Inside the Ropes’ Senior Writer Liam Alexander-Stewart spoke with Ring of Honor COO Joe Koff ahead of Sunday’s Best in the World PPV Event which sees the return of crowds to Ring of Honor for the first time in over 17 months.
During an exclusive interview with Liam Alexander-Stewart, Koff would also discuss; Ring of Honor’s relationship with talent and staff, their dedication to ensuring performer safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, who Koff sees as future stars within the company and the approach ROH has taken to talent recruitment in recent years.
Photograph Credit: Old Abbot Photography
Best in the World is coming up Sunday, July 11th. The main talking point is the return of fans to live attendance for the first time since February 2020 Just how excited are you to see fans back in Ring of Honor and how important is it for staff and talent alike to see the fans return?
“It’s incredibly exciting. It’s the first crowd in nearly 18 months and we’re very, very excited about it.
We’re cautious, as always. I think one of the things I’m most proud of with Ring of Honor through this whole pandemic and covid period is the responsibility we have shown throughout as far as the safety and well-being and the health of all people involved with Ring of Honor.
So even going into Sunday’s Best in the World, which has a great crowd, all the tickets that we put out were sold. It’s still measured in that regard and that it’s still a controlled crowd. We’re still working under the auspices of the Maryland State Athletic Commission and this was prior to all of the covid freedoms that we’re now starting to experience more of.
We’ve decided on the side of safety and caution to go with that initial plan, which is separations and stuff like that. So we’re very, very excited, the guys are thrilled, although I will say this, I think we’ve done an amazing job without crowds.
I think the television has been spectacular. I think the shifts and the resets that we have done using our own library and the way we utilize social media to keep our presence present has really been something I’m really proud of as well, but there will definitely be an air of excitement in the arena on Sunday night.”
You talked a little bit about Ring of Honors covid procedures over the past year and a half, one thing that ROH must be applauded for is their success when it comes to protecting staff, talent and fans from the virus. What is it that Ring of Honor did differently than many other of the major promotions that helped ensure this? Do you think ROH simply had a different attitude than elsewhere or do you think there is more to it?
“I think we operate under different business plans and it really comes down to how our businesses are structured. There are rights deals involved with the other promotions, some of the other promotions which, you know, they have a commitment to provide live programming, they are weekly live, and they have commitments.
I think that all of us as an industry did a fairly good job in protecting the talent. For Ring of Honor, especially for me. I mean, I remember when that decision was made Liam in March, 16 months ago, 15 months ago and I really, you know, in the scheme of things, wrestling to me was just so small compared to what was happening globally and what was happening in the United States and all the talent that was in New Orleans, ready to ready to do their big show.
I needed to get them home. We have wrestlers from Scotland, we wrestlers from England, we have wrestlers from Australia. Nobody really knew what was going on. I knew it wasn’t going to be good, at least in the short run. I didn’t I had no idea it would last as long as it did. My first feeling was for the people that are involved and for them to be with their families and home and safe and not stranded and not being worried about getting to someplace that maybe they could get back into.
So it really wasn’t a hard decision for us. The company or our company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, has really been a leader in the way it’s handled covid through the period. So we just really followed along with that had their blessing and it was the right thing to do. As I said, health, safety, morale, people’s families really took a higher than the wrestling itself for us.”
You mentioned your relationship and dedication to the Ring of Honor roster, one thing many people have noticed regarding ROH is the improved capabilities of the promotion to hold on to its talent. In years gone past we have seen many of Ring of Honor’s top stars leave for other promotions however we are now seeing talent really settle down and call ROH their home, what do you attribute this change to and what does ROH do to help ensure their talent stay with the company for the future?
“Last year was an interesting year. It’s always going to be an anomaly here. We’re going to have to asterisk it. We’re going to have to put it in parenthesis at some point.
