In 2001 here in Chicago, WCIU Channel 26 was known as the Wrestling channel. At one point a few years before, the then WWF’s Shotgun Saturday Night, then re-tooled as Jakked, would air as part of a marathon with WCW World Wide, and ECW’s Hardcore TV. We didn’t have cable growing up, so these shows were pivotal towards my staying up to date with what was going on in the “Big 3” federations. This was ritual viewings during the weekends, when late night television was an assortment of edgier programing, filled with content that clearly was aimed towards the testosterone driven, male youth – infatuated with violence, as much as we were sex. There was Mancow TV, The Cindy Margolis Show, and Wrestling.
Then, came the time slot change. The deck was shuffled and WWF was moved to 7pm, ECW at 8pm and WCW at 9pm. Then suddenly, ECW began airing re-runs, WCW was moved at a much later time, but WWF keep doing its thing. Something was odd, but with news mostly in print format and broadcast, any updates were minor compared to the depth of leaks by today’s standards.
By in April 2001, WCW closed. ECW had folded, and Vince McMahon won the war, obtaining the rights to both its’ competitors soon after. The Golden Era had come to an end.
Then came 2002. The birth of Ring of Honor, and the bridge between the 90s boom period, and modern landscape of wrestling of today.
I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t hurt a bit when I heard of ROH’s announcement on going dormant until 2022. This was a period of my life as a fan, where I was peak invested in Professional Wrestling. I was buying PWIs whenever they came out, and was a steady reader of WWE Magazine, and WWE Raw, into the publications’ last days as a rip off of Maxim and FHM. Nothing beat the photos against the articles of news around the wrestling world, and seeing the gritty visuals of ROH’s events always fascinated me – as an alternative to WWE’s flair for perfection.
ROH provided a renewal in a stripped down, “pure wrestling” style, that could be attributed to the extended popularity of the American Wrestling boom period of the 1980s and 1990s. We had gone years with the WWF, WCW and the argument about a third company’s placement as part of the industry’s “Big 3.” ECW had been, and continues to carry the reputation as the third seed during this period, but there is an argument to be made for Jim Cornette’s Smokey Mountain Wrestling. Ironically, the two companies of ECW and SMW – despite their immense differences, at their core put wrestling as their foundation of operation. An ideology that many shunned WWF/E for lacking during its heydays, and what would later would assist in the creation of Ring of Honor, and its demand during its strongest years.
Having pulled back all the elements of the Sports Entertainment format from the Monday Night Wars, ROH focused on the in ring product as the primary dynamic. The fan base was not obsessed with larger than life personalities, but rather the more grounded presentation of match quality – in an era that saw WWE jostle with itself for identity and existence, without the pressure of its competition.
DVD sales, a then young and developing culture of viral content (Youtube, Online video), all influenced by the internet’s growing importance, saw fans become much more involved in the wrestling product and happenings of the industry – giving birth to the modern, internet wrestling community. Dirt sheets were no longer just Newsletters, and message boards, but rather a growing fan base that took to video blogs to critique and share information on the sport.
Suddenly, there was section of an online audience that took it upon itself, to gravitate praise, support, information and attention towards those who in McMahon’s eyes would be deemed as prey to his preferred mold of talent.
During a time where nostalgia and WWE’s consistent video releases were a way to satisfy wrestling fans who had tuned out after the acquisition of WCW and ECW, fans had begun to dismiss the company’s gatekeeping of the sport’s moments, and recollections of history. Shoot interviews were growing more popular, and Production Company, RF video catered this growing smart fan base with alternative commentaries against often sanitized events, WWE would gloss over or revision for its purposes. This only grew the Independent Wrestling scene into a new beast, no longer catered to the model of mainstream wrestling, like 1999’s Heroes of Wrestling – featuring well known stars of the previous decades, and bigger companies. The Indies were now the home of the hottest talent, unsigned by WWE, the newly formed NWA-TNA, and the remaining foreign promotions. New and unknown faces were being seen and featured in large numbers, amidst a fan base that for the first time, in larger numbers removed from the boundaries of Kayfabe, and more so interested in the participation of the industry.
