We bristle when people say they’ve had a good lockdown, don’t we? So many have passed, so many have struggled, and yet it can’t be denied that when lockdown has created barriers and made so many have to rethink the way they ran their businesses, some have used the period of flux to start again, to do something different, to emerge stronger.
ROH certainly did.
Firstly, they told us regularly about the bubble, who self-isolated, how they did it, wrestlers telling us their stories—it added a feeling of certainty. But they had to do something to hook us in, to get used to the empty room, the echoing slams, the heavy breathing effort; it was odd to see wrestling presented in empty arenas like that.
So ROH went back to something in their past—they went back to Pure Wrestling. They began their dalliance with it in 2002 at their 2nd Anniversary show, with AJ Styles being ROH’s first Pure champ (although there’s scant mention of it) and they had a roster who could actually grapple: Samoa Joe, Doug Williams, John Walters (more of him later). Nigel McGuinness was the last winner of the belt in 2006 before the title was retired.
What a great decision to bring it back! It links to their illustrious past whilst showcasing their excellent present. It has different rules, so it’s immersive. It brought me back to ROH after many years and created a need in me to watch their PPVs and wax lyrical on my podcast after each weekly TV show.
But they didn’t just announce it as a style they were following; oh, no. They led their return with it—as a tournament, no less. This allowed them to pack the matches with those we expected like Jonathan Gresham and Jay Lethal, plus bring some newer talent to our attention such as Fred Yehi and Wheeler Yuta. It also placed some people in the tournament who were maybe not used to a Pure wrestling feel—like Dalton Castle, perhaps. And it also allowed them to bring some Pure icons back after the tourney had finished—you couldn’t hear the pop for John Walters, but you could feel it.
A word about commentary team Ian Riccobani and Caprice Coleman; their absolute delight at watching wrestling surely echoes ours. Their disbelieving shouts, laughs and insight into the physical demands in that ring is essential for selling the product. They do it better than most.
So the tournament went well; it’s over and that’s that, eh? Nope. Jonathan Gresham won, as we may have expected, a smaller man with a talent so big and a physique so thick, light bends round him. But the series of matches elevated several wrestlers along with Gresham. Josh Woods emerged from the shadow of Silas Young, Hot Sauce Tracey Williams almost won the whole thing and Fred Yehi surprised many by advancing so far.
And then ROH did their best work; they mainstreamed it. As the ‘new’ style, with the 3 rope breaks, 2 punches rule and the time limit was put into the mix, wrestlers could ask to be moved to the Pure section, and it’s interesting to see who feels they can work within those rules, those who feel they are grapplers. Mike Bennett, for example. Then there’s the belt, which Gresham has defended on many occasions; the way it places the impetus on mat wrestling and grappling, and the way it is dropped into TV shows and moves from sports entertainment and back during a match.
It feeds into the factions too. ROH do factions well; not too many and each group with its own easy-to-digest character. The Pure love of wrestling sits perfectly with the Foundation and their protection of the sport of wrestling—just check Jay Lethal’s shout of ‘I love professional wrestling!’ recently (but look out for the green-eyed monster between him and Gresham pretty soon).
OK, it wasn’t all great. They dropped the ball with Josh Woods. Here was a man with a sunny disposition, grappling goods and a stiff style who was one of the tournament standouts and who, in spite of his excellent recent series with Young, seems to be lost in the shuffle. But apart from that, their work with Pure wrestling positions them so well.
Ring Of Honor took a big risk and it paid off. Imagine if the Pure tournament hadn’t delivered; they’d have had nothing for their return. As it is, they brought new eyes to the product (mine!), emphasised their wrestling credentials and added extra excitement to their programming and shows.
Well done, ROH.