For the first time in 14 years, Ring of Honor has crowned a new pure champion.
Jonathan Gresham defeated Tracy Williams in the championship round of a 16-person tournament, restoring the belt—at one time worn by the likes of A.J. Styles, Samoa Joe and Daniel Bryan—and reintroducing a style of technical wrestling that once defined Ring of Honor.
“I always gravitated to Ring of Honor because of its style and presentation, but over the years it moved away from what it was,” Gresham says. “Stylistically, everything changed, and the main guys in the company changed. I decided to stick with it. I stayed persistent.
“Ring of Honor, it’s all about sport. That’s the genre, pure wrestling. That is what makes us unique, and I kept telling the office that we needed this market of our own. A lot of fans feel the same. They want their wrestling to be pure, technical wrestling, so let’s fill that void.”
The pure championship is different from other titles in wrestling. It carries three distinct rules: Each wrestler is allowed three rope breaks per match and once those are used, pinfalls and submissions under the ropes then become legal; no closed fists to the face are permitted; and there is a 20-count by the referee once a wrestler hits the floor. With this set of rules, disqualifications can lead to title changes.
“When you take rules away from professional wrestling, there is no story, no heels or faces,” Gresham says. “We need rules for people to get up in arms over something. Every sport, fans yell at refs for missing technicalities of rules. Wrestling doesn’t have that anymore. It’s so easy to tell stories with technical wrestling. That goes deeper than fireworks or cool moves or title changes. Everything is so instant, so this is a different flavor of ice cream and a different identity for Ring of Honor.”
Gresham has emerged as one of wrestling’s rising stars. The 32-year-old has a decade-and-a-half worth of experience honing his craft. This was accomplished wrestling around the globe—with stops in Japan, Mexico, Germany, Wales, China and even Luxembourg—living in hostels, respecting and absorbing different styles, and relishing the opportunity to enhance his understanding of wrestling psychology as he has established his own fearsome presence in the ring.
“Some people think technical wrestling is slow and boring, but there are so many different styles of technical wrestling,” Gresham explains. “There is the swift and quick style of lucha libre, like Negro Navarro and Blue Demon Jr., as opposed to the Karl Gotch style that is popular in Japan, which is mixed in with Antonio Inoki hard strikes. The British have the Lancashire style and the Americans have the American style mixed in with mixed martial arts. This tournament opened a lot of eyes about technical wrestling.”
Gresham’s vision of pro wrestling is coming to life in Ring of Honor, though this is a journey that has taken considerable time to move forward. He has dealt with constant doubt due to his style and size, as he is one of wrestling’s shorter stars at 5' 4".
“I was really good friends with tag-team wrestlers called the Hooligans [Devin and Mason Cutter],” Gresham says. “Sometime around 2007, we were on a trip. I was being used on the undercard, but I’ve always been ambitious, and I remember saying I wanted more. I’ll always remember what Devin said to me one night, how it was going to take years for me to get known as one of the better technical wrestlers in the world.
“First, he pointed out that I was small, and he also said in the history of African American wrestlers, this community isn’t always known for technical wrestlers. When you look at the best technical wrestlers in the PWI 500, how many of them look like me? That’s when I started to think of wrestling in a deeper manner. I began to compare wrestling to different forms of entertainment, like movies and music. There are different genres in those fields, whether it’s comedy or horror in movies, or different types of music. There are enough options for people to find what they like. So I asked myself, why can’t wrestling be the same?”
Gresham made the decision to fully commit to submissions, reversals and creating a breathtaking display of technical wrestling. All of his matches in the Pure Championship Tournament, featuring a vastly different array of opponents in Wheeler Yuta, Matt Sydal, Josh Woods and Williams in the finals, showed the depth of storytelling in technical wrestling. Known as “The Octopus” for his ability to lock up his opponents, including in his trademark Octopus Stretch, his work in the ring is realistic, rooted in the authenticity of pro wrestling’s storied lineage.
In addition to holding the pure championship, Gresham is also one-half of the ROH tag team champions with Jay Lethal. His goal is to continue building the Foundation, which is a collection of professional wrestlers intent on advancing the movement of technical wrestling.
“Our goal is to restore honor to the whole industry, and that’s not exclusive to Ring of Honor—it’s all over the world,” Gresham says. “I am the Foundation, but so is everyone else that sees the injustices and suppression of the pure technical wrestler throughout the industry. The pure technical wrestler has been suppressed for so many years that you only see one or two at a promotion, like Timothy Thatcher at NXT or Zack Sabre Jr. or Minoru Suzuki in New Japan Pro Wrestling.
“This new superkick-throwing, always-diving wrestler is the front-runner of our business. But there is hope, the Foundation is growing. For Ring of Honor, the next step is to purify the company, every division. More pure wrestlers will be revealed, and they will become part of The Foundation. The tag-team titles are about to become purified and only defended under pure rules. That is going to happen in every division.”
Gresham has a full belief in his vision, tapping into roots that he hopes will spread across the industry.
“I am going to continue to push forward in my belief that I can change the wrestling world,” Gresham says. “That’s what we are going to do with the Foundation.”