Thursday, December 17, 2015

Top Ten Thursday: ROH World Champions

On July 27th, 2002, Low Ki became the first champion in Ring of Honor history. Since then, including him, there have been 22 reigns with the belt. At the time of this writing, Final Battle 2015 hasn't happened yet, so that number could be up to 23 if AJ Styles beats Jay Lethal. Winning the ROH Title can mean big things in your future. Some guys have gone on to win the WWE Title, some the TNA Title and some are among the top guys on the indies still to this day. On the other hand, some, like Xavier, have never really gone anywhere significant. This lists looks at my choices for the ten best ROH Champions of all time.

10. Adam Cole

During the first ROH World Title reign of Jay Briscoe, he suffered an injury and was forced to relinquish the gold. A tournament was set up to crown a new champion, coming down to Michael Elgin and Adam Cole. After a grueling match that saw Cole hold back his frustrations and manage to not get disqualified, Cole won the title. Jay Briscoe came out to hand over the belt and shook hands with Cole. Cole would deliver a superkick to the back of the head, turning heel. Now, this wasn’t one of my favorite eras in Ring of Honor, so I wasn’t fully watching on a regular basis. I’ve gone back to check some of it out and Cole really seemed to be a bright spot in the company. Cole really shined as a heel champion, which works for him because he’s so very good at playing the dick role. He was allowed to run with this character and belt for 275 days and had 13 successful defenses before dropping the belt to Elgin. I really want to see Cole get another run, during a better time period for Ring of Honor, where he could really have a memorable run.  Honestly, among current roster members, he’d be my pick for the safest bet to become the third two-time champion in company history.

9. Jay Lethal

This is being written before Final Battle 2015 airs, so Jay Lethal may or may not be the current ROH World Champion. Either way though, he’s already put himself towards the top of the best ROH Champions in history. One thing that jumps out at you when looking at Lethal’s reign is that he was the first man to hold both the ROH World Title and ROH Television Title at the same time. That in itself is a huge accomplishment. Led by Truth Martini, Lethal had a 500+ day run with the TV Title. In the middle of that, he bested Jay Briscoe to make himself the double champion, becoming the first man to pin Briscoe in over 800 days. When it comes to the quality of the matches during his run, they’ve all been pretty good. He had two title defenses against Roderick Strong, one of which went to an hour draw and one that was a great win on ROH TV. He also retained against Kyle O’Reilly to main event another Pay-Per-View, heading into his Final Battle defense against AJ Styles. I don’t know where his reign will stand when it comes to an end, but for now, it’s good enough to eke into the list.

8. CM Punk

Here we have arguably the most memorable ROH World Title runs, even if it wasn’t particularly long. With news that CM Punk had signed with the WWE, his scheduled final match was against Austin Aries for the ROH World Title. Punk shocked the world by finally, after multiple shots, winning the title and then turning heel. He would come out in a new suit, badmouth the fans and then sign his WWE contract on top of the ROH World Title. That is such a great way to draw heat.  Mick Foley got involved, telling Punk to do the right thing and convincing him to defend the title against the likes of Jay Lethal and Roderick Strong. He also managed successful defenses against Christopher Daniels and James Gibson, each time surprising the fans with the fact that he came closer and closer to leaving to the WWE with the ROH World Title. Finally, on August 12th, 2005, Punk’s reign came to an end in a Four Corner Elimination match against Gibson, Samoa Joe and Daniels, when Gibson hit a super Tiger Driver. Punk hugged Gibson before leaving officially the next night on good terms. It only lasted 55 days, but the emotion and angle behind the reign, as well as the headlines that it made, earn this a spot on the list.

7. Kevin Steen

Since I first saw him arrive in Ring of Honor back in 2007, Kevin Steen stood out as a superstar. After a phenomenal rivalry with former partner El Generico, Steen was forced to leave the company for nearly half a year. When he returned, he was “Wrestling’s Worst Nightmare”. An angle that saw him feud with Jim Cornette and even hack ROH’s message boards led to Steen getting on a winning streak. He would defeat Davey Richards, a guy who just missed out on making the list, to become the first Canadian ROH World Champion at Border Wars 2012. Steen was one of the most interesting characters in all of pro wrestling at the time and his matches usually delivered during the reign. Successful defenses against Jay Lethal, Michael Elgin, his rival El Generico and more, highlighted the run. After 18 defenses and 328 days, he lost the strap to Jay Briscoe. Steen’s reign was definitely one of the better runs in company history, in terms of both quality and importance.

6. Jay Briscoe

Coming in at number six is the second of two guys to win the ROH World Championship on more than one occasion. First, at Supercard of Honor VII, Jay Briscoe ended Kevin Steen’s title reign to win the belt for the first time ever. He had come up short against former champions like Samoa Joe and Nigel McGuinness, but finally won the big one. He was no longer going to be looked at as a really good tag team wrestler. Unfortunately, that run was cut short at 89 days due to an injury on July 3rd, 2013. After runs by Adam Cole and Michael Elgin a little over a year later, Briscoe dethroned Elgin to win the title for a second time. This reign proved to be much better, lasting 286 days and spanning 13 defenses with the strap (19 total). During this time, he defeated Cole, Tommaso Ciampa, Joe and others. The two reigns spanned a timeframe that saw Briscoe go over 800 days without getting pinned. If we were discussing titles in general in ROH, Jay has 8 Tag Team Title reigns to go along with the two World Title runs, he’d rank higher as he is the most decorated wrestler in ROH history. Just talking World Titles, he’s had some great success, but some have certainly been better.

