The History of the ROH Pure Championship

In early 2004, Ring of Honor officially introduced a secondary singles title. Prior to this, the #1 Contender’s Trophy had been treated like a secondary championship, but this title would be a chance to showcase the “pure wrestling” style that in part helped put ROH on the map. It was also a neat way to separate ROH from it’s fellow Northeast promotions.

Pure Title matches are governed under the following rules:
*Matches are to begin and end with a handshake.
*Each wrestler has 3 rope breaks to stop submission holds and pinfalls. After a wrestler has used all 3 of their rope breaks, submission and pin attempts on or under the ropes by the opponent are considered legal.
*Closed-fist punches to the face are not permitted. Punches to other parts of the body are permitted, excluding low blows. The first use of a closed fist results in a warning, a second can result in either a loss of a rope break, or a disqualification loss for the perpetrator.
*A 20 count on the floor was implemented in these matches. Newer fans may not remember that from ROH’s inception through November 2008, there were no count outs. Today the 20 count is the standard for all ROH sanctioned bouts, but at the time, this was novel for Pure title matches only.

ROH Pure Wrestling Championship Tournament Finals
CM Punk vs. AJ Styles

“Second Anniversary Show” – Braintree, MA – 2.14.2004

The winner of this match becomes the inaugural ROH Pure Champion. Traci Brooks is in Punk’s corner. Punk uses the ropes to counter a wristlock which the referee counts as one rope break. Styles goes for the Styles Clash early. Punk grabs his leg and Styles gets the ropes to block whatever submission may be coming. That brings him down to two rope breaks as well. A lock-up ends up on the floor. Back in the ring they criss-cross the ropes. Styles goes after Traci to neutralize her. Punk pescado’s onto him. Punk stops himself from being whipped into the barricades but Styles dropkicks him. He lands on his previously injured leg. Punk notices this and puts on a Boston Crab back in the ring. Styles uses his second rope break to escape. Styles puts Punk in a headscissors in the ropes. The referee counts that as Punk’s second rope break. Styles goes for a springboard move and gets his legs swept out. Punk puts on a half crab. Styles’ third and final rope break is used to escape that hold. Punk puts on a key lock. Styles violently rips away in a chinlock to force Punk to the ropes. No both guys are out of rope breaks, so the ropes can be used. Both guys fight on the top rope where Styles brings Punk down with a super Gourd Buster. Styles hits a discus lariat which he used earlier in the night to beat Jimmy Rave. Punk rolls to the floor to avoid being pinned. When Punk comes back in he hits a Shining Wizard for two. Punk puts on a modified cloverleaf. Styles uses the ropes to twist himself around and kick Punk away. Punk kicks out his leg. Styles blocks the Shining Wizard to hit the Styles Clash for two. Styles hits one from the second rope for the pin at 16:34. That was a masterful way to introduce the title. They showcased the three rope break rule in a very clever way and how losing those rope breaks can also be beneficial if done so wisely. There was some ingenious work put in from both competitors. I really do feel this gets overlooked by the awesome World title match on the same show, and the rematch they had at “At Our Best”. ***¾

A scandal involving Rob Feinstein resulted in Ring of Honor leaving RF Video and becoming its own entity. The scandal resulted in TNA deciding to no longer share its contracted talent with Ring of Honor, including AJ Styles. The Pure title thus became vacant, and a new champion was decided in July. ROH claimed it was a totally different championship, and they’re technically correct, as the original title was the Pure Wrestling Championship and going forward it was simply the Pure Championship. We all knew the deal though.

