When Ring of Honor wrestling announced Kenny Omega, the Canadian star of New Japan Pro Wrestling, was appearing at its Chicago “Global Wars” show several months ago, thousands of tickets were gone in minutes.
When the promotion announced Omega was appearing at all its “Global Wars” shows, which includes a stop Saturday at Express Live! in Columbus at 4:30 p.m., ROH sold out four shows in four separate states in four consecutive days for the first time in its history.
After losing a half dozen of its biggest names earlier this year to World Wrestling Entertainment, the company rebounded with one of its strongest years to date and has been part of a small wrestling boom, featuring athletic and realistic matches with its own roster and its partner New Japan, all happening outside the shadow of World Wrestling Entertainment.
“I think wrestling is at a high point as far as a fan and talent perspective goes,” said ROH COO Joe Koff. “I think ROH is a major part of that.”
Hardcore American wrestling fans have had an affinity for Japanese wrestling for decades. The style was more realistic and hard hitting. The internet and social media has made these promotions more accessible. While New Japan has fans in the United States, Ring of Honor has fans in Japan and both regularly have talent perform in Mexico or the United Kingdom or promote their own shows there. Both companies work with CMLL, the top promotion in Mexico, and Revolution Pro in the UK, which has become a wrestling hotbed. Many have compared the relationships to the territory days of wrestling, when wrestling was regional and reflected different tastes to different audiences before WWE put them out of business by the end of the 1980s.
The capital needed to invest in TV production, not to mention the work it took to get a television deal, isn’t a factor in getting your show out to fans like it was 20 years ago, even if you’re company is an independent promotion based in a small town, you can stream it on the internet and reach thousands.
WWE decided to crash the growing United Kingdom market with its own promotion overseas, holding a tournament to crown a champion. The company had plans for entering Asia but those plans appear to have been put on hold.
Ring of Honor has built a fanbase thanks to its reputation and its brand, which is reflected on the talent. Most of the main event wrestlers in WWE spent time in ROH, and make up a significant part of its NXT Internet promotion.
This has meant growing income for wrestlers who can market themselves on the on social media and back it up by performing to ever higher standards in the ring. One example - ROH’s Young Bucks tag team, along with UK star Marty Scurill, Cody Runnells, the son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes, and NJPW’s Omega make up a large portion of the ROH/NJPW stable Bullet Club. They’ve even had their own YouTube show, with its own storylines, even incorporating them into ROH’s show. The Bullet Club had a mock war going with WWE which led to a parody ‘invasion’ two weeks ago of the parking lot where WWE’s Raw show was being filmed. No talent from WWE was shown, but WWE didn’t find the invasion funny – it immediately filed a cease and desist order in court against Matt and Nick Jackson of the Young Bucks, and fired writer Jimmy Jacobs, who took a selfie with the group as he was walking innocently into work.
Cody Runnels recently signed a contract with ROH and now holds the promotion’s top belt. He asked to leave WWE last year and has made the most of it on his own. Other wrestlers have left the company as well, building a template where wrestlers can control their own characters, merchandise, and schedule.
Koff said Ring of Honor’s brand is strong, with its penchant for realistic, athletic matches, a nurturing environment for wrestlers and being as fan friendly as they can. Koff said while ROH is definitely a viable promotion (the company gets over 500,000 viewers a week for its syndicated television show, and is easily the No. 2 promotion in the United States), he sees ROH and WWE operating on different areas of the sphere.
“I see them as the leader in their space,” Koff said. “And they have a different model, which they should, because that’s how they need to operate. But I think they see us more of a competitor than we see them as a competitor. They pay a lot of attention to what we’re doing as a promotion and what our guys are doing. But we’ve never tried competing with them and we’re pleased with the results the last six years.”
ROH’s Columbus show has given them plenty to watch. Omega is arguably the best wrestler on the planet and has wrestled in arguably two of the greatest matches in history in the last 10 months. The Young Bucks can make a claim as the best and most popular tag team. They are on the card with Runnels, and other overseas talent such as Will Ospreay – who was featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter – the Killer Elite Squad featuring Davey Boy Smith Jr., the son of the former 80s and 90s star, Hiromu Takahashi and Kushida. They’ll match up with or against other ROH stars like Bully Ray (the former Bubba Ray Dudley in WWE and ECW), the Briscoe Brothers, Jay Lethal, Flip Gordon, Silas Young and Matt Taven and his stable The Kingdom.
Due to the sellouts, the company will broadcast its Pittsburgh shows on Friday and Saturday on iPPV as part of the company’s Ringside monthly package which is $7.99 a month. The company will stream Sunday’s show in Chicago featuring Omega in his first New Japan United States title defense for free on its website at rohwrestling.com.