This weekend, Ring of Honor has the first of three shows over a week-long period in celebration of its third anniversary. It truly is cause to celebrate because many, including those in the company, did not think they would see this moment. The year 2004 was tumultuous and what has happened within the organization could fill a book. For booker Gabe Sapolsky, 2004 was a true test.
At the beginning of the year, the company was gearing up for a big show to co-incide with Wrestlemania XX, but not all was well with the company, which was struggling financially. Home releases were not coming out fast enough or in the right order, causing discontent among the fan base.
“When a show happens, people want to buy it right then and there, and every week that passes without it out loses buys, partially because there isn’t immediate money coming in and also the show loses its buzz. When the shows weren’t coming out for two or three months, it has really lost its buzz, and that was a struggle. There were other things going wrong in the business at that point as well. Fortunately, Cary Silkin, who is now the 100% owner of ROH, was saving us at that point,” Sapolsky said. Creatively, the 32-year-old Philadelphia native was also was unhappy. “At the time I was really hating the ‘Code of Honor.’ I felt it was something that had run its course and at times looked ridiculous. Like everything in wrestling, what was good two years ago gets old after awhile. We were looking at ways to change that, and we had gotten a little stale in having the same talent on the shows, but we were set on our course.”
Things were looking good — home releases were being caught up and in order, and ROH was heading into a major home run for the March 13th show. Many people from around the world were coming to the show who had never seen Ring of Honor before and were in town for WrestleMania. Things seemed to be on an upswing, but it all came crashing down. On March 3, ROH and RFVideo owner Rob Feinstien was alleged to have gone to a house to meet with a 14-year-old boy in a sting set up by the website perverted-justice.com and NBC 10 (WCAU-TV), a Philadelphia affiliate. While Sapolsky and ROH cannot talk about the incident itself or the split from RF Video that resulted from the scandal, he candidly discussed its impact on Ring of Honor.
“We were dead in the water at that point. Fortunately we have a great staff and the people we have in the office now and Cary really pulled together to get through it. We met with great success late in the year, and it really was a great comeback story,” he said. “I really hope one day I get to write a book about the whole story, it is really crazy and something that you couldn’t make up.”
All eyes turned to March 13th, where fans wondered what to expect. Talk of people no showing the event, the building considering canceling the event, Feinstien being in attendance, and protesters outside the Rexplex in Elizabeth, New Jersey ran wild. Nearly 2,000 people showed up, smashing attendance records and showing that Ring of Honor was not about one wrestler, booker or owner, but about the company as a whole.
“It was an incredible experience because we had no idea what to expect. There were a lot of rumors as to what was going to happen. We went through hell leading up to the event as well as having issues with the building itself. It was a special night. It’s called ‘At Our Best’ because, even though in the ring we have had better shows, everyone in the company from the office to the wrestlers and referees had to be at our best that night to pull off that show. I am very proud of it”
From there, the rebuilding process in addition to finalizing the split from RF Video began.
“To tell the story of rebuilding the company would be an entire book. In-ring I saw it as an opportunity to really rebuild the product and take it in a different direction. We revamped the Code of Honor, de-emphasizing it more. At ROH Reborn: Stage One had the Homicide vs. Samoa Joe World Title match end in a no contest with a crazy, mayhem filled ending that had never been done before, especially in a new market. If we had done that in 2002, people would have crapped on us; but since what we were doing was getting old and we were moving in another direction and were saying with that match ‘You won’t know what to expect from ROH next.’ We were throwing curveballs and giving new talent the chance to shine; Homicide was a new character and other characters were freshened up. That was a big part of the rebuilding process.”
The company took another setback when TNA pulled their contracted talent off of all ROH shows. The biggest blow was AJ Styles, who was the promotion’s first Pure Wrestling Champion, and Christopher Daniels, who was embarking on a bitter feud with CM Punk.
