On a warm Saturday night at the Cabarrus Arena in Concord, North Carolina, wrestling fans pour into the venue to watch hours of TV tapings and meet their favorite stars. Peaking from behind the curtain, it looks like a sea of black shirts with “Bullet Club” written on the front. It feels electric. It feels like something special is occurring. It feels like a movement.
Welcome to Ring of Honor.
Backstage, production crews are checking equipment and setting up for the night while wrestlers can be seen shooting promos, moving in and out of the locker room, conversing with each other like it was a reunion of sorts.
One man seems to be all over the place, commanding the room and conducting every facet of what is about to occur. As he checks the camera angles, the seating, the merch table, the health of the talent and talks to the crew, everyone listens like he’s a respected father figure. With his white hair and glasses and a black suit that seems to not have a speck of dust on it, one can see why ROH COO Joe Koff would create this perception. This brand is like his baby.
“It’s a mental checklist that I go through but it’s something I do for every show,” Koff said. “I get in work mode the minute I wake up.”
Having held his position since 2011, Koff will tell you that his expectations have been exceeded. He now has a front row seat while witnessing Ring of Honor become even more mainstream thanks to the focus put on pro wrestling outside of the WWE, their partnership with New Japan and an elite group of their roster taking a stable like Bullet Club to some of the highest realms of pop culture.
Koff’s goal is to continue to expand the ROH brand and get on more properties, to bring them into more countries and to continually provide what he considers the best level and caliber of professional wrestling in America right now and maybe even the world.
“I think we started that way. We were very slow, very deliberate and now we got to this point and the same disciplines are in effect so I expect really good things from us.”
Over the past year and certainly since he joined Bullet Club in May, there is not a more interesting character in pro wrestling than ‘The Villain’ Marty Scurll. His grand entrance is perhaps one of the biggest reasons fans are drawn to the man from Cambridge, England.
Scurll’s ‘Villain’ character wears a leather bird mask, a top hat and a long fur coat with spikes on it and he carries an umbrella on his way to the ring to a chorus of “woop woop” behind his haunting theme and it’s one of the biggest spectacles in the industry. However, traveling through airport security with those type of props can be quite the hassle.
“It’s a nightmare. I completely rib myself by coming out with this entrance gear,” Scurll said. “The thing is now, I like to take my wrestling gear in hand luggage because I used to carry my hats and masks in my suitcase and they would always get squashed and broken so now I have to carry them in a backpack. It’s a nightmare, man. I should’ve just done the whole trunks and boots thing and left it at that.”
Fans can’t seem to get enough of his merchandise either. His “Villain Club” shirt was the top-selling item on ProWrestlingTees last month and the Bullet Club themed umbrella he used at the War of the Worlds PPV in May sold for £2,050. The character is resonating with fans.
“I think the thing with the Villain character is that I’m portraying someone that’s got a chip on his shoulder and proud of who he is and says, ‘I’m not a good person but I’m telling you that from the get go,” Scurll said. “It’s very authentic, very organic and it’s real. Wrestling fans are a lot smarter than they used to be and they see through the fakeness. They see through an act so the Villain character is very true to who I am.”
Scurll presents himself with a sense of bravado and with the confidence that comes with a rise like he has had since joining Ring of Honor. With his sunglasses on top of his slick-backed black hair and groomed goatee and wearing a teal Brian Pillman shirt, black designer jeans and boots, Scurll resembles a young Hollywood heartthrob more than a pro wrestler.
Winning the 2016 Battle of Los Angeles and holding ROH’s TV title are some of his high marks inside the ring but it wasn’t until he debuted in New Japan at Korakeun Hall earlier this year when it started to sink in with him that this was bigger than what he understood.
“Traditionally, Japanese crowds are quiet and timid especially to wrestlers they’ve never seen before but when I came out, the whole crowd was ‘woop wooping’ my entrance, which blew my mind. I was like, ‘Oh my God. People know who I am? This is crazy.’ It just shows how small the world is now and how easily accessible wrestling is with ROH being on the FITE app and everything else. Fans across the world can see me wrestle at the tip of a finger. “
It has been nearly a year since Scurll signed with ROH. According to Koff, the company was doing British shows and identified him as a potential star and was very aggressive in bringing him and Will Ospreay in at the time. Koff also doesn’t hesitate in expressing his belief that Scurll is a great spirit in the locker room and exceptional in the way he promotes, speaks and performs in the ring.
