Kenny Omega at NJPW Strong Style Evolved in March 2018.
Photo: New Japan Pro Wrestling/TV Asahi (Provided by AXS TV; used with permission)

Numerous stories played out in parallel during WrestleMania weekend in New Orleans, and the fact that there was more going on than any one person could process was, as always, a big part of the fun. Few of those stories had more history or more potential future significance than the one that unfolded at UNO Lakefront Arena. That was where Ring of Honor, the superindie turned number two national wrestling promotion, drew 6,000 people. It was the promotion’s largest crowd ever. Ring Of Honor’s live event was once secondary, a necessary component in creating the promotion’s VHS and DVD product; in 2018, it has grown enough that it is capable of drawing the biggest non-WWE crowd in recent American wrestling history.

In 2001, the pro wrestling world was devastated when WCW and ECW, respectively the number two and number three promotions in the United States, folded within 90 days of each other. That created a sudden surplus of elite talent without much in the way of job prospects, which in turn left little hope for many of the newer wrestlers coming up who started wrestling school during the peak of the Steve Austin/Monday Night War/Attitude Era boom a couple years earlier. Fans who traded videotapes online had also gotten used to either relying on ECW as their alternative to WCW or what’s now known as WWE. Suddenly, though, that was all gone, and ROH was formed to fill the void left where ECW’s primary videotape distributor had previously been. Through savvy but new to pro wrestling public relations—raw footage of shows went direclty to Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer to generate buzz before editing was complete—ROH quickly earned a higher profile than any other indie promotion in the United States.

Running an indie-scale show with wrestlers from all over the country is not exactly cheap, especially when ROH had longstanding aspirations to be something much bigger than that. Cary Silkin, a Philadelphia ticket broker and longtime fan, became a silent investor early on before eventually buying the company in 2004. By 2011, give or take adding pay-per-views, ROH hadn’t really diversified its revenue streams, and the promotion was still bleeding money. Silkin needed a savior, preferably a major TV company for whom the expenses would be recontextualized as relatively inexpensive production costs. He found one in Sinclair Broadcast Group. Yes, that Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Sinclair’s brand recognition has increased as of late, if not necessarily in the way they might have wanted, but Ring of Honor COO Joe Koff—who has worked in training and development for Sinclair since 2003—told Deadspin that he hasn’t seen it affect the wrestling promotion. “It’s the reason we exist and the way we exist, but we are a totally separate operation unit from any of the stations,” he said. “We are really the wrestling part of the company, and that’s really all we do. The controversy that we provide is created, and hopefully enjoyed. I’m proud to be a part of this company and I think it’s done a good job in its core basics, and what it’s done for Ring of Honor is why we’re having this conversation and why 6,000 people are coming to New Orleans.” He also added that the political content “is not important to me [because] I’m the wrestling guy, I’m not the news guy” and stressed that ROH allowed to run autonomously within SBG.

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In some ways, the live experience at Supercard of Honor on April 7 could have been confused with a major WWE show. While there were initial growing pains under Sinclair—the most visible was shows being shot in standard definition for way too long and the promotion not taking advantage of the parent company’s production resources more broadly—all those issues have long since been corrected. All ROH shows are now in glorious/standard HD with an elaborate entrance set at the end of the arena; many have basic pyrotechnics, and Supercard of Honor even featured special entrances and more elaborate fireworks. There are still reasons to associate ROH with the indie wrestling scene, most notably because of wrestlers with non-exclusive contracts being visible on smaller shows outside of the company, there’s no debating anymore that ROH has been built into a major, national wrestling company.

“It’s certainly a feeling of pride knowing that I had a hand in a lot of this,” longtime ROH star Christopher Daniels—one of just three wrestlers on both ROH’s debut show and Saturday’s card—told Deadspin last week. “Not that my efforts were the make or break for Ring of Honor, but knowing that the hard work you put into a career or certain company pays it forward because Ring of Honor has become synonymous with great professional wrestling. A lot of that has to do with the stuff that we did in the past.”

Daniels, perhaps more than anyone else, also embodies the void that ROH and similar promotions helped fill. After debuting in 1993, he had quickly became the consensus best unsigned wrestler in the country, eventually building up buzz through high-profile indie tournaments and sporadic WWE B-show appearances. And yet WWE didn’t sign him and a flirtation with ECW went nowhere. While he did get a WCW contract, he was barely used and it set back his career a bit. In ROH, though, Daniels was allowed to become the star that everyone knew he could be.

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Since then, ROH has cycled through a number of signature stars: Early on, it was the trio of Daniels, Low-Ki, and Daniel Bryan, who was then wrestling as “American Dragon” Bryan Danielson. That class later made way for Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, CM Punk, Nigel McGuinness, Seth Rollins (as Tyler Black), Davey Richards, Adam Cole, and eventually the current core group of The Bullet Club and, to a lesser extent, Dalton Castle. Every wrestling fan knows these names. They are, and have been for years, the best things about pro wrestling.

