Ring of Honor was started in February 2002 by tape dealer Rob Feinstein and former Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) office worker Gabe Sapolsky. The idea was to run super cards with the hottest independent wrestlers of the era as a way to fill the void of ECW house shows which had been Feinstein’s main income stream. The promotion would be a launching pad for the biggest stars of wrestling in the 21st century: CM Punk, Bryan Danielson, the Young Bucks, Adam Page, Tyler Black (a.k.a. Seth Rollins), and AJ Styles, among many others. As those wrestlers moved on to World Wrestling Entertainment and later All Elite Wrestling, the house style of Ring of Honor would become the default style of professional wrestling in the United States.
ROH held its “Final Battle” pay per view on Saturday night, and while the promotion has made noise about reorganizing and restarting in 2022, it seems likely that it has run its final show. In honor (pun intended) of that potential farewell, here is a list of (some of) the greatest (and/or most significant, for a variety of reasons) matches in the company’s 20-year history (in one man’s humble opinion).
Low Ki vs. “American Dragon” Bryan Danielson vs. Christopher Daniels, 2/23/02
This was a planted flag for what ROH was going to be, the three most acclaimed independent wrestlers of the time going out and throwing everything at the wall in an attempt to get buzz and sell tapes. For the most part, throughout history wrestling had been built around either the idea of seeing a beloved figure become a champion, or seeing two tough guys settle a violent grudge. This match was marketed as something new: great wrestlers having a great match. In many ways it was a paradigm shift in what wrestling could be. Here, fans weren’t witnessing a sporting event or a bar room brawl, they were watching a performance—and for better or worse that is what 21st century wrestling became.
Here, in the first main event of the first ROH show, the three blue-chip prospects of turn-of-the-century U.S. indie wrestling took the ring, all three inspired by New Japan Juniors pro wrestling and North American wrestlers like Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Jericho. Needless to say, the style they worked was very different then the Nikolai Volkoff and King Kong Bundy main-evented shows which dominated North East independent wrestling in the previous decade. Ki and Danielson had met first in the final of the East Coast Wrestling Alliance Super 8 tournament, a yearly independent tournament in Delaware, and had been matched up multiple times in indie promotions in 2001 and early 2002, having tremendous battles mixing the high spots of World Championship Wrestling cruiserweights with the hard striking and mat wrestling of the shootstyle promotions in Japan. Daniels started in Chicago and began touring Japan and Puerto Rico and U.S. independent promotions, even appearing on one of the final episodes of WCW Nitro. He wasn’t the grappler that Ki or Dragon were, but he was one of the smoothest wrestlers of all time, with the ability to pull off complicated sequences and acrobatics with ease. Those styles blended really well in this match, with Ki often interrupting the wrestling of Dragon and Daniels with thunderous violent kicks. There were a lot of three-person moves in this match, which has been something beaten into the ground in the years since, but it was groundbreaking 20 years ago. Often in three-ways one person is left out watching, but there really wasn’t that awkward sense of exclusion here—all three guys were in this match fighting for the win.
Raven vs. CM Punk, 7/19/03
This was a dog collar match, one of pro wrestling’s most hallowed bloody traditions, but more importantly it was part of the feud where CM Punk developed the persona which would turn him into one of the biggest stars in the world. The Straight Edge Punk was disgusted by the notorious enjoyer of substances Raven coming into ROH. Punk cut a legendary promo to set this match up in which he compared Raven to his abusive alcoholic father. This match was a tribute to Extreme Championship Wrestling, a promotion of which Raven was a seminal part. Punk taunted ECW alum Danny Doring in the crowd, multiple weapons were employed by both parties, and there were run-ins and copious ECW chants from the crowd. ROH was on the precipice of taking ECW’s spot in the wrestling firmament and this was clearly the company showing respect to its elders.
And what better way to tip its hat than with really intense bumping and bleeding by both guys. Punk was the primary plasma spiller in the early days of ROH and, if I can be straightforward, he opens himself up nicely here. Raven had cleaned himself up from a substance-fueled part of his career, and now he showed some athleticism which it wasn’t clear was still in there. At one point he gets yanked down the bleachers by the chain, which was a gnarly bump for a guy with that many miles on his odometer. More importantly, though, this was a star-making feud for Punk. He began to stand out from his peers, all of whom were good in the ring, but weren’t nearly the full package that Punk was at this point. In the end, Punk tapes Raven to the ropes and pours beer in his mouth, telling him to “Go back to the gutter, you drunk.” Then Raven’s old ECW rival Tommy Dreamer jumps Punk and tapes him to an opposite set of ropes and Raven responds by grabbing a beer and giving Punk his first taste of alcohol. The feud would continue, but this match was its unequivocal apex.
