From its beginning, Ring of Honor always had one clear focus. It was to provide no-nonsense technical wrestling that respected the ethos of the art of wrestling rather than the spectacle. This has been constant from the opener of the first show in Philadelphia, PA through its most recent main event in Cincinnati, OH this past Friday night. No matter how each guy was aligned, no matter what their personality was, they all had one thing in common; they all respected the spirit of competition.
This respect is, or at least was, personified through a handshake that happened before every match. It's called the Code of Honor, and it's usually expected to be followed before every match with very little exception. It's what gave ROH the majority of its identity. It didn't matter if the two wrestlers disliked each other or disagreed with tactics. They both agreed that the match, the spirit of competition, was too important to disrespect. If two men made it to Ring of Honor, it was assumed they were good enough to be there to compete at the high level of athleticism and skill, so they deserved a handshake out of respect at least.
Things have changed since the beginning of the company. The Code of Honor is rarely if ever followed anymore. If the match is being contested between a babyface and a heel, the bad guy often times refuses to shake the good guy's hand. At the most recent ROH show in Philadelphia, the Code was offered in every match. The only time it was followed was in the main event between Davey Richards and Jay Lethal, both good guys. In essence, the Code has become a vestige of a time long past and a casualty of ROH trying to get more mainstream approval, and thus painting their alignments in a less vague manner. How else can the fans know someone's bad if they don't shake hands before the match?
The bigger problem to me is that they're overcompensating on trying to push the "Hey, we're REAL" aspect of their identity by shifting parts of the main event towards MMA. Richards, Eddie Edwards, Roderick Strong and Kyle O'Reilly, among others, work a total shootfighting oeuvre into their characters (Richards more so than everyone else). While I like elements of MMA leaking into pro wrestling (watch Bryan Danielson vs. Bobby Fish from EVOLVE 4 that combines tropes from MMA without stripping the match of a pro wrestling feel the best), I don't like it when it feels like wrestlers or wrestling companies try too hard to ape UFC and other promotions. MMA is MMA. Wrestling is wrestling. Mixing is fine, but getting too much MMA in my pro graps is like getting too much sriracha in my pho. It just burns out the flavor and everyone ends up with sore asses at the end of the day.
Granted, they seem to have pulled back a little on that vibe after sensing some backlash. Again, the Philly show to me felt like it was embracing the pro wrestling side of things, which is a good thing. However, it's not that I don't want ROH not to have it's "real sport" identity. Every promotion needs to have something that defines it, that makes it different from the other companies. This is especially true in the indies, where redundant matches happen all over the place. Why would I want to see Richards taking on Edwards in ROH, when it could potentially happen in PWG or Beyond Wrestling or any other company that wanted to put it on at their next event?
The best way to reinforce that ROH is about respect for competition is to reinforce the Code of Honor. Have it happen before EVERY match again, whether the competitors respect each other like Richards and Lethal or hate each other like Strong and Edwards. The one thing every competitor save one should have in common is that they respect the company's mission statement, and they respect competition. If something as simple as a handshake before every match could help that identity without shifting away from what makes wrestling great, then why not do it?
And of course, this would only increase the impact of a guy who has legitimate reason not to do it. When Kevin Steen comes in to destroy what ROH is all about, the fact that he doesn't shake hands would be jarring, not business as usual.