"I Mean, We Wrestle a Lot": Talking to Ring Of Honor's Joe Koff, Independent Wrestling's Independent
A conversation with Joe Koff, COO of the mega-indie wrestling circuit Ring Of Honor, about wrestling, business, the wrestling business, and the Kevin Owens Factor.
Courtesy Ring of Honor
This article was originally published on VICE Sports U.S.
Joe Koff has been around the wrestling business for a long time. He got his start as a television producer putting together shows on the East Coast in the 1980s. These days, he serves as COO and all-around fan of Ring of Honor, the highly influential half-indie promotion where the likes of Seth Rollins and Daniel Bryan earned their chops.
We talked over the phone about Ring of Honor, the mainstream rise of women's wrestling, what it's like when someone goes to WWE, and whether Kevin Owens has the magical ingredient to be an all-timer.
VICE Sports: You're now well into Sinclair Broadcasting's ownership of ROH. What do you think the main benefits, both for Sinclair and for the promotion, have been?
JOE KOFF: We're in year five [of that partnership]. I think the main benefit has been that, when we originally looked at ROH as a business entity, we were looking at it from a content perspective. Sinclair Broadcasting is the largest owner and operator of TV stations in America. All we really do is broadcast content. We're the largest producer of news, and local content is really what people watch television for. Back in 2010, when WWE decided to make a commitment to the cable platform, I saw this as an opportunity for somebody to get into the wrestling business again on a local, or more regional, basis and hopefully take it out to a national platform. Which we were able to do for six to eight months, with Destination America.
So, for Sinclair, not only did it give us original content to air—because we're an over-the-air broadcasting company, which means ROH is for free, you can get it for free just with an antenna—we're the only national wrestling company which can always be watched for free. And we're proud of that.
So we were able to take a promotion which was very, very well thought of—you know, the expansion with a national platform has been very good for ROH's fans, ROH's wrestlers, ROH's brand. We want to be the wrestling promotion of choice, and if we're not there, I think we're slowly getting there.
I was going to say, there's something almost old school about the approach. I remember growing up in the 80s, where all the territories had their own cable or local stations. So when I watch ROH in its current syndication days, there's something old school about that.
I think ROH has always been a style of wrestling. Is it old school? You know, I grew up in the 50s and 60s, watching wrestling. I'm one of those boys who never grew out of it. I think if there's anything in ROH which rings true to old school is that we just do a lot of wrestling. I mean, we wrestle a lot on our programs. There was a chart which was put out, and it showed us having more wrestling per hour than any other promotion. I think that's important to our brand, because we have so many talented athletes. People who are so true to their craft that I want to see them wrestling. That's what people want to see.
You look back at ECW in the 90s and, say, IWA-MS in the tape trading days, but contemporary with ROH. Grittier isn't the right word, but I'll use it. It had a distinct style in the production values and amount of wrestling, which set it apart from WWE.
We can look at promotions which have tried to be WWE and see where they are. They [WWE] are the business to a degree. And, by the way, they're not an overnight success. I remember watching their product when I was six or seven years old, in the 50s. They've been doing this for a long time. I want to believe that when ROH reaches that age and prestige, we'll be there, too.
It seems like there's been a proliferation of independent promotions underlying WWE, and one of the things that come with that is cross-promotion talent exchanges. Talk about your ongoing relationship with New Japan, and what do you think are the best things to come out of that?
I think the best thing to come out of it is the appeal of their stars. It helps us because it broadens our brand to a more international one. But I think the reason it's so successful is that ROH and NJPW are similar. When you look at the styles of wrestling and booking, they're two very [similar] styles of pro wrestling. It's a natural fit. Our booker and their booker are very close; he's got experience with Japan. We have the utmost respect for that organization. And, like I said, they wrestle our style and speed, our artistic integrity. It's almost like it was meant to be.
We love it, too, because it allows us to show wrestlers who normally wouldn't be seen over the air here. The fans love them, and it's so interesting—I've always said you can never underestimate the wrestling fan's passion. When they come to America to wrestle with us, the fans know these guys. They know their moves, their finishers, the chants. That's what gives me so much hope about our business. Even if these guys aren't seen, they're known before they show up. I love that.
Yeah. I don't know that A.J. Styles would've gotten the pop he got in WWE for his debut if he hadn't spent time in ROH and in Japan.
No question about it. I think five years ago, we would've been considered the top indie. Now, just by your question and that reaction, we're in the narrative. I'm humbled by that, but I'm also incredibly proud of it.
I swear I'm not going to talk much more about WWE, but I'm interested in their effect on national organizations. Obviously they've been signing more and more independent talent. What's it like when someone decides to head to NXT, both in the locker room and on the management side? Is it now just part of the landscape that someone will move on to WWE at some point in their career, or do you think WWE's aggressiveness in signing wrestlers is getting to be too extreme or even monopolistic?
Well, they're not buying everybody; they're buying who they want to buy up. And, again, I think this goes back some to ROH's success. NXT has been accelerated, I believe, by ROH. If you look at NXT—and this is Joe Koff speaking, maybe WWE feels it would happen naturally—but the NXT style of wrestling... they had Full Sail development for a zillion years. They used to wrestle in Florida. And the NXT brand—God bless them, they're smart to do it, they need a new brand and different kinds of fans. But until ROH became a small 's' something, NXT was at Full Sail. NXT was running their guys and, if they were really good, they might move up.
ROH comes along and, maybe coincidentally, we're starting to run in the same cities. They're starting to look at our talent, and to move them into NXT. And look, they need talent and the independent circuit. They can't develop it all. And isn't it interesting, out of all the talent they have, who are the ones everyone talks about? I'm proud of that.
So back to your question, WWE and NXT, in the back of a wrestler's mind—and I'm not a wrestler, but I think I understand—it may be the pinnacle for them. But we've had wrestlers who had the chance to go, but they chose to stay in ROH. We offer a different kind of experience, a different work and creative experience. As long as we can be competitive on what's important to them—less travel, family, money—I think we're in there.
But we've never stopped anyone from going, because we can't. That would be ridiculous. We want to create a culture where people don't necessarily feel they need to move there to get what they want.
WWE's road schedule may be a big sticking point; it's pretty brutal. Do you run the risk, as you expand into new markets, of ROH's road schedule getting a little too grueling?
That's a fair question. We're pretty disciplined in our approach. We know who we are and why people are with us. And, yeah, we're different from five years ago. We were doing internet pay-per-views five years ago, with people complaining they couldn't watch the show.
I remember those days!
Yeah! So now we're doing PPVs and going into bigger cities. But with all that, I think our schedule is a good schedule. Again, going back, it's part of a culture we want to provide where if they can grow creatively and as people. I think we do that.
Jay Lethal has been ROH champion for about a year now. I'm a big fan of his, from back in his TNA comedy gimmick days to now, with his almost Ric Flair-in-his-prime, come beat me I dare you swagger. There's grumbling in some parts of the internet, social media and such, that he's held on to it for just a little too long. How would you respond to that?
I think he's held on to it the amount of time he should've held onto it. Jay Lethal is not only one of the most incredible wrestlers working today; he's an incredible marketing tool for ROH. I don't know what the timeline is—I'm aware of everything going on, but I don't directly get into creative decisions—everything you said about him is true. Jay's an incredible gentleman and talent. He understands his role in ROH and as an athlete. He understands this business. And we have more than one guy like that, which is one of the things that make ROH special, I think.
Who do you think is operating under the radar—and it can be any role, so manager, wrestler, valet, whatever—and is poised to break out as the next big star for ROH?
Oh, that's tough. If I have to just pick one or two, it makes thirty other people feel like they're not as good. I'm not going to dodge the question, but I want to talk about a group of people who I think are going to tell great stories the next year and that's our Women of Honor. We recently debuted the Women of Honor show—a full women's show—prior to our house show in Baltimore, 5 PM bell time. We expected the matches to be good, but I didn't expect 70 percent of the house to be there at five o'clock. And they put on such a good show. So I have to say Women of Honor, as a single entity.