When Scurll signed with the company, he knew the standard was high and would provide the creative freedom that almost all performers crave for when trying to get themselves over with an audience.
“I’m having a great time with Ring of Honor. What’s really great at ROH is the talent and the passion amongst the locker room,” Scurll said. “We want to provide an alternative product and give fans something they can be proud of to watch and not be embarrassed about and just make wrestling fun again. “
There’s little doubt in the fact that pro wrestling is “fun” again. Bullet Club is hugely responsible for rejuvenating the industry and a new generation of fans in and out of the ring. With The Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, Hangman Page and Scurll mastering the art of self-promotion as well as comedy on the YouTube show, “Being The Elite,” it helps launch the group and the company into a more mainstream light.
“Bullet Club is about as mainstream as you can get. We have the deal with Hot Topic and you can’t go anywhere without seeing Bullet Club shirts. It’s a life of its own,” Scurll said. “It’s real and authentic and people have that with Bullet Club. They see our friendship with myself, Cody, Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks and those guys and they think it’s cool because it is cool. We’re just a bunch of guys trying to revolutionize the wrestling business and I think people appreciate that. I fully expect it to go onwards and upwards and continue to grow.”
About 90 minutes before the show starts, two separate and enormous lines of fans gather in front of two tables while anxiously awaiting the arrival of ROH World Champion Cody Rhodes and his two Bullet Club cohorts, ROH Tag Team champions, The Young Bucks for the night’s meet and greet.
It has been less than two months since Rhodes fulfilled his dream of winning a world title to help further his family’s legacy. He’s now at the top of the mountain after chasing the moment his entire career and he appears to welcome the responsibilities that come with holding that title.
While The Young Bucks wear tank tops and shorts, Rhodes opts for the more dashing look with a navy blue slacks, navy vest, a white button-up with the sleeves rolled up and a red tie to boot. He cradles the world title like a football and gives off the impression that if Clark Gable were ever world champ, it would probably look something like this.
“I love fans but I get very trepidatious about the signings because what if nobody shows up?,” Rhodes asked. “I’ve been blessed and lucky that it hasn’t happened but I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. But it’s part of the culture of these events. It’s not just a guaranteed wrestling show. It’s a guaranteed interaction. I think a lot of people come to these for the interaction. I usually have a cup of coffee right before I go out and I love wrestling obviously but this is some of the most fun ever.”
Rhodes shouldn’t worry about fans not showing up. The line to meet “The American Nightmare” was so long that it bled into the beginning of the show and they had to put a halt to it and tell the fans to come back during intermission to get their chance to talk to the champion, get his signed 8×10, throw up the “Too Sweet” with him and take a picture holding the title. The same title he puts on top of his bedroom dresser to escape his huskie Pharaoh’s hair and jurisdiction.
Now in the back of the arena, Rhodes has plenty of time to kill. There’s about four hours worth of TV tapings tonight and he doesn’t go on until the main event. He plays on his phone before briefly stopping to film a short scene for “Being The Elite” as Matt and Nick Jackson [Young Bucks] can be seen laughing while filming him with their phones. Rhodes is energized.
“The other day, me and my wife went on a vacation. Thanks to ROH, it was the first two weeks I’ve ever had off so this was my first true vacation and I said, ‘If you can’t take it when I’m the champ, we’re never going to take it?” Rhodes said. “We worked this long for it. Let’s do it. I’ve caught myself a few times walking around the house and saying silly stuff to her that I kind of half mean about how I’m the world champ, signing things that aren’t autographs like legal stuff.”
When he made the jump in 2016 to become a free agent to work the independent scene and Ring of Honor, he did so with winning a world title in mind. His stock has never been higher. His merch sales have never been better and his world title win at Best in the World was celebrated all across the industry.
“I’m trying to enjoy it as much as I can because I know in wrestling, you get yo-yoed. The high is the high and the low is the low and because of my prior experience, I’m terrified of the low,” Rhodes said. “The low may never happen. This run may go for a minute but I’m terrified it will happen any second so I’m just going to have fun with it.”
