THE RING OF HONOR STORY

THE RING OF HONOR STORY
FROM UNDERGROUND ALTERNATIVE TO PROMOTION OF CHOICE
 
The professional wrestling landscape drastically changed in 2001.
 
During the industry’s boom period in the late ‘90s, there were three major U.S.-based wrestling companies, but two of them ended up as casualties of a wrestling war.
 
The business had become a monopoly.
 
Looking to fill the need for an alternative for wrestling fans, RF Video -- a Philadelphia-based pro wrestling video distribution company -- announced the formation of its own promotion: Ring of Honor.
 
Emphasizing unparallelled in-ring action and athleticism, ROH catered to a niche audience of disenfranchised hardcore wrestling fans, recording live events in Philadelphia and a few other cities in the Northeast and selling them on DVD and VHS.
 
From those beginnings as an underground alternative, ROH has steadily grown into a global brand that has become the promotion of choice for multitudes of wrestling fans as well as many of the best wrestlers in the world.
 
ROH has launched the careers of a number of top stars, including Bryan Danielson, CM Punk, Tyler Black, Kevin Steen and Samoa Joe.
 
Thanks to Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s purchase of ROH in 2011, ROH is the only wrestling company in the U.S. with a major, multi-market presence on broadcast TV.
 
Sinclair, one of the largest television broadcasting companies in the country, owns and operates, programs or provides sales services to more TV stations than anyone and has affiliations with all the major networks.
 
“Years ago, I thought Ring of Honor had one of the best talent rosters in the world. Our only problem was that we couldn’t get that roster out to the masses,” ROH World Champion Jay Lethal said. “The only people who saw it were the people who would come to the building or buy the DVDs. Now that we’re owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, the whole landscape has changed.”
 
***
 
ROH held its first show, aptly titled The Era of Honor Begins, on Feb. 23, 2002, at the famed 2300 Arena in Philadelphia.
 
The main event was a Triple Threat Match between three of the most skilled and respected competitors on the independent wrestling scene at the time: Danielson, Christopher Daniels and Low Ki.
 
Daniels, who had been in the business for nearly a decade and wrestled all over the world, initially viewed the event as just another booking. It didn’t take long, however, for him to realize that he was part of something special.
 
“One of the signs I should have recognized at the beginning was the fact that they put myself, Bryan and Low Ki in the main event rather than making the Eddie Guerrero vs. Super Crazy match the main event,” said Daniels, who remains an ROH stalwart. “Those two had much more name value than we did. By them putting us in the main event, I felt like it was a statement to the fans that ROH was going to build its own stars rather than rely on stars that were made somewhere else.
 
“ROH had long-term planning behind it and wasn’t just a cash-grab, which is sometimes what independent wrestling is. ROH’s mentality was that they wanted to be in it for the long term.”
 
The company began to build a relatively small but intensely loyal audience, who appreciated the hard-hitting matches as well as the absence of pro wrestling “entertainment” tropes that insulted their intelligence.
 
With jaw-dropping action in the ring and a rabid, highly engaged crowd, ROH presented a unique, interactive live event experience. For example, fans throwing streamers into the ring to show their respect for certain competitors, a practice that began at wrestling events in Japan, has become a staple of ROH shows.
 
What also set ROH apart was its Code of Honor, which is defined by the competitors shaking hands before and after their match.
 
“It shows respect not just for your opponent, but also for everyone who has paved the way for them to be there,” said announcer Kevin Kelly, who has been the voice of ROH since 2010. “It also shows respect for everybody who helped make the show possible and the fans in attendance.”
 
ROH expanded to other cities on the East Coast in 2003, and in May of that year, the company held its first show outside the U.S., co-promoting an event in London.
 
Cary Silkin, who had become a silent partner in ROH not long after its inception, bought the company in 2004. Under Silkin’s ownership, ROH branched out even more in terms of live events both domestically and internationally.
 
In addition, ROH began producing pay-per-view events, entered into the TV realm and innovated the field of iPPV as it pertained to pro wrestling.
 
“When I took over, the DVDs were selling pretty well. We had developed a niche crowd, but we were sort of stuck,” Silkin recalled. “We were approached about doing pay-per-views in 2006 that would be shown on In Demand and other venues. Even though the shows were taped and aired four-to-six weeks later, they legitimately got 10,000 to 12,000 buys over the course of time.”
 
ROH also embarked on its first overseas tour of the United Kingdom in 2006. In 2007, ROH forged a business relationship with Pro Wrestling Noah, which was one of the top promotions in Japan.
 
