Hey… guys… RING OF HONOR IS BACK! My goodness, I am so happy to finally see something NEW from Ring of Honor. While I am happy we have seen the end of the Day by Day series, it did an absolutely phenomenal job at catching me up on the current product. I hadn’t watched ROH on a regular basis before the mass exodus of 2019, and when I tried to see what the promotion was putting out around the beginning of the year, there just wasn’t much that jumped out at me. Aside from the inclusion of NWA talent and legacy acts such as the Briscoes, I just didn’t know enough about the remaining roster to fully invest when there was already so much wrestling I had a hard time keeping up with in the first place. When Marty Scurll took the book for the promotion their online presence absolutely skyrocketed. The ROH YouTube channel was one of the best things about the early portion of the global lockdown. I found myself wanting to learn more about ROH as a brand and the prestigious lineage of wrestlers who had found success there in the past. While the ROH Pure Championship Tournament had been in the works well before the lockdown, I didn’t fully understand what that title represented until a few months down the line.
With all of the negativity swirling around certain aspects of the promotion, the Pure Tournament feels like a breath of fresh air. Considering MLW has yet to release any episodes from The Restart, this feels like the first American promotion that is truly starting anew, post-lockdown. When I say post-lockdown, I mean that to specifically describe the situation in ROH. The promotion has apparently created their own “bubble” in which to film multiple episodes in lengthy chunks. While this is not a method of filming foreign to ROH, it just FEELS different, even before I have seen a second of in-ring action.
After watching all of the episodes of Day by Day and Week by Week, I finally feel as if I truly know Ring of Honor. After being out of the loop for so many years, the work I needed to do in order to be a part of the promotion was finally done. I know the ins and outs of these characters, their histories, their friends and their enemies. To make the comeback with a title that is attached to the glorious hard b*****ds of years past, it is simply the perfect entry point. The promotion is entering a brand new chapter of life and I plan on being present for every single turn of the page.
First and foremost, Quinn McKay, with her Hawaiian shirts and fantastic personality, has been one of the driving forces behind keeping the buzz of ROH alive. While Week by Week will always highlight wrestlers and have them speak throughout, Quinn masterfully drives the narrative forward… well… week by week. She is so good at the exposition of professional wrestling that I believe the closest comparison is that of Joey Styles. In ECW, he pulled that entire show together by himself. In MLW, he was basically the only person holding that show together week by week. Quinn is really good at her job. That is all.
I’m not going to lie, the cold open for this episode got me absolutely jacked. I don’t know if I forgot, or if I never paid close attention, but I was actually mostly unaware of who the competitors were in the Pure Tournament. I assumed Jay Lethal and Jon Gresham would play significant roles, but beyond those two, the announcement regarding the other competitors held a significant degree of novelty. Jay Lethal, Matt Sydal, Jon Gresham, Tracy Williams, PJ Black, David Finlay, Silas Young, Josh Woods, Kenny King, Rocky Romero, Delirious, Dalton Castle, Tony Deppen, Wheller Yuta, Rust Taylor and Fred Yehi. Holy hell…this is going to bang…I know it is a tiny, and most likely insignificant detail, but the fact this tournament has alternates just makes it feel more legitimate; Dak Draper and Brian Johnson being the potential alternates.
The rules of the matches are actually central to the Pure Championship, and the hierarchy of time limits is another aspect of this I absolutely adore. Round 1 has a fifteen minute time limit, Semi-Finals are twenty minutes, Block Finals are thirty minutes and the Tournament Final is one hour. I don’t know why I love this so much, but I do. Time Limit draws are decided by a panel of judges. The match must begin and end with a “code of honor” handshake. Each wrestler has three rope breaks to stop submission holds and pinfalls. After a wrestler exhausts his rope breaks, submission and pin attempts on or under the ropes by the opponent are considered legal. Closed fist punches to the face are not permitted, only open-handed slaps or chops to the face are allowed. Punches to other parts of the body are permitted, excluding low blows. The first use of a closed fist will get a warning, and the second will be a disqualification. As usual, there is a twenty second count out. If a wrestler not in the match attempts to interfere, that wrestler’s ROH contract will be terminated…Exhausting, but glorious.
Pure Title Tournament First Round: Jay Lethal vs. Dalton Castle
This match is indeed a clash of champions. While both former ROH Champions, Lethal is the only former Pure Champion in the entire tournament. I have to imagine Lethal is coming out on top of this one, not only because of his prior experience, but because I am not quite sold on Castle’s ability to take the tournament as seriously as he should.
The opening video packages, with the wrestlers going through their history, why they deserve the shot, and why this tournament is important to them, is so incredibly well done. As I JUST stated, I wasn’t sure about how legitimate Castle would feel. The entire package is based off of his history as a legitimate NCAA amateur wrestler. Way to shut me up.
I am honestly really happy that we have been experiencing empty arenas for almost half a year at this point. If this match had happened in May, I would have still found the silence jarring. One really interesting aspect of the empty arena is finding out which wrestlers are banter merchants. Not very surprising, but Dalton is a banter merchant. Lethal uses one of his rope breaks less than a minute into this match and Dalton’s reaction is fantastic. Also unsurprising, the mat wrestling after two and a half minutes is better than every RAW main event in the previous three months (subjective, I am aware). At three and a half minutes, we have only seen two strikes…total. These guys are tossing each other around like bags of rice. Lethal is looking to be the ring general we all know him to be and Castle is more focused than he has been in almost a year.
