In the beginning, Ring of Honor was a strange place. You had great matches side by side with a fat African Prince insisting people kiss his boots. BJ Whitmer wasn't a regular, but Amazing Red was. Nothing had quite gotten dangerous enough to warrant someone screaming into the microphone at the top of their lungs. The undercard was booked with more influence from Sigmund Freud than Bill Watts. Wrestlers acted like gentlemen and shook hands, or they hit each other with hubcaps. But in the end, the first year of Ring of Honor isn't really remembered for anything. I've seen all the shows multiple times and when someone mentioned The Boogie Nights a month ago I had no idea what they were talking about. With that in mind, I've put together a refresher for you, a brief overview of things you've ignored or forgotten up until now.
The Good: Great matches, great wrestlers, anything that's still enjoyable years later.
The Bad: Things that were terrible then and are terrible now. Anything that doesn't hold up upon reflection.
Brian XL: Anything unbearable. The bizarre, the perversely entertaining, the things that stand out the most with hindsight.
Era of Honor Begins
The Good: Low-Ki vs Christopher Daniels vs American Dragon
Ring of Honor was originally concieved as a promotion to sell tapes to a particular audience. Specifically, tapes to an audience that liked workrate heavy matches from smaller, more technical wrestlers. So they get those wrestlers and put them out there to have 'dream matches.' And it works. These are good wrestlers having a good match. It's simple and it's not going to work forever, but there's no reason it shouldn't be enjoyable for what it is. It's a great match. American Dragon brings his "whiz kid who wants to stretch you" attitude, Low-Ki puts on his best serious face, and Christopher Daniels stands up as the disrespectful tool who the other two want to beat up. In fact, it worked so well that a couple of years later TNA plugged Joe and AJ into the match and main evented a PPV with it. The match isn't complicated and it's not art. It's fun and it's cool spots and guys who kick each other or fly around, it's three guys who know what they're doing and are good at what they do. Sometimes that's all you need.
Quiet Storm starts yelling
The Bad: Joel Maximo vs. Jose Maximo vs. Chris Divine vs. Quiet Storm vs. Brian XL vs. Amazing Red
At some point towards the tail end of ECW, Mikey Whipwreck opened up a wrestling school somewhere in the New York metro area. His students were primarily small in stature and focused on the high-flying style of wrestling. And they were very, very bad. Bad at everything they tried. They couldn't strike, they don't land where they're supposed to, and when wrestling they always had their eyes turned up and to the right, as if they were racking their brains for the next step in their elaborately laid out match. This match is pretty much exactly like every other match this crew had in ROH. There's some high-flying, there's some back and forth. Quiet Storm wins. If indy wrestling is filled with clones of Chris Benoit, Quiet Storm is the one born without eyes or a fully formed skull. Just take him out back and shoot him, for everyone's sake.
Right on his big gay lips
Brian XL: The first thing that happens on the first ROH show ever is The Christopher St. Connection, a flamboyantly gay tag team, comes to the ring, makes out a little, and then two large Puerto Rican men come out and beat the crap out of them. Not in a sort of "oh he's putting the boots to 'im" sort of way, but in a vicious "dumped on their heads" sort of way. One of the things about watching these shows so long after they happened is you have crystal-clear hindsight. You know Samoa Joe is going to be the champ for a long, long time. You know Homicide will become a huge star. And you know that Rob Feinstein, the man who originally owned the company is a homosexual, and in a fit of self-loathing, booked the two gay wrestlers to get beat up by the muscle-bound Puerto Ricans. Danny Maff lifts Puffy up for a burning hammer and color commentator Steve Corino shouts "RIGHT ON HIS BIG GAY HEAD!" Wrestling is a strange, strange thing.
Round Robin Challenge
Good: Before he was Homicide, Mexican Revolutionary, he came to the ring in an orange prison jumpsuit wearing a Mike Myers mask. His partner, Bugaloo, wears a Jason mask and carries a chainsaw. They're The Natural Born Sinners, and by all rights the whole thing should be lame. Despite the apparent gimmick of escaped mental patients, they wrestle like amature wrestlers. They hit people with a rubber chicken. Bugaloo's idea of a promo is telling his opponents "And on a personal note, you will never get my chainsaw!" But for whatever reason, it works. The Sinners have enough unique charisma that the whole thing seems charming and not absurd. The chicken is explained in a vingette as the only remaining peice of Homicide's childhood, and the earnestness with which Bugaloo insists that his opponents will not take away his chainsaw carries what should be a joke into something more.
Are we hard?
Hell yeah we hard.