Ring of Honor has always been home to great talent and our talent really wrestles to the brand and the brand’s style and over the years, you went through the history of Ring of Honor. You watched all of the people who have left Ring of Honor and gone to other promotions. I don’t want you to think for a second it’s going to stop because of covid. It’s not and we expect that.
We also have an incredible depth of people who want to wrestle in Ring of Honor. They understand that it is a stepping stone to other great promotions if they want to go there or as The Briscoes and people like Jay Lethal have found out, superstars like that, it’s a wonderful place to call home and home is where the heart is Liam and if their heart is here, then this is their home.
I think that the way that we deal with the business and especially on the schedules that we run and the way we just handle everything I make, it’s very attractive to some talent and for those who want to go forward and go, go on, I thank them for the time I always have, no regrets about any of that. It’s just part of who we are as a company.”
You mentioned the loyalty of the Ring of Honor talent and that they really find their home with ROH, to tie back in with Best in the World on Sunday, what do you think ROH does that has allowed the brand to really cultivate a passionate, loyal and dedicated fan base that has stuck with the company for over fifteen years through many large changes, shifts and resets?
“I think it’s the integrity of the promotion. I think it’s the authenticity of the promotion. I think it’s the artistry of the promotion and I think it’s the belief that what we do and how we do it is something that’s worth following. You know, there’s no style of wrestling that’s out there that I think really is like a Ring of Honor.
When we started the pure tournament, which was born out of COVID, which was resurrected out of college, it was born out of COVID, we just saw that there was a style of wrestling and a fan appreciation that was different. We did it out of necessity because that’s what we were faced with but out of necessity comes great innovation and the one thing about Ring of Honor is we are always innovating and never imitating. I think that has existed from the beginning. It’s always been a promotion that has pushed the professional athletes expectation to the fans, the fans expectation to the athlete and together it makes this wonderful moment which I think is it’s hard to explain, but people realize that when they’re part of it and we’re a promotion, that people can be a part of it.
We’re very, very approachable. We really do care what the fans have to say. I mean, Choose Your Honor, is a classic example. A lot of the matches that you see on our program and a lot of the storylines actually come from the fans because, look, without the fans, you have nothing.
We are challenged by that. But you know what? Yes, there’s a lot of people that go from here to here and there’s still a lot of people hard for me to believe this, but I don’t even know about Ring of Honor or in wrestling or familiar with it. But the wrestlers know about it. And that’s where the respect level really it’s a different level.
Wrestlers know about Ring of Honor. They can look at the pedigrees of the champions in other promotions and know that there was a journey stop in Ring of Honor and it’s probably in Ring of Honor where they honed their skills, honed their ability, honed their personality and we play a part in all of that.”
I think that shows an incredible testament to yourself and Ring of Honor’s dedication to the fans and to the ROH talent, you discussed briefly ROH’s history with performers developing within the brand and moving on elsewhere. Ring of Honor has always excelled at identifying and bringing through new talent when this occurs, was is the ROH scouting process like and how difficult has it been during COVID to continue identifying and recruiting potential stars?
“Well, you know, it’s never been a problem because organically we have always attracted top talent. Now, in the past, we’ve had wrestling schools or wrestling tryouts and auditions where we would see many of the people that are starring in major promotions actually came out of that.
In the last couple of years, especially pre covid, let’s put it in the parentheses, we started developing our own talent through our own dojo system and those stars, the Dak Drapers, The Brian Johnson’s and S.O.S, the tag team, Quinn McKay, those people are going to be major, major stars in the future, whether they’re with Ring of Honor or not, we always hope that they will be.
But if you’re a broadcaster, you’re a podcaster you do what’s best for yourself, what’s best for your family and I can never get in the way of that. But we treat it seriously. We respect them beyond belief. Very few promotions that can give the exposure that Ring of Honor has outside of the other two major promotions that have network deal. But Ring of Honor is seen in almost all of the country, seen in the U.K., it’s seen in India, it’s seen in a lot of places that have ended up it’s seen in a lot of places that expose talent.
