MONTREAL – There were two storms in Montreal on Saturday, January 22nd. One brought a howling wind and freezing temperatures, the other was a fury of man-made energy confined to a high ceiling, downtown hall.
Sheltered within, a gathering of the faithful has come to pay homage to a small delegation of professional wrestlers, representing the Ring of Honor (ROH) promotion.
“It is absolutely, obscenely cold. It’s a little bit of a shock to me. I really commend the fans for coming out in this weather. It makes it that much more worth it,” remarked Samoa Joe to SLAM! Wrestling, who is more accustomed to the Pacific temperatures of California where he calls home. He, along with CM Punk and Roderick Strong, sat down to talk with SLAM! prior to the start of the show.
You won’t see either athlete wrestling on television every Monday or Thursday night, but make no mistake that their magnetism transcends mass media, to the point that fans were willing to wait in line this night to see them in action, braving the maelstrom of winter weather.
“If they’re willing to brave these kinds of temperatures to come see us work, then we’re more than willing to come up here and do our best to put on one hell of a show,” said Joe.
Delivered they did, which is par for the course when it comes to those who represent ROH, first launched in February 2002 in Philadelphia, PA. Since bolting from the gate of its inception, ROH has built its reputation on producing elite, live pro wrestling shows, devoid of long-winded promos and pre-recorded, big screen soap opera segments that are the norm in WWE programming.
For CM Punk, being in Montreal for the show will hopefully be the start of another stellar year. “Every single goal I’ve ever set at the beginning of the year has come true,” said Punk, a native of Chicago, Ill. “I want to stay healthy and continue to elevate the ROH championship. I want to continue having really great matches.”
The past year saw ROH achieved unprecedented recognition as the must-see wrestling product in North America. Wherever they go, a mass of rabid followers always seems to greet them.
Conscious of the growing appeal that ROH is having among disillusioned fans in the United States and beyond, Joe has a simple outlook when it comes to the cult like following his home promotion has given birth to.
“I think wrestling fans like to watch wrestling,” he said. “Whenever you go to a Ring of Honor show, first and foremost, that’s what you’re going to see, that’s what you’re going to experience.”
His answer may be simplistic, but look deeper and his words are the rallying cry for fans across the continent who long for an above-average, in-ring product. ROH has seized on this, an under-serviced market if you would, and presented a brand of wrestling that continues to draw a ferociously loyal clientele.
Vital to upholding the aura of ROH is the promotion’s efforts to ensure that the championship titles are held in sacred regard, claiming a level of prestige and respect fitting for a company that prides itself on giving intelligent, competitive professional wrestling to those who want it.
“It’s the kind of theory and ideals we carry with us on all our shows,” remarked Joe, who held the ROH Heavyweight title for 21 months, only recently losing the belt to Austin Aries. “I went out there with the goal to really do my best, to put on an entertaining match and give the fans that came to a Ring of Honor show and saw a Ring of Honor title defense something memorable to take home with them.”
But what patrons also took away from watching numerous title contests involving champions like Samoa Joe is a portal into the work ethic of ROH wrestlers. Joe made it abundantly clear that a championship belt can only be regarded as something special by the wrestlers who believe in making it special.
“Above all things, we really sought out to respect our titles. We wanted it be the greatest prize in professional wrestling and all of our guys do their very best to accentuate that,” Joe said. “The bottom line is, nobody is going to care about the title if the wrestlers don’t and all the wrestlers do a tremendous amount, they care about the way the company is viewed, the way the championships are viewed.”
But for awhile, the glowing image of ROH was tarnished and with it, a certified scare blanketed the company that everything they had achieved would be lost.
It was in March of 2004 that then owner Rob Feinstein was shown on television in a media sting focusing on adults who lurk in online chat rooms, looking to make contact with underage persons for sexual encounters. It could not have come at a worse time as the promotion was set to run a major show in Elizabeth, NJ, during the Wrestlemania XX weekend.
“We were very open with everybody, we told everybody what was going on,” said Punk, in reminiscing on the efforts of ROH to deal with the upheavals of that controversy. “We didn’t ever want to have the Paul Heyman pre-show speech, but that’s the one time we had one where we were like, ‘Hey man, this is what’s going on, this could be our last show.'”
Shortly after the segment aired, Feinstein announced his departure and new management quickly took over. Whatever doubts lingered on whether the fan base would abandon ROH were buried when on March 13, some 2,000 fans descended for ROH’s “At Our Best”, officially inaugurating a new chapter for the company.
“It was our biggest crowd to date. Obviously it helped out that Wrestlemania was the next day but still, 2000 people show up at an indy, that’s what SMACKDOWN is drawing,” Punk said. “Ever since then, all of our shows have been rock ‘n’ roll. We didn’t let anybody shut us down.”
With that hullabaloo left behind, ROH could now focus on building quality wrestling shows and in doing so, elevate their status and along with it, the ROH Heavyweight as the crown jewel of indy titles.
Nowhere else in the past year did that title reach the pinnacle of grandeur than the saga of CM Punk and Samoa Joe. In a three match trilogy of high octane drama and physicality, fans witnessed the crusade of Punk to end Joe’s championship reign.
“I don’t like to call me versus Joe a feud, it’s more of a rivalry,” Punk clarified. “It’s no secret outside of the ring how good friends Joe and I are. My year was topped off by telling that story with Joe, the two one-hour draws and then the finale. I’m just glad everybody enjoyed it. I’m very proud when you have guys comparing our trilogy in 2004 to the likes of Steamboat and Flair. You’ll never hear that from me. Steamboat and Flair to me is on a different plane.”
