As the embers of WCW and ECW turned to dust, a chasm in the professional wrestling landscape appeared. In 2002, a new company was established, aiming to promote world-class wrestling rather than the sports entertainment synonymous with WWE. Many expected it to have a short shelf-life, like countless upstarts that preceded it. However, Ring of Honor cemented a legacy over the next two decades and groomed myriad superstars.
This is the story of ROH – three letters that epitomize the very best of professional wrestling – as told by those who lived and breathed it.
Ring of Honor: The Early Years
Often staged in front of tiny crowds in U.S. gyms and armories, Ring of Honor was dependent on DVD sales in its early years. It didn’t matter that the production values were poor because the in-ring action was faultless.
The iconic Bryan Danielson vs. Nigel McGuinness rivalry; gripping 60-minute world title matches; CM Punk’s rise to prominence during The Summer of Punk; the unique Pure Title and its ruleset promoting real wrestling; mergers with New Japan Pro Wrestling way before AEW’s Forbidden Door even opened. It was to become what some label the most successful developmental the world has ever seen.
Colt Cabana on What Made Ring of Honor Great
Joining the promotion in 2002, having built his name on the independent scene, Colt Cabana quickly established himself as one of Ring of Honor’s top stars amongst Low-Ki, Paul London, and AJ Styles.
“I was very aware of status in independent wrestling. I was aware of who was talking about who and who had buzz. When Ring of Honor was like: ‘We are taking all of the people with all of the buzz, from all of the places’ – that’s where I wanted to be.”
“I don’t think a lot of us thought we could make it there [in WWE] because of how we looked or our size.”
The Briscoe Brothers: Stars Early On
A team Colt Cabana often wrestled with in Ring of Honor, the relatively unknown at the time, The Briscoe Brothers, were also becoming stars of the brand in the early days.
“Those first shows we were on with them, they were 17 and 18, but it just felt they had already lived a life, if that makes sense? Maybe because I was a sheltered kid from the suburbs, they would tell us about their life on the chicken farm, and I was almost in awe of their experiences. They were freak athletes.
“I speak for Jay, but I guess I speak for both of them, saying they’re passionate for life, passionate for wrestling, passionate for family,” Cabana shared with Pro Wrestling Stories.
“Because I was a part of Ring of Honor for almost 20 years or whatever it was, I essentially watched them grow up, too, in different stages of their lives.”
“They were always so ******* good. They wrestled so long for Ring of Honor, both of them, that you’d eventually be like, ‘This is boring, it’s the Briscoe Brothers, but they were always in the conversation of being The GOATs, just dominant and always having great matches.
“They would be easy to refresh a run, so as a promoter, it wasn’t hard to work with both of them as a team because they were versatile, and you could always put them in a match that would be ******* amazing, and they would always go balls out.
“If Samoa Joe and Homicide and AJ Styles, over the years, started leaving, you knew you could still always have a main event with the Briscoe Brothers.”
Cabana Climbs the ROH Ranks
Colt Cabana reigned as tag-team champion in Ring of Honor twice in 2004, with CM Punk as the Second City Saints.
His closest foray to the ROH World Championship culminated in an August 2006, 60-minute time limit draw with the defending champion, Bryan Danielson (AKA Daniel Bryan), in a 2-out-of-3 falls match in his hometown of Chicago.
“What I remember the most is Bryan had wrestled an hour the night before with Nigel [McGuinness].
“We were going to do an hour, and I remember after the match, I came back and collapsed on the floor for probably 20 minutes. That was in Chicago, and the locker room was also like a weight room, and I watched Bryan come back and then jump on the treadmill to do a cooldown (laughs). It just shows you the different shapes we were in.
“I did the match, I wasn’t worried about the match, and I love the story we told within that match, so I knew if I was dying towards the end, the story would be so fun that the people would be into it, and they were.
“That’s a scary match because it’s a long time, and it’s asking a lot of the fans to keep their interest for an hour watching these two guys wrestle.”
The ROH-WWE Connection
Whereas most companies would be devastated to see their premier workers move on, Ring of Honor became notorious for turning prospects into potential superstars.
Instead of begrudging them moving onwards and upwards, the office and staff celebrated their guys leaving for WWE, as they did for Cabana in his farewell main event match opposite Adam Pearce in April 2007.
