Ring of Honor
ROH on SBG #469 (Pure Title Tournament: Part 1)
September 11, 2020
UMBC Event Center
Baltimore, Maryland

Watch: Honor Club & FITE.TV

When the shutdowns caused by the COVD-19 pandemic went into full swing across the United States in the middle of March, Ring of Honor was one of the many wrestling promotions that got hit hard. Not only did they lose their big doubleheader weekend in Las Vegas (featuring the 18th Anniversary PPV as well as the anticipated Past vs. Present event) that was set to take place the weekend of the shutdown (most of the roster was already in Las Vegas when the shows were officially canceled), but they also lost a lot of the major events they had planned for in the coming months. This included the Supercard Of Honor event in Florida during WrestleMania Weekend (which was a strong on-paper lineup that seemed to signal a revitalization of the New Japan relationship, with a number of their talents appearing), the Women’s Title Tournament and the ROH Pure Title Tournament (both of which were set to feature international talent).

The Coronavirus Pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for ROH.

Before the world shut down, one of the biggest stories in wrestling (at least in the United States) involved Marty Scurll, who signed a massive new deal that included him taking over from Delirious as the head booker of the company. After a 2019 that was highlighted by numerous booking missteps, a general loss of goodwill with fans, and cratering attendances across the board (while some cracks were showing in the first quarter of 2019, it was really the poorly received ROH portion of the G1 Supercard in Madison Square Garden that proved to be the catalyst for the major decline), the idea of Scurll taking over from someone who had overstayed his welcome as a booker looked to be a fresh start for the promotion. While a ton of promising things came out over the first several weeks of the Scurll regime (some of which I mentioned already), the pandemic put a stop to all of that momentum that ROH had seemingly started to build.

Now, we’ll never know what would’ve potentially happened with Marty Scurll’s booking regime in some alternate universe where COVID never happens (it’s next to impossible to speculate whether the Speaking Out Movement would’ve ever occurred as it did in a non-COVID world), but the bottom line is that what could’ve been a massive rebuilding year for ROH was totally washed away.

If there was a silver lining to come with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was that ROH managed to gain a fair amount of praise for being one of the few promotions in the United States to take the pandemic super seriously. While ROH, along with Impact Wrestling and MLW, were probably in much better positions compared to WWE and AEW with regards to handling their respective products during the pandemic (all three were able to fill TV time with the vast tape libraries, while ROH and Impact were never in serious danger since both are owned by the companies that operate the TV channels/networks they run on), it became very clear when they announced their return that ROH was lapping the field in terms of how American-based promotions handled the pandemic.

To my knowledge, ROH is one of the few promotions in the United States (New Japan of America might’ve done the same for their recent tapings in California, but I don’t know that for certain) that has decided to return with an NBA/NHL style bubble, with a required two-week quarantine and numerous coronavirus tests done throughout the process. In that regard, ROH has handled this return from the shutdown better than anyone else on this side of the globe.

To the delight of many fans, Ring of Honor decided to focus their return around the Pure Title Tournament. Even though the tournament lost some of the originally scheduled participants due to the global travel restrictions (including Yuji Nagata and Mark Haskins), they managed to do a solid job filling up the open spots, and the tournament officially kicked off this week on ROH TV.

The episode kicked off with a cool opening video package, before cutting to Quinn McKay, who gave us an introduction of sorts to the entire tournament. This included a brief overview of the history of the ROH Pure Title, as well as a breakdown of the rules of the tournament. Now I won’t go over everything in excruciating detail (as I believe this same breakdown by McKay was shown in a tournament primer), but I will make note of a few things. With regards to time limits, each round would have escalating time limits (fifteen minutes in the 1st Round, twenty minutes in the Block Semi-Finals, thirty minutes in the Block Finals, and a full hour for the tournament finals), with any draws going to the judges, who were revealed to be Gary Juster, Will Ferrara, & Sumie Sakai. Dak Draper and Brian Johnson are serving as the alternates for Block A and Block B respectively.

Finally, there were two notable changes made to the Pure Rules themselves (which are pretty much the same as they were, aside from these alterations). The first change saw a tightening of the closed fist rule, as you now risk a disqualification after a second closed fist to the face. In the previous Pure Title era, you wouldn’t risk a disqualification until your third closed fist, as the second resulted in the competitor losing a rope break. The second notable change was that any wrestler who decided to interfere in a tournament match would be automatically fired from the promotion, which essentially guarantees that there will be no outside interference in any of these bouts. It’s nice to see ROH make a promise that we’ll be getting zero bullshit throughout this important tournament.

