Pure Excellence: A History of ROH’s Pure Championship

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roh pure title
Credit: ROH Wrestling

Continuing to make moves in 2020, over the weekend, Ring of Honor announced they’d be bringing back a nostalgic favorite, the Pure Championship. The title will be decided in a two-day, two-city tournament that kicks off on April 10th. The winner of the tourney will be crowned ROH’s first Pure Champion in nearly 14 years.

A Pure Proposal

In 2018, Cary Silkin shared a video on Twitter featuring the original Pure Championship belt and he made quite the suggestion. Looking at the Final Battle card that year, Silkin observed that Jonathan Gresham was facing Zack Sabre Jr. in what was being called a “pure wrestling match.” He also noted that Dalton Castle would be taking on Matt Taven. In mentioning those two matches and those four wrestlers, Silkin was identifying four men who would be more than fit for a pure, technical wrestling style. So, while Silkin did not specifically imply a correlation behind the title’s appearance in the video and the four names he mentioned, given this weekend’s announcement, its possible the two things were linked at the time.

Silkin however, wasn’t the only one feeling nostalgic about ROH’s former secondary title. On January 13th, 2020, Will Ospreay sparked a discussion around the then-defunct championship by simply offering up his thoughts on Twitter, about what his favorite wrestling title was: the Pure Championship. Citing its unique ruleset and the design of the belt, Ospreay concluded his tweet with, “be cool if they brought it back with updated rules.”

As everyone knows, these days, social media moves mountains. Ospreay’s tweet received nearly 2,000 likes and 135 retweets. The comment thread saw fans naming their favorite titles in a scroll down of images of belts past and present within all of wrestling. Which, as an aside, pro wrestling has had some gorgeous hardware over the years. It was an entertaining thread but the most interesting part of the conversation was what came next. A day later, ROH, sharing Ospreay’s tweet, posed a question to its fans. “Should we bring it back?”

The response was overwhelming and included a tweet from Ospreay himself, who suggested tweaking the rules a bit before adding, “But I think the lineage and history of bouts behind it could bring out a whole new style in pro wrestling that’s been missing. But if you do……I’m game.”

Perhaps the return of the Pure Championship was already being planned or perhaps it was Ospreay’s inquiry and interest in the belt that led to ROH’s decision, but one way or the other, two weeks later, Ring of Honor announced the Pure Championship would be returning to the world of wrestling this spring. They have not yet indicated if any rule changes, such as ones Ospreay suggested will be in place in the title’s return, nor have they begun to name participants in the Pure Excellence Tournament. Though, it seems quite likely that Ospreay will be invited to participate.

Pure Wrestling

In 2004, the Pure Championship made its ROH debut, serving as the company’s first-ever midcard title. It was the brainchild of Gabe Sapolsky, who told Mike Johnson of PWI in February of that year, that it was time for ROH to have another title despite Sapolsky’s own hatred for a belt that would come across as “second best.” Using an NFL analogy, Sapolsky suggested that no one would choose to stop challenging for a championship unless they reached the pinnacle. In the NFL, that would be the Super Bowl. In Ring of Honor, that would be the World Championship. So in Sapolsky’s view, ROH’s secondary title had to be different as not to feel inferior and thus, the Pure Championship was born.

roh pure title
Credit: u/Cabelstudios; Ring of Honor Wrestling

“We needed a concept that would give ROH another belt, but make it important and its own entity so that it can compete with the World title as being ROH’s top belt,” Sapolsky said. With ROH going into new directions like more storylines, characters, blood feuds, different types of matches, etc., it made sense to have something to show our fans that we will always stay true to our roots no matter what other directions we go in. So no matter what happens in ROH, you are guaranteed a straight forward, no frills, great wrestling match on every show with a unique twist in the rules for pure wrestling title matches.”

