The History of the ROH Pure Wrestling Championship
There was nothing more appealing to a hardcore wrestling fan base than Ring of Honor in the mid-2000s.
Ring of Honor was created by RF Video in late 2001 in response to creating more content for their business post-Extreme Championship Wrestling. Thinking in terms of home release revenue, Rob Feinstein and Doug Gentry decided to start a “super-indy” promotion and run once-a-month, utilizing the cards and matches and selling them on VHS and the fledgling DVD market. Alongside head booker Gabe Sapolsky, a student under the learning tree of ECW booker Paul Heyman, ROH debuted on February 23, 2002 and the “Era of Honor Begins” started a wrestling renaissance for the hardcore wrestling fan.
Throughout Sapolsky’s 6 ½ years as ROH booker, he brought the United States a true alternative to the world of pro wrestling. His visions were, quite simply put, innovative. Sapolsky mixed different styles and talent from the United States, as well as talent from both Pro Wrestling NOAH, Dragon Gate and England onto his shows, and, in turn, sold a lot of tickets and created a lot of content, which led to relevance and critical acclaim from journalists and fans alike. His influence was greatly appreciated, as he won four straight Best Booker awards from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter from 2004-2007.
When Sapolsky’s creativity clicked, it really clicked. The quick build of Generation Next on May 22, 2004 made Alex Shelley, Austin Aries, Roderick Strong, and Jack Evans into players in one night. The long journey of Homicide winning the ROH World championship at Final Battle 2006 was an incredible emotional affair. The CZW invasion from January to June 2006 helped develop brand loyalty for each respective promotion. Even the push to re-establish tag team wrestling throughout the the late 2000s was refreshing, with Aries and Strong, the Briscoes, Kevin Steen and El Generico, Jimmy Jacobs and Tyler Black, and the Kings of Wrestling leading the way. There were countless hits that solidified Sapolsky as a great mind in wrestling.
However, when it missed, it missed. Faction Warfare in 2007 and Scramble Cage Melee in August 2004 immediately comes to mind as it comes to a major miss, but it wasn’t the end of the world. No one is perfect as it comes to a miss in wrestling. At least the attempt was made.
Regardless, there are also certain things, in fans’ minds that were cut off too soon. During Sapolsky’s entire ROH tenure, there was one, in particular to me, that stood out like a sore thumb. There was one idea that had a wealth of potential and never really had a true chance to get off the ground and blossom.
That idea...the ROH Pure Wrestling championship.
From February 14, 2004 to August 12, 2006, ROH unleashed a gimmicky midcard championship, which forced the wrestlers involved in title matches to wrestler smarter, more cerebral, and utilize more psychology. It was unpredictable, while genius, on a booking level, as it would force you to be creative on finishes and match layouts.
The rules of a Pure Wrestling championship match were as follows:
Three Rope Breaks per competitor
A twenty count on the arena floor.
No closed fists. If you were to use a closed fist once, you’d get a warning. If you used one a second time, you’d lose a rope break. If you had no more rope breaks, you’d be disqualified
You can lose the championship on a count-out or disqualification.
Those unique rules lent to some great matches. However, it was killed off FAR too soon, in my opinion. The void in ROH after this championship went away was definitely noticeable. Even when ROH brought in multiple championships from other companies to be defended on their shows (GHC Heavyweight and Junior Heavyweight titles, FIP World Championship, the NWA World’s Heavyweight belt), it didn’t feel as organic. The Pure Wrestling championship was definitely missed.
Here is a special look back at the history of the ROH Pure Wrestling championship.
THE HISTORY OF THE RING OF HONOR PURE WRESTLING CHAMPIONSHIP
The precursor to the Pure Wrestling championship started in the summer of 2003, when ROH really started to put an emphasis on the technical side of the art form. ROH management decided to put together an innovative concept to help illustrate the pure mindset called the FIELD OF HONOR (Even though Sapolsky claimed years later that the FOH and the Pure Wrestling division weren’t linked together in any facet).
Starting in September, ROH ran two Round Robin blocks, with four in each block. The winners of Block A and Block B would face off in the finals at Final Battle 2003 in Philadelphia, PA. On December 27, 2003, at the National Guard Armory, Matt Stryker (the one with the unibrow, not the teacher) submitted BJ Whitmer with his patented Strykerlock leg submission to win the Field of Honor tournament.