5. Austin Aries

Austin Aries is pretty notorious in the ROH history books. Not only was he the man to end Samoa Joe’s record 645 day reign as ROH Champion, but he was also the first ever two-time champion in company history. His first run with the title spanned 16 defenses and 174 days before dropping it to CM Punk, leading to a massive storyline. Aries would compete in the tag team ranks with Roderick Strong, leave ROH and then return before his run. One of the things that puts him ahead of other two time champion Jay Briscoe, is that Aries’ reigns were very different. He reinvented himself, with his second run being that of an arrogant heel persona. During this run, he introduced the “A Double L Double”, or the Austin Aries Lethal Lottery, which gave out random title shots. While this run with the gold lasted longer at 245 days, it featured less defenses at 13. Unfortunately, it was during this run with the belt that my interest in Ring of Honor started to wane. An extremely disappointing one hour draw with Tyler Black was pretty much the final straw for me, as I stopped watching the company for a while. Still, the impact and importance of Austin Aries cannot be denied.

4. Takeshi Morishima

The first ever Ring of Honor show I saw was Final Battle 2006, where Homicide won the ROH World Title from Bryan Danielson. I celebrated with mine and Homicide’s hometown New York crowd. The next time I went to a show, Takeshi Morishima debuted and lost to Samoa Joe in a fantastic match. The next night, he won the ROH World Title from Homicide and I remember being highly upset. Morishima and his title reign would quickly turn my frown upside down. One of the reasons that 2007 is one of, if not my all-time favorite year in ROH, is because of Morishima’s title reign. The guy was putting on fantastic matches each time out, with such a variety of opponents. From Bryan Danielson to Nigel McGuinness to Claudio Castagnoli to Shingo and a bunch more, Morishima’s 231 day reign was just so very good. While his matches and run were great, I wanted to see him lose badly, giving me even more interest into every defense. The emotion I felt was unmatched. I saw him and Danielson have a classic in front of me and could not have been more disheartened when Morishima retained. When Nigel McGuinness finally dethroned the monster champion, it felt absolutely earned. Morishima’s run did wonders for a lot of guys, like Nigel and Claudio, making it incredibly productive.

3. Samoa Joe

With the first two champions in Ring of Honor history, Low Ki and Xavier, having less than stellar runs with the belt, something or someone needed to step up. Enter Samoa Joe. Joe was unlike anyone else in wrestling. His blend of size, strength, technical prowess, striking ability and agility was completely unmatched. He won the ROH Title from Xavier on March 22nd, 2003 and proceeded to hold onto it for a record 645 days, not losing until December 26th, 2004. During that span, Joe defended the title 29 times. More important than the quantity of those matches was that Joe put Ring of Honor on the map. The buzz he generated with his style made people pay attention to ROH in a way that they hadn’t in the first year of the promotion. When he finally lost the belt to Austin Aries, it vaulted Aries into history while also solidifying him as a top guy for years to come within the company. If this list was purely based on importance and significance, Joe would be an easy choice for the top slot. Alas, he will settle for third because two men would best his efforts.

2. Bryan Danielson

Despite portraying a heel for most of his title run, Bryan Danielson pretty much defined the fighting champion style. After taking the ROH World Title from James Gibson, Danielson was on a mission to prove to everyone that he was the “best in the world”. That meant Danielson would accept challenges from anyone. By anyone I don’t only mean the ROH roster. He also faced members of CZW like Chris Hero and Sonjay Dutt, Japanese talent like KENTA, and even Lance Storm. He has the third longest reign in company history at 462, while being tied for the most defenses with a whopping 38. The quality of matches during Danielson’s reign was very high, including one I gave five stars to against Nigel McGuinness. That match took place in England and made Danielson the original double champion in ROH as he won the Pure Title and retired it. His reign saw him feud with Homicide, KENTA, Colt Cabana, Nigel, Samoa Joe and others. If you’ve only ever seen him as Daniel Bryan, you’ve been missing out because his entire time in ROH was something special, but his title reign featured absolutely must see wrestling. The “Best in the World” chants that he got were completely warranted.

1. Nigel McGuinness

For me, nothing tops the World Title run of Nigel McGuinness. After coming up short against Bryan Danielson and Takeshi Morishima, Nigel finally made it to the top of Ring of Honor by beating Morishima at Undeniable. It was a feel good moment and something that had been built to for a very long time. Unfortunately, Nigel got injured in one of his first defenses and had to sit out a show in New York that I attended. Then, at his next show in New York, he and Austin Aries put on the greatest match I’d ever seen live, but Nigel busted up his face badly and had to miss his defense the next night in New York. The fans turned on him, chanting for him to drop the belt, among other negative chants. It was very unjust for a guy that worked so hard to get to the top. ROH ran with it as Nigel went full on heel, leading to an incredible series of defenses. Nigel’s reign lasted 545 days and was the only one in company history to last a full calendar year. He tied Danielson with 38 successful defenses but the matches he had were almost always incredible. From wars with Chris Hero to rematches with Bryan Danielson to outings against Claudio Castagnoli, Nigel always delivered. He stepped up against Japanese stars like KENTA and Naomichi Marufuji, having great matches with them too. Hell, his matches with Kevin Steen, El Generico and Tyler Black were absolutely pivotal to those three men become major singles stars in ROH and beyond. It’s a damn shame that Nigel had to retire because no other guy on the indies put on the types of performances that Nigel did during this era. He had fantastic matches, he was the champion when ROH got their first TV deal, he had longevity and he helped create stars. There is absolutely nothing else you could want from your champion during his reign.