ROH 544 - Supercard Of Honor 15 - 31st March 2023

A year ago we didn't quite know whether Ring Of Honor would continue to exist. Tony Khan had purchased the company and promised to honour the Supercard show that previous owners Sinclair had announced (despite his reticence to run shows during WWE's WrestleMania weekend), very little was known about talent contracts and the very future of the promotion. That night saw a spectacular, feel-good event that exploded Ring Of Honor into a new era with the Briscoes/FTR classic at the forefront. A year later and the landscape of ROH is completely different. None of the champions who defended that night (the World, Pure, TV, Women's and Tag Titles were all on the line) still hold their titles. Men like Jonathan Gresham have left for pastures new, Mercedes Martinez hasn't wrestled in months, Jay Briscoe is tragically no longer with us. But with the new TV show on the relaunched Honor Club starting to find its feet, with a new crop of champions and wrestlers looking to push the brand forward in a new (but authentic) direction this feels like the first Ring Of Honor pay-per-view in a long-time where we're tuning in because there are characters and storylines that we genuinely care about - rather than just name value and dream matches. The main event is more than a decade in the making as long-time rivals Claudio Castagnoli and Eddie Kingston clash over the World Title. Mark Briscoe looks to fulfil his dream of becoming TV Champion as he challenges the 'King Of Television' Samoa Joe. Jay Briscoe's legacy will be honoured - and new Tag Champions crowned - when five teams collide in the Reach For The Sky Ladder Match. And the legacy of ROH's 'Supercards' of the past is very much celebrated as talent from all around the world come to compete. Hiroshi Tanahashi and Katsuyori Shibata - stars of New Japan's revival over the past decade - are both in action. Young Lucha Libre superstars El Hijo del Vikingo and Komander will do battle over the AAA Mega Championship. One of TJPW's top stars Yuka Sakazaki challenges Athena for her Women's Title. For the first time in years it truly does feel like the eyes of the world are on Ring Of Honor tonight, as we go to Los Angeles, CA to join Ian Riccaboni and Caprice Coleman.

SIDENOTE - As usual, I'll review the 'Zero Hour' free-to-air pre-show content here, and denote where the pay-per-view portion of the show begins. The pre-show card is slated to have four matches once again.   

Tracy Williams vs Jeff Cobb
This match brings together two former TV Champions, and two men who starred for Ring Of Honor during previous periods of Sinclair ownership. Cobb was a juggernaut when he entered the fray in 2018, winning the TV Title from Punishment Martinez (Damian Priest) in his debut match - in under ninety seconds. Hot Sauce has always had to do things the hard way, from dealing with the failure of the Lifeblood faction in 2019, to being the unheralded breakout star of the Pure Tournament in 2020 then having to overcome being struck by a car whilst part of The Foundation in 2021, he is still an excellent wrestler scrapping to earn and solidify his spot in the promotion. A win over the United Empire heavyweight would clearly help his cause.

They go to ground early, with Tracy going after the big man's legs from the outset. Cobb shakes him off with the Athletic-Plex which visibly dazes Williams. The running, stalling vertical suplex lands as well - but again Hot Sauce clings to a leg to thwart Cobb's momentum. It causes him to miss his signature standing moonsault, but he still has enough power to block Tracy's Crossface. LEG CAPTURE back suplex by Hot Sauce! Jeff tries to drag him out of the corner...but Williams counters him into a diving DDT for 2. Piledriver blocked...Tour Of The Islands blocked too! German suplex by Cobb, followed by a lariat which drops Tracy on his neck. Tour Of The Islands wins it for Cobb at 05:19

Rating - ** - I'm not sure a five minute, somewhat methodical technical wrestling match is what I'd have chosen to get Zero Hour started - but for what it was I quite liked this. Working this kind of style, five minutes just isn't long enough to deliver much of substance, although I did really like how Williams continually tried to pick apart Cobb's legs to negate his obvious power. They had a couple of nifty counter sequences at the end too, but this was nothing more than a snapshot into the capabilities of both men. I really hope Williams gets an ROH contract. I understand he isn't flashy and won't attract mainstream fans - but he's such a great wrestler...

We go to Bobby Cruise, who introduces a special guest commentator for the evening. He welcomes back one of the greatest ROH World Champions (and arguably THE greatest Pure Champion) Nigel McGuinness - who gets a touching reaction. He was released from WWE in 2022 and is back behind the ROH commentary table tonight!

Willie Mack vs Konosuke Takeshita
These two experienced differing fortunes at the first Honor Club TV taping in Orlando. Takeshita produced an outstanding performance in his victory over Josh Woods, whilst Mack fought gamely but fell to defeat in a Proving Ground Match against Claudio Castagnoli. Takeshita is a rising star in AEW, an established superstar in Japan...and therefore has a target on his back for someone like Willie who is currently freelancing. Mack is also based on the West Coast so extremely popular.

Takeshita tries to match strength with Mack, without much success. He misses a pescado too, setting Willie up to give him a clubbing lariat on the floor. Back in the ring they trade hurricanranas...then leave the ring for DUELLING SOMERSAULT PLANCHAS! Willie took a bad landing on his but comes out on top nevertheless - drilling Takeshita with the standing Shining Wizard. He is too wounded to nip-up properly but musters up the energy to deliver a standing moonsault for 2. Elbows by Takeshita, into a diving lariat to get his own nearfall. Willie blocks the German suplex with a Pounce then hits the STUNNER! NO SOLD! Stunner by Takeshita! NO SOLD! Mack hits another climbing knee strike then both men collapse in a heap. Exploder Suplex from The Mack, setting up the inverted cannonball in the corner. Frog Splash misses! Blue Thunder Driver from Konosuke, then the Zahi knee strike to win at 09:35

Rating - *** - There isn't much to dislike about two big, agile dudes smacking lumps out of each other and diving all over ringside. At times this was probably a little bit silly but - aside from one needless no-sell sequence - one thing I thought they did well was convey just how much damage they were sustaining by wrestling this style. The way they moved markedly changed after the dive sequences on the floor, and by the end they were both ragged and utterly believable as battle-weary warriors fighting only on instinct. For a free pre-show match this was a treat.