Celebrating in the ring after his victory, Stryker over the microphone stated that he was happy to know that ROH was creating the Pure Wrestling championship within the early part of 2004 and that he was going to win it. Later that night in the locker room, former ECW champion Jerry Lynn also shared his joy over the new championship coming into the promotion.
According to multiple “Locker Room Scoopz” leading up to Final Battle 2003, the emphasis of the pure wrestling division would happen going into 2004. In fact, it was stated that the “pure wrestling division was put on hiatus for the Field of Honor”. Once Stryker won the FOH, the company shifted its gears and put its complete focus towards wrestling at its PUREST.
In a February 9, 2004 interview with Mike Johnson from PWInsider.com, Sapolsky made his intentions on why the Pure Wrestling championship was coming into the promotion.
“Basically, it was time for another title even though I’ve always hated the idea of a secondary title. I mean, what is the point of going for something that shows you are second best? You don’t see any team in the NFL win the divisional title and then skip the Super Bowl because that was good enough for them. So we needed a concept that would give ROH another belt, but make it important and its own entity so that it can compete with the World title as being ROH’s top belt. With ROH going into new directions like more storylines, characters, blood feuds, different types of matches, etc. it made sense to have something to show our fans that we will always stay true to our roots no matter what other directions we go in. So no matter what happens in ROH, you are guaranteed a straight forward, no frills, great wrestling match on every show with a unique twist in the rules for pure wrestling title matches.”
During the first event of 2004, we got an inkling on that unique twist in the rules for pure wrestling matches. “The Battle Lines Are Drawn” on January 10, 2004 had “Mr. Field of Honor” Matt Stryker go one-on-one with Alex Shelley in the opening match. The stipulation of the contest was one of the Pure Wrestling Rules: the Three Rope Breaks per each competitor. Stryker, on the proverbial hot streak, tapped out Shelley to win this match.
With the Pure Wrestling Championship tournament set for the 2nd Anniversary show in Braintree, MA on Valentine’s Day 2004, people were posturing for position. The #1 seed AJ Styles requested to ROH management that he face his pupil Jimmy Rave in the first round. Doug Williams was being flown in from the United Kingdom and believed he was MADE for this division. CM Punk was on a complete high, ridding both Raven and Christopher Daniels from ROH over the past few months. Chris Sabin was a former NWA-TNA X-Division champion. Josh Daniels was a kid coming into his own as a pure athlete, and John Walters had to win a match against Chad Collyer at “the Last Stand” in Glen Burnie, MD on January 29, 2004 to even get into the tournament via a Three Rope Breaks match. Add in the Field of Honor winner Stryker, and it would be a complete toss up: who would become the first Pure Wrestling Champion?
February 14, 2004 was a historic day for ROH. Eight men put it all on the line in name of Pure Wrestling. Here are the first two rounds results of this tournament:
PURE TITLE TOURNAMENT 2/14/04
CM Punk defeated John Walters
Doug Williams beat Chris Sabin
Matt Stryker submitted Josh Daniels
AJ Styles pinned Jimmy Rave
CM Punk defeated Doug Williams
AJ Styles beat Matt Stryker
The finals between Styles and Punk would be the first battle held under ALL the Pure Wrestling rules. After 20 minutes of a great back-and-forth match, including Punk working on Styles’ injured leg that was aggravated in the previous two matches of the tournament, Styles found a way to persevere and pin Punk to become the first ever ROH Pure Wrestling champion. Of course, there was a bit of controversy based around a rope break: the referee said that Punk used one earlier in the match, while “the Second City Saint” maintained he didn’t. Thus, when Styles hit his second rope Styles Clash and pinned Punk with his foot on the rope, it did not matter because Punk was out of rope breaks to the referee. Regardless, AJ Styles became a part of the Ring of Honor history books.
