MIKE JOHNSON DISCUSSES RING OF HONOR AND PURE WRESTLING WITH ROH BOOKER GABE SAPOLSKY
February 9, 2004
Over the past twenty four months, Ring of Honor has blazed a path that has made it's the most noted "Niche Wrestling" product in the United States. Based on a business plan of having good matches and selling them to the wrestling fans who were lost without a cause when ECW and WCW went down in 2001, ROH has grown from a monthly show in Philadelphia to a promotion that runs up to 3 shows a month across the Northeast. In the next several months, they will be pushing toward the Mid-Western States, including Minnesota and Illinois. This coming weekend, the promotion will introduce their new "Pure Wrestling" championship as they celebrate their Second Anniversary show in Braintree, MA.
I sat down with Ring of Honor booker Gabe Sapolsky over the weekend to discuss a reflection back on ROH so far, a look into the future, comparisons to his old employer in ECW, and a definition of what exactly a "Pure Wrestling" title is.
MIKE JOHNSON: Ring of Honor is about to have its Second Anniversary. What shaped ROH over the second year that was different from the first?
GABE SAPOLSKY: When Ring Of Honor had its first show on February 23rd, 2002 it was like a new born baby. As the child grows it develops into different directions, gets scarred, learns lessons and has things happen that shape its future. In 2002, ROH was like that baby. In 2003 it grew up a little and got scars, learned lessons and went in new directions that couldn't be predicted. The product was meant to evolve just like a human life and 2003 saw it evolve into more storylines, more characters, more gimmick matches and different styles. ROH must always evolve so it always stays fresh so things like the riots, scramble matches, four corner survivals, blood feuds, heavy storylines shaped ROH in its second year and made it different than the first one.
JOHNSON: Who were your MVPs over the last year?
SAPOLSKY: It would be so hard to just name one or even two or three for that matter. So instead I'll name four or maybe five or six (Laughs). You have the World Champion Samoa Joe, who brought prestige to that belt and can main event any show and still get the crowd, no matter how tired, into the match while at the same time getting his opponent over. You have Homicide, who was so versatile this year and really stole show after show with his matches against the likes of CM Punk, AJ Styles, BJ Whitmer, Samoa Joe, Steve Corino and the four corner survival matches he was in. Then there is AJ Styles, who produced so many great matches and really grew as a worker.
Finally, 2003 saw the emergence of CM Punk, who carried the Raven feud. That feud was significant to ROH because it showed that we could have a soap opera like story and blood feud that was really entertaining and really gritty and really had a lot of substance. Of course I have to mention Chris Daniels and how he became a true superstar in 2003 and had one great match after another. I also have to mention Loc and Devito who can fill in any spot on the card and produce in addition to making the scramble matches as good as they were in 2003. If I don't stop now I'll probably just keep going because so many people made significant contributions to ROH over the past year.
JOHNSON: Anything you would have done differently if you could go back in time?
SAPOLSKY: There are little things here and there, but honestly no besides making sure we ran in better venues in some towns.
JOHNSON: Who do you see as your "Go to" guys over the next year?
SAPOLSKY: I'm looking for a lot out of the above crew that I mentioned in our 2003 MVP question. I'd say Jay & Mark Briscoe are going to have a lot of weight on their backs. It's up to everyone else on the roster to step up as "go to" guys. There are so many guys that really have the potential to break out over the next year like John Walters, Matt Stryker, BJ Whitmer, Nigel McGiness, Alex Shelley, Jimmy Rave, Jimmy Jacobs, Backseat Boyz, Colt Cabana, Dan Maff, Xavier, Chris Sabin and the list can go on and on so we'll see who steps forward out of that bunch. If you produce in ROH, you get pushed. It's that simple. There are no politics holding you back. I believe that is one of the reasons you see the incredible efforts guys give in the ROH ring.
JOHNSON: ROH is considered by fans to be a wrestling driven product, so why the hype and push into creating a Pure Wrestling title?
SAPOLSKY: Basically, it was time for another title although I've always hated the idea of a secondary title. I mean what is the point of going for something that shows you are second best? You don't see any team in the NFL win the divisional championship and then skip the Super Bowl because that was good enough for them. So we needed a concept that would give ROH another belt, but make it important and its own entity so it could compete with the World Title as being ROH's top belt. With ROH going in new directions like more storylines, characters, blood feuds, different types of matches, etc. it made sense to have something that showed 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.
JOHNSON: What will be so unique about the Pure Division?
