Ring of Honor is known across the two major oceans and to some extent around the other five as a stronghold for athletic wrestling. To be vulgar and talk about brands for a moment, their brand is ‘world-class talent making a name for themselves as professionals and as wrestlers’ and, at least in the wrestling community, it’s recognized and respected. I can recall more than a few times when someone has suggested that people would start liking a talent if they would get booked in ROH, as if ROH somehow controlled their audience like puppets. That’s not true, as any fan of Ring of Honor will tell you, and ROH has gotten it wrong many times before. It’s human nature, everyone does. What Ring of Honor has traditionally done well is position its talent to use their skills to the best of their ability. The old Heyman adage, ‘accentuate the positives’, except the talent in Ring of Honor is expected to have a hell of a lot of positives to accentuate.
When I first heard about women’s wrestling being showcased by Ring of Honor I was really thrilled by the idea. This was about 2010 when they had an extreme standout in Sara Del Rey dominating any and all competition as well as a solid hand in Daizee Haze to provide a foil. MsChif was here and there at the time; she appeared on a couple HDNet episodes as I remember but nothing like the visibility of Del Rey or Haze. Now, those are three top-tier talents, but… that was it. That was really as far as ROH took their presentation of women wrestling, a couple matches here and there but nothing really definite. After a while even those matches stopped, SDR and Haze functioning just as managers. When ROH had the fantastic Mia Yim (currently Jade in TNA) in their house it seemed like they were about to push it again but I don’t think she even actually wrestled a match in ROH. From what I can tell, ROH has never gotten behind its Women of Honor but it’s always sort of dangled it as a proposition.
Right now we’re in a new push for women under the ROH banner. I’ll admit that numbers-wise it’s probably the most robust group ROH has tried so far. Up until recently, though, the Women of Honor have been just what they were before: a low-card variety match, put on cold and left that way. I cannot recall any previous specials or live events devoted to ROH’s women. That’s definitely played a role in the fact that women’s wrestling has never really taken off within the company. Again, on the face of it, a great step that ROH is finally putting together something like this. Problem is that it’s really not taking. Watching the recent TV episode specially featuring the Women of Honor, I could see the crowd really wasn’t into it, though they appreciated the effort. I don’t feel a lot of buzz on the internet for the upcoming shows. So we have the lights now but when your big first WOH live event feels less buzzworthy than A Night of Hoopla or Mike Bennett’s Birthday Party, I feel like there needs to be a rethinking of how these events are being promoted.
With women like Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Asuka, and Bayley lighting up the WWE, it’s pretty clear to see that there is an audience for women grappling. For over ten years, SHIMMER Women Athletes have made indy stars of the best women out there, from Cheerleader Melissa and the Canadian Ninjas to Madison Eagles and the Kimber Bombs. TNA has provided a platform for their Knockouts just about as long, not to provide T n’ A for their shows but to bring an impact the way that pioneers (for US women) like Gail Kim, Awesome Kong, and Taylor Wilde did. Clearly, Ring of Honor wants to tap into this trend.
If they keep going about it like they have been, though, they should give up the ghost.
The ‘spotlight’ that Ring of Honor is pretending to give its women wrestlers is really not much brighter than what was on them in ROH before. Far more than before, in fact, there’s a laser-focus on these women in their sexual aspect. If you’re on Twitter you’ve probably seen the Women of Honor Wednesdays pin-ups they put out, or the ‘action photos’ they used to send with DVDs (they’re still poses on the commercial, leaving open the question of who’s doing the action and what the action is). I have a pretty open view of sexuality and I feel that male wrestlers play theirs up as well as women, so my gripe here isn’t a basic ‘no sexy stuff’. The truth is that we live in a society in which women are already regularly oversexualized. Sex sells… sex. Sex doesn’t sell tickets or draw interest to a wrestling show. The fact that two of the most heavily promoted women in Ring of Honor have aggressive sexuality as a major part of their characters (this being Mandy Leon and Taeler Hendrix) doesn’t really bode well for the perception of ROH’s women as wrestlers first.