Miranda Alize vs Willow Nightingale
These two have met in ROH's women's division before. Alize was on the winning end of a lively tag match (teaming with Rok-C against Willow and Chelsea Green) at Glory By Honor 18 in 2021, but Nightingale returned the favour by winning a triple threat #1 contendership bout against Miranda and Angelina Love on the way to Final Battle the same year. Willow would love to earn another shot at Athena, and Miranda came desperately close to becoming Women's World Champion in the tournament final at Death Before Dishonor 18. Victory is critical to both tonight therefore...

Nigel's look of horror as Caprice and Ian dance to Willow's entrance music is an early highlight of the night. Nightingale powers the Lucha Baddie around in the opening exchanges, leaving Miranda with no choice but to leave the ring. Willow teases a dive only to be met with an elbow strike through the ropes, then the sliding basement rana from Alize for 2. Miranda starts biting and raking the eyes, using nefarious tactics to close the gap between her and her opponent. The success of that tactic is demonstrated as she is now able to toss Nightingale around with suplexes just as Willow had done to her earlier. Big strikes from Willow in response before flatting Alize with a spinebuster for 2. Miranda hits a swinging neckbreaker - targeting an old injury of her opponent - and follows that with a sliding DDT. Both of those moves set her up for either the Miranda Rights or the Drive-By as well...which Nightingale recognises and quickly shuts her down with a DVD. Cannonball misses though, causing Willow to land on her neck again. Ace Crusher nailed...but the Drive-By misses! POUNCE! DANGEROUS BABE BOMB! Willow wins at 06:59

Rating - *** - I'm on record as a fan of both of these women so it probably won't surprise anyone that I liked this. Alize is a great opponent for a powerful, natural babyface like Willow. The Lucha Baddie pulls off being villainous and sneaky, yet also comes off like a tough street fighter at all times. She had to endure some early bombs from the bigger opponent, but survived those and used questionable tactics to fight back. The way she targeted an old neck injury to set up for her finishers was great too, but she just couldn't bridge the power gap quickly enough before Nightingale landed one big blow too many. 

Stu Grayson vs Slim J
Grayson has appeared at various points in ROH's distant past as part of the Super Smash Bros., and Slim J is both a veteran (part of Special K) but has also been featured prominently on ROH TV recently as part of the Trust Busters. That being said this is still quite a strange, low key Zero Hour main event. Evil Uno, Ari Daivari and 'Smart' Mark Sterling are all at ringside.

Slim dicks around before the bell, and is punished early as Stu pummels him all around the ring. J leaves the ring to discuss tactics with his corner-men, creating enough of a distraction to enable him to land a cheap-shot on Grayson. Slingshot hilo onto the apron by Player Dos...again bringing Smart Mark and Daivari into play to create distractions. Uno tries to get Sterling down, but not before Slim has landed a corkscrew enzi from the top. Springboard inverted DDT gets 2 for the Trust Busters stooge...but Stu is already starting to mount a comeback. He ignores J's strikes and hits a springboard twisting senton. Pop-up powerslam almost finishes SJ off. Slim makes one last dash for victory, only to eat canvas on a missed moonsault. Evil Uno takes out both Sterling and Daivari on the floor, and in the ring Grayson hits Nightfall to win at 06:56

Rating - ** - There was nothing actively bad about this, but it was the weakest match on the pre-show by some distance making it an odd choice to lead in to the PPV itself. I've no idea why they didn't put Takeshita/Mack on last over this (or ditched it altogether to let Williams/Cobb and Willow/Alize have more time). Slim J is completely fine, but I do find it astonishing that he is being featured quite so prominently in ROH when AEW has SO MANY GUYS on their roster who would (in my opinion) be better equipped.

The Dark Order celebrate, but music hits that will be familiar to ROH fans who watched during the final years of Sinclair's ownership. Vincent and Dutch of The Righteous make their return, staring ominously from the stage...

SIDENOTE - Everything from this point on is part of the Supercard Of Honor 15 pay-per-view.

El Hijo del Vikingo vs Komander - AAA Mega Title Match
This should get the PPV started in a lively manner. After earning rave reviews for his AEW debut bout with Kenny Omega (and following it up with an under-rated gem against Blake Christian on ROH TV), Vikingo has stormed into WrestleMania weekend and already notched up a defence of his AAA Title (against Black Taurus and Komander) at the 2023 WrestleCon Supershow (I believe he's also working a handful of GCW/Collective events after this as well). As soon as this was announced people started comparing it to the iconic Dragon Gate trios tag from the original Supercard Of Honor in 2006. Ordinarily you'd consider that unhelpful, but Vikingo and Komander are certainly good enough to deliver something comparably revolutionary in 2023...

