By Chuck Carroll
Last month the Women of Honor gathered on stage in New York to make their own history. In what was a surprise to the sold-out crowd crammed into the Hammerstein Ballroom, Ring of Honor officials announced a tournament would be held to crown the first ever ROH Women’s Champion. The promotion and advertising leading up to Final Battle heavily featured then-champion Cody Rhodes, the pairing of ECW legends Tommy Dreamer and Bully Ray, The Young Bucks, and Bullet Club. Nowhere was this Women of Honor bombshell announcement mentioned.
About a year earlier, top ROH officials approached the promotion’s core group of female competitors prior to a show in Baltimore. Chief Operating Officer, Joe Koff, challenged the group, which included Mandy Leon, Deonna Purrazzo, Jenny Rose and Kelly Klein among others, to take their division to the next level. They were asked to sculpt its future. Given the surge in the popularity of women’s wrestling, the timing of the project seemed right to Koff.
It’s unprecedented for a promotion to give nearly unfettered creative control to its talent for a single show, let alone take the reins for an entire division for the foreseeable future. The only caveat given by Koff was that the group carry themselves as professionals throughout the process and not take the opportunity lightly. Neither would be a problem.
“This is their division, and I think that they have to have a part in it, and I think they have to have a buy-in in it,” said Koff. “By allowing them to articulate their viewpoints and to show us what they think of how the division should operate allows us to have an all-in kind of buy-in.”
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Quietly behind the scenes, the group began drafting plans while the in-ring presentation remained largely unchanged at live events. Emails were flying back and forth as ideas bounced around like ping-pong balls. Once things began to solidify, the first of many conference calls with the promotion’s officials was scheduled. Koff, general manager Greg Gilleland and lead booker Hunter “Delirious” Johnson gathered on the line to hear their pitch and make suggestions. It wasn’t uncommon for similar calls to last for up to two hours.
“We would sit behind the computer and type up documents, graphs and all of that,” Leon said. “After the calls, we had folders full of paperwork that we would, at the next show, literally hand over to Joe Koff and Greg and say, ‘hey, this is what we came up with.’ The next telephone call would be, ‘okay, I read over the documents here’s my ideas.’ Then we had some more of our own ideas, and it would go from there. Literally what you imagine as a business meeting, it was.”
The formalities of business proposals were new to many of the women, but for Leon it was like putting on an old comfortable pair of slippers. Prior to her wrestling career, the Pennsylvania native moonlighted as a model and actress. Part of her duties included recruiting other women for various projects, which she credits for her ability to lead this undertaking.
After months of talks and proposals, it was decided that a title would be created for the women. Eventually, there was a consensus that a 16-woman tournament would be the best way crown the first champion.
Unbeknownst to the women, as the creative process was playing out, the company ordered the division’s first belt. The actual unveiling of the gold last month came as a surprise to the group.
“Oh, my God. It’s beautiful,” Leon thought as the cover was pulled off inside the Hammerstein Ballroom.
The site was particularly rewarding for the dark-haired bombshell who was partly responsible for putting women’s wrestling back on the map in the promotion. Five years ago, she was the only female trainee at the ROH Dojo and had to fight and claw for every opportunity. With women’s matches only occurring “once in a blue moon,” the majority of her early career was spent working for other promotions. Despite the frustration, she never wavered in her belief that she would bring the division back from the grave.
“To see it transform and become what it is just from me simply asking for one match and now it’s just becoming this huge 16-women tournament to crown the first ever Women of Honor champion. It’s a huge deal,” she said.
The company has now reclaimed creative control from the women and is finalizing plans for the tournament. One might think relinquishing their power would be difficult, but the women who worked on the project aren’t sweating being kept in the dark. Leon says she felt no angst about not even knowing who all of the 16 competitors would be.
“The main goal was to get the title here and have a championship tournament, and we’re having it,” she said. “But I think the fact that the girls are left out of the creative process for the tournament as far as the booking goes, I think is smart. Because it’s going to be a surprise. It’s a surprise for all of us, and it makes it special in my opinion. I think, if we were so involved in it, it wouldn’t make it as special.”
The tournament will officially begin on January 20 in Nashville. However, company officials wouldn’t confirm when the finals would be held. But based on the calendar of upcoming events, the most likely scenario would be to crown the first champion at the ROH 16th Anniversary pay-per-view on March 9 in Las Vegas.
As for whether the company feels WWE upstaged them by announcing the inaugural women’s Royal Rumble match less than 72 hours after the tournament was announced?
“Honestly, no,” said Koff. “We’re just two companies fighting and doing what we love. For them, it only makes sense to finally do a women’s Royal Rumble. For us, it only makes sense that we finally have a title. I think it’s just two separate entities just doing their own thing. I don’t think it’s going to take the shine away from us at all. I think this is a huge historic event. If anything, it might outshine theirs.”
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.