ROH has had a love-hate relationship with the Pure division.
The division made its debut in the early 2000s, introducing a new championship to the promotion which was contested under an entirely unique ruleset. Because of this, the belt could be conceivably presented as of equal importance to the World Championship, as whoever held it competed under different rules. In fact, early in its history, ROH World Champion Samoa Joe took great storyline offense to the introduction of a new — and in his eyes lesser — title to the company.
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It was clear from the get-go that the endgame was some form of champion vs. champion clash. Unfortunately, even then, the division experienced an odd false start that halted its momentum. Inaugural champion AJ Styles made just a single defense before TNA pulled all talent from ROH in the wake of the Rob Feinstein child predator controversy.
This seemed to the kibosh on any plans for Joe to take on the Pure Champion as the initial reigns became about establishing the title — and the ruleset — in the eyes of the fans.
Great for a Pure Rules Match
The fan reception to the first iteration of the Pure division was never wholehearted acceptance. Many considered the stipulation to be an unnecessary complication, a gimmick for gimmick’s sake. Often times, there’d be talk of Pure Title matches being great “for a Pure rules match.” Eventually, the powers that be at ROH came to think of it that way as well. In 2007, the Pure division ended when Bryan Danielson famously won the title from Nigel McGuinness and unified it with his own ROH World Championship.
It seemed that ROH had done all they could with the division.
With time though, nostalgia kicked in. After all, Pure rules were a key part of the time period often pointed to as the peak of ROH. More people remember the unification match than they do people complaining in forums about the stipulation. As a result, a renewed push for the return of the stipulation — and the title — began to bubble up among a new generation of ROH fans and workers.
The bitter rivalry is far from over between the JAS' @GarciaWrestling & #ROH Pure Champion, BCC's @WheelerYuta, who will go 1-on-1 for the #ROH Pure Title this Saturday at #ROH's #DeathBeforeDishonor LIVE on PPV! Order NOW on @BleacherReport, cable + satellite pic.twitter.com/cyL9gbIukZ
— ROH – Ring of Honor Wrestling (@ringofhonor) July 20, 2022
Jonathan Gresham in particular made a very vocal and public push to return the Pure division to the company. The company finally caved to the pressure and officially brought back the Pure ruleset to say in late 2020. Of course, the return of the division brought with it a familiar problem, the same one that proved such a stumbling block for so many fans when the division was first conceptualized. The return of the stipulation required ROH to re-educate a new generation of fans as to the Pure rules and how that ruleset could be utilized to create drama.
Much of the Pure Title tournament, and Jonathan Gresham’s subsequent reign, centered around maximizing the different aspects of the ruleset. Most notably, many in-ring stories were structured around how each opponent forced or utilized rope breaks. Others told the story of how consequential throwing a closed fist punch would be. The Pure rules stipulation offers a lot of space for drama and interesting match layouts, but it takes a certain amount of time and effort to clue fans into that.
A New Generation of Pure
With Tony Khan’s purchase of Ring of Honor, and his decision to continue the Pure Championship’s lineage, the problem of reintroducing fans to the stipulation surfaced yet again. Sure, the title was contested at Supercard of Honor, and Wheeler YUTA’s even gone on to defend it on AEW Dark, but I’m willing to bet that there’s a large section of the AEW fandom that doesn’t really know the Pure rules stipulation in depth.
I think the live crowd that turned up for Death Before Dishonor proves this theory. Throughout the entire show, I got the sense that the crowd in attendance was not made up of ROH loyalists carrying through from the pandemic era. It instead felt like a crowd drawn in by ROH’s newfound connection to AEW, willing to give the promotion a chance thanks to an extremely hot card that featured many top names from AEW.
In that sense, Wheeler YUTA and Daniel Garcia had the burden of showcasing the Pure ruleset to an entirely new audience. YUTA and Garcia took the best possible approach to this challenge: they didn’t worry about it.