This is not a quibble that I make on its own, as it were. That is, all other things being good, this wouldn’t bother me. The problem for ROH here is that, at base, they aren’t promoting anybody of a real star quality in their women’s division. It’s harsh to say but it needs to be said. Think back to how many ultra-straight grit-football-and-beer types really fucking hated Shawn Michaels’s antics and attire. You remember the Playgirl shoot especially, there was a definite male eroticism hovering around his persona. Where Michaels won even those homophobic types over was his ring work. He was an A class performer. Even those with gripes about his style or output can’t disagree with the quality and numbers he was able to bring in. He may not have been a landmark drawing card like a Flair, a Hogan, or a Thesz but he was definitely a big draw.
Shawn Michaels was a guy that you could build your company around, eroticism or no, because he could excite in the ring. That’s where Mandy Leon and Taeler Hendrix, and really the whole current ROH women’s roster, all fall down. They are all fine wrestlers but no one is fantastic. That’s why the sexualizing aspect becomes important. Just like in ECW back in the day or in CHIKARA, if a person can’t really work that well, how they’ll get over is by playing up their characters outlandishly. Public Enemy is a great example. Obviously they could work, but are we going to class them with the Steiner Brothers? With Arn and Tully? Rock n Roll Express? Harlem Heat? It’s not a comparison. It was PE’s antics and gimmick that got them over to the level that they got. So when we have a field of women working ROH who aren’t at that top level in their work, what sticks out are the gimmicks and that makes it a problem that Leon and Hendrix our out front: they’re not the people who can lead this division and they risk making the whole thing look gimmicky.
The four most featured women on ROH television are Veda Scott, Taeler Hendrix, Mandy Leon, and Kelly Klein (in rough order of visibility). Three of the four, the first three, get most of their ROH exposure outside of the wrestling ring, two as managers and one as a host. Again, the reason this is bad is that it gives the impression that the Women of Honor division is an also-ran. Again, if they were A class talents none of this would matter. Of the four, though, the closest to that label has got to be Kelly Klein and even she isn’t a world beater at this point. Veda Scott is persistently unserious as a character and I feel her ringwork reflects that, in a negative way. Taeler Hendrix is likely the most traveled of the bunch but she’s never been touted as a great worker and I don’t feel she’s changing that impression in ROH. Mandy Leon has been wrestling for just a year and it looks like that when she gets in the ring. The tough truth is that, despite the greater presence on shows and the greater numbers of semi-regulars, the ROH women’s roster is desperately weak in quality.
Talent is what makes a promotion. Talent will overcome anything. If you want an example you just take a look at AJ Styles. Take a look at Jay Lethal. Both these guys slogged it through some of the worst and most nonsensical shit that TNA could throw at them and are now two of the most seriously respected wrestlers in the world. There are some people you can’t put down because the talent is just too strong. So at the very base of ROH’s issues here is the fact that they simply do not have the talent that they need to make an exciting division. When they did have it, with Sara Del Rey and MsChif and Daizee Haze, they did nothing with it. Now that they’re ‘pursuing’ it they don’t have anything like the talent they once did. But I’ll come back to this in a moment.
First I want to take a moment to discuss the Women of Honor’s other big issue: lack of booking direction. In my mind, where booking becomes important is in presenting these talents in the best way to the public. Even the best talent can burn out a crowd if they keep doing the same thing in the same context for weeks and months and years. Booking is meant to raise excitement for a match or a performer or an event or what have you. From the reactions that the Honorlings give the Women of Honor, the booking has not set anyone on fire. And here’s the thing: there really hasn’t been much effort at all to book well.
I’m just gonna talk about booking as in storyline-writing here, and as far as a story goes, there is really only one: Kelly Klein. She just keeps winning. Who’s gonna beat her? A direct story, easily told. But it’s not taking. For one thing, this storyline really gets very little attention on TV. It’s not being sold as something that we’ve really gotta pay attention to. It’s a footnote, a filler story right now. It’s a callback to the lack of spotlight that women get in ROH. But let’s leave that bit aside, since I talked about it above. Let’s just narrow it down to how the story is being executed. And again, it’s not great, for two major reasons: Klein is not the sort of exciting squasher that will build an audience and there is no one that the crowd is really hoping will come beat her. No one has been established as a particular talent to watch yet, someone who’s actually proving themselves capable of doing it, and more importantly, no one has caught the crowd’s interest full-stop. Klein’s had good showings but there’s no hook to the story.