I'm glad you mentioned women's wrestling. It's become so much bigger this past decade. Do you think that's down to people being more accepting of women in visible roles as athletes or do you think—and I don't say this at all to denigrate women wrestlers of past decades—there's more athletic talent out there among women wrestlers?
I don't know the answer to that, really. I grew up watching the Fabulous Moolah. She was a tremendous competitor. I think why you didn't see much of that is that there weren't enough people that could compete with her at that level. I think what we're seeing now is basically what you said: they're really good. It's far more now than a novelty match. I saw one of the girls go through a table the other night, that's physical stuff. And we're talking a 120-, 130-pound woman. These women are athletes, and they really should be recognized.
And I think WWE's really helped that, too. There's a nice synergy going on in wrestling right now. You know, wrestling's very cyclical. It's the oldest product ever to be on TV, so it does go through cycles. And I think right now wrestling is in a very positive place, and that's mostly because the talent is incredibly good.
The internet, too. It's not just that wrestlers are so good, but the exposure is there. People know things, you can't keep a lid on them. That's been frustrating sometimes for us, but there's no point in fighting it. You have to make it with what you have available.
I don't like to fool the fans. That's one of the things, going back to A.J. I'm so happy for him. He got where he's always wanted to be in his career. But the respect shown to him, by letting him be A.J. Styles? That tells me that this is the reality. You can't change someone's name and expect them not to be who they were.
I think about Kevin Owens, who was Kevin Steen at ROH. He went to NXT, and even as Kevin Owens, everyone knew he was Kevin Steen. You can't belittle the fan.
Speaking of Kevin Owens, out of all the young guys to go to WWE—and I say this as someone who's a fan but not a superfan of his—I look at him and think, that's the guy who's going to be a top guy ten years from now. He's got that "it" thing.
Yeah, right. And I don't think it'll be ten years from now. It could be ten minutes from now. He's already there, really.
I compare it to other forms of media. So many movies, shows, whatever, come out in a year and very few are hits. The ones that are successful are primarily flukes. It's so hard to create a hit. So we say sometimes that all hits are flukes.
There are so many guys in professional wrestling, across all the promotions. There's a guy wrestling for 50 people tonight in the South—he's got "it." He's the guy. We don't know it yet, but he's the guy. Kevin Owens had "it." He's unique. I don't want to insult him by calling him a fluke, but he's a fluke. He's a fluke personality. He's everything you would look at and think, 'Well, he's not a WWE guy.' But, my god, he's compelling, he's engaging. It's what fans want to see and what everyone wants to be. They all can't get there, and I'm not even sure I can articulate what "it" is.
Saying it's charisma isn't really correct, because it's not just that. I'm on the record as being critical of Roman Reigns—not saying he's trash or that he can't wrestle, but just that he doesn't have that "it" factor, and it's something you can't force.
You're so right. When I first got involved in pro wrestling, I produced the first three Battles of the Belts in the mid-80s. Ric Flair was the champion. If anyone had that factor, it was Ric Flair. I tell you how I knew it: because when he would wrestle, every guy would be standing in the back, faces in the curtain, watching.
There were guys—and I'm not going to name them, because it doesn't matter—who thought they were every bit as good as Flair, and they'll be the first ones to tell you now that they weren't Ric Flair. And I like Roman Reigns—I've never met him, so as a worker. I think he's got a real presence, but I don't know that you can get much higher than where he's at. If he's comfortable where he's at, wherever that is, then he's in a good place. There can only be a couple No. 1 guys; there's never going to be twenty. If there were, it would be ordinary.
What's coming up for Ring of Honor the next few months?
Well, we've always got our weekly television show. We'll be back in Vegas on August 19th for one of our big pay-per-views, Death Before Dishonor. Our New Japan contingent will be back, as well. And for our New York fans, we've got our open-air Brooklyn show down in Coney Island soon. We're also always touring, so check local tickets.
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