Bad: Yeah, it's Mikey Whipwreck's kids again. They're local, they work cheap, and so they're all over the early ROH shows. In this case, it's a three-way tag match with the S.A.T., Devine Storm, and Amazing Red & Brian XL. The S.A.T are wrestlers who believe in the American way of life: Excess. Never doing one flip where two will do, never finishing with one powerbomb where they can fit seven, the S.A.T. do nothing by half. Their name stands for Spanish Announce Team, because LOL you watched wrestling, I watched wrestling, our name is a joke.
Brian XL: Remember what I said about watching all of this with hindsight? Rob Feinstein isn't just gay, he likes 'em young. Really young. On this show, CW Anderson, a bald man with a thick, hairy chest, teams up with a much younger wrestler known as Elax, The Exploited Child. Oh, and Anderson is wearing a leather vest.
Night of Appreciation
Good: It's a frequent criticism of ROH that in the beginning they just had indy dream matches, devoid of story or context. It's a valid criticism. But sometimes a total lack of context works. AJ Styles vs. Low-Ki is just a match, without reason or history. Sometimes that's all you get. AJ Styles never stuck around for very long in ROH, always eventually going back to his home in TNA. And Low-Ki, he threw so many hissy fits that Gabe Sapolsky took to referring to him by his real name in interviews. Can you imagine the look on Low-Ki's face reading "we've had our problems with Brandon in the past."? So what you're left with is a match here, and a match there. So it's good that these two do the random dream match so well, with Ki beating the crap out of Styles and Styles finding a way to get his shots in.
Bad: Da Hit Squad face the Christopher St. Connection again, and this time the CSC have their female valet with them. Naturally, DHS sees to it that she gets hit with a burning hammer. Some guy in the front row stands up and starts clapping.
I get two paychecks.
Brian XL: Frank Talent is the Pennsylvania State Athletic Comissioner. He was appointed to his post and it's his responsibility to make sure that every wrestling show is conducted in a safe manner. He has to make sure the ring is well-built and the crowd is out of harm's way. And what better way to do such a thing than by being a paid performer on those wrestling shows? For a nominal fee, Frank Talent will come to your show and stop a match on the grounds that it's unsafe, or maybe you just want him to stand backstage, give a peptalk, and yell at Spanky for having his headphones on. He gets two paychecks.
Road to the Title
Good: Low Ki vs. Amazing Red - Red's matches tend to be directly related to how good his opponent is. Put him up against Quiet Storm and you're doomed. Give him Low-Ki and you just might get something. In this case, you get the best possible version of the match Red and Ki had wrestled over and over again. Ki throws out strikes at an insane speed, and Red dodges them just as quickly. It's a very cool spectacle. And since Red did learn to wrestle from Mikey Whipwreck, he knows how to get killed.
Jody hits the dropkick, Johnny continues unabated.
Bad: Johnny Storm vs. Jody Fleisch - There's a moment in this match where they're shooting each other into the ropes and Jody sidesteps Storm and throws a dropkick to his midsection. Now, instead of moving in the direction he was kicked, Storm keeps running forward, towards the ropes. Only once he gets to the ropes, he doesn't bounce off of them, he goes flying through the middle, for no discernible reason at all. He clearly bent down and launched himself out of the ring, leaving his opponent behind. After that, Jody pulls off a springboard shooting star press. To his credit, it looks better than the ones Billy Kidman used to try. To his detriment, he barely hits Storm. (Storm was standing, which doesn't present the ideal target for a SSP.) Jody rolls storm back into the ring, and no less than a second later, they're running and rolling around the ring, as if neither had gotten hit with anything. The whole match is like this. On and on, flying around the ring without any regard for any sort of logic or sense.
Brian XL: Sumie Sakai faces Simply Lucious in a wrestling match where neither of them are there to get beat on by a guy. Unfortunately, that's what the crowd wants to see, so they never really get into the match. Sumie, bless her heart, never stops trying. She comes out wearing the local baseball club's hat for chrissake! She claps to bring the crowd around, and claps, and claps, and claps.
Crowning A Champion
Homicide, all that is good and violent and true.
Good: The Carnage Crew vs. The Natural Born Sinners - This is the best match the Carnage Crew are ever going to have. It's a garbage brawl with the Sinners, noting more and nothing less, but it's carried out with intensity and baseball bats and barbed wire and hubcaps. It goes so well the the Carnage Crew would essentially do the same thing for the next four years, no matter who their opponents are or why they're fighting. But that hasn't happened yet, so you just look at this match as one really swell note.