“Gabe [Sapolsky] didn’t care if we went and did enhancement matches for WWE because, at the time, I would get paid more for an enhancement match than I would to get a Ring of Honor match. There was a handful of us who were full-time wrestlers, so if we could get work on a Monday or Tuesday for a Raw or Smackdown taping, that was a nice chunk of money.
Cabana continued, “Very early on, right away, I think Paul London was going to be the company’s cornerstone. Spanky [Brian Kendrick] and Paul, probably through the buzz of Ring of Honor, out they went.
“Gabe was so good. I can only assume he took this from Paul Heyman – when someone leaves, we just move somebody else up. He was never afraid of that, and so many left, rightfully so, to make their money and be huge stars in wrestling. There was always someone else ready to take that spot.”
“When I told [Cary Silkin] I had an offer from WWE, I think he hugged me; he was so happy.”
Favorite Memories From Ring of Honor
“A lot of my favorite memories are from Ring of Honor,” Colt Cabana confessed.
“My number one favorite memory is when I got fired from WWE; I returned as a surprise to the Hammerstein Ballroom. I had just been fired by WWE, and my emotions were so low; I was so sad. It was me and Bryan Danielson vs. Jimmy Rave and Bison Smith.
“When I came out, that building ******* shook, and I had never heard anything like that. To go back and you watch it, I get on the second rope, and my legs are shaking.
“I was so touched by the response of the fans. I had just been told: ‘You’re not good enough’ by WWE, and then I literally walked into that building, and 2,000 wrestling fans were like: ‘You are good enough!’ It just meant so much to me. I think it’s my favorite moment in wrestling that I probably ever had.”
Bobby Fish on Ring of Honor
Having made a name for himself in Pro Wrestling Noah, Bobby Fish returned from Japan with a new direction and high hopes from those who signed him to become a Ring of Honor regular in 2012.
Joining forces with Kyle O’Reilly, he was to catapult his career. reDRagon was born.
“I’ve always been a fan of tag-team wrestling, and Ring of Honor was one of those places that were willing to invest in their tag-team wrestling,” Bobby shared with Pro Wrestling Stories.
“I think a huge part of that was Mark and Jay Briscoe. You had such good talent, and they were homegrown talent. It just made sense.
“I don’t think any of us knew how much chemistry there’d be as partners. It was a pleasant surprise. It felt like we’d been doing this our whole lives. As far as two peas in a pod – Kyle and I, we just had a chemistry that I’ve never had before or since with anyone else. There ended up being four of us (Undisputed Era) once we went to NXT, which was pretty seamless as well.”
Bobby Fish continued with his glowing praise of O’Reilly.
“He’s a great human being, so it makes him easily likable, and he’s such a talented professional wrestler and real martial artist, which is what I always prided myself on being. You can’t fake that (laughs); sounds kind of ironic in pro wrestling.”
Only The Briscoe Brothers have held the ROH World Tag-Team Championships longer than the three-time champions, reDRagon. Indeed, there’s little shame in being second only to one of the very best tag teams of all time.
“They were as advertised, as incredible as you could imagine. I watched them because they were O.G.s when it came to Ring of Honor and were there through all the booking changes.
“I saw them when they were probably still teenagers, and they were really good then. To watch them get better and go away myself and come back and be thrown into a tag team with an opportunity like Kyle and I had (against them).
“They had ideas for us, and the angle with Kyle and Davey was one of the main angles in the company. To put us in any situation with The Briscoes would add to that. We got the rub from The American Wolves, but to have our first tag-title run start by beating The Briscoes was amazing.”
Following his fruitful time working as a tandem, Fish would next move towards a singles push in 2016, capturing and defending the ROH World TV Championship against opposition including Hangman Page, Dalton Castle, Katsuyori Shibata, and Will Ospreay.
Bobby Fish’s Favorite Memories from ROH
Bobby Fish reminisced about his triumphs in Ring of Honor.
“I don’t know that they anticipated Kyle and I doing as well as we did and reDRagon getting over the way that it did. I think, ultimately, they always planned to come back to Kyle and Adam Cole.