It’s unusual to see a company’s top guy still be a free agent and travel the independent scene taking on the industry’s best talent around the world. However, it brings back memories of the territory days where champions would go to different promotions to compete.
“Cody is a great champion. He comes from a legendary family where when most people talk about the family business, their family business was wrestling. He brings in a tremendous work ethic and I think he carries the mantle really well,” Koff said.
“He’s got a bit of that independent thing going, which I don’t really love and hopefully he’ll come to his senses soon and say, ‘This is where I need to be.’ I think when we cross that threshold, I’ll really feel he’s 1,000 percent Ring of Honor. Not that I think he’s any less because when he represents us publicly, privately, no matter where he is, he’ll always be known as the Ring of Honor champion but I like to be a little bit selfish and have him all to myself.”
Koff’s desire is understandable. He has struck gold in a talent like Cody who is putting on great shows night after night, has a legendary name and mass appeal to fans around the world and most importantly, he wants to be there and his goals align with Koff’s in terms of growing the brand to untapped levels.
“My wife brought up a good point the other day, she goes ‘I bet these people [Sinclair] love you because you’re not going anywhere where as everyone else may not say they’re going somewhere but they may have those WWE aspirations,” Rhodes said. “That’s great but for me, this isn’t a play to get back. This is just a play for me and I think that helps me a lot in the locker room. My focus is on making ROH the best it can possibly be and make what I do in ROH the coolest thing you see that night.”
When pressed on his ultimate goals, Rhodes’ aspirations exude passion and spotlight his incredible ability to properly assess the pro wrestling industry and the potential with the current landscape of things.
“WWE and NXT have put a huge spotlight on Ring of Honor whether they meant to or not,” Rhodes said. “But by essentially taking all of Ring of Honor’s stars and propelling them to the top, people tend to look at this and the partnership with New Japan being exclusive to ROH.
I think me and the Bucks really want to see where we can get this place, how far we can go, crowds that were 400-600, let’s see if we can get those crowds to 1,000-1,500 or places that are huge and drawing 4,000 let’s see if we can get them to 8,000. Realistic goals have been set and I’d like to hit them all while I have the title.”
In July, fresh off his world title win, Cody was chosen to main event New Japan’s first U.S. show, the G1 Special in Long Beach, California, in a bout against IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada. That was quite the endorsement but probably the only crowd who didn’t rally behind him and he eventually lost to Okada.
“I hate Long Beach. I was in Lowell, Massachusetts and I was the hero of the entire town and my life was fulfilled and then eight days later, I walk into Long Beach and got booed out of the building,” Rhodes laughed. “And a guy in ‘The American Nightmare’ shirt was flipping me off in the front row while wearing my shirt and then I almost tripped on my own cape, which was the first night I wore it so I was legitimately rattled. He [Okada] hit me with that Rainmaker and I can only equate to getting hit with a record-sized catfish in the face. Just so glad it was over.”
Regardless of any titles or wins or five-star matches, Rhodes’ decision to join Bullet Club has made him a rock star at this point. With his wit, charisma and knack to blend in and out of the roles of comedian, professional and antagonist, he’s now a figurehead for the group’s most successful period of existence.
“Right around the time I joined Bullet Club, there was a lot of ‘Oh Bullet Club is dead,’ Rhodes said. “As people were saying that, Kenny Omega is having the greatest match of all-time, Hot Topic deals are being signed, it really has gone to a mainstream level, the addition of Marty Scurll, he’s got a deal with Topman Suits, there’s a lot of rumbling about Pop! Funkos in 2018 so it only gets better because I didn’t want to be part of Bullet Club when it completely imploded.”
When Hot Topic makes a deal to sell Bullet Club shirts all around the United States and Canada, that’s a huge indication of the reach, these guys have and how superb The Young Bucks’ efforts have been in revolutionizing the industry and promoting. “My mom hates wrestling so she now thinks I’m famous because I have shirts in the mall. Thanks, mom,” Rhodes said.
The 26-year old Bullet Club member and former high school teacher Adam “Hangman” Page expressed his belief on how the Hot Topic deal originated.
