By Chuck Carroll
(CBS Baltimore/CBS Local) — A massive wave of change has washed over Ring of Honor. Familiar faces that recently defined the promotion and helped it reach new heights are gone, while a crop of fresh talent is coming in to help fill the void. And what a void it is.
When rumors started swirling last year that the group known as The Elite were on their way out, many fans and critics were predicting the sky would soon be falling on ROH. And indeed, last month, when Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks and others announced the formation of the well-funded upstart All Elite Wrestling, many said it was Doomsday for their former home. There was no way that the company could match the rumored seven-figure deals their new rival were offering. ROH should just pick up their ball and go home, cynics said.
ROH didn’t see it that way.
Despite the immense roster churn, top officials don’t even consider 2019 to be a rebuilding year. They made what could be considered the most generous contract offers in ROH history, but still knew the group was unlikely to re-sign and had been planning for their departures for some time. Their assumptions match what The Young Bucks told me earlier this year: staying with ROH was never an option (although signing with WWE was for a time).
This isn’t the first time the company has lost its highest-profile talent, and it probably won’t be the last. Since its inception, ROH has been a launchpad for WWE’s biggest Superstars. Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, and CM Punk all cut their teeth in an ROH ring before graduating to the main event of WrestleMania. Others will surely follow, with rumors constantly swirling that Vince McMahon’s company is interested in plucking more talent from the roster. Former ROH World Champion Dalton Castle is among the latest names awash in speculation, and many in the company believe their current World Television Champion, Jeff Cobb, has a very good chance of signing there eventually as well.
So, the revolving door is nothing new. It’s just the reality for ROH and one they’ve accepted and embraced. The promotion believes fans are loyal to the brand and not just the individual talent. To their point, tickets to the upcoming joint ROH-New Japan Pro Wrestling show at Madison Square Garden quickly sold out without a single talent mentioned on the card. Further, the company has a goal of growing subscriptions of its HonorClub streaming service by 30 to 40 percent this year despite the mass exodus of headliners.
I had an opportunity to check the pulse of promotion with ROH General Manager Greg Gilleland ahead of shows this Saturday in Lakeland, Fla. and Sunday in Miami. The latter will be streamed live for HonorClub subscribers. We discussed the attempts to re-sign The Elite and others, where the relationship between the parties stands now, whether an ROH-AEW partnership is possible, new faces on the roster, and company morale, among other topics.
You guys just lost The Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, Hangman Page, and SoCal Uncensored. And earlier in the year, there was Punishment Martinez. We’re talking about a pretty significant roster overhaul here. Is it safe to say, putting this in football terms, that 2019 is a rebuilding year for Ring of Honor?
I don’t think I would classify it as a rebuilding year. I think, if you look at the past five years, each year has been a growth year. I don’t think 2019 is any different. All those guys leaving had been something that was rumored about and talked about, either behind the scenes or even by some media outlets, for a significant amount of time. So, I wouldn’t say that it caught us by surprise.
If you look at some of our new signings, you can see that we had been planning in case of such a thing. We’re excited to be moving forward. We’re excited with the talent that we have. We’re excited for Madison Square Garden. We’re excited for the things that we have planned beyond Madison Square Garden, and relationships that we have with all of our partners.
The last time you and I spoke officially was the middle part of last year. You told me that you were planning to aggressively make an attempt to re-sign those guys. At what point did it become clear that you would be moving on from that group?
I think that we probably always had it in the back of our mind. We definitely made aggressive attempts, more aggressive than we’ve had with anybody in the past. Sometimes people have a dream, and you really can’t negotiate against dreams. That’s what these guys are doing. They’re chasing their dreams, whether that dream is WWE, or whether it’s starting your own company, like AEW, that’s something that I don’t think anybody can compete with. I know Tony Kahn [son of Jacksonville Jaguars owner and billionaire Shahid Khan] is involved. That probably brings significant dollars to those, and I heard some figures. That’s probably part of the dream.
When you first got this concept for putting the show together at Madison Square Garden, were you envisioning having Cody and The Young Bucks and that group there and building the card around them given their popularity and close ties to NJPW?
Honestly, it wasn’t really a factor in the decision. Madison Square Garden is something that we firmly believed in. It was an opportunity that arose for us. We decided to include our partner, New Japan, into it, because we wanted to give the fans something really big, and really massive. Obviously, we wanted those guys to be in it, but if you go back and look at all of our marketing materials, we never marketed anybody that we didn’t know we had. We don’t market anything that we don’t have. And the notion of going into Madison Square Garden, making history, doing something that nobody’s done for 30-40 years? That was what we went in with. That was our dream, that was our goal… The show’s going to be huge. I can’t wait until everybody sees the Garden and the outcomes.
When can we expect to start seeing that card come together for that show?
