Best in the world.
At its peak, the ROH World Championship represented those four words to many professional wrestling fans. It’s a reputation forged by the efforts of generational talents such as Low Ki, Samoa Joe, Bryan Danielson, and many more. Through much of the 2000s, being part of the ROH World Championship lineage was seen as an exclusive, elite privilege reserved only for the very best in-ring workers of the time.
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A lot of that is mythmaking and marketing, of course. ROH fashioned itself from the very beginning around the idea that their product always showcased the very best professional wrestling available anywhere in the world. While running in rec halls and armories, the company boasted about hosting in-ring talents that could outshine even those on national TV. It’s a reputation they invented just as much as they earned it.
But don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t long until the reality matched the hype.
Samoa Joe is probably the man to thank in that regard. His near two-year reign as the ROH World Champion played host to some of the best and most iconic matches in ROH history. There’s his famed trilogy with CM Punk, the heated rivalry with Homicide, the technical wonders of his late-reign defense against Bryan Danielson.
From then on, the hits just kept coming. For much of the 2000s, if a wrestler held the ROH World Championship, many fans took it as gospel that that person might just be the very best professional wrestler in the world.
Of course, that kind of lofty stature can only hold for so long, especially for an independent promotion with the somewhat limited resources that ROH had.
Things like Takeshi Morishima having an extended reign at the expense of the company’s talent in the States, or Jerry Lynn being given a nostalgic golden watch reign to coincide with the release of The Wrestler, or having Tyler Black be champion at all chipped away at the value of the ROH World Title.
Black’s reign as champion represents an interesting transition in the title’s history. Regardless of how one feels about Black’s reign or his abilities as a wrestler, what one can not deny is that the classic ROH World Championship belt ended with him. The original design with gray rectangles and blocky letters, patterned after the old UWF World Title (Watts, not Abrams), was replaced by a more standard if somewhat generic gold plate design. The title would be redesigned twice more after that, further distancing itself from the look of the championship at the height of its notoriety.
Whichever way one looks at it, the classic ROH World Title died with Tyler Black.
The Sinclair Era
The Ring of Honor of the 2010s never felt like the Ring of Honor that I knew and loved. Under the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the company continued on, putting on shows of varying quality through the decade. Sometimes it was great, sometimes it wasn’t, but either way it felt divorced from the legacy of what might just be the greatest run a professional wrestling company has ever had.
The eyes of the wrestling world had turned to other things, as they always do in time. The decade shifted its attention to a new super indie in PWG, to the budding independent scene making noise in Europe, or to the critically acclaimed Bushiroad-era New Japan. ROH chugged along but they were no longer The Company.
At the same time, the ROH World Championship no longer felt like it belonged solely to the best wrestler in the world.
The champions that held the title through the 2010s were fine choices for where the company was. But they no longer felt like they shared the same rarified air as the champions of the past. They may all have been the best in Ring of Honor, or even just the best for Ring of Honor, but I rarely got to point to any of them and say that they were the best wrestler in the world.
ROH’s steady decline through the 2010s reached its unfortunate climax at the end of 2021 when the company announced that all talent would be released from their contracts at the end of the calendar year. The promotion would enter a hiatus after that year’s Final Battle, with a potential return in the works for April 2022.
The main event of Final Battle was meant to be Bandido defending the ROH World Championship against Jonathan Gresham.
Bandido, to me, represents a continuation of the 2010s lineage of the ROH World Title. He’s certainly not a bad choice for the belt. He has a strong following in the United States, and many people look to him as an exciting talent that’s made a lot of waves on the American independent scene.
But was he the best wrestler in the world? I don’t think I could go that far.
Hell, he wasn’t even the best wrestler in the company.
That would be his challenger, Jonathan Gresham. Gresham spent the pandemic era of ROH dedicating himself to returning the company to its roots. He formed The Foundation stable as a mission statement to return honor and glory to the company by reconnecting it to its history of fundamentally excellent professional wrestling. In line with this, Gresham championed the return of the pure rules division, a relic of peak ROH that officially ended in 2006 when Bryan Danielson unified the ROH Pure Title with the World Title.
Enough time had passed that the pure rules no longer represented a divisive stipulation often maligned by the company’s fanbase, but rather a nostalgic link to the best years of the company. At the same time, the stipulation made a perfect canvas for Gresham to prove a point: that the fundamentals of pro wrestling mattered more than anything else.