Homicide vs. Steve Corino, 8/16/03
My pick for the greatest match in the promotion’s history, this wasn’t athleticism, workrate, and flashy action—this was an ugly, bloody, violent fight, much more reminiscent of classic 1980s territorial wrestling brawls then the athletic wrestling ROH is known for. By the end of this match both men and the entire ring mat were covered in claret, Corino had a broken eardrum, and Homicide had driven himself full force into the guardrail.
Homicide was seconded by Julius Smokes—an entertaining mix of a Dipset hype man and Bundini Brown, Ali’s famous corner man. Corino brought out Bobby Cruise as his ring announcer and they did a tremendous bit of trolling, with Cruise listing off every tiny indie title that Corino had held over his long career (Cruise even stopped to take a long drink of water in between, only to resume). It worked like a great comedy skit, where it was funny, stopped being funny, kept going and got funny again. By the time the bell rang, Homicide was seething and attacked like a Rottweiler off of his chain. The match was worked at a tremendous pace with several big moments: Homicide landed a cuffing shot to the side of Corino’s head—which sounded like a pumpkin getting smashed by a cricket bat—and popped his ear drum; Homicide got smashed into the ring post and began pumping deep arterial red blood out of his forehead; Homicide drove barbed wire into Corino’s bicep and Corino began bleeding badly as well. Eventually Homicide locks Corino in an STF, causing Corino’s second to throw in the towel. ROH will be remembered primarily for its five-star workrate wrestling classics, but this match showed that they could do violent magnificence just as well.
Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk, 12/4/04
This was the third match of their legendary trilogy in ROH. It followed two consecutive 60-minute draws, with the second draw receiving a five-star rating from Dave Meltzer at the Wrestling Observer, which was very rare at the time. (There is an essay on wrestling rating grade inflation that should probably be written and probably by someone besides me.) But this match is my favorite of the three—it played off of the previous two matches, while pushing pace in a way that the longer matches really couldn’t. The fact the fans got a final closure after more than 2 1/2 hours of build was really something. Plus I wrote an entire book on bloody wrestling, so I’m going to pick the match with the red.
The match starts at the pace of the previous two with Punk playing mind games with Joe and catching him with side headlocks. After Punk stunned Joe with a slap to the ear, Joe fires back with a strike combination ending with a Justin Tucker field goal kick to Punk’s head. That kick splits open Punk and the rest of the match gets very chippy and nasty, with Joe ripping and pounding at the cut and both guys screaming obscenities at each other. It reminded me of Game 7 of a long, hard-fought NBA playoff series—the fouls are harder, the talk is trashier, and the players have moved from respect to disdain. Joe’s choke had been established as such a kill shot during the year and a half of his title reign, that every time it was put on it felt like curtains. They worked a ton of interesting stuff around that choke before Joe finally put him down. This series was ROH’s attempt to place itself in the same tradition as other legendary series in wrestling history, like Dory Funk Jr. vs. Jack Brisco, Terry Funk v. Harley Race, or Ricky Steamboat vs. Ric Flair. The fact that it doesn’t seem out of place to put Punk vs. Joe in that discussion is a testament to both wrestlers and what the promotion was able to build.
Samoa Joe vs. Kenta Kobashi, 10/1/05
This is the most acclaimed ROH match of all time, and it really deserves all of those flowers. ROH started as a promotion run by a tape dealer, and this was a culmination of that idea. The idea was to bring Kobashi—living legend of All Japan Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling NOAH—to the United States to match him up with ROH’s ace Samoa Joe, who had just come off of a two-year title run. This was the kind of dream match booking that often can disappoint. Not only did this not disappoint, it actually exceeded reasonable expectations. Kobashi was unaware of what he meant to the fans who bought a ticket to see him, and actually thought he would have had to work heel in the match as many Japanese transplants had done before him. But ROH was about the art of the craft as opposed to the cookie-cutter jingoistic stories that fueled much of the past of pro wrestling, so he was entering as a conquering hero to a dedicated crowd of tape-trading Puroresu aficionados. Joe himself had to convince Kobashi that the fans were there to see him, and talked him out of playing the stereotypical bad guy.