“Hunter Johnston (a.k.a. Delirious) was very good about long-term booking, which is something I think in today’s industry is a lost art. I think you look no further than The Bloodline to see a program done properly. Hunter was really good at that stuff and was eventually going to come back to Adam and Kyle. There came a time to start building for the months ahead.
“There was really no plan for me. They knew Kyle and I wouldn’t be tagging anymore, but we were still tagging in New Japan.”
Fish continued, “Most of the fans of Ring of Honor were familiar with the New Japan product, so they still saw that, and it kept things cohesive, but [Ring of Honor] did not know what to do with me.
“I had a match with Jay Briscoe for the Ring of Honor world title, and I wasn’t going over, but I knew here’s my shot to make more of this than what it is presently. It was a one-off at the ECW Arena. I just went hard at Jay on social media and created a lot of things myself, and it worked.
“I think it made more out of that match than it was supposed to be, and it maybe gave them a little bit more of seeing me in a different light from a singles standpoint.
“The TV title became an option, and we figured out a cool way to go about that between Tomohiro Ishii in New Japan and then Roddy [Roderick Strong] was roped into it. Little did we know that it would end up being me, Adam, Kyle, and Roddy in the Undisputed Era. It just made sense, and I feel it was something I influenced, at least.”
Paying Tribute to the Early Years of Ring of Honor
Flourishing in Ring of Honor led Bobby Fish to a hugely successful stint in NXT in 2017. He pays tribute to the early years of ROH that showed him a craft and style of character that ultimately helped him and Kyle O’Reilly attain the NXT Tag-Team Championships.
“Samoa Joe heavily influenced me. He was the first guy that I saw that brought martial arts to his work in a believable, seamless way. I’ve been doing martial arts since I was eight, and I think you get to a point with pro wrestling where, if you have a good foundation, you have to get a few years or certain number of reps where you can introduce a little bit of your own flavor.”
Samoa Joe holds the record for the longest reign as Ring of Honor World Heavyweight Champion, lasting 645 days.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know how to get it into my work, and guys like Samoa Joe, Kenta, Danielson, and Low-Ki pioneered that style doing it better than anyone else. I really earned a certain respect for Gabe Sapolsky for the way that he crafted the come-up with Joe. It was amazing.
“Joe wasn’t 6’4″ or ripped with a six-pack. It would have never worked if that’s what Joe was. To me, it was real.”
Film Producer Evan Ginzburg on ROH in NYC
“The Briscoes are among the greatest tag teams of all time.
“Talents like Roderick Strong, Claudio Castagnoli, Austin Aries, Homicide, and The American Wolves were consistently excellent and ‘never had a bad match.
“Necro Butcher turned hardcore into Art. And the Japanese grapplers, like Morishima, were amazing.
“I’ve gone to live wrestling for 50 years and rank ROH shows among the greatest I’ve ever seen. Some of the best nights of my life.”
Beer City Bruiser Toasts Ring of Honor
Following a dark match for Ring of Honor in 2013, Matt Winchester, AKA Beer City Bruiser, was hoping to earn a contract with the company one year later, thanks in part to a departed family member.
“I moved back to Wisconsin after training with Harley Race. I was just doing the independents, like a big fish in a small pond type of thing,” Bruiser shared with Pro Wrestling Stories.
“Everyone told me to do the Ring of Honor tryout, and I just kept putting it off. I had a couple of tryouts at WWE; a couple at TNA (Impact Wrestling).
“My father-in-law, who was one of my biggest supporters, passed away in 2013. He had left money in his will, and I could only get it if I used it for the tryouts to cover airfare, rental car, tryout fee, and a hotel room.
“So, in 2014, I’d done a couple of darks for Ring of Honor and had been talking to them. Steve Corino, Kevin Steen (Kevin Owens), and Kevin Kelly were all big advocates for me, so I flew to Bristol, Pennsylvania, and it was a two-day tryout.”
Bruiser discussed how it played out for him.
“I ended up working with Will Ferrara, and at the end of the match, they have all the coaches that are there stand up and tell you if tomorrow they had TV tapings – yes or no if they’d put you on TV. We were the first two in the history of the tryouts to ever get yes’s from all the coaches.
