A look back through History: The Ring of Honor World Championship - Part One

After a short break, Paul is back with the next Championship history instalment. This should be a good one!

A look back through History: The Ring of Honor World Championship - Part One

Since August last year, I have written about the history of five distinct Championships. The Original World Heavyweight Title, the NWA World's Heavyweight Title, the IWGP Heavyweight Title, and most recently the Original and NWA World Women's Title. All of these articles were incredibly interesting to me to research and write about, and I hope you, the readers, enjoyed them too. 

But recently, I thought to myself; 

"Diving back into history is fun and all, but what about doing something a bit more modern?" 

It was then that I hit upon the idea to cover something which to my knowledge has not had extensive coverage in written form, and it served the dual purpose of covering something that, while technically considered historical, was more modern by its nature, but crucially, allowed me to write about some of my favourite wrestlers this world has ever seen. 

I first discovered Ring of Honor around 2005, thanks to the amazing (and much missed!) Wrestling Channel on Sky. Occasionally, an ROH show would be aired, and you would see talent like you couldn't believe at the time. 

Talent like Matt Sydal, AJ Styles, Rocky Romero and even Steve Corino, all either made their names or significantly furthered them wrestling for the Philadelphia based promotion. 

In fact, it could be argued that Ring of Honor is an unofficial development territory for the WWE, on account of the fact that so many of their former World Champions now grace our TV screens through Raw, Smackdown, and NXT every week. 

It is with this in mind that we today embark on a new journey, albeit one that is still relatively recent, as we explore the history and holders of quite possibly one of the most important Championships of the 21st Century; The Ring of Honor World Championship. 

February 23rd, 2002 was a day just like any other, except in the Professional Wrestling world where actions were set in place that would end up having far reaching implications for the entire business. On that day, Rob Feinstein founded Ring of Honor when his VHS tape business needed to fill the void left by ECW’s closure. Feinstein decided, after months of trying to tie down a partnership with CZW, that he would begin his own promotion and sell those tapes directly through his company, RF Video. No one knew it at the time, but Ring of Honor would go on to be one of the major players in independent wrestling. 

With their unique “Code of Honor” rules, Ring of Honor was made to feel more like legitimate Professional Wrestling, rather than “Sports Entertainment”. The Code of Honor stated: 

  • You must shake hands before and after every match 
  • No outside interference 
  • No sneak attacks 
  • No harming the officials 
  • Any action resulting in a disqualification violates the Code of Honor 

As well as serving the purpose of giving the promotion a different feel to others, it also gave another unique edge; Heels could get over far more quickly and effectively, simply by not adhering to these rules. 

Ring of Honor had been running for three months when the decision was made to crown a Ring of Honor Champion, and so on July 27th 2002, ROH "Crowning a Champion" was held in Philadelphia. The first Ring of Honor Title was simplistic in design, a silver-plated main plate with black banners and ROH in red across the middle. 

On that night, Low Ki, Christopher Daniels, Brian Kendrick (going by the name of Spanky), and Doug Williams would fight to become the inaugural Ring of Honor Champion. 

Something of an independent wrestling veteran at this point despite having only been wrestling for four years, Low Ki (real name Brandon Silvestry) was the man who would walk away victorious, and with the distinct honour of being the first ever Ring of Honor Champion. 

Debuting in 1998, Low Ki was trained by Jim Kettner and Nelson Erazo, otherwise known as Homicide. After his training he would debut with Jersey All Pro Wrestling (JAPW) by unsuccessfully challenging Homicide and Kane D for the JAPW Tag Team Championship alongside Ron Zombie. A year later, he challenged for the JAPW Light Heavyweight Title twice but was unsuccessful, however he was able to win JAPW’s “Best of the Light Heavyweights” Tournament. 

Following this in 2000, he would become an unsigned “enhancement talent” (read: Jobber) for WWF and appeared regularly on “Metal” and “Jakked” losing to the likes of Crash Holly, Essa Rios and Raven. 

He would eventually capture both the JAPW Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight titles in 2001, before losing them both in one match just a month after winning them.  

When Ring of Honor was formed in 2002, Low Ki was considered to be one of the “Founding Fathers” as he appeared on it’s very first show. ROH would be something of a home for him during this time, as he would stay with the company for four years, splitting his time between them and another upstart promotion you may have heard of, Total Nonstop Action (TNA), where he was part of Triple X with Christopher Daniels and Elix Skipper. Not content with just being ROH Champion, Low Ki added the TNA X Division Championship to his growing repertoire, before winning the NWA World Tag Team Championships three times as part of Triple X. Low Ki has something of an affinity towards TNA, or Impact as it is now known, as he has been a part of their roster on and off again for nearly twenty years.  

Low Ki’s career has taken him through just about every major promotion he could have been to. He is a former three-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion in NJPW, a former Pro Wrestling Guerrilla World Champion, as well as countless other Championships from around the world. 