With the rise of the internet in the ’90s, wrestling fans were able to get access to video tapes of wrestling from all over the world. A fan could get a pair of VCRs and dub copies of their shows to send off to strangers, and get another rare tape in return (hopefully what was promised and with a watchable video quality). If you didn’t have tapes of your own to offer, you could write out a check for $40 and send it to a stranger and hope they didn’t steal your money. In the 1990s, All Japan Pro Wrestling’s “four pillars”—Akira Taue, Toshiaki Kawada, Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi—were considered by many to be the greatest wrestlers in the world, and their iconic matches were often just referred to by their dates. True deep-dive wrestling nerds know what it means to say 6/3/94 (Misawa and Kawada’s famous title match) or 12/6/96 (the Real World Tag League final between the team of Misawa and Jun Akiyama and Taue and Kawada). In the late ’90s, there was a split in All Japan and much of the roster started their own promotion in NOAH. Kobashi was one of four equals in All Japan, but he was the undisputed ace of NOAH, and his more emotive style led him to be the one of the four pillars who seemed to connect to American fans the most.
By this point in 2005, Kobashi’s body was beginning to betray him, so ROH needed to pad the ring more than normal and find ring steps so he could climb into the ring. This was basically his last epic singles match. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, had surgery on his arms in 2008, and then continued to wrestle for another five years—but almost exclusively in tags and six-man matches, where his limitations could be hidden. This was an all-time great needing to muster one last huge performance, and he delivered all that could be expected from him.
This match was incredibly hard-hitting, with the chops echoing off the walls of the New Yorker Hotel ballroom, but it was less about the actual moves in the match and more about what these two men meant to fans paying to see them. There is a moment early in the match when Joe strafes Kobashi with a chop and Kobashi just gives him a look, and you can see and hear the crowd go absolutely bananas because of what that look meant. The entire match was like that—each move was saturated in the expectations of fans who had been watching Kobashi on grainy six-hour videotapes and never expected to see him live. For his part, Joe had openly modeled himself on Kobashi and his peers and clearly saw the match in same spirit that the fans did. There have been better matches in wrestling history, but I am not sure any other match had that sort of unique connection between the crowd and performers.
Ring of Honor (Homicide, Ace Steel, Adam Pearce, BJ Whitmer, American Dragon Bryan Danielson, Samoa Joe) vs. Combat Zone Wrestling (Spyder Nate Webb, Necro Butcher, Chris Hero, Eddie Kingston, Claudio Castagnoli), 7/15/06
This is a Cage of Death match—a War Games–style cage match between two competing Philadelphia-based wrestling promotions. CZW was a promotion built around violent gimmick matches and attracted a different, more cynical fan base. This led to a great European soccer–style atmosphere in the crowd, with partisans of each promotion wildly cheering for their side. The wrestlers and bookers delivered a match that built to a huge moment, with many twists and turns along the way, coupled with great individual performances and memorable moments.
Nearly everyone in this match had moments to shine, but the standout was Homicide, who was the heart of Ring of Honor in its first years. Homicide was incredible as the conquering hero. Also on the top tier was Chris Hero, a guy that was unwanted by ROH management at the start of the promotion. He was such a unlikable prick—slapping on cravats to taunt the crowd, giving a mid-match speech, running away from Homicide—that the match centered on his weaselly dirtbag performance. Spyder Nate Webb was the one CZW team member who didn’t eventually end up on the ROH main roster, but he was a great, super-athletic guy who looked like a ’70s dirt-weed dealer and took every crazy bump he could.