In fact, it was Ricky Steamboat himself who made the comparison to that legendary NWA saga from 1989 against Ric Flair that has become a must-watch wrestling opera for connoisseurs. If comparisons were not enough to flush Punk with pride, he then had the privilege of working an extensive in-ring drama with Steamboat at various ROH shows.
“That was a dream come true for me to do that,” Punk reflected, noting that his initial interaction with Steamboat would grow in intensity. “A couple of months later, I’m taking his finish, his cross body off the top rope. He hasn’t done that move in 10 years. That was a big deal for me. I’m body slamming Ricky Steamboat and he’s out of the business because of a bad back. He trusted me implicitly. Ricky Steamboat is from the old school, he doesn’t say anything he doesn’t mean. For him to cut a promo in front of a live crowd and compare me to a young Ric Flair and I’m only 26 years old, it was very surreal.”
In the end, it was Joe who would retain the belt. But combined, the two grapplers would acquire a title reserved for the select few in the industry, something that neither one will ever lose, a rivalry cemented in wrestling immortality.
It is an accomplishment that needless to say made 2004 a banner year for Samoa Joe. “As far as my personal goals that I had at the beginning of 2004, they were far exceeded. It was an absolutely great year,” said Joe, extending his gratefulness for the fan support he has earned. “The fan appreciation for some of the things I’ve done has been tremendous. I set out to be the best wrestler I can be, go out there and entertain the fans. For the most part I did my very best to do that and the fans that have commented after seeing anything I’ve done, they’ve been very appreciative and very respectful about it. You really can’t ask for more as a professional wrestler.”
For Punk, 2004 was a continuation of achievements that continue to mount since he first began wrestling in 1999. “Ever since I’ve been in the wrestling business, every single year has been better than the last, and 2004, I don’t think it’s even arguable, it was my best year,” said Punk.
Their success is to be envied and no doubt both have been confronted by fellow workers looking to garner the secret that grants one a place on the ROH roster.
“Nowadays, it takes something unique,” Joe said. “They need to bring something different to the table than nobody else in Ring of Honor has brought to the table. I see a lot of guys who are tremendous talents and athletes, but they’re very similar to someone who we already have in the company.”
But in displaying an inimitable stature that gets a wrestler noticed, so too must consistent work ethic and unbridled passion accompany one who hopes to assimilate to the ROH environment.
“Overall, the biggest thing is having a ton of heart, having a great attitude, willing to learn and work with others. Those are the biggest qualities you can possess to be in Ring of Honor,” Joe added.
Team spirit has been paramount in the success of ROH and as Punk told, having that willingness to give back to others is crucial to maintain the current level of excellence. “We have a very selfless crew. Everybody is worried about the other guy before they’re worried about themselves.”
One grappler who can attest to the nurturing environment of ROH is New Orleans, LA, native Roderick Strong, who only became a regular member of the promotion this past year.
“Since March 13th, I’ve been full-time on the roster. It’s just been amazing growing experience. Working there (ROH) has been the greatest experience of my life. It’s just a big family. They embrace you like a little brother and they all work with you,” said Strong.
Now venturing into his fifth year as a pro, Strong is a shining example of someone who possesses the elusive combination of an elite work ethic, matched with a distinctive wrestling presence that caught the attention of ROH.
“I’m very competitive,” he said, adding that working with the company has provided him the perfect atmosphere to further develop his wrestling abilities. “Ring of Honor is a competitive federation. Everyone tries to one up each other, but in a professional manner and that’s how we grow and get better.”
Holding membership in the Generation Next faction along with Aries, Jacks Evans and Alex Shelley, Strong shared his own insight into what it takes to reach the ROH summit, remarking that daredevil highspots alone will not get you noticed.
“People try to do too much instead of doing the right things,” he said. “It’s not about how many things you can do, it’s how many things you can do right and that’s one thing that people tend to forget. You need to work on bettering yourself all around instead of just moves. Everybody wants to be the cool move guy. There’s way more to wrestling than cool moves.”
One place where aspiring, future professional wrestlers can get their indoctrination that may lead them to be in the ring with the likes of Samoa Joe, CM Punk or Roderick Strong is the ROH wrestling school, located in Bristol, PA.
There, CM Punk has taken the lead role of teaching the ropes to those who have what it takes.
“Of course in my opinion, it’s the best place to train in the United States,” stated Punk, making it clear that just because you have the money, does not guarantee entry to the school.
“I don’t want to waste anybody’s time and I certainly don’t want anybody wasting my time. There is a $50 non-refundable try-out fee. I run my place like a Japanese Dojo, I’m very serious about it and you have to be very disciplined to go there. You don’t touch the ring normally for three months and a lot of people would say that’s bullshit and that would turn a lot of people off, but those are the people that I don’t want to train.”
No one will dispute that the current winds of stagnation have blown many one-time enthusiast far from the spectacle that is pro wrestling. But if you ever have a chance to talk to Samoa Joe, he’ll tell you that ROH may just make you want to be a fan again. “Quite simply, if you’re a wrestling fan and you watch wrestling for wrestling, if you want to see guys go out there night after night and pour their heart and souls into their matches and give the fans all they have, I’d say come and see Ring of Honor.”