Komander sensibly tries to capture the champ in some classical lucha submission holds, but finds Vikingo capable of holding his own on the canvas too. It ends with them upside down, on their heads, legs intertwined and slapping each other across the face. Vikingo drives his opponent to the floor...TWISTING MOONSAULT TO THE FLOOR BLOCKED! They tussle for position out there, then break so Komander can get a run-up and hit a TOPE ATOMICO! The challenger sets a table up outside the ring, then hops up for a 450 SPLASH OFF THE STAGE! Rope-walk SSP misses! IMPLODING SUPERSAULT RANA by EHDV! SSP OFF THE APRON GETS KNEES! Again Komander goes for the rope-walk SSP, and this time Vikingo blocks it with a boot to the face. Snap rana by the champ (the same move he beat Christian with) gets 2. Vikingo perches on top of the ringpost...SPRINGBOARD RANA COUNTERED WITH A LIGERBOMB BY KOMANDER! But before he can capitalise Vikingo is up and shoving him off the top to the floor. OFF THE RINGPOST INTO A SPRINGBOARD INVERTED SOMERSAULT SENTON TO THE FLOOR! He's not done either - OUTSIDE IN PHOENIX SPLASH gets 2! They trade strikes on the apron...MEXICAN DESTROYER ON THE APRON by Komander! He then walks to the opposite side of the ring?! TIGHT-ROPE WALK SPRINGBOARD TWISTING MOONSAULT TO THE FLOOR! ROPE-WALK SSP gets 2! Komander goes for it again, but this time Vikingo crotches him in the ropes. Vikingo perches on the Komander walks the ropes towards him. TOP ROPE DESTROYER BY VIKINGO! STEP-UP 630 SENTON THROUGH A TABLE ON THE FLOOR! The champ looks for one more big shot - 630 SENTON MISSES! HIDDEN ACE GETS 2 for Komander! These two complete lunatics climb up the ropes again...where Vikingo lands an insane top rope swinging front slam. 630 SENTON! Vikingo retains at 15:42

Rating - **** - Completely whacky from first to last, as you probably expected. This was exactly what fans wanted to see from them - wall-to-wall highspots, thrills and dives. Sure it was a little choreographed at times, and some of the set-ups were a little hokey but the pay-off was always worth it. Lucha Libre is not my favourite style of wrestling and I certainly don't think this was a paradigm-shiftingly great bout like the original DG trios match was in 2006...but I hadn't expected it to be. I wanted this to be outlandish, fun and a spectacular showcase of a different style of professional wrestling from two world class young wrestlers. That is the spirit of the original Ring Of Honor and of the original Supercard Of Honor...and they absolutely lived up to that.

Brian Cage/Gates Of Agony vs AR Fox/Blake Christian/Metalik - ROH Six-Man Title Match
Fox, Christian and Metalik formed a bond over the course of the first four episodes of Honor Club TV as they battled and successfully overcame mutual enemies in the form of the Trust Busters. In doing so they claimed they'd earned a shot at the Six-Man Championship; a division ruled in dominant fashion by The Embassy. Prince Nana ordered his troops to assault Christian in the locker room on TV the previous night, so there is an edge to this as well. There's also a question mark over Brian Cage's future with rumours swirling over the contractual status of The Machine...

The challengers clear the ring early and explode into the air with TRIPLE DIVES to the outside! Fox's in particular looked absolutely brutal there. Back in the ring Liona catches Metalik trying another dive and summarily flattens him. AR tags and has fun dodging Cage and hammering him with strikes, landing a rebound ARKO, then another on Kaun for good measure. SOMERSAULT PLANCHA FLURRY by Fox! He lands a Swanton back into the ring for a two-count on The Machine. F'n-5 from Cage sends him packing though. Blake tags, spears Kaun on the apron and cleans Toa out too with a running moonsault to the floor! Frog Splash by Metalik...barely gets 1, then Kaun brutally drops the luchador with a backbreaker. Turnbuckle backbreaker on Christian as well, with The Embassy again trying to use their size to dominate. SUNSET FLIP BOMB by Fox to block Cage's dead-lift superplex! 450 SPLASH by Christian as well! Metalik tries to hit his rope-run flying headscissors...only for Cage to lay him out with a powerbomb. LUNGBLOWER from Kaun to Blake! Metalik plants Liona with a DDT, suddenly leaving all six men down! CHRISTIAN JUMPS OFF KAUN INTO A DESTROYER ON CAGE! With everyone else fighting on the floor Metalik almost sunset flip pins Cage! DRILL CLAW! Cage pins Metalik at 08:22

Rating - **** - By far The Embassy's best title defence to date. I'm certain people will think I'm over-rating this, but I thought it was terrific - and totally different to every other Cage/GOA trios tag. The story was simple, but brilliantly executed, with the challengers quite literally diving all over the place from the very start to the very end. No challenger has attacked The Embassy with quite such a wanton disregard for their own safety, and with seemingly no fear and no limits on what they were willing to do to their own bodies in order to win, this was as close to defeat as Cage, Kaun and Toa have felt. It felt dramatic, it felt unpredictable and kept you guessing to the very end who would be coming out on top. The ROH Six-Man Championship doesn't have the greatest pedigree, but every so often the division pulls out an unheralded banger, and I really rated this one. For it's spot on the card and what they were trying to do it really was great.

Athena vs Yuka Sakazaki - ROH Women's Title Match
The Fallen Goddess has been on fire at the top of ROH's Women's Division and has undeniably been one of the top performers in the company so far this year. She viciously attacked and injured Yuka's leg on an episode of Dark Elevation, then accused Sakazaki of ducking her when the Joshi star went back to Japan to recuperate (and compete in her home country). It was Athena who laid down the challenge for this one, and Athena who put the exclamation point on it by beating Emi Sakura (one of Yuka's trainers/influences) on ROH TV. Sakazaki made her return to the United States to save Emi and set the stage for this bout...