Wrestling is at its best when it’s simple: dreams, hatred, revenge. Angles and booking are like cumin: a little bit will make a match delicious, too much and it’s inedible. This match on paper shouldn’t have worked—it was ladled with scoops and scoops of cumin. There was an insider smarky joke (Four Horsemen manager JJ Dillon winning the coin toss), an in-match heel turn (Danielson jumping Samoa Joe and turning on ROH), multiple surprise entries (Homicide and Eddie Kingston), feuding tag partners (Hero and Kingston), and a mid-match rule change (allowing Homicide to come in when he wasn’t initially part of the team). This was all followed by a post-match heel turn (by legendary heel manager Jim Cornette, who had been ROH’s commissioner), which itself had another insidery shoot joke (the banned Low Ki was teased, but there was no intention of bringing him in). Any one of those things could bring a match to a halt, and the fact that they pulled them all off is incredible. It was like the wrestling-booking equivalent of doing backflips on a high wire.
Takeshi Morishima vs. American Dragon Bryan Danielson, 8/25/07
David vs. Goliath is one of the most powerful narratives ever, and it is a great pro wrestling story. Morishima was a 6-foot-3, 300-pound nightmare from the NOAH promotion in Japan who had captured the ROH world title by brutalizing his opponents; the smaller Danielson held the ROH title in 2005-06 but was returning from an injury and hadn’t had a title shot in eight months. This was a brutal war which saw Morishima detach Danielson’s retina with a huge clubbing right hand, and Danielson slammed Morishma with heavy kicks in his side-of-beef-sized thighs. Danielson was the smartest, most skilled wrestler in the world trying to find a way to use those smarts and skills to steal a victory before getting run over by the bolder barreling down on him.
This match showed the real value of having a history with your audience. Danielson had been one of the anchors of ROH for four years, and he had established so many ways to win matches. This made the crowd totally buy his multiple near falls—a small package, MMA elbows, trapped arm head stomps, and the cattle mutilation bridging chickenwing submission. For years, wrestling fans were trained to believe that matches could end only if wrestlers hit their one finishing hold—like how Hulk Hogan matches end on a leg drop, or Steve Austin hits the stunner. Danielson’s ability to finish someone in multiple ways is a real storytelling asset (one that he is using well currently in AEW), and Morishima had to survive a bunch of plausible moments of peril before he finally closed the show.
Kevin Steen vs. El Generico, 12/16/12
This was a swan song for a feud between a pair of Canadian kids who came out of the hinterlands of Montreal independent wrestling and ground their way to the top of independent wrestling and eventually the WWE (Generico as Sami Zayn and Steen as Kevin Owens). They were teamed together and feuding for almost 10 years, but Steen had to fight the office to get this match booked because Generico wasn’t under ROH contract and was on his way to the WWE. This is clearly the insane match that they had been sketching in notebooks since they were working International Wrestling Syndicate (IWS) shows in filthy Montreal biker bars.
Steen was sick with the flu, which actually added to the drama. He got brained by a ladder early and that pasty flu sweat made him look like a guy working through a concussion. Generico takes an absolute shellacking in this match. Despite being without a contract and weeks away from fulfilling his lifelong dream, here he is getting catapulted through metal ladders and tables—a pitch-perfect example of the total disregard for his own health and well-being that helped him become such a success. Steen had been tortured by Generico his entire career, and the story of their feud is that Steen always considered himself the better wrestler, but Generico always got the crowd support and fame denied him. This was Steen’s chance to send Generico off with a loss and prove his opinion of himself. Although the story between the two continued in NXT and WWE, they sensibly believed that this was going to be their final match against each other and they certainly tried to close out that relationship in an appropriately insane way.
This is a later-years ROH hidden gem. Hero and Styles had both recently returned to ROH after long absences—Hero had been gone for two years working in NXT, and Styles hadn’t wrestled there in eight years while he was headlining Total Nonstop Action (TNA). The bout was in Hero’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio, and was a compact, very hard-hitting match that didn’t fall victim to some of the excess of indy wrestling at the time.
Finding the right moment to end a wrestling match is a difficult balance. In the mid-2010s, independent matches would often blow past the logical ending point to pile on more big moves and close kickouts, in the same way that a bad action movie will have extra climactic explosions and tomfoolery. John McClane jumping on the jet in Live Free or Die Hard wasn’t nearly as effective as him running across glass in the original, but the producers clearly thought they needed to ramp up with each film. So it often goes in pro wrestling. This match bucked that trend and actually may have ended a beat early with Styles pulling out a flash roll-up calf slicer to tap a rampaging Hero (who seemed to have the advantage).
