5. Nigel McGuiness
Prior to becoming NXT’s newest announcer, Nigel McGuinness spent most of his wrestling career in Ring of Honor. He came to prominence in 2005, after defeating the usually unstoppable Samoa Joe for the ROH Pure Championship. Matches under the Pure title had very specific stipulations, which the sly and opportunistic McGuinness exploited in order to win, and he went on to hold the belt for an impressive 350 days. By 2007, the Spikey-haired, British-born wrestler adopted a more aggressive style, relying on a variety of lariats and overall brute strength to beat the competition. This new strong style led to McGuinness becoming ROH World Champion, ending Takeshi Morishima’s dominant reign at “Undeniable 2007.”
Unfortunately, it was that same unrelenting approach to wrestling that marred McGuinness’ time as World Champion with injuries, at least in the beginning. While the hurt champion was forced to back out of several bouts and miss some scheduled dates, his successful title defenses were some of the hardest-hitting matches in the company’s history (against Austin Aries, Go Shiozaki and KENTA, to name a few) and he kept fighting through for 545 days. By the end of his title run, McGuinness defended the World Championship 38 times—an impressive record tied only by Bryan Danielson. By 2009, WWE came calling and were ready to contract him and longtime rival Danielson. Sadly, a failed medical screening partially due to his accumulated injuries resulted in WWE rescinding the offer. After a brief stint in TNA, and a final tour of the independents, McGuinness retired as an active wrestler. Meanwhile, Danielson went on to become one of the most decorated and beloved performers in the WWE. One must wonder what could have happened to Nigel McGuinness had things gone differently for him: Would he have been a high-profile star on Raw or Smackdown? It was his dream job and ultimate goal as a wrestler. But McGuinness will always be remembered as one of Ring of Honor’s best. - Michaelangelo Muñiz
4. Jay Briscoe
Jay Briscoe is fond of saying he’s been in Ring of Honor since day one, but let it sink in for a second: He was in the second match on the very first card that the company ever put together. On a 2002 show best known for a three-way between Christopher Daniels, Bryan Danielson and Low Ki to kick off “the Era of Honor,” a scrawny, 18-year-old Jay Briscoe, accompanied by his 17-year-old brother Mark, lost to the Amazing Red in less than 10 minutes.
But it’s not just when he started that’s so impressive. It’s how long he’s remained one of Ring of Honor’s most iconic wrestlers, and what he’s accomplished in that time. Briscoe has gone on to become not only one of the most decorated tag team wrestlers in any promotion ever—winning the ROH tag titles with his brother a record eight times—but also a two-time Ring of Honor champion. When Briscoe began to focus more on singles wrestling, it was during an angle in which Kevin Steen was running roughshod over the ROH roster, disrespecting the company at every turn. It was Briscoe, the man synonymous with the company, who would step up to take him down and win his first-ever ROH title. Through the years, when ROH needed someone as a standard-bearer, the Briscoes were often the ones picked, with Jay leading the charge. He and his brother missed just two years in the company’s entire history due to a serious injury to Mark. In that time, Briscoe has had so many tag and singles matches that it’s hard to know where to begin. Certainly his feud with Steen was a high point, as were feuds with Adam Cole, and Jay Lethal. Tag battles with the Kings of Wrestling, Steen and El Generico, the Young Bucks and the American Wolves tore the house down.
Briscoe’s downside is that the “redneck” persona he utilizes in the ring is perhaps too close to reality: On more than one occasion, he’s posted disgusting, hateful comments about the LGBT community to his Twitter feed, and in 2013 threatened to shoot anyone who dared teach his children about same sex marriage. (He was later forced to apologize, claiming the comments were coming from the “character” of Jay Briscoe, not the real Jamin Pugh.) Still, in a company where fans have been known to occasionally turn on their favorites, the Briscoes have an almost uninterrupted tenure of fan support over the last 15 years, and Jay Briscoe is a main-event caliber talent that can be plugged into any feud and elevate any wrestler. He’s no less than Ring of Honor’s resident workhorse. - Paul DeBenedetto
3. CM Punk
By 2005, the year CM Punk signed with WWE, the Chicago grappler had already become one of the most iconic wrestlers on the American independent scene. From his beginnings as a backyard wrestler to his days at IWA Mid-South, wrestling marathon bouts against Chris Hero, and moving on to Ring of Honor, anyone who paid attention to wrestling outside of WWE knew the name CM Punk. When word spread that Punk had signed his contract, fans flocked to Death Before Dishonor III to shower him with praise and streamers, honoring a man who would never be champion.
