Joe Koff had just returned from a trip to New Orleans when he was faced with a difficult decision. Koff, the Chief Operating Officer of Ring of Honor Wrestling, needed to make a choice countless other businesses — big and small — did as COVID-19 spread across the United States in March 2020.
“I was on a call with my management team, the wrestlers were there, our production crew, and I basically said that I would feel better knowing everyone was back safely in their own homes, where they should be, rather than having to worry about getting back if this thing escalated — which we now know it did,” Koff told Yahoo Sports. “We put the responsibility of the health of our fans, our vendors, our wrestlers, and our crew way ahead of putting on an event. It was going to be a spectacular event, but we had to cancel it.”
Koff had pulled the plug on Ring of Honor’s 18th anniversary show, a two-night card set for Las Vegas amid an unprecedented boom in the professional wrestling industry. While other wrestling companies, WWE and All Elite Wrestling primarily, were able to continue to conduct semi-normal business and produced live content weekly, Ring of Honor went on a six month hiatus once its freshly taped offerings ran out.
Although live content was out of the question due to pandemic restrictions, Ring of Honor’s impressive collection of matches and film from nearly two decades of operation wound up coming through in the clutch.
“I’m really proud of the way the company pivoted and because of the pandemic we had to be agile,” Koff said. “Fortunately, for Ring of Honor, we have always been that kind of company. I like to think of us as a cigarette boat, a speed boat vs one that’s a little harder to turn. Our nimbleness was one of our great strengths.”
'We like to refer to ourselves as an entertaining sport'
If nimbleness is Ring of Honor’s greatest strength, uniqueness is its defining characteristic. Despite not having the history of WWE, Ring of Honor has still managed carved out its own niche in the wrestling industry.
After being birthed from a pro wrestling video distribution company in the early 2000s, Ring of Honor became one of wrestling’s more well-known and respected independent promotions in the industry. Koff’s employer, Sinclair Broadcast Group, purchased Ring of Honor in 2011 and has owned it since.
“What drew us to Ring of Honor when we first looked to buy the promotion in 2010 was the integrity of the art,” Koff said. “I’m a longtime wrestling fan. The best wrestling I ever watched as a kid was the same as the best wrestling I saw at my first Ring of Honor event.
“It’s an eccentric way to approach things, but I view wrestling as a sport. Other promotions may refer to themselves as sports entertainment, we like to refer to ourselves as an entertaining sport. Wrestlers are conditioned, they take their craft very seriously, they train, they are athletes of the highest caliber and regard.”
As curious of an approach to the business as it was, Ring of Honor became something of a proving ground for budding wrestlers. Standouts such as CM Punk, Kevin Steen, El Generico, Tyler Black and the Young Bucks were just a handful of the dozens of wrestling stars that once called the Maryland promotion home.
In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a roster in wrestling today that doesn’t have Ring of Honor’s fingerprints on it.
“Ring of Honor has its place in the industry, but the industry is sometimes too selfish to recognize that,” Koff said. “Even when I started with Ring of Honor, talent had to change their names in new promotions. I remember when AJ Styles made his debut in WWE [in 2016] — he’s a wonderful wrestler and a pleasure to work with — they referred to him as working in other promotions, but not giving the credit to exactly where it happened. Wrestling has never been strong on that. I never understood that.”
A return to the ring, and the company's roots
Being on hiatus last year allowed Ring of Honor to go back to its roots in a sense. Originally planned for April 2020, the promotion brought back one of its classic events last September, the “Pure Tournament,” and crowned a "Pure" champion for the first time in 14 years.
A single-elimination event, the Pure Tournament features a unique set of rules, throwing things back to the company’s origins with the “Code of Honor.” In Pure Tournament matches there are no closed-fist punches, outside interference is banned, there is a time limit and rope breaks can only be used three times per contest. It’s the most strict environment you’ll likely ever see in a professional wrestling match, as storytelling takes a backseat and lends itself to the notion of pro wrestling being primarily a sport versus entertainment.
For wrestling fans focused on in-ring action and work rates over highly produced television, it was bliss.
“I think that one of the things that is attractive to fans of Ring of Honor is that the storytelling is tacit in a way,” Koff said. “Our talent is so strong and understands the business of storytelling. They know it needs to be something that is carried out over time. There are going to be different determined outcomes throughout the arc of the story, but what I really love is the collaborative method that the wrestlers have with the story. We trust them to tell the story correctly.”
Ring of Honor has been able to parlay the return of the Pure Tournament into several more buzzy events, including last month’s 19th anniversary show and a 500th episode celebration. Although the shows are still being filmed and held without fans in attendance, Koff has introduced one of his old television executive tactics to make sure the audience is engaged ahead of Thursday night’s 500th episode.
“Two of the matches on the 500th episode card were requested by the fans,” Koff said. “It’s something I’ve always done in business. When I was running a local TV station here in Baltimore, we actually let our viewers pick the 8 o’clock movie that would run at night. We put up two choices, let the viewers vote and at 7:50 or 7:52 we took the final tally and ran the movie.”
A successful 500th show would also go a long way in Ring of Honor sustaining momentum into the summer, where it will utilize a Women’s Championship Tournament to reboot its women’s division. Without a female champion since 2019, Ring of Honor is looking to capitalize on growing support and enthusiasm within the industry for women’s wrestling.
Ring of Honor always had women’s wrestling as part of its product, but as a dramatic, industry-wide shift in the way women were portrayed took place, there arguably hasn’t been a better time to focus on the pure talent and athleticism that has defined Ring of Honor for the past two decades.
“I think women’s wrestling is important because it’s what people want to see and that’s because of the athleticism and integrity you’re seeing now in women’s wrestling,” Koff said. “They are portrayed as athletes and gifted athletes, rightfully so. They deserve their shot. There’s really excellent women’s wrestling going on around the world and especially in the U.S. We want to be a part of that and we’re going to enter the fray again.”
Plenty of room for growth, in 2021 and beyond
A year and a month since the decision to shut the doors was made, the future seems reasonably bright for Ring of Honor. As the wrestling industry continues to experience a renaissance of sorts, there is room for Ring of Honor to not just carve out its own niche, but grow into an even bigger brand.
Koff’s first goal is to utilize Sinclair’s wide catalog of broadcast stations and regional sports networks to get a destination slot for Ring of Honor. Even in a crowded space — you can find pro wrestling on basic cable or broadcast television four out of five weeknights — the appetite for content remains there with fans, evidenced by the exponential growth of wrestling podcasts, blogs and internet shows.
“We are very true to our brand and what we do,” Koff said. “Ring of Honor is a young company compared to some of the others. When we look at the WWE, we look at it with reverence and respect. I was watching the WWE when I was 10 years old. They have had a lot of running room and they do a fantastic job. Ring of Honor will always have that place and will always have a place in the fans’ world. We take it day by day, week by week, we’re strong and committed to growing.”
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