Hero is one of the most versatile wrestlers of all time, and he would shift his wrestling style over the years and excelled at every shift. Here he was working as the KO kid mixing in hard violent elbows and kicks. He was throwing real heat in this match, including a big boot that folded up Styles like a Murphy bed. Styles has always had impressive athletic explosion and there were moments in this match when he would whip off a kick or hurricanrana with incredible speed and force, it’s like watching Ja Morant dunk or Derrick Henry hit a hole. One of the great things about ROH is that they frequently had such a deep and talented roster that they could pull out mini classics like this on B-level house shows.
BULLET CLUB (Cody Kenny Omega/Young Bucks) vs. CHAOS (Kazuchika Okada/Will Ospreay) & Briscoes, 2/27/17
This is a big-star main event of night two of ROH’s 2017 tour of Japan. The Elite era of ROH was a proving ground for the concept of AEW. The first All In show was coproduced by ROH, and they had some of their biggest houses ever with shows main evented by the Young Bucks and New Japan pro wrestling stars. The group of wrestlers who would go on to form AEW began to prove they could be more than complimentary players in a U.S. promotion. This is an eight-man tag with all four AEW executive vice presidents on one side and ROH mainstays the Briscoes tagging with two of the biggest New Japan stars Okada and Ospreay on the other.
This match felt like a house show main event where your big stars aren’t going out to have an iconic five-star one-on-one main event, but instead hit all of their marks, entertain the crowd, do some shtick, and make everyone feel like their ticket was money well spent. Much of the early part of the match was the Elite team isolating and working over Will Ospreay. There were a bunch of really amusing heel pratfall spots, the kind of thing Bill Dundee or the Midnight Express mastered in the 1980s. There was a moment in particular when Omega kept running Ospreay’s head into boots held up by his partners in the corner, first one boot, then Omega would call for two, then two boots, then three, and finally all three of Omega’s partners put up both boots for the dreaded six boots, which of course, led to Ospreay turning the tables and running Omega’s head into his partner’s feet. There’s something really satisfying about a classic pratfall being paid off after a long setup. The match heats up at the end with some big dives and reversals, and there are some undeniably incredible athletes in this match—Ospreay especially just levitates in the air on his flips and spins. I have been left a bit cold by many of the wrestlers in this match in the past (outside of the Briscoes, love the Briscoes), but this was a great bit of business—a great mix of territorial tag wrestling and modern pyrotechnics.
The aforementioned Mark and Jay Briscoe are the standard-bearers of Ring of Honor. Jay wrestled the Amazing Red on the very first show (Mark was too young to wrestle in Philadelphia and was ringside), and they closed out the final show this past weekend in the semi-main event against Matt Taven and Mike Bennett. It is pretty amazing to look at the clean-cut, shaved-head teenagers who started ROH to the iconic, wild hillbillies they became. Dragon Lee and Rush are also brothers who both achieved big success in headlining positions in the CMLL promotion in Mexico. (Rush especially —he won several big hair matches against legends like Negro Casas and Shocker and main evented their biggest shows.) Rush was coming in with a huge push and was months away from taking the ROH world title and being the focus of the promotion for much of 2019 and pre-pandemic 2020.
This was the real start of the Rush era of ROH and these two teams had a high-octane tag match that worked in a 21st-century tag wrestling style with a series of big moves one after another. The Lee and Rush teamwork a real contrast—Lee is an amazing masked high flyer who works an acrobatic style, and Rush is a charismatic powerhouse with long, flowing curly hair who hits big powerful blows, working more like a lucha version of the Rock. The Briscoes are incredibly malleable and work perfectly with both styles in the same match, brawling with Rush and flying with Dragon Lee. Jay ends up bleeding pretty badly, which added a little paprika to the proceedings, and the match ends with a decisive victory by Rush, who doing a great job of establishing the Rush-led La Facción Ingobernable as the next kings of ROH. COVID-19 and some political machinations by the Muñoz family killed a lot of the momentum of the Lee and Rush era of ROH, and Rush eventually forfeited the title. This was definitely a wild and entertaining start and a match that really got fans excited to see what the next iteration of ROH would become.
Phil Schneider is a cofounder of the Death Valley Driver Video Review, a writer on the Segunda Caida blog, host of The Way of the Blade podcast, and the author of Way of the Blade: 100 of the Greatest Bloody Matches in Wrestling History, which is available on Amazon.