By Chuck Carroll

When you think about the landscape of professional wrestling, there is WWE, and then there is everyone else. But the thing is, everyone else also knows it. As such, those brands have the opportunity to play to smaller, niche audiences whose loyalty is unrivaled and knows no bounds. These promotions are filling a void for wrestling fans seeking an alternative to homogenized, heavily produced and scripted content.

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For the past 15 years, no company has been able to plug that hole better than Ring of Honor. For diehard fans left out in the cold after the original ECW folded in 2001, the small promotion was like a Phoenix rising from the ashes. They latched on and have been witnessing the future of wrestling ever since. The promotion’s reputation for unparalleled matches and an elite-caliber locker room eventually drew the eye of WWE.

AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Samoa Joe, Cesaro, Seth Rollins, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan… these are just a few of the names whose talents were groomed in an ROH ring. And after a decade and a half, the wealth of talent still remains plentiful.

The promotion is still full of surprises, which is something ROH COO Joe Koff is proudest of. It’s no easy feat to keep secrets in the age of dirt sheets and podcasts. Yet, last week ROH stunned not only its fans, but captured the attention of the entire wrestling community, when the Hardy Boyz captured the tag team titles in New York. And in a 1-2 punch, Bully Ray also shockingly hit the ring in front of his hometown fans who blew the roof off the Hammerstein Ballroom.

On Friday, the promotion undoubtedly has more surprises in store for its 15th Anniversary Show on pay-per-view. The Hardyz will defend the ROH Tag Team Title against the Young Bucks and Roppongi Vice, while Bully Ray teams with The Briscoes to face War Machine and Davey Boy Smith Jr.

The main event storyline has the potential to rival the classic movie, Rudy. Christopher Daniels was with ROH in the beginning and became one of the most popular faces in the franchise. He became a household name after a successful run in Impact Wrestling and in international promotions. Now back in ROH, the veteran has a title shot against Adam Cole, a popular young star and Bullet Club member. A win for Daniels seems appropriate on the Anniversary Show, but then again, ROH is full of surprises.

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I had an opportunity to visit with Joe Koff at his office inside Ring of Honor headquarters in Baltimore. With classic wrestling posters and memorabilia hanging on the walls and the Ring of Honor title belts sitting just to our left, we talked about everything from the company’s humble beginnings to becoming what is arguably the second-largest wrestling promotion in the country. And, of course, the surprises along the way…

How did the deal with the Hardy Boyz come to fruition? And how long can we expect to see them in ROH?

The Hardyz was [an] almost serendipitous situation. We obviously had them booked for Lakeland on April 1st. At the time we set that up, they were under employment with Impact Wrestling. So, there were really no further matches involved in that other than some promos and videos promoting the match. When they chose not to renew with Impact, we saw an opportunity. They said they’d like to work a program with us leading up to the Lakeland show. And that’s how it happened, it was really that quick.

We don’t really discuss terms, but they are with us for the immediate future. They want to keep their options open. We always respect that when we have stars of that magnitude or anyone we’re interested in doing a program with.

What about Bully Ray? When was that decision made?

Actually, that came like most situations. There were some conversations with creative, and he was available. We told him what we had in mind and how he would fit in his role in Ring of Honor. He made the decision [that] this is where he wanted to be.

It was very flattering in both cases, because when talent wants to come to your organization, it says a lot about your organization. To be able to have the caliber of talent like the Hardyz for as long as we have them and Bully Ray for his contract period, the fans are benefactors, our locker room are benefactors. It all works for everyone.

How long had ROH had its eyes on Bully Ray?

Well, opportunity makes itself. He was interested in a longer-term deal.

Talk to me about your feelings heading into the 15th Anniversary Show.

After Saturday Night Manhattan Mayhem, which was probably one of the most magical wrestling show I’ve been a part of — I say that about almost every Ring of Honor show I go to — this was just a special show. Lots of things happened. The thing I’m most proud of, aside from the incredible work that we put out, is that we were still able to surprise. In 2017, we still can surprise, and we can still engage the fan in a different way. That’s a credit to our organization.

All media is shifting online. Does ROH have any interest in building an over-the-top streaming service like the WWE Network?

We are kind of doing it on a smaller basis already. Through our website we have a ringside membership that allows for viewing from the free area. It’s not as robust, and it’s certainly not as in-depth as WWE. But WWE is a 30-year overnight success. They produce a lot more content. They’re producing four to six hour of live TV content a week. They’re good at it, and they did it the right way, like they do everything.

