These are fascinating times for pro wrestling. WWE, which has dominated the industry to an almost monopolistic degree since buying WCW in 2001, is seeing its lowest ratings and show attendance in years, but still making more revenue than ever as TV rights fees for live content continue to explode. In seven months it’ll be moving into what should probably be the best TV time slot the company has ever had, as Smackdown relocates to Fox’s prime time. New Japan Pro-Wrestling and its American partner Ring of Honor are preparing to run a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden on the same weekend as WrestleMania, which will be both the largest non-WWE wrestling show in America since WCW’s heyday, and the first time a promotion other than WWE or its antecedents ran the building since 1960. Meanwhile some of the biggest stars from Ring of Honor and New Japan—the Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes and Hangman Adam Page, known collectively as the Elite—left the promotions at the start of 2019 to launch their own company, All Elite Wrestling, with businessman Tony Khan and the backing of his billionaire father Shahid Khan, who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars. Kenny Omega, who was New Japan’s champion until early last month, is widely expected to leave his longtime home for AEW, as well. WWE’s desire to stamp out all competition, along with AEW’s arrival into the marketplace and the void left in Ring of Honor by the Elite’s departure, have all combined to create the most frenzied signing spree the wrestling industry has seen in 20 years, and perhaps ever. Ring of Honor, WWE and AEW are all jockeying to lock down the best talent available, with various other factors, from New Japan’s American expansion, to Lucha Underground’s infamously restrictive contracts, to smaller players like Major League Wrestling, also impacting the market. The wrestling industry hasn’t been this tumultuous since the height of the Monday Night Wars in the late ‘90s, and it’s made the last month one of the most exciting times to observe this business in decades.
Many thought Ring of Honor would reel from the loss of the Elite, but the promotion, which is owned by the controversial multibillion-dollar Sinclair Broadcast Group, quickly replaced them with a wide-ranging crop of exciting wrestlers from around the globe. Since late 2018 Ring of Honor has signed the rising Mexican superstar Bandido, who turned down an offer from WWE and was known to be high on AEW’s wish list, and who instantly became one of the promotion’s top stars at his first TV taping in Atlanta in January. PCO, a 51-year-old veteran of WWF, WCW and TNA who recently revitalized his career on the indies as a chaotic brawler, also signed an exclusive deal with ROH, alongside the young California big man Brody King. Mark Haskins, a top British star, and former EVOLVE mainstay Tracy Williams also signed exclusive deals. ROH will also become the primary home for Mexican superstar Rush, one of the most charismatic wrestlers in the world. On top of that some of New Japan’s contracted Western talent will be appearing more regularly in Ring of Honor, including David Finlay, Zack Sabre Jr and Juice Robinson. There are rumors of other major signings that have yet to be announced, too. This influx of talent makes Ring of Honor’s current roster one of the deepest and most diverse in wrestling today, and proves that ROH won’t be content to just fade into the background as the heavily hyped AEW gets the lion’s share of fan attention.
Paste recently spoke to Ring of Honor’s COO, Joe Koff, before the January TV taping in Atlanta. To see his thoughts on the changing state of the wrestling business, ROH’s new stars, the Madison Square Garden show, ROH’s relationship with Sinclair, and more, keep on reading. And if you subscribe to the Honor Club streaming service, you’ll be able to watch the Bound by Honor show from Miami, Fla., live this Sunday night.
Paste: It’s been a few months since I last talked to you for Paste. Since then a lot in wrestling has changed. You’ve brought a lot of new talent to Ring of Honor. What are you looking for when you go to find new guys like PCO or Bandido?
Joe Koff: First of all they have to have a certain integrity in their own art, and the way they conduct their business and how they conduct their business. And all of the new stars that we have debuting here tonight and over the next set of weeks and months really fit that description. The Ring of Honor brand is special, and there’s an expectation from the fans for that brand and there’s an expectation from the wrestlers from that brand. So when we’re able to find performers and artists and athletes that exhibit those characteristics and those qualities, it makes for a good match.
Paste: So of the people we know have signed with you recently, what specifically are you looking for from someone like Bandido? How far do you think Bandido can go in Ring of Honor?
Koff: Oh, I think Bandido is going to be a major star. Just watching his work, just watching the spirit he brings into the ring, just watching his energy, his youth, I think he’ll be a great Ring of Honor performer.
Paste: So Mark Haskins… I know he has a long career in England, and he’s wrestled for y’all before but now he’s a full-timer. Again, like the Bandido question, where do you see him?
Koff: Again, I think I would have a similar opinion of Mark Haskins. He’s an international wrestler, he’s excelled in the U.K. on that side of the world, his skill level is extraordinary. The guy’s loved wrestling, and the guys that wrestled him in England loved wrestling. Again, I think he understands and respects the business, and respects the brand and respects what he does as an artist.
Paste: How competitive behind the scenes has it gotten these last few weeks when it comes to signing new talent? You’ve been doing this a long time, does it feel different than it has in the past?
