A Decade of Honor – Ring of Honor 2004 (Samoa Joe, CM Punk, Austin Aries)

New Markets – Wilmington, OH; Braintree, MA; St. Paul, MN; Chicago Ridge, IL; Lexington, MA; Wauwatosa, WI; and Revere, MA

Ring of Honor’s third year had a fair amount of trials and tribulations, and it is a testament both to the company and its fanbase that it ended the year in better shape than ever before. The year began with a couple of non-descript shows in Wilmington, OH (my first live event and first time hanging out with Brad Garoon) and Glen Burnie, MD. The most significant event was CM Punk injuring Christopher Daniels by delivering a Pepsi Plunge through a table. This was to kick off a Second City Saints versus Prophecy feud, but it didn’t end up panning out for reasons we’ll soon examine.

The “Second Anniversary Show” featured the introduction of a secondary title, known as the Pure Wrestling Championship. Matches for this title were contested under different rules, such as a 20-count on the floor and a limited number of closed fist strikes and rope breaks allowed. AJ Styles beat Jimmy Rave, Matt Stryker, and CM Punk to become the first champion. Also on the show Samoa Joe continued his dominance, defeating Low Ki, BJ Whitmer, and Dan Maff in a four corner survival match to retain the ROH World Title.

In March, ROH held its most attended event ever to that point, “At Our Best” in Elizabeth, NJ. The event featured all of ROH’s big stars, plus appearances by Teddy Hart, Jerry Lynn, and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, who refereed the Pure Wrestling Title contest between CM Punk and AJ Styles. Samoa Joe defended the ROH World Title against Jay Briscoe in a disturbingly bloody steel cage match, and the Carnage Crew disposed of Special K in a massive Scramble Cage match.

Unfortunately, after this show the wheels almost came completely off the bus. Company co-founder Rob Feinstein was caught soliciting sexual encounters with underage boys. This was a potentially devastating blow, as TNA immediately pulled their talent from all upcoming ROH shows, including AJ Styles, Jerry Lynn, Abyss, and Christopher Daniels. Roddy Piper and Bobby Heenan cancelled their scheduled appearances.

Those left in ROH decided to do their best to move on from the scandal, and in April presented their first shows in St. Paul and Chicago, titling them “ROH Reborn Stage One” and “ROH Reborn Stage Two.” An influx of new talent showed up, including Matt Sydal, Delirious, Ricky Reyes, Rocky Romero, Austin Aries, Shawn Daivari, and Danny Daniels. Other names were going to be used more often, including Nigel McGuinness, Alex Shelley, Jimmy Jacobs, and Jack Evans, amongst others. The most significant in-ring event this month was CM Punk & Colt Cabana joining forces to take the ROH Tag Team Titles from the Briscoes in their hometown of Chicago.

Eager to capitalize on the momentum of the successful “Reborn” shows, Sapolsky introduced a concept for their May show in Philadelphia, featuring a lot of the new young talent facing each other in “Do or Die” showcase matches. One foursome in ROH disagreed with this concept: Alex Shelley, Austin Aries, Jack Evans, and Roderick Strong. They hijacked the show, declared themselves Generation Next, and took on the Briscoes, John Walters, and Jimmy Rave in a great eight-man tag team match that cemented all of them as players in the new ROH. Also on this show, CM Punk attacked Ricky Steamboat, furthering their feud, which would last until the summer when Punk had a change of heart and saved Steamboat from an attack at the hands of Generation Next.

Punk and Cabana were fairly successful ROH Tag Team Champions, excluding “Round Robin Challenge III,” when the titles changed hands three times: from Punk and Cabana to Dan Maff and BJ Whitmer to the Briscoes and back to Punk and Cabana, making them two-time champions. They went on to drop the titles in August to Ricky Reyes and Rocky Romero, who held them for the rest of the year.

Samoa Joe continued his stranglehold on the ROH World Championship, successfully defending it against Homicide (three times), Matt Stryker, Colt Cabana, Trent Acid, Doug Williams, Bryan Danielson, and Rocky Romero in ROH, and Balls Mahoney, Ahmed Chaer, Shinya Makabe, and Chris Hero on shows promoted by other companies. By far the most significant feud Joe endured in 2004 was against CM Punk. The two first met in Dayton at “World Title Classic” and wrestled to a 60-minute draw. Punk lobbied hard for a rematch and got it when Steve Corino had to cancel off a Chicago show in October. The show, which was titled “Joe vs. Punk II,” featured the second 60-minute draw between the two of them, and garnered rave reviews, including many five-star mentions. They finally concluded the feud in December at “All Star Extravaganza II” in Elizabeth, NJ, with Ricky Steamboat watching on at ringside. Unfortunately for Joe, the long title reign took its toll on him, and he finally lost the championship to Austin Aries. Aries had recently taken over as the leader of Generation Next, at “Final Battle 2004″ on December 26.

The Pure Wrestling Championship was vacated when AJ Styles was pulled off all ROH shows due to the Feinstein incident, and was reintroduced as the Pure Championship in July at “Reborn: Completion.” Doug Williams beat Jay Lethal, Nigel McGuinness, and John Walters in a four corner survival before defeating Alex Shelley in the finals of a mini-tournament to win the title. He dropped it six weeks later to John Walters, who held it for the rest of the year.

Other events of significance included the debut of “Survival of the Fittest,” which Bryan Danielson won, last eliminating Austin Aries in an incredible match. Danielson and Aries later wrestled a 75-minute two out of three falls match that garnered rave reviews.

ROH was able to rebuild its image enough to bring in more guest stars, including Ricky Steamboat, Les Thatcher, 2 Cold Scorpio, Jim Cornette, Bobby Eaton, Dennis Condrey, Stan Lane, Bobby Heenan, and Jushin “Thunder” Liger. Perhaps their biggest guest star ever was Mick Foley, who made a handful of appearances and started a feud with Steamboat over whether pure wrestling or hardcore wrestling was better. The feud ended up going nowhere, but Foley’s appearances were a huge boon for ROH.

Match of the Year – Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk, “Joe vs. Punk II”
Wrestler of the Year – Samoa Joe
Tag Team of the Year – Ricky Reyes & Rocky Romero
Feud of the Year – Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk
Show of the Year – Generation Next

Coming up – ROH reaches its creative peak…

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