The year 2007 in Ring of Honor can be described with one word: Change. A new style of champion, a launch on pay per view, and saying goodbye to long-time talent were just a few of the many loops in the roller coaster that was Ring of Honor in the past year.
The year began with the announcement that Samoa Joe, the former champion who helped carry the company through a rough 2004, was departing. He was not the only one, as TNA pulled Christopher Daniels, Austin Aries (who later asked for his release from TNA and returned) and Homicide from shows, no longer permitting TNA talent to appear with the company due to ROH signing a deal for pay per view. Colt Cabana and Matt Sydal also left the company, signing developmental deals with WWE.
It caused a lot of headaches and heartaches for booker Gabe Sapolsky.
“It was really hard on a personal level because I enjoyed working with those guys,” Sapolsky told SLAM! Wrestling. “Samoa Joe is a friend of mine and we always joked around and had fun in the locker room. I miss that element on a personal level. We expected (the talent to be pulled), but you expect every piece of talent that walks through your door to move on one day, it’s the nature of the business. It’s the nature of most sports these days, how many times do you see an athlete spend their entire career with the same team? Sometimes you see a guy in the ’80s or ’90s who stays for his entire career but rarely somebody who came up in this decade. I liken us in the last year to a sports team that had a lot of high-priced free agents. So we saw it coming, and it’s going to continue to happen. It happens to every promotion. Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, The Rock all moved on from WWE. No matter what level you are at, you are going to have talent come and go.”
Having several spots open gave Sapolsky the opportunity to create new stars within the promotion.
“We had a number of new players come in. Some of them are young and working their way up and some are right on the verge of stardom and they just need that opportunity. When those top guys leave it creates that opportunity, and really freshens things up. As a booker it is nice to have new talent come in that I can push and build up, and that for me was the most personally satisfying. Seeing a guy come in on the lower card and the fans aren’t really in to him, and then as time passes the fans get more and more into him, and he climbs the card and becomes a star. That really is one of my favorite aspects of booking,” he said, adding that it was up to the talent to step up.
“I knew that they would, there was never any doubt in my mind. This company has always been built not on people who are complacent in their spots, or people who have been here for years as top stars. It has always been built on the young guys who are really hungry to build their reputations and their names. You always get that little extra effort out of them that makes the matches special. We have seen guys step up, and I don’t want to run a list because I will forget people. From top to bottom everyone has stepped their game up and wants the opportunity to move up the card, and when given that opportunity they make the most of it.”
One of the stars made was a massive Pro Wrestling NOAH import named Takeshi Morishima. Ring of Honor stunned fans on February 17th when Morishima defeated Homicide to win the ROH World Title, a belt he would hold until October 6th, when he lost to current champion Nigel McGuinness.
“NOAH made him available to us whenever we wanted him. We actually had more access to him than we did TNA talent. We were coming off Bryan Danielson’s 15-month title reign. Homicide had a transition period as champion, but for Homicide the real story was being Rocky — about him winning the belt — not what happened after he won the belt. Once he won, that story was pretty much over. We couldn’t go back to another technical wrestling title reign, we had to go in a different direction because it would be very difficult for anyone to follow in Danielson’s shoes after fans had seen those types of matches for 15 months. Morishima offered a very different style for us — shorter matches with more brawling and harder hitting and less technical wrestling. It was a fantastic opportunity to go in a different direction, and it sets the theme in the promotion and trickles down from the opening match the main event. It really allowed us to create a different vibe last year and do some different stuff.”
The relationship with NOAH has benefited both companies. Ring of Honor has also teamed up with the Japanese Dragon Gate promotion, leading to the company promoting shows in Japan in July. Sapolsky spoke with a great deal of enthusiasm about the continuing relationship with the companies.
“The relationship with NOAH and Dragon Gate has been huge pluses for ROH. They have come through when we needed them too, and booked our talents overseas. We have helped them and they us, and we have contributed, trust and cooperated with each other, it has been a perfect relationship that way. The trip to Japan was one of the highlights of my life. The entire crew and office staff had an absolute blast and it was really something special. I hope we get to go back again this year.”
Even with the great relationship, Sapolsky admitted he was surprised when NOAH first offered him the chance to bring the legendary Mitsuhara Misawa in. He quickly jumped on the opportunity.
“Misawa wanted to make a trip to the United States in front of fans that would appreciate him, and there are no better fans for that than in ROH. We would have been fools not to accept. We benefited from having Misawa on two shows, which was an honor and something really memorable and special.”
Misawa teamed with Kenta against Morishima and Naomichi Marifuji, in Philadelphia November 2nd and defended the GHC Global Crown championship against Kenta November 3rd in New York. While the matches were memorable, they were not without some criticism from fans who felt Misawa should have faced ROH talent. It’s a notion Sapolsky scoffs at.
“I think anybody who could criticize the matches is really spoiled and I have no respect for their opinion whatsoever. Having Misawa face Kenta or having him face Nigel [McGuinness], either way you are going to see an awesome match that you will never see in the U.S. again. The fact is that NOAH offered us a GHC Heavyweight title match between Misawa and Kenta, which is a big deal in Japan. A lot of Japanese fans wanted that match to happen in Japan and NOAH gave it to us. The first night we got a tag match with four of NOAH’s best wrestlers putting it all on the line for half an hour; [it] was something very unique that you are not going to see again. Anybody who was whining and crying that they didn’t get the match they wanted to see and instead saw Misawa against NOAH’s best, in important NOAH matches, they really might want to look for some other form of entertainment.”
Morishima’s run came to an end at the hands of McGuinness. McGuinness has had some injury issues that have prevented him from working some title matches, and the reaction from some of the ROH fanbase has been negative. Injured in a match against Austin Aries the night before, McGuinness cut an emotional in ring promo as a group of fans chanted for him to drop the belt. The promo can be seen on www.rohvideos.com.
