The early 2000s were a fascinating time to be a wrestling fan. With ECW and WCW having officially closed up shop, WWE reigned supreme as the number-one wrestling promotion in the world.
As WWE’s Ruthless Aggression Era got underway, fans were still hungry for an alternative form of wrestling apart from Vince McMahon’s product. Looking to fill the void left by WCW, various independent wrestling companies came along that viewers gravitated towards — the fledgling promotion, Ring of Honor, being foremost among them.
Debuting in 2002, Ring of Honor offered a distinctly different kind of product than WWE or even WCW. Favoring the strong style of wrestling popularized in Japan, ROH was more a more physical, athletic-based promotion, featuring a younger generation of wrestlers like Bryan Danielson, Samoa Joe, and CM Punk (all of whom became modern legends in the business).
It's almost hard to know where to start when it comes to listing all the great wrestlers ROH has signed over the years. But like every truly remarkable athlete, certain wrestlers inevitably left their mark on the industry during their time in ROH, their contributions glaringly clear. From original members of the company’s roster to some of its best tag teams, here are the best wrestlers to ever compete in Ring of Honor.
1. Bryan Danielson
It’s not an exaggeration to call Bryan Danielson the heart and soul of ROH. What Sting was for WCW and AJ Styles was for TNA, Danielson was for ROH, serving as the first major star of the company alongside other founding fathers like Christopher Daniels and Low Ki.
Combining the technical wrestling skills of Dean Malenko with the hard-edged, chop-heavy style of Japanese wrestling, Danielson was a distinctly different kind of performer in ROH. Regularly wrestling matches that lasted over 60 minutes, he had natural skill on par with Chris Benoit, Bret Hart, or Kurt Angle — despite still being only in his twenties.
Spearheading ROH from the brand’s formation in 2002 until his departure in 2009, he was Ring of Honor personified, setting an unbelievably high watermark for every top talent in the company that followed.
2. Samoa Joe
The only other wrestler who might be able to claim the title of best ROH wrestler from Bryan Danielson, nobody — and I mean nobody — comes close to accomplishing what Samoa Joe did during his time in ROH. Debuting shortly after the company’s formation in 2002, Joe continues to stand apart as one of the most unique and dominant competitors in the entire wrestling landscape.
Competing in all corners of the globe, Joe has climbed numerous heights in the wrestling world, regardless of if he’s signed to ROH, TNA, WWE, or AEW. When looking at his time in ROH alone, it’s almost overwhelming to describe his impact in the company. Gliding around the ring with incredible ease for a man his size, he was quick, agile, and possessed seemingly boundless strength. His tenure with ROH is perhaps best personified by his 645-day as World Champion, with Joe beating out every challenger from CM Punk and Christopher Daniels to Jay Briscoe and Homicide.
3. The Briscoe Brothers
There have been plenty of standout tag teams in ROH, but few have been successful as Mark and the late great Jay Briscoe. Striving for greatness in both singles and tag team competition, Mark and Jay were ROH loyalists for almost the entirety of their careers. For two decades, the Briscoes carried the company’s tag team division on their back, feuding against 2000s duos like the Kings of Wrestling and later roster additions like the Young Bucks.
Far from competing in some of ROH’s best tag team bouts, each member of the Briscoe Brothers also made some worthwhile contributions to the singles’ division. With Mark winning the 2013 Honor Rumble and Jay capturing the World Championship on two separate occasions, the Briscoes were as integral to ROH’s development as they were entertaining.
4. CM Punk
As with Bryan Danielson and Tyler Black, CM Punk is more commonly associated with his decade-defining run in WWE, where he became one of the promotion’s main attractions by the early 2010s. If you trace Punk’s career back even earlier than that, you’re also entreated to his immeasurable success as an ROH star, accounting for the brand’s rise in popularity in the mid 2000s.