The fact of the matter is that these two didn’t need Pure rules. Not only do they have a history together that stretches back to their 60-minute draw on the indies last year, they’re also key players in one of the hottest television feuds of the year. The Pure Championship, and the stipulation that comes with it, is entirely secondary to this match between two young wrestlers who have good reason to despise each other.
The match they wrestle they doesn’t need an intimate understanding of Pure rules to enjoy it. The snug and tightly contested grappling they open with was as expected of these two. The competitive struggle gets expressed wonderfully in their opening scrambles as the two jockey for position and work to escape each other’s holds.
The dynamic of the match gets established early that, while both are incredibly capable wrestlers, it’s Garcia’s willingness to play a little rougher that opens up opportunities for him. For example, early on, a series of counters for a Japanese straightjacket get broken up when Garcia throws a wild headbutt. Later on, Garcia tosses YUTA over the top rope to the floor and throws the champion into the guardrails. Then, Garcia grabs YUTA’s tights to distract the referee from him biting down on YUTA’s ear.
Garcia initiates a plan of attack that involves a lot of earwork, one of my favorite strategies in Garcia’s playbook. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world that regularly does earwork the way Garcia has of late, see his first bout against Eddie Kingston as another example. It’s always nasty in a way that feels all to real for viewers at home. Sure, we can imagine what a hammerlock might feel like, but seeing someone scrape a forearm against another man’s ear incites a visceral response.
This early action, thoughtful as it is, doesn’t always click with the crowd. It’s not that they’re an uninterested crowd. The dueling chants definitely show that the fans in attendance have a healthy investment in both competitors, but they weren’t around for much of the finer detail of the match. When things translate into bigger submission trade-offs later on, the crowd comes unglued and stay with the match the whole way through.
No Wasted Rope Breaks
Again, YUTA and Garcia achieve all of this without leaning too hard on the Pure ruleset. In fact, only one aspect of the stipulation truly comes into play — the limited rope breaks given to each man. Lesser wrestlers would look at the ruleset, and the challenge of reintroducing ROH to a broader audience, and center the match around each man whittling away each other’s rope breaks. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, it’s one of the classic structures for Pure rules matches, and it’s a good way to get the stipulation over with a crowd.
Instead, YUTA and Garcia go a much simpler route. The rope breaks become important, but to maximize the value of them, they only use one. And when it happens, it’s one of the biggest and most significant moments of the entire match.
William Regal on commentary made it very clear that he had explicitly instructed Wheeler YUTA to avoid using any of his rope breaks for any reason whatsoever. The champion makes good on the challenge given to him, and goes on to win a massive psychological advantage over the challenger by forcing Garcia to use the only rope break of the entire match. There’s also the additional humiliation of forcing Garcia to use a rope break with his own mentor’s hold, the Walls of Jericho.
By eschewing the temptation to structure the match around all six rope breaks available to them, YUTA and Garcia crafted a match where the only rope break in the hold thing mattered the most. They set aside the pressure to have a great pure rules match and instead had a great match that happens to have pure rules. While it’s a simplified approach, it also allowed the ruleset to emphasize a key character moment that set the two wrestlers apart. Garcia is scrappy and aggressive, but it was YUTA’s mastery of technique and resilience that saw him him win the day.
It’s that approach to wrestling that makes both Wheeler YUTA and Daniel Garcia two of the most exciting professional wrestlers in the world. There’s a restraint on display in this match that doesn’t come easy to young wrestlers, and sometimes not even to performers twice their age. The high level of craftsmanship and care that went into this bout speaks to the immense talent both men have, and makes me incredibly excited to see them get even better and more mature with time.
There’ll be time to play with Pure rules in the future. In its own way, this is the perfect introduction to what the Pure division’s ethos is all about. In the end, it’s not about rope breaks or banning closed fist punches — that’s all just aesthetic dressing.
Pure wrestling means finding stories in the action itself.