Athena has a special entrance, complete with porcelain doll to stomp, which is pretty fun. They fight to an early stalemate; Yuka avoiding the champ's strikes but Athena quick enough to keep up when Sakazaki tries to quicken the pace. Yuka manages to rana Athena outside, and effortlessly hits the SPRINGBOARD TORPEDO DIVE TO THE FLOOR! Athena tries to hop into the crowd to escape, only to get clocked off the guardrail by the Joshi star! Spinning missile dropkick misses (with the announcers spotting tape on Yuka's neck)...and Athena mounts her with a flurry of unprotected strikes to the head. The Fallen Goddess bounces the head and neck off the canvas next, leaving Sakazaki's small frame slouched uncomfortably in the corner. Brainbuster blocked...but Athena catches her on a rana FOR ROLLING POWERBOMBS! Wrath Of The Goddess nailed...but Yuka kicks out because her cover was too cocky! Sakazaki tries to leave the ring next, so Athena hits a gruesome baseball slide causing Yuka's back and neck to contort as she tumbles to the outside. OCEAN CYCLONE SUPLEX ON THE FLOOR! But Athena misses a shotgun dropkick against the guardrails. NORTHERN LIGHTS BOMB ON THE FLOOR by Yuka! MAGIC GIRL PLANCHA OFF THE STAGE! Springboard splash gets 2. BRUTAL elbows by Yuka! ROARING ELBOW BY ATHENA! She collapses on top of the challenger, but too close to the ropes meaning it's only 2. Sakazaki climbs up the ropes and delivers a superplex to block the O-Face. Magical Merry Go Round gets 2! She looks to set up the Magical Splash, only for Athena to hide behind the referee! SUPER O-FACE NAILED! Athena retains at 11:38

Rating - **** - The fact that more people aren't talking about Athena's ROH Women's Title run is pretty astonishing. She's a compelling performer delivering outstanding, hard-hitting matches and complementing that with a genuinely engaging, wholly believable bad-ass persona. Sakazaki was the perfect opponent for her in that regard - diminutive and likeable, but tough and deceptively capable of dropping bombs on the Fallen Goddess. As a long-time SHIMMER fan, Yuka actually reminds me a lot of Ayumi Kurihara. She has the same lovable babyface energy combined with some amazing, violent feats once the bell rings. The story here was easy to follow with Sakazaki trying to use her speed and agility whilst Athena tried to stomp her way through another challenger with particular focus on Yuka's obviously-injured neck. It wasn't complex, but it was brilliantly, brutally executed and another awesome Athena title defence. If I was Tony I would be promoting the hell out of Athena right now - she genuinely is one of the stand-out USP's for this new era of Ring Of Honor.

Samoa Joe vs Mark Briscoe - ROH TV Title Match
There won't be a more emotional match than this all night. Joe's history with the Briscoe brothers stretches back to 2003, when he was embroiled in a remarkable feud which saw him brutalise both Briscoes in singles matches, only for Jay and Mark to repeatedly beat him with the Tag Titles on the line no matter who Joe had as his partner (be it AJ Styles, Bryan Danielson or Jerry Lynn). The last time Joe defended a title against Mark was Final Battle 2003...but the last time Joe was in a championship match at Supercard Of Honor was in 2015, when he failed to recapture that same World Title from Jay. Obviously the very fabric of Ring Of Honor was shaken in January 2023 when Jay Briscoe tragically lost his life. Mark's strength and resilience in the face of such tragedy has endeared him to many, seen him finally make his way onto AEW television...and he now comes to LA looking to finally fulfil his long-held dream of becoming ROH TV Champion. He thinks it is his destiny to win, Joe thinks Mark has 'forgotten' what it is like to face the 'King Of Television'. They settle it in the ring tonight...

Mark's kids and wife are in the front row, and he carries his ROH Tag Title belt perhaps for the last time. Joe recognises the emotion in the moment and leaves the ring, making Briscoe wait to begin the match on his terms. He finally returns and the match begins with a live strikely battle pitting Briscoe's speed against the brute force of the champ. The sequence ends with Mark launching himself right into a chop to the face. Joe leaves the ring for a second time as soon as Briscoe threatens to rebuild momentum as well. BELLY TO BELLY ON THE FLOOR! He follows that by bouncing Briscoe's skull off the ringpost, slowing the pace to a dominant, methodical crawl. Mark's body is pummelled with kicks and elbows; each strike causing him to cry out in pain. Joe's trademark enzi kick in the corner quells another Briscoe comeback and sees him collapse out of the ring. ELBOW SUICIDAAAAAA! Only over-confidence threatens to stop Joe at this point. He gets distracted playing to the crowd, allowing Briscoe to set-up a chair and hit the STEP-UP PLANCHA to the floor, right in front of his kids! The challenger drags a table out from under the ring. APRON BLOCKBUSTER THROUGH THE TABLE! It's a huge blow which evens the match up - and both return to the ring going chop-for-chop with each other. Mark crawls to the corner as if going for a tag, which is a heartbreaking scene...but from the corner he finds some kind of strength and explodes from there to deck Joe with the Urinage. Powerbomb/STF/crossface sequence by the champ, who has blood pouring from his nose as he feels the full force of Briscoe's attack. BACK DROP DRIVER NAILED! BRISCOE NO SELLS IT! LARIAT GETS 2! Joe sets up to finish it with the Musclebuster...only for Briscoe to Redneck Kung Fu strike his way free. FROGGY BOW! JOE KICKS OUT! Fans are literally screaming 'Jay Driller' to Mark now...but Briscoe can't get the big man up. Cut-Throat Driver COUNTERED TO THE CHOKE! CHOKE-PLEX NAILED! CHOKE AGAIN! Mark is out cold, and Joe retains at 14:24