Sporting bleach blond hair and with a Pepsi logo emblazoned on his shoulder, Punk was a wholly versatile athlete the likes of which fans had never seen before. Favoring a moveset that blended traditional wrestling with MMA-style kicks and jiu-jitsu-style submission holds, Punk used his time in ROH to experiment with his character, slowly helping him become a star in the process. If you ever doubt his influence in ROH, look no further than the influential Summer of Punk that fans continue to single out for praise.
5. Christopher Daniels
Another founding father in ROH, Christopher Daniels was also one of the only established competitors to debut in ROH’s early years, in contrast to younger, unknown performers like Bryan Danielson and Low Ki. He was also the first major heel of any merit, disobeying ROH’s Code of Honor by refusing to shake hands with Danielson or Low Ki after his loss at The Era of Honor Begins.
As the leader of the Prophecy, Daniels’ importance in ROH’s formative years cannot be overstated. His veteran status helped make each match he competed in that much more dramatic, making it all the more impressive when a young up-and-comer defeated the Fallen Angel. Even his later 2014 return to ROH was enjoyable in its own right, with Daniels finally capturing the World Championship from Adam Cole, a title that had eluded him for well over a decade.
6. Nigel McGuinness
There’s no telling what Nigel McGuinness might’ve achieved if the build-up of injuries he’d accrued over the years hadn’t forced him into an early retirement. Still, when you look at the influence McGuinness had in ROH from 2004 to 2009, you’re able to see that he managed to accomplish an absurd amount with the time he was given.
Known for his spiky-haired appearance and penchant for bashing opponents’ heads in with a custom clothing iron, McGuinness was like the punk rock version of William Regal. Favoring a suplex heavy moveset and liberally cheating to win his matches, McGuinness was one of ROH’s better heels in the mid 2000s, competing in some fantastic matches against Austin Aries, Bryan Danielson, and Samoa Joe.
7. AJ Styles
To be sure, AJ Styles’ early influence in the world of pro wrestling can be more directly attributed to his time in TNA. Around the same time he was making waves in TNA, though, the Phenomenal One was similarly cementing a place for himself in ROH.
Almost immediately once he arrived to the brand, Styles was treated as a legitimate main event player, unsuccessfully chasing after Low Ki’s World Championship. Residing in ROH until 2006, Styles later returned following his rapid 2014 rise in NJPW as the leader of Bullet Club. At that point, Styles was at the pinnacle of his in-ring talents, giving way to matches against former TNA rival Jay Lethal, rising star Adam Cole, and then-ROH top talent Roderick Strong.
8. Jay Lethal
In the 2000s and early 2010s, Jay Lethal was more commonly seen as a comic wrestler — albeit an incredibly skilled one at that. Relying on his uncanny ability to mimic “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Lethal won audiences over in his later run in TNA, not really accomplishing much of merit in ROH during his first tenure with the company.
Upon departing TNA and returning to ROH in 2011, though, Lethal managed to ascend to the top of the independent wrestling industry. Winning the World Television Championship, Lethal’s first prominent storyline came when he declared his title the ROH World Championship, putting him in direct competition with reigning champ Jay Briscoe. Winning the “Battle of the Belts” match against Briscoe, Lethal became a star attraction unto himself in ROH, serving as the de facto face of the company for most of the 2010s.
TNA viewers probably associate him with his membership in LAX, but faithful fans are more likely to know him for his early 2002 run in ROH. In sharp contrast to ROH’s honor-bound rules, Homicide kicked off his matches with a sign of disrespect to his opponents; from there, his bouts had a tendency to get more than a little extreme, with Homicide usually utilizing numerous hardcore-based weapons (barbed wire, steel chairs, once even a flaming ball of fire).
Homicide introduced some much-needed anarchy to the sportsmanship-based promotion, bending the rules freely and relying on more violent tactics in his matches. A rough and rugged wrestler with a major chip on his shoulder, Homicide was a refreshing competitor to face Daniels or Bryan Danielson, feeling like a long lost member of ECW’s vintage roster.
10. Low Ki
The third and final founding father of ROH, Low Ki is also known for being the first ever ROH World Champion in the promotion’s history. An ideal counterpart to the high-flying Daniels and submission-focused Bryan Danielson, Low Ki’s main appeal was his lightning-quick speed, hard kicks and stomps, and highly expressive body language.
With how seriously Low Ki took his matches, every one of his bouts looked genuinely real, whether he was chopping an opponent’s chest or delivering a brutal-looking double foot stomp to their abdomen. While Low Ki perhaps never achieved the same amount of success or exposure as Daniels or Danielson, the “World Warrior” was nevertheless a pillar of ROH for the better part of four years.
11. Adam Cole
Adam Cole is currently enjoying what might be the successful portion of his career to date. Starting off the indies in the latter half of the 2000s, Cole reinvented himself upon his entry to ROH in 2009, forming the blueprint for the smug, brash, Shawn Michaels-esque wrestler we know today.
Cole would go on to have extremely eventful careers in both WWE and AEW following his exit from ROH in 2017, but that’s certainly not to discount his achievements in the promotion at the time. From his leadership of the Kingdom to his pseudo-leadership of Bullet Club’s ROH branch, Cole was a ceaselessly entertaining performer who only grew better with each passing year.
12. Austin Aries
Over the past few years, Austin Aries has made himself a lengthy list of enemies owing to his backstage behavior and less than ingratiating personality. When looking at his impressive in-ring abilities and character work, though, there’s no arguing Aries was anything short of a gifted wrestler.
Unseating the World Champion Samoa Joe at Final Battle 2004 after a record-setting 645-day reign, Aries almost immediately made an impact upon his arrival in ROH. Splitting his time between portraying an underdog face and as a vainglorious heel (under his trademark “Double A”), Aries was a consistently enjoyable wrestler to watch on ROH programming, especially in his matches against Joe, Nigel McGuinness, and Tyler Black.
13. Kevin Steen
Arriving in ROH in 2007, Kevin Steen was known for his more humorous pairing with El Generico, providing the basis for the two men’s career-making feud starting in 2009. From there, Steen became the vicious and violently poor-tempered anti-authority figure that ran roughshod in ROH, his signature “Kill, Steen, Kill” echoing through the arena in his various bloody matches.
A perfect combination between size, speed, and agility, Steen had it all. He had personality, unbelievably quick reflexes, strength, and what’s more, he could cut a killer promo to boot. From an outward appearance, he was the exact opposite of what you’d expect a wrestler to look like. But whenever he got in the ring, he proved the naysayers wrong, consistently shutting his critics up by performing to the best of his abilities. (His rivalry against Generico alone might be the best feud ROH has ever had.)
14. Tyler Black
Years before he was the Architect, the Monday Night Messiah, or the Visionary, Seth Rollins was making a name for himself on the indie circuit as Tyler Black. Debuting in the company while still in his early twenties, Black’s future in ROH was virtually limitless, especially once he won fans over with his run in the Age of the Fall with Jimmy Jacobs.
With ROH perhaps waiting too long to take advantage of Black’s obvious in-ring skills, Black rose to the forefront of ROH programming months before leaving for WWE. While he would go on to have a successful career in WWE, it’s an interesting hypothetical to wonder what might’ve been if Black had stayed in ROH. After all, just imagine what his matches against Adam Cole, Jay Lethal, or Bullet Club-era AJ Styles might’ve been like.
15. Roderick Strong
Staying in the company for a total of 13 years, nobody displayed the same level of brand loyalty as “Mr. ROH” himself, Roderick Strong. Competing in ROH for over a decade, Strong accomplished everything there was to accomplish in the promotion, facing everyone who stepped through ROH’s doors from Tyler Black to interpromotional talents like Kazuchika Okada.
As with most wrestlers on this list, Strong used his long-lasting time in the company to hone his skills and develop his own unique style. Favoring a combination of heavy spinal attacks and hard-hitting chops, Strong was a unique performer who reigned as the face of ROH from the latter 2000s into the 2010s.
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).