After all of the rules were explained, we were treated to a series of sit-down interviews before each match that (I presume) will be a prominent feature of this new ROH TV format (at least through this tournament). Now, these aren’t your typical pro-wrestling interviews. These were handled very similar to the kind of interviews you would see before fights on a UFC card. The wrestlers basically talked about (in a very serious manner) their background, their history and/or knowledge of their opponent, how they plan to defeat their opponent, and what their goals for the tournament were.

With Jay Lethal, he went over his history in ROH (which included his time as Samoa Joe’s protege in 2005 and winning the Pure Title in the same year), and his history with Dalton Castle (he mentioned their incredible World Title bout from the 16th Anniversary PPV in 2018, which is a match that I would 100% recommend). He then mentioned how he wasn’t going to change anything about his style, and predicted that he would face Jonathan Gresham (his tag team partner) in the finals. With Castle, he went over his extensive amateur/Greco-Roman wrestling background, and also went over his history with Jay Lethal. Castle then talked about how he wanted to be more aggressive than Lethal, before stating that he wanted to win the Pure Title to remind people just how good of a wrestler he is. These interview segments were awesome, and in particular, it was very telling how they handled the Castle interview. He was still dressed the way you would expect Dalton Castle to dress, but it was a much more serious Dalton Castle for sure.

ROH Pure Title Tournament – Block A – First Round
ROH World Tag Team Champion Jay Lethal def. Dalton Castle

We get our first look at the setup for these TV Tapings, while we’re introduced to our announce team of Ian Riccaboni and Caprice Coleman. Another fun feature they’re including for this Pure Title Tournament are incredibly detailed stats on the wrestlers as they’re making their respective entrances, and these go way beyond the simple win-loss records we get with AEW. We were treated to information such as (and these are a bit paraphrased) “Dalton Castle has won 85% percent of his non-tag team matches with the Bang-A-Rang since 2018” and “Jay Lethal is 3-0 in his last three encounters with Dalton Castle”. We even got a stat that mentioned Lethal’s winning percentage in the city of Baltimore. You only see this kind of detail in stuff like the Voices Of Wrestling New Japan Year In Review eBook, but it’s awesome to see ROH include these incredibly specific statistics that only nerds like us care about. The matches themselves also include an on-screen clock to indicate the time, and three bars that indicate their three rope breaks (and they disappear with each rope break used, much like a timeout in any of the major sports).

As for the match itself, while it wasn’t anywhere close to the best match these two have had (again, I would highly recommend their match from the 16th Anniversary Show from two years ago), this was still a very solid singles bout that proved to be a good introduction to the Pure Wrestling Rules. In the opening minute of the match, Castle caught Lethal in a gator roll, which immediately forced Lethal to use one of his rope breaks. Castle continued to have the edge early on as he tossed Lethal around with his trademark suplexes that we’ve all become accustomed to, but Lethal would soon gain the advantage after targeting Castle’s legs. The intensity picked up down the stretch, and Castle nearly scored the win after connecting with the Bang-A-Rang. It was here that Lethal used his second rope break to stop the pin. Lethal then managed to fight off more offense from Castle, and finally connected with the Lethal Injection to get the victory. A solid match between both competitors, and a fine kickoff to this tournament. Lethal will face the winner of David Finlay vs. Rocky Romero in the next round. ***1/4

Up next, we got the sit-down interviews with the wrestlers in the main event of this particular episode.

First up was Wheeter Yuta, who talked about everything that he did to get to where he is now. Of course, we got the usual sports background that most of these guys will mention (Yuta specifically mentioned how he did sports like swimming and amateur wrestling to specifically prepare him for pro-wrestling). What stood out to me in Yuta’s interview, however, was the overview he gave of his influences. I loved the fact that ROH allowed him to openly reference the different promotions he’s worked, and the wrestlers that he’s trained with. Yuta went over how he went to Villanova University specifically so he could train with Drew Gulak and Tracy Williams. He also went over the time he spent in both Michinoku Pro as well as wXw (which included a picture of him standing next to WALTER at the wXw Academy). He concluded by talking about how he considers himself a decoder, who studies the patterns of his opponents and figures out a strategy on how to defeat them, and mentioned how he planned to counter Jonathan Gresham (using his size, drawing him into mistakes, the general feeling that Gresham might overlook him).

