While TNA has tried their best to become “new WWE” since 2002, Ring of Honor has taken a different approach. They haven’t gone for the glitz and big hype, doing huge arenas, fancy production values or such. They have concentrated on getting the best workers around and delivering fans some terrific matches. That has paid off with a great fanbase, a good TV deal, solid PPV buyrates and massive respect from wrestling fans.
Their influence has grown as it’s clear how much NXT has adapted the ROH method of “less is more.” Several ROH guys have broken out to be bigger stars, some in TNA but also in WWE. That includes guys who don’t seem the “WWE model” but proving themselves thanks to their amazing skills. The “new era” that the WWE is embarking on is inspired by a lot of the work ROH has done.
There have been many to choose from but a few stand taller than the rest. Here are 15 of the best guys to make it out of Ring of Honor and show how this small company can offer some first-rate stuff. Many of these guys have become some of the top stars in the business after cutting their teeth in ROH.
15. Low Ki
He’s a historic name to ROH as he won the main event of the very first company show. He then won a tournament and a four-man Iron Man match to become the first ROH World champion, showcasing his terrific high-flying martial arts style. His matches with Samoa Joe, Jushin Liger and others helped put ROH on the map, showcasing his amazing work and balancing it with helping get TNA started as well. Things came to a head when he got into an altercation with Jim Cornette that ended with Cornette losing a tooth and Low Ki gone from ROH. His run in WWE wasn’t stellar, his work as Kaval in NXT promising but marred by bad booking and not enough opportunities to show his stuff.
Much better was his work on the indie scene and holding the prestigious IWGP Junior Heavyweight title as well as a return to TNA. While out of the scene now, Low Ki should be remembered as the guy who helped make ROH what it is and thus earn a good place in the company’s history.
14. Sami Zayn
For years, El Generico was one of the most popular faces on the indie circuit. The masked luchadore would run around with “Ole!” cries that the crowd would chant right back at him, a great high flyer whose crazy behavior fans loved. He would hold the tag titles with Kevin Steen and a run as TV champion but the feud with Steen would get the most attention, strength vs. speed with Generico coming out on top in a “Mask vs. Career” match. Signing to WWE, he surprised everyone by coming in unmasked and as Zayn but caught on quickly in NXT, winning a battle royal and beating Cesaro in the same night.
Various tries finally culminated in him winning the NXT title as fans had come to love his wild ring entrance. It only lasted a couple of months before losing it to Kevin Owens but Zayn has moved to the big leagues with a new feud with Owens and proving no matter his name or appearance, he’s ready to fly high in his own style.
As Claudio Castagnoli, Cesaro made his debut in ROH as part of their massive war with CZW and he and Nigel McGuiness clashing quite a lot. He and old ally Chris Hero became the Kings of Wrestling to win the tag team titles twice and Claudio was getting attention for his now-famed “shot put swings” on opponents. He seemed ready for more in singles work, challenging for the ROH World title but then signed up with WWE in 2011.
After time in FCW, he made it to the big leagues for success as US, IC and tag team champion, winning over fans with his great swinging moves and strength. While he’s been held back a bit, he still has a chance of rising up with some drive and no matter his name, keeps swinging for success as a great big man in the business. He’s universally respected by all wrestling fans and it stems back from his work with ROH.
12. The American Wolves
Davey Richards and Eddie Edwards are unique in how dominant they have been in ROH in both tag team and singles work. As the Wolves, they were sensational with their double-team maneuvers, speed and high-flying blowing away crowds and engaging in great feuds with the Young Bucks among others. They then moved to singles as Edwards would win the ROH World title and then lose it to Richards despite the two remaining friends. Reuniting, they’d hold the tag titles again and have a tryout with WWE.
That didn’t work out so instead they went to TNA and reinvigorated the tag team ranks, engaging in a sensational feud with the Hardyz and remaining one of the best teams in the business, proving ROH has the goods to send guys to stardom. It’s unfortunate things weren’t able to pan out in WWE, but it’s clear these two can flourish anywhere they go.