His brief spell with WWE as part of the reality-based NXT show as Kaval however, may represent something of a low point. Despite winning Season Two of NXT, and receiving a guaranteed title shot of his choosing, Kaval was unable to capture the Intercontinental Championship from then-Champion, Dolph Ziggler at Survivor Series in 2010. Just a month later, he would be released from his WWE contract. 

This didn’t faze him however, as he was right back on the Indy circuit. Today, he is still renowned as one of the best outside of the WWE bubble, and has most recently been a part of Major League Wrestling. Whilst his inaugural run as ROH champion lasted just 56 days with one successful defence, against AJ Styles no less, his overall championship record is incredible, with a total of 36 Championships. 

At 41 years old, it seems fair to say Low Ki still has plenty of time left in the tank, and while he may not be a WWE Hall of Famer anytime soon, he is still undoubtedly one of the biggest stars in Professional Wrestling as a whole. 

Back to his reign as ROH Champion though, it was a reign that was over before it ever truly began. As mentioned prior, his reign was ended at just 56 days, and one successful title defence. He would lose the title to a man who sadly is no longer with us, but whose name is etched in Professional Wrestling history as a result of his title win, Xavier. 

Trained by Tony Devito, and debuting in 1995, the man known as Xavier was born John Jairo Bedoya Jr in Queens, New York in 1977. Adopting the ring name Xavier, he competed for numerous independent promotions throughout his career, including USA Pro Wrestling/UXW, East Coast Wrestling Association (ECWA), Jersey All Pro Wrestling (JAPW), New York Wrestling Connection (NYWC), and Chaotic Wrestling. 

In his early career, he was a three-time Impact Championship Wrestling World Champion, JAPW Light heavyweight Champion, and won the USA Pro Wrestling Triple Crown by capturing their Heavyweight, United States and Tag Team Championships, ironically winning the tag team titles with the man he would beat for the ROH Championship, Low Ki. He would also win the Xtreme Championship when the company later rebranded as USA Xtreme Wrestling. 

In Ring of Honor, Xavier was a heel, and won the ROH Championship from Low Ki in typical heel fashion, by cheating, as he was assisted by Christopher Daniels “Prophecy” stable, which he would join soon after winning the title. He would then embark on a 182-day reign as ROH Champion, in which time, he had four successful title defences against Jay Briscoe, AJ Styles and twice against Paul London. 

Xavier would stay with Ring of Honor until 2004, when after recovering from a shoulder injury that had side-lined him for six months, he returned to the independent circuit. Between 2003 and 2010 he would rack up several more Championship victories, with the most impressive being his 497-day reign as North Eastern Wrestling (NEW) Heavyweight Champion. He also made regular appearances for WWE between 2002 and 2007, appearing on “Jakked” and “Velocity” as either enhancement talent or an extra in angles. He would later retire in 2011. 

Despite his retirement, he was slated to return to the ring for ROH’s Past v Present event in March 2020, but sadly the event was cancelled due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Ultimately, this robbed the fans of one last chance to see Xavier in the ring, as he passed away just a few months later at the age of just 43. No cause of death has ever been publicly released, but it is said that it was sudden and unexpected. In any case, Xavier’s legacy will live on through Ring of Honor, and his overall championship record.

Now, when it comes to wrestlers who held the title and went on to become big stars, there is possibly, and arguably, no bigger name on this list than the man who would take the title from Xavier. 

Xavier’s reign as ROH Champion would end 22nd March, 2003, at the ROH "Night of Champions" event in Philadelphia. What then unfolded was the longest reign as Ring of Honor Champion in history, and given the length of the reign, it is unlikely to be beaten anytime soon. 

Xavier’s reign was ended by none other, than Samoa Joe. 

Unless you have been living under a rock (and no I don’t mean Dwayne Johnson) for the last fifteen years, you do not need me to tell you just how good the "Samoan Submission Machine" is. His journey to stardom is well documented through the companies he has been a part of, and has won major gold in almost all of them. The fact that he never won the WWE Championship prior to his release/re-signing with NXT, is an absolute travesty. 

When you consider that early in his career while with former WWE affiliate promotion UPW, where he feuded with John Cena I might add, he was told by Bruce Prichard and Jim Ross that he had no future in Professional Wrestling, Joe’s rise to the top of the business must be even more satisfying for the man himself. After becoming the longest reigning UPW Champion, he moved on to Ring of Honor, where he impressed everyone so much after one match that they began to book him full time. It was shortly after this that Joe won the ROH Championship from Xavier. 

But it didn’t stop there. Joe was booked on the cross branded show between ROH and Frontier Wrestling Alliance based in England, and defended the title against The Zebra Kid at the New Frontiers show on 17th May, 2003. In doing so, the ROH Championship became the ROH World Championship. 

