2021 was a year full of remarkable highs and crushing lows for Ring of Honor, and lead broadcaster Ian Riccaboni was there every step of the way.
From the joyful return of live fans to the emotional Final Battle: End of an Era pay-per-view, it was a remarkable calendar year for ROH, from start to finish.
In an interview with WrestleZone, Riccaboni called the fans’ return at ROH Best in the World one of the most special moments of 2021. He looked back on the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the way ROH shut down for the next several months. The company’s lead broadcaster reflected on the ROH bubble tapings, which were held in an empty arena, before he described how special the first show with fans truly was.
“And those first couple bubble tapings in 2020 where we had, I believe it was four if not five tests to make sure that we were negative, at a time when that testing was very expensive, when it was not readily available, you know, Ring of Honor did their best to keep us safe and it paid off and it worked out,” said Riccaboni. “And there was no outbreaks. And then to be able to return in the summer of 2021, when the pandemic was maybe at its most controlled to that point, was really gratifying to be in front of fans. It took my breath away, it was just one of those moments where you don’t realize what you take for granted until you get it back, until you have it back in front of you. And so to come out in Baltimore with fans in front of you and then again in Philly and then again in Baltimore over the course of the rest of the year, that was a big treat. And those things, I won’t take for granted again, you know, the ability to be there with fans enjoying wrestling.”
ROH has garnered a lot of praise for the way it handled the COVID-19 pandemic; its extensive testing and various safety protocols have been renowned as some of the best in the business. When asked about the company’s approach to keeping its talent safe, Riccaboni stated that ROH was the most “comprehensive” and “rigorous”, compared to the other companies he worked for.
“I think it was the third taping, we recognized and aligned with the science that you would just have to sanitize the ropes and the turnbuckles, and you would probably be pretty good at that point, knowing what we knew about the virus and how it lived on surfaces and things like that,” said Riccaboni. “The testing got a little less stringent, but having been part of GCW, having been part of IMPACT, having been part of New Japan at this point, it was still the most rigorous by the end.
“We still had extensive testing, pre-testing, before we could participate. Now, you know, credit to New Japan, who makes you have a negative test, credit to IMPACT, who makes sure that you’re boosted or you pass a test as well, that sort of thing, and GCW has strict guidelines and warnings about your participation. So these companies are looking out, but to this day, Ring of Honor is still the most compressive organization that I’ve been a part of, in terms of COVID testing.”
#AndStill @ringofhonor World Champ!
Hell of a match! Kudos to @SuperChrisSabin – could have gone either way!
I think @TheJonGresham is ready to defend his title against anyone in @IMPACTWRESTLING ? pic.twitter.com/2TjuRnd6uE
— Ian Riccaboni (@IanRiccaboni) January 9, 2022
Riccaboni also looked back on the remarkable in-ring action ROH offered in 2021. He spotlighted Jonathan Gresham, who later won the ROH World Championship, as an unmatched wrestler. He praised “The Octopus” and made it clear that he believed Gresham would have a breakout year in 2021, which is exactly what he did.
“I think, the story of 2021 to me, there were two wrestlers, well a wrestler and a division that stood out,” said Riccaboni. “By the end of 2020, it was clear to me that Jonathan Gresham was on a whole different planet. With due respect to Jay Lethal, due respect to Tracy Williams, Jay Briscoe, EC3, Brody King, Flamita, Bandido, RUSH, Shane Taylor, there was nobody like Jonathan Gresham. Jonathan Gresham is an entity of his own and you’re guaranteed to see a different match Jonathan Gresham steps into the ring.”
“He is somebody that is in such control of his craft and his art, but he’s also nimble enough to react to the environment around him, whether there’s fans or there’s no fans, whether he’s aware of the situation in the pay-per-view, if he recognizes where we are on the card or the time of the pay-per-view, there’s nobody like Jonathan Gresham. And a lot of us were sensing that at Final Battle 2020, when he successfully defended the tag titles, wrestled an amazing match later that night against Flip Gordon, and then you go into 2021, and you’re thinking this guy, he’s already shown he can break out with the pure tournament, with Final Battle, he’s gonna go into the stratosphere this year, and that’s what he did.”
ROH’s lead broadcaster continued to laud Gresham by explaining that he gets better each and every time he steps into the ring. He emphasized his belief that Gresham is one of the very best wrestlers in the world.
“Jonathan Gresham is unlike anybody I’ve ever seen before,” said Riccaboni. “And I’ve been asked if he was always this good, and the [answer] is no, but there’s a big asterisk because he gets better every time he wrestles. So it’s not that he wasn’t as good as he is, he was one of the top ten wrestlers in the world at any given point in the last ten years. But every time he wrestles, he gets better and better and better. And he’s untouchable right now. He is the best wrestler in the world. And so for me, any time I got to call a match with Jonathan Gresham, that was something that was memorable to me.”