ROH Pure Championship Tournament Finals
Doug Williams vs. Alex Shelley

“Reborn: Completion” – Elizabeth, NJ – 7.17.2004

AJ Styles was forced to leave ROH by TNA in the wake of the Rob Feinstein controversy, and thus a new Pure Champion needed to be crowned. Earlier the night, both Shelley and Williams won two separate four corner survival matches to earn the opportunity to challenge for the title. Shelley denies Williams a handshake before the bell. Shelley’s arm is still in pain from his match earlier in the night. Their chain wrestling leads to Williams pushing Shelley’s legs as far apart as he can using his head and legs. Williams traps Shelley in a headscissors. Shelley rakes Williams’ eyes, so Williams forearm strikes him away. Williams embarasses Shelley by tying him up in the Black Pool Ball, which Shelley does scoot himself out of. Shelley also wiggles his way out of a grounded headlock. After trading control on the mat, Williams picks up the intensity by throwing Shelley shoulder first into the turnbuckle. Shelley uses his first rope break when Williams headbutts an upturned wristlock. Williams hammerlock’s Shelley’s arm, applying extra pressure with his own and adding a chinlock. Shelley blasts Williams with an enzuigiri and punts him in the ribs before delivering a neckbreaker. He chokes Williams in the corner and uses the ropes for a slingshot legdrop for two. Shelley stomps Williams’ face into the mat and rakes his eyes. Shelley sends Williams to the corner. Williams stops Shelley with a back elbow. He tries the Bomb Scare knee. Shelley sidesteps that, but Williams pulls Shelley down into a cross armbreaker. Shelley has no choice but to use his second rope break. Shelley goes back to work on Williams’ neck. Williams is able to catch Shelley as Shelley comes off the ropes with a running crossbody. He gives Shelley a shoulder breaker across his knee. Williams hits the Bomb Scare and then puts Shelley in a bridging hammerlock! Shelley rakes his eyes to escape, but Williams re-applies it, forcing Shelley to spend his third and final rope break. Shelley blocks a hammerlock, planting Williams with a DDT. Williams blasts Shelley with a series of knees to the head. Shelley escapes a Fujiwara armbar, placing Williams in the Border City Stretch. Williams goes to Shelley’s eyes to break it. Shelley comes off the top with a double stomp to the back of his head. Shelley plants him with Shellshock for two. Williams catches Shelley with a knee as Shelley tries a shoulder block through the ropes. Williams legally applies a hammerlock in the ropes, pulling on Shelley’s neck in the process. Shelley submits immediately, making Williams the new Pure Champion at 19:20. I think what I love most about Williams is the pride he took in not ever using the ropes to escape a submission. Not only did he not want to find himself at a deficit, but that choice reflects his wrestling philosophy as well. Shelley on the other hand grew weary of trying to out wrestle Williams and took shortcuts to get control, but also focused on the neck in the hopes of securing the Border City Stretch. Williams’ decorum emphasizes what the Pure title represents, and Shelley’s lack of dignity was a perfect counterpoint. I really like both these participants, but even I am surprised that I enjoyed this Pure title tournament final more than the original. ****

ROH Pure Championship
Doug Williams vs. John Walters

“Scramble Cage Melee” – Braintree, MA – 8.28.2004

Walters defeated Nigel McGuiness at “Testing The Limit” to earn this title shot. He also waited specifically for this event to challenge because he promised to win the title in his hometown of Boston. Before the match, World Champion Samoa Joe tells Doug Williams just because he successfully defended the Pure title in England doesn’t mean it’s now a World title. He wishes Williams luck, and tells Walter not to choke in front of his hometown crowd the same way he does everywhere else. Well that wasn’t very nice!

After feeling one another out on the mat, Williams puts Walters in a straightjacket surfboard, which Walters reverses. Walters put Williams in a Muta Lock. Williams elbows Walters in the nose to escape. Williams forearms Walters in the chest, sending Walters crashing to the canvas. Walters dropkicks Williams as Williams tries to come out of the corner. He gives Williams’ left leg a stunner, and like a shark that smells blood, Walters attacks it right after. He applies pressure to Williams’ leg with a bridge. Williams elbows out of that, but uses his first rope break when Walters puts him in a sharpshooter. Williams uses his second rope break shortly after to break a figure four leg lock. Williams uses his third rope break when Walters applies pressure to his arm and leg at the same time. When Walters gets Williams back in the ring, he uses the ropes for extra leverage when working over Williams’ legs. Williams desperately schoolboys Walter for two, then gives him a reverse DDT onto his knee. Williams gets Walter to use his first rope break with a front facelock, then delivers a blockbuster for two. Williams gives Walters an Ace Crusher and applies a crossface. Walters uses his second rope break to escape. He then uses his third rope break to escape a Camel Clutch, giving Williams free reign to stretch out Walters’ back and neck while he’s tied up in the ropes. Williams ducks a clothesline and dragon suplxes Walters for two. Doug Williams goes up to the top rope for the Bomb Scare. Walters stops him and brings him down with a super Frankensteiner. Williams rolls through and small packages Walters for two. He hits the Chaos Theory for two, because he could only hold his bridge with one leg. Walters slingshots Williams into the ropes to avoid a powerbomb. Williams tries to skin the cat back in the ring, but Walters grabs hold of him in an ankle submission, forcing Williams to tap out at 18:48. This was definitely Walters best performance since his miracle match with Xavier at Final Battle 2003. The crowd got into it by the end, but you would’ve anticipated them being more behind their hometown hero for the bulk of the match. He and Williams told a tremendous story revolving around the rope breaks, and I really liked how Walters’ submission in the ropes mirrored Williams title win against Shelley the month priore. Walters seems to be the forgotten Pure champion, but if nothing else his title win was pretty great. I recommend giving it a look on YouTube if you’ve never seen it before. ***¾

