The indie influence: How one small wrestling company impacted WWE

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February 05, 2014

In fall 2005, 600 fans packed into a small rec center in Suffolk County just three miles north of the Long Island Expressway to watch a wrestling show presented by a company called Ring of Honor. In one of the night’s main events, a fearless 5-foot-8 grappler defeated a hard-nosed southerner for the ROH World Championship after more than 30 minutes of grueling action. Those two men? Daniel Bryan and Jamie Noble. Today, they are two of the most integral individuals in WWE. Bryan is one of the company’s biggest stars and Noble has become a key producer and locker room mentor.

For a company that most recognize from the climactic scene in the Oscar-nominated “The Wrestler,” Ring of Honor has developed a hardcore fanbase by cultivating a unique mat style and impressive in-ring talent. Bryan and Noble aren’t the only two competitors to come from the scrappy Pennsylvania-based organization. Since ROH’s inception in 2002, several of its stars have found their way to the WWE roster. Most have won major championship gold, and others are waiting in the wings down in Florida at NXT. Even one of NXT’s top trainers, Sara Amato, was a major star in Ring of Honor.

Over the past 10 years, as more and more Ring of Honor alumni have found their way to the broad spotlight of Raw and SmackDown, there has been a noticeable shift in the wrestling style and type of stars that have risen to the top of WWE. But how did one company that never even aired on basic cable change sports-entertainment? WWE.com spoke with many of the men responsible to find out.

See rare photos of WWE Superstars competing in Ring of Honor

Watch Ring of Honor alumni competing against each other in WWE

The Players:

  • DANIEL BRYAN – The two-time WWE Champion became known as one of the greatest wrestlers in the world during his time in Ring of Honor and was one of ROH’s longest-reigning World Champions.
  • ANTONIO CESARO – Before becoming a Real American, Cesaro was the “Very European” member of the two-time Ring of Honor Tag Team Champions The Kings of Wrestling, one of ROH’s hottest tandems.
  • SETH ROLLINS – The Shield wasn’t Rollins’ first stable. He joined Ring of Honor in 2007 as a member of The Age of Fall, won the Tag Team Championships twice and held the World Title for seven months just before arriving in WWE.
  • COLT CABANA – The podcast host and ring funnyman had two stints as one of Ring of Honor’s biggest stars, before and after a cup of coffee in WWE.
  • GABE SAPOLSKY – Paul Heyman’s protégé co-founded Ring of Honor soon after the closing of ECW and remained one of its lead producers through much of the following decade.

WWE.COM: How did Ring of Honor start?

GABE SAPOLSKY: I was with a video company at the time that was part of ECW. When ECW went out of business, it left a void for that video company. Basically, we decided we could fill that void ourselves by starting our own promotion. I was very fortunate to have been a protégé of Paul Heyman’s in ECW, so I learned a lot from him. Paul was extremely unselfish at being a mentor and he still is to this day. His lessons were about presenting wrestlers, showcasing their strengths, hiding their weakness, telling a story and the best way to involve the fans in your product and earn their loyalty to your brand. And I was able to take that knowledge and use that to start Ring of Honor.

SETH ROLLINS: When Ring of Honor first started, I was a teenager. The Internet had just kind of blown up as far as online videos and stuff like that. They were my first exposure to indie wrestling and I fell in love with the athleticism. There were guys like Daniel Bryan, Low Ki, AJ Styles, The Amazing Red, these were guys who were doing stuff I had never seen anywhere in professional wrestling. It was blowing my mind.

WWE.COM: Were you trying to recreate ECW with Ring of Honor, or was it going to be its own thing?

SAPOLSKY: It was completely its own thing, but it did take the spot of ECW in the mid-2000s insofar as it became the darling of the Internet and the darling of the diehard fans. It took the spot of being the next “in” thing and the underground promotion where wrestlers could really perform their art. The goal was to showcase the best talent in the world and let them grow as performers.

ROLLINS: There were so many similarities. It was the same sort of vibe, clamoring for something new. But the cool thing about it was Gabe went in the complete opposite direction. ECW was blood and guts and craziness, but Ring of Honor was pure wrestling, respect, athleticism and a code of honor — and the fans were just as passionate about it. A spiritual successor to ECW is a perfect way to put it, because it had that same underground, guttural vibe to it that ECW did when it first started.

COLT CABANA: I don’t think the style was the same, but the idea that wrestling fans wanted an alternative was the same. This was the best product available to give as an alternative to WWE.

WWE.COM: How did you end up in Ring of Honor?

ROLLINS: I sought out their training facility and moved out to Pennsylvania, but I had no idea how much money I needed to live out there on my own [laughs]. I was like, “Oh jeez, I’m 18 and I don’t know what I’m doing.” So I had to go home. I just couldn’t do it. I did the tryout class and I passed. It was a grueling two-hour workout that I was put us through – hundreds of squats, sprints and mile-runs. They were trying to get us to puke and quit. It was pretty brutal. I remember it was the week of Sept. 11, 2004, and it was so hot. I thought I was going to die, but I got through it. [The trainer] said we had a lot of potential so that got me all fired up.

ANTONIO CESARO: I had a show with a friend, and they had one of those do-or-die tryouts in New Jersey. I died, but I did well. I was brought back and competed against Nigel McGuiness in my first real ROH match and against Alex Shelley in my second. Then I was just kind of wrestling in Ring of Honor mostly for the ROH Pure Title against Nigel. When Chris Hero came in during the [Combat Zone Wrestling]-ROH feud, I turned on ROH and joined CZW. It was the first run of The Kings of Wrestling.

CABANA: When Ring of Honor was first starting, I was doing my first east coast show at the ECW Arena in Philadelphia for 3PW, which was Blue Meanie’s wrestling promotion. I gave out this VHS tape called “The Best of Colt Cabana,” and I think the match that Gabe Sapolsky saw that solidified it was a 2-out-of-3 Falls Match I had done in St. Paul, Minn. Gabe saw it had this big match feel and he saw how to translate that to the Ring of Honor product.

ROLLINS: I had done MTV’s Wrestling Society X with Jimmy Jacobs. He told Ring of Honor founder Gabe Sapolsky about me and Gabe brought me to the Ring of Honor sister company in Florida [Full Impact Pro]. I wrestled Jay Briscoe in a singles match and Gabe took me outside and he said, “I love ya and I want to bring you in to Ring of Honor, so I want to offer you a three-year deal.” I was 21-years-old and as soon as he left I did the air-fist pump. I was just psyched out of my mind.

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