SAPOLSKY: The rules of the pure wrestling title matches will set it apart in addition to allowing the wrestlers to show some creativity. There are three rules. The first is no closed fists. This will insure that only the most realistic looking strikes and kicks are seen in pure wrestling title matches. The second is that there will be a 20 count on the floor. I have to admit I'm not a big fan of count outs on the floor, which is why ROH never had a 10 or 20 count on the floor. However, if used once a show it can definitely be a very effective false finish or finish and it can add to the drama of the match. BJ Whitmer and Homicide proved that at "Main Event Spectacles" when we did a test run of the 20 count and it led to a great false finish in the match. The main rule is the three rope break rule. Each guy will only get three rope breaks to stop a pinfall or submission. Once he uses all three, the ropes can't break a hold. This will lead to lots of strategy within the match and also some very unique and innovative submissions using the ropes. The possibilities of interesting things you can do with these rules, especially the three rope break one, are endless.
JOHNSON: Will the Pure Division workers be exclusive to that Division?
SAPOLSKY: No, there is no reason to place any limits on anything. The pure wrestling title is about "Competition at its purest." This means that you can see several different styles of wrestler compete for the title from high-flyers to strong style competitors. If a guy is athletic and can put on a realistic looking match he more than qualifies for the division.
JOHNSON: What do you hope to accomplish with the tournament?
SAPOLSKY: I really hope we can deliver more than just your typical wrestling tournament on February 14th in Boston. I hope we can tell a good story throughout the tournament and really give it a feel like you are watching a movie. It's not too often you get an opportunity to have a tournament for a new title and we might not ever have a chance to do one again so we really want to make sure this is something special and memorable. If its not mentioned among the top shows of the year we will be very disappointed.
JOHNSON: Do you think putting the tournament as one of the focuses of the anniversary show is risky?
SAPOLSKY: I think the tournament itself was not a risk, I believe calling it a pure wrestling tournament was a risk that I didn't really anticipate. From the feedback I've seen a lot of people have a very narrow perception as to what pure wrestling means and think that its just a 20 minute armbar. The case is that it means competition at its purest, which means that you will see the athletic kind of action that made ROH's reputation. People who think this means just work a hold will be pleasantly surprised when they see that pure wrestling means just great athletic wrestling like you would see from Chris Benoit vs. Kurt Angle or Misawa vs. Kobashi or Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat.
JOHNSON: I've seen fan feedback of the Matt Stryker vs. BJ Whitmer match from Philadelphia in December and some believe that was a preview of the Pure Wrestling Division. Was that the case and if so, did the match getting over change your mindset?
SAPOLSKY: That match was never meant to be the preview of the pure wrestling division. I understand why people think it was because Stryker put over the pure wrestling title in the post match interview on the house mic. The idea there was that Stryker won the Field Of Honor, but now he was looking for bigger and better things. Instead people interpreted it as that match being a preview of the division. Bryan Danielson vs. Jay Briscoe from that same show is a better example of what we are striving for with the pure wrestling title.
JOHNSON: Explain the three rope rule. You've tested it on a few shows. How have the crowds reacted?
SAPOLSKY: Basically a guy gets three rope breaks to stop a pin or submission. After he uses all three the ropes are a non-factor and can actually be used in submissions. The crowd reactions have been great and we are all really happy with them. The first time we tried it was in Ohio on 1/10. When the ring announcer was explaining the rule the fans weren't taking it seriously. In fact, some were making fun of it in the opening minutes of the match. Les Thatcher actually came over to me and said, "don't worry about it" and I said "I'm not, I believe in this and I have patience in what I believe in." Well I didn't need a lot of patience because as soon as they started incorporating the rule the fans immediately got into it and it added a fun element to the match. The place even popped when Alex Shelley used his second rope break by putting his foot on the ropes to break up a pin. When is the last time you saw a crowd pop for a rope break on a pin attempt in the first five minutes of the match? It was at that moment when it was obvious we are onto something special here.
JOHNSON: Will The Pure Title cross over with your other storylines and belts? What's the mindset there?
SAPOLSKY: (Laughs) Come on Mike, you know I won't answer that. Just wait and see! (Laughs)
JOHNSON:Recently ROH has had to juggle buildings in the MA area. I know you are originally from MA, so what is it like from that point of view to see so many problems?
SAPOLSKY: It's such a shame that some worthless individual(s) feel the need to try to bring us down for no reason other than jealousy. It's so selfish. Even if you don't like me or anyone with RF Video, don't take it out on trying to stop us from running because you are only hurting the wrestlers and the fans. At least think of them before you pull this stuff. We have moved on and we have a new home in Boston now. It's the National Guard Armory in Braintree, MA. It's a great location just off I-93 with plenty of parking. It's also a few hundred feet from the "Braintree" stop on the Red Line so it is easy to get to by public transportation, which is especially important up there. We have already secured the building for a number of dates so we won't be bouncing around anymore. It is very frustrating, but at the same time it just makes us stronger and strive to succeed more in that area and make it our home.
JOHNSON: The biggest negative on ROH's business in my opinion is the timeliness of the videos and DVDs. At times you will get a video and see the build to a storyline that has already been completed by the time you watch the tapes. It's a huge negative. Can you discuss why you feel the delays are taking place and what ROH is doing to ensure quicker turnaround?
