There’s no argument that women’s professional wrestling is at an all-time high, at least the highest its been since Mildred Burke was main eventing shows in the 1940s in front of 19,000 people. The WWE has been telling everyone within Twitter shot of their “historic” accomplishments in the past year – from their first ever Women’s Hell In A Cell Match, Iron Man Match, Royal Rumble, Pay Per View Main Event and all-women PPV WWE Evolution – while women’s wrestlers across the globe, from Becky Lynch to Tessa Blanchard, Meiko Satomura to Toni Storm, are captivating the collective wrestling zeitgeist as characters as prestigious as their male counterparts. Go to an indie show and you’ll see as many Rosemary shirts as Dean Ambrose it seems. All women promotions, like SHIMMER, Pro Wrestling EVE, Stardom, Shine, and Women’s Wrestling Revolution are helping showcase some of the best wrestlers in the world, and intergender wrestling appreciation – as a legitimate craft rather than a novelty – has never been more prevalent.
The Misfire of Women of Honor In A Time of Revolution
So as WWE continues to switch its emphasis on putting women’s matches and storylines front and center, as IMPACT Wrestling continues to add world-class athletes like Jordynne Grace to their already impressive Knockouts roster, as more and more women are becoming main events in promotions around the world, it’s strange to see Ring of Honor‘s women’s division, Women of Honor, floundering so much in a sea of misdirection and seeming afterthought.
Throughout the 2000s and much of the 2010s, Ring of Honor had been on the forefront of cutting-edge professional wrestling in the United States. It’s where current era icons like Daniel Bryan, AJ Styles, CM Punk, Seth Rollins, Christopher Daniels, Samoa Joe, Kevin Owens, and Sami Zayn cut their baby teeth. It gave us Adam Cole, Roderick Strong, Keith Lee, The Young Bucks, and so much more over the years, that it’s importance to the rise of the current indie boom is infinitely undeniable. In 2002, they also helped push women’s wrestling as something beyond the Attitude Era sexism and misogyny, when it showcased it’s own first women’s match, on June 22, 2002 at ROH Road to the Title, when Sumie Sakai defeated Simply Luscious. When SHIMMER opened its doors in 2005, founded by former ROH employee Dave Prazak and ROH wrestler Alison Danger, SHIMMER became ROH’s “sister” promotion, and SHIMMER titles were defended at major ROH events.
In 2016, Ring of Honor decided to enter the women’s wrestling scene once again with more vigor, relaunching Women of Honor as it’s own identity within the ROH Universe – similar to EVOLVE to Shine or Women’s Wrestling Revolution to Beyond Wrestling. In the months leading up, they picked up some new faces, like indie darling Deonna Purrazzo and emerging new stars like Karen Q, Brandi Rhodes, Faye Jackson, and more. Kelly Klein was pushed as the face of the division, a brash tough-talking ass kicker who took out everyone she faced. She made her ROH debut, a victory over Ray Lyn at ROH Glory By Honor XIV. In her first full year with ROH, she went 3-0 in singles matches, defeating Taeler Hendrix, Candice LeRae, and ODB. In 2017, she was relegated to mostly dark matches, only making two televised appearances – although she extended to 5-0 in a singles victory over current IMPACT Knockout Scarlett Bourdeaux. She spent more time in Canada (working for CWE in a long feud against another IMPACT Knockout, Jordynne Grace), followed by a lengthy tour with Japan’s Stardom in the fall. She returned to ROH for the beginning of 2018 and the announcement of a tournament to crown the first ever Women of Honor Champion, bringing over several Stardom talents for it, including Maya Iwatani and Kagetsu. In the tournament, Klein was dominant, defeating Jessie Brooks easily in the first round, before savaging her next two opponents – victories over Mandy Leon and Iwatani were both ended by ref stoppage.
But at ROH Supercard of Honor XII this spring in the finals, it was original Woman of Honor Sumi Sakai who won the WOH title, in an unexpected, but deserving finale. With an alliance with Stardom, plus a roster featuring Kelly Klein, Deonna Purrazzo, Karen Q, Faye Jackson, and newly signed Tenille Dashwood (formerly Emma in the WWE), WOH seemed poised to be a game changer in 2018. But ever since the champ was crowned, Women of Honor has mostly become an afterthought, an idea seemingly held on to because it would be in poor taste to cancel in today’s wrestling climate, so is written purely in afterthought.
Since fiercely going 8-0 in ROH and losing a hard fought battle to a deserving legend in Ring of Honor’s 16-year history, Klein has seemingly been distracted from chasing the title that was so closely within her grasp. She had a brief feud with Deonna Purrazzo, who soon left for NXT, as well as newly signed Madison Rayne, plus bouts with Dashwood and Jenny Rose, but she’s also spent a lot of time in somewhat meaningless tag matches.
Faye Jacksin was an emerging star with Women of Honor from 2016 to 2017, but she finally departed WOH at the end of 2017 and has since become one of the new rising stars on the independent circuit outside ROH, with Absolute Intense Wrestling (AIW), Queens of Combat (QOC), Women’s Wrestling Revolution, NOVA Pro Wrestling, and more, finding her own success away from the WOH.
Meanwhile, the champion hasn’t exactly to be booked be worth caring about at all – or rather, the championship itself isn’t being booked as meaningful or shown as being overly prestigious. The best women in ROH for the past three years is no longer interested in chasing it, and the bookers don’t seem interested in using their own roster or veterans properly to help push the champion to a position where her matches mean anything.
That’s not to say that Sumie Sakai isn’t still giving it her all. She absolutely is, the consummate professional. But since winning the title back in April, Sakai has had seven WOH Championship title defenses – against WOH stars Jenny Rose, Stella Grey, Madison Rayne, and Tenille Dashwood, plus guest opponents such as the UK’s Chardonnay and Japan’s Hazuki. And Jenny Rose has had TWO of those seven title shots. Now before you say “maybe they’re pushing Rose as the next big thing”, this past year, Rose has been 0-4 in ROH matches. She’s primarily used as a tag team wrestler. How can you expect fans to consider the belt worth following when the woman with the most losses on the WOH roster has had the most title shots for the championship? Dashwood and Rayne got shots, but Rayne wasn’t even part of WOH at the time (she was still working with IMPACT Wrestling). Sadly, Dashwood’s opportunity was just before her self-imposed hiatus from wrestling due to health issues. But for some strange reason, the woman who had been built up from 2015 as the wrecking machine of Women of Honor, the heart, blood, and soul of the division, an undefeated fighter whose only loss came to the woman who wore the belt around her waist.
Now surely that encounter is still going to happen at some point down the road, but letting that feud sit idle for seven months is a surefire way to kill the heat and the history, especially when the matches are few and far between and seemingly have no implication on the championship’s direction or quality of challengers. During several events in November, Kelly Klein and Karen Q both won #1 Contender qualifying matches, presumably for a #1 Contenders Match at ROH Final Battle next week. Hopefully, the time has finally come for Women of Honor to take the momentum in had at the beginning of 2018 and channel that into a great end of the year and springboard Women of Honor into 2019 with a bit more direction, a bit more passion for the championship, and a little more love. Today’s wrestling fans are past the women’s matches being treated like filler. We have proven we will watch women’s wrestling as more than a novelty – but in order for us to continue to watch it, it needs to be investing. It needs to have it’s strongest fighters pushed and it needs it’s a championship to be contested by the best. The fans deserve it. But more importantly, the Women of Honor need it.