Styles looked to propel himself into one of ROH’s top guns in 2004. However, he had two immediate issues to deal with as Pure Wrestling champion. One was the ROH World Champion Samoa Joe, who took issue with ROH creating a belt to rival his title as the #1 belt in ROH, which came to the forefront after Styles’ victory on 2/14/04. The other was Punk, who demanded a rematch for the championship. Styles agreed to it, and at “At Our Best” on March 13, 2004 at the RexPlex in Elizabeth, NJ, both men did battle one more time. This time, Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat was special guest referee. Styles overcame the physicality of Punk again and this time pinned Punk after a discus lariat.
That, unbelievably, would be his only defense of the ROH Pure Wrestling title.
Before the “At Our Best” event in Elizabeth, NJ, ROH minority owner Rob Feinstein found himself in front of an incriminating scandal. (This is not the place to write about what happened, just illustrating the issue.) NWA-TNA management, who allowed contracted performers to wrestle in ROH rings prior, were considering no longer allowing their contracted talent to work for ROH. After “At Our Best” and face-to-face meetings with TNA management to salvage the relationship and keep creative plans intact, there was an impasse. Due to that, ROH was forced to no longer use TNA talent under an exclusive contract.
That included AJ Styles. As a result, ROH had no choice but to strip him of the championship and let him leave the promotion in the middle of May 2004. It was a game-changer to say the very least.
The new championship stayed dormant in the eyes of the ROH fan base for the foreseeable future, until new plans were developed for it. In the meantime, Cary Silkin became 100% owner of ROH in the late Spring of 2004. ROH started to branch out into the Midwest and rebuild the foundation on a creative and business level. Most of all, the company began its “Reborn” series to re-establish being state-of-the-art to the game of wrestling.
On May 8, ROH announced that “a new Pure Wrestling champion would be crowned on July 17th in Elizabeth, NJ. That event - Reborn: Completion.
ROH decided to completely reboot the division and just call it the ROH PURE championship. There would be a simpler concept to crown a champion: two Four Corner Survivals would take place, and the winners of both contests would fight for the title under PURE rules. Most of all, at least under the direction of Sapolsky, AJ Styles’ run as Pure Wrestling champion would no longer be in the lineage of the championship. (Ultimately, this would change, as ROH management in 2013 rescinded that and recognized Styles as the first Pure champion.)
At Completion at Elizabeth, NJ’s RexPlex, the mini Pure title tournament took place.
MINI PURE TITLE TOURNAMENT 7/17/04 FIRST ROUND
Doug Williams defeated Jay Lethal, John Walters, and Nigel McGuinness
Alex Shelley defeated CM Punk, Austin Aries, and Matt Stryker
In the finals, Shelley, with an injured arm, took on the British submission specialist Williams. The leader of Generation Next tried as much as he could, but after running out of rope breaks, “the Human Torture Device” trapped Shelley in an arm submission within the ropes and forced the tap out. Doug Williams became the new Pure champion.
For the ROH audience, this instantly brought out a new meaning to the division. Williams was a brilliant athlete that grew up on the World of Sport style of wrestling, mixing crazy chain wrestling with submissions. Add in his experience in judo and his legitimacy in strong style, touring with Pro Wrestling NOAH in the early 2000s, Williams had crafted an incredible blend of styles in what he felt “pure wrestling” was all about.
Williams followed up his 7/17/04 title win with back-to-back defenses during Death Before Dishonor 2 weekend in Milwaukee and Chicago. On the 23rd, Williams once again pulled out a W in the rematch with Shelley. On the 24th, “the Human Torture Device” defended his title successfully in a battle with the uber intense Austin Aries. With the topsy-turvy start to this championship, Williams seemed poised to bring stability and to embark on a long reign as Pure champion.
Expect the unexpected, folks.
On August 28, 2004 in Braintree, MA, John Walters, in his home state, stunned the world and tapped out Williams with a leg grapevine submission to win the Pure title.
Walters, a product of the Killer Kowalski Wrestling Academy, was tailor-made for this championship. Originally brought into ROH to team up with a serious Tony Mamaluke as the Purists in 2003, Walters transitioned into a singles competitor by the Fall. Picking up a major win against former ROH champion Xavier at Final Battle 2003 in a Fight Without Honor, Walters gained legitimacy from the ROH crowd. Walters started lingering around the Pure division from its inception. Efficiently mastering the Lungblower and turning into the straightjacket submission, Walters became a technical, no-nonsense competitor. The victory over Williams maintained the unpredictability to the championship. More importantly, the story of Pure Wrestling matches continued to illustrate the importance of not wasting your rope breaks early on in the match and saving them for down the line.