In total, in an incredible 645-day reign as ROH Champion, Joe successfully defended the title 29 times, beating just about anyone you can think of. The list of competitors he beat contains Doug Williams, Bryan Danielson, CM Punk, Jay Briscoe and countless more. 

Following his successful ROH run, he was signed by TNA, where among other things, he was part of the amazing, and still revered to this day, triple threat match between himself, AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels for the TNA X Division Championship, as well as later winning the TNA World Heavyweight Championship, and his stellar feud with Kurt Angle for all the gold in TNA. 

If Joe’s time with Ring of Honor had put him on the map, then his time with TNA made him into the white-hot star that he ultimately became. Despite what many called a lacklustre reign as TNA World Heavyweight Champion, his 182-day reign with the strap proved that he could carry a company’s top title. In addition to his World Title, Joe won five X Division Titles, a TNA Television Title and the TNA World Tag Team Titles twice. In doing so, he became the third Triple Crown and Grand Slam Champion in TNA history, and that’s not taking into account all his other accomplishments in TNA, not to mention being part of some of their iconic stables such as the Main Event Mafia. To be honest, Joe’s TNA run is an article by itself! 

Joe stayed with TNA until 2015, in between runs with Pro Wrestling Noah in Japan, and only left TNA/Impact when Stamford, Connecticut came calling. Joe signed with NXT, and debuted to a rapturous ovation at NXT Takeover: Unstoppable when he came out and confronted then-NXT Champion Kevin Owens at the conclusion of his match with Sami Zayn. 

From there, Joe slowly ascended the ranks in NXT, winning the inaugural Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic with Finn Balor, before turning on him and going after the NXT Championship. 

This writer was lucky enough to watch Joe challenge Balor for the title at NXT Takeover: London, and while he didn’t win the title on that occasion, it wasn’t long after until Joe snatched the title away from Balor at an NXT Live Event in Lowell, Massachusetts. 

With his title win, Joe then defeated Finn Balor in a rematch on 8th June, 2016, in a steel cage match, at NXT Takeover: The End. His first reign ended at 121 days when he was beaten by Shinsuke Nakamura, but he won the title back at NXT Takeover: Toronto in November that same year. This was just to set up a scenario where Shinsuke would win the title back in front of the Japanese crowd on the international tour though, and Joe’s second reign lasted just fourteen days. 

Soon after this, he was called up to the main roster, and would over time become a two–time United States Champion. He unsuccessfully challenged for the WWE and Universal Championships on several occasions, before being shelved due to concussion related injuries and moved to the announce desk. Joe was then shockingly released after this year's Wrestlemania, but was quickly re-signed by Triple H to an exclusive NXT deal, where he currently acts as William Regal’s enforcer. 

Joe may not be able to wrestle right now, but we all hold out hope that someday soon, he will be cleared. 

Joe’s title reign being such a legendary one, whoever was able to beat him would surely have their name catapulted into the stratosphere, and perhaps, at the tail end of 2004 at least, there was no one better suited to do so than Austin Aries. 

In ROH, he had fought his way up the ranks and become one of their top guys. Having initially teamed with Alex Shelley, Roderick Strong and Jack Evans as part of Generation Next, it was while part of that stable that Aries would win the ROH World Championship and truly become the top guy in the promotion. In a 174-day reign as Champion, he would defend the title successfully sixteen times, beating the likes of Colt Cabana, Kevin Steen, Bryan Danielson and even Samoa Joe again, in matches that sometimes were away from American soil. 

He would later join TNA, as Austin Starr, with a paparazzi gimmick, and for over a decade he would regularly flit between TNA and ROH, as well as taking independent bookings around the world. At one point, Aries was known as the “Belt Collector”, owing to the many Championships he was winning around the world, at one point holding the Defiant, IPW:UK, DEFY, World Series Wrestling, IMPACT World and IMPACT Grand Championships all at the same time! 

In 2016 though, Aries signed with WWE. He was assigned to the NXT brand, where he quickly moved through the ranks and was moved to newly revived Cruiserweight division's 205 Live show to be a credible contender to Neville’s Cruiserweight Championship. At Wrestlemania 33, Aries was defeated by Neville (now AEW's resident Bastard, PAC) with the title on the line on the pre-show, and shortly after left WWE, initially believed to be due to being frustrated at his position on the card, he would later reveal it was due to that age old classic, “Creative had nothing for him.” 

We will come back to Austin Aries later, as he is one of only a small group of men who held the ROH Title more than once, but for now, let's move on to the man that beat him for the title, and a man who is still so loved and revered by all of us in the Professional Wrestling world that his name is still sung at WWE shows even though he has not appeared there for almost a decade.

I could wax lyrical about this man for days. He is the quintessential fan favourite. Almost everyone who is a Professional Wrestling fan is enamoured by him. Real Rasslin’s very own Adz has a tattoo on his arm dedicated to the “Best in the World”. 