Rating - **** - It is fair to say that reaction to Joe's retention of the Television Championship was mixed. Many expected the feel-good moment of Mark overcoming unspeakable tragedy to bring home the singles title he has coveted for a decade...and it would have been easy for Tony Khan to book that here. I think most come away with an appreciation for the match itself though, even if they didn't agree with the result. Clearly I'm biased as Joe is one of my all-time favourites, but he really is a special, remarkable talent. Now in his 40's, with a lot of miles on the clock and some severe injuries racked up...for him to perform at this level is an amazing feat. He isn't as brisk, agile or athletic as he was during his ROH World Title reign...but that began TWENTY years ago (as Caprice pointed out on commentary). And yet in many ways this carried all the hallmarks of some of his most fun title defences back then - he was big, bad and dominating...against an opponent who can move fast, bump like crazy for him and the crowd can really rally behind. That in itself was enough to ensure I really enjoyed this match, before you bring in the added, deeply emotional moments like Mark interacting with his family, or going for a tag to his brother that will never come (but finding the strength to fight back anyway). We didn't get the emotive title change moment here - and as a Joe fan I'm happy to see his reign continue - but there is more story to tell with these two. And having pushed Joe close once, the stakes will be even higher if Briscoe is able to return for a rematch with the King Of Television...

Joe shakes Mark's hand and leaves, before Briscoe heads towards his family. Mark, his wife, his mother and his kids are all in tears in really sombre scenes. The camera pans around the building to reveal that there are fans crying as well. This is a genuine MOMENT and, even in defeat, feels like it could be a break-out night for Mark Briscoe as a singles star.

Daniel Garcia vs Hiroshi Tanahashi
Ian Riccaboni rightly draws our attention to the fact that Chris Jericho and Hiroshi Tanahashi shared a rivalry and a well-received Wrestle Kingdom bout in New Japan, so it is fitting that one of Jericho's up and coming generals in the JAS now gets to pit his wits against the legendary 'Ace'. Tanahashi was actually a late announcement for this show, with Tony Khan revealing in an interview that they'd originally planned to do something with Will Ospreay until he got injured. Tana is no stranger to ROH competition, but hasn't actually appeared for the company since G1 Supercard in 2019 (an event co-promoted with NJPW).

Tanahashi is missing his front teeth again, and at 46 looks pretty laboured just walking to the ring. Garcia looks unimpressed and quickly cheap-shots him to get ahead. Tanahashi is pulled around by the hair, but manages to force Red Death back with a springboard crossbody. Just sprinting at Garcia looks difficult though and the youngster easily capitalises to drop toehold him into the ring steps. He dropkicks the knee into the steps as well. Back in the ring he kicks at and stretches the knees, prompting chants of 'you're a wrestler' to the self-proclaimed sports-entertainer. Garcia then starts doing Nakamura poses trying to get into Tana's head. The veteran (who was limping and struggling to move even before Garcia attacked the legs) can barely walk, but somehow hurls his body into a somersault senton for 2. Dropkick to the knee into an axe kick to the head by Garcia to shut him down again though. KNEE KICK DUEL! Tanahashi is clearly at a disadvantage there of course and quickly collapses to the ground again. Dragontamer blocked by Tanahashi, who dragon screws Daniel's own leg in a desperate act of self-preservation. Garcia again pulls the hair trying to block the Texas Cloverleaf...but the damage to Tana's knee means he can't maintain the hold. Both men are limping now. LEG STUNNER/German suplex combo by Garcia! Nakamura-esque running knee strike gets 2! Piledriver countered to the Twist & Shout, then the Sling Blade for 2. High Fly Flow wins it for Tanahashi at 11:59

Rating - *** - In the past I've complained about New Japan's top stars coming to ROH, working in house show mode and easily beating the top young native talent. There is an element of that frustration here, but I actually think Tanahashi was working quite hard. If you've seen him work in 2023 you'll know that the guy is really struggling. He's an all-time great and hasn't become a bad worker overnight, but he is clearly working through a number of niggles and could hardly walk just getting to the ring here (he's also the better part of 50 years old). To that end, Garcia's performance (and work around Tana's relative immobility) was absolutely fantastic. Garcia was so good here he probably deserved the win. His attack on the legs was excellent, his physical selling of the match was on point, the way he parodied both Tanahashi and Nakamura at different points was fascinating. He was carrying the heavy-lifting here and dragged a pretty good match out of Tana, before the 'Ace' romped to victory. 

Aussie Open vs Top Flight vs Rush/Dralistico vs The OGK vs Lucha Bros - ROH Tag Title Ladder Match
This is the Reach For The Sky Ladder Match to crown new Tag Champions. It is fitting that we'll see three sets of brothers involved (Top Flight, LFI and the Lucha Bros) in the race to see who tries to live up to the incredible legacy left on this championship by the legendary Briscoes. The Kingdom are visibly emotional (and all wear Jay Briscoe arm-bands), having shared many battles with Jay and Mark. They met the Briscoes in a show-stealer at Final Battle 2021 (the final PPV of the Sinclair era) and have spoken publically about what it would mean for them to regain the Tag Titles tonight. Matt Taven won the World Title in a Ladder Match before, has history with Rush (the man who beat him for that belt) and are embroiled in a mini-rivalry with Top Flight who beat them in their ROH comeback at Final Battle 2022. Penta and Fenix have a rich history in Ladder Matches too, and are perhaps the wildcard pick here given that they've only worked a single ROH match thus far...

