Ring of Honor DVD Review: Stars of Honor

Independent phenomenon Ring of Honor recently let the general public in on the best kept secret in professional wrestling by debuting on pay-per-view. In order to help the newcomer understand better who ROH is, they released two DVD features from Koch Entertainment. The first I’ll review is Stars of Honor, which gives fans a glimpse into the ROH tenures of some familiar WWE and TNA faces: Matt Hardy, reigning TNA World Heavyweight Champion Samoa Joe, MVP, CM Punk, Homicide, James “Jamie Noble” Gibson, Brian “Spanky” Kendrick, Christian Cage, the Fallen Angel Christopher Daniels, Jay Lethal, and Low Ki, also known as Senshi.

The studio introduction from ROH’s solid commentary team of Dave Prazak and Lenny Leonard explains exactly what the DVD is all about, and then it’s off to the races. Prazak and Leonard provide similar intros to each match, helping to set the stage for what you’re about to see next. I’ll review the matches in the order in which they appear on the back of the DVD case, although their order in the actual menu on the disc is not quite the same.

Samoa Joe versus CM Punk. ROH fans would agree that if a wrestling enthusiast wanted to experience Ring of Honor for the first time, there are few better places to begin than the epic saga of ROH World Champion Samoa Joe and the so-close-he-could-taste-it challenger CM Punk. They took each other to the limit twice in 60-minute draws, and this DVD begins with the third and final chapter in their trilogy.

It was the 4th of December in 2004 in Elizabeth, New Jersey at All Star Extravaganza II when Punk got his third and final shot at Joe. They started with the requisite mat wrestling sequence, establishing just how well they knew each other at this point in their rivalry. They each played mind games, trying to find any edge against an opponent who had seen all their tricks before.

Punk attempted to take the head-butt out of Joe’s offensive arsenal by attacking his head repeatedly with dropkicks, headlocks and strikes, showing he’d devised a strategy before the opening bell. That’s great multi-match psychology. Punk wanted to extend Joe to the longest match he possibly could while working a basic style and minimizing risks and opportunities for critical mistakes. With no time limit, Punk felt this was his best chance to finally dethrone the Samoan monster.

But the champ wasn’t about to simply go along with his challenger’s plans, utilizing his weight and strength advantage, as well as his sound wrestling skills, to keep Punk at bay. When Joe busted Punk’s forehead open, he pummeled the laceration and secured his advantage, viciously beating the challenger along the way.

Punk wore the crimson mask and did a phenomenal job selling just how weakened and disoriented he was due to the excessive blood loss and punishment he was taking. It was clear he assumed the “Rocky Balboa” role as he continued to fight back while the dominant champ picked him apart, and the crowd began cheering and chanting for Punk. Fantastic stuff.

The weakened challenger was so desperate that he threw a dropkick from the apron to the hardwood floor, splattering himself just to deliver a single offensive maneuver. He followed up with another crash-landing on the floor, again damaging himself to try to get back into the match. Punk now appeared willing to do almost anything to win the title that had always eluded him, but every time he had something going, Joe fought back and reclaimed the edge.

The bad cut forced Punk to abandon his original game plan in favor of a more high-risk strategy, adapting as well as he could. He nearly defeated Joe after a wicked Shining Wizard strike to the face, but Joe survived and locked on a sleeper hold, which was devastating since Punk had lost so much blood in the match. Although Punk’s arm dropped three times and the match should have ended, wrestling legend Ricky the Dragon Steamboat refused to allow the timekeeper to ring the bell, and the match continued. Steamboat had been involved with Punk in the storyline leading up to this event.

Punk tried to escape the sleeper by delivering chin-breakers and grappling before using the Austin/Hart corner flip to finally force Joe to release the hold or be pinned. From there they went into the dramatic finishing sequence, exchanging pinfall attempts and huge strikes in search of the victory. Joe delivered a big German suplex followed by a bigger half-nelson suplex, then clamped on the sleeper one last time. After absorbing great sums of abuse at the hands of the champion and losing so much blood, Punk could no longer hold on. He passed out in the clutch of the much larger Samoa Joe, and the epic saga between Joe and Punk had come to an end.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more dramatic, entertaining, and exciting wrestling match than this one; what a great way to kick off this compellation. As Lenny Leonard stated following this match, “it just doesn’t get any better than that.”