Just hangin' out
Bro I think you're supposed to powerbomb me
Bad: Divine Storm vs. Da Hit Squad - Chris Divine headscissors one of DHS, he goes for a hurracarana, but Mafia catches him with a powerbomb. This is where the idiocy comes in. When it becomes clear that he's about to get powerbombed, Chris Divine punches Mafia in the head. And by "punches Mafia in the head" I mean "touches his wristape to Mafia's head a half dozen times." Those are some of the weakest punches I've ever seen. Then he rolls backwards, like he was going to counter with a hurracarana, only he stops his roll halfway through, pulls his torso up so that his back is parallell with the mat, and puts his hands behind his head. Then he just sits there. It's a really awkward moment, and a pretty fair illustration of how Divine Storm and company just don't really get how wrestling is supposed to work.
This is Steve Corino
This is Simply Luscious
And they're fucking!
Honor Invades Boston
Good for a two count
Good: Jay Briscoe has a losing streak gimmick going, losing to Amazing Red, Spanky, and Doug Williams. His brother Mark Briscoe keeps making fun of him, but Jay can't challenge Mark to a match because Mark is only 17, and Frank Talent just wouldn't stand for any minors wrestling in Pennsylvania. So when ROH goes to Boston, Jay uses the opportunity to challenge his little brother to a match. Mark accepts, and they have a match that steals the show. They hit each other with everything they have, huge suplexes, stiff strikes, dumping each other on their head, there's nothing they don't pull out here. They also seem to gleefully sell for each other, screaming every time a submission is locked in, going the extra mile bumping for each other, really just going the extra mile. The match is huge and they go a million miles an hour and it's the epitome of what the Briscoes do.
Good for a two count
Bad: Jay and Mark Briscoe hit each other with things that should kill men. They bring out the biggest most destructive moves they can think of and then they kick out at two and just keep going. It's what the Briscoes do, it's what ROH does, but if you don't like it, it's infuriating. They burn through enough finishers for ten matches in the span of 20 minutes. It's kind of crazy, but that's the Briscoes. I think it's awesome, but hating it is completely valid.
Low-Ki cuts a long promo on this show. I miss Low-Ki promos. He has the most obvious SERIOUS VOICE in wrestling history, and he usually just stares at the camera and over enunciates everything. His catchphrase is "IT IS NOT THE SIZE OF THE FIGHTER, BUT THE SIZE OF THE FIGHT THAT HE BRINGS. ALL YOU CAN DO IS BE READY." That whole thing is his catchphrase. He has to sell his t-shirts in matching pairs and you have to walk side-by-side with somebody else to get his point across.
Paul realized he didn't actually know how to fall off a 20 foot ladder.
Good: Paul London faces Michael Shane in a streetfight that made Paul London. Michael Shane bleeds a lot and gets into position for London to jump onto. And mercy, how London jumps. That ladder-as-a-ramp spot that Shelton Benjamin jacked for the first Money in the Bank Match, he goes over the top rope and through a table, all of it building to a shooting star press from about 12 feet up. It's a crazy match with a number of stupid, dangerous spots and Paul London instantly becomes ROH's first real home-grown star.
Bad: Jay Briscoe does not quite have the skills to carry Amazing Red to a decent match. Amazing Red feeds Jay Briscoe his finisher knowing that Jay will kick out of it and make him look weak.
Prince Nana, who is legitimate African royalty, wears a large foam head protector because Low-Ki knocked him out last month.
Glory By Honor
Good: lol who is this fat guy
oh shit it is samoa joe
oh shit he's going to beat the crap out of low ki
Up to this point, Low-Ki is the baddest man in ROH. You can cheat to beat him, you can team up on him, but you can't stand with him. And when Low-Ki snapmares Joe over and kicks him in the back, Joe just sits there. He doesn't make an angry face, he doesn't grimace in pain, he just sits there, breathing. It's the perfect debut. He shows up and steps to the Pope of Honor Town, and the beat this piss out of each other. The essense of fake fighting, the point, is violence. That's what this match is.
We got ya, buddy!
This show also features the debut of the Scramble Match, a match designed to highlight the contributions of all the retarded little high-flyers the promotion employs. It's a tag match with no tags, so as soon as someone is out of the ring someone else can step in. This means that generally guys just come in, do spots, and then roll out of the ring. Then someone else comes in and does spots. There's no sense of logic or timing or really anything other than just jumping at/on to each other. Once a match everyone takes turns diving to the outside while everyone else gives up making it look like a fight and just stands there catching them. Little bit of trivia: Bryan Danielson hates scramble matches. I'll give you three guesses why.