ROH Pure Championship
John Walters vs. Jay Lethal

“Trios Tournament 2005” – Philadelphia, PA – 3.5.2005

At “Final Battle 2004”, Prince Nana paid Walters a handsome sum to join the Embassy. Lethal had a shot at Walters back at “Third Anniversary Celebration, Night 1”, but Walters forced Lethal to challenge for the title as soon as Lethal had competed against Jimmy Rave. After three straight jacket back crackers, he held onto the ropes and pinned Lethal to retain the title. On this night, CM Punk, who at the time was feuding with the Embassy, chased both Prince Nana and Jimmy Rave away to ensure a fair fight for Lethal. Lethal also has one shut eye because he was attacked by a mystery assailant earlier in the evening.

Walters misses a chop to start. Lethal responds with some of his own chops and takes down Walters with a bulldog for two. They fight outside the ring after Lethal gives Walters a missile dropkick and backdrop. After fighting on the outside of the ring, Back inside Lethal gives Walters a monkey flip and puts him in a parachute stretch. Walters grabs the ropes to escape, causing him his first rope break. Lethal places Walters on the top turnbuckle, but Walters fights him off and gives him a backpack stunner off the second turnbuckle. He claws at Lethal’s injured eye before earning a two count with a suplex. Lethal stps Walters momentum with crucifix pi attempt. Walters blocks a huracanrana and puts Lethal in a sharpshooter. Lethal spends his first rope break to escape. Walters elbows Lethal in the kidneys and pummels on his back before giving him an electric chair drop. Lethal blocks a straightjacket backcracker. They trade several pin attempts, and Walters instinctively uses his second rope break to stop one of the counts. They knock down one another with simultaneous clotheslines. Lethal takes control when they get to their feet. He fights off a suplex attempt from Walters and gives him a powerbomb for two. After some backbreakers, Lethal rolls Walters into a Camel Clutch. Walters escapes and gives Lethal three straightjacket back crackers like he did in their first title match. This time, however, Lethal is able to get his shoulder up before the three count. Walters brings Lethal to the top rope, hoping for a super backbreaker.. Lethal throws him off the top and nails the Flying DDT for two. Walters elbows Lethal in the corner and goes for another straightjacket backbreaker. Lethal blocks it and turns Walters inside out with a clothesline. Lethal finally hits the Dragon suplex he had been looking for through most of the match, getting the pin and the title at 11:19. By this point, the audience was very much into Lethal and pretty much had their fill of Walters, so this was absolutely the right call. They did a nice job harkening back to their previous match and making Lethal’s work revolving around the Dragon suplex meaningful. It felt like a big moment for Lethal and was a perfect way to end his issue with the Embassy. The one thing really holding this match back was a fairly dead crowd, who fortunately did come alive for the ending. Samoa Joe comes out and celebrates with Lethal. ***