Antonio “MVP” Banks versus Homicide. After all the matches MVP has had in WWE against giant monsters like Kane, it was strange to see him working as the bigger, stronger man in this contest. Homicide is currently a member of the Latin American Xchange in TNA, but his true heel brilliance shone in ROH years ago. As with many WWE and TNA stars, he was allowed to showcase more personality, a more aggressive move-set, and more ferocious intensity in ROH since there’s no glass ceiling or concern about lower-card matches “stealing the show”. Instead, the performers go out and entertain the crowd the best way they know how, with no reason to hold anything back.

Homicide carried the future MVP to a watchable match, while Banks already started to show flashes of his later WWE persona. As I once commented about Banks as MVP, he moves so slowly when he strikes, runs the ropes, or grapples with his opponent that it appears he’s wrestling at a different speed from his opponent. Homicide delivered two consecutive piledrivers to Banks, who no-sold like the Undertaker. In a strange bit of booking, while the two neck-compressing drivers were not enough to put the larger Banks away, Homicide then delivered his second low-blow of the contest and four lariats to successfully defend his FIP championship.

As a matter of historical interest if only to see MVP before he’d completely developed that gimmick, this was sort of fun to watch. The match itself was nothing to write home about, but if you’ve never seen Banks not in his full MVP gimmick, it’s noteworthy.

Matt Hardy versus Homicide. On August 12, 2005 in Dayton, Ohio during Hardy’s ugly period following the all-too real situation between he, Adam Copeland, and Amy Dumas (which unfortunately cost the only innocent party his WWE slot), Hardy faced off against the Notorious 187 in an ROH ring.

Very rarely in Hardy’s career amongst McMahon’s giants has Matt ever had the distinction of being the larger man in a fight, but he was clearly bigger and stronger than Homicide. After a good amount of jaw-jacking and playing to the crowd, the two grapplers were ready to lock up for the first time. Fairly common in Ring of Honor, they employed a bit of standard mat wrestling to get started. Matt seemed to enjoy taking a break to interact with the more free-thinking ROH fans, compared to what he was used to up north. WWE crowds tend to do as they’re told quite a bit more than indy fans.

Hardy showed a lot of personality and fire, clearly cutting loose compared to his usual shackled, mid-card performances. Meanwhile, Homicide heeled it up, even as some dedicated home-promotion fans cheered him against the “invading” WWE Superstar. Matt’s intensity, passion, and love of performing make him a good fit in ROH, and I’d like to see more from him here someday. He even busted out a unique Octopus-like submission hold, blending his usual WWE shtick with a more MMA-influenced mat attack.

Homicide drilled Hardy with his vaunted lariat, and the near-fall that followed was a breath-holder all the way, as Matt barely escaped defeat. He also beat the three-count by millimeters following an Ace Crusher by ‘Cide, and by now the fans were gasping for air each time the referee’s hand approached the canvas for the tell-tale third count. Returning the favor, Hardy barely missed winning after planting Homicide with a Splash Mountain Bomb. This match was got very good in the closing moments.

Unfortunately they went for the rare “sportz entertainment” finish, as Jay Lethal and Low Ki got involved, leading to a fluke pinfall victory for Hardy off a roll-up. I guess they wanted to keep Matt “Strong” for his match against Roderick the following night without totally jobbing out Homicide. It was a slightly disappointing ending to a match that really picked up as they went home, but still a fun one to watch, especially if you’re interested in seeing Hardy let loose a bit.

Matt Hardy versus Roderick Strong. I’m a big MFer, but I’m not sure why Hardy scored two slots on this 8-match set. Still, you can never have too much Mattitude as far as I’m concerned, so here we go. While they worked a very WWE-type match, it was fortunately the more entertaining sort. This contest would have inspired me to write an entire column had it happened on SmackDown! back when I was still watching WWE. It was hard-hitting and intense, but the pacing, rhythm, and many of the spots seemed much more suited to WWE than ROH, which leads me to believe it was Hardy who called the match.

