Ring of Honor’s year-end pay-per-view event, Final Battle, will air live on Friday night from the Hammerstein Ballroom at the Manhattan Center in New York City. It’s become one of the biggest events in independent wrestling, but there’s more intrigue around it than usual this year, as it looks likely that several of ROH’s top stars, including their top draws, could be on their way out of the company after this weekend. They would be Cody Rhodes (who has been working on a handshake deal after his contract expired), The Young Bucks (whose contracts expire this month), and “Hangman” Adam Page (ditto). Along with Marty Scurll (under contract for another year) and Kenny Omega (not a ROH regular, but under contract with sister promotion New Japan Pro Wrestling through January), they form The Elite, a stable of stars in ROH and NJPW. Normally, the rumors and speculation about indie stars coming off contract would be about whether the free agents would stay put or head to WWE. But, seemingly out of nowhere, a new player appears to be entering the game: Jacksonville Jaguars co-owner Tony Khan, who has positioned his new promotion to steal some of the brightest stars in the sport.
Khan’s new promotion was first broken by SEScoops.com on October 19th, with Chris Jericho and Jim Ross mentioned as point men and the outgoing, ROH-contracted members of The Elite reported as already being committed to signing. Jericho made a point of denying it, and that was about it for a month or so. Then, in late November, Reddit users spotted that, earlier in the month, a number of trademarks had been filed by “All Elite Wrestling, LLC” with a company address at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, the home of the Jaguars; Delaware corporation records show that company being incorporated on July 17, 2018. Those trademarks included the company name and titles for a TV show—Tuesday Night Dynamite, which is notable because it would fill a familiar night when WWE’s SmackDown Live moves to Fridays in October 2019—and follow-ups (“All Out” and “Double or Nothing”) to the All In pay-per-view event that Cody and the Bucks promoted back in September. At that point, this was clearly a real story, if only because the rumored financial backer was the one filing the trademarks. (Jim Ross, for his part, denied a version of the story that nobody reported, with he and Jericho putting up the money for the startup.)
Rhodes has made it fairly obvious that something is happening, even sitting in the owner’s box at a Jaguars game. The Bucks, meanwhile, decided to blatantly lie about it, saying in a podcast interview that they had just registered those trademarks to protect themselves in the event of All In sequels, a reasonable claim that is made less so by the fact that they aren’t the ones who registered the trademarks. (Unlike the AEW trademarks, “All In” and the Bucks’ other trademarks are registered to their Killing the Business, Inc., which has a California address.) Ring Of Honor COO Joe Koff told WrestlingInc that he doesn’t expect the Bucks, Cody, and Page in his company in 2019, which is not exactly the normal way that the wrestling business handles this kind of thing.
The Khans, whether with their own money or the kind of investors they can bring in or or a combination of the two, have the resources necessary to back a wrestling company that can challenge WWE. Sinclair could have, too, but ROH has always been cheap programming to them first and foremost. After being acquired by Sinclair in 2011, ROH shows were infamously still being shot in standard definition long past the point when that should have been considered an option, and have only been professionally lit with a full lighting grid for the last few years. Sinclair seems to have allocated more resources as interest in the promotion climbed, but that’s also where things start to get complicated.
Ring of Honor has inarguably grown in large part due to its deepening relationship with NJPW, and by building around The Elite as that top stars. But the promotion has also over-relied on both the imports that relationship made possible and the star power of The Elite, to the point that if or when The Elite leave, no next generation has really been groomed to fill their spots. ROH has started going on a signing spree and are bringing in good talent, but the biggest drawing shows are always the ones with NJPW stars; nobody else in the promotion has broken through to the semi-mainstream level that the Bucks and company have. Especially with The Elite as top stars, All Elite Wrestling jumping in with a (live?) prime-time Tuesday night TV show on a major cable network would instantly put it in a superior spot to ROH’s TV situation. Being in non-uniform time slots as what’s more or less a syndicated show may have worked as a base for wrestling in the past, but ROH still lacks real penetration in a number of major markets as a result. If that problem isn’t solved, its growth will be stunted as a result.
ROH has another potential stumbling block, too, especially if its popularity ends up waning without its signature stars—that partnership with Sinclair, which has been complicated by increasing public animus towards Sinclair. In Koff’s interview with WrestlingInc as transcribed by Pro Wrestling Sheet, he was asked about the heavily right-leaning and often outright dishonest “must-run” and “must-read” segments that Sinclair sends to local news departments, which have been an issue again of late after one defending the tear gassing of asylum-seekers at the southern border.
It didn’t go great. “That is an overblown, overplayed media kind of fodder that people like to pick on,” Koff said. “Those situations are so immaterial to the amount of content that we produce, it just gets picked up because people like to pick that stuff up.” He then added that “I could tell you that the number of people who have told me that they would not watch Ring of Honor because we’re owned by Sinclair maybe has been one person in seven years.” He continued by saying that “it has nothing to do with what we do. There’s no politics inside of Ring of Honor as any fan would know. We operate autonomously to that whole scenario.” Koff feels that “we get an inordinate amount of press for things like that… that I think are unnecessary” because commentary segments and editorials are common. He did not address the fact that Sinclair is forcing the segments on news departments.
Of course the same rule applies for Ring Of Honor and All Elite Wrestling: the wrestling product and the stars are at the heart of everything, and will be the most important part of what appears to be an impending promotional war. If AEW is looking to take on WWE directly and if Sinclair is unwilling to fully invest in ROH, then Ring Of Honor could well be in for a rough 2019.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.