ROH Pure Championship
Jay Lethal vs. Samoa Joe

“Manhattan Mayhem” – New York, NY – 5.7.2005

Joe starts off the aggressor, throwing open hand strikes at Lethal after taking him to the corner.. Lethal slaps Joe and tells him that “the real champ is here.” They then go to the mat, trading control over another. Joe backs Lethal to the ropes to break a front facelock, but Joe does not break cleanly, laying in a few strikes. Lethal comes back with a leg lariat for one. He puts on a parachute stretch and Joe uses his first rope break to escape. Joe ends up using a closed fist on Lethal after side stepping Lethal’s crossbody attempt. Todd Sinclair catches him, and Joe gets a warning. Lethal drops Joe with a neckbreaker and puts him in a modified crossface, which Joe spends his second rope break to get out of. Joe catches Lethal in the corner with the STJoe. After taking kicks and a knee drop on the mat, Lethal gets to his feet and fights back. Joe stops a rolling elbow attempt from Lethal with another closed fist, which costs Joe his third and final rope break. He powerbombs Lethal into a Boston Crab, transitioning into an STF. Lethal uses his first rope break to escape. Joe goes for the facewash kick, but Lethal traps Joe’s leg in the ropes and gives him a dropkick. He suplexes Joe and gets two with a diving headbutt. Joe sends Lethal to the apron, kicking him to the floor and follows with an elbow suicida. Joe and Lethal fight on the apron where Lethal puts on a sleeper hold. Joe grabs the ropes, but since he’s out of rope breaks, Lethal need not break the hold. Joe solves the problem creatively, tumbling back first (and thus sending Lethal back first) off the apron and through the timekeeper’s table. When they recover back in the ring, Lethal dishes out some chops. Joe powerslams him for two then puts on a cross armbreaker. Lethal uses his second rope break to escape. He gives Joe a neckbreaker and a Flying DDT for two. Joe slaps Lethal in the face. He lariats Lethal in the back of the head. Lethal ducks a front lariat, then hits the Dragon suplex, the same move that won him the title, on Joe, but Joe manages to kick out. Lethal goes for a second Dragons uplex. Joe however comes back with two of his own Dragon suplexes on Lethal, as well as a cross-armed German suplex (the Chimeraplex) for the pin at 16:32. This was a particularly intense Pure Title match that also utilized the rules of the match in a very compelling manner. Joe losing all his rope breaks early, then having to desperately resort to throwing Lethal through a table just to survive added a lot of excitement to the bout. Lethal looked like he had finally matched his mentor, coming close to putting him away a few times, only to suffer defeat in the end partially by his own signature move. Lethal didn’t show any sympathy like Joe had wanted, but Lethal still wasn’t able to best his mentor on this night. Joe would resume using his “The Champ Is Here Music” after this victory which ruled. ***¾

ROH Pure Championship
Samoa Joe vs. Nigel McGuinness

“Dragon Gate Invasion” – Williamsville, NY – 8.27.2005

This would be McGuinness’ second shot at Joe’s Pure title, as Joe defeated him two months prior at “The Future Is Now.” McGuinness earned this shot due to his impressive showing in a Soccer Riot match against Colt Cabana at “Night of the Grudges II.” McGuinness applies a top wristlock on the apron, which Joe reverses into a headscissors. McGuinness escapes on his own accord. Joe brings McGuiness to his knees in a double knuckle lock and delivers a hard chest kick. After maneuvering Joe in a top wrist lock, McGuinness uses an illegal closed first behind referee Todd Sinclair’s back. McGuinness puts on a headlock. When Joe looks to escape, McGuinness punches Joe with a closed fist. Joe throws one of his own, of course getting caught, and is given a warning. Frustrated, Joe gives McGuiness a Manhattan Drop and running big boot before crushing his throat with a knee drop. Joe blocks the Rebound Lariat with a powerslam. He applies a cross armbreaker and McGuinness spends his first rope break quickly to escape. Joe casually steps out McGuinness’ crossbody path, then lands a senton onto McGuinness’ back for a two count. McGuinness rolls to the floor and goes under the ring to avoid a facewash kick. As Joe is about to dive after him with an elbow suicida, but McGuinness smashes a chair he got from under the ring into Joe’s arm. Sinclair takes McGuinness’ second rope break away as a penalty. McGuinness wastes no time attacking Joe’s hurt arm, forcing him to use his first rope break with a modified wristlock. McGuinness fakes out Joe with a Rebound Lariat, afterwards locking on a Fujiwara armbar and causing Joe to use his second rope break. McGuinness hooks Joe’s arm under his leg, taunting Joe to get the ropes. Joe rolls out instead and McGuinness kicks him in the face from the mat. Joe’s temper gets the best of him and he punches McGuinness with another closed fist. Because it’s Joe’s second violation of that rule, it costs him his third and final rope break. Despite blocking it, Joe is able to drop McGuinness with an STJoe. McGuinness baits Joe to the corner with a headstand. Joe comes in with a boot and gets his leg caught in the ropes. McGuinness brings Joe out of the ropes with another Fujiwara armbar. Joe escapes, and when McGuinness does a headstand in the corner again, Joe successfully catches him with a boot. Joe slaps McGuinness silly before going for the Muscle Buster. Joe’s arm gives out so he delivers an enzuigiri instead. Joe charges and misses a knee. He gets hung up on the top rope. McGuinness hits the Tower of London for the pin and the title at 14:48. Joe had his foot on the ropes, but since he used all his rope breaks up it didn’t matter. I thought the story was totally brilliant. It was a great precursor to how McGuinness’ Pure title reign would play out as he would manipulate the Pure Title rules and frustrate his opponents constantly. That reign would serve in moving McGuinness into the main event picture and ultimately helped get him to be seen as a main eventer by the fans. ***½

At “Weekend of Champions, Night 2” McGuinness would get his opportunity at the ROH World Championship against Bryan Danielson, while also putting his title on the line. The match was contested under Pure Rules, and McGuinness won by count out. However, since only the Pure Title can change hands on a count out, Danielson remained World Champion. Three months later at “Generation Now”, McGuiness received another World Championship opportunity, this time without the Pure Title or Pure Title rules in play. In that match, Danielson surprised McGuinness with a small package to win. With Danielson and McGuiness 1-1 in singles matches, the threematch would see both titles on the line once again, but this time, the Pure Championship would be unified with the World title and its lineage would end.

