their weaknesses. He gave everyone creative input on their characters, what they would do, and the things they would say. He was named the Wrestling Observer Newsletter's Best Booker for four straight years, from 2004 to 2007. Even though he wasn't a wrestler himself, he was one of those "wrestler's bookers" because of the aforementioned ability to let the boys handle a lot of their own character work. Since Sapolsky's exit from the company, the booking role has been handled by Adam Pearce (for nearly two years before being fired) and Hunter Johnson (better known to RoH fans as Delirious). Pearce wasn't quite well received by many fans based on his "old school" approach to booking and the feeling that he wasn't quite "hip" enough to take the company in the direction it needed to go in. When Johnson was brought in, fans were confused. For those unaware, Delirious has basically been a lower midcard comedy character for his entire career, even bordering on "jobber" status. Imagine how you'd feel if news broke that Santino Marella was named the head writer for WWE. Under the new booking direction, Ring Of Honor has made quite a few mistakes, ranging in scale from minor to major. Some of those mistakes are:
- Making the homegrown talent look second-rate to "outsiders"
- Sticking with the outdated traditional pay-per-view model
- Poor booking decisions, in general
- Television that doesn't feel important
- A lack of "stars"
Sure, some of you read those points and had "sounds like WWE" pop into your brains, but like WWE or not, they're a billion-dollar corporation that isn't exactly struggling. When the above problems are given to Ring Of Honor, it creates an entirely different beast to deal with. Let's look at those issues quickly.
In recent years, RoH has had a working agreement with New Japan Pro Wrestling. Wrestling purists will tell you that New Japan features, perhaps, the best in-ring product in the world. It couldn't hurt to be involved with a company like that, right? The working agreement went both ways, with New Japan occasionally sending wrestlers to America to work on RoH cards, and with RoH occasionally sending wrestlers to Japan to work on New Japan cards. For a while, almost without fail, New Japan would come out on top in all of those matches, even the ones on RoH shows. Show after show, card after card, New Japan wrestlers were defeating Ring Of Honor wrestlers. There wasn't any sort of balance, and all it did was tell the viewers and ticket buyers that RoH guys weren't on the same level as NJPW guys. It's the opposite of what WWE did during the Invasion angle, and it's very similar to when WCW had the nWo run roughshod over their "homegrown" wrestlers every single week. After a certain point, fans begin to wonder why they should care about their promotion's second and third-rate wrestlers.
The second problem I listed is one that only has a partial fix that is easy to accomplish. First of all, there's no reason for a wrestling promotion in 2017 to be charging $40 for fans to watch their events on pay-per-view. Even some of the smallest independent promotions have adopted a full-time internet PPV model, as well as a "Network" of their own to show previous shows. One small monthly fee, just like the WWE Network, and you get hours and hours worth of material to watch. The obvious problem for Ring Of Honor switching to that business model is their back catalog containing licensed music that would either need to be dubbed over or have an incredible amount of money handed over to use. Bryan Danielson used Europe's "The Final Countdown". Samoa Joe used multiple songs ("Another Body Murdered" by Faith No More & Boo-Yaa Tribe, "Mama Said Knock You Out" by LL Cool J, "The Champ Is Here" by Jadakiss) during his time with the company. CM Punk used "Miseria Cantare" by AFI and "Cult Of Personality" by Living Colour. Homicide used "The Truth" by Beanie Sigel. The Briscoes used "Gimme Back My Bullets" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. The list goes on and on and on. It wouldn't be a quick or easy project to put together, but just imagine an "RoH Network", of sorts. Imagine being able to go online, or to their app on your video game consoles, and to watch any show in the company's 15-year history. Want to watch Bryan Danielson defend the RoH World Title against Homicide at Final Battle 2006? Go for it. Want to see BJ Whitmer and Necro Butcher battle it out in a No Rope Barbed Wire Match at War Of The Wire 2? Enjoy the violence. It's the "go to" model these days, and it could do a lot of good for them should they decide to go that route, even on a much smaller scale than what WWE has done.
The next problem is a very basic one, and it's one that plagues every wrestling company at some point in time. The last couple years have seen some poor booking decisions by Johnson and RoH. If you consider yourself a big fan of RoH, name some of their biggest stories and angles over the past year or two? Other than "bringing in the Bullet Club" and "the rise of Jay Lethal", a lot of you might have a difficult time naming much of anything. They're lacking in star power (more on that in a bit) to pull off any sort of major stories these days. Right now, even on the "Road To WrestleMania", WWE is turning a lot of fans off with their lack of focus and logic with some of the things they're presenting. It's almost as if fans are saying "if they don't care, I'm not going to, either". That has been a problem for Ring Of Honor. Their angles and feuds seem to run in place far more often than not, and they aren't giving fans a reason to watch other than "hey, these two guys are pretty good in the ring". That falls on The Artist Formerly And Still Every Now And Then Known As Delirious. If his booking isn't advancing the company, then maybe it's time for another change.