“I think the whole Hot Topic thing came about when the guys who owned Hot Topic or whatever, went to WrestleMania and everyone was wearing Bullet Club shirts and I imagine they went to WWE and asked them, ‘Who are these Bullet Club guys? We got to get some of those shirts in [laughs]’ and they probably told them to eff off or whatever and here we are,” Page said.
“We’re loading up Hot Topic with about every Bullet Club shirt there is. It’s cool as hell. I never thought that would be a thing for me especially at this level. These guys aren’t slaves to the machine. They’re doing their own thing so to reach that level is great for us and it’s great for everyone, really.”
Page, a tough up and comer known for his physical style and carrying a rope to the ring, is probably the most excited member of Bullet Club regarding the t-shirt deal and growth in popularity.
“That’s nuts for me,” Page said. “When I was a little kid, we’d go to the mall and that’s the place I wanted to go, Hot Topic, because it had all of the Led Zeppelin t-shirts and all of the weird stuff I wasn’t supposed to look at as a kid. To know that my likeness and insignia is going to be on one of those shirts up on the wall and people will come in and ask for that and pull it down and buy it around the country or wherever, to me that’s nuts. It’s one of the upsides of being part of Bullet Club.”
With his family in town for the show, Page was really hoping someone brought deviled eggs from home. It’s the simple things you come to miss when you live the life of a wrestler so any comfort and familiarity are always welcomed and sought after.
Life has changed a lot for Page since he joined Bullet Club last year. Joining Bullet Club was the biggest step of his career. It afforded him the chance to wrestle in Japan and the opportunity to work with experienced guys in Bullet Club who have taken him under their wing. Page says that he has grown more as a wrestler this year than he has in all of his previous years combined. It’s all to prepare him.
“It’s kind of obvious that although I’ve been a part of Bullet Club, I’ve been a bit in the background,” Page said. “I think it has given me room to grow and get better as a wrestler so when the time comes for a bigger position, I’ll be more than ready.”
“Hangman” signed with Ring of Honor nearly four years and has yet to win a title of any kind but he has a chance to change that in Scotland on Sunday as he and the Bucks compete against Dalton Castle and The Boys fir six-man tag titles. For Page, this is really big opportunity he has coveted.
But more than anything, Page is just focused on keeping the momentum going and enjoying the ride Bullet Club is on, delivering laughs and delivering clotheslines on “Being The Elite.”
“Doing that stuff is cool. It gets me back to what I really love about wrestling,” Page said. “When I started wrestling I was just a kid. I was still in high school and I wasn’t doing it for money or a career. It was just something I did because I loved it and it was fun. Doing stuff with the Bucks and everybody takes you back. You’re just standing there and shooting stuff with a phone and it’s silly stuff but it’s just a bunch of friends goofing around and that’s something I think gets lost and it’s good to kind of go back to that.”
Fans have long since glorified the 90s as a moment of time try and recapture out of some sense of nostalgia or perhaps even a bit of revisionist history. But the time is now. There is a boom occurring. There’s no longer one game in town.
Ring of Honor and Bullet Club along with their partnership with New Japan, are delivering a product that feels like punk rock. It’s fun again. It feels like they’re including you in this climb and taking you along for the ride and Koff understands the need to keep pushing and keep raising the bar.
“I think we continue to astound, to amaze and just keep developing talent and storylines that matter and relevance in the business and I think that’s the expectations the fans have,” Koff said. “What are you going to do for me this year that you didn’t do for me last year?’ And I’ll tell you this, since we took over, our first show was in September of 2011, there has not been a year gone by where there hasn’t been some major surprise from Ring of Honor. While I’m not tipping my hat, we still have five months left this year and I expect there to be at least one more.”
After four hours of matches, the clock shows it is now past midnight but no one has left their seat yet. Nobody wants the fun to stop. No one wants to say goodbye.
This is Ring of Honor.
Joshua Caudill is a writer for CraveOnline, a hockey fanatic, a pro wrestling connoisseur and an expert on all things Patrick Swayze. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshuaCaudill85 or “like” CraveOnline Sports on Facebook.
Photos BY DEVIN CHEN