Prior to the Pure title’s official introduction, fans got a taste of what the new division would look like when Alex Shelley and Matt Stryker fought in a three rope break per competitor stipulation at The Battle Lines Are Drawn. This rule would later become one of the rules under which the Pure Championship was contested. Other rules included: no closed fist punches to the face (the first use would get a warning and the second would result in the wrestler losing a rope break; if the wrestler was out of rope breaks, it would lead to a disqualification) and a 20-count instead of the traditional 10. The Pure Championship was also unique in the fact that unlike other titles at the time, it could indeed change hands on a disqualification or count-out.

Establishing the Foundation

In order to determine the first-ever Pure Wrestling Champion, ROH held a round-robin tournament that featured John Walters, Chris Sabin, Josh Daniels, Matt Stryker, Jimmy Rave, Doug Williams, CM Punk and AJ Styles.

Styles beat Rave, Punk beat Walters, Stryker beat Daniels and Williams beat Sabin in the first round. In the semifinal, Styles beat Stryker and Punk beat Williams, setting up what would today be considered a real dream match. While the two crossed paths in other indies including International Wrestling Cartel in a triple threat and TNA/NWA in a tag team match on opposing sides, it wasn’t until a few months prior to the Pure Championship Tournament that Styles and Punk met for the first time in ROH. At Tradition Continues in October 2003, Styles defeated Punk for the first time in singles action.

In the finals of the tournament, all of the Pure rules were utilized during the 16+ minute bout. Punk and Styles went back and forth in a match that came down to that final rope break. Having used up all of his rope breaks, though Punk maintained he hadn’t, Styles executed a second rope Styles Clash to pin the Second City Saint. Punk had his foot on the ropes, which in any other match, would have made the pin invalid, but to showcase the pure rules, since he had used up his other breaks, this one was null and void. Styles had become the first-ever Pure Wrestling Champion.

He successfully defended his belt against Punk at At Our Best but due to an impasse that ROH and TNA/NWA management were unable to resolve, Styles wasn’t able to defend it again and had to leave ROH shortly after. This left the promotion without a Pure Champion, just at a time when Styles was positioned to not only become a big star for the company but was also being primed to elevate the new title.

Growing the Title

shelley and williams
Credit: ROH Wrestling

On April 24th, 2004, after a short reign, Styles was forced to vacate the title and a new tournament, just months after the first, was organized to crown a second champ. The tournament was set for July 17th at Reborn: Completion. Returning to compete were Punk, Stryker, Williams and Walter. Newly joining the field were Alex Shelley, Austin Aries, Jay Lethal and Nigel McGuinness.

The finals came down to Shelley and Williams, who had been flown in for the first Pure tournament due to his style. Williams was considered a favorite to win and while he didn’t the first go around, ROH decided in the second tournament, that Williams was going to be their guy. With Shelley out of rope breaks, Williams was able to force the Generation Next leader to tap out. For many, Williams brought credibility to the division and he also brought a wealth of global experience, gleaned from his time in the UK as well as in Japan.

Williams successfully defended the Pure Championship three times against Shelley, Aries and Claudio Castagnoli, before losing it to Walters at Scramble Cage Melee in August 2004. Walters’ win was seen as unexpected but much like Williams, his presence in the Pure division was there from the beginning. Walters picked up title wins against McGuinness, Shelley, Homicide, Rave, and Lethal, utilizing all of the Pure rules along the way as his first victory against Rave came by count-out and his win over Homicide came by DQ after Homicide was knocked out. At Trios Tournament in March 2005, Walters’ 189-day reign, the second-longest in the title’s history, came to end courtesy of Lethal.

At just 19 years old, Lethal became the youngest singles champion in ROH history. A name that now is synonymous with Ring of Honor itself, the Pure Championship marked the first of what would be six championship reigns and countless records. For ROH’s Wrestler of the Decade from 2010-19, the Pure Championship marks the first of Lethal’s grand slam, which he achieved late in 2019. As Pure Champion, Lethal held the belt just 63 days, but he perhaps had the most compelling storyline with it.