“The big things that were ruined were CM Punk vs. Christopher Daniels, which would have been the feud of the year and something we had laid the groundwork for in May 2003. Another big storyline was AJ Styles winning the Pure Title and going into a title vs. title feud with Samoa Joe. The Pure Title had its legs cut out from underneath it by losing AJ, and hasn’t fully recovered yet. The part that really hurt with losing that talent was the time we had put into them. Daniels vs. Punk had been building for so long, seeds had been planted for the AJ Styles vs. Jimmy Rave feud that didn’t have a chance to happen months before. The midcard talent we were using like Red, Chris Sabin and Sonjay Dutt, who were under contract to TNA, were just starting to step up to the next level. We had all these spots we had to fill in a hurry, AJ and Daniels are very big shoes to fill, and Gen Next was the first thing I came up with after we lost the TNA talent to really jump start Austin Aries, Roderick Strong, Alex Shelley and Jack Evans and push them immediately.”
It was a total change in direction from ROH’s usual style of building talent.
“The old ROH way — and CM Punk and Paul London are prime examples of this — was to start a guy in the opening match and an establishing program. They moved up to the midcard and then got an opportunity to move into the main event. If they made the most of that opportunity they became main event players; if they didn’t, we had a strong midcarder. Instead of going through a six-month to year-long process, we jump-started things and that is where bringing in The Havana Pitbulls and giving them a big push. When we made the changes, it gave us the opportunity to bring in a lot of fresh faces and make changes in the product I wanted to make. The plan was to do it slowly over time, and we did it in one full sweep and start over. The product really needed changes at that point, if it was the same now as it was in 2002-2003, we would have lost of a lot of fans.”
While losing the TNA talent so abruptly was a shock, Sapolsky has always felt that ROH would have a revolving door policy and change over time as talent moved on to other opportunities.
“I just figured it out on myself, because ROH doesn’t have TV and isn’t giving out contracts, no one is making a living off of us. They get good paydays, but it’s only 2-4 bookings a month. I knew since day one that we would have a rotating door, and hope to have a good 1-2-year run with someone before they move on. The goal with Ring of Honor was always to be a place where people could increase their reputation and perform their art as they see fit. Paul London is stuck wrestling five minutes on Velocity, he can look back at his classic match with AJ Styles or his many classics with Bryan Danielson — those DVDs still sell very well for us. When somebody moves on and is not be able to do exactly what they want or aren’t realizing their potential due to politics, they can look back at ROH and be proud of their body of work here. I always knew it would be a thing where people would come and go and it was designed that way. It is necessary to ROH’s survival for talent to come and go. AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels are true superstars; I would make Daniels NWA champion and feud with Styles if I were booking TNA, that is how highly I think of them. As great as they are, us losing them ended up being a great thing because it made the product totally fresh again. I am always in favor of talent moving on to make more money and moving on to better things because it gives an opportunity for someone else to step forward. ROH will always be based on the guys who are hungry and want to build their reputation, and those guys are going to go that little extra mile and give something special.”
At times it seemed that Ring of Honor couldn’t get a break. In May, they lost their venue and had to rent a tent for their show in Philadelphia. They have repeatedly had problems with venues in Boston, were the target of Court Bauer and Teddy Hart whose failed H2Wrestling promotion attempted to run directly against ROH, and have had to deal with injuries and talent having to cancel bookings. For Sapolsky, it was “never say die.”
“After awhile you grow a tough skin. Things that happen now may have affected me more two years ago and it doesn’t bother me. For example, CW Anderson was booked for our third show and he took a booking in Japan and no-showed after we had shot an angle with him. I was inexperienced at that time and played it off like the biggest disaster in the world and it turned into this whole Internet thing with CW and I. Now when something like that happens, we roll with it. Steve Corino was scheduled to face Joe in Chicago and pulled out because of Japan commitments with a week’s notice. In 2002, I would have panicked and it would have turned into an ugly situation, instead we ended up having Joe vs. Punk 2 and got a match that was rated five stars by Dave Meltzer and finished in the top three of all of the Match of the Year polls. We have been rolling with the punches and making the most of the situations, and oddly enough what we come up with as a replacement is better then what the original plan was and it has a way of working out.”
Sapolsky gives a great deal of the credit for Ring of Honor’s continued survival on the shoulders of his skilled talent base. While many could have simply walked away from the company in the wake of events that transpired, instead they put aside issues, politics and egos and banded together to make ROH a success.
