Fifteen years after Ring of Honor put on its first show, the promotion’s future has never looked brighter.
After ROH helped launch the careers of pro wrestling mainstays such as CM Punk, Kevin Steen (Kevin Owens) and Bryan Danielson (Daniel Bryan), the company is not only developing their homegrown talent, but also acquiring some of the top wrestlers in the world. From Cody Rhodes to Bully Ray and even a brief Hardy Boyz run, ROH has established itself as one of the hottest promotions in the country.
“The thing about Ring of Honor is we wrestle a brand, a style and an expectation. It?s up to us every year to exceed those expectations,” said ROH COO Joe Koff in an exclusive interview with FanBuzz. “I don?t want to get spoiled here, but that?s my expectation that we are putting out a product that people want to see.”
“Whether it?s the guys wrestling with us, the fans coming to see us, the TV viewers who choose to watch us. I think there?s lots of upside here. We have a long way to go to get to the size and level of the WWE. Quite frankly, if I?m still around in 50 or 70 years, I expect to be as big as they are.”
Ring of Honor management
Joe Koff grew up in the New York area, watching larger than life personalities like Bruno Sammartino and Gorilla Monsoon. He went to college at the University of Miami and attended Championship Wrestling shows in Florida. It was there that Koff got his first taste of the business after he was introduced to people at the promotion while working at a television station that produced Championship Wrestling.
The longtime wrestling fan later worked his way over to Sinclair Broadcasting and worked out a deal for the company to purchase ROH in 2011. And when WWE made the decision to leave over-the-air television, Koff knew it was his opportunity to fill that void, taking ROH to weekly episodic programming.
?For the first time I could remember, going back to the ?50s, there was no wrestling promotion in local markets,? Koff said, per the organization’s website. ?I saw that as an opportunity.?
“Wrestling has always been very tied to television, symbiotic in nature — one needs the other to exist and to survive,” Koff continued.
“In 2011 we aired our first show on September 24. (We recently aired show) 308. It?s an amazing continuous programming that we?ve been able to produce over the last six years.”
The growth of the promotion since the Sinclair takeover has been undeniable, including broadcasting its first live pay-per-view in 2014.
Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling
Thanks to a partnership with New Japan Pro Wrestling, ROH’s popularity has expanded far beyond audiences in America and Europe.
“It really happened organically. We have very close alliances. We have a lot of our wrestlers wrestle for NJPW. I think it made sense for both promotions to promote together because the stars were used to working with these guys, they know their style. There was a comfort level that we can respect their space, they respect our space,” said Koff.
“Together, the sum is greater than the parts. Together we?re a much stronger combo than if we were working independently.”
That partnership has allowed NJPW to expand its presence as well, specifically to Long Beach, California, where it held its first U.S. special earlier in 2017.
“We were well aware of their shows coming to Long Beach this summer. We were very much involved in those shows from a production standpoints, from a help standpoint, from a talent standpoint,” Koff said.
Koff expects NJPW to return to the states in 2018, but isn’t certain they’re ready to tour:
“I expect they?ll be back in the U.S. sometime in 2018. I?m not sure that I feel that they?re ready to tour. I think they have presence here. They have presence with us. We?ll see how that develops. They?re strong over there. They know Japan and that market very well. They own that market,” he said.
“Coming to America is a little bit of a different business. They?ll learn it and if it makes sense for them to be here and touring and competing on that level then welcome to the U.S.”
While NJPW continues building on its brand, as does ROH.
Cody Rhodes makes the jump to Ring of Honor
Cody Rhodes left WWE determined to make it on his own in May 2016. He bounced around the indies before landing with ROH in December.
“These are guys that chose to leave WWE or not go to WWE to come to Ring of Honor … It?s very, very flattering,” said Koff on Cody and Bully Ray joining the ranks.
“At the same time, it?s somewhat humbling because I have to deliver to them what they are expecting from a large scale promotion.”
While Cody has worked his way up as the promotion’s champion, Koff admits he still hasn’t inked an exclusive deal with ROH.