“After the tryouts were over, Delirious pulled me aside and said he definitely wanted me in their 2015 Top Prospect Tournament.”
Tag Team Triumphs
Beer City Bruiser had earned a regular role in Ring of Honor and was about to embark on a tag-team run with ROH mainstay Silas Young.
“Later that year, we were in Minnesota, and they needed a team to work with War Machine (Viking Raiders in WWE), the tag-team champions at the time. Delirious walked up to me and said we’d put you with Silas Young.
“We went out and had this match with War Machine, and I got my contract shortly thereafter. Then they put us in a program with War Machine, and I stayed with Silas for a couple of years (laughs). The chemistry was there, and it was amazing.
“We had only tagged once on the Indies before that match with War Machine, and it was way back in the archives! We were just two green kids (laughs).
“He helped me acclimate to working television because working television is different than working independents. He helped me get used to being on the road constantly and how to pack and how to get ready for all this traveling.
“We’d get to after the match, and he’d say: ‘That was great, but when you do this move, make sure the camera’s here.’ And it really helped me out a lot to get myself used to TV and wrestling on TV.”
ROH or WWE? A Ring of Honor Alum Weighs In
Before officially receiving a Ring of Honor contract, a small role on WWE television in 2015 almost led to a tryout with the sports entertainment behemoth. But, the lure of a permanent ROH deal was too strong to turn down for Beer City Bruiser.
“I never turned anything down, but I was being looked at by them (WWE). In fact, I was the fake Bray Wyatt. John Cone, who I knew from the Harley Race days, was in charge of talent and extras at the time in WWE. He called me up at an indy show and said: ‘Are you still fat, and have you still got a beard? Do you want to do a Raw and Smackdown?’ I said, ‘Sure!’
John said he could give me a tryout. I remember sitting looking at my wife with an offer for Ring of Honor. Do I take that or risk it on a tryout? I took the contract to build a name for myself.”
Establishing himself on ROH live events and programming, Bruiser and Brian Milonas became The Bouncers. Not only was he working with exceptional talent in the ring, but also behind the scenes in creative.
“Delirious was the head booker. He had the final say on everything. He was really cool, too, because if you had ideas, you could pitch him ideas. He would be open to ideas, but the final say came to him.
“Some of the other guys that were in creative were Todd Sinclair, who was a big advocate of mine. He was the head referee. He’s the reason Brian Milonas and I started tagging together; it was his vision. When I first started, Christopher Daniels was in creative, BJ Whitmer was, and I know Bully Ray later came on to be a part of creative. Then Marty Scurll came way later.”
Pandemics and Wrestling Are A Tough Mix
By the time 2020 arrived, the company was looking to expand, but an event that changed the world was about to scuttle its plans.
Bruiser chronicled this difficult stretch.
“The only downside to Ring of Honor was that we didn’t have a national live television show. We had a meeting before the pandemic hit, like a town hall meeting, where they flew all the talent out to Maryland, and we all met at the Sinclair offices.
“Bully (Ray), I think, led the meeting, but we all would toss ideas around of what we had to take Ring of Honor to the next level. The number one thing on that whole list was live TV.
“We ended up doing Free Enterprise, and what that was was basically a pay-per-view show free for the fans, like a fan appreciation, and they filmed it and used it to shop around to the different networks for live TV.
“I know they were getting ready to put us live, and the pandemic hit. That shut everything down. There was no more talk of a live television show after that. It actually made us more creative.
“It’s all about the entertainment for the fans. That’s the bottom line. But we’re also creative people, and when the pandemic hit before live shows started back up, that’s when Brian and I came up with Happy Hour segments on YouTube where we’d bring a guest in. They were all entertaining, and it was so fun to be creative.”
When The Final Battle Feels Final
As winter 2021 approached, times were tough for the company ahead of its marquee annual pay-per-view, Final Battle.
“In October of 2021, we found out we were losing our contracts right before the November TV tapings,” Bruiser shared.
“They told us they weren’t renewing any contracts. Once your contract was done, that was it. We’re going to take a hiatus.
“We had those TV tapings and Final Battle to prepare for what was going on in Ring of Honor. When the event was happening, it was all about nostalgia.