Samoa Joe and Nigel McGuinness’ Influence

One of the best storylines surrounding the Pure Championship was Samoa Joe. In the midst of his still record 645-day reign with the ROH World Championship, Joe wasted no time in berating management and wrestlers of the Pure Division. Verbally attacking Styles the night he won the title, Joe would go on to make his presence and his thoughts known during every Pure Champion’s title reign.

Beliving the Pure title to be a joke and one that was damaging to his own world title reign, Joe detested the secondary title throughout its early existence. But in a perfect twist of fate, after he lost his world championship, Joe earned a shot at Lethal’s Pure title. It was mentor vs mentee as Joe’s influence over Lethal helped him transition into a successful ROH career years prior. On May 7th, at Manhatten Mayhem, Samoa Joe became the fourth Pure Champion, now holding a title he once despised immensely.

mcguinness pure
Credit: WWE Network

Joe successfully defended the title against James Gibson, Colt Cabana, Aries, Rave, Christopher Daniels and McGuinness during his 112-day reign. Under Joe, the Pure Championship main evented a ROH PPV for the first time at Night of Grudges II when Joe defeated Daniels. But it wasn’t like the Pure title to stay with one holder for too long so on August 27th, 2005 at Dragon Gate Invasion, McGuinness, who had been in the Pure division for over a year prior, finally had his chance with the title. And while he wasn’t the first champion, there is no denying that McGuinness, with his 350-day hold on the belt, was the most impactful.

The Pure Championship helped make McGuinness at that time, just as much as he helped truly establish the title. For the first eight months of his record reign, McGuinness defended his title against former ROH champs in Aries and tag team champ Tony Mamaluke, as well as top names with the promotion in Roderick Strong, BJ Whitmer, Lethal, Joe, Castagnoli (3x) and Christopher Daniels. His biggest defense, however, came at Weekend of Champions: Night 2 on April 29th, 2006 against then world champion, Bryan Danielson. Much like Joe, Danielson had no use for the Pure title and immediately challenged McGuinness to a title for title match. Fought under Pure rules, it was McGuinness who won, beating a 20-count that Danielson couldn’t. But, McGuinness left as only Pure Champion, as the ROH World title could not change hands by count-out.

With a belt that twice in its short history had been disregarded by world champions as being inferior, there was perhaps no better illustration of its difference from the world title than this match and its result. After McGuinness successfully defended the Pure title another six times against Lethal, Conrad Kennedy II, Homicide, Strong, Cabana and Delirious, he found himself in a rubber match with Danielson as the two had also met in a regular rules rematch in July 2006. For their third and final meeting on August 12th, it was decided the winner would unify the titles. At McGuinness’ insistence, the bout was to be fought under the pure rules and this time, both titles would change hands no matter what, even with a count-out or disqualification.

To this day, the match, which served as the final defense of the Pure Championship, remains an all-time great for ROH. The two wrestlers, who at the time represented the best of the company’s ranks, battled for over 26 minutes in a match that received 4.75 stars from the Wrestling Observer. By the time the match came to its conclusion, via a referee’s decision after Danielson knocked McGuinness out cold following a series of strikes to McGuinness’ already lacerated head, both men were bloodied and beaten down. The two gave everything they had and then some as they fought for supremacy. In the end, Danielson emerged victorious signifying his first and the last overall reign of anyone with the title. Danielson and McGuinness met one more time on August 25th, in a two-out-of-three falls contest that ended in a 60-minute draw. After the match, Danielson handed the physical title belt to McGuinness, the man who made it, thus marking the last time the belt was seen on TV…Until now.

roh pure title
Credit: ROH Wrestling

While ROH has brought the Pure rules concept back a handful of times since the title’s disappearance in 2006, it won’t be until April 10th, 2020, that one of wrestling’s most unique titles from the 2000s, will return. With it will come new contenders (the four names mentioned by Silkin as well as Ospreay would be a great start), new storylines and a new division, that if it resembles anything like the first Pure division, will certainly be one to see.

Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world. You can catch ROH replays at HonorClub.

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