It was a highly competitive affair, and Strong and Hardy seemed quite evenly matched. Hardy was wise enough to heel it up a bit since the Chicago crowd was strongly (no pun intended) supporting their home-promotion man. That’s a very professional outlook from the ring veteran, and it allowed the Chi-town crowd to enjoy the match much more. Kudos to Hardy for not trying to shove his gimmick down their throats.

Since I’d never seen this match before, I had no idea of the outcome. Hardy and Strong had me hanging on their every move, especially toward the end when it became clear they were going home. That’s all the storytelling two wrestlers could ever hope to accomplish – drawing fans into the match and making them hold their breath for every pin attempt. Strong reversed Hardy’s third try at the Side Effect and rolled the WWE Superstar into a pinning position for the upset victory.

This was a huge win for Strong, and Hardy was such a gentleman making ROH and Strong look good in the process of gracefully accepting defeat on his way back to the pro wrestling colossus up north. It was a fun match to watch, and a good piece of business for ROH. I went into the match as a Matt Hardy fan, and emerged with even more respect for him due to how “strongly” he put ROH over here. Right up my alley.

Christian Cage versus Christopher Daniels. Two current TNA stars locked up in Cleveland on July 29th, 2006 in Ring of Honor when former WWE upper-card threat and highly decorated champion Christian Cage met the Fallen Angel Christopher Daniels, a TNA X Division legend, for the very first time.

The opening “can you top that” portion of the match got the two men fired up a bit, as tempers flared and egos became bruised. While it didn’t play like a typical ROH contest, this match would have stolen the shown on iMPACT! any given Thursday night.

After having his ribs driven hard into the steel guardrail, Daniels absorbed a great deal of punishment before his desire and intensity allowed him to come back and turn the tide, albeit for a short while. Cage reversed an attempt at the Angel’s Wings and used, of all things, a Texas Cloverleaf, which didn’t fit the psychology or flow of the match very well. But the Frog Splash a few moments later made more sense, as Christian had the Fallen Angel reeling.

Then out of nowhere following a finisher-reversal sequence, Daniels nailed the Angel’s Wings for the pinfall victory over the future 2-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion. The ending was a surprise, but I’ll admit it was a pleasant one. A founding father of ROH, Daniels had no reason to put over a guy who, as much as I enjoy his work, was clearly in transition from his old WWE job to his new gig in TNA. Good for Daniels, and good for ROH for putting him over here.

Samoa Joe & Jay Lethal versus Low Ki & Homicide. The only tag team match on the Stars of Honor collection featured four men all familiar to current TNA viewers in a wild brawl from Punk, the Final Chapter. Joe and Low Ki, who had met nearly four years earlier in Joe’s ROH debut and many times since, exchanged brutal chops in the middle of the ring as the battle raged on.

The Rottweilers took every shortcut they could, including illegal rakes to the eyes and double-team attacks, as the mentor/protégé team of Joe and Lethal tried to follow the rules and score a clean victory over their foes. The heels drilled Lethal with a nice Doomsday Device-like assisted bulldog as Homicide sprang from the top rope and drove Lethal from Ki’s shoulders all the way down to the mat face-first. Devastating. Lethal was then the victim in the standard heat segment for many minutes.

Homicide is fantastic at playing the uber-heel and making you ache to see him get punished for his antics. I couldn’t wait to see Lethal make the hot tag so Joe could smear the Notorious 187, and when the combination of Joe and ‘Cide did finally enter the ring, Joe went to town as hoped until Low Ki delivered a gorgeous double stomp to Joe’s back from the top rope while Joe had Homicide beaten in the STF.

Lethal then returned to the action and found himself on the wrong end of another beat-down as the intensity continued to build between these two teams. After Lethal nailed Ki with a full-rotation Dragon Suplex, Homicide dropped an elbow on the referee to prevent him from counting to three, so the match was thrown out. Although the contest had ended, the fight continued. Joe and Lethal were not satisfied with another DQ finish, and the four men brawled all over the arena for eight more brutal minutes.

