In the past two weeks, WWE has agreed to terms with both Bryan Danielson and Nigel McGuinness, which MAY support rumblings that WWE was pursuing an active raid on ROH talent. Certainly as a best-case scenario, the loss of two such established and well-regarded former world champions does not bode well for Ring of Honor, which has been dealing with cancelled shows and bounced checks behind the scenes the past few months.
Who will be next to sign with WWE? What does all of this mean for Ring of Honor? Why would WWE choose to raid ROH now, of all times? Cageside Seats takes a look at the potential signees, and WWE's motivation.
For years, and most notably during the height of ROH's popularity from 2005-2007, there was rampant fear and speculation that WWE might swoop in with its deadly talons and snatch away all of ROH's top stars. The memories of ECW's talent pool being raided were on everyone's minds; the terror was palpable. But of course, it never happened. Oh yes, of course many ROH stars did sign with WWE over the years as we mentioned not too long ago, but it was over a period of six or so years, never close together, and seemingly not as a direct result of anything in particular. You would think that if WWE ever wanted to "raid" ROH they would have done so after CM Punk and Samoa Joe had a five-star match, or after ROH won Match of the Year or Promotion of the Year or Most Outstanding Wrestler honors. You may think that, but of course WWE doesn't care about the "dirt sheets".
In fact, the ROH fans and internet wrestling fans in general have been fearful of a raid for so long that they stopped really fearing it or caring about it at all some time ago. But two signings of such major, iconic ROH stars, so close together? This feels like the makings of an honest-to-God raid. The shocking thing is that it's coming at a time when Ring of Honor has the look of a company on its last legs.
So why now? My initial interpretation is that somehow Vince got wind of the fact that ROH moved its HDNet television show to Monday nights and chuckled, "Well hell, I can afford to put them out of business with six developmental contracts." Perhaps it was like "Name That Tune" and Michael Hayes said he could do it in four. You get the idea. The point is that they could have done this a long god damn time ago, back before Nigel's arms fell off, but they waited until the (seemingly) final days of the "competition". The only common thread here is ROH's move to Monday nights. Perhaps no one told Vince that practically no cable companies carry HDNet. Their television show is overwhelmingly watched after-the-fact online.
Ring of Honor has had a rough go of it in 2008 and 2009. After spending most of 2008 grooming breakout star Tyler Black for a world title run, ROH fired head booker Gabe Sapolsky. After Nigel McGuinness spent the better part of the past two years moderately-to-severely injured, they decided instead to put the world title on Jerry Lynn, notable for looking like and being older than Randy the Ram. This was a move supported and approved by essentially none of the ROH fanbase and the first sign of a major, major misstep. Then their pay-per-view contract ended and they declined to sign a new one, realizing that the PPV deal wasn't growing their audience. Over this past summer they cancelled shows, notably some TV tapings. Although it's true that in taping 6 weeks of television at a time, they didn't want to get too far ahead of themselves in the event of injury or wrestlers leaving, they could have still run the shows if they didn't need to cut costs so drastically. Some checks to wrestlers were recently bounced, but were made good by the company owner. If I had to speculate, I'd gather that if checks are bouncing, that means the allotted ROH money may be thin, and the owner may be having to dip into further or personal funds. But again, that's purely speculation. It could have been an anomaly and ROH is doing just fine financially.
ROH has survived, and honestly thrived for seven years, which is a damn sight longer than anyone could have predicted, and they have certainly solidified their legacy. They should, and will, be extremely proud with what they were able to accomplish. They established a template for how to build an independent promotion with longevity and acclaim. The majority of their releases should be watched, and they are responsible for many of the highlights of the past decade in professional wrestling.
I'm not saying that losing Danielson and McGuinness is the final nail in the ROH coffin. I'm not even saying that a full-on raid would be. But it certainly doesn't look good. So who is left in ROH that WWE may be looking at?
The aforementioned breakout star of 2008. He's the right height and look for WWE, and he's terribly young but already a perfectly solid wrestler. He lost quite a bit of his momentum and popularity when ROH decided to go the other way and put the belt on Jerry Lynn. He could end up doing fairly well in WWE or he could go the way of Ricky Ortiz when they can't figure out what to do with him. He's one of the few ROH talents with the size desired by WWE.
Claudio has flirted with a WWE deal before. He looks absolutely amazing and his physique would be on the top of Vince's list. We all know how much Vince loves an evil foreigner as well. We will see whether Claudio's last chance at WWE left a bad taste in the mouths of either side.
At one time, WWE was very high on the prospects of this guy. He's the one person in ROH who looks most like a WWE wrestler both in the ring and in appearance. He may benefit in WWE's eyes from a couple of years on the indies, similar to Jimmy Yang or Brian Kendrick's second stint with the company.
Don't think this one's going to happen again any time soon.
Kenny has been turning a lot of heads recently, and his charisma, connection with the crowd, and in-ring work gets better all the time. He was also a finalist on the second season of Tough Enough. Unfortunately, he reminds too many people of "a good Shelton Benjamin" and that will probably end up hurting his chances.
If there were any justice, Kenny Omega would be feuding with Kofi Kingston for the US Title and on your television every week. He's hilarious, has a unique look, is in the best shape this side of Claudio Castagnoli, can bring it in the ring, and is the most charismatic guy on the indies right now. Sadly, that doesn't show in ROH, where he basically just plays "enthusiastic and slightly goofy babyface". If WWE were raiding PWG, however, Omega would be the first to go. He's also been under a WWE developmental deal before and asked for his release. Odds are he's loving being a full-time wrestler splitting his time evenly between the US and Japan.
If Aries were six inches taller, he'd already be world champion. He's a more explosive, intense and well-rounded wrestler than AJ Styles, and since changing up his gimmick this real to a chickenshit flamboyant heel in the vein of Ricky Starr, he's displayed an uncanny knack for pissing off and entertaining crowds. Aries has become one of the most well-rounded and entertaining wrestlers in the world. He's just too damn short and it's a shame.
It's going to be interesting to see if anyone else signs, and even more interesting to see what happens to Ring of Honor if they do.