With Jonathan Gresham’s interview, he went over his love of the original ROH (primarily the diverse styles that were featured in the early years), and how he traveled the world to gain all the skills necessary to be considered the best technical wrestler in the world. Gresham noted how this tournament is bigger than being one-half of the ROH World Tag Team Champions (we’ll get to that in a little bit), and his relationship with Jay Lethal, before turning his attention to Wheeler Yuta. He explained that he wrestled Yuta before, and thinks highly of him (this included bringing up Drew Gulak and Tracy Williams as Yuta’s trainers before name dropping Catch Point), but stresses that he’ll use his technique to best him. Gresham puts over his Octopus Stretch (noting that he has truly perfected it), before finishing by proclaiming that he wants to bring the ROH Pure Title to his Foundation so that he and “his kind” (pure wrestlers) can reshape ROH as they see fit.

ROH Pure Title Tournament – Block B – First Round
ROH World Tag Team Champion Jonathan Gresham def. Wheeler Yuta

Statistics for these two competitors included Jonathan Gresham being 4-1 in his last five singles matches, and Wheeler Yuta having victories outside of ROH over Gresham, Tracy Williams, Flip Gordon, John Walters, Chuck Taylor, and 2 Cold Scorpio. Ian Riccaboni also mentioned at the start of the match that Yuta also has victories over Matt Riddle and MJF (again, I love that they’re acknowledging the scalps that Yuta has gotten outside of ROH, as it just helps build him up). Riccaboni and Caprice Coleman also pointed out on commentary that Gresham didn’t come out with his half of the ROH World Tag Team Titles, while Jay Lethal did earlier in the show (it’s awesome attention to detail, and plays off what Gresham said in his interview).

While this was a few minutes shorter than Lethal vs. Castle, it was definitely the superior match on this show. The wrestling was really freaking solid and (to be honest) you wouldn’t expect anything less with these two. They seemed evenly matched through the first half of the bout, and there were a number of points where Yuta gained the edge by faking out Gresham’s fake-outs (I know that sounds weird, but you’ll see what I mean when you watch the match). What adds to this match so much though was the story they told in the second half. About halfway through, Yuta is forced to use a rope break after Gresham locks him in an Indian Deathlock, but Gresham has his legs locked in so tight that he’s unable to extract himself from the hold on his own accord (this is usually an overt heel tactic, but Gresham played it up like he was legitimately stuck in his own hold and couldn’t get out). This frustrated Yuta so much that he retaliated with a blatant closed fist to the face, which got a warning. That set up an exciting sequence that saw some hard strikes, before the two got back to their technical wrestling. After both slammed onto the floor while Gresham had the figure four locked in, the two men went through what must’ve been a thirty-second pin attempt exchange. Gresham finally won by getting Yuta to tap after repeatedly slamming his knees into the mat. The finish looked absolutely brutal, and it proved to be a great conclusion to a very strong tournament bout. Gresham will face the winner of Delirious vs. Matt Sydal (who recently made his debut in AEW) in the next round. ***3/4

Final Thoughts

The wrestling on this show was incredibly solid, which was to be expected, given the wrestlers involved. However, the big talking point coming out of this show was the incredible presentation that ROH has decided to go with for this Pure Title Tournament. I know it seems like we’ve been declaring different leaders of the pack over the past several months when it comes to presenting wrestling in the COVID era, but after this show, it’s hard to argue that ROH isn’t one of the best, if not the best. Not only do you not even realize that there are zero fans in the building, but the entire presentation was absolutely superb. If you’re someone who’s looking for a pure sports feel in pro-wrestling, then this ROH Pure Title Tournament is exactly what you’re looking for. The sit-down interviews, the focus on the Pure Wrestling Rules, the statistics, the presentation….it all works incredibly well, and is particularly a perfect fit for the ROH Pure Title. If this episode didn’t make you want to tune in for the rest of this tournament, then I don’t know what else I can say to convince you. ROH absolutely knocked it out of the park with this show, and I can’t wait for the remainder of the Pure Title Tournament.