ROH World Championship & ROH Pure Championship Unification Match
Bryan Danielson (ROH World Champion) vs. Nigel McGuinness (ROH Pure Champion)

“Unified” – Liverpool, England – 8.12.2006

The match is contested under Pure Rules. It is made clear that unlike their “Weekend of Champions, Night 2” bout, both the World and Pure titles can change hands on a count out. An aggressive lock-up is broken against the ropes and Danielson smacks McGuinness in the face. McGuinness responds with his own slap to Danielson’s face after arm dragging his way out of a wristlock. Danielson pops McGuinness in the face with his elbow in the corner. McGuinness reverses Danielson’s wristlock and Danielson dropkicks him to the ropes. Danielson does more damage to the arm until McGuinness snapmares him into a back kick. Danielson pushes McGuinness to the corner to break a front facelock, then sends McGuinness shoulder first into the mat. Danielson attacks McGuinness’ wrist and shoulder and then delivers a dropkick for two. Danielson butterfly suplexes McGuinness into a cross armbreaker, forcing McGuinness to use his first rope break. McGuinness catches Danielson in the corner with a kick to the back before driving Danielson down to the mat in a lariat. He then drives Danielson’s arm to the mat in a top wristlock. McGuinness applies a Cobra Clutch after clobbering Danielson with uppercuts. Refusing to use a rope break, Danielson escapes on his own accord and delivers an enzuigiri. Danielson then stomps the back of McGuinness’ knees into the canvas. Danielson delivers a superplex and follows up with a diving headbutt. When that doesn’t get Danielson the pin, he puts on the Cattle Mutilation. McGuinness uses his second rope break to escape. McGuinness catches Danielson climbing the ropes and delivers the Tower of London. Danielson uses his first rope break to stop the pin. McGuinness then puts on his own Cattle Mutilation, and Danielson uses his second rope break to escape that. They fight spills out to the floor where Danielson throws McGuinness face first into the timekeeper’s table. Back in the ring we get a forearm exchange which ends when McGuinness delivers a lariat for two. McGuinness does a corner headstand but gets caught by a dropkick and subsequent rolling forearm. Danielson applies the Crossface Chicken Wing with a bodyscissors, the same method that won him the World Title. McGuinness uses his third and final rope break to escape. Danielson hits a German suplex. He goes for another diving headbutt but this time McGuinness gets his boot up to block it. Danielson wins an intense slap battle. McGuinness blocks a Dragon suplex and crotches Danielson on the top rope, bringing him down with a lariat. Danielson uses his final rope break to stop the pin attempt that follows. Danielson stops McGuinness as he climbs the turnbuckles and puts him in a Chicken Wing while seated on the top turnbuckle. McGuinness cleverly converts into the Tower of London for a two count. They both go outside the ring where Danielson pulls McGuinness head first into the ring post four times. The repeated impact busts him open. Danielson dropkicks McGuinness into the crowd and springboard dives after him. Despite Danielson’s best efforts, both he and McGuinness make it back into the ring before the twenty count. McGuinness is fired up and bloody. He and Danielson throw simultaneous headbutts, as if they were freakin’ rams or something. Danielson counters it the first time, but the second time McGuinness scores with the Rebound Lariat. McGuinness crawls over to Danielson and covers him. Danielson not only kicks out at two, but rolls himself and McGuinness over and applies the Cattle Mutilation. McGuinness escapes, so Danielson traps his head and lays in a barrage of elbows to the side of his head. Odd Sinclair stops the match at 26:20, giving Danielson the win and both titles. This had everything you could want from a high stakes match – a tremendous backstory, intense action that escalated, a rabid crowd, and the genuine feeling something important and momentous was happening. This is easily one of the best matches in ROH history, one of the best matches of both guys’ careers, and a bonafide classic. If you have not seen this match, you need to. ****¾

While the Pure Title’s lineage was short, it went out with an absolute bang. Fourteen years later, ROH decided to resurrect the title, and a new champion will be crowned this weekend, as Jonathan Gresham faces “Hot Sauce” Tracy Williams in the Pure Championship tournament finals. We’ll take a look at that entire tournament next week.

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