But also this is where trying to figure out the genesis of ROH’s current popularity gets complicated. ROH had already been picking up a new audience thanks to its Sinclair-gifted TV footprint, but interest really picked thanks to the Young Bucks—Matt and Nick Jackson—and the Bullet Club members in their direct orbit becoming the hottest non-WWE act in wrestling. It’s not easy to tell how much of this boom owes to ROH and how much belongs to the Bullet Club itself, in large part because of just how big Bullet Club and Bucks are away from and independent of ROH. In the most basic sense, ROH isn’t in Hot Topic retail stores—The Bullet Club and NJPW are. ROH doesn’t have dozens upon dozens of shirt designs at the Pro Wrestling Tees web store, where design space is allocated based on past sales so much as The Young Bucks do. ROH doesn’t have a viral YouTube show, but The Young Bucks sure do.

That identity crisis was front and center at Supercard of Honor, the promotion’s big WrestleMania weekend show. The top two matches on the card were Cody Rhodes vs. Kenny Omega, the big Bullet Club storyline match, and Castle defending the ROH Championship against the Bullet Club’s Marty Scurll, a promising pairing that didn’t have a big storyline hook. Cody-Omega was the match with he buzz, as Omega has become arguably the biggest non-WWE ticket mover in wrestling, but that match didn’t go on last. Castle-Scurll did. With the show running long and the fans having peaked with the emotional rollercoaster of Rhodes/Omega, this felt like a big a mistake. It looked like one, too, in the sense that it sent a noticeable number of fans running for the exits early. But that order also made a certain kind of sense, both because ROH has always stressed the importance of the big title and because Omega isn’t even an ROH wrestler in the first place. Four of the matches on the card featured NJPW stars, including a ROH tag team title match and the Kota Ibushi (Omega’s tag team partner) vs. Adam Page match that was tied into the Rhodes-Omega storyline. NJPW talent is a huge part of ROH’s major shows, to the point that over-reliance on the working agreement is the most common criticism of the American company.

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“I think it will happen naturally,” Koff said of the integration of NJPW wrestlers. “I think it will evolve organically. If there’s a greater need, then it will happen, if there’s a lesser need, then it won’t. I can’t put it into a formula.” As long as the relationship stays strong, he says, he expects the mix to continue regularly, especially now that the usage of NJPW stars has become more story-based and integrated, as it was with Omega.

The Omega and Ibushi vs. Rhodes and Friends storyline is also a bit of a first in major league wrestling in a different sense. There has been a strong implication throughout that Omega and Ibushi, the fan favorite Golden Lovers tag team, are more than just friends. Even setting aside the Lovers’ early days in the DDT promotion, during which they regularly went on dates and kissed, the current story has included beats such as:

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Seemingly out of nowhere, with the Golden Lovers in a top storyline and Dalton Castle as champion, a wrestling company backed by Sinclair has a case as the most LGBT-positive promotion in wrestling. While Castle is also never explicitly said to be gay, pro wrestling is not a subtle form of storytelling and it’s clear what the intention is in presenting a flamboyant, pink-wearing dude who is always accompanied by his shirtless, identical twin houseboys. And while there are certainly stereotypes at work in there, Castle has always been a fan favorite and has never been portrayed as anything less than a kickass wrestler worthy of being champion. But while NJPW and ROH appear to be connecting with LGBT fans on a level that wrestling promotions haven’t before, Koff seemed hesitant to make the connection.

“I’ve been asked about that,” he said. “I see the wrestlers as—I don’t want to say gender-agnostic. I see them for what they do as wrestlers, unless it’s part of the gimmick, [then] it’s a different story. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t pay that much attention to it in life. People are people, and how they live their lives is really a personal choice. I try not to dwell on it.” After I clarified that I was referring to LGBT fans who are excited to see positive representation in wrestling where they haven’t before, Koff responded that this was “actually a very excellent point and a fair point, but I’ll tell you what they’re coming to see: They’re coming to see these guys work and put on an incredible half hour, 20 minutes, seven minutes, 60 minutes of work, where every minute is measured and every minute is done well.” Koff did mention how great Castle’s ring entrance is and how the fans are “welcoming to people like Dalton because they make the show better.” But that was the extent of his answer to the question about LGBT characters in ROH.

After the interview, during the show itself, and while writing this article, something kept sticking out in my mind: I wasn’t surprised that Koff had an answer for questions about over reliance on NJPW talent, because that has become the question that he’s always asked in interviews. I was surprised that he was relatively forthcoming about the controversy surrounding Sinclair. But I couldn’t shake how strange it was that he wouldn’t or couldn’t quite give an answer to what was effectively an alley-oop of a question about LGBT fans’ affinity for NJPW and ROH. Sometimes, saying nothing speaks loudest.

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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