The fingerprints of those who elevated Ring of Honor from a tiny independent promotion designed to help save a fledgling video distribution company to cult-favorite national phenomenon have their smudge inked all over professional wrestling’s landscape. Look at a random ROH show lineup from 2009-11. Plenty of up-and-comers on any given card are now household names. How about The Young Bucks, Adam Cole, Kevin (Owens) Steen, and Tomasso Ciampa to name a few.
Wednesday night’s confirmation that All Elite Wrestling president and CEO Tony Khan bought ROH from the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owned the company since 2011, didn’t fall short of his “huge announcement” billing, as it helps fill a few of AEW’s larger plot holes and gives independent wrestlers more chances at the limelight. Maybe most importantly, keeping ROH’s legacy alive through the lens of a company with plenty of similarities is the best way to pay homage to its rich history.
The timing of Khan’s acquisition is ideal too. ROH couldn’t properly celebrate its 20th anniversary last month because the promotion is on a hiatus, citing a need for a new direction. That relaunch takes place April 1 with “Supercard of Honor” after nearly four months without a show. With any shift, there’s never a guarantee it’ll work. As news came down of ROH ceasing to exist with a linear timeline last October, it felt like the end, the closing of that chapter of professional wrestling. It was a somber day for many wrestling fans who might’ve lost interest in the squared circle if not for ROH. Do you remember how bad WWE and TNA were at times over the last two decades? For long stretches, ROH was the product that made longtime fans still believe the industry was still worth investing their time into.
Although Khan’s purchase isn’t guaranteed to keep ROH’s memories intact into the foreseeable future, I’ll give an old-school tape-trader turned lucrative promoter, who turns only 40 in October and has no noticeable obstacles in his way of making this work, a 99.999999999 percent chance of his investment being successful. That’s made to look even stronger with rumors of HBO Max getting involved to help set up a video library for the companies. Khan looked nervous to start last night’s edition of AEW Dynamite on TBS, fumbling over his words on a few occasions while announcing his deal with ROH, then introducing two-thirds of the main event from the first ROH show, “The Era of Honor Begins” in Bryan Danielson and Christopher Daniels.
It’s hard not to see last night’s announcement as the mic-drop moment to officially end the Wednesday night standoff between AEW and WWE NXT. Vince McMahon’s developmental promotion underwent its own rebrand late last year that drummed up little excitement. For the previous seven years, namely with son-in-law Triple H at the helm, NXT tried in part to replicate ROH by poaching its talent, curtailing to a fast-paced in-ring style as well as re-doing character arcs and storylines. Three years after the launch of AEW, Khan’s promotion halted NXT as we knew it, signed its top talent and bought ROH. NXT threw in the towel last year. AEW just planted its flag again. Check fuckin’ mate.
The biggest disadvantage of starting a promotion with a national television deal once you get a few years in is the lack of long-term history. The honeymoon period is over, and while the product may still be sublime, no callbacks could happen exclusively within AEW’s walls that predate May 25, 2019. Buying ROH is the best cover possible. How many current storylines could be jazzed up with the addition of that video catalog? How about footage of a dog collar match CM Punk mentioned before his wrestles MJF at Revolution? Yup. When MJF said on Wednesday’s Dynamite that “I’m a snake. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist” is a direct call back to dialogue Punk used after winning the ROH World Championship in June 2005.
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Does a majority of the AEW fanbase know Adam Page and Adam Cole were initiated into The Bullet Club on back-to-back days? Now you have the proof. Both happened in ROH in May 2016. What about the match of the year contender between The Young Bucks and reDRagon from 2014? I was in the Hammerstein Ballroom crowd that day. Please play that footage for your viewers at some point.
The larger hole and more concerning crevice ROH covers is the logjam of talent under Khan’s thumb. It felt crowded with four shows a week. That’s obviously not good. How about adding another promotion to help? And what about using said company to help scout future talent or help wrestlers get back in shape from injuries? Extending AEW’s web to include ROH should take care of the biggest criticism Khan faces. AEW’s debuts of talent have been iconic, while the continual build-up of many has gotten lost in the shuffle. Now there’s another opportunity for those wrestlers to capitalize on.
I expect ROH to function more in line with how the UFC treats The Ultimate Fighter compared to a separate developmental brand. It’s possible for an independent wrestler with less than six months of experience to be in a match with CM Punk, then transition into mentorship. One thing WWE did brilliantly, for at least one show per talent, was how they introduced top NXT wrestlers onto the main roster. Remember the reactions for the first appearances of Shinsuke Nakamura, Bobby Roode, Bayley and others? Great moments. That’s how primarily ROH talent could be introduced into AEW. Big pops a plenty could come for Bandido, Jonathan Gresham and more.
Bringing ROH into the fold is another sign of the momentum AEW has. The company still isn’t without faults. It’s at least work in progress where you can see the wheels turning. It’s far from a complacent or stale company. This would normally be the part of this story where a necessary dig at McMahon or WWE feels right. I’ll let that be for now as comparing the purchase of ROH in any way would deploy me sounding like a broken record. It’s just another feather in the cap for Khan in a period that’s normalizing direct competition and results.