“Cody has been great. He?s been a great champion. There?s some side issues there. He?s still working independent companies, which we?re not thrilled about. We knew it, we accepted that as part of it,” Koff said.
“I said to my organization to challenge him to show him that he doesn?t need to be in those other places. This is where he should be. If we do that correctly, then he?ll make that right choice. If he doesn?t make that choice, then we?ll have to deal with that at that time.”
While Cody’s goal heading into 2018 is to fill up a 10,000-seat arena, Koff believes ROH is the place to make that happen.
“If he wants to be in front of 10,000 seats, he?s going to have to be at ROH. There?s no other promotion that?s even near that in attracting on a regular basis. I love that goal and that?s another reason that he?s a great champion. He can see big and think big and he knows we can thrill that size of a crowd,” said Koff.
“It?s going to take a little work on our part, on his part, finding the right talent to fill that kind of venue. We had nearly 3,000 in Lakeland (Florida) on WrestleMania weekend 90 miles away. We can do it, we have the legs and the talent to do it. ”
While there are concerns of taking away from the intimate experience ROH creates with its fan base in a larger arena, Koff believes there’s a way to create that fan-wrestler interaction even in a larger venue, it’s just a matter of finding the right mix.
Jeff and Matt Hardy take on the Young Bucks in Ring of Honor
Another highlight of 2017 was Jeff and Matt Hardy’s emergence in Ring of Honor for a brief four-match stint.
According to Koff, it was an idea cooked up by the talent themselves.
“That was great. I will tell you, the process really, and it speaks to Ring of Honor. The Young Bucks came to me and they said we have this idea. And they told me that whole idea with the Hardyz. At the time, the Bucks are contracted to me, the Hardyz were contracted to TNA Impact at the time. I said this is a good idea. I think the Hardyz-Bucks match could have a lot of cache,” said Koff.
“My goal was only to do (the Bucks-Hardyz match) at WrestleMania weekend. We wanted to build the story, and it (started) at Final Battle. It was the most amazing, dynamic, organic moment.”
After that December 2, 2016 debut, things worked out perfectly for the brief partnership between the Hardyz, the Bucks and ROH.
“When they were no longer able to work out a deal with Impact, we immediately said come wrestle with us. We never had any term on it. We wanted to finish the angle, finish the story,” Koff explained.
“The story really ended in Lakeland. It could have continued, we could have built that angle further. But it didn?t end in Lakeland because they were going to WWE. It ended in Lakeland because that?s where it ended. It happened because of them, because they wanted to do it. What it said to me was talent respects the creative freedoms that exist here and the ability to bring an idea to management and as long as everybody was satisfied from a legal and contractual standpoint, that?s how that happened. I will give the Young Bucks and the Hardyz full credit for that.”
That creative freedom is what helped Ring of Honor retain Nick and Matt Jackson at the end of 2016 on a reported two-year deal (via Wrestling Observer).
“It said a lot again of who we are as a company,” said Koff.
“We provided a place for the Young Bucks where they could do what they want to do, be as creative as they need to be, be as amazing as they choose to be and have a solid U.S. base and continue on whatever international dates they felt were important for them.”
Women of Honor in Ring of Honor
Women’s wrestling has taken off in recent years, as promotions around the world focus more on the developing the product. And Women of Honor is no exception for ROH.
“Very proud of that. Women?s wrestling right now is probably better than it?s ever been. I think the reason for that is it?s becoming less of a gimmick match, it?s becoming something that?s fully fledged. I give the credit to the women. I always felt, even in business, when there is parity between men and women in how many are good and how many are bad, then they will rise to the top. We?re starting to see that now,” Koff said.
“Physical conditioning, athleticism, seriousness of craft. The level of performance, the level athleticism and the integrity to their craft has never been at a higher point. We?re proud of our women of honor. Ring of Honor is the main thrust. When the women can attain a level where the fans are willing to acknowledge them and respect them the same way, it?s coming. We?re not far from it. Then Women of Honor will have a greater presence.”
That includes Brandi Rhodes, who joined ROH after a stint wrestling with Impact and announcing for WWE. Cody Rhodes detailed how his wife transitioned from behind the mic to grappling in the ring.