One of the first stars of the company, Homicide rose well with his great mix of brawling and high-flying work, starting a feud with Steve Corino that spark riots among fans and one battle causing Corino to legitimately lose hearing in one ear. Homicide would go on for terrific programs with Bryan Danielson, Colt Cabana and Jay Lethal and eventually reign as ROH World champion. Moving to TNA, Homicide formed the Latin American Exchange and a power in the tag team scene of the time, holding the belts with multiple partners and X Division Champion as well. Fading due to the politics of TNA, he returned to ROH and the indie scene and shows he still has it in him to fire up a crowd nicely.
Now 39, Homicide is well established in the wrestling business. While he may never end up in WWE, he’s done just fine without them and has a career to be proud of.
10. Nigel McGuiness
Starting with ROH in 2003, McGuiness won fans over with his cool look and great ring style. In 2005, he defeated Samoa Joe for the ROH Pure Championship and had a great feud with Bryan Danielson that ended with the belts unified under The American Dragon. After wild feuds with Jimmy Rave and Chris Hero, McGuiness finally won the ROH World title in 2008 but his reign was cut short by injuries. He left in 2009 for TNA, having a great feud with Kurt Angle but the company didn’t seem to know how to properly utilize him. He and Magnus seemed ready to take off but then McGuiness revealed he was fighting a major injury that turned out to be career-ending.
Now back in ROH as a commentator, McGuiness still has a following and could have become an even bigger deal if not for some bad injury timing that cut a terrific career far too short.
9. The Briscoe Brothers
Among the few still working for ROH who were there for the first show, Jay and Mark Briscoe have also established themselves as one of the best tag teams in the business. Fans from an early age, they would practice stuff in their backyard and cut their teeth in the indies for a while before hitting ROH, quickly establishing themselves as the best team around and champions. After a bit of a break, they returned in 2006 and were better than ever, a great feud with Austin Aries and Roderick Strong, tempered when Mark suffered a bad in-ring injury but continued to tear the place up in various feuds.
Jay would also make a go as ROH World champion while Mark’s injuries would be more common but each still terrific as a unit. The two have also taken off in Japan, holding the IWGP tag titles and respected by many as a pair who can rock the tag scene like few others and among the best ROH has offered.
8. Christopher Daniels
Another of ROH’s “Founding Fathers,” Daniels had been in various places (including WCW) before taking part in the triple threat that was the main event of the first ROH show. He would soon form the first ROH stable, the Prophecy and joined with Donovan Morgan to be the inaugural tag team champions. A top-notch heel, Daniels balanced it with fantastic work in the ring and also with stuff in TNA as part of XXX. His work as X Division champion in TNA took away from his ROH although Daniels made a few appearances, like a great battle with CM Punk. Finally, he has returned to the company, he and Frankie Kazarian reigning as tag team champions. Whatever his look or character, The Fallen Angel has risen high as one of the best of the ROH alumni. He has plenty to offer any wrestling promotion in the world.
7. Kevin Owens
Owens doesn’t seem the main event guy at first glance with his large build but has proven his doubters wrong multiple times. After work in CZW and PWG, Owens debuted in ROH in 2007 as Kevin Steen and formed a wacky tag team with El Generico that had good success. Owens came up with much of the partnership turned rivalry himself over objections of then-booker Jim Cornette. This led to a fascinating mix of reality and storyline as Owens was cut from ROH, his weight fluctuating and coming back as a heel but the fans cheered him against Cornette (whose booking style wasn’t going over well with the fanbase).
Using his weight with his technical work, Steen rocked fans as he became the first Canadian to win the ROH World title and giving fantastic title defenses against most every star of the company. He finally left in 2014, a brief return to PWG before debuting in NXT as Kevin Owens and his new rise as champion. That’s led to his success in WWE itself and proves you can’t judge just by looks as Owens is a star despite his size.
6. Austin Aries
The “Greatest Man Who Ever Lived” rose fast when he joined ROH in 2004, forming “Generation Next,” a stable out to take their spots in the company. Aries would soon be ROH World champion, defending it around the world and balancing that with being a trainer for the company as well. Aries would hold the tag titles before a brief run with TNA, returning to ROH in 2007 to hold the belts again and a great feud with Jimmy Jacobs, culminating in becoming the first-ever two-time ROH World champion. He would return to TNA, lost a bit before excelling as X Division, tag team and world champion and a hit with his great mic style to be one of the company’s best stars. Now in NXT, Aries is ready to be a champion once more and his past history (especially in ROH) shows he’s got the goods to back it up.
