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Note: You can read my recap of all of the matches in the Jonathan Gresham vs. Jay Lethal feud here
Jonathan Gresham is one of the most underappreciated in-ring talents in wrestling. He has wrestled all over the world and made his mark on the independents, but it took him a long time to crack the ROH roster. ROH has had a hard time creating new stars underneath the cast of Being the Elite in recent years and with talent leaving and WWE scooping them up, it doesn’t seem there has been a lot of upward mobility for wrestlers underneath top stars like Dalton Castle, The Briscoes, and Jay Lethal.
Some wrestlers have seen their stock rise such as Adam Page and Flip Gordon, but that has been more due to their roles on Being the Elite than what they’ve done in ROH. Gordon is a rising star right now and ROH is starting to put some steam behind him with a long and drawn out feud with Bully Ray, but before becoming a regular on Being the Elite, Page was a good example of a wrestler that was only pushed to a certain level only to have his legs cut out from under him before he could break out.
Gresham made his ROH debut in 2011 losing in the Top Prospect Tournament to Kyle O’Reilly. He made some sporadic appearances after that, but it wasn’t until 2017 that ROH signed him to a contract. ROH didn’t do much with Gresham after signing him. He was always an afterthought. Gresham appeared regularly for the promotion and even formed the Search and Destroy faction with Chris Sabin and Alex Shelley, but other than that, Gresham had no notable matches or feud in ROH.
That changed at “Honor Reigns Supreme” on Feb. 8 when he wrestled Jay Lethal. The show was a house show and the feud wasn’t given much exposure beyond Lethal cutting a local promo for TV putting Gresham over as someone having no equal when it comes to pure wrestling. Lethal went on to say he’s on a mission to win the ROH World Championship and they need each other. Lethal then issued a challenge to Gresham for a match.
The Gresham vs. Lethal feud was based on pure wrestling, which ROH was one of the things ROH was known for when it launched in 2002. Wrestlers like Bryan Danielson, Paul London, Christopher Daniels, and Doug Williams set the foundation of pure wrestling in ROH and over the years the company has gone on to see a plethora of tremendous pure wrestlers. At one point the company even had a Pure Wrestling Title that was built around Nigel McGuinness’s in-ring style.
Expectations for ROH house shows are usually low in terms of what you get in the ring. “Honor Reigns Supreme” was actually a test show for Honor Club streaming events and aired for free live on Facebook. It hasn’t seemed like there have been a lot of important developments on ROH house shows in 2018. Sure there have been some standout shows, but they haven’t been must-see viewing for wrestling fans for the most part due to their inconsequential nature.
Jonathan Gresham vs. Jay Lethal wasn’t supposed to turn into the feud of the year in ROH, but it did. Their match at “Honor Reigns Supreme” was a great technical bout that set set the stage for the rest of their feud. The feud was a throwback to the ROH I loved. It was a feud built around wrestling and respect between two great competitors. Gresham legitimately hurt his leg during the match jumping off the apron to the floor for a dive on Lethal. This turned into a key part of their feud, as Lethal would go after Gresham’s leg in their matches and Gresham would go after his arm.
Their first match ended when Lethal submitted Gresham with the Figure Four after a long struggle. It was a spot that would figure into their third and final match, which was given over half an episode to fill. Gresham worked over Lethal’s arm over and over during the match. Lethal went for the Lethal Injection at one point, but his arm gave out. Later in the match, he went for it again, but Gresham kicked his arm out from under him as he bounced off the ropes. Sequences like this became staples upon which their feature matches were built upon.
Gresham was out of action for a couple of months after the match. Both men shook hands and followed the Code of Honor. This match felt different than the typical ROH house show match. It felt like there needed to be more and there was, as Gresham returned to action to face Lethal once again at “Masters of the Craft” on April 15 in an event that was streamed for Honor Club members.
Much like they did at “Honor Reigns Supreme,” Lethal and Gresham stole the show at “Masters of the Craft.” They told a simple story. Lethal, being one of ROH’s cornerstones, has all of the notoriety, but Gresham, despite his experience wrestling all over the world was a relatively unknown commodity to the ROH fan base. This feud allowed Gresham to raise his stock by taking a top guy in Lethal to the limit multiple times.
The second match saw Lethal go after Gresham’s leg throughout the match. In a pre-match video package, Lethal said he doesn’t wrestle to hurt people, but he’s just that good and that’s why Gresham got hurt, so this rematch was a chance for Gresham to prove something to him.
Their second match once again stood out from the rest of the card. The fans quickly picked up on the fact that they were going to see something special when Lethal and Gresham were in the ring. With Lethal working over Gresham’s leg, the match once again felt like a throwback to the pure wrestling foundation ROH was built on.
The announcers made a big deal about Lethal avoiding Gresham’s octopus submission, which would come into play in the the third and final match of their feud that aired on ROH TV. Gresham worked over Lethal’s arm during the match, but it was the octopus hold that was focused on and once he got it, Lethal looked to be in trouble, but he managed to escape by punching away at Gresham’s injured leg while still in the hold.
Lethal won the second match, but not without a big struggle. He went for the Lethal Injection late in the match, but his arms gave out. Gresham went for a cradle pinning combination, but Lethal managed to sit down on top of Gresham to counter it and get the pin. Lethal did not hit his finish to beat Gresham once again.
After the match, Lethal got on the mic and said storylines didn’t make their match special, their talent in the ring made the match special. He thanked Gresham for bringing out the best in him. At the time, Lethal was being built up for another run with the ROH World Championship and this match stood out during his run of matches leading up to his title win over Dalton Castle. Gresham then got on the mic and told Lethal that they weren’t finished. Gresham said he knows he can beat Lethal and challenged him to another match. Lethal accepted Gresham’s challenge.
