Since the company's earliest moments, Ring of Honor has been a breeding ground for some of the biggest stars in wrestling over the last two decades. A list of ROH world champions reads like a WrestleMania card most wrestling fans would salivate over: Samoa Joe, CM Punk, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Daniel Bryan, Austin Aries, Roderick Strong, Nigel McGuiness and the latest in that lineage, Adam Cole. That list just scratches the surface of the sheer volume of talent that has starred for ROH.
Each of those stars prior to Cole eventually stepped out and moved on, making way for the next generation of rabid hopefuls looking to add their names to the echelons of ROH history. The latest batch of departures -- whether to WWE, elsewhere or parts unknown -- included Kyle O'Reilly, Michael Elgin, Donovan Dijak and Keith Lee, among others. These departures triggered a familiar response from ROH fans across the spectrum: a tendency to panic about the long-term future of the company.
But after the events at Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom on Saturday night, when Matt Hardy and Jeff Hardy appeared out of the darkness, challenged the Young Bucks and successfully won the ROH world tag team championship, a few things became clear. Not only is ROH not in panic mode, but the company has positioned itself to retain the services of the hottest free-agent wrestling act in the business.
"I think what you witnessed is the specialness of Ring of Honor and our ability to connect and to engage and to be in the moment," said ROH COO Joe Koff during a phone call with ESPN on Sunday afternoon. "I think Saturday night was a great example of that. I think there were just a lot of things that fell into place the right way."
The Hardys' appearance, in and of itself, was not a shocking development. Before they officially departed their longtime home at Impact Wrestling (formerly TNA), the two organizations had come to terms on an agreement for a Hardys vs. Young Bucks match in Lakeland, Florida, for ROH during WrestleMania weekend. Just days after their shocking move to free agency, they showed up unannounced and set the world of wrestling alight.
While exact terms of the agreement are unavailable, Koff revealed a few more details as to how this arrangement with the new ROH tag team champion will work.
"It's time-based," said Koff. "It's something that they wanted, it's something that we wanted, and it just worked out perfectly. We're very excited to have them. Obviously, as you can see by the reaction, I think the fans are reacting to that very favorably. ... I think timing had a lot to do with this, as far as last night and being part of Ring of Honor for the next set of weeks or months, whatever it ends up being."
The fact that this ROH debut and arrangement, along with the debut later in the night of another Impact Wrestling and longtime WWE standout, Bully Ray, weren't leaked to anyone, was a coup and a feather in the cap for ROH, in an era when seemingly everything is leaked early on the internet.
"[That's] the other thing that I was really, really proud of, and I think it's something we as a company do well because we believe in it -- this continued element of surprise," said Koff. "For it not to get out, for it not to be spoiled, that's a lot of respect shown by those inside of the organization."
Crazy weekend aside, Koff was similarly enthusiastic when he sat down for an extended interview with ESPN.com a week ago to discuss the state of ROH.
"We're very deliberate and focused in on what we do," Koff said. "As I look back at the year that's passed, I think about all of the things that we have done, and what I'm most proud of. When Sinclair [Broadcast Group] bought Ring of Honor back in 2011, the one thing we knew is we were buying an unbelievable brand with a very solid core -- the core being the talent who wrestles for it, the veracity and the passion of the fans, and the style of wrestling. It's always been my goal from day one of ownership to preserve that core.
"We have taken this brand, in the eyes of the fans, from an independent promotion to part of the wrestling narrative, and I can't think of anything more complimentary than that," Koff said. "I think it's a compliment to all the hard work that's been done by all of the constituents of Ring of Honor. We're healthy, and it's because we continue to expand our brand, we continue to grow our brand, and we continue to enhance our brand."
In a business like wrestling where things are so heavy on top with WWE, a lot of ROH's success can be attributed to creativity and a commitment to slow, steady growth. One of the most fruitful developments over the last few years has been a partnership with New Japan Pro Wrestling; stars have crossed over in both directions for major one-off matches and short-term storylines.
"Their style of wrestling is very much like a Ring of Honor style of wrestling. Their talent works well with our talent and vice versa, because the focus is basically the same," Koff said. "It's about artistry, integrity and the seriousness of their craft. They are superb athletes, and providing a platform in Japan and in America for both promotions has made this relationship so sound. The real success of it really comes from the work ethics and the understanding of what both promotions are -- we are each true to our own brand, and true to ourselves."