So I still think that if you want to hone your talent and hone your skill and become somewhat of a potentially major player, Ring of Honor is still the place to come to because of the way they respected, the way we’re treated, the way we treat them, the way the fans treat them.
It’s a great opportunity for any talent. So I don’t think there’s any shortage of talent that would come into Ring of Honor and a lot of our people a lot of our own guys will say, hey, you should look at this guy or let’s bring in this guy and let’s see this guy because they know they’re seeing the talent, they’re wrestling, the talent they’re going into shows we’ve always had wide open eyes for future talent, always from the very beginning.”
To tie in the discussion of Ring of Honour’s incredible talent acquisition with Sunday’s Best in the World event, the ‘Forbidden Door’ has been broken down in wrestling recently is there a chance fans might see some unexpected faces at Best in the World?
“Well, if you’re not a Ring of Honor fan, you’re probably going to see some unexpected. So let’s say that, I don’t think you’ll see unexpected faces, perhaps, if that’s what you’re kind of angling for.
I think what you’ll see is amazing wrestling and that show [Best in the World] is always had changes and there have always been surprises like you say, you know, it’s very interesting when you talk to someone like me, I really don’t know. I don’t know exactly what to expect.
I like to go to big shows as a fan, and I like to watch it for the first time as everyone is watching it, because that’s the real experience and Ring of Honor is such an experiential promotion and having the crowd back and having the chanting. That’s the one thing I missed in all of these 18 months is the spontaneity of that chanting.
Because if you’ve been to our shows, you know that that doesn’t happen unless somebody’s expectation has been met and exceeded. It’s not a script. No one standing around going to chant at a sign that says this is wrestling chant. This happens because the fan has been pleased with what they’re seeing and I can’t wait to hear that first chant. It was that first chant almost 11 years ago that made me believe that Ring of Honor was the right promotion for our company and for me to run. And I can’t wait to hear that chant again. It just I get goosebumps thinking about it.”
We have talked about the return of fans at Best in the World, the incredible talent on show, to wrap things up if you were giving the sales pitch to a fan who maybe hasn’t seen a lot of Ring of Honor recently what would you tell them to expect on Sunday at Best in the World and what are you most excited about as a fan?
“I get that question a lot, and I actually really like that question because when you come to if you’re not familiar with Ring of Honor, when you’re watching it, all of a sudden you realize there’s something different happening and it’s really the competition in the ring.
Because one of the things that I think we have set ourselves apart on is that we let our wrestlers, our athletes, that we consider the gifted athletes. We’re not sports entertainment, we’re an entertaining sport and I think watching them tell the story, watching their design of how that match is going to take place, if you’re a wrestling fan, it may not be like hitting you on the head with the like a pan. But if you’re a wrestling fan, you’re going to say something’s different here and it’s going to be very hard to put your finger on what that difference is. But you’re going to be pleased with it and you’re going to say, I like that. Then you might start watching more of the matches.
I mean, what you see guys like Mike Bennett and Jonathan Gresham in the pure championship, these are two gifted athletes and Jonathan Gresham is a master of the technique and Mike Bennett is really capable and able to match that level. When you see our World Championship between Bandido vs Rush, I mean, you could be seeing two international superstars battling it out for a very coveted title.
Then when you start seeing some of Dragon Lee vs, Tony Depen, and then you have the six men with Dalton Castle and Zak Draper, who I mentioned that Eli Isom. I mean, these are terrific young talent. You’re watching the current, you’re watching the future and you’re watching amazing, amazing wrestling and that’s what the fans expect. So come in with an open mind if you’re not familiar with it and just know that the stars that you’re watching wrestle on Sunday night or whenever you choose to watch it are going to be names that you’re going to be hearing about in wrestling that’s way past Sunday nights and the broadcast and so come try it, enjoy it and let me know how you feel about it.”