And here’s another issue: all the top women in ROH are heels. Mandy Leon, a face, has a lot of visibility but she’s more likely to be on a winning team than to go on a winning streak. Scott, Hendrix, and Klein are the ones who have been shown to be capable and none is a fan favorite in any form, a babyface or an anti-hero or whatever. People keep bringing up this supposed ‘re-shifting’ of the old heel-face alignment (which I disagree with, but that’s another column) but there still needs to be some sort of conflict. As it stands, neither Scott nor Hendrix really have a reason to kill themselves trying to beat Klein and they haven’t shown a burning desire to do so. There is no brewing conflict at the highest level, there’s no heat to draw people in. And remember, this current crop of Women of Honor have been at it for around a year at the very least. Even without the dedicated episodes, there’s been time for all this to be built up. It simply hasn’t been.
All this confusion and lack of direction comes down to one core reason: Ring of Honor does not really care about promoting women’s wrestling. It feels like they don’t want to be left too far behind because WWE/NXT is pushing women so hard right now but there’s no feeling in ROH’s offering. And there is nowhere that shows that more than in ROH’s poor scouting. For their men, they were able to pick up a huge prospect in Lio Rush, they’ve already signed ACH and Moose, they brought Michael Elgin and Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reilly to prominence. ROH is always up there on which male talents are going to make it next and they’ve made the careers of several top-flight male names across the world. For women, since SDR has left the biggest star they’ve got is ODB who has had a lot of screen time in her career but never come across as a major player in the Knockouts field on the level of Kim, Kong, or the Beautiful People.
It’s not as though ROH does not have contacts to women who could light up the crowd and really provide this good base. They’ve featured Heidi Lovelace before, they’ve featured Allysin Kay several times and seemed at one point to really be behind her as their female star. They will have Candice LeRae on their show soon and I mentioned on twitter before that if ROH really wants to make a go of women’s wrestling, she is someone they could absolutely use on their roster. But no one has been followed up on. I thought Lovelace would end up being the sparkplug babyface but she’s been very sporadic in her appearances. Their one semi-regular who I think has the skill to be a good foil for Kelly Klein is Crazy Mary Dobson, but Dobson has never been positioned as a threat to anybody in ROH. Mandy Leon has been wrestling for just a year and probably has had at least twice the ROH ring time than Dobson, and even she isn’t anywhere near a match with Klein.
Of course I accept the fact that these women have other opportunities and other schedules to meet. Lovelace has toured Japan, Scott works SHIMMER, and many work other indies. But that just speaks to my point: Ring of Honor has not put any emphasis on really trying to lure any top level women wrestlers. If they could get Lio Rush who was being looked at by everybody, why couldn’t they hire Allysin Kay to lead their women’s division? Why can’t they lock down Heidi Lovelace to come by for more dates, to work PPVs? Why can’t they feature Mercedes Martinez or Nicole Savoy, also working SHIMMER like Scott is? If Ring of Honor was serious about their women’s division there is absolutely no reason they shouldn’t be able to get some of the top women on the circuit today. But they aren’t.
When I say that Ring of Honor’s female talent is not star-quality I don’t mean that they won’t ever be. Several of ROH’s women wrestlers are still young, still learning, and certainly could use a bit of travel to hone their game. There is definite potential there. But if we’re talking about making an impact in 2016, they are not the women for the job. Even if we accept that ROH is approaching this with a training wheels mindset (which raises the question of why you want to put your trainees on the same show as your supposedly world-class talent and try to convince us that they’re somewhat equivalent), these women aren’t going to get to the level of work that they need by working with others who aren’t at the top. Pressure makes diamonds. You don’t just learn to work well by training a lot, you have to go out there and perform, and preferably in a big-money situation where you have to perform. That’s what drives people to get better. But ROH has put no stakes into its women’s division, it’s gotten no stars for it, and it’s really given it no attention. It’s a huge disappointment to me that ROH is falling down so completely in this area. But, on the upside, women wrestlers have got a lot of other places that they can learn their craft and excel in 2016. ROH doesn’t need to put on a women’s product and no one is really waiting for them to do so. Makes me wonder what exactly they’re getting out of it.