Three teams make a quick dart for ladders, whilst OGK and LFI stand in the ring and watch them whilst blocking their route to the belts. Top Flight dropkick a ladder into Taven and Bennett, but are vulnerable to a snap German/springboard Codebreaker combo by LFI. DOUBLE BULL'S HORNS THROUGH A LADDER! Aussie Open were sat watching that unfold and make their move before Rush can even think about the belts. Dental Plan on Dralistico, followed by the double team cutter on El Toro Blanco. Double superkick by the Lucha Bros! They stack the Aussies on ladders then flatten them both with the inverted Code Red splash! ROPE RUN PK BY FENIX! TOPE ATOMICO BY PENTA! Heat Seeking Missile by Darius! STEREO PLANCHAS BY LFI! AIR TAVEN DOOMSDAY DEVICE TO THE FLOOR BY OGK! Taven, Bennett and Maria start stacking up tables as everyone else brawls around ringside; Rush going after Pentagon's mask! GRIMSTONE/PILEDRIVER COMBO ON THE F*CKING STAGE from the Aussies to The Kingdom! They then scoop up ladders and use them to sandwich Dante as well. Kyle Fletcher almost grabs the titles before the Lucha Bros cut him off. DESTROYER from Rush to Penta! Dralistico drags Fenix off a ladder with a reverse rana too. The OGK are now bleeding badly, but somehow have recovered from getting dropped on their heads on the stage...meaning Bennett and Rush can absolutely beat the sh*t out of each other in the middle of the ring! Kick Of The King by Taven! SUPLEX ON A LADDER by Dralistico! On the outside Fletcher has created a ladder bridge between ring and guardrail, whilst inside Top Flight are working over-time to prevent Dralistico grabbing the belts. Rush tries to throw a chair at them...but Darius catches it! STEP-UP VAN DAMINATOR by Dante! BRISCOE BIEL INTO A LADDER from the Aussies to Penta! They create another ladder bridge in the ring, but take so long that Dante is able to thwart them going for the belt. Taven and Darius brawl on the ladder - C4 OFF THE LADDER BY DARIUS! Bennett climbs...SUNSET FLIP BOMB OFF THE LADDER BY DANTE! Dante climbs...CORIOLIS by Aussie Open! SPINEBUSTER OFF THE APRON THROUGH A LADDER from Fletcher to Darius! La Mistica by Dralistico! SPRINGBOARD SUPER RANA FROM THE APRON TO THE FLOOR NAILED! POWERBOMB ONTO A LADDER by Bennett! Taven climbs! AURORA BOREALIS FROM THE TOP, THROUGH A LADDER ON THE FLOOR! BELLY TO BELLY OFF THE APRON, THROUGH A LADDER from Rush to Davis! The Lucha Bros have a ladder bridged on the ropes, another ladder set up to climb...even Alex Abrahantes and Jose The Assistant are brawling now. This is mental! Dante climbs the ladder to cut Rey off! Penta is climbing up after him! The brawl on the ladder bridge - even though Penta could literally grab the belts. He leaves them behind to chase Dante. MEXICAN DESTROYER OFF THE LADDER THROUGH FOUR TABLES ON THE FLOOR! DANTE MARTIN'S LEG IS SNAPPED! In sickening scenes his foot is literally dangling in the air and facing completely the wrong direction - with refs and medics immediately swarming to get him help. Fenix and The Kingdom are the last men standing! Bennett is superkicked through a ladder! TAVEN IS BOOTED TO THE FLOOR! FENIX GRABS THE BELTS AT 20:15!

Rating - ****1/2 - As you probably expected, this was complete and utter carnage. Clearly we need to talk about the horrifying injury sustained by Dante Martin, but the match itself was a spectacular demolition derby where the performances of the men involved probably didn't deserve to be overshadowed by one totally unnecessary and unfortunate accident. I was concerned having five teams (thirteen performers at ringside if you include Maria, Abrahantes and Jose) would become excessive or overblown...and at times it probably was. But the benefit of that was that the match always moved at a frightening pace. Sometimes matches like this grind to a halt whilst the next elaborate set-piece is created, but with this there were so many guys dotted around that they were always setting things up when other talents were in the spotlight meaning the flow and dynamic nature of this one was pretty incredible. There were some attempts at weaving some smaller narratives into the violence too (mostly from Taven and Bennett's interactions with either LFI or Top Flight)...but this really was all about the spectacle. And whilst that was a positive for nineteen of the twenty minutes, we do need to talk about that finish. It was an unfortunate accident, but an absolutely grotesque, sickening injury for Dante; a leg break so severe you've seen careers ended across multiple sports when similar injuries have been sustained. Even if he does return, it seems unlikely he'll be able to come back as the same 'type' of wrestler as he is before, meaning his career is forever altered (if not halted)...and for what? It is a spot Pentagon has done before (with the Young Bucks I believe) but with ten guys in the match did they need to do something quite so mad? Particularly since Pentagon quite literally could've grabbed the belts hanging next to his face but opted to leave them alone to do it. It's easy to criticise in hindsight, and it was a freak incident. But it is one that overshadows the match and will most likely be the defining legacy of the Reach For The Sky Ladder Match. 'Ladder War' is a special concept with a special place in ROH history - but I hope moving forward it is kept for special occasions when the feud warrants it. I extend my best wishes to Dante for as speedy and complete a recovery as is possible, and my sympathies to his brother (who had only just come back from a length injury absence himself)...

Mark Briscoe (carrying the old ROH Tag Title belts) and FTR come onto the stage to congratulate and raise the arms of the victorious Lucha Bros. (Mark also shares a tearful hug with The Kingdom).

