By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
Name me a more foundational wrestling company pursuant to the groundwork of where American wrestling is in 2021 than Ring of Honor.
Think of all the talent that cut their teeth in that promotion over the last twenty or so years. CM Punk. Bryan Danielson. Samoa Joe. The Briscoes. Adam Cole. Sami Zayn. Kevin Owens. Hangman Page. Seth Rollins. The list goes on and on and on and it runs like a call sheet for the best U.S. wrestlers in the mainstream product.
Such is why I felt it imperative to attend the Saturday night Final Battle pay-per-view that Ring of Honor was billing as the end of an era while the rest of us billed it as … well … perhaps, simply, the end of Ring of Honor. I think I speak for the majority of us when I say we hope that’s not the case and we’d love to be optimistic that something can be figured out for the company to someday return better than ever.
But, hooooo boy, that’s not what Saturday night in Baltimore felt like. You don’t get video tributes from Page and Punk and Cole and Danielson if this was just a run-of-the-mill, “we’re going on hiatus, but don’t worry!” show. Nor do you get the callbacks in the Violence Unlimited match to some of the moves from some of the wrestlers that came before them in ROH. Nor do you close out the thing with the two most obvious choices for champions to go out on if it’s your last show — The Briscoes and Jonathan Gresham.
So, we can cross our fingers and say our prayers (brother), but I’d have to guess that anyone attending Final Battle felt largely the same: Perhaps this is, indeed, the end of an era, but perhaps that era is simply Ring of Honor as a whole, and not just the first two decades of Ring of Honor to date.
Still, that didn’t stop the show from being memorable in its own right, even if I knew people who shrugged it off weeks ahead of time, claiming the talent would mail in their performances because, well, what’s the point? I didn’t subscribe to that thinking, though, as I stepped into the Chesapeake Employers Insurance Arena on Saturday. How could you? For all the ups and downs of the promotion through the years, there’s no denying its footprint on the wrestling business. The men and women who showed up Saturday night didn’t show up to win titles or make sure they got all their shit in; rather, they were there to honor the history of a company whose namesake bears that very word.
As such, the night turned out to be equal parts bittersweet and sad, an amalgam of the ghosts that hung over the promotion like a Money In The Bank briefcase and the harsh realities of where Ring of Honor has been in the modern day, paralyzed by a pandemic, defeated by doubt. It never necessarily felt like the company wouldn’t come out of the empty arena era fully intact, but I’m not so sure anyone on the outside looking in felt shocked when it turned out that these would most likely be ROH’s final days as we once knew them.
Anyone who has seen a Ring of Honor show in recent memory, pre- and post-pandemic, could see the situation formulating as attendance waned and stars kept leaving. I was at what I perceived as a final Hail Mary a few years ago when the company ran its big, free Sunday show called Free Enterprise, and the amount of empty seats — again, at a free show — began to paint the picture for me, and that picture didn’t bode well for a future.
Even so, maybe that was part of the problem: The Chesapeake Employers Insurance Arena is not a small venue. Word has it that attendance for Final Battle hovered around the 1,500/1,600 mark, and that’s a lot of people for a non-mainstream wrestling show. Did it look like it, though? I’m not sure how it came across on television, but in person … not really. Accentuating the positives and hiding the weaknesses may have done Ring of Honor well over the last few years.
But that’s just me Monday morning quarterbacking, and that’s not really fair. Ring of Honor did the best it could with the best of what it had. That’s probably why Saturday night’s show felt more like the gathering after a graduation than anything else. There was a fire sale for pretty much every piece of ROH merchandise that ever existed, and that included marking things down to as low as a dollar, while some items were given away for free.
In fact, ROH COO Joe Koff stood in the lobby for a while, next to the merch area, talking to fans, chatting up whomever came his way. When I saw him, I thought for a brief minute about approaching him after his conversation ended. But then it dawned on me. What would you ask?
Is this the end?
What would you have done differently?
What’s next for you?
Are you happy with the turnout tonight?
All those things seemed to come with a sense of finality, and even though I was attending something called “Final Battle,” it didn’t seem right to walk those roads. This was a night dedicated to a wrestling promotion that helped cultivate what we know American wrestling to be in the year 2021. The names I mentioned earlier — Danielson, Punk, Rollins — those guys didn’t just have success in the wrestling business; these guys became bona fide stars in the wrestling business. We are not dealing with a few names that did all right for themselves and maybe held a secondary title in WWE for a few months. We are talking about guys who headlined WrestleManias and became, in some ways, a part of mainstream popular culture.
So, I wasn’t going to do it. There was no need to second guess, speculate on a future or pontificate about the box office. This was a time to give thanks, a time to show appreciation and a time to recognize Ring of Honor for what it gave the wrestling community over the last two decades.
There were a few things missing, though. Of all the AEW cameos, I was a tiny bit surprised not to see one from Cody Rhodes. Tony Khan was most definitely not kidding when he said he thought he was being generous to the event, allowing for the videos that the AEW talent produced while also sending FTR and Lethal to the actual show. But after seeing the Bucks and Cole and Page on the big screen, I thought Cody was a no-brainer. The guy took a chance on himself after life in WWE. Ring of Honor, I thought, really helped him establish himself as a main player on the indies, even if his time there was brief.
Then, of course, I think we all expected to see Chris Daniels and Frankie Kazarian in at least some capacity, but that didn’t come. Kyle O’Reilly was a former ROH World Champion and word has it he’s got nothing to do these days, so it kind of felt like that would have made sense. Naturally, that leads me to the final omissions, which come from all of WWE. The point was made on Twitter that Impact, NWA, and AEW allowed some talents to be part of the show while WWE held tight to who they have under their thumb, and that point wasn’t wrong. It’s a shame, too, because there are a ton of ROH alums working for WWE these days, and who knows the fun that could have been had.
But alas, it was not to be. And that’s OK. Because Saturday night was exactly what it should have been: Somewhat flawed, tone-perfect and filled with love. The cynics might argue that it didn’t do the entirety of the company’s legacy justice. That’s fine. They can be cynical. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I look at Final Battle through a lens that appreciates all Ring of Honor was able to accomplish during its tenure, even if the company never comes back in any capacity. It put a period on a chapter that demands to be told whenever the book of pro wrestling is written.
That, in and of itself, is impressive. Because Saturday night wasn’t just about the matches that happened in Baltimore; Saturday night was about reacquainting ourselves with the perspective it takes to truly appreciate Ring of Honor for what it is, which is …
The most foundational wrestling company pursuant to the groundwork of where American wrestling is in 2021.
For better or for worse. And God bless them for that.