Though Bandido held the ROH World Title, it was Gresham’s run as the ROH Pure Champion that really captured the imaginations of the wider wrestling fanbase when it came to Ring of Honor in the 2020s. He told varied and interesting stories within the ruleset, winning matches with a wide variety of maneuvers and holds to prove that what’s traditional and simple could be made new and exciting again.
When Gresham dropped the Pure Title and announced his intentions to challenge for the World Title instead, it read as the only natural progression for the man who was carrying the company on his back.
But then Bandido got sick.
Due to testing positive for COVID-19, Bandido was pulled from the main event of Final Battle just days before the show. The officially recognized ROH World Championship remained with Bandido as well, neither champion nor belt could make it to the show.
Instead, Jay Lethal, on loan from AEW, was slotted into the main event to battle Gresham. The two had a deep history in the company, longtime rivals and later on a championship winning team. It was a fine enough fix given the circumstances. Whoever Gresham faced really only needed to do one thing: lose.
And lose Lethal did.
Gresham won the ROH World Championship, the only fitting result coming out of Final Battle. Anything else would have felt wrong given how much Gresham meant to the company in the last two years. But just as significant as Gresham winning, was what exactly he won. With the official title belt still in Bandido’s possession, Gresham was instead awarded with the classic ROH World Championship belt.
It’s a small difference, but one that speaks volumes. The belt that Jonathan Gresham carries today is the one held by CM Punk, Homicide, Nigel McGuinness, and more. The belt fought for when Joe and Punk went to their hour draws, the one that Punk signed his WWE contract on, the one that Bryan Danielson unified with the Pure Title in Liverpool.
It’s the belt that belongs to the best wrestler in the world.
It feels at home on the waist of Jonathan Gresham.
A Revitalized Title
Final Battle ended with a teaser that ROH would return some time in April 2022. The company has announced a return show for April 1st, with a brand new Supercard of Honor. Even so, the fate of the company and what it might look like moving forward remains uncertain.
Until then though, the ROH World Championship lives on. Not only does it survive, it has grown in Gresham’s hands.
From the moment he won the title, he made his intentions to leave his individual mark on its legacy perfectly clear. For example, he has stated that he intends to defend the title under pure rules.
In the month that he’s held the championship, Jonathan Gresham has already defended the title thrice, each time in a different promotion, each time under pure rules. He defeated AJ Gray in GCW last December, the following night he beat Adam Priest in New South, then in the new year he defeated Chris Sabin on an Impact Wrestling pay-per-view. Each of these three matches represented the first time the ROH World Title was defended in any of those promotions.
It’s ironic. It took Ring of Honor entering a vegetative state for its World Championship to come alive again. As a travelling World Champion, defending his title across the wrestling landscape, Jonathan Gresham feels larger than any single promotion. His reign feels more filled with potential and possibility than if ROH had just continued its operations normally. As it is, the ROH World Title is just as likely to appear on an episode of NJPW Strong or AEW Dynamite as it is on a brand-new Ring of Honor show in 2022.
Even now, Gresham already has multiple World Championship defenses already scheduled. On January 16th, he defends the title on his promotion Terminus’ debut show against Josh Alexander. On January 23rd, he faces Blake Christian at GCW’s debut in the Hammerstein Ballroom.
The Terminus show gives us a hint of what the future might hold for Gresham. Even though he’s the officially recognized ROH World Champion, there’s another match on that card that sees Bandido defending his own ROH World Title against Baron Black. Bandido’s claim to the title is a tenuous one at best.
He’s the lineal champion, yes. He never lost the title, true. But his is the pretender’s belt, the one that bears the right name and the right history, but never the same prestige. The real deal is in Jonathan Gresham’s hands. A unification match seems to be in the cards down the line, and I know who I’ll be pulling for.
On top of that, Gresham has already called out two potential opponents he wants to defend the title against. Two former ROH World Champions whose legacies are intrinsically connected to the phrase “best in the world.” Just the thought of those two matches happening fills the ROH World Title’s future with unbelievable amounts of excitement. If Jonathan Gresham can get through CM Punk and Bryan Danielson as he intends, there may be no one left to dispute his claim.
After all, he’ll have the belt to prove it.