One of the rare stories that was utilized in the early days of the Pure championship was the annoyance and disdain of it all by Samoa Joe. The third, and many say most influential, ROH World champion HATED the fact that a division was created to cater to technical wrestlers and, in his mind, watered down the importance of his championship. Joe’s first complaints came after AJ Styles’ title win at the “2nd Anniversary Show”, confronting the tournament winner after three grueling matches. However, due to the issues which led to Styles leaving the promotion, this story was never fulfilled. (In fact, according to TVTropes.org, the original plan was to unify the belts between the two men, before AJ was pulled out. This championship would have been gone a LOT sooner if that was the case.)
Before Walters and Williams had their Pure title match at “Scramble Cage Melee”, Joe came out to the ring and, once again, bashed the creation of the Pure championship and its existence. Even after Walters won the championship, Joe proceeded to attack Walters verbally to ROH management, which was reported in the ROH Newswire. The back-and-forth built to “Glory By Honor III” on September 11, 2004 in Elizabeth, NJ, where both Joe and Walters picked each other’s opponents for their respective championships. Walters picked former Pure champion Williams to face Joe for the ROH World title, while Joe chose Nigel McGuinness to fight Walters for the Pure title. Both men successfully defended their titles. Sadly, after this event, ROH management never revisited the rivalry between Joe and Walters over their championships after this initial story.
In truth, Walters seemingly never got into the groove as Pure champion or had any substantiated momentum with the ROH fan base with his title reign. Granted, he did have a disqualification win over Homicide at Weekend of Thunder: Night 2, but the talk after that match wasn’t about his successful title defense; it was on Homicide getting knocked out and his subsequent head injury. Also, he had a few wins over Jimmy Rave, but the fans never really got behind him. It got to the point where Walters “took the cash” and joined the Embassy at Final Battle 2004 in Philadelphia, PA to spice things up with his character. In spite of his great wrestling ability, Walters never really caught on as much as he should and could have.
On March 5, 2005 in Philadelphia, PA at “Trios Tournament 2005”, Walters’ reign came to a sudden halt. Jay Lethal, wrestling in spite of being attacked before the show and having a HUGE welt over his left eye, persevered and won the Pure title with his patented Dragon Suplex. At 19 years old, Lethal became the youngest singles champion in ROH history.
Coming into ROH in 2003 at 17 years old, Lethal originally was Hydro, one of the drug-addled ravers from the faction Special K. A group of high flyers, Hydro separated himself from the pack, as he was more effective in the scientific side of athletics. Becoming more serious during the “Reborn” series, Hydro found himself under the tutelage of Samoa Joe, starting at Reborn: Completion. Changing his name to Jay Lethal, he distanced himself officially from Special K and focused on becoming a respected member of the ROH locker room. Paying his dues, Lethal grew leaps and bounds under Joe’s mentorship. Ultimately, his standing up to the Embassy led him to getting a shot at the Pure championship. His persistence paid off, and Lethal became the face of the Pure division.
Lethal actually found a way to get a successful defense in, besting Spanky at “Stalemate” on April 16, 2005. In a great encounter, Lethal tapped out the future Brian Kendrick by forcing him to waste his rope breaks and then, once Spanky was out of them, put him in a Boston crab in the ropes for a tap-out win. This win over the world-traveled Spanky gave the Pure champion Lethal some instant credibility.
Then, he came to a figurative crossroads with his mentor.
At the same event where Lethal tapped out Spanky, Samoa Joe won one of the falls inside of a “Double Stakes” Four Corner Survival involving Alex Shelley, Colt Cabana, and Nigel McGuinness. There would be two falls within this match. The winner of the first fall would receive a shot at the ROH Pure championship. The winner of the second fall, with the two remaining men that weren’t involved in the first fall, would fight for a shot at the ROH World title. The former World champion Joe pinned Cabana in the first fall to get the Pure title shot against Lethal. (For those who are wondering, Shelley won the second fall and the shot against new Generation Next leader and World champion Austin Aries.)