5. Seth Rollins
Working as Tyler Black, the future Shield member made his debut teaming with Jimmy Jacobs and Necro Butcher to beat down Jay Briscoe, an attack so brutal that ROH didn’t want to show it at first before fan demand let them broadcast it. Becoming the Age of the Fall, the trio would run roughshod over the company, Black and Jacobs winning the tag titles. Black soon took off on his own, he and Austin Aries having an infamous bout, a 60-minute draw that New York fans nearly booed out of the building. Their rematch was far better with Black winning the World title and doing a great job holding the belt for most of a year and fan heat when he signed with WWE. He lost the title in his farewell to Roderick Strong and moved to FCW as Seth Rollins. That moved to him as NXT champion and then his debut in WWE with the Shield, shooting upward to become WWE Champion. It was in ROH that Rollins cut his teeth as a heel champion and how he had “future superstar” written on him at the start.
4. Samoa Joe
Brought in as an “enforcer” type in 2002, Joe seemed your typical beefy muscle guy. However, he soon amazed fans with not just technical work but even an ability for high-flying moves better than a man his size would be expected. His MMA-style attacks also got attention and whether heel or face, fans were enjoying his work. His first reign as ROH champion lasted nearly two years and included the classic trilogy of matches against CM Punk amid other challengers and a key figure in the war against CZW. Joe left the company to join TNA in 2005 and quickly became one of the biggest stars there, holding nearly every title and a classic feud with Kurt Angle. Now finally in WWE under the NXT banner, the Samoan Submission Machine is continuing his great work as a big man who’s a mat master as well and shining as one of ROH’s best guys ever.
3. AJ Styles
Styles is best known for his work in TNA, of course but in the period where the two promotions got along, Styles spent as much time in ROH. Styles won a tag team tournament all by himself for the titles, picking the Amazing Red as his partner after the victory. Styles also won the first ROH Pure Championship and fans loved his mix of high flying and great technical work. His feud with Jimmy Rave was sensational as Styles tore it up with his former protégé among other great battles with Roderick Strong and others.
He had to end his ROH work to concentrate solely on TNA but it still was a great way for the Phenomenal One to take off and set fans on fire that still serves in his WWE work today. Styles has learned so much from wrestling all around the world, which is why his transition into WWE has been so smooth.
2. Daniel Bryan
The “Founding Father” of ROH, Bryan Danielson was in the main event of the very first ROH show and from there was seen as one of the company’s biggest names. His feud with Austin Aries was marked with great battles, including an 80-minute clash that wowed fans. “The American Dragon” would be a key player in the ROH-CZW feud of 2006, turning heel but remaining tops as champion thanks to his fantastic ring work. Despite injuries, Danielson remained one of the top guys for ROH until signing with WWE in 2009. He was famously fired early as part of the first Nexus attack but then returned as Daniel Bryan. From there, he would prove himself as a guy so popular that WWE had no choice but to make him champion and sparking a revolution among fans. His reign was ended too soon by a neck injury but Bryan made his impact as a man who proved “size doesn’t matter” and in great style.
1. CM Punk
The obvious choice. Punk was one of the first true mega-stars of ROH thanks to his great look and fantastic skill that made him a great heel. His feud with Raven put him on the map and he and Colt Cabana were great as the tag team champions. Of course, his biggest impact was his classic feud with Samoa Joe, the two tearing down the house in a trilogy of bouts that were instant classics. He could easily go from heel to face, ripping at the crowd but able to hold them in the palm of his hand for any promo. The heat on Punk was fantastic, more so when he signed his WWE contract right on the ROH title belt and boasted of taking it to WWE. Instead, he lost in his final bout to Colt Cabana, an emotional night for the entire company. Punk, of course, would rock WWE with his great work and the famous “pipe bomb” before exiting on his own bold terms.
It was in ROH that the straight-edged superstar first came to be and Punk earning the skills that made him one of the most famous names in WWE.
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