Not to get all “smarky”, but this feels like a match that is being called on the fly. Whether it is or not doesn’t matter because, as a wrestling fan that is constantly attempting to look beneath the surface, I appreciate the art of the performance, which is precisely the feeling I want to have when watching a tournament centered on purity. Beyond the method of which this match is being worked, from the perspective of a CONTEST, I legitimately have no idea who is going to win. While it seemed so obvious who was going to come out on top before the video packages, I find myself really pulling for Castle.
People may think the rules of the Pure Championship are a bit much, but they work as perfect storytelling devices for matches such as these. Castle can’t hit the Bangarang fully because his knee gave out after Lethal worked it through the commercial break. The leg injury turned out to be Dalton’s undoing. Lethal finds an opening after using his second rope break and hits the Lethal Injection.
What can I say? This match was fantastic. If Castle and Lethal are setting the tone for the entire tournament, we have a LOT to look forward to.
Pure Title Tournament First Round: Wheeler Yuta vs. Jonathan Gresham
While I probably shouldn’t have jumped to the conclusions I did about the previous match, I am going to go ahead and say this one is in the bag. I’ve seen Wheeler Yuta on MLW television as well as in GCW and he is certainly a good performer, but he is not at the level of The Foundation, Jonathan Gresham. Gresham was quite literally a profound revelation for me during the Day by Day series. The man became one of my favorite wrestlers on the planet in a matter of forty-five minutes. His match against Jay Lethal is one I will go back to over and over again. Gresham is the definition of a “pure wrestler”. From a performance perspective, he can have an incredible match with anyone. From a wrestling perspective, he is the best Ring of Honor has to offer. Jonathan Gresham is my pick to win this belt and I will be emotionally devastated if that doesn’t come to fruition.
These video packages, as great as that first match was, are my favorite thing about this episode. Not to disparage ROH, but traditionally, video production wasn’t exactly a strong suit…based on what I have seen. If this was the first episode of ROH I had ever seen, I would know EXACTLY what is happening. Not only on a surface level either, I would have an idea of what the Pure Championship is, why it exists, why wrestlers would care about it, and the types of wrestlers that are in contention for it. It has been all-encompassing.
This match is probably going to be extremely quick, perhaps not immediately, but there will be a few moments that I need to rewind. While the previous match was very much based in smooth wrestling, this match should have a certain degree of liquidity that we didn’t see previously. After about two and a half minutes, Yuta rolls out of a surfboard into a pin…it is so fun being right sometimes. It really helps with the imposter syndrome I feel when writing about wrestling from time to time. I’m no expert, but I guess I know enough – humble brag is now over.
Time to stop talking about myself and brag about these boys: one moment that I found absolutely spectacular – Wheeler Yuta uses one of his rope breaks when Gresham has him in an Indian Death Lock. The referee is telling Gresham to let go of the hold and as the count goes up to four, Gresham looks exasperated…he locked it in so tight, he couldn’t let go. The referee had to assist Gresham in releasing Yuta. Something that takes three seconds but tells you so much about just how much of a badass Gresham is as a wrestler. While the match has pretty much been a back and forth for the first six minutes, I have a feeling this is where it is about to turn in Gresham’s favor. Wheeler showed he could hang because of his elevated athleticism, but this is for the Pure Championship…and The Octopus is here…Wheeler is in trouble from here on out.
I had paused the match as I collected my thoughts after the rope break. Yuta just gave Gresham a straight closed fist in the mush. While it is fun being right, I also enjoy surprises…a warning for Yuta, what a jerk. NOW The Octopus is coming for your ass.
I was wrong again! Maybe I am an imposter…but I don’t really care because I just saw one of the most subtly devastating moments I have ever seen in a match. After Yuta shockingly gets the upper hand for a period of a few minutes, Gresham applied a Figure Four leg lock. As Yuta is rolling toward the ropes, they both roll underneath the rope to the floor, with the move still applied. Reading the description of this might not be so devastating, but it looked absolutely disgusting. Both men are writhing in pain and I’m not so sure that it isn’t completely legitimate. Once the men make it back to the ring and they have a roll-up contest, Gresham does the most un-Gresham-like maneuver to win the match…he just repeatedly slams Yuta’s knee into the mat repeatedly until Yuta is forced to tap.
Certainly a good wrestling match with a few very inventive spots, I was impressed with just how aggressive Wheeler Yuta looked against a legitimate number one seed in this tournament. The end result never seemed in doubt, but I was definitely taken on a ride before we got there.
Man…if this episode is an omen as to how the rest of this tournament will go, I couldn’t be more pleased. Today I am wishing Ring of Honor had a two-hour television program. I wasn’t exactly sure how both of these matches would play out as far as the work in the ring, and while I was surprised a number of times, this is exactly what I wanted it to be. A wrestling fan’s wrestling show. This tournament could be enjoyed by someone who obsesses over this crazy sport and knows (or thinks they know) all the ins and outs of the business, as well as someone who has never watched wrestling in their entire lives. I imagine that is precisely what Ring of Honor is attempting to do. I didn’t feel the absence of the crowd once; it felt like an underground fight club whose videos you would only be able to find in the back of the store. I am absolutely buzzing.