The Era of Honor

On October 27, 2021, Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns Ring of Honor, announced that the promotion would be going on hiatus following their biggest show of the year, Final Battle. SBG specifically called out the inability to tour during the pandemic in a released statement, and stated that live events would go on hiatus immediately after Final Battle, for the first quarter of 2022. The company identified April of 2022 as a target return date, with their annual Supercard of Honor show, but with the specter of all ROH contracted talent being released and assisted in finding other bookings during the course of this hiatus, and a thriving independent wrestling market populated with destinations like AEW, Impact, New Japan Pro Wrestling, MLW, GCW, and more, there’s a very real concern among fans of the promotion that in December we will have seen the last of the Code of Honor.

If this is truly the end of the Age of Honor, we would do well in this moment to look back to where it all began, and how the current wrestling landscape may not exist were it not for Ring of Honor.

Ring of Honor was born on February 23, 2002, in the Murphy Recreation Center, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, mere blocks away from the location formerly known as the ECW Arena. It would prove to be an appropriate birthplace for a promotion which, over its tumultuous history, would come to represent the No. 3 promotion in North America—even reaching points where it could make a strong claim to the No. 2 spot. ROH went to pains to establish that there would be clean finishes here. The promotion carved a niche by focusing on pure competition, with the Code of Honor. Performers would signal their respect for the company and their opponent by shaking hands before and after the match.

The parallels to ECW were not just geographic, but baked into the DNA of ROH, as it rose from the ashes of the end of the tribe of extreme. ECW was the best seller of distribution company RF Video, and when WWE purchased the ECW tape library, RF Video owner Rob Feinstein decided to start his own promotion to fill the void. On February 23, Ring of Honor debuted with ‘The Era of Honor Begins,’ at the Murphy Rec Center. The card represented a mix of up-and-coming independent stars—Jay Briscoe, Amazing Red, Scoot Andrews, Xavier, Quiet Storm, Jose and Joel Maximo—and the top names on the North American independent scene—Spanky (Brian Kendrick), Christopher Daniels, Low Ki, Bryan Danielson, ECW alum Super Crazy, and Eddie Guerrero, still working the independents as he recovered from drug problems and made his way back to WWE.

As the company produced more shows—usually only running once every 4 weeks or so—more names would make their way to Ring of Honor. Paul London debuted at the company’s second show, and AJ Styles, Jerry Lynn, British talent Jody Fleisch, Jonny Storm, and Doug Williams would arrive to participate in the tournament to crown the first ROH Champion. ECW alumni Joey Matthews, Christian York, CW Anderson, the former Little Guido—now going by James Maritato, and more made their way to ROH, adding to the ECW vibes. But it wasn’t until one particular ECW alum arrived that the blood and guts that became so synonymous with the promotion would truly arrive in Ring of Honor.

Enter Raven. And what better foil for a man who has lived the life Raven has then a young, brash, straight-edge star ready to take over the world? Enter CM Punk.

While the undercurrent of Christopher Daniels and his group, The Prophecy, refusing to shake hands and follow the Code of Honor made for a compelling story and a unique payoff—Daniels finally shook hands with Claudio Castagnoli on the 100th Show—the story that really defined the early days of Ring of Honor was Raven vs. CM Punk. Punk debuted in ROH in November of 2002, a hot name from the midwest independents, and Raven would arrive four months later. The two clashed immediately, in a feud that would become very personal and very violent. For all the wrestling talent that ROH offered, Punk and Raven offered something different; something personal that fans could sink their teeth into and a real story that transcended a title or fighting spirit, or simply wanting to see who was the best. The two battled in a Ravens Rules match, a Dog Collar match, and two Steel Cage matches, in the course of Raven’s 8-month stay in the company, and it turned Punk into a made man.

ROH truly had something for everyone. Pure wrestling. Hardcore wrestling. High flying. And it was home to names that were rapidly becoming very in-demand in the industry.

The first true storm the promotion had to weather came in early 2004 when Feinstein was forced to resign following a scandal during which he allegedly attempted to solicit sex from a minor—though he was never charged and still denies any wrongdoing. His stake in the company was bought out and though he eventually regained control of RF Video, he never again worked with ROH. The more immediate damage came when NWA-TNA cited the scandal in its decision to pull all contracted talent from ROH, depriving the young promotion of the use of Styles and Daniels, among others. ROH answered the call with the rise of Samoa Joe into an unstoppable monster, the debut and ascension of Generation Next—Alex Shelley, Austin Aries, Roderick Strong, and Jack Evans—and the continued presence of performers like Danielson and Punk. When Punk and Joe left in 2005, men like Danielson were there to take the baton and run with it.

