Rules and their application to professional wrestling have become crucial in providing many wrestling products with distinctive identities. The basic ruleset of professional wrestling developed alongside its “worked” status.
Historically, bookers and promoters used expansive rulesets as tools for navigating the carnie fog laid dense over the medium. The rules were both applied and ignored to reach a practical end, typically without regard for artistry; one needs to look no further than the myriad of unrecognized title reigns sprinkled over the 20th century to comprehend this fact as nearly all of them resulted from rule-bending chicanery. As the medium developed artistically, young companies differentiated themselves from legacy promotions by using rules for esthetic ends.
The rulebooks of old still predominantly govern today’s wrestling, at least symbolically. Creative teams enforce and ignore rules selectively, leading to an often illogical viewing experience. Still, there are innovators. In the following piece, I look at what happens when creative use the rulebook as a paintbrush instead of a fix-all bludgeoning tool.
Wrestling promoters using the rulebook for esthetic ends is nothing new; the influence of the “Newborn” UWF (and its numerous offshoots and successors) on the world of wrestling I cannot understate.
Today, we see multiple companies around the globe embarrassing the UWF’s by adopting their strictly enforced, martial arts-inspired rulebook. In 2004, ROH formulated an alternative approach to purify professional wrestling qua professional wrestling.
The Birth of Pure
In 2004 Ring of Honor (ROH) introduced the Pure Division. A Pure match is different from a typical ROH match in three ways:
- No close-fist head strikes.
- A count of 20 replaces the usual 10 for outside combat.
- A limit of three rope breaks, per person per match.
A promise also accompanied these rules that any interference would result in a firing, thus ensuring viewers were in for a pure wrestling match.
Again, Pure wasn’t about integrating the martial arts and pro wrestling; instead, Pure purified professional wrestling qua professional wrestling by providing a set of boundaries that amplified its already present essence. This slight change in governance created a division of entirely new match structures and new storytelling opportunities, all the while maintaining the style that makes pro wrestling distinct. This beautiful new approach lasted until Bryan Danielson retired the Pure Championship following match one in an all-time great trilogy against Nigel McGuinness.
The Return of Pure
In 2020, ROH was without an identity following a talent exodus of extreme proportion. The Elite, who drove the company to an all-time high in prominence, left ROH in 2018 to form AEW. Without the presence of the Elite, many fans had no reason to tune in.
As ROH was no longer the hub for wrestling’s hottest freelancers, the company had to forge a new path; enter the Pure revival. In August of 2020, ROH crowned a new Pure champion, Jonathan Gresham.
With Pure’s re-introduction, ROH adopted a logical ranking system for its different divisions. Wrestlers now competed under standard or Pure rules depending on the championship they were seeking. With this move alone, ROH provided sound reasoning for having multiple titles in a sport without weight divisions.
Pure Champion Jonathan Gresham’s stated his goal clearly. He was going to “purifying Ring of Honor.” Gresham soon assembled a faction dedicated to his cause. As the faction came to be known, the Foundation worked the Pure style in all of ROH’s divisions; this resulted in an inter-promotional struggle pinning the pure against the impure. This all culminated in an excellent run of television and pay-per-views lasting the first two quarters of this year.
Pure rules have done so much for a company that should be rotting from lack of attention. While ROH is nowhere near as prominent as it once was, in my opinion, it’s a significantly more robust product. While you argue ROH has gone off course in recent weeks, the promotion now offers something different to its viewership.
Instead of slowly decaying away, ROH is a product of sport, filled with extensive meta-dynamics and excellent wrestling. All of this is because ROH forged an identity by adopting three rules.
ROH’s venture into purity is one case of promoters, bookers, writers, and wrestlers using rules for an esthetic end. While I love Pure rules, wrestling, in all its forms, is a morality play integrated with sport. Whether the matches contain barbed wire or kick pads, light tubes or leg locks, wrestling offers spiritual fulfilment like any other art form.
Find what you love; it’s out there somewhere.