SAPOLSKY: I agree that this problem is killing us. We basically got backlogged when we started doing more shows. We weren't ready to handle it. Doug Gentry used to do all the editing on the tapes and now we have two other people working on it as well. We are going to get tapes out in a hurry over the next couple of months and we will be caught up hopefully too, but it is our primary concern now.
JOHNSON: Anything new planned with All Japan Pro Wrestling?
SAPOLSKY:We will definitely work with them in the future and I wouldn't be surprised to see some more big names in ROH in 2004.
JOHNSON: If someone has never seen ROH before, what would you say are the three defining points of the company. What would "An Idiot's Guide to ROH" include?
SAPOLSKY: Geez, this is a tough one! I'd probably tell them just to pick up the "Death Before Dishonor" or "First Anniversary Show" DVD because they are both good examples of our product and also have flashbacks to other ROH moments so you see past highlights. If I had to pick three moments...I guess first would be the three-way on our first show with Chris Daniels, American Dragon and Low Ki because that is the match that put us on the map and showcased our style. Then, I would have to say the Paul London vs. Bryan Danielson 2/3 fall match at "Epic Encounter" because not only was a it a great match that showcased the style we want here at ROH, but it was a defining moment for our crowd with the "Lets Go London" and "Lets Go Dragon" chants and it showed that the live ROH shows really have a special live atmosphere. Finally, I'd say CM Punk's promo revealing that his father is an alcoholic at "WrestleRave" because that is when we crossed over into having really deep storylines.
JOHNSON: What's it like being someone who grew up in the 1980s ending up booking for performers like Jim Cornette and Bobby Heenan?
SAPOLSKY: It's a dream come true. I mean if you told me growing up that I'd have a chance to work with these guys I'd never have believed you. Even more importantly is that fact that I learn something new every time I work with people like Jim Cornette. Just the last show in Baltimore he showed me a little trick to make guys look bigger in their promos. Every time Cornette works for us I and the rest of the crew learn something so he always leaves ROH a better place, and I thank him for that.
JOHNSON: After two years on the job, what is the most frustrating thing about being a booker? Is it dealing with talent? Outside influences? Internet criticism?
SAPOLSKY: I pretty much limit any feelings of frustration to 3-5 seconds at this point and have learned to block it out or else I'd go crazy. The most frustrating thing is easily talent canceling dates for whatever reason. It is so disappointing seeing a long angle or storyline just get thrown out the window or have to be altered. One day I plan to write a book and include all the angles and storylines that got trashed because of cancellations. The only time criticism is frustrating is when people criticize something they either haven't watched and just read about or haven't really followed so they aren't getting the whole story right. I've seen people criticize things in ROH that were so off base that it's obvious they never watched the product or else they just watched one part of the story and ignored the rest. You just better learn how to deal with frustration if you want to be a booker.
JOHNSON: How would you compare ROH at 2 years old to 2 years of ECW under Paul Heyman?
SAPOLSKY: This is probably the best question I've ever been asked and I'm afraid I'm not going to answer it properly because ROH is so much like ECW, but at the same time is very different. ROH encompasses the spirit and the atmosphere of ECW back in the day while presenting a totally different style. However, you can see a lot of ECW fingerprints on the ROH style in very subtle things. The first two years of ECW under Heyman were actually very different than ROH because it was a completely different landscape back then. Fans had seen so little in the United States that as soon as ECW put the smaller talent on TV and gave them a chance to shine that is was totally unique and innovative. Now fans have seen everything under the sun so its much more difficult to come up with something innovative. The comparisons are definitely there while at the same time both products are totally different from each other. Does that make sense?
JOHNSON:Do you think the Philadelphia promotional wars were good for business or did they hurt the market?
SAPOLSKY: They were definitely stupid and hurt the market. There is no doubt there. They caused everyone a lot of aggravation and thankfully its all over now. I think there is room in Philly for three companies like ROH, CZW and 3PW to survive and carve out a niche. If anyone else came in it would be overcrowded again and we'd probably see another war. Things are just finally recovering now from the wars.
JOHNSON: What are the three goals you would like to see accomplished with this weekend's Anniversary show?
SAPOLSKY: One, Everyone gets their money's worth. Two, Everyone sees a show that they will remember for years and years and years. Three, we present a show that we can be artistically proud of.
JOHNSON: And sell videos of?
SAPOLSKY: Of course! (Laughs)
Ring of Honor's Second Anniversary show takes place this Saturday February 14th at the National Guard Armory in Braintree, MA. For more on Ring of Honor, visit www.ROHWrestling.com.
Mike Johnson can be reached at Mike@PWInsider.com. He suggests Death Before Dishonor, Epic Encounter, and the First Anniversary Show as his personal choices to start following ROH as well.