The chair-throwing climax of the après was reminiscent of the old ECW, and had the crowd rabid in support of Joe and Lethal against the dastardly Rottweilers. It was great fun to see these four really cut loose in such a wild war.

James “Jamie By-Gawd Noble” Gibson versus Roderick Strong. If you’re an ROH fan, you’ve got to love Strong. He hits so hard that his chops hurt my chest when he delivers them to his opponents, he’s tough, and he employs quite an innovative variety of back-breakers in his arsenal.

But what surprised me in this contest was just how good of a mat technician and storyteller James Gibson is. Unfortunately, you don’t get to see either of these qualities while he’s being pounded by the Undertaker or acting like an idiot in Vicki Guerrero’s office on SmackDown. This is one reason I enjoyed this DVD so much – seeing these career “sportz entertainers” performing like quality wrestlers is just a beautiful thing.

A few months before Gibson would capture the ROH world title in an elimination match, he went to war with the “Messiah of the Back-Breaker” in Asbury Park, NJ, in April of 2005. Immediately, any trace of the goofy nonsense he’s been required to do by other employers was eliminated, and all that remained was a very good professional wrestler. Not surprisingly, Strong went to work on Gibson’s back, setting the pace for the match and telling the familiar but timeless story of Wrestler A targeting a body part on Wrestler B, while Wrestler B is forced to endure, survive, counter, and strategize a way to turn the tide.

Gibson’s drive and determination, as well as his speed and wrestling skill, kept him in the contest with the future leader of the No Remorse Corps. Gibson even showcased a nice guillotine choke submission hold, something I haven’t seen much of from the former Jung Dragon. In the end, it was Gibson’s tenacity, toughness, and wrestling acumen that allowed him to defeat Strong – he endured the dreaded Stronghold submission maneuver and countered it into a roll-up for the pinfall and the win. It was terrific to see a mid-card comedy jobber get to put on a wrestling demonstration like this against a worthy opponent before an appreciative crowd.

Brian “Spanky” Kendrick versus Bryan Danielson. Befitting his important status in ROH, the American Dragon got the final spot on this collection. When you think Ring of Honor, you’ve got to think of Bryan Danielson, and few could match up better against a Shawn Michaels trainee than another HBK pupil in Spanky.

The history between these two grapplers is a long one. Both trained at the Texas Wrestling Academy. Spanky’s first pro match was against the American Dragon, and Dragon’s first title victory was for a tag team championship with Spanky as his partner.

When two wrestlers who know each other this well meet in a one-on-one contest, especially performers the caliber of Dragon and Spanky, you can count on a very good match. As you would expect, they delivered in spades. Spanky, ever the high-flier in WWE rings, displayed an impressive command of technical mat wrestling in the opening period of the bout. He countered move after move from the “best in the world”, while frustrating Dragon with his resilience and determination.

Once the pace picked up, Spanky’s high-impact offense allowed him to take control of his more methodical opponent. But Spanky made a mistake, and Danielson countered a risky top-rope dive into Cattle Mutilation, nearly forcing Spanky to tap out. When Dragon took over, he brutally ground Spanky down, using submission attacks, strikes, and a vicious Royal Butterfly hold into a nasty suplex.

Spanky had a comeback courtesy of a super kick, his patented Sliced Bread #2, and a frog splash, but Dragon managed to kick out of each pin attempt and lock Spanky into the Sharpshooter, which I’ve never seen him utilize. Spanky escaped the hold, but he walked into a huge belly-to-back superplex and another Cattle Mutilation. After a brief exchange of holds, Danielson cradled Spanky in the Regal-plex for the win. This was a hot contest that lived up to my expectations, and a great example of what ROH brings to the table.

Closing thoughts:

This DVD is a perfect introduction to Ring of Honor for the wrestling fan who has never given them a try, because while you get a clear understanding of what ROH is all about, the transition is easier with the presence of some familiar faces from WWE and TNA. A US television-only fan might have had a bit more trouble diving right into ROH if the “Respect is Earned” ppv was their first exposure to the indy fed, but this DVD — available at FYE and Best Buy — gives such a fan the best of both worlds: a new promotion to try with some old friends along for the ride.