Lots of times in wrestling, two guys will do roughly the same thing and it'll work for one of them and not for the other. Dean Malenko pulled off what dozens of guys who want to be Dean Malenko couldn't. Rey Mysterio became a superstar and Juventud sells birdseed in Mexico. And Amazing Red, The S.A.T. and Divine Storm look like a gaggle of retards while Special K is funny and fun. Special K's gimmick was that they were a bunch of rich kids who loved to party. That's it. The commentators would get really indignant about how these spoiled little rich kids spent all their money on pills, and Special K would just laugh and crack glowsticks and spend a lot of time dancing. It helped that they were a bit less sloppy in the ring than Whipwreck's crew, but it also helped that they were goofy and never once tried to exhibit fighting spirit.
American Dragon vs. AJ Styles - Again, just a good match from good wrestlers. It doesn't really mean anything, but it doesn't really have to.
This time the Christopher St. Connection beat up a women! It seems it doesn't really matter whether you're straight or gay, white or hispanic, as long as you hate women and want to see harm come to them.
Brian XL: Special K, Divine Storm, Da Hit Squad and S.A.T. are all in a scramble match. Dixie goes up to the top rope, but Quiet Storm cuts him off and then goes outside and climbs the ropes. Chris Divine and Jose Maximo head over to the corner, setting Dixie and Quiet Storm up for superplexes. Before they can pull that off, however, Joel Maximo and Joey set up Russian leg sweeps on Chris Divine and Jose Maximo. But before they can pull off the leg sweeps Hit Squad come in and powerbomb the whole lot of them. So all 8 men get involved in one corner spot. It's ludacris. Why are they all standing there holding their balance waiting for everyone else? Why do half of them jump when everyone is in place? It doesn't matter. It's a giant pile of dudes doing something big and stupid and that's fun. It's a spectacle. Wrestling doesn't have to be perfect, it has to be fun. Amazing Red vs. Quiet Storm in a singles match isn't fun, it's about as graceful as DJ Qualls doing ballet. But 8 guys in the same corner for a giant stupid powerbomb/suplex combo? Why not!
I don't know why I love him like I do.
Good: Scramble Madness features the best scramble match in ROH history. Scramble matches are what they are a lot of times they're pretty retarded, but if you keep them short and guys hit most of their spots on target/in time, they can be fun. And anytime a bunch of guys are taking dives to the outside and Joey Matthews comes in and works a deep headlock, that's fun. This match also features Deranged, which goes a long way towards explaining why it's so much better than all the others.
Bad: The Carnage Crew gains nother member, Masada! This doesn't make them much worse at the moment, but it does set the stage for the epic "Carnage Crew vs. New Carnage Crew" feud, and the even more epic "Who shit in the Carnage Crew's bags" storyline. (That is not a joke it is actually a storyline from Ring of Honor. PURE WRESTLING AS A SPORT.)
Brian XL: Rudy Boy Gonzales, a rotund, older wrestler, puts Michael Shane in the tarantula. Indy wrestling does strange things to people.
Night of the Butcher
Good: Paul London vs. American Dragon - If London hadn't gone to the WWE, this would be the single greatest rivalry in indy wrestling history. They just clicked together so perfectly, with Dragon being aggressive and wanting to hurt people and London being so sympathetic and tough. Everything worked, and every match they had was good and most were great. Alas, it was too beautiful for this world and one time Paul London got thrown like 10 feet in the air by the Gymini.
Bad: After a match between Divine Storm and two guys named after Transformers, CW Anderson hits the ring and takes out Starr and Shockwave with one punch each. One of the commentators says "note to Doug, edit before CW hits the ring. Edit this out." Doug is either lazy or stupid, because you're sitting at home watching the commercial release of the tape (remastered no less!) and you still see CW Anderson. And the ring announcer is like "you're not supposed to be here" and CW is all like
"The last time you saw me, some little internet mark who is now the booker for this promotion. The same guy that used to kiss my ass in ECW because he was on the floor selling programs. Also the guy that's a Paul Heyman wannabe. Well that's good Program Boy because I know you hear me. (Camera cuts over to Rob Feinstein who is standing at the entrance way looking back through the curtain.) You're gonna pattern yourself after the man who ran the greatest promotion into the ground. Well I ll tell you what Gabe, you bring your little Jewish ass out here and you say to me what you type of the typewriter Tough Guy. You see, this is a guy who hasn't t take bump one in the business. Rob, I'm talking to ya . Out of respect to you and Doug there's no heat, but that little piece of crap Gabe better get his ass to the ring right now!"