That year, ROH made history by becoming the first U.S.-based wrestling company to have all of its titles held by non-American wrestlers.
 
Takeshi Morishima had an eight-month reign as ROH World Champion, defending the title in both the U.S. and Japan. Meanwhile, the team of Naruke Doi and Shingo had a brief reign as ROH World Tag Team Champions after winning the title in Liverpool, England.
 
Television was the next step in ROH’s evolution.
 
In 2009, ROH signed a two-year contract with HDNet Fights, a television outlet for combat sports owned by Mark Cuban, for a weekly show.
 
Shortly after the deal with HDNet Fights concluded, Silkin sold ROH to Sinclair Broadcasting Group.
 
An exciting new era for ROH was under way.
 
***
 
Silkin, who is still with ROH as an ambassador, is credited with keeping the company going for years even when it wasn’t financially beneficial to him.
 
“Cary Silkin is the reason we’re here,” Kelly said. “Without him, there would have been no ROH to sell to Sinclair.”
 
After legendary pro wrestling manager Jim Cornette joined ROH as Executive Producer in 2009, the wheels were set in motion for Sinclair’s purchase of the company.
 
Cornette brought Gary Juster, a longtime wrestling promoter and executive, into the fold. Juster knew Joe Koff, who was then the Director of Sales at Sinclair, and a meeting was set up between Koff and Silkin.
 
“I wasn’t all that familiar with ROH, but I fell in love with Cary’s passion for it,” said Koff, who is now the ROH COO. “So I studied the product and decided that I wanted to get involved.”
 
Koff presented the idea of Sinclair buying ROH to Sinclair CEO David Smith, who signed off on it.
 
Koff may not have been up on ROH when he first met Silkin, but he was no stranger to pro wrestling.
 
He grew up as a fan of Capitol Wrestling in New York, watching the likes of Bruno Sammartino and Gorilla Monsoon. Later, while attending the University of Miami, Koff went to the weekly Championship Wrestling from Florida shows.
 
While working at a Tampa TV station in the early ‘80s that broadcast CWF, Koff was introduced to CWF co-owners and former wrestling stars Hiro Matsuda and Duke Keomuka.
 
“I got to know them and they let me get a glimpse of the business,” Koff said. “They asked me to be a part of CWF, but the timing wasn’t right. It always stayed in the back of my mind that if there was ever an opportunity to get into the industry from a business standpoint, I would.”
 
When that opportunity presented itself about 25 years later, Koff believed the timing was right because the lone remaining wrestling program on free TV was moving to cable.
 
“For the first time I could remember, going back to the ‘50s, there was no wrestling promotion in local markets,” he said. “I saw that as an opportunity.”
 
Ring of Honor Wrestling began airing on Sinclair owned-or-operated stations in September 2011. In the ensuing years, ROH expanded its touring schedule to include cities in the South, Midwest and West Coast.
 
In 2014, ROH achieved a milestone by presenting its first live-pay-per-view event, Best in the World 2014. ROH also struck a licensing agreement with Figures Toy Company to develop, market and manufacture a line of ROH collectible figures and accessories.
 
Perhaps the biggest development for ROH that year was the formation of a partnership with New Japan Pro Wrestling (the top wrestling company in Japan) that still exists today. The working relationship allows the promotions to share talent and co-promote events in the U.S. and Japan.
 
ROH has always had a bit of a Japanese-wrestling flavor to it because of its hard-hitting style and sports-based presentation, as well as the fact that a number of ROH’s top stars over the years have competed in Japan.
 
“Thanks to our relationship with New Japan, the global perception of ROH has grown and the star power of ROH has grown,” said Adam Cole, a former ROH World Champion and one of top performers on the current roster. “It’s helped us gain a new fan base in Japan and furthered our legitimacy as a top wrestling company in the United States. Ring of Honor by itself is great. New Japan by itself is great. The two companies together are a really powerful combination.”
 
ROH increased its presence on TV in 2015 with a 26-week run on Destination America. ROH later moved to COMET, which is available in more than 65 million homes, including all of the major markets.
 
In April 2016, ROH announced a multi-year deal to air its programming across Canada on The Fight Network, the world’s leading 24/7 multi-platform channel dedicated to coverage of combat sports.
 
***
 
While ROH has undergone changes in its business model and ownership over the years, the key aspect of the promotion has remained the same.
 
“The foundation of ROH has always been to present the best wrestlers possible in the best matches possible,” Kelly said. “ROH has continually been a leader and a trendsetter in terms of style and the athletes they present.”
 
By emphasizing excellent in-ring action, it’s not surprising that ROH has always attracted the most skilled wrestlers in the industry.
 
