On February 23, 2002 at the Murphy Rec Center in Philadelphia, a small company called Ring of Honor launched its first show, headlined by a classic match between Low Ki, “The Fallen Angel” Christopher Daniels and “American Dragon” Bryan Danielson. Four and a half years later, the company stages one of its biggest shows ever at the Manhattan Center in New York City on Saturday. The top of the card again features Danielson — now ROH World Champion — defending against Pro Wrestling NOAH’s KENTA.

Blistered and with a swollen chest, after 56:00 Bryan “American Dragon” Danielson walks out still the Ring of Honor champ, having beaten Roderick Strong, on Friday, March 31, 2006 in Chicago Ridge, Illinois. ¬†Photo by Mike Mastrandrea

“I am excited to wrestle at the Manhattan Center. It is a great venue and a big step forward for Ring of Honor. I am excited and nervous about wrestling KENTA. I wouldn’t be nervous except for my separated shoulder, and how hard KENTA kicks. You have both nerves and excitement going through your body with a big match like that,” Dragon told SLAM! Wrestling in a rare interview. The stacked show will also feature GHC Heavyweight Champion Naomichi Marufuji vs. Nigel McGuinness, tag champions Austin Aries & Roderick Strong vs. Chris Hero & Claudio Castagnoli and Homicide & Samoa Joe vs. The Briscoes. As an added bonus former WWWF champion Bruno Sammartino will be in attendance, his first New York appearance at a wrestling show in a decade.

“It is also a big step in that they are bringing Bruno Sammartino in for that show. That is a big deal because Bruno hasn’t been part of wrestling for a really long time,” said Danielson.

The show is special for Dragon as well because he is one of only three people on the original show that is on this one, the other two being Daniels and Jay Briscoe. Ring of Honor has come a long way from its humble beginnings.

“I have never in my life thought that far ahead to see this success. I didn’t know what to expect from that first show. As an independent wrestler, you just hope the promotions keep going so you can keep wrestling for them. That is all I was hoping for,” he said. “At the beginning Ring of Honor was spending a lot of money and it really didn’t seem like it was making all that much money back. I remember guys like Dusty Rhodes and Abdullah the Butcher coming in, but it didn’t increase the number of fans that were coming to the shows. It seemed like they were stuck at a point. Now 400 people in attendance is a low attendance show as opposed to a good one. That is really exciting to see, when you have been there from the beginning.”

This is Dragon’s third bout with KENTA in New York. He teamed with Samoa Joe and was pinned in a tag match to KENTA and Marufuji at “Best in the World” in March and KENTA again pinned Danielson in a non-title three way match that included Joe at July’s “In Your Face.” Despite the losses, Dragon is confident one-on-one he will beat KENTA. You can’t question Danielson’s toughness going in to the match. On August 25th in Chicago, Danielson separated his shoulder in a match against Colt Cabana, and wrestled for another 50 minutes.

“It was about ten minutes into the match when I separated my shoulder. I don’t know how I got through it,” Danielson reflected. “I hate to quote movies as a source of inspiration but in Pirates of the Carribbean, Jack Sparrow says, ‘It is either something you can do or you can’t do.’ When it happened, I thought, ‘Either I can do this or I can’t do it. I either had to stop or keep going and really go.’ I made some minor adjustments and got through it and then once I got to the back it really sucked. It really wasn’t that bad because of the adrenaline rush and most wrestlers learn to separate pain mentally. It sounds more impressive then it actually is, I think.”

Despite the injury, Danielson is proud of the match. “I enjoyed the match with Colt even with the separated shoulder — and the shoulder is part of why I enjoyed it, because you feel a sense of accomplishment when you have gone through that and made it to 60 minutes. That last five minutes of that match you could really feel the emotions from the crowd.”

Ring of Honor has established a good working relationship with Japanese promotions NOAH and Dragon Gate. Danielson successfully defended the ROH title against Marufuji at December’s “Final Battle 2005.” One of the first high profile Japanese stars in ROH was in November of 2004 when the company brought in Jushin “Thunder” Liger to face Danielson.

“At the time that we brought in Liger nobody knew it would be a regular thing to bring Japanese guys over. For the Japanese wrestlers it is good for them because they come to Ring of Honor and all the magazines have photographers around ringside taking pictures of the match,” he said. “ROH fans are very appreciative of the Japanese wrestlers and so it is good for them to get that superstar reaction, which makes them seem like a worldwide phenomenon in Japan. Importing Japanese talent is a good thing and will continue to happen. The cross promotions with NOAH and Dragon Gate works well, the Dragon Gate style suits Ring of Honor perfectly.”