Wheeler Yuta vs Katsuyori Shibata - ROH Pure Title Match
The Pure Champion has emerged into the 2023 Ring Of Honor landscape with a chip on his shoulder. He doesn't want to be seen as the 'junior member' of the Blackpool Combat Club, and believes his experiences with Claudio, Danielson, Moxley and Regal have now made him a world class performer in his own right. He demonstrated that with impressive televised Pure Title defences against Timothy Thatcher and Clark Connors, the latter of whom he disrespected and called an LA Dojo young boy in a 'fifty dollar tracksuit'. Yuta then started taunting and calling out the LA Dojo trainer - Shibata. The challenger has had a legendary career, but in 2017 suffered a life-threatening brain injury during a famous IWGP Title Match with Kazuchika Okada. Temporarily partially paralysed and blinded and requiring emergency surgery, it was assumed Shibata would never wrestle again and he became the head trainer of NJPW's LA expansion. Although he became physically involved in a couple of angles, his in-ring career seemed over until the G1 Climax in 2021 when he faced Zack Sabre Jr. in a five minute exhibition match. In the aftermath of that he announced his intention to compete in full matches again...but he challenges Yuta tonight having only wrestled three 'full' bouts since the ill-fated Okada clash in 2017 (winning his full comeback against Ren Narita at Wrestle Kingdom 16, failing to take the AEW All-Atlantic Title from Orange Cassidy on Dynamite ten months later and beating 'Filthy' Tom Lawlor in a UWF rules bout in Japan just after Christmas). Great as Shibata once was, in 2023 is he any match for a Pure Champion who is undisputedly at the top of his game?

Yuta is accompanied by Jon Moxley (although Mox leaves before the match). It doesn't get more stylistically different than the previous match as they go right to the canvas, where the ultra-composed Shibata is able to easily control the more erratic Wheeler. The champ barely avoids the PK as the clock ticks past two minutes. Figure 4 applied, forcing Yuta to take his first rope-break. MMA elbow strikes next, almost ending the match early (with Nigel reminding us he lost the Pure Title exactly like that at Unified in 2006). We are almost at eight minutes before Yuta finally gets in some offence, seemingly trying to go after the arms so Shibata isn't able to so easily out-wrestle him. Shibata kicks him in the throat - and absolutely ignores Wheeler's strikes in response! Getting desperate, Yuta lands an illegal, but unseen low blow on Shibata...then PUNCHES HIM IN THE FACE! The ref issues a warning for the closed fist, but Yuta doesn't care and jumps on top for a series of mounted strikes directly to the challenger's vulnerable head. But he can't make an impact and is soon hammered into the corner with more brutal strikes from Shibata. Yuta takes a rope-break just to stop the challenger nailing him with Shibata simply drags him away and gives him a Saito suplex. Wheeler spits in Shibata's face, so Shibata brutally slaps him. Sleeper...into the PK! Shibata wins at 13:14

Rating - ** - This isn't a knock on Shibata, who pre-injury was one of my favourite wrestlers in the world and remains an absolute legend, but this was the wrong call, as well as being a positioned in an incredibly rough spot on the card having to follow the Ladder Match and Dante's injury. Yuta has been on fire as Pure Champion with a bad attitude, generally evoking the kind of spirit that made Pure Champions like Nigel McGuinness so great. Having him dominated and comprehensively defeated by Shibata (who's comeback is an incredible story, but he is a shadow of the wrestler he was, with understandable limitations on what he is able to do) doesn't feel like it accomplishes much. I'll reserve some judgement until I see what Tony has planned (perhaps he needs the Pure Title off Yuta so Wheeler can prioritise AEW, perhaps he thinks he can tell a better story around developing Yuta in defeat here) but having an ageing NJPW guy crush the hot young native talent made this feel a lot like the Sinclair-era ROH/NJPW relationship. The match itself was ok - even good during the rare occasions we saw Yuta show some personality or cheating to get ahead. But as the commentary team try to sell this to me as a 'moment', I couldn't help but feel totally confused.

Claudio Castagnoli vs Eddie Kingston - ROH World Title Match
This is the culmination of more than a decade of animosity, spanning multiple promotions. Claudio and Eddie were once friends and room-mates, but their relationship disintegrated and has become a bitter squabble for respect. In Chikara they traded wins but couldn't find that mutual respect (even in a match where the stipulation was agreed that the loser would show 'respect' to the winner); Claudio believing Kingston to be a waste of potential who always quits or runs his mouth when things get hard, Eddie accusing Castagnoli of thinking he is above the Mad King - and running away to places like ROH, and even WWE to be a Superstar rather than 'do business' in Chikara with him. Of course, Eddie also has a storied history with Claudio's long-time friend and partner Chris Hero too. Kingston promised mutual friend Jon Moxley that he wouldn't pursue his grudge with Claudio in AEW...but after Eddie 'quit' All Elite Wrestling (or ran away when things got tough again if you believe Claudio), he re-emerged in ROH and made a beeline for his old foe. Kingston believes it his destiny to finally be a World Champion; the climax of a gritty, hard-working, underdog career which sees him capture the belt that his influences Homicide, Xavier and Low Ki have all held. Is tonight the night he finally wins the big one and earns the respect of his old rival?

