As essential as Ring of Honor television has felt since…well…since they started producing a wrestling show post-lockdown, this episode perhaps feels the most essential. I honestly have no clue when there was an ROH World Championship match on free television that felt as though the outcome is in doubt. Now, I feel pretty strongly that Rush will be going into the 19th Anniversary show as ROH World Champion, but based on Shane Taylor’s performance so far this year, it is NOT impossible that title could change hands. The state of the ROH Tag Team Championships may be in an even greater state of flux as far as predictions go. The Foundation and La Faccion Ingobernable (LFI) are obviously the main event stables in this company, and the idea that Gresham and Lethal lose their titles to Dragon Lee and Kenny King is in no way far-fetched. This episode needs no introduction, it needs no hype, and it just needs to be plugged into my veins. Excellent wrestlers that feel important fighting over titles that feel really important for the first time in a long time.
Jonathan Gresham and Jay Lethal (The Foundation) vs. Kenny King and Dragon Lee (LFI)—ROH World Tag Team Championship Match—PURE RULES
This match being under Pure Rules gives it a wrinkle that was actually completely unexpected. It is literally impossible for there to be any interference from La Bestia or Rush, because if so, they are immediately released under the Pure stipulation. What’s more, Dragon Lee and King definitely do not need gimmicks or interference to win this match; it can be done through pure skill. In a weird way, this development leads me to believe LFI will be leaving as the new tag team champions. Being under Pure Rules, it feels almost TOO obvious that Gresham and Lethal would come out on top. King and Lee are plenty capable of using this stipulation to their advantage. LFI is a heel faction that uses interference and manipulation on a regular basis, but they are champions for a reason.
Pure ability is exemplified in the first two minutes when Lee and Gresham decide they are the ones to establish the energy of this matchup. Unsurprisingly, that energy is high. The first two minutes of this match immediately have me clamoring for a Pure Championship Iron Man Match between Dragon Lee and Jonathan Gresham. Gresham is obviously an incredible athlete, and it says something that Lee is somehow MORE athletic. I mean…they were basically just doing hammer lock reversals and hip drags…but it had me drooling.
King and Lethal have a much richer history as a pair than Gresham and Lee do. They have battled for years at the highest level in Ring of Honor. While not as explosive as Gresham or Lee, this pair has no shortage of wrestling knowledge and skill. Lethal is essentially the dad of The Foundation, so you know he wants to assert his dominance as fast as possible, and that is exactly what he does twenty seconds after I stated that by forcing King and LFI as a whole into their second of three rope breaks.
According to Ian Riccaboni, this is the first time Dragon Lee and Jay Lethal have ever been in the ring together, which is kind of insane considering how active both wrestlers have been in roles as a champion. I think that is a perfect illustration of how ROH has changed in a positive way. The top stars should be in programs with top stars. I am all about seeing dynamic wrestlers square off with one another, but it needs to mean something. In 2019, feud dynamics did not feel nearly as important as they do in 2021.
While The Foundation are dominant for moments, LFI is considerably more effective in its teamwork and this is exemplified in this match’s finish. Kenny King sacrifices Amy Rose as Lethal attempts to take out King with a dive. King moves, Lethal hits Rose and this distracts the official which allows Lee to hit Gresham with a brutal closed fist. Lee gets the pin and LFI are the new ROH Tag Team Champions! Ultimately, LFI was able to use dastardly tactics, but they only got to that point by elevated technique and teamwork. A gigantic win that solidifies LFI as the most dominant faction in the company…for now, at least.
Rush (c) vs. Shane Taylor—ROH World Championship
Shane Taylor has been in some incredibly physical matchups since the return of Ring of Honor. There are several wrestlers that are known for being incredibly physical; Brody King, PCO and Jay Briscoe, for example. However, Rush may genuinely be at the top of the list when it comes to pure physicality, especially considering he has beaten both PCO and Brody King in recent history. If this comes down to pure technical wrestling (which I doubt it will), Shane might be in some real trouble. While Shane definitely CAN wrestle, so much of what makes him great is his power and intelligence. Rush is definitely more diverse, but he will also have to go well beyond technical wrestling in order to take out Shane. However, Rush may be able to utilize technicality to wear Shane down.
I always forget just how big Rush actually is. Shane Taylor is obviously a huge powerhouse, and you almost always expect him to dwarf whomever he is matched up with, aside from the obvious notable exceptions. Rush measures up to Shane in a way I didn’t really expect him to, but I don’t think I’ll underestimate his physical presence ever again after this match.
There isn’t very much wrestling being done in the first ten minutes or so. They literally just attempt to destroy each other in a multitude of different ways. In fact, extended portions of this match aren’t even inside the ring. Both Shane and Rush use their environment in an attempt to break the other’s spirit. Once the match finally does make its way back into the ring, even though Shane is able to get the upper hand in flashes, Rush is simply too dynamic for Shane to ever have an extended period of dominance.
Everything gets forced into a higher gear, elevating things from a brawl to an exercise in Fighting Spirit. Both King and Taylor are dropping bombs on each other because there really isn’t anything else they can do at this point. Of course, LFI have strength in numbers. As does Shane, but LFI have a tad bit more experience in the realm of opportunism. Kenny King fully betrays his former friend by landing a chair shot on Shane and fully commits himself to the cause of LFI…if that dedication may have been in doubt.
This was very much a television World Title match but in the best sort of way; twenty minutes of extremely physical action that did just as much for Shane Taylor as the previous six months of booking has. I was a detractor of Taylor’s when I began to fall off of ROH in late 2019, and I think more than anything it was based on who he was paired with after his historic Television Championship reign. He felt stuck; right now, he feels absolutely essential to this company. Yes, Rush is a tremendous champion and LFI are an absurdly talented stable, but Shane Taylor is still a champion as well. The elevation of Brody King and Shane Taylor has been one of my favorite aspects of this company’s return, and when emotional investment gets consistently paid off, that is what builds a fan base. Ring of Honor WILL re-build their fan base.