Koff: I think it’s a little bit different only in the sense that there’s a new competitor out there, and it’s a little unknown. I think that I know what their core talent is only because they were our core talent. But right now it’s exciting and it’s new and it’s creating curiosity, and curiosity is a good thing. I’ve never really been concerned about that. Talent changes all the time. It’s no different than major league ball teams, you know that being in Atlanta, with the Braves, and the Falcons. Teams turn over, people leave, they look to do other things. But I’ve noticed that there’s always someone ready to replace that spot, and that’s the challenge of an organization, is to see who those players are that are ready to accept that challenge. Wrestling’s aspirational. Everyone wants to be at the top, so sometimes when the top players leave, that means there’s room at the top for another top player. We’ve lost a lot of talent over the years since I’ve gotten into Ring of Honor. And as big of names that have just left, and this was our strongest year. And I expect 2019 to be 2018.
Paste: And part of Ring of Honor has been seeing talent leave and bringing in new people and creating that next wave, so it’s not something that you’re unused to.
Koff: Not only are we not unused to it, it’s part of the business. And the thing you just mentioned which I like is that it’s about Ring of Honor, it’s not about specific personalities, it’s not about a specific name. It’s about who we are and what we represent and what we bring to the table.
Paste: So with the talent that has been around Ring of Honor for a while, who do you see taking the next step now that there’s more room at the top?
Koff: That’s a very loaded question, and it’s loaded in the sense that if I don’t mention somebody, they’re probably going to feel like I don’t feel it’s them. So let me start with, everyone who is wrestling tonight is capable of taking that next spot. And I have a very similar affinity and feeling for those guys. So to start singling out particulars, I think that the people I enjoy watching, I think The Kingdom are going to have a sensational year. I think Flip [Gordon] is going to have an amazing year. Marty [Scurll]’s new team of wrestlers are going to be very formidable. Jeff Cobb, we’ve already seen what he’s been capable of doing. Jay Lethal is not just going to lie down and just let these people run over him. The Briscoes are not going to lay down and let people run over them. [Dalton] Castle is not going to do the same. We’re consumed by our brand as opposed to that one person whose going to do “that.” The honest answer is: they will arise, and they will come into their own and that will be that person.
Paste: I would assume the fans have a lot to play in that role as well.
Koff: Yeah, if they please the fans, the fans let them know they’re being pleased. We rely on our fans, not to influence, but to observe and see who they like and how they respond to them.
Paste: When we last talked, you talked about how Ring of Honor has been cooperating with more promotions, not just with New Japan or CMLL, but NWA and Impact and other places. Do you ever see, I know they’re brand new, but a possibility of AEW cooperating with Ring of Honor?
Koff: Well, I think we should all be cooperating in some form of fashion. I think they have to formulate their promotion and let everyone understand what it is, and really, what they want to do with it. We have a good working relationship right now with the NWA, and they’re very interesting people, I really like those guys. They’re creative, they’re smart and as long as it’s beneficial to both parties, then it makes sense. The New Japan/CMLL/Ring of Honor partnership, which is the longest lasting partnership, works because all parties are really on the same plane as to what the objective is. Working with other promotions, we’re open to it. But, they’re doing their own business, we’re doing our own business. We’re a weekly television company, we’re weekly programming. We’re touring 40-50 events a year. We have to be focused on our own brand and our own business before thinking about how we would expand that to other promotions.
Paste: How has Sinclair responded to the more crowded landscape that wrestling has become?
Koff: I’m not really that sure they’re aware of it. I think when it comes to the wrestling, as part of Sinclair, they really leave that to me. It’s a big company with a lot of different initiatives and things going on. They love being in the space, they support the space totally. But I think on a day-to-day basis, they look to me to guide that process.
Paste: You have a huge show coming up in the spring, the Madison Square Garden show.
Koff: Very exciting.
Paste: I don’t even know where to begin with that. I mean you’re the first promotion outside WWE to run in MSG in almost 60 years.
Koff: I don’t know any other promotion that’s ever run in there.
Paste: What kind of pressure do you feel to please the fans with a show that big?
Koff: Interestingly, that’s the thing that I worry about the least. Ring of Honor has always delivered an incredible product. New Japan has always delivered an incredible product. In combination, I think we’ll deliver an incredible product. So, not that’s it’s anticlimactic, because it certainly isn’t. From a personal standpoint, it’s going to be a very emotional moment for me because I grew up watching wrestling at Madison Square Garden. And to be able to think that I’m putting on a show there in the Mecca of what I believe is professional wrestling, one of the highest regarded, highest esteemed arenas, I’m getting emotional just thinking about it right now and it’s still three months to go. It’s going to be a big night. But not just for Joe Koff, or not just for Ring of Honor, but for the wrestlers that get to wrestle there. It could be their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it could be the start of many opportunities, but everyone knows the first is always the best.
Paste: I would say the Omni is the Mecca of wrestling, but I grew up in Atlanta.