In addition to creating new stars within their roster, ROH took advantage of its reputation to forge strong relationships with promotions around the world. Years before the Forbidden Door entered the pro wrestling zeitgeist, the company either cross-promoted shows with, shared talent with, or had long-term working relationships with: All-Japan Pro Wrestling, CHIKARA, CMLL, Combat Zone Wrestling, Dragon Gate Pro Wrestling, Frontier Wrestling Alliance, Jersey All-Pro Wrestling, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Pro Wrestling NOAH, Revolution Pro Wrestling, and World Wonder Ring Stardom, to name a few.

This creation and reinvention would come to be a defining characteristic of ROH. Time and again, they would build talent to the top of the card, only to see them snapped up by WWE or NWA-TNA—which would eventually become Impact Wrestling. Undaunted, ROH would start the process again, and continue to manufacture new stars.

In 2007, ROH made the move to pay-per-view, albeit with pre-taped PPV supercards. The deal would see 12 taped pay-per-view events over two years, before they shifted to the live online ‘iPPV’ structure with Final Battle 2009.

In addition to their foray into pay-per-view, ROH made its way to television, signing a two-year deal in January 2009 with Mark Cuban’s HDNet. By the end of the year, one of the original pillars of the company, Bryan Danielson, and one of the newest top stars, Nigel McGuinness would be gone. But men like Tyler Black, Roderick Strong, Davey Richards, Eddie Edwards, Chris Hero, Kevin Steen, and El Generico would continue to pick up the ball and run with it.

See how many performers you recognize from this one…

In 2011, ROH was purchased by Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns the promotion to this day. ROH would air on Sinclair owned or operated stations coast-to-coast in the United States, but many argue that this may have represented a step back for the promotion in the sense that the localized nature of Sinclair-owned programming meant different airtimes in different markets. ROH did the best they could on their website to make it easy to find airtimes in your area, but the lack of consistent airtime represents what marketers would call “a friction point.” Anytime you have to make people work to determine when you’re on the air, it’s going to be to your detriment.

In addition to that, the stars that rose to prominence during the HDNet era or carried over into the Sinclair era also began to depart for greener pastures one-by-one as WWE bought out seemingly the entire wrestling landscape. Tyler Black left in 2010 to become Seth Rollins. El Generico hung up the mask in 2012, followed by frenemy Kevin Steen in 2014. In the wake of these departures, three names stepped to the forefront: Jay Briscoe, Jay Lethal, and Adam Cole. Briscoe had been with ROH since literally day one—he was in the first match at Era of Honor Begins back in 2002—and finally won his first ROH World Title in 2013. Lethal made his original debut for the company in 2003, though he had worked for Impact Wrestling from 2006 to 2011, and won his first World Title in 2015. Cole’s ascendancy represented one of the things that ROH continued to do throughout its existence. Find talented young performers from the independent scene, give them a platform, and let them become stars. Cole was already a hot prospect when ROH lured him away from CZW in 2009, and saw steady growth up the card in ROH, defeating new star Michael Elgin in a tournament final to win his first World Title in September of 2013. Cody Rhodes also arrived on his whirlwind tour of the North American independents, and found himself quickly shuffled to the top of the card as well.

Starting in 2014, ROH began working in earnest with New Japan Pro Wrestling, in an agreement which saw the members of the Japanese promotion’s hyper-popular Bullet Club appear in Ring of Honor, alongside other NJPW stars at yearly events like Global Wars. AJ Styles returned after a near 8-year absence and was positioned as the North American leader of Bullet Club. In 2016, Kenny Omega returned to ROH for the first time in six years, mostly working in multi-man tags, teaming with the Young Bucks. That year, Omega and the Bucks began calling themselves The Elite. Sound familiar?

In 2017, Cole left ROH, like many before him, to head to WWE. It was also around this time that Dave Meltzer laid down the challenge that would eventually lead to the formation of All Elite Wrestling, and a seismic change in the pro wrestling landscape. Meltzer stated that no independent promotion could sell out a 10,000 seat arena. Cody Rhodes and the Bucks took him up on the challenge, and with ROH’s official sanctioning, the three promoted the show which would be called All In. The show emanated from Chicago on September 1, 2018. Within months of the show, Cody, the Bucks, and Omega would all be gone from Ring of Honor. And on January 1, 2019, All Elite Wrestling was announced.