“Everyone pulled together, no one wanted the company to die so they did what had to be done to survive. One lesson I’ve learned about booking is you want to look at the character of the person that you book. You want to book team players and people you can trust. If someone comes in without the right attitude, is in it for themselves or isn’t willing to do jobs or make their opponent look good I am not going to book them. We had that locker room; because that is the kind of person I try to book its not just talent. We had a lot of people who really put their heart and soul into ROH, like Samoa Joe, who has sacrificed a lot and worked through injuries during his title run. Loc and Devito, the Carnage Crew, have done everything they have been asked to do and gotten a push they have loved. BJ Whitmer & Dan Maff, The Second City Saints of Punk, Colt Cabana and Ace Steele, Homicide, I know I am leaving people out but a lot of them have since 2002 put their heart and soul into this company and they weren’t just going to walk away and let it die because they believed in what we have here. They came together, stuck through it and made sure the product kicked ass. The bottom line is that people will pay to see good wrestling and the athletes in the ring supplied that.”
The company has also pulled out all the stops to surprise fans. At ROH Reborn: Completion on July 17th, fans at the Rexplex were shocked when Low Ki, who had denounced ROH after the Feinstien scandal and had well known issues with the company, made a surprise return to the company and joined the Rottwielers. Two months later, Steve Corino made a surprise return. It is no secret that Sapolsky does not get along with either man, but he feels he has done what is best for his company.
“It comes from learning from the business and doing what is best for your company. Paul Heyman was my mentor, and one time when I was going through this and trying to decide if we should bring those guys in, Paul said to me ‘sometimes you have to look at this from a complete business perspective. You may not be able to look yourself in the mirror or be happy with yourself, but if it is the right thing for business, sometimes you have to do it.’ Low Ki and I definitely do not get along; we talked a lot in 2002 but I hardly talk to him now, he comes to the show, does his job and leaves. Corino and I will always butt heads, but the bottom line is they are both good for the company and the in ring product — fans pay to see them. If it is the best thing for the product it is going to be done. I am not here to make friends, if I don’t get along with them that is fine. As long as they are working hard and contributing the product, which they both do, they will be booked. If the day comes where they don’t take pride in their performance, then they will not get booked. Ki and Corino are two examples of guys who take a huge amount of pride in their performance and won’t go out there without giving 110%, which is positive.”
Another important draw and factor in ROH’s comeback is the use of some of the most respected legends in the industry. Mick Foley and Ricky Steamboat have become regulars, Jushin Liger flew in from Japan for two shows, and Baron Von Raschke, Jim Cornette, The Midnight Express, Bobby Heenan and Dusty Rhodes have made appearances. Not only does this draw fans, but also many of these people have given advice and encouragement to the locker room.
“It is a huge compliment when you have guys of that stature involved. Having someone like Mick Foley showing up at a show for free, Foley is a great guy but he doesn’t do that often, that speaks volumes and is a huge compliment to the product. Bobby Heenan wants to come in for more shows; Jim Cornette said he isn’t doing any indies except ROH for right now. Ricky Steamboat is my favorite example because he came along at the perfect time. He was there March 13th when we needed him, and it was something he did for the payday, he was in town already for a convention. As Steamboat stayed with the company and did a number of shows, with each passing show he got more and more enthusiastic about the product to the point that he was actively teaching, giving tips and advice and giving locker room pep talks and holding speeches. He was very unselfish in that way and became an important part of the crew before he left. That is a huge compliment when someone like Steamboat wants to come back and contribute more and more; it’s a testament to everyone in the locker room that creates that environment. Bringing in the legends was a big part of the comeback and well planned out. We felt it was something we needed to do to get positive press going and we brought in the right line of veterans, who don’t just have a name, they have a deep level of respect from the fans.”
Having survived events that would destroy just about any other business, Ring of Honor has put the past behind them and once again become one of the most talked about promotions in the world due to its wrestling and storylines as opposed to outside forces. December saw the company smash sales records and prove that the audience wants more ROH. Sapolsky says that they will give it to them.
“There have been critics, people who try to find any chink in our armor, but we’ve proved them wrong. We will continue to do so. Without giving anything away, I think the next six months is going to see a lot more focus on storyline and character development. One thing we learned over Christmas was that our fans want more shows. Each year has been a growth period; the first year we did 12 shows, the second 18, and our third year saw us increase to 24 shows. I expect in 2005 we will have 30-35 shows in a number of new markets. It’s going to be a good year.”