“We’ve always had a surplus of the better talent in professional wrestling, and the only way to become better is by wrestling better talent,” Christopher Daniels said, “The types of wrestlers that come through Ring of Honor are always young and hungry. It forces everyone to always bring their ‘A’ game.”
 
Two wrestlers who raised the bar during the early years of ROH were Bryan Danielson and CM Punk. They would go on to become two of the industry’s biggest stars of the past decade.
 
One particular young fan whom Punk and Danielson left an indelible impression on was Cole.
 
“I discovered ROH on the Internet, and everyone was saying that CM Punk and Bryan Danielson were the best wrestlers. So I actually got the Best of CM Punk Volume I and the Best of Daniel Bryan Volume 1 DVDs off the ROH website when I was like 14 or 15 years old,” Cole said. “When I saw those guys I was completely blown away.
 
“I started going to Ring of Honor shows when I was in high school as a fan, and I remember thinking, because they were smaller guys but they were really, really good at the art of pro wrestling, that this is the kind of wrestler  I want to be. Seeing those guys really changed my entire perception of what a pro wrestler and pro wrestling truly is.”
 
A testament to the appeal of ROH’s brand of wrestling is the fact that the company has continued to grow despite the departure of some of its top stars over the years.
 
“When Bryan Danielson and [former ROH World Champion] Nigel McGuinness left on the same night on 2009, people were ready to stick a fork in us,” Silkin said. “But it gave guys on the undercard a chance to rise up, and they did.”
 
Cole echoed that sentiment.
 
“Ring of Honor has never built the company around one guy,” he said. “When people come to an ROH show, they know they’re going to see great wrestling no matter who is on the card. ROH is constantly creating new stars who are ready to be the next top guy.”
 
The depth of ROH’s roster can largely be attributed to the company’s ability to develop talent through the implementation of a camps system several years ago.
 
At ROH tryout camps, independent wrestlers spend two days learning what it takes to succeed in the sport from ROH’s top-notch training staff.
 
“We find some diamonds in the rough, but what we’re mostly looking at with the camps is long-term development through our philosophy and approach,” said Kelly, who evaluates athletes at the camps. “Some guys aren’t ready right away, but we’ve found out that over time they improve if they do what we tell them to. To date, over 70 athletes that have been to ROH tryout camps have gotten an opportunity to compete on ROH events.”
 
In addition to the camps, ROH holds an annual tournament known as The Top Prospect Tournament, which features eight of the most talented unsigned wrestlers on the independent circuit competing for an ROH contract and a shot at the ROH World Television Title.
 
Since the tournament’s inception in 2011, it has produced two ROH World Champions, two ROH World Television Champions and five co-holders of the ROH World Tag Team Title.
 
***
 
Even though ROH is owned by a publicly traded company, it has maintained the same fan-friendly philosophy that it had as an underground promotion.
 
Meet-and-greets with ROH stars are still a part of every live event.
 
“I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to have gotten to shake ‘The Macho Man’ Randy Savage’s hand when I was younger,” Jay Lethal said. “Getting to interact with the wrestlers on a personal level is very cool, and you can do that at Ring of Honor. To meet someone and shake their hand, that’s free of charge and it lasts a lifetime. I may be a little biased, but our fans are the coolest fans in the world.”
 
ROH talent and the ROH fan base  have always shared a passion for the product and a mutal respect for each other. The fans appreciate the competitors’ extraordinary skills and athleticism, and the wrestlers, in turn, are determined to give the fans their money’s worth every time.
 
“When you work real hard and give them something they enjoy, they let you know,” Cole said. “We all put pressure on ourselves to be the best, and that creates an awesome wrestling show.”
 
By the same token, the ROH fans aren’t shy about voicing their disapproval if they feel they’re not getting the high quality performance they’ve come to expect.
 
“Our fan base demands great wrestlers, and you can’t just put anybody out there,” Lethal said. “This isn’t a knock on any other wrestling company, but in ROH we would never try to force a wrestler down the audience’s throat. If the crowd doesn’t like someone, we listen to them.”
 
Having a demanding fan base is perfectly fine with Koff.
 
“You can never be too demanding,” he said. “Our fans demand excellence and will never settle for anything less. We talk about being the promotion of choice for the fans, but also for the people who work in it, the wrestlers and the people we do business with. Choice is a strong word. If people make the choice, they’re taking a big step. We have a responsibility to live up to that.

“ROH has been built one fan at a time, one wrestler at a time. It’s created a synergy that makes ROH feel like a really special place to be.”