In the last three years, ROH has admittedly struggled to find a way through and find the next star to whom it can hitch its wagon. CMLL star Rush came to ROH as part of the two companies’ working agreement, and enjoyed two lengthy reigns as ROH World Champion. Former WWE star Pierre Carl Ouelette—now going by PCO—rode a career renaissance and an impressive record in wild brawls to a championship reign of his own. But the rise of All Elite Wrestling and the onset of a global pandemic in the spring of 2020 have left the promotion in a difficult space.

And that brings us to the present day.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact that ROH genuinely had on the North American pro wrestling industry. You could start with the names that have spent any significant amount of time there over the years, and see where they are now. WWE/NXT names like Adam Pearce, Shelton Benjamin, Cesaro, T-Bar, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Malcolm Bivens, Damien Priest, Samoa Joe, Brian Kendrick, Kyle O’Reilly, Roderick Strong, Tommaso Ciampa, and Keith Lee all spent time in ROH. AEW names like the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, Bryan Danielson, CM Punk, Frankie Kazarian, Christopher Daniels, Adam Cole, Hangman Page, and so many more also called it home at one time or another. Many of these names held championships in ROH as well. These were not one-off appearances, and in the case of men like Danielson, Joe, and Punk, they carried the promotion for years on end.

If rattling off names doesn’t do it for you, you could look at the impact that it’s had on the independent style. Ring of Honor exposed a new country and a new generation of fans to the Kings Road, or Royal Road, style popularized by All Japan Pro Wrestling’s four pillars: Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, Mitsuharu Misawa, and Akira Taue. Kobashi and Misawa even worked a few matches for ROH in 2005 and 2007 respectively. ROH worked with AJPW in its early days, and continued to work with Misawa’s Pro Wrestling NOAH for a number of years after his death. This focus on the Kings Road style, which tends to eschew many of the major tropes of North American wrestling—promos, gimmicks, complicated angles—immediately set ROH apart in a wrestling landscape that had gotten exceedingly monochromatic with the deaths of WCW and ECW. As the popularity of Strong Style continued to grow, ROH was also one of the first major North American promotions showcasing this style, as men like Davey Richards, Eddie Edwards, and Kyle O’Reilly rose to the top of the card. Their relationship with NJPW also gave a North American platform to men like Shinsuke Nakamura, Kazuchika Okada, and Hiroshi Tanahashi, among others.

For all they’ve done to influence the direction in which North American pro wrestling has traveled over the last two decades, perhaps the greatest irony is that not only did ROH populate a significant portion of what are now the two strongest promotions in the world in WWE and AEW, but that by sanctioning All In, ROH indirectly created the promotion that is pushing them further away from relevance in the current wrestling landscape.

It goes without saying, but no one really knows what the future will hold for Ring of Honor. I know that on a personal level, it’s disappointing that a promotion that has meant so much to the current state of North American wrestling will not get to truly celebrate its 20th anniversary in the way that it deserves. It’s difficult to imagine that at this juncture even Cary Silkin or COO Joe Koff truly know what the future of ROH will look like. The statement from Sinclair Broadcast Group indicated that the company would be taking time to “reimagine ROH” in the current landscape. In the end of their statement, ROH says they “anticipate returning to live events in April for the Super Card (sic) of Honor” and the word ‘anticipate’ has myself and a lot of other folks concerned. It would seem that there’s at least an outside possibility that ROH does not recover from this; does not return.

If they do come back, I’m already anxious and excited to see what form that will take. The wrestling landscape has changed dramatically in the company’s two decades of existence. With WWE continuing to dominate the landscape, at least in terms of brand recognition, AEW becoming a new home for fans of “true” professional wrestling, Impact continuing to plug along, the westward expansion of NJPW, and the rise of products like GCW and MLW aided by smaller TV deals and the advent of properties like FITE, one could make the compelling argument that wrestling in North America is more competitive than it’s ever been, and with declining TV viewership across the board, everyone is scrambling for an ever smaller piece of the pie.

If this is truly the end for Ring of Honor, I hope every wrestling fan will join me in offering them our heartfelt thanks. They picked up the mantle of North American pro wrestling when WWE was more or less the only game in town and ran farther and faster than anyone thought possible. They created new stars nonstop for nearly two decades, and in doing so helped create the current pro wrestling landscape that we are all now able to enjoy. If it’s really over, then the Era of Honor was a heck of a ride, and one I’m thankful to have been able to be a part of.