Years of pyrotechnics, larger than life gimmicks and personalities, all on stages that catered to ratings, advertising dollars, and corporate profit margins, more than the sustainability of the wrestling industry as a whole, had allowed for Ring of Honor to become a presence that represented the fans, and not just dollar. With WWE acting as a then brief monopoly presence within the mainstream (before NWA-TNA would gain more footing), Ring of Honor re-tooled the style of America wrestling, simultaneously occurring with the growth of American, Mixed Martial Arts [UFC and PRIDE FC]. Physicality was changing to a more hard hitting, technical style, that had been previously embraced in Japan, and showcased thanks to talent like Bret Hart, Chris Benoit, Dynamite Kid, Eddie Guerrero, and Kurt Angle. This style, had become the ROH style of wrestling, which owes a debt to the ever-presence MMA’s influences.
Normalizing the smaller sized talent of then unknowns: AJ Styles, CM Punk, Bryan Danielson, Homicide, Low-Ki, James Gibson, mixed with returning veterans like Raven, Terry Funk and Mick Foley, Ring of Honor’s main event scene was fruitful, and pushed the in ring product in a new direction, only stalled by its lack of visibility beyond DVD.
MMA at the time still featured fighters like Ken Shamrock, Tito Ortiz and Matt Hughes, all who would be considered smaller in size, had a shared format of competitive presentation. Indie wrestling was starting to focus on talent that was revered for their ability, and not dependent upon their size. Despite having larger talent like Samoa Joe, and sizable competitors like Claudio Castagnoli, Kevin Steen, and visiting challengers like Kenta Kobashi – ROH was establishing a status quo that was reliant on “work rate.” Danielson’s MMA Elbows and the Curb Stomp, were suddenly the internet generation’s Vader breaking Cactus Jack’s nose. Suddenly, punches were being substituted for stiff forearms and elbows, arm bars and guillotines were becoming more popular in Pro Wrestling bouts.
In an era that saw that saw the very first Brand Extensions, now known as The Draft, WWE Raw became the brand that was most representative of Vince McMahon’s Sports Entertainment, while Smackdown, became known as the Pro Wrestling brand – in thanks to the booking and direction of Paul Heyman. In the midst of all this – Ring of Honor during its first ten years, for all its success and acclaim, never got the television deal it deserved. NWA-TNA’s creation of the X-Division title, showcased several ROH wrestlers during its run on Spike TV. Larger audiences were exposed to the athleticism of what many fans knew to be some of the best the industry had to offer, but relegated to mid-card presentation. ROH’s own style was growing outside its place of origin, and the company was continuing its reputation as an indie – but, not a major player. Even during the acquisition by Sinclair, there was never an investment to make the company a big time presence in an industry it arguably modernized for the post 1990s landscape. For every mediocre TNA event that featured a mid-card match up that stole the show from an aged out main event, ROH had several cards for years, stacked with quality match ups, promos and moments that defined high quality, independent wrestling. For every fantastic, Angle & Benoit, Los Guerreros match up on Smackdown, The Briscoes were tearing down the house at the Hammerstein Ballroom.
The landscape that Ring of Honor has left behind, is one that it helped create. The “little guy” is king, and the smart fan is now the common audience. The niche developed to showcase the talent that were otherwise used as jobbers, misused, or overlooked altogether, is now the normal. There’s an overwhelming amount of self realization that wrestlers and the wrestling audience is now obsessed with, that Ring of Honor at one point incapsulated into one market, just as ECW had done before it. The Cult.
The shoot interview on DVD is now the daily podcast, social media post or blog that covers everything with a God’s view of detail. The DVD collection is now the Network, streaming channel or Youtube Playlist. NXT before Triple H’s health crisis, was what Ring of Honor could have been with a budget, and booker that truly cared for the roster and the brand. A formula that at one point, outshined the well established institutions of Smackdown and Raw, before its recent re-packaging under new management.
Bryan Danielson, AJ Styles, CM Punk and Samoa Joe, now all carry brand recognition from their runs in WWE – but are consistently seen and revered as proof of what ROH represented in the creation of future stars.
Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. What happens to ROH in 2022 is uncertain. But, what we can at least say in the mean time is, without Ring of Honor, who knows what the wrestling landscape after the Monday Night Wars would have been?