“I love the fanbase reaction to Nigel. Some people love him as champion, some hate him, but people are reacting to him,” said Sapolsky. “It was such an emotional reaction to him and it created a real emotion in the building. Nigel has a lot of pressure on his shoulders right now. Being ROH World Champion, people say it’s all predetermined but the belt means something. It is the promotion and shows the company is on your shoulders, so Nigel has a lot of pressure there. He was able to put together a healthy weekend and came up with two great matches in Dayton and Chicago. He can carry that workload in the ring. Now he is healthy and feeling good, so I think we have a lot to build on with him as champion. I am really looking forward to what the crowd reaction is like at the Manhattan Center on February 23rd when he faces Bryan Danielson. There are going to be a lot of people pulling for Danielson to win the belt, and if there is a guy who should be the first two-time ROH world champion and a guy who can carry ROH on his shoulders, it is Bryan Danielson. There are going to be a lot of questions in New York City as to who is going to walk out with the belt, and an insane atmosphere for that match, it is going to be something special.”
Last year also marked a giant leap for Ring of Honor, to the pay per view universe. With four pay per views under their belt, ROH’s fifth offering Rising Above debuts in the U.S. March 7th.
“I have been really happy with the pay per view shows, and feel that each show has been better than the last both in match quality and especially from a production point of view. It has been a work in progress that has been a lot of fun and a great learning experience. While the buys have been in the neighborhood we expected them to be in, my only disappointment is that I was hoping for more of a word of mouth going. I wanted people to be at other wrestling events and hearing the people around them talking about having to see Ring of Honor. I wanted it to be an underground thing that spread in popularity through word of mouth. We haven’t seen that happen at the level I would like to see it, so hopefully that is in the cards in the future.”
Sapolsky confirmed that the pay per views will continue for the foreseeable future, with the upcoming Rising Above the best yet. “Austin Aries versus Nigel McGuinness is really something special and was better then Nigel verus Danielson from Driven that everyone liked, but I will let everyone be the judge of that.”
While it is a challenge to book in a way that makes the pay per views make sense, but also the hardcore fan that buys every DVD, Sapolsky has thus far not found it difficult.
“It requires more patience from the people who buy every single DVD and have to wait to buy the DVD until the pay per view airs. I am really proud of the fact that if you watch the pay per views so far you can follow it like a weekly TV show, which is something for people who aren’t the diehard watchers. The pay per view DVDs do come out of sequence but that is the only hitch right now. It is a problem we have experienced and we are hoping to make it flow a little easier in the future.”
Also new for the company is a distribution deal with KOCH entertainment. Stars of Honor and Bloodstained Honor will hit stores in April.
“I am really looking forward to that and think it will open up a lot of eyes and give us exposure. Fans will see the names and great matches on the Stars of Honor DVD, and the Bloodstained Honor DVD will get people’s attention, it has some passionate and intense brawls. The DVDs have a lot of great wrestling so I think they will give us a lot of exposure and I can’t wait for those DVDs to hit the shelves. We’ve added new commentary and some upgrades. KOCH has been fully behind this project so I really look forward to seeing them promote the DVDs.”
Something that has made ROH stand out among wrestling companies is its focus on tag team wrestling and stables. The Briscoe Brothers frequently headlined shows during their reign in 2007. Their matches with teams like Kevin Steen and El Generico, Necro Butcher and Jimmy Jacobs, Austin Aries and Matt Cross, Bryan Danielson and Nigel McGuinness and others tore the house down.
“Tag team wrestling is a lost art, and that is really a shame,” explained Sapolsky. “It can provide some of the most exciting wrestling out there. While the other companies aren’t concentrating on it, it gave us an opportunity to present a really exciting style of wrestling that was different from what the other companies are emphasizing. Tag team wrestling is a really important part of us, it helps us stand out and do something different.”
Also different is the number of factions warring throughout ROH. Although stables have long been an important part of Ring of Honor, never before have this many groups existed. The Hangman Three, The Age of the Fall, The Resilience, The Vulture Squad, The No Remorse Corps, and Sweet & Sour Inc have all established themselves as major players.
“I thought we could do a lot of interesting stuff with stables and a good way to get more talent into the mix. We do run a lot of shows now, and if the feud was just Austin Aries versus Roderick Strong, you can only run that match so many times, and we’ve run it three times as a singles match, and that’s about it. But with both of them having a stable behind them you can do various tag team and single matches and a lot of different combinations. That allows us to draw out the stories a bit more without having to do the same match over and over again, or just run the feud a few months and then end it. I thought it was a nice way to mix things up and throw new guys into the mix. It provided a lot of great opportunities. Unfortunately sometimes things happen that are out of our control. Jack Evans was set to get a major push with his stable in February but he got called to Japan. Aries got pulled by TNA as The Resilience was gaining steam. There are a few things that have derailed it along the lines, and it could have gone a little bit better but I am very happy with the result.”
Saturday, February 23rd in Manhattan marks the completion of six years of Ring of Honor. Sapolsky took a moment to reflect on the craziness that has been Ring of Honor since February 2002.
“I was hoping to make it to five when we first started. Now we have made it to six and I am really proud of that. We are getting into the same amount of time that ECW was around for, and that was another goal of mine. We have had a hell of a run and hopefully it continues and we can make it to 10, 15, 25 and keep going and going,” he said, adding that the success of the company rests in the support of the fans.
“It all goes back to the fans, the only reason we are here because of the support. People might think they can bootleg a DVD or skip a show, but every single DVD, ticket, and merchandise purchase throughout the years has been extremely important to our survival. They all add up and count. So it all goes back to the support of the fans thus far and that is the only thing that will keep the company going.”