Kingston rushes the champ with chops and slaps from the bell...only for Castagnoli to uppercut him back so hard he falls to the floor. Eddie almost loses his cool, but comes back into the ring with more chops and a back suplex; controlling his temper and sticking to his game-plan. He tries to show Double C he can wrestle too, going after the leg and quickly forcing the champ to hobble out of the ring. Claudio is rattled and hurts his own leg trying to choke King in the ropes. SLAPS by Claudio, into a SLINGSHOT SUPLEX ON THE FLOOR! The champion is on top but making rash decisions all over the place - hurting his leg again with a double stomp then making a rare sojourn to the top rope for a diving headbutt. Eddie goads Claudio into a slap battle...and when Castagnoli goes for the Giant Swing his knee buckles under him and he fails to execute the move for long. Again they start slapping each other angrily, and again Castagnoli hurts his own leg to attack his foe, this time with a dropkick. They fight on the ropes (again an uncharacteristic decision by Claudio), and the champion sacrifices his leg further to land a superplex. Eddie emerges raising a middle finger at the Claudio DOUBLE STOMPS HIS FACE! And the Mad King still rakes the eyes when he tries a pin! Gamengiri into a Cactus Clothesline by Eddie, who goes high risk himself with a tope suicida. EXPLODER ON THE FLOOR! With the champ limping, Kingston can now follow through on his gameplan of trying to break his neck as well it seems. More nasty, bitter striking from both men; Claudio using elbow strikes to block the Back Drop Driver! STRETCH PLUM! Castagnoli just barely makes the ropes there. BACK DROP DRIVER! Claudio kicks out! GERMAN SUPLEX by the champ! He collapses after hitting it; both leg and neck racked with pain. Back Fist blocked into a thunderous lariat by Castagnoli. Riccola Bomb COUNTERED TO THE BACK FIST...FOR 2! Kingston chases Castagnoli to the apron, chopping the neck as he goes. Leg capture exploder blocked! GUTWRENCH SUPLEX OFF THE APRON BY CLAUDIO! Castagnoli is enraged and rips out a section of guardrail to start smashing into Eddie's fallen body...but still a running uppercut only gets 2. Castagnoli slaps Eddie and says he'll 'never get [his] respect'. BACK FIST! NO SOLD! CHOKE-SWING! NEUTRALIZER! ONE COUNT OF DISRESPECT! RUNNING UPPERCUT! EDDIE KICKS OUT AGAIN! He throws a wild, desperate slap at Claudio...who fires back with a PALM STRIKE FLURRY! UPPERCUT TO THE NECK! RICCOLA BOMB...COUNTERED TO A RANA FOR 2! Claudio rolls through that into a pin...FOR THREE! Castagnoli retains at 20:06

Rating - ****1/2 - I'm sure someone will message me saying I'm over-rating this, but I was on the edge of my seat throughout. This was a sensational match, one of my favourite of all the bouts I caught over the entirety of WrestleMania weekend 2023. The depth of story-telling and level of detail they went into with this was an absolute marvel to behold - and a quite brilliant physical embodiment of everything that we'd been told about their feud leading into the event. You were never in any doubt that this was a deeply personal battle between two men who detest each other, yet their deep-rooted history with one another means they still inexorably crave the respect of their adversary. Kingston got under Claudio's skin to such an extent that everything you usually see out of Castagnoli was different here. He made mistakes, he used moves he doesn't normally hit, he went to slaps and elbows instead of uppercuts, he constantly lost his cool and exacerbated his own injuries just to try and hurt Kingston. All while the Mad King showed a steadfast composure and laser-focus on his strategy; unsettle and upset the champion, brawl and strike with him then go for the neck looking for a knock-out blow. Even when he knew he was beaten Kingston had the fighting spirit to kick out of Claudio's moves at one, or throw one last defiant slap back at him...and (just as in Chikara), it took a roll-up for Claudio to win - he couldn't hit his finishing move to deliver that decisive, respect-inducing killer blow. This was a layered, well-told classic, which has gone a little under-rated by the reviews I've seen coming out of Los Angeles. A mixture of thoroughly modern wrestling, with stylistic similarities to 90's AJPW and King's Road which Kingston draws so much inspiration from. And all brilliantly executed - seek this out

A disconsolate Kingston watches as Claudio celebrates his victory with Wheeler Yuta. They tease jumping Eddie, but Shibata comes back out meaning the show ends in a tense stand-off, and no respect shown between Kingston and Castagnoli...

Tape Rating - **** - This is by far the most complete, well-rounded Ring Of Honor show since the Khan buy-out. And that really matters. Last year the shows were fun, but he was booking dream cards; one-off bouts which were great at the time but ultimately inconsequential, and carried/eclipsed by the sheer quality of the iconic Briscoes/FTR trilogy. This was the first ROH PPV since TV was launched and ROH stopped being a theoretical entity with some prop championships to get over guys on the periphery of AEW television...and it was a GREAT show. As Khan has continually done since he took over - this felt like a modern, forward-thinking presentation of Ring Of Honor, but in a spirit completely authentic and in keeping with the golden eras of the past. This card is genuinely so good that the (relative) low points of the pay-per-view come from matches featuring NJPW legends Hiroshi Tanahashi and Katsuyori Shibata - and even they aren't bad by any means. And the highs on this show really are outstanding. Vikingo/Komander was an electrifying start, the World Title main event was an enthralling piece of drama, the emotional scenes at the end of Joe/Briscoe won't soon be forgotten and the Reach For The Sky Ladder Match was an almost unfathomable display of chaos and carnage. Even matches you might not have been paying to see (Athena/Yuka or the Trios Tag Title bout) really delivered, probably exceeding the expectations of many. I'm not always the most complimentary about Tony Khan's booking style, and it is fair to say that he received a fair amount of criticism for some of the decisions he made here. I can understand why to an extent; resisting the urge to get a 'sugar rush, feel-good pop' for Mark Briscoe/Eddie Kingston title changes was an incredibly brave call, as was the downright weird decision to put the Pure Title on Shibata. In previous eras I'm in no doubt that Delirious would have taken the easy route and pop the crowd/attempt to spark interest in the promotion by rushing to a title switch at a big show such as this. Although controversial, in a way I'm pleased that Khan has the courage in his convictions and is clear in the story he wants to tell with Joe and Claudio as TV/World Champions, or with the development of a young guy like Wheeler Yuta. The quality of the wrestling was outstanding, but for the first time in a very long time I'm coming away from an ROH PPV genuinely intrigued to see where certain characters and storylines go next. I can't think of a more upbeat tone than that to end my review...

Top 3 Matches
3) El Hijo del Vikingo vs Komander (****)
2) Reach For The Sky Ladder Match (****1/2)
1) Claudio Castagnoli vs Eddie Kingston (****1/2)

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