“The ones that stick out, him versus Mike Bennett for the Pure Title at Best in the World, him versus Dragon Lee right before Final Battle, him [versus] Brody King right before Final Battle, and then him defeating Jay Lethal to capture the Ring of Honor World Championship at Final Battle. You know, he’s super special, he’s one of a kind, and he just cemented himself kind of in the stratosphere, rightfully earning a spot very high in the PWI 500…. Jonathan Gresham, definitely one of the best in the world.”
Gresham wins!! #FinalBattle @TheJonGresham@ringofhonorhttps://t.co/Axhss8sk9S pic.twitter.com/1kMb7BAZp8
— SirLARIATO (@SirLARIATO) December 12, 2021
Gresham won the ROH World Championship at the Final Battle pay-per-view, a show that was billed as the end of this iteration of ROH. Riccaboni had the best seat in the house for the event, and he reflected on how he and his broadcast partner, Caprice Coleman handled the uncertainty surrounding ROH’s future. He made it clear that they did their best to have fun and spotlight the wrestlers in the ring, given the fact that some of them would enter free agency just a few weeks later.
“When we got to Final Battle, Caprice and I made the explicit decision to take our hands off the steering wheel, put our feet on the gas and we’re just gonna tell it like it is,” said Riccaboni. “And we don’t know if we’re coming back, as in Caprice and I… To me, it was foot on the gas, hands off the wheel, let’s have fun. Wherever this takes us, it takes us. And we were honest throughout the night. You know, Shane Taylor versus Kenny King, we knew both of those guys were legitimate free agents on December 31st, and so for us, we made sure to tell the story, yeah this is a grudge match, you should care about this, but also this is an audition.
“There are people from other companies, I got texts throughout the night from people in AEW, from IMPACT, from WWE, who said, ‘We’re rooting for you guys. We hope you succeed, we hope this isn’t the last one, but if it is, we’re watching and we love you.’ And so we know that those companies and our friends at the different companies are watching, and we’re rooting out guys on. So Caprice and I, we did our best to leave everything out on the table to try snd make everybody look like a million dollars. Because the reality is, there are legitimate free agents as of December 31st, we were trying to shine them up as much as we could and make them look like a million dollars. We’re trying to have fun and make light of the situation.”
#FinalBattle https://t.co/D1Vp0NMDmV pic.twitter.com/Q1jRA76Fla
— Ian Riccaboni (@IanRiccaboni) December 12, 2021
Heading into Final Battle, ROH had a unique position because few other promotions, historically speaking, have had the knowledge that they might be closing down. ROH’s future was unclear, but having the opportunity to say goodbye to his colleagues, just in case the promotion never came back, wasn’t lost on Riccaboni. He compared the situation to WCW and ECW, who abruptly shut down despite their hope to keep going.
“The best thing that could have happened for us as a broadcast team was that we knew when it was going to end. And not many people have a chance to say goodbye… When Nitro went off the air in Panama Beach, they didn’t know it was gonna happen, but they thought they were coming back. They had May 6th for The Big Bang, they had plans if that didn’t work out and they sold to WWF, to run Stabler Arena. I have the ticket stub, I think it was March 19th, 2001. So WCW didn’t know that that was the last time they’d say goodbye…. But it’s very rare. AWA didn’t know when they were closing, USWA didn’t really know when they were kind of closing and turning into something different. ECW definitely did not know that it was closing. They were in Arkansas on January 13th, my 14th birthday, and then it was just over, 2001.
“So yeah we had a very special opportunity and I’ll never take it for granted. We wanted to make it fun, we wanted to promote our individual wrestlers as much as we could. We wanted to celebrate Ring of Honor and we didn’t want to give anybody false hope. We didn’t know for sure. We were told we ‘might be coming back.’ When the word hiatus has been used, I use the WCW example, it didn’t work out, so we didn’t want to anybody to think oh yeah this is…, but we didn’t want to be doom and gloom, either. If it did work out, which it’s going to, at least for Supercard, we didn’t want people to say oh, they were just advertising. We were giving the information as we were given. And we just wanted to make sure it was the most fun event we could have in light of the circumstances.”
There’s no doubt that 2021 will go down in ROH history; the triumphant coronation of a new world champion and the subsequent end of an era made it a year to remember. With the news that ROH will indeed return on April 1 for Supercard of Honor, fans can hope that 2022 will be an even more impactful year for the promotion moving forward.
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