It’s the simple feuds like Lethal vs. Gresham that can do so much for both wrestlers, but one of the things that made ROH great was wrestlers having great in-ring feuds, especially when an up and coming wrestler took a veteran wrestler to his limit in the ring in a match built upon respect. It’s something ROH should go back to again and again, but the company hadn’t presented anything like the Lethal vs. Gresham feud in many years and it seemed like a case of the feud being a happy accident because it got over so well.
Lethal went on to capture the ROH World Title and the next time Jonathan Gresham faced him, it was in a 30:00 Iron Man match with the ROH World Title on the line. The stakes were bigger, the spotlight was bigger, and the match was bigger. Gresham vs. Lethal may have done a hell of a job stealing a couple of house shows, but getting almost an entire episode of ROH TV dedicated to their match was a whole new ballgame.
The Gresham vs. Lethal Iron Man Match on ROH TV episode #364 was taped in Gresham’s hometown of Atlanta on July 21 and it aired on Sept. 8. It is one of the best ROH matches of the last 8 years. The only other match in ROH in recent memory that comes close to it is the Ladder War between The Young Bucks, The MCMG, and The Addiction at the “All Star Extravaganza” PPV in 2016.
Lethal and Gresham put on a technical masterpiece in front of a red hot crowd at Center Stage in Atlanta. The match started off with a long back and forth feeling out period. The intensity picked up slightly when Gresham went after Lethal’s arm. Colt Cabana and Ian Riccaboni on commentary pointed out how Lethal was wrestling Gresham’s match during the early going by going along with the technical wrestling, but it was the power striking game where Lethal had the advantage. The pace picked up about 12 minutes into the match when both men went to a big strike exchange that fired up the crowd.
The story was simple. Gresham began working over Lethal’s arm to set up the octopus hold. The man who the announcers said didn’t have a finisher was picking his poison against Lethal to be his arm once again. The match featured a lot of great callbacks. With the time limit winding down, Gresham finally forced Lethal to tap to the octopus hold while hitting punch after punch on Lethal late in the match to go up 1-0.
Gresham had done a great job of fending off Lethal’s attempts to go after his leg and lock in the Figure Four for the most part during the match, but it was the Figure Four that once again did Gresham in. The announcers had planted the seed in the minds of viewers early in the match that Gresham’s knee might be in danger and late in the match while trailing one fall to none, Lethal got the Figure Four. Gresham tried to fight out of it and not tap out or get a pin fall counted on him. He sat up after the ref counted to two, but Lethal chopped him right back down to the mat. Gresham eventually tapped out and after the rest period both men went for pinning combinations, but the time limit expired with the match tied 1-1.
ROH ring announcer Bobby Cruise announced it was a 1-1 draw and Lethal would retain the ROH World Championship. Gresham got on the mic and said there’s no way in this world that he’s going to come this far after fourteen years where he started in Atlanta, Georgia with that kind of decision. Gresham asked if Lethal was the man, no, the champion he believed him to be, he’d give him five more minutes. The fans chanted for five more minutes. Gresham said he’s the best pure professional wrestler in the world and he asked Lethal again to grant his wish. Lethal took the mic and said, “Start the clock.”
The action during the five minute sudden death period was fantastic. Both men went at it hot and heavy. The fans fired up and Gresham got a beautiful pinning combination for a near fall that saw the fans groan when Lethal kicked out. Eventually Lethal escaped a deep sleeper from Gresham and turned it into a cutter. He then finished off Gresham for the first time with the Lethal Injection. It was a wonderful final touch calling back to their previous matches where Gresham had done so much damage to Lethal’s arm that he couldn’t support himself while going for the Lethal Injection. It was a fitting conclusion to the best pro wrestling match of 2018 to date.
It looked like Gresham might fall back into obscurity after the match took place. He didn’t have a match on the Death Before Dishonor PPV in September, but he began generating some momentum while tagging with Jay Lethal. Then on ROH TV, Zack Sabre Jr. of NJPW accepted Gresham’s open challenge for Final Battle. Gresham had finally broken through and gotten himself his biggest match to date on one of ROH’s biggest PPVs of the year.
Gresham has climbed up the ranks in ROH unlike anyone has in recent years on sheer talent alone. He doesn’t cut the best promos and he’s undersized, but his talent has always been undeniable. In face, he’s already faced Zack Sabre Jr. three times previously in Beyond Wrestling, but this stage is a different animal.
It has been a long time since a wrestler performed their way into a bigger opportunity in ROH without coming into the company with a pre-established reputation, but Gresham has done it due to the fact that he’s one of the best technical wrestlers in the world, but as he showed on ROH’s recent joint Global Wars tour with NJPW, he’s also capable of being a GIF highlight reel by performing jaw-dropping spots in tag matches.
At the “Final Battle” PPV this weekend, Gresham will complete his climb of the ladder in ROH in 2018 by doing something truly remarkable. He’s broken through and earned himself a high-profile singles match. Other wrestlers have come and gone through ROH frustrated with the opportunities they were given, but Gresham has built his reputation working his way up from house show spotlight matches to TV spotlight matches during his feud with Lethal this year all the way up to a spotlight singles match against Zack Sabre Jr., who many believe to be the best technical wrestler in the world.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Gresham and Sabre steal the show at Final Battle. They are two of the best technical wrestlers in the world, but once again, this is an opportunity for Gresham to make a case for himself to be pushed to the top of the card in 2019. Gresham might not be someone ROH would build the company around, but he’s certainly capable of being an anchor at the top of the card that the company can rely with the Being the Elite cast on their way out the door at the end of the month.
Contact Sean at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @sr_torch.