But before he was tearing it up on our screens in stellar matches with John Cena, Jeff Hardy, and, let's face it, just about anyone he ever stepped in the ring with, he was “just another guy” on the independent circuit looking to make a name for himself. 

It almost doesn't need saying, but I am of course talking about CM Punk.

Starting out as a backyard wrestler, Punk, real name Phil Brooks, would move on to the Steel Dominion school where he was trained by Ace Steel and Danny Dominion. He would form a close bond with fellow trainee Scott Colton, known more today as Dark Order’s Colt Cabana, and after doing the rounds on the indies came to the attention of IWA: Mid-South. 

There, Punk began to get his name known and showcase his talents. Between 2001 and 2005, Punk wrestled over one hundred matches for IWA:MS, capturing their Light Heavyweight Championship twice, and the Heavyweight Championship five times. What’s impressive is that during that time, for almost a year between 2003 and 2004, Punk refused to work for IWA:MS due to managements treatment of fellow wrestler Chris Hero. 

Having successfully built his name in IWA:MS, Ring of Honor came calling. Punk quickly became a top heel for the company, calling on his Straight Edge lifestyle to further a feud with Raven where he likened him to his alcoholic father, and also formed the Second City Saints with Colt Cabana, winning the ROH Tag Team Championships twice. 

Then came the famous “Summer of Punk” angle. It was widely known that Punk had signed a contract with WWE, so his capture of the ROH World Title from Austin Aries caught everyone by surprise. As a babyface at the time, Punk quickly turned heel and proceeded to cut one of the best promos in Professional Wrestling ever. After first talking up the importance of the title, he would soon break off into a parable; 

"There was once an old man walking home from work, and he's walking in the snow and he stumbled upon a snake frozen in the ice. He took that snake and he brought it home, and he took care of it. And he thawed it out, and he nursed it back to health. And as soon as that snake was well enough, it BIT that old man. And as that old man laid there dying, he asked the snake, 'Why? I took care of you. I loved you. I saved your life.' And that snake looked that man right in the eye and said, 'You stupid old man. I'm a snake.' The greatest thing the Devil ever did, was convince you people he didn’t exist, but you’re looking at Him right now! I am the Devil himself! And all of you stupid people fell for it!" 

Punk then stated he was taking the title with him to WWE, even going so far as to sign his WWE contract on the ROH Title at Sign of Dishonor on 7th August, 2005. It was one of the hottest angles in all of Professional Wrestling at that time, with Punk playing the villain to absolute perfection. 

Of course, we all know what happened after CM Punk moved on from Ring of Honor, after a stint in WWE’s development territory of the time, Ohio Valley Wrestling, where he won every title he could, Punk was called up as part of the newly revived ECW brand, and began to work his way up the ranks. His ECW TV debut was a win over former ECW World Heavyweight Champion, Justin Credible, and from there, Punk quickly rose up the ranks, eventually winning the ECW World Heavyweight Championship. 

Punk then moved to Raw in the 2008 draft, and having won the Money in the Bank briefcase at the previous Wrestlemania, he would cash in against Edge the night after Night of Champions in what to this writer, and I’m sure, countless others around the world, was an iconic moment. Punk had arrived. He would go on to win several more Championships with WWE, picking up a total of three World Heavyweight Championships, two WWE Championships, (one of which is still the longest reign of the modern era at 434 days), two Money in the Bank Briefcases, a World Tag Team Championship reign with Kofi Kingston, and a single run as Intercontinental Champion. In fact, Punk set the record for becoming the fastest Triple Crown winner in WWE history at 203 days. His match with John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011 is an absolute classic, in terms of it encasing everything that Professional Wrestling is about. Drama, intensity, emotion... It was all present in a match that will live through the ages. 

Sadly, as we all know, Punk’s time with WWE ended both sourly and prematurely, due to a multitude of reasons that he has been very vocal about, and while he officially retired in 2014, he has stated in the past that there are a few things he would be willing to return to the squared circle for, such as a match with Will Ospreay. 

Personally, whilst I would absolutely love Punk to return to the ring, he got out while the going was good, and has been able to live his life the way he wants to. He will always be a cult icon to wrestling fans, and no doubt we will all pray for the day that he decides to return to the ring, but if that day never comes, we have so many amazing CM Punk moments to be thankful for, and for that I say “Thank you Punk.” 

Ultimately though, CM Punk did lose the Ring of Honor World Championship on his way out the door, his 55-day reign coming to an end after four successful title defences. The man who would beat him was not someone anyone really expected, but he sure was noble... 

And that is where we will pick up next time! Thank you so much for reading this (admittedly lengthy!) opening part in this new series, and I hope to see you all next time as we continue our look back at the history of the Ring of Honor World Championship!