Soon. Injuries changed a couple things, but for the most part the card’s together. It’s been together, there’s just creative things that need to happen. Obviously, we have our pay-per-view in Las Vegas prior to that, so you can see some of the challenges that persist in just announcing cards. But we should have a couple matches, at least, announced in the next couple weeks. I can tell you it’s going to be great. All the key titles are going to be defended. It’s going to be an amazing show, and the fans will definitely get what they came for.
You’ve had the opportunity to run a few shows since wrapping up with The Elite. Have you had the opportunity to check the pulse of the ROH brand with fans that were in attendance?
The fans are great. There was not one bit of negativity against those guys, but there was not one bit of negativity against our product. I think everybody was more than pleased with the new talent, and they were more than excited for what’s to come. I think that anybody would agree that those guys leaving really opens up a ton opportunity, not just for other talent, but creatively. It’s like, “What’s going to happen next?” That’s the intrigue. That’s what we’re excited about.
What has the vibe been in the locker rooms?
Everybody is very positive. Everybody is ready to put their head down and go into ’19 moving forward and seizing every opportunity and doing their absolute best in the ring… I think our veterans and our creative team and everybody were able to communicate what is happening. It wasn’t really that big of a deal. I think that most people looked at it as opportunity. That’s what happens when people leave. There’s new opportunity for everybody that’s here moving forward. It’s a feeling of excitement.
Let me ask you about Marty Scurll. His contract hasn’t expired, but here’s a guy that is closely linked to the group that left. You guys are building him up and a lot of people are saying that, as soon as this deal is up, he’s going to join his friends. Are there any concerns about starting a major faction, building him up, making him a centerpiece as the head of Villain Enterprises, given the possibility that he will be departing in just about a year or so?
I don’t think there’s any concerns. We’re well aware of all decisions that are made. Marty’s a star, and he’s here. As long as he’s here, as long as everybody’s here, this is what we’re doing.
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The Young Bucks told me that AEW would be open to partnering with other promotions. I’m assuming that everything ended amicably for all parties involved. Would you be open to exploring that possibility?
Everything definitely ended amicably. We’ve talked to them since. Right now, there’s nothing to explore. There are three events, potentially, and there’s the rumored potential of the TV deal. We would have to know what we’re exploring, to answer that. Joe [Koff, ROH Chief Operating Officer] and I are businessmen first. We would never turn down an opportunity, but the opportunity has to make sense for us and for our brand. I think probably the best answer I can give you is that we’ll explore every opportunity, and we’ll do what’s best for our brand and, more importantly, our fans.
What about some of the fresh faces like Jeff Cobb. When I spoke with Joe [Koff] in Baltimore last October, he was very, very high on Jeff, and wanted to make sure that I had the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with him. What do you see, in terms of Jeff’s potential and future in Ring of Honor?
Jeff has a ton of potential. He’s a tremendous competitor, he’s a tremendous athlete. He has tremendous strength, as you can tell, by watching his matches. He’s very hungry. He’s not young, he’s definitely been around long enough to know the ropes, no pun intended. We have high hopes for him. We have a great vision for Jeff.
You look at the guys that have come through Ring of Honor in the past. Your Brian Danielsons, your Kevin Steens, more recently Adam Cole and The Bucks. Is Jeff a guy that you can see growing to that level and becoming a face of the brand?
He’s a World Television Champion right now for a reason. It’s not something that he was forced into, it’s something that he well deserves. I think that the impact he’s making is tremendous, and he definitely has that opportunity to grow into the face of the company. I think everybody does.
I think the sky’s the limit. That’s why, if you look over the years and you talk about all these former Ring of Honor stars that have moved on and how the brand keeps continuing to grow, and how we get new stars or we create new stars, or we bring in great performers and they become stars, I don’t think that chain stops. Right now, Jeff Cobb is definitely poised to be at the top of that pile.
Who are some of the other guys on the roster, you think, that fans should really be keeping an eye out for, for the rest of 2019?
Keep an eye on everybody. We’ll find some new guys, and we have our existing top stars like Jay Lethal and Dalton Castle. Jeff Cobb is in the mix. Rush is a big star that we just signed. I expect him to come in and make an impact. People earn their opportunities here, they earn their spot. They go out there, and they perform, and that’s how you ascend.
Zack Sabre, Jr. is a pretty exciting guy to be bringing in and well-known globally. Is he a guy that you could see putting in a premium position and feel comfortable inserting into major storylines?
I’ll leave that up to creative, but he’s definitely a star. We enjoy having him here, and we plan to have him here whenever we can.
How much pressure are you feeling to lock up existing talent, and bring some new faces onboard and maybe sign them to exclusive deals given the increased competition that’s out there? Not just the emergence of AEW, but you hear about other promotions, including WWE, also aggressively targeting talent at this point.
It’s definitely a different landscape. It’s definitely more challenging than it has been in the past. But as a business guy, I like the challenge. As a company, we’re in this business for our brand and for our fans. It’s just something we have to do.
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.