wrestling / Columns

Ring of Honor Bows to New Japan

March 6, 2016 | Posted by J. Onwuka

Hello hello, my name is J Onwuka and I’m glad to be writing yet another column for you all at 411Mania. Thanks for all the comments to my last column, always like to see discussion cropping up around here. This time I’m going to focus on the promotion I follow the closest — Ring of Honor — and it’s probably good timing for a Super J-Column on them cause they’ll probably figure strongly into the just-announced Super J-Cup! So let’s get it started, shall we?

Here’s a thing to know about me: I am not a weekly watcher of pro wrestling. I’m not a weekly watcher of anything. If you ask me whether I’m watching a TV show that’s on now, the answer is probably no. Not cause I don’t like the show, that’s just not how my attention works. I’m bringing this all up as a way to say that I really disagree with the ‘destination television’ idea of wrestling. I don’t think wrestling has to be a ‘must-see’ weekly TV product. Monday Night RAW definitely tries to be one. Ring of Honor Wrestling, in my mind, doesn’t. And that’s perfectly alright.

Reason I said all that was to explain that a show can be worthwhile and tell good stories even if it doesn’t draw people in every single week. The main thing is to get people interested in the thrust of the stories to the point that they want to tune in for your big show in whatever way they can. What Ring of Honor has traditionally been able to do is work in that kind of mode, where you might not have crazy stuff happening every week but the right people are moving in the right direction so that the PPV match is something worth seeing. Recently, though, that hasn’t been coming together. ROH has been putting across a very lackluster set of stories and, speaking for myself at least, it’s resulted in a low point of interest. I know that if I pay for an ROH show I will be entertained, but is it too much money? Is it something that I really have to see now or could I catch it later, or just watch a show I already have? Too often I find myself queueing up an old show instead of trying to catch the new.

There are two major issues hurting Ring of Honor right now, in my mind: lack of commitment to storylines and their relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling. I’ll take the second part first because it’s easier to talk about. Anybody watching what has been going on between the two sides can point out a clear lack of parity in big match situations. Especially if it’s New Japan stars coming to an ROH show, the New Japan guys are nearly always going to come out with the victory. The issue here is that New Japan guys aren’t there all the time and the home team really doesn’t get built up. I’m glad that the New Japan association is happening in theory, but in practice it makes ROH seem like a junior league whereas before it felt like a small but solid independent group. ROH needs to appear more competitive in my mind, especially since that’s what I believe ROH fans want to see. I tune in to see the best of ROH against the best of NJPW but that’s rarely what we get.

Of course there are the examples of reDRagon and Michael Elgin, but to me they’re not even exceptions: they’re guys that New Japan clearly wants on their own merits, not due to their association with Ring of Honor. In fact, in my opinion reDRagon is far too protected to the point where they look pretty well untouchable. Even when they hit Japan they rarely actually take the fall, yet they aren’t reclaiming the belts yet so they’re in a weird limbo. Elgin as well, he’s on their roster now so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him more prominent in the States to keep New Japan strong.

Now, from an economic standpoint, the NJPW alliance is (most likely) great for ROH. I’m sure they’re helping ROH draw fans they wouldn’t otherwise and they’re certainly helping to block off some talents from being scooped up by WWE/NXT. It gives ROH some exposure in Japan. With all that I’m not suggesting that they just cut ties, that’d be ridiculous. However I do think that the way ROH comes off in these encounters is dampening enthusiasm for their cards. Especially with Tomohiro Ishii taking the TV belt and showing no respect, Ishii who has only held the (second-)lowest New Japan title regardless of his esteem, Ishii who was put through his paces by Roderick Strong, it all makes ROH look a little bush league. For a company constantly touting itself as the best wrestling on the planet to prove that it has to start meeting NJPW talent on a more equal footing.

How equal? That’s obviously a matter of preference, whether you prefer to see a really strong ROH or to see them as somewhat of an offshoot league. Personally I’m fine with the ‘level’ of wins ROH gets, it’s simply that when they have a big joint show they tend to be loaded with New Japan victories on the PPVs while ROH ‘gets it back’ in tags on TV. Rarely do we get to see the success of a top ROH star over a top NJPW star (Lethal beating Goto doesn’t count, Lethal’s the champ and Goto exists to get beaten) on the same card as other important matches. I’d almost rather see an NJPW B-Team take ROH on if that meant ROH was getting more of the victories; at least then it wouldn’t feel like ROH guys were always being used to put New Japan stars over.

