The sounds of slot machines echo throughout the smoky casino floor of the Sam’s Town Hotel. People huddle around poker tables looking to get rich and take in the Las Vegas experience. However, a large group toward the back of the casino seems to have no interest in the slots or the tables.
Instead, they’re crowding around a merchandise table and an autographed stand while enthusiastically chatting with each other, waiting for a show to start.
These are wrestling fans. But not just any wrestling fans — Ring of Honor wrestling fans.
It’s a matter of hours before their Death Before Dishonor PPV and the doors have yet to open.
“R-O-H,” one fan yelled to the cheers of the crowd. The back of his shirt read “This is wrestling.” It’s a phrase that has been uttered with pride by ROH fans and is often heard while boasting about the importance of the in-ring aspect as opposed to the silliness that can engulf other organizations.
Standing near the venue’s entrance and dressed in his black blazer and gray slacks, one man seems to be taking in the moment. It’s Ring of Honor’s COO Joe Koff. With a sense of calm about him and the way he speaks to you, a person would be more inclined to think of Koff more as a warmly grandfather that is easygoing as opposed to a man responsible for running a prestigious company.
Koff has seen the company grow quite a bit since he took over the wrestling brand in 2011. Perhaps his superb leadership can be attributed to having his finger on the pulse of the modern day wrestling fan, because he’s a fan himself. Combine that passion and ROH’s electric atmosphere, and you get a recipe for something special to play out.
“I’m one of the luckiest people in the world because I’m getting to experience and live something that I love so much,” Koff said. “I’m a big in the moment guy. When all expectations are met and that chanting starts, that’s what I love seeing. That happens so organically. You can’t plan it. You got to be there because when it happens, you want to be there for it.”
When Koff took over five years ago, ROH was only doing internet PPVs but getting to this PPV level was a huge step in gearing the product in the direction that Koff has envisioned. The televised platform joined with ROH’s talented roster that is always the “belle of the ball” for organizations with deeper pockets, is calls for obvious optimism in further growth.
“For as long as ROH has been around, it has had one of the greatest rosters in the world,” ROH Champion Jay Lethal said. “It’s obvious and apparent because people constantly pluck from Ring of Honor’s roster to make their roster better. I feel Ring of Honor has always produced the best professional wrestling on the planet and on PPVs we turn it up.”
With a PPV in Las Vegas taking place, one would expect Koff to have spent the day in a chaotic stress. But in reality, Koff spent the morning playing hide-and-seek, hokey pokey and Simon Says with his three granddaughters. That’s who Koff is—authentic. It’s what ROH’s wrestlers try to mirror in the ring as well.
On this night, Jay Lethal would defend his ROH championship against Bullet Club member Adam Cole, the ruthless charismatic heel in the main event. It’s a feud that was escalated when Cole along with the Young Bucks, cut off Lethal’s signature braids and would taunt him with the severed braids later that night while in the ring.
How could Lethal allow such a thing?
“I will do just about anything for wrestling. Wrestling is my life,” Lethal said. “I can’t think of a time I will not be wrestling. I love the business. I love anything that will get a reaction from the fans.”
As champion, Lethal had the responsibility of being the face of the company for the past year. It’s a role that Koff described as needing to represent a style of wrestling and a style of commitment and a style to artistic integrity. Lethal embodied all of that. He also had no issues enjoying the perks of the job with the media appearances and throwing out the first pitch at MLB games either.
Being no stranger to performing in multiple organizations and in an industry that can be tightly controlled from a creative standpoint, the unique experience of Ring of Honor isn’t lost on Lethal.
“They have given me the freedom to be myself. If I have an idea I express that idea and it’s not frowned upon. Even if they don’t fully agree with it but the fact that you came up with it must mean you feel strongly about it so because you feel strongly about it, we’ll give it a try and if it doesn’t work out, oh well,” Lethal said. “Could you imagine now getting to live out that idea to make that idea come to life? Of course you’re going to work super hard on it because it’s your idea. I feel that’s when you bring out the most in any worker in any business. Ring of Honor allows people to do that on the roster and it’s the one thing that makes them stand out from all of the other companies.”
For Adam Cole, the Death Before Dishonor PPV brought a lot of nostalgia to mind. Cole first won the ROH World Championship at this PPV three years ago and it was the first ever ROH event that he watched as a fan. Now as a member of Bullet Club with a chance to join Austin Aries and Jay Briscoe as the only two-time company champs, Cole knew this night in “Sin City” was huge.
The night was huge for wrestling fans in attendance and fans of Cole. With ROH’s partnership with New Japan Pro Wrestling, more fans are being reached and the notoriety of the company’s stars like Cole grows.
“You get some of the most die-hard wrestling fans not just in the United States but all over the world,” Cole said. “They’re loud, they’re proud to be here, they’re very, very vocal.
Death Before Dishonor being on the west coast brought a lot of fans from the west coast but even from NJPW’s own backyard. One in particular fan came to Las Vegas just for Cole.
“There was a guy who came up to me from Japan but his English was very good and he proceeded to tell me that I’m his favorite wrestler and the only reason he came from Japan was to see me and he was listing all of his favorite matches of mine and how he couldn’t wait to get a picture with me,” Cole said. “To me, it’s very surreal and very cool that someone from across the world traveled here and said I’m the reason they traveled here. That is one of the coolest perks about this job and the coolest thing about Ring of Honor is that you get to meet people you inspire. It was just as much a joy for me to meet him, as it was he to meet me.”
Inside the concert hall of Sam’s Town Live, ROH delivered an intimate setting for the fans and talent. The company’s stars like the Briscoe Brothers, Bobby Fish, Dalton Castle, Adam Page, The Addiction as well as NJPW stars like Katsuyori Shibata and Kazuchika Okada displayed magnificent and dramatic performances that go the fans totally invested. It served as a great prelude to the main event.
For 24 minutes, Lethal and Cole, two of the most respected wrestlers in the world, went toe-to-toe in a brutal match filled with high spots, which Koff described as “an incredibly powerful moment” and where the crowd was torn on whom they wanted to win. After many near falls, Cole would ultimately be victorious and ending Lethal’s reign and making history in front of the shocked crowd.
“I’m overcome with pride,” Cole said on winning the ROH World Championship. “Ring of Honor is a company that I always wanted to be a part of even when I was a wrestling fan; I thought it would be awesome to wrestle for ROH. It’s already illustrious enough to be a man that has held the Ring of Honor championship but to be someone who has held it twice is a whole other level.“
It may have been a solemn night for the former champion Lethal after dropping his title but he has always been adamant about his goals and what he wanted to accomplish from this impressive run.
“My goal throughout this title reign was to do something so cool and interesting enough and make someone like it enough to not even mention who had the belt before me because what I was doing was so interesting at that moment in time,” Lethal said.” That was my goal this whole time and will still be my goal in the future. If I can do that then I’ll be happy with my legacy.”
As for Ring of Honor and Koff, the PPV is another chapter in the ever-evolving journey to shine a light on its brilliant product and set their sights on taking the company to new heights.
“The goal for us is international. I want to continue to build our product and attract other talent that might seek other places and I’d like to retain talent that might seek other places,” Koff said. “I think if I can do that then I have created the kind of culture and organization that I would be proud of.”
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 Hard Body Photography
Cover Photo: Jay Briscoe (left) battles it out with “Hangman” Adam Page (right) at Death Before Dishonor in Las Vegas 8/19/16
RING OF HONOR WRESTLING PRESENTS:
FIELD OF HONOR ’16
SATURDAY, AUGUST 27TH, 2016 at 6:00 p.m. EDT
1904 SURF AVENUE
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK