This weekend, Ring of Honor returned with its first new episode since the shutdown back in March and the start of its Pure Title Tournament that will carry out for eight weeks.
The matches were taped in Baltimore, Maryland with host Quinn McKay noting the company worked under the Maryland State Athletic Commission with its guidelines for mitigating risk.
Unlike others such as WWE that have minimized discussion of COVID-19 on air, this show noted it upfront and even worked it into the tournament stating that alternates Dak Draper and Brian Johnson would be on call for substitution including if a wrestler is affected by the virus, which came off better by calling out the elephant in the room that these empty arena shows present.
Going in, they were tasked with the harshest environment when it comes to viewer engagement from home. The matches were done in an empty arena with no fake noise, no wrestlers placed in the crowd for sound, and replicating the environment Impact Wrestling has presented.
However, whether it be the technical focus of the matches and a strong commentary tandem in Ian Riccaboni and Caprice Coleman, I didn’t find the environment to be the negative it has been elsewhere. The jury is out if that will be the same case by week four but for this week’s show, I thought they did a great job and made the tournament feel important.
They presented two opening-round matches with Jay Lethal vs. Dalton Castle, and Jonathan Gresham vs. Wheeler Yuta.
They set-up the matches similar to Dana White’s Contender Series with each participant receiving a lengthy video presentation where each conducted a sit-down interview explaining their history with ROH, why winning the tournament is so important, and presenting compelling reasons for each side.
For Dalton Castle, this was a welcome change as he treated it seriously, discussed his extensive amateur wrestling background that was backed up with photos and footage, and outlining his broken back he worked through several years ago while frustrated over people forgetting how dangerous he could be. It was effective for a character that is heavy on crowd interaction and playing to the audience as much as his opponent and this tone worked well.
The company also relied on his video archive to explain the history of the Pure Championship with clips of AJ Styles vs. CM Punk from February 2004 and the unification match where Bryan Danielson beat Nigel McGuinness in 2006. It also featured older clips involving the participants including Jonathan Gresham discussing his 2011 match with Kyle O’Reilly in the Top Prospects tournament.
For the opening round of the tournament, the time limit is fifteen minutes with each allowed three rope breaks and then pins and submissions can occur in the ropes. Closed fists are banned with one warning and the second violation results in a disqualification. If a wrestler interferes in a match, they will be terminated from the company – ensuring fans there are no run-ins. On this show, the three judges were listed as Gary Juster, Will Ferrara, and Sumie Sakai.
There was an easy-to-read graphic on the screen for each match timing the duration and three bars representing the allowable rope breaks remaining.
Jay Lethal defeated Dalton Castle in 13 minutes and 10 seconds and instantly got the concept over for those new to the Pure Championship rules. A portion of the story was Lethal needing a rope break immediately and then used a second one late after taking the Bang-A-Rang, which was compromised as Castle’s knee buckled from Lethal’s work on it.
After the second rope break, Lethal avoided a gut-wrench, hit a superkick, and the Lethal Injection to pin Castle.
Lethal will face the winner of Rocky Romero vs. David Finlay in the next round.
The second match saw Jonathan Gresham defeated Wheeler Yuta in 10 minutes and 25 seconds with an excellent finish showcasing how great of a technical wrestler Gresham is on a worldwide basis.
ROH did a phenomenal job getting Yuta over as an underdog that could pull it off using his history training under Drew Gulak and Tracy Williams, living at the Michinoku Pro Dojo, and touring with wXw where they showed him training under WALTER.
Gresham’s piece focused on falling in love with ROH the moment he discovered it, being told by a former trainer he’d never be the best technical wrestler, and rising the ranks in the promotion.
Everything with Gresham is crispy and his transitions are as slick as anyone’s with this match focused on attacking Yuta’s knee, and ankle. The set-up for the Indian Deathlock was so methodical that once Gresham got it, and the way Yuta sold it made the empty atmosphere add to the drama rather than distract you with the missing element of the fans.
Both tumbled to the floor with a figure-four applied by Gresham and teased the count-out before rolling in. Gresham rolled through on a ‘rana attempt, took out Yuta’s knee, and then stomped on the ankle before lifting Yuta’s knee and repeatedly smashing it into the mat forcing the tap.
It was a tremendous end to the match and told a great story of Yuta trying to use more of his flying to offset the submission and grappling techniques of Gresham.
Gresham will face the winner of Matt Sydal vs. Delirious.
This was a great hour of television and one of the best start-to-finish episodes I’ve watched during the past six months. I have been as critical as anyone on the atmosphere of these shows, understanding it’s the safest execution of shows, but didn’t have nearly the issues with ROH’s presentation and I’m curious if that will continue.
Unlike other promotions, ROH seems to have conceived this tournament at the perfect time where the style works for the empty arena or at least lessens the impact of no fans.
They also didn’t focus on bell-to-bell action for the entire show dedicating a large amount to the video features that added story and context to the matches and performers, and that was a great call. It’s also a much easier show to digest when it’s 60 minutes as opposed to 120.
The team of Riccaboni and Coleman also deserve praise for their work on the show, I enjoyed this program a lot.
Next week’s matches are Matt Sydal vs. Delirious and David Finlay vs. Rocky Romero.