May 7, 2005 at the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Pupil vs Mentor. Jay Lethal walked into a packed house an ROH legend in Samoa Joe. It was one of the rare times where the champion came in as the underdog. In spite of all that, Lethal brought his A game. Even after keeping Joe on his toes due to his lack of understanding with the Pure rules, going through a table at ringside, and dumping Joe on his head with his Dragon suplex, the champion could not keep the challenger down. Joe regained control by giving Lethal his Chimaraplex combination (a German suplex into a Dragon suplex into a straightjacket German suplex with a bridge) and pinning him to win the Pure championship. Samoa Joe, a man who hated the Pure championship being instituted into the company, now held that very belt he detested. The Champ Is Here.
Samoa Joe entering the Pure division gave it some much needed star power. Within three months, at “Night of the Grudges II” in Morristown, NJ on August 20, the Pure championship found itself in the main event for the first time. Joe choked out “the Fallen Angel” Christopher Daniels to retain. It looked as if there finally was some stability with “the Samoan Submission Machine” on top of the Pure championship mountain.
Of course, I was wrong.
7 days later, in Buffalo, NY, the “Dragon Gate Invasion” event would host the most important date in the history of the Pure title. Nigel McGuinness shocked the world and won the Pure championship from Joe. August 27, 2005 not only bared witness to the beginning of the most important title reign in the history of the Pure championship, but in many cases, the beginning of the end.
As it comes to Nigel McGuinness, he is the only one, as Pure champion, to come out more valuable being champion than before he won it. McGuinness’ persona evolved from a sly, cheating heel with British stylings into a lariat throwing badass.
There is no better timeline to really illustrate that change in style then between the Pure title defenses McGuinness had with Jay Lethal. In their first match on October 1, 2005 at “Joe Vs Kobashi” in New York, McGuinness barely survived with cheating tactics to pin Lethal and retain. On the contrary, on May 13, 2006 at “Ring of Homicide” in Edison, NJ, Nigel turned up the Strong Style to a high decibel, becoming more snug with his strikes and heavy with the left arm clotheslines before pinning Lethal to keep the championship. What helped trigger the sudden evolution of McGuinness within that time frame?
One word: CONFIDENCE.
McGuinness’ string of victories, by hook or by crook, bought him some serious credibility as champion. Roderick Strong in Long Island, BJ Whitmer in Massachusetts, Joe in a return match in Buffalo, three wins over Claudio Castagnoli, former Tag Team champion Tony Mamaluke, former World champion Austin Aries, and Christopher Daniels are just some of the examples of big time victories needed to put a W on the board for not just McGuinness, but the Pure championship itself. Both the person and the title were making each other at the same time.
And then, there was “the American Dragon” Bryan Danielson.
The ROH World champion claimed, like when Samoa Joe did before him, claimed that his championship was the superior title in ROH, as compared to Nigel’s Pure title. However, unlike Joe, Danielson went right after McGuinness, wanting a title-for-title match with the British grappler during “Weekend of Champions: Night 2” on April 29, 2006 in Cleveland, OH. McGuinness quickly accepted.
The battle, held under Pure rules, was fought with reckless abandon between both men. Back and forth, they left it all in the ring. When it broke down in a brawl, the fight got even more intense. In front of a packed house, “the American Dragon” flew and leveled the Pure champion with a dive over the guardrail into the third row of the crowd! Both men were devastated. Yet McGuinness, with a little pro wrestling trickery, snuck into the ring first before the 20 count and won the match. Now, due to the rules, Nigel ended up with both belts, correct?
According to ROH bylaws, the World title cannot be won by a countout or disqualification; only the Pure title could. Therefore, Bryan Danielson was still ROH World champion.
With no real decisive winner, ROH decided to go back to the well in the Summer. Running another show in Cleveland on July 29, 2006 called “Generation Now”, Danielson and McGuinness went one-on-one, this time under regular ROH rules and just for the ROH World title. This time, Danielson, despite going through the Pure champion’s arsenal, came out on top with his patented small package. The series was tied 1-1.
There needed to be a tiebreaker.