Actually, speaking of Hirooki Goto, how ridiculous is it that he’s doing a losing streak gimmick but he beats Dalton Castle and is somehow worthy of an ROH title shot? Again, ROH apparently assumes that all New Japan guys must be on a higher level than ROH guys, so Goto just gets a shot cause he’s from New Japan. Even though Castle should’ve won their match it’s not like he was in line for a title shot anyway, so why would Goto be? But that’s the other aspect of ROH’s booking rut: the lack of commitment.

Obviously the Goto stuff isn’t entirely in their hands but it’s not like that’s the only example. From those shows we had the startling intrustion of the new TV champ Ishii into the Fish/Strong match. The issue I have with this is that, for once, ROH had been building up a good, intense storyline. Bobby Fish was the guy that Roderick Strong seemingly couldn’t beat, couldn’t handle. Had to cheat in order to retain against him. I was looking forward to more of that, I’m sure it would have made a nice series. Buuuuut then we got it exploded in order for ROH to do some service to New Japan. Ishii hasn’t entered the storyline as far as I can see, he just took the title. Where does that leave Fish? Strong? I don’t know, and really, I’m not interested in the same way that I used to be. Yes, I want to see who Ishii defends against and I’ll probably watch those matches. If Fish and Strong get matches I’ll be paying attention. But no, I don’t care what happens next in the Fish/Strong saga and I don’t expect Ishii to do much to grab me except show up at his next booking. Rather than ROH committing to their story and giving us a good payoff we now have everything upended and, if they want to go back to it, they’re starting at zero as far as heat.

This is, unfortunately, a consistent theme with Ring of Honor recently. The KRD angle was a little hokey but it could have evolved into something, yet after Chris Sabin arrived and The Addiction took the tag titles… nothing. Absolutely nothing. There was no movement right up until the KRD mask came back, this time against Sabin and the rest, and it was revealed to be Alex Shelley who… teamed up with Chris Sabin. Why? I don’t know. They used to be a tag team so now they are again. What happened to the KRD? What was that all about? Literally no idea. At first I thought it was going to be the major angle for ROH but it turned out to be less than nothing.

The rivalry between Jay Lethal and ACH, anybody remember that? Remember how ACH almost, nearly, just about, come on, gonna get there, fingerbreadth away from winning the TV title but he kept getting screwed? How did that one end up? Oh right, Jay Lethal just kind of forgot about ACH and then went to win the world title. What about Moose vs Cedric? What about the entire idea of pushing Cedric Alexander? They just fizzled away.

The new story between BJ Whitmer and Adam Page has the opposite problem, almost: there is not enough commitment in it. Why did Adam Page split from BJ Whitmer? Because Whitmer was treating him literally the exact same way that he’s always treated Page? There seemed to be nothing at all to spark this other than I guess they want to do something with Page, hopefully. But it comes out of nowhere and I don’t feel any interest in it. When I see them hit the ring I don’t feel like the crowd is on board. There was still plenty of space on the card for Adam Page managed by BJ Whitmer but instead it got blown up, and why?

There is one story that has worked in the last year for ROH: Jay Lethal winning the world title. There was a clear goal, a build up to a match with clear stakes, and an ending which didn’t demand any return match or clarification. The company stuck with this storyline of the dominant TV champ now trying to test himself against the dominant world champ. It paid off because all of the elements fit well and because nothing got in the way to foul up its momentum. It also worked because Jay Lethal was developed into being a credible challenger and touted as a top challenger. In fact, the top challenger. To the point that after he won there was really nobody else in a position to challenge him for the belt and it’s been that way for months now. No one else is being built up to face him. Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reilly seem more interested in fighting each other, who knows where Michael Elgin‘s head is but it doesn’t seem to be on the ROH title, Jay Briscoe is tagging again, and then…? No one else.

ROH hasn’t committed to building anybody up. Anybody they might give a shot to is probably going to get beaten at a New Japan crossover show and that won’t help this perception at all. If they’re going to recapture interest in their stories, Ring of Honor is going to need to figure out their association with New Japan so that they can put more shine on their guys at home. If they don’t, I wouldn’t be surprised if ROH just rebrands as NJPW USA in the next few years.

The World Champions Podcast has reached 10 full episodes! Follow the history of professional wrestling from its earliest days in prizefighting and local tournaments up through its transformation into a fantastic artform. For this tenth episode the WCP focuses on a man who more than anyone else protected the sport while it finished this great shift. That man is, of course, Lou Thesz: the definitive NWA champion and, in a way, the last gunslinger.

You can also follow me on Twitter @_nearzone and like the WCP Facebook page.

If you’ve got a comment or a question, leave it below. Once again I appreciate all the feedback from you guys and gals.