It was around this time last year I first became a regular Ring of Honor viewer. I had always wanted to check out the product, but the lack of a Sinclair-affiliated television station in the area of Philadelphia where I lived made it difficult to become engaged past the narrow online exposure of a specific match or noteworthy highlight. That changed when the company made a deal with the Destination America cable network, which lo and behold was part of the cable package I paid for every month (if only I’d known there was so much Sasquatch programming at my fingertips all that time).
My first experience with Ring of Honor TV came three weeks prior to the 2015 Best in the World pay-per view; it was a cold intro for sure, no real grasp of current storylines or proper context in which to place the main characters, but that didn’t matter. The opportunity to finally watch Ring of Honor stars in their natural habitat was enough for me to make the initial one hour investment of my valuable time.
In those three weeks my enthusiasm for the promotion exponentially multiplied; the crisp presentation of the product, sound storytelling and stellar work rates of the performers were a much needed breath of fresh air as it related to my American pro wrestling options. Of course the ‘new toy’ dynamic played a role as well. I was hooked in such a way that hadn’t occurred since I began watching New Japan Pro Wrestling on a regular basis several years prior; certainly more than anything being presented by WWE at that time. Those three weeks of television compelled me to do something I thought I would never do in a post-WWE Network world, order a pro wrestling pay-per view.
As enthusiastic about the product as I was, I still went into the ppv with a healthy dose of skepticism; likely the lasting burns from many a WCW ppv still present in my subconscious. But as my screen faded to black with Lethal holding both the world title and TV title high above his head I was more than satisfied. In the span of three hours I had experienced everything I’ve come to love about pro wrestling – an exciting variety of styles and character types, compelling and logical storytelling and well-rounded commentary that accented the action in the ring rather than overshadowing it – capped by a textbook main event between opposing forces of nature; the circumstances of their encounter ensuring that something would give.
For the next seven months ROH programming became integrated into my weekly pro wrestling viewing schedule. I finally had access to a stable American pro wrestling promotion to supplement WWE’s brand of sports entertainment. ROH didn’t insult my intelligence with illogical booking, childish angles or a gross over saturation of the product. I wasn’t force fed how to feel or hit over the head with key plot points and trendy buzz words, but rather left to digest the stories on my own with the trust that I could follow along, understand what was important and why things occurred as they did.
Lethal’s progression into a credible champion heel became my favorite storyline of 2015; highlighted by his series of matches against Roderick Strong, his duel title defenses against Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish within the course of a single show and an intriguing battle against AJ Styles to close the year. A diverse tag team division with teams like reDRagon, The Addiction, The Young Bucks, The Briscoes and War Machine reminded me of a time when tag team wrestling felt important. The relationship with New Japan brought with it an exciting blend of Japanese strong style and American indie-style chain wrestling. And then there was Dalton Castle, a charismatic character unlike any other member of the roster that demanded your attention whenever he was on the screen.
Luckily for me, the end of company’s relationship with Destination America coincided with my purchase of a new home in an area with a Sinclair-affiliated station; my enjoyment of the ROH product was secure, or so I thought.
Last Friday night’s Best in the World event marked one year since I became a fully-fledged member of the ROH community. My, oh my how times have changed. Sure, the new toy shine doesn’t last forever but this is something much different. After enjoying most everything ROH had to offer in 2015, 2016 has been a frustrating assortment of strong in-ring talent marred by curious creative choices and an utterly baffling approach to television content.
Creatively speaking, it’s difficult to point to anyone outside of Lethal who has benefited from consistently strong booking in the year 2016. After losing the world title last May, Jay Briscoe returned to his tag team roots with his brother in a quest to reclaim the tag titles. The Briscoes’ story progressed nicely for the remainder of 2015 but came to a screeching halt in at Global Wars in 2016 when War Machine fended the challenge and retained their titles. Initially it appeared as though the Briscoes were reinserted into the tag team scene for the express purpose of building War Machine as the new standard bearers; a strong win over the Briscoes did exactly that… until they lost the titles the very next night to The Addiction in what can only be classified as a lose/lose situation.
More than a few performers have suffered a similar nosedive in terms of creative trajectory. A well-timed heel turn for Roderick Strong appeared to be leading to a heated angle with Bobby Fish over the TV title; instead Tomohiro Ishii was inserted into the angle for no reason, allowing much of the heat between the two to quickly dissipate prior to an actual title match. One bad loss after another has gradually transformed Moose from an unstoppable force to just another guy on the roster. ACH has been relegated to booking purgatory for much of the year; his recent angle with Silas Young that culminated with a match at BITW appears to be going nowhere fast. The depth enjoyed by the tag team division has evaporated. Lio Rush has hardly appeared on ROH television since winning the Top Prospect Tournament in February – which leads to the most significant issue damaging the ROH brand.
Continuity between the promotion’s respective television and house show content has been glaringly non-existent for much of the year. Stories originating on television have concluded on the road, failing to provide the television audience a proper payoff. Other high profile angles take place during live events without ever seeing the light of day on television, creating difficult gaps in various character narratives. A quick scan of the official ROH website paints a dramatically different picture than the one a strict television audience would ever see, leaving one to question why the weekly program is even worth the hour investment at all.
The build to the May Global Wars pay-per view event was, without question, the most confusing and insulting offering of the year – a most egregious display of lazy storytelling and an eye-opening lack of respect for a devoted fan base – nothing but a series of cold pre-taped matches from the joint Honor Rising tour that took place three months prior in Japan.
A stable television platform is the lifeblood of any serious pro wrestling promotion. Ring of Honor is owned by the largest television station operator in the United States, a fact that provides them unprecedented market penetration for a company its size, and yet that advantage has been squandered in 2016 by misguided strategies, pure incompetence or a dangerous combination of the two.
The combination of lackluster television and hit and miss creative material (at best) has drained much of the energy from the ROH product on the whole. The promotion has significantly lost the buzz around its product, this in spite of successfully retaining the majority of its’ talent at a time when WWE is signing any wrestler with any semblance of name recognition and a pulse. The quality of in-ring work rate has remained at a high level during this trying time; a testament to the dedicated and professional performers of the promotion. But work rate, however great, is but one facet of what makes a successful pro wrestling promotion. Life outside of WWE is a constant battle; missing the mark for a prolonged period of time can prove fatal if not quickly corrected. Here’s hoping that the 2016 ROH product dies a quick death as the 2015 version rises from the ashes before it’s too late.