“I was in a 10-man tag match. In that match, I had Brian Milonas with me, who I consider my brother. At that point, we’d been tagging for about five years, but we had Will Ferrara and Cheeseburger on the opposite end, and our first feud in Ring of Honor was Ferrara and Cheeseburger. It was cool to see the first guys I used to work with come full circle in our last match in Ring of Honor. It was a surreal feeling and really cool.”
Bruiser spoke emotionally of that day.
“I remember taking a lot of photos and [there was] a lot of crying. All of us always said that it’s not goodbye; it’s see you later.
“The thing about that locker room in 2021, we were as close as family. There was no drama, no B.S.; everyone was pushing each other. We all tried to make ourselves better, and if someone left to go to AEW like Jay Lethal did, we weren’t upset; we were happy.”
The Briscoe Brothers Bled ROH
Having loved every minute of his Ring of Honor tenure, Beer City Bruiser’s enduring memories of his time there involved who else but The Briscoe Brothers.
“As sad as it was when Jay Briscoe passed away, it was kind of like a reunion at his funeral. It was like family coming back together, and it’s a sad day, yes, but we all got to share the memories like Jay-man wanted us to.
“The Briscoe Brothers, they were not only the best feuds I’ve ever had, but the best matches you could watch.
“If you think of Ring of Honor wrestling, you think of the Briscoe Brothers. They were the heart and soul of the locker room. Them, Matt Taven, and Jay Lethal were the locker room leaders. Like when The Elite left, the four of them brought us together and said let’s do what we do. We’re Ring of Honor; we can do this.”
“We’d always do the toast of honor after our matches, and the Briscoes loved it because Jay-Man loved to drink a beer with us afterward. He loved that was part of our gimmick.
“Whenever we didn’t wrestle the Briscoes, and they were on last, Jay-Man would walk in and say: ‘Bouncers, you boys got the beer?’ We always made sure we had three beers cold for after the match, one for Chicken (Mark Briscoe) and two for Jay.”
“I’m so proud and happy to say that my last words to Jay, we were at a show in North Carolina called Wrestlecade; they had The Kingdom vs. The Briscoes. I gave Jay-Man a hug, and I said, ‘I love you and miss you, and I’ll see you down the road.’ He replied, ‘Damn right, brother, I love you, and next time, you bring the beer.’ I’m glad those were my last words with him.”
Tony Khan With The Save
After Final Battle 2021, the company went on a brief hiatus.
It would return in April 2022, this time under the presidency of Tony Khan.
AEW Dynamite’s March 2nd, 2022 episode announced that Khan bought wrestling promotion Ring of Honor from Sinclair Broadcast Group. The acquisition included ROH’s video library, brand assets, intellectual property, production equipment, and more.
Tony Khan is excited about Ring of Honor’s position in professional wrestling.
Khan participated in the Death Before Dishonor Media Scrum in July 2023. When asked about the significance of ROH at present, he stated that he has a distinct objective for it, which differs from All Elite Wrestling.
"Ring of Honor is a great wrestling promotion. It’s got a different mission. It’s got a different audience than AEW," Tony Khan expressed. "It’s maybe more focused to a hardcore audience, and I can do things programmed to the hardcores and deliver the kind of wrestling that I know a hardcore fan is gonna want to see.
"I think AEW speaks to maybe a broader definitely a bigger and broader worldwide audience.
“Ring of Honor has a great 21-year history and was, at one point, in my opinion, the number two wrestling company in North America, if not the world, and when AEW launched, that changed things. AEW is a bigger challenger brand than there’s been in pro wrestling since the 90s. And it’s been a long time since there was a company like AEW that changed where Ring of Honor stood.
"But now Ring of Honor is back, and I think Ring of Honor is still a major company. It’s not the number two company in the world. But I think there’s clearly two biggest companies, certainly in North America and I think worldwide, but really, I don’t think Ring of Honor has ever been more influential or powerful or well backed.
“I think these have been some of the best pay-per-view shows in the history of Ring of Honor over 21 years. And now, looking back, we’ve done five pay-per-views since I took over, and I really think they’ve been five of the best shows Ring of Honor’s ever done on pay-per-view, and I stand by that.”
The story of Ring of Honor has yet to be completed, but its legacy has been etched onto the very fabric of modern professional wrestling.
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