Has Ring Of Honor Proved Itself?
It’s not a hot take to say Ring Of Honor has struggled to retain its identity over the years.
From the movement of displaying pure indie wrestling to a more televised product. The degradation of the Code Of Honor, within the storyline but more notably, within the booking.
ROH wants to be the alternative of pro wrestling. Something for those who don’t like the pageantry of WWE and want wrestling that feels like sport. But along the path through the years, they lost their way.
“At one time, being the Ring Of Honor World Champion meant you were the best professional wrestler in the world. And with that, came a responsibility. A responsibility to this company to ALWAYS be the alternative in professional wrestling.”
These were the words that came from Jonathan Gresham upon winning the Pure Tournament and then becoming the ROH Pure Champion, revived from defunct status once more. And as the Pure Tournament showed, ROH still has it in their being to be what they were. Through their unique and innovative storytelling within the previously-mentioned tournament. The ability to incorporate different styles and rules of matches that enhance the story with substance and not flash. Ring of Honor had something of a renaissance.
“Something of”. You can’t call a good month a renaissance. You need to prove it through action and change. As their first PPV during the COVID-19 Pandemic, Final Battle became a proving trial for ROH. They had the opportunity, in a world of major companies struggling or cutting corners in ethics and quality with the pandemic, to make the case for themselves.
Did Ring of Honor prove itself at Final Battle 2020?
In my opinion, yes. They did.
This was the first PPV I watched from start to finish without changing tabs or drifting off in the last three months. I watched it from pre-show to end, 1 AM to 5 AM. And I did not waver. Because I was seeing what Ring Of Honor constantly claimed itself to be but never lived up to in recent years.
An alternative in professional wrestling.
What *is* alternative wrestling?
When we say “alternative wrestling” it is usually used as shorthand for “wrestling I like”. I will do my best not to wander into that pitfall.
When I first began watching the Pure Tournament, I was amazed by what I saw. I saw something that wrestling seems to have not realized could be a draw, could be a spectacle: Limiting options in a match for the sake of storytelling.
There was a saying by Richard Feynman: “Nature cannot be fooled”. It has the meaning that you cannot bend outside what is reality. In wrestling, reality is loosened so much. We see people get kicked countless times in the head and treated like a transitional spot. A performer could literally shoot someone and get put in a match-their paid career-as a punishment. Reality is out for lunch, we could say.
But as a sport that prides itself on “simulating” reality, these two things clash – and clash hard – in wrestling. You can’t quite turn off the switch in your head that says “Well that couldn’t happen” like you would in fiction that is OK with being fiction.
The Pure Rules enforces reality upon wrestling. By outlawing even the concept of weapons. By making something as basically simple in pro wrestling as a punch a devastating game changer. By emphasizing that every move matters, it allows for the switch to be easier turned.
At Final Battle, Flip Gordon vs Jonathan Gresham was a masterclass in how that reality can be enforced. And the fact I’m saying a Flip Gordon match was the star of the PPV should show just how much I mean this piece.
Throughout the beginning of the match, Flip Gordon cannot best the Octopus. At every turn, he is dominated and overwhelmed by the technically superior opponent. And why shouldn’t he be? Flip is a high flyer who only recently turned to matbase technical wrestling out of necessity due to injuries. Against Gresham, a man who lives and breathes the Pure rules, Flip is fighting a swordsman with a spoon. So how does Flip Gordon overcome this oceanic difference?
By taking advantage of the story at hand. Gresham had just been put through an intense tag title match with PCO & Mark Briscoe. Everyone made sure we were aware of how damaging it would be to Jonathan. The commentators, wondering out loud how he could potentially get through the night with both titles. Gresham’s partner, Jay Lethal, promised he would make it as easy as possible for Gresham to get through. And while the tag title match wasn’t anything special, the effect was made.
So, realizing that Gresham’s malignant knee injury would only be worse, Gordon goes to absolute town upon it. Striking the knee, straining the knee, placing it in brute force holds, Gordon cannot match Gresham in the ring so he seeks to overwhelm him.
This fits in with the larger story at hand. During the build-up to the Pure Tournament, Jonathan Gresham called for a “Pure Wrestling Revolution”. The idea being a return to the Ring of Honor ideals of its inception. A Ring of Honor that puts skill and martial ability above pageantry and drama seen in WWE. When Gresham won the tournament and the Pure Title with it, he declared that it, not the ROH World Title, was the true premier belt, because it embodied what Ring of Honor claims to be. The alternative.
A man like Flip, who turned to Pure Wrestling not out of passion or love, but as the commentators put it “Wanting a belt”, that would be an affront to everything Gresham and his revolution stands for.
Time and time again throughout the match, Gresham struggles to fight through the worsened knee injury. But due to the earlier offense he inflicted on his opponent, a sustained damage to the arm now plagues Gordon. It becomes a question of who can win: The less wounded but also less experienced Flip Gordon or the master of Pure Rules but exhausted and beaten Jonathan Gresham?
But after a spill to the ground and return to the ring for both men, Gresham decides on a new tactic. Realizing that Flip Gordon is prioritizing protecting his arm, Gresham begins running the ropes and full-on battering Flip with his forearms. One results in a kick out. The second leaves Flip barely able to respond. The third doesn’t happen. Because the referee stops the match out of fear of the lasting harm the third will do to Flip Gordon.
And as the match ends, Gresham awarded his rightfully retained belt, he offers Flip a handshake. To which Flip responds leaving like a pouting child who didn’t get his shiny toy. Flip Gordon proved that he was not a worthy champion of Pure Wrestling. And despite his brutality in the match, Jonathan Gresham proved he will do anything to defend the sanctity of Pure Wrestling.