“She?s gotten to train with Chris Hero, she?s gotten to train at the ROH dojo. She had a year at the performance center that she wasn?t able to put to use because she was ring announcing. All that knowledge doesn?t pay off until you start getting in the ring live. Now she?s getting the chance to do that,” Cody Rhodes said on his wife’s blossoming career.
“I really like seeing the lightbulb go off for her. It?s fun to see someone early in their career. And she?s smart to being a beginner. She?s doing it the right way and (the Concord, North Carolina, show) is a great example. Women of Honor, I never said a word. I saw a graphic online that said she was going to be a part of the Women of Honor matches in Concord, North Carolina. She had gear made unbeknownst to me, everything. I was really proud of her and her efforts to do it the right way.”
Koff backed up that assessment.
“It goes back to the fact that she isn?t coming in as Brandi Rhodes, wife of Cody. She?s coming in as an athlete,” he said.
“As an athlete, she has to perform at the level of an athlete. Her respect will be earned. It won?t just be because she?s Brandi. Respect is an earned quality.”
Where Ring of Honor goes from here
ROH is doing plenty on its own to build a sturdy foundation, but working with other promotions opens up doors to different audiences and markets. While their NJPW partnership continues, Koff discussed the prospect of working with American promotions such as WWE.
“You could say in a way (laughs), I say this really lovingly ? we have a relationship with WWE. They seem to like what we do here,” Koff said.
“Anything is possible. I have a very open mind and I would never close my mind to anything.”
When asked about the prospect of working with Impact wrestling, Koff had a bit of a different take.
“Impact needs to figure out who they are. I don?t envy them at all. They?ve gone through some really trying, challenging marketing times. I think that they?re finding their way out. They need to focus on their brand before we start getting involved in their brand,” he said. I?m pretty selfish about our brand. I don?t think there are a lot of other companies that understand our brand, the way we portray our brand, the way we position our brand, the way we do. It would take a while. The international companies are closer than not.”
Following the recent departures of Adam Cole, Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly, among other veteran wrestlers, Koff discussed what it takes to keep talent in ROH. In wrestling, opportunities and the locker room play a part.
“We have an amazing locker room atmosphere. I think it?s because our senior wrestlers, Jay Briscoe, Christopher Daniels, Jay Lethal. These are very gracious athletes that are willing to share and give and to almost pay their careers forward. They?re not selfish at all, they?re not worried about someone stealing a spot. They understand who they are. A lot of this is perspective. The guys at the top, from a maturity level, they know exactly who they are, how they?re felt about, how they?re respected by management and all of us. That?s a great comfort. Because of that, they?re able to freely give their ideas and their skills to the next wrestlers coming up,” Koff said.
“That?s what Ring of Honor has always been. That?s the business, not just Ring of Honor. Wrestling is a very tight community. They want it to sustain. In order for it to sustain, people have to be pleased and amazed. With all that?s available, all the videos, if we can stay on top of it, we really must be doing something right. We?re just proliferated with wrestling everywhere. Quite frankly, a lot of it is the same stuff. For anyone to cut through the clutter, then you?re doing a good job.”
Those opportunities often aren’t enough, and Koff acknowledges money must be right as well.
“It’s always going to be an issue if money is the motivator. The size of WWE allows them to do a lot more monetarily with the guys. I think everyone who works for ROH will tell you they?re making a very good living. They?re working 40 dates a year versus 200 dates a year. They have collaborative control, they?re involved creatively, they?re part of a family. That has a lot of value to a lot of people,” Koff said.
“The older guys probably understand it because they have a greater perspective than the younger guys who dreamed of being in WrestleMania and in that center stage. They all can?t get there. They can all try, but they?re not all going to get there. At some point, maybe they?ll find out, ?Wow, maybe there was no difference.? They have to find that out for themselves. I liken it a lot to the Wizard of Oz. At the end of the movie, Dorothy had to find out herself that there was really no place like home. Ring of Honor is a home and it?s always been a home to the greatest wrestlers in the business. And they?re always welcome home.”