Then, the “Summer of Punk” happened: CM Punk, against all odds, won that match against Austin Aries for the ROH World Championship. Fans were stunned. And when Punk picked up the microphone, they were even more shocked: an evil CM Punk threatened to take the ROH title with him to WWE. That July, he successfully defended his title against the likes of Jay Lethal, Roderick Strong and former WWE wrestler James Gibson. Suddenly, the story was about preserving the legacy of Ring of Honor against the turncoat Punk. Even Christopher Daniels, who was never one to adhere to ROH’s “Code of Honor,” stepped up to challenge Punk, with a 60-minute time limit draw.
In the end, Punk did lose, in a four-way match against Gibson, Daniels, and Samoa Joe, which saw the underdog Gibson crowned champion. A month later, Punk was in WWE developmental.
CM Punk’s impact will be felt forever. His 2004 rematch against Samoa Joe for the ROH title was the first Wrestling Observer five-star rating on American soil since 1997. His move to WWE ushered in a deluge of independent wrestlers in the company, many of them ROH stars, and it’s extremely possible—and perhaps likely—that there wouldn’t be a Daniel Bryan without CM Punk. WWE even marketed a version of the “Summer of Punk” for itself. During Punk’s infamous “pipe bomb” promo, which kicked off that storyline, he gave a shoutout to his former promotion. There’s no denying the important role CM Punk played in wrestling history, and in turn, helping Ring of Honor reach the big time. - Paul DeBenedetto
2. Bryan Danielson
One of Daniel Bryan’s greatest career achievements was becoming WWE World Heavyweight Champion after competing in two matches at WrestleMania XXX. After defeating HHH with a running knee strike, he was inserted into the main event—a triple threat involving Randy Orton and Batista—and with the odds stacked against him, submitted Batista with his signature LeBell lock as thousands of fans in the Mercedez-Benz Superdome cheered on. Two back-to-back, high-profile victories using different strategies is an impressive feat, but Daniel Bryan—aka Bryan Danielson—honed that kind of versatility and perseverance in Ring of Honor.
Danielson was a strategist. While the Cattle Mutilation—an unorthodox hold that targeted an opponent’s shoulder blades—was typically used as his finishing maneuver, he didn’t rely on it every night. During a classic match featuring Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat as referee, Danielson wrestled CM Punk and won via an abdominal stretch after consistently weakening Punk’s middle section. A year later, the versatile grappler finished a best-of-five series by pinning Homicide after a long and disorienting airplane spin. Upon returning from a brief sabbatical, he ended James Gibson’s reign as ROH World Champion by applying a crossface chickenwing submission. On occasion, Danielson would catch his opponents off guard with an inside cradle, earning the moniker “Mister Small Package. Wrestlers like Nigel McGuinness and Chris Hero would fall to Danielson due to rapid elbows to the head, and vicious stomps to the face and chest. A more aggressive and strike-based style was his preferred method when battling competitors much larger than him—like Samoa Joe and Takeshi Morishima. And he was tough: In a match against Morishima, he suffered a detached retina, and kept on going. Win or lose, the “American Dragon” was known for effectively adapting to any in-ring situation. And perhaps that’s why Bryan Danielson was dubbed the “Best in the World.” - Michaelangelo Muñiz
1. Samoa Joe
There’s a reason Samoa Joe remains the longest-reigning champion in Ring of Honor history. For a while, the 280-pound Joe was booked as a monster in every promotion in which he performed. That started in Ring of Honor, where he was brought in as Christopher Daniels’ goon before becoming a standalone powerhouse that would go on to dominate the company. As the man who helped popularize MMA-style pro wrestling in the United States, Joe is the predecessor to guys like Davey Richards and Kyle O’Reilly, but the 280-pound Joe could also move like few others his size. Whether he was delivering a corner enziguri, diving toward an outside opponent with a topé suicida, or even just running full speed across the floor to boot his opposition in the face, Samoa Joe wasn’t just fun to watch for a big man—he was an exciting pro wrestler.
It was around maybe day 200 of his title reign that there seemed to be no stopping Joe, and he would go on to hold the belt for a remarkable 645 days. Twenty-one months and two Christmases passed before Samoa Joe lost the world title—a belt that, incidentally, was only dubbed a “world” title because of a 2003 defense by Joe in England—and in that time, he went on a tear, defeating a third of the names on this very list and more in 29 title defenses, including a series of matches with CM Punk that stand as some of the best in the company’s history. The man that did eventually beat Joe later became a two-time champion in Ring of Honor himself: Austin Aries. Samoa Joe was perhaps the most believable champion of all time in any pro wrestling company, outside of perhaps Brock Lesnar.
But the most remarkable thing about Joe’s historic, nearly two-year-long reign is that he didn’t even need the belt. He was so legitimate that just seeing Samoa Joe wrestle was a draw. When, for example, Japanese wrestling legend Kenta Kobashi traveled to the United States for a special attraction match in 2005, there was only one man the ROH bookers turned to: Samoa Joe. Why? Simple: For a significant period of time in the aughts, Samoa Joe was perhaps the best wrestler on planet Earth. - Paul DeBenedetto