Anderson goes on to say that he went to Japan and joined Zero One to make a name and the Enforcer still kicks ass. After that, you can hear Gabe screaming at CW from behind the curtain, shouting "What the fuck was that?!?!?? WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?!!!?" Hit Squad and Joey come through the curtain and hit the ring, to try to calm CW down. CW isn't buying it, and goes back through the curtain, where Gabe screams at him that he's done." And thus beings ROH's really annoying habit of occasionally getting into "he's shooting!" territory. The angle is never mentioned again.
From the side he kind of looks like Homicide.
The show features Abdullah the Butcher, who was once very awesome and now appears to legit be too fat to get into the ring.
Final Battle 2002
Good: Xavier vs. Paul London - By this point Xavier has done a terrible thing and cheated Low-Ki out of the Ring of Honor title, thus dishonoring himself and the belt. That's all well and good, but since for some reason they didn't bother booking a rematch with Low-Ki, he's been trying to get over as champ facing guys like Jay Briscoe. I like Jay, but it just isn't working. Thankfully, we have Paul London. Best pure babyface in the company, first home-grown star, and Xavier is just a total dick. It's the match that makes Xavier as champ and London as a potential main eventer in ROH. People will rag on Xavier as champ, because he didn't have the wrestling skills to match Low-Ki or any of the other company bigwigs. But if you go back and watch this match you'll see that it doesn't matter, because the fans don't like Xavier and they want Paul London to beat him. That's the point of pro wrestling, one guy the fans want to see lose and one guy the fans want to see win. In all the dream matches and lack of context and workrate of ROH that gets lots a lot, and it actually puts Xavier and London in somewhat rarified company that they could make that happen.
Bad: Hey look Jody Fleisch is back! And he's facing Amazing Red! And they're doing that indy standoff thing after less than a dozen moves! This is awesome!
Brian XL: Gary Michael Capetta used to ring announce for the NWA. He introduced Ric Flair and Harley Race and the ten pounds of gold. And now he's backstage in the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory while Special K try to pull off the toupe he's not wearing. And you know what? He's really, really good at it. It's funny. He plays a good straight man and the Special K kids are good at being goofy. Indy wrestling, folks.
Revenge on the Prophecy
Good: Samoa Joe vs. American Dragon
Bad: Ghost Shadow and Chris Divine go through a three move combo, then have a standoff. I swear to god, less than 15 seconds into the match these two have a standoff. I'm surprised they don't go out there and just standoff, then standoff.
Brian XL: Introducing Chad Collyer and Matt Stryker! They have a nice little technical contest, less than ten minutes, a good change of pace from all the flying and hard-hitting dudes. In fact, it's so nice, let's have it over and over and over again, and bring in other guys to do the same thing, and eventually we can base an entire division around it! They'll have their own title! And nobody will care, because guys who are kind of boring doing nothing but trading arm locks on show after show after show gets old really fast.
One Year Anniversary
Good: Paul London wrestles two matches on this show, winning a three-way over AJ Styles and Low-Ki, then losing another title match to Xavier. It's classic babyface stuff, he's gutsy, Xavier throws his woman in the way, he holds the tights for the win, all that old pro wrestling stuff that always works. In the end, for all their odd assaults on kayfabe and retarded fans and endless matches with no selling, ROH is pro wrestling, and it is good.
Not really neccesary.
Bad: Speaking of endless matches with no selling, The One Year Anniversary show is headlined by a scramble matche featuring about 14 men that lasts for over 30 minutes. It's agonizing. Even the commentators are making fun of it and apologizing to the viewers. Mikey Whipwreck turns heel and hits all of his former students with stunners. Mafia hits Deranged with a burning hammer FROM THE TOP ROPE.
You can't see him but there's a fan down there getting whomped on.
Brian XL: At Ring of Honor's first show in New York, the fans rioted when Steve Corino refused to break the Cobra Sleeper he had Homicide in. Really. For real, they rioted. Things were out of control. The fans who rioted were Julius Smokes, Grim Reefer and company, but for real, it was crazy and a riot and out of control. Thus continues ROH's habit of going "No for really real it's a shoot."
To me, part of the fun of wrestling is how much it isn't like anything else. You have sports and you have theater and you have Kaiju Big Battle but in the end only fake fighting is fake fighting. And within that genre, only Battlearts is Battlearts and only Hulkamania is Hulkamania. And then there's Ring of Honor. A company existing in a niche of a niche of a niche. Great matches, a man in love with a chainsaw, and RF's peculiar perversions: Ring of Honor, Year 1.