Ring Of Honor television was supposed to be a game changer for them. It signaled growth and expansion, allowing for more eyeballs to be viewing the company on a weekly basis than ever before. Instead, Ring Of Honor television has become almost impossible to watch at times, but not for the usual "Raw is boring" reasons. You might tune in to watch RoH on TV and see matches that were taped several weeks ago. You might tune in to watch RoH on TV and see more video recaps than actual in-ring action. You might tune in to watch RoH on TV and see random "Best Of" compilation-style programming instead of "new" action. Production values haven't really gone up, even after Sinclair Broadcast Group (a company whose financial numbers absolutely dwarf those of WWE, by the way) took over as owners. I'm not saying RoH should spend millions and millions and millions of dollars on gigantic new sets, pyro, lighting and all the other stuff that companies like WWE and WCW hit us over the head with for years. However, it goes back to "if they don't care, I'm not going to, either". If nobody cares enough to make their television show as "must-see" as possible, why should anyone be expected to tune in?
Let's get back to RoH's lack of "stars". Independent wrestling is a very fluid thing these days. With WWE on the search for new talent to add to the NXT roster all the time, you're constantly seeing people coming and going on independent rosters. However, the sheer number of people who have left RoH recently is staggering. You have the likes of Michael Elgin, Cedric Alexander, Michael Bennett, Maria Kanellis, Moose, Kyle O'Reilly, Keith Lee, Steve Corino, Lio Rush, and so on, all leaving for other ventures. Bobby Fish is rumored to be NXT-bound shortly. Dalton Castle is rumored to be looking to leave the promotion when his contract ends later this year. Adam Cole has been part of WWE/NXT rumors for a long time. RoH just hasn't been able to refill the cupboards quickly enough. Why is everyone leaving? Some say it's due to the poor booking decisions, leaving wrestlers searching for a different company that they feel could use them "better". Some say it's due to SBG's almost nonchalant attitude towards the company, not seeing to care about making major improvements in key areas. Whatever it is, companies like PWG and EVOLVE continue to grow on the indy scene, while RoH suffers.
I miss when I could say that I was a huge fan of Ring Of Honor's product. I still watch, faithfully hoping that they'll turn the corner, but far more often than not, I find myself disappointed. I don't care about seeing the Bullet Club add their 84th member. I don't care about seeing Bully Ray, mostly because it comes across more as a desperation act by the company to add a "name" than anything else. As much as I enjoy the work of both men, I don't care about Christopher Daniels and Dalton Castle main eventing the company's biggest show of the year in a battle for the World Title. If you were to ask, I would say that SBG is definitely to blame here. Their ownership role parallels to WCW, where there were people in charge that didn't necessarily care about making the best product, but simply about not losing any money. If you own a multitude of things, you tend to care less when one of things isn't making waves. Is it profitable, even slightly? Alright, don't mess with it. There's no incentive to take the risks that a wrestling company needs to take to get to the next level. I feel that wrestlers can see that, and they don't want to be a part of that. If you're an up-and-coming talent in the business, you want to grow with a company. You want people to believe in you, to have as many people watching you as possible, and to have a visible "end game" in sight. PWG generates the biggest buzz of any North American independent promotion. EVOLVE is working directly with WWE. Why wouldn't you want to work for either of those places, instead of RoH? That's not even counting any of the other promotions, both in America and in places like England, Japan and Mexico.
As I was working on this column, ProWrestlingSheet broke the news that WWE has been in early talks with SBG about a potential buyout of Ring Of Honor. The report says that it would be a full takeover, with the weekly RoH television show moving to the WWE Network to air. Let's say the buyout happens... right off the bat, that solves a couple of RoH's problems, while potentially creating a few more problems. Production values of their television show would go up and would probably start looking like an actual "big time" wrestling show. On the other side of the coin, though, there's always the possibility that WWE guys would become part of the RoH roster and would defeat the "RoH guys" regularly. Are you ready for "Ring Of Honor Champion Jinder Mahal"? What about "Ring Of Honor Champion James Ellsworth"? "Ring Of Honor Tag Team Champions Bo Dallas & Curtis Axel", perhaps? Until (and unless) we get closer to an actual buyout, everything remains purely speculative and will be another topic for another day. I just had to mention something here, since I was already talking about RoH.
What say you, ReaderLand? Are you fans of the current Ring Of Honor product? What do you make of their talent losses recently? You know the routine... drop a comment below or hit me up on Twitter (@HustleTheSavage) with your thoughts.