I will never be their competition. I will be in their space, and Ring of Honor will do what Ring of Honor does. And I’m not going to be swayed by what they do or anyone else does. We are true to our brand. That is what kept us going and will allow us to grow.

What about expanding beyond the core ROH fanbase and trying to attract more families to the shows?

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I would like to be able to expand beyond that, and we’re starting to do that with people like Dalton Castle. We’re starting to see more families and young kids.

But for the most part Ring of Honor is the aficionado’s promotion. If you want to see wrestling and if you want to see the most amazing artistry, integrity of the craft and the art, there is no promotion that out-wrestles Ring of Honor…

Whereas (WWE) calls themselves sports entertainment we call ourselves an entertaining sport. That’s one of the differentiators. An average match of ours is 20 minutes with 17 in the ring. Maybe five will be in the ring from the other side. But those guys are good on the mics. They understand their brand, and they understand what they do. We’re a wrestling brand.

WWE surveyed fans about content they’d like to see on the WWE Network, and Ring of Honor was one of the options listed. Were there ever any discussions about adding ROH shows to their platform?

No. No, no, no. It’s very flattering and humbling to us. It validates what we’ve done. But let’s face it, a lot of their current competitors are ROH guys, and we have their history. So maybe the content of the backstories of Kevin Steen before he became Kevin Owens or AJ Styles’ run in Ring of Honor. Tyler Black, Claudio (Castagnoli aka Cesaro), Tyler Black (aka Seth Rollins). We have their backstory and where it began. I would think that an over-the-top subscriber is someone who is so into wrestling. The churn subscriber is going to get it for WrestleMania for free, and when their time is up, they might leave it.

But the aficionado wants the backstory and history. They want to sit and watch the old matches with Samoa Joe and AJ Styles which we can provide. Really, when you look at the promotions together, the new crop of WWE is really coming from, not only their developmental program, but a lot [from] us.

What are the goals for growing internationally? You’re already partnering with New Japan.

Domestically, we’ve all kind of hit our mark. There’s a little bit of growth still, because if you stop growing, you stop living. It’s in the global market… I’m trying to get maybe into the sub-Sahara and India and places like that. We’re on the Fite Network. We have a clearance in Portugal. We’re in talks with two or three other countries.

Christopher Daniels is someone who was there for Day 1. He’s had a successful career, but never won the ROH World Title. He has a shot in Las Vegas. Give me your impression of The Fallen Angel.

When we first bought Ring of Honor, he was on the opening card. I remember him coming up to me and being as polite and professional as he could be and saying, “I have this opportunity, and I’m sorry I’m not going to be able to stay.” That’s not a problem for me. People need to take care of themselves and their families. If this is the best opportunity for them, why shouldn’t they take it?

When Chris wanted to come back, he was welcomed with open arms. And that’s the same with all of my ex-guys. There’s not any grudges or malice. They went to try what they wanted to try and for some of them, they’ll probably never come back to Ring of Honor. And that’s because it’s good that they’ll never come back.

Does he deserve that shot? Yes, he deserves that shot. Will he earn it? I don’t know. I really don’t know that. I stay out of that. I’m not in the wrestling business … I’m in business. And my business unit is wrestling. I don’t manage this company any differently than I manage other companies. I have people that I entrust to do their jobs. While I like to know what’s going on, I’m not dictating what’s going on. That’s a danger.

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Other promotions are built around a handful of guys. Is Adam Cole someone you can build ROH around?

If we tried to build a brand around any one particular guy, that guy would end up being just what they are. Why Adam Cole is so special — and all of my guys, I don’t want anyone to think I don’t think the same about them — he is a student of this business. This is his passion. This is what he does. This is what he studies. This is what he believes in…

Do I think he’s the face of the brand? I don’t. There are five or 10 other guys who, to me, have equal faces in that brand. That’s not what we do, we don’t elevate people to that level. When you see the 15th Anniversary and you see The Briscoes still wrestling… if anyone should be faces of the brand, maybe it should be them. But they don’t play that role either. And that’s important. It’s part of our fabric.

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When the 20th Anniversary Show rolls around in five years, where will ROH be?

I don’t like to look that far ahead… It’s an ever-changing business. The landscapes are changing really quickly, the technology is changing the landscape of the business. The Internet has changed the way we do our business.

If we’re talking about our 20th and 21st anniversary shows, it will be Ring of Honor six years more mature and six years better.

Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.

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Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.