On an edition of the ROH Video Recap on August 9, 2006, then-ROH Lieutenant Commissioner Adam Pearce held a contract signing between World champion Danielson and Pure champion McGuinness. The match would happen on August 12, 2006 in Liverpool, England. Both titles would not just be on the line, but would become unified. The battle, thanks to McGuinness’ insistence, would be contested under Pure Rules. Most importantly, unlike Weekend of Champions Night 2, if the match ended on a countout or disqualification, both titles would change hands. If there was a double DQ or countout, the match would automatically. The emphasis was clear: THERE MUST BE A WINNER. Sadly, there was an ultimate finality to one thing:
The Pure Title was going away forever.
The final Pure title match on US soil took place on August 4, 2006 in Lake Grove, NY. McGuinness, at “Time To Man Up”, successfully defended his title against Delirious. “The Lizard Man”, who really came into his own this year, particularly with the development of his Cobra Stretch submission hold, gave a great battle. However, Nigel persevered and successfully retained. (WRITER’S NOTE: I was actually at this show, driving 2+ hours to check this one out. In hindsight, I was happy to be at this one to see the last real Pure title match in ROH.)
August 12, 2006. The Liverpool Olympia. Liverpool, England. 1700 fans. Champion vs Champion. Title for title. World Title vs Pure Title. Danielson vs McGuinness. The Best Wrestler in the World vs the World’s Best Pure Wrestler.
In a match that many consider to be an all-time classic, Danielson and McGuinness tore the house down in Liverpool. Even though Pure rules were be followed, they were only a side course for the main course. McGuinness maximized his moments within this war, showing his grit by getting abused all match long. A lasting image in ROH folklore was McGuinness taking the headshots straight into the ringpost, splitting his head right down the middle, both bloodying and swelling him up simultaneously. Both men unloaded EVERYTHING out of their arsenals. In the end, Danielson’s MMA elbow strikes consumed McGuinness’ cranium region, knocking him out, rendering him unconscious, and ending the match. “The American Dragon” won the unification match, annihilating Nigel McGuinness, and truly became the “Best Wrestler in the World.”
Bryan Danielson also symbolically ended the two and a half year existence of the ROH Pure title.
Yet, there was still one last moment the Pure title would endure on a ROH event. On August 25, 2006 in St. Paul, MN, ROH management decided to put together one final Danielson vs McGuinness match for 2006: 2 out of 3 falls. After going to a 60 minute draw with one fall a piece, Danielson, spent and exhausted, grabbed the microphone and both the World and Pure belts. Speaking from the heart, Danielson gave the physical Pure championship over to “the man who made it” McGuinness. Both men shook hands, and that was the last time we would ever see the ROH Pure belt.
In future years, it was stated by ROH booker Sapolsky that the Pure championship was written out of ROH because, from a booking perspective, he went “as far as he could with the championship”. Instead, he promised, in a ROH Newswire in 2006, that there would be matches, when necessary, held under Pure Rules. The only match on record held under those rules would be during Death Before Dishonor V Night 1 on August 10, 2007, when Sweet and Sour Inc’s Chris Hero overcame McGuinness in a grudge encounter.
More recently, the Sapolsky-booked EVOLVE has found a way to bring the Pure Rules into modern day wrestling. The group Catch Point, founded by Drew Gulak in 2015 based around catch wrestling, and later taken over by Stokely Hathaway in 2017, made a match on EVOLVE 104 on May 19, 2018 between Dom Garrini and former member Tracy Williams under the three-rope break, 20 count on the floor, and no closed fists stipulation. However, it wasn’t Pure Rules; it was “Catch Point Rules”.
Wrestling always recycles, folks.
I always felt the ROH Pure championship was an underrated and overlooked idea during the “glory days” of Gabe Sapolsky’s era of Ring of Honor. It brought a unique perspective to a company that was was already unique to begin with. In an era where pro wrestling always proclaims to be state-of-the-art in ring, the Pure championship was a great idea from an in-ring and creative aspect. It was gutsy, but never panned out the way that it should have,
If for nothing else, it gave Jay Lethal his first major singles championship, helped propel Nigel McGuinness to the main event, and allowed ROH, for a short time, to deviate from the norm and bring some diversity to the card. And that’s what it’s all about in wrestling: elevating and diversifying.