This was a match that showed a different side to pro wrestling. A side where you can make the match matter by enforcing reality. The single punch Flip resorted to out of desperation was treated as harmful as a Burning Hammer. The story being told was one of two men, not the superhumans wrestlers are often portrayed as, fighting for their goals and the loss happening because the body broke, like any man’s would when you get hit with forearm after forearm.
I would put Jonathan Gresham’s character on the level of Roman Reigns Tribal Chief, but on the opposite side of the spectrum. While Roman is a man who’s fallen and deludes himself into being for the greater good, Gresham’s cause of restoring honor is noble but he will do whatever it takes to uphold that.
And I cannot wait to see how far that will take Jonathan Gresham.
The New Rising
Jonathan Gresham was not the only one to prove himself in Final Battle. To prove how Ring of Honor is not only the alternative, but a to-watch promotion in its own right. Two more wrestlers stand out as reasons why ROH may just have a new life.
Danhausen, the memetic wrestler who swept the internet, was given a chance in Ring Of Honor. Through his face paint, combination of eccentric character moments and in-ring competence and all-around uniqueness, he was a draw for ROH to sign and show they’re open to new ideas.
But a worry occurred: Would Ring Of Honor let Danhausen be Danhausen? Would they let every eccentricity fly in their promotion? Would he become a joke character of utmost ridiculousness as WWE is often seen to do with their oddballs? Would they tone him down to a more “edgy” character?
Within his match to win a contract against Brian Johnson, Danhausen came out to bizarre music that wouldn’t be strange to an Animaniacs episode. Carrying in his hand was the signature teeth that accompanied him. And the moment he got to a camera, he immediately began speaking to it as if conversing with an old friend.
They were willing to let Danhausen be Danhausen. They knew what he had worked and so decided to not mess with the winning formula. And while this may be a bumpy road to integrate it down the line with the sporting aspect of ROH, it shows a willingness to adapt, which all promotions should essentialize.
Alongside Danhausen is a figure who is not foreign to Ring Of Honor. But has recently become a force to be reckoned with, both within and without the storylines.
Shane Taylor, a former tag partner of Keith Lee and member of Kenny King’s old faction, The Rebellion. In his failed attempt to become No.1 contender for the ROH World Title, Shane Taylor tells of his journey from a follower and team member to the leader of his own faction in the form of Shane Taylor Promotions. Taylor is a man striving to be more than what he was.
At Final Battle, he openly challenges Jay Briscoe, a man who is synonymous with Ring of Honor as a benchmark. And while I do not like Jay Briscoe as a person in any form, he has proven to be a staple of the wrestling promotion.
Throughout the match, Ian Riccaboni and Caprice Coleman excellently bring up Shane Taylor’s difference from the man who could never beat Briscoe. Briscoe’s selling of being continually tossed and battered throughout the match enhances an already standout performance from Taylor.
Every forearm of Shane Taylor’s is treated like the hand of God game down to strike Jay Brisco. Jay cannot overcome Shane throughout and even his brief gaining of the upper hand isn’t enough. Jay Briscoe is not fighting the Shane Taylor he beat before.
When Shane Taylor planted Jay Briscoe with Welcome To The Land before pinning him, the commentators couldn’t stop themselves from talking of how Taylor “Needs to be in talks for the World Title picture”.
Shane Taylor has presented a story of a man who’s overcome his past demons and bested the men who had previously proved his superior in the ring. He’s an example of someone continually rising within a story to get to the top. And you are left knowing it has been earned every step of the way.
In Jay Briscoe’s loss and Shane Taylor’s victory , you see something many fail to put into practice: There’s a limited time a star can spend in the sun. If you have Jay continually have undefeated streaks and win world titles, people will get bored. Instead, leverage that history for the new, rising stars. Stars who show they can swing that skill just as well as the old guard. Shane Taylor is that kind of star.
“Is Honor Real?”
As I finish the show, I think of EC3’s patented catchphrase since arriving to Ring of Honor comes to mind. And while I think EC3’s new gimmick is pretty “comedy guy goes to one drama class and gets far too serious” it resonated in my head as I tried to write this piece.
Frankly, Ring of Honor has a LONG WAY to go before I can call it “honorable”. Their being owned by a far-right wing broadcasting company who often tries to manipulate the media for their own agenda in Sinclair Broadcasting. The fact that while they took action and got rid of the accused in Marty Scurll, likewise accused members of the roster such as Jay Lethal remain without hindrance. And the unprotected chair shot to the head during Rush and Brody King’s title match despite the countless reports of the harm it causes. Ring Of Honor is not a company I would say has honor.
But, when I look at what Final Battle did, and how I spoke of it above, it achieved one of its goals by the end.
When Rush, the ego-driven and charismatic centered world champion retained the title through the aforementioned chair shot, I saw in him what Ring Of Honor had become. And while Rush is far from a lackluster champion, he is someone whose reign is essentialized by character and drama, not in-ring skill.
Which made it fitting when the Foundation, headed by the twice-fairly victorious in Jonathan Gresham, came out and disgustingly declared what Rush did was a disgrace to ROH’s spirit, it was the old Ring of Honor in the form of it’s most stalwart defenders, coming out to challenge the present day of its company.
You watched a story unfold, built up through tension of previous matches of the night, come to its crescendo to set up the stories to come
Ring of Honor may not be honorable. It may never be honorable. But an alternative to what wrestling is so often thought as? That it can be.