Koff: And I would respect that! I would totally respect that. I thought Center Stage was the center point of Atlanta wrestling?
Paste: I think I saw Disco Inferno’s first WCW match here… But growing up going to MSG shows, what are some shows that you remember going to when you were younger?
Koff: I think I’ll date myself, but I was really into Bruno Sammartino era when he first became champion. And actually I came in prior to the newer era of wrestling. I watched Bruno Sammartino fight Gorilla Monsoon for the first time in a 2-out-of-3 fall match. I saw Bruno Sammartino wrestle Dr. Jerry Graham who was part of the Fabulous Graham Brothers. And even through my years, because I started young, I was at their first Shea Stadium show where Bruno Sammartino wrestled Pedro Morales. And by the way, Ric Flair was on the undercard of the opening match. And it was interesting to see that, because it kind of opened my eyes to how wrestling was really working. Because I was in Florida at college at the time, and Ric Flair was like, the main guy. It’s a thrill. And no matter where I see wrestling, I was just at Wrestle Kingdom in Tokyo, it’s really exciting. If you love the sport, you love the sport.
Paste: Talking about Wrestle Kingdom and the New Japan relationship—I understand if you can’t talk about stuff like this, but I know there was a meeting between parties with y’all and New Japan and All Elite Wrestling about going forward in the future. Can you talk about how that meeting went?
Koff: I mean, it was very cordial. It wasn’t as formal a meeting as it’s sometimes perceived to be. Look, all the talent worked for both of us, and they just finished working for both of us. There was no need for a meeting, there’s cordiality abounding all of that. The question again, and it’s not even a question, is that everyone just wants to see what’s settling out. New Japan is a very structured and formal promotion. And Ring of Honor is a structured and formal production, if formal is the right word. AEW is a brand new startup, and they’re just beginning. So, when it all kind of figures itself out, then decisions can be made that make more sense. But there’s a total cordiality. There’s none of that, “Oh, you’re not with us anymore, so…” No, that doesn’t exist. I mean, the fans want that.
Paste: I don’t know if fans want it so much, as it’s just the way wrestling news is reported.
Koff: Because what’s a better story? The story of, “Oh my goodness, there’s cracks in the ceiling!” Or, “Wow, they had a really nice meeting, those guys really like each other.”
Paste: So with all the change that’s happening with Ring of Honor right now, it’s still full steam ahead, it’s not really changing that much?
Koff: It really isn’t.
Paste: Has there ever been any discussion about maybe changing up some of the creative side of the company?
Koff: The great thing about Ring of Honor is that creative is a collaborative process. I still think you need to have one master storyteller, and one showrunner as they would say in the television business. But believe it or not, that is for a broad picture of what is to happen. Creative really comes from within. Our guys are able to tell their own stories the way they want to tell it, and I think that makes us unique. I think that’s one of the special factors of Ring of Honor, that it’s so collaborative. You can watch guys talking about their matches, and where they’re going to go and what they think. And I love that. And it’s something I believe in, I believe in collaborative.
Paste: I know you’ve been asked before about the political side of the Sinclair Broadcasting Company and the must-runs.
Koff: They’ve got nothing to do with this. In all fairness, it’s part of the media left vs. the media right, vs. this, vs. that… They’re only called must-runs because that’s how they were labeled. They are just content that is offered and suggested and should be run because it’s a point of view. It’s the op-ed page of our TV stations.
Paste: But you notice no bleed-over?
Koff: Not into the wrestling, no. I think that the people coming here tonight are coming to see Bandido, I don’t think they know what a must-run is or isn’t, and they shouldn’t. I’m one of the few operating units that’s totally separate from that. We’re an entertainment operating unit, we’re content producing—we’re professional wrestling. Let’s get serious here. No, that’s never an issue.
Paste: So, of the newer talent: I have not seen the new PCO live [until tonight].
Koff: He’s really good. He adds a different gravitas to our locker room. A maturity, a seriousness, a worldliness. And the one thing I didn’t mention… Our locker room is so gracious to each other. They really love each other from a professional standpoint, and are there to help and make everyone feel welcome. It’s a really nurturing place, which, you know, is a credit to our booking, to our company. We’re a nurturing kind of organization, and I like that. And some people don’t like that, and some people have to leave because of it. It’s not their cup of tea, and that’s fine.
Paste: So when it comes to the non Ring of Honor talent, David Finlay’s on the show tonight, are there any of the other New Japan talents in the show tonight?
Koff: Jeff Cobb of course wrestles for both of us. Juice Robinson’s here. And he’s so exciting. And again, I hate saying these platitudes, because then everyone goes, “Well, what about me, what about me?” I love you all. I love them all. But Juice is special. He’s a special kind of guy. He’s got something. He’s a big star.
Paste: And the audience reacts to him.
Koff: On both sides of the world.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He also writes about music, wrestling, travel, food, theme parks and more. He’s on Twitter at @grmartin.