There has also been a landscape-shifting partnership with the FITE streaming app, which offers another way to watch ROH and a wide range of wrestling companies and other fighting sports both live and on demand. While the wrestling business is seemingly moving in the direction of using major streaming services -- some are company-specific, and others encompass vast swaths of independent wrestling -- ROH sees this as another of many options to allow their fans to watch the product.
"We're developing other ways to distribute in an over-the-top platform," Koff said. "Our company [Sinclair] is in the middle of developing that on a companywide basis, and Ring of Honor would probably be the centerpiece."
As an entity under the Sinclair banner, ROH is broadcast to almost all the major television markets throughout the United States, either through local syndication or the Comet network
"I am very proud of our relationship with Comet, which is a Sinclair-owned co-venture with MGM, but a national cable clearance where we can present the product at one time to whatever audience wants it on that appointment level [is the next step]," said Koff.
The shifting landscape of streaming services and the presentation of wrestling content in general have caused some uncomfortable situations of late for the wrestlers -- most visibly when some competitors in the WWE's U.K. Championship Tournament were pulled out of previously scheduled bookings. While no issues regarding conflicts have been specifically cited surrounding ROH, the FITE app or other entities -- beyond preventing contracted wrestlers from performing for other companies who have pay-per-view events on competing streaming services -- there has been speculation that the potential for a future conflict was one of several factors in play for some recent departures.
No matter the reasons, Koff and ROH in general have not been fazed by losing a handful of high-level performers.
"The talent departures in our business, I think it's pretty normal," said Koff. "First of all, I'm so proud of anyone who wrestles for Ring of Honor that is able to go on to a different platform that's better for themselves and their families; if I can't offer it to them, and that's what they seek, then they should be able to do that.
"It's never been a problem for me, and I'll tell you why it shouldn't really be a problem for the fan," said Koff. "Because Ring of Honor has always had people that have left and gone on, perhaps, to bigger and better [places]. But we are in the best [place] the company's ever been in."
Koff credits the power of having young, hungry and hyper-talented up-and-comers always waiting in the wings as part of the lifeblood behind the energy that ROH tends to embody.
"When you are on TV you can create stars, and we have no shortage of people who want to be in Ring of Honor who are really, really good talents. [Some] need to be developed, need to be seasoned, but so did all of the people that have come to Ring of Honor [before them]. I'm pretty confident that we're always going to be poached from, which I think is very complimentary to the work we do, and to the work the guys do. But it's not something that I often concern myself with."
An opportunity to house two of the hottest acts in wrestling, the Young Bucks and the Hardys, and feature them against each another has energized the ROH fandom anew, and Koff credits everything coming together to the four men involved and the creative team behind it all. The execution of the critical launching point, which came during ROH's last appearance at Hammerstein Ballroom in early December, required a lot of legwork but paid off in a big way.
"The Bucks came up to me and said, 'We want to run this video of Matt Hardy challenging us,' and they were really excited about it," Koff said. "I asked, 'Do we have permission?' and they said, 'Well, we had permission from the Hardys.' I said, 'Yeah, that's fine, but that's not going to do it.' This is at 7 or 8 o'clock that night. The show is starting in another hour -- it has to be cleared by our legal. I have to have a clearance from [TNA] and somehow, in that span of time, we were able to pull it off.
"If we hadn't gotten the permissions, which I normally [would have done way ahead of time], I will tell you that I think the wrestling world -- and definitely every fan that was watching that pay-per view, and every fan in the Hammerstein Ball Room -- would have missed one of the most amazing moments in professional wrestling. When those lights dimmed, that second of darkness, and then all of a sudden on the screen pops Matt Hardy's face up close, people didn't know how to react. That moment of spontaneity was palpable -- you could feel what was going on at that moment."
Now that the Hardys, their "broken brilliance," and everything that comes with them are under the ROH banner, the question remains -- how did the Hardys, who were said to be entertaining offers from WWE, wind up here? As fans in Las Vegas, Lakeland and elsewhere enjoy the fruits of that decision, Koff believes it boils down to two things -- reputation and an opportunity for creative freedom.
"I think one of my goals throughout this whole process, and we talk about achievement over the last five years, is to have an organization that people want to work in," Koff said. "I think they want to work here because of the freedom as well as the artistic collaborations that we actively encourage at Ring of Honor."