Should he successfully defend against KENTA, Danielson will celebrate a year as champion on Sunday. He defeated James (Noble) Gibson for the belt September 17, 2005. His reign is second only to Samoa Joe’s 21 months as champion.

“Winning the belt felt surreal. You live in the moment of everything and at that moment it felt like an accomplishment and still does. It is hard to project those emotions now. You grow and you develop and get used to the idea of being champion. It is a hard thing to explain to wrestling fans, it seems like only wrestlers can appreciate what they mean to you individually,” he explained. “I have been really pleased with what I have been able to do so far. Holding the ROH title is tough and I feel a lot of pressure to have the best matches on the show because as the champion that is what you should be doing. When there are so many great wrestlers on the shows that is sometimes hard to achieve. It feels good that ROH has the confidence in me to put that kind of trust in me and feel that strongly.”

Being part of Ring of Honor has meant a lot of growth for members of their roster. Brian “Spanky” Kendrick, Paul London, James Gibson and CM Punk have all moved on to the WWE. Christopher Daniels, Low Ki (Senshi), A.J. Styles, Samoa Joe, Homicide and Austin Aries are all presently signed to TNA. Ring of Honor truly allows its roster to develop into marketable stars.

“As a wrestler, being in Ring of Honor has put me in matches with the top guys who challenge your creativity and wrestling ability,” Danielson said. “As far as getting my name out there, as the company built in status by proxy everyone who wrestles for them becomes a bigger name. That factor alone is going to make fans think you are a bigger deal than you are. The same applies with TNA, a lot of guys who before TNA had a hard time getting bookings now that they are on TV makes them seem like a bigger deal. That happens when any promotion you wrestle for achieves a mild level of success.”

A new crop of wrestlers will be getting the chance to gain that experience soon. Recently Danielson took over as head trainer of the ROH wrestling school from Aries and moved from his home in Washington state to Philadelphia. “There was hesitation on my part to take over in that I was attending college when they first asked, whereas now I am taking classes online. I had gone through two quarters of Chemistry and was getting into a really advanced course and I had to give up that last quarter that would have been my first year-long course to come up here. That was really my only hesitation.”

There are many wrestling schools out there and it is important to carefully consider your options before choosing one. While many advocate going to schools run by veterans, there are advantages to training with young successful wrestlers as well. Dragon was trained at Shawn Michaels’ wrestling academy and then trained extensively with William Regal and brings that knowledge along with his own success to the school of wrestling.

“Sometimes it is better to have a guy your own age training you, but other times it is better to have a retired veteran training you. When it comes to training people, I can show the students everything I know but if they don’t work hard they are never going to get anything from it,” he said. “That is the same whether they are taught by me or Shawn Michaels or William Regal. There are a lot of guys who were trained by Shawn who never really did anything because they never trained hard. It was the same with Regal. I trained with him when I was in the developmental system and he offered to teach you anything he had learned and a lot of guys sat back and didn’t really take advantage of it. That is the main thing with people who want to train to be wrestlers they have got to be willing to come in and work hard.”

While there is certainly influence from his trainers, Dragon prefers to let his students develop their own style as opposed to trying to be like their mentor.

“I don’t know if how I train them is really different from the way I was taught. The way I train them is very similar to how Regal taught myself and Spanky. First, you show the guys the basics and then teach guys the best you can what they want to learn. A lot of the wrestlers that come to the ROH school want to learn what I can teach them but don’t want to wrestle exactly like me and that wouldn’t be wise for them to wrestle just like me. Everyone has their own interests and is going to develop their own style. Once students get their basic fundamentals down you have to teach them what they want to learn.”

Ring of Honor continues to grow by leaps and bounds. They recently completed a tour of the United Kingdom and Friday’s show in East Windsor, CT (Danielson will not be on the card) and Saturday’s Manhattan Center debut is just another step for a company that has not only survived for four and a half years but in many ways thrived. By offering an alternative, Danielson feels they will continue to find new fans and keep old ones.

“I believe that there is a large group of people who still would like to see wrestling, as opposed to all the skits you see on TV. Ring of Honor tries to target that market, but it is a harder core market than that. There is a lot of room in professional wrestling for a company that would just go out there and wrestle. Originally I thought that was what TNA would be doing was more wrestling, but they have gotten away from a lot of that into doing the WWEesque stuff. There is a big market for people who just want to see wrestling. I don’t even think it has to be on TV; if you have a good group of guys who can wrestle and are impressive to see in person, who people would look at and say ‘I would like to see a wrestling show where that guy is wrestling,’ it will work. When people think of pure wrestling companies they think of the ROH style of wrestling, but I don’t think that is necessarily the case. You can still do it with an older style of guys that isn’t so big move oriented and you are going to attract more people.”