Read “What the Hell is Happening in Ring of Honor?” for the first part of this story.
Earlier this month, I attempted to untangle a blistering series of tweets by former Ring of Honor producer Joey Mercury, alleging gross incompetence on the part of its general manager, Greg Gilleland, on a number of fronts. At the center of those allegations was Kelly Klein, the Women of Honor champion, as both her request for a raise and ROH’s handling of Klein post-concussion were discussed, at length, with Klein and her husband, former ROH producer (and current AEW producer) BJ Whitmer, corroborating with tweets of their own. The question then was what the company planned to do moving forward. Late last week, we got a partial answer:
They’re releasing Kelly Klein.
It’s pretty interesting that another ROH official would transact this sort of thing in an e-mail, given that screenshots of text messages and e-mails are pretty integral to the argument made by Mercury. It’s less than surprising that an executive would lead with overtures of concern for an employee before dropping the hammer that is one’s unemployment. Koff frames how they went about releasing her as a kind of mercy—doing so would trigger a six-month non-compete clause—but given that, according to Klein, the company pulled a two year contract extension that included her asked-for raise in doing so, it looks and feels a lot like Klein is being let go because they can’t pursue action against Mercury or, to a lesser extent, Whitmer.
For those who argue semantics about whether I was fired or released… I was offered two more years (that deal had my 2019 raise wrapped up in it) which was pulled. So. Yep. Pulled and expired. Not fired. Whatever helps you rationalize…
— Kelly Klein (@RealKellyKlein) November 23, 2019
This is an awful look for Ring of Honor. How bad? Well, ROH finally managed to break into mainstream coverage, though I’m sure that a Newsweek article titled “Ring of Honor Wrestling Champion Kelly Klein Spoke Out About Wrestlers’ Safety—Then She Lost Her Job” wasn’t how they planned on doing it. The piece is comprehensive—we’ll get to what’s in there in a minute—particularly about the issue of concussions in professional sports, wrestling in particular. While wrestling has taken a backseat to leagues like the NFL and NHL in the ongoing discourse around professional wrestling, it is impossible to forget that the concern over concussions and CTE was ignited by the 2007 double murder/suicide carried out by Chris Benoit. The postmortem examination of his brain by the Sports Legacy Institute revealed that he had the symptoms of CTE. Having Benoit’s name echo in a piece written 12 years later about how a wrestling company owned by a billion dollar broadcast corporation handles concussions? Not great.
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Tufayel Ahmed’s reportage in the Newsweek piece is incredible, and if you’re interested in workers’ safety issues inside professional wrestling, it’s required reading. I won’t cannibalize it for the statements of Klein, Mercury, or ROH, but here’s a brief summary of what new information is in it:
- Six current or former ROH performers, including Klein and Mercury, told Ahmed that the company had no concussion protocol, and that they have no dedicated medical staff on hand at shows.
- Ring of Honor refuted both accusations, stating that it has had a concussion protocol in place since 2016, but they did not provide one to Newsweek. WWE’s, it should be noted, is available on its corporate website.
- Klein and others stated that ROH only has medical personnel on hand when it is required to do so by a state athletic commission.
- Ring of Honor did not pay for any medical costs associated with Klein’s concussion, and it’s unclear whether or not talent is able to seek reimbursement from the company for any outside treatment for an in-ring injury.
- Gilleland accidentally allowed Maria Manic’s contract to expire in September, under the assumption that talent would come to him if they wanted to stay.
Klein’s contract with Ring of Honor expires at the end of the year, after which she’ll be free to pursue bookings or a contract elsewhere, depending on the status of her concussion. Without a copy of Klein’s contract in hand, it’s impossible to know if she’ll be compensated the full amount of her current deal (roughly $3,300) or if, like WWE, Ring of Honor has a kind of “downside guarantee” system where an inactive performer is paid less while they’re off the road. ROH’s lack of transparency with Newsweek means that it’s hard to know whether or not there’s a system in place for workers to get reimbursed for outside medical costs, but that requires the performer to put up the money first, which is prohibitive on a $20,000 salary. Klein is fortunate in that she is on her husband’s private insurance, but that is an incredibly thin line between being able to weather the financial implications of a concussion and having to choose between rent and seeking treatment for an injury that, at the low end of the spectrum, costs tens of thousands of dollars to treat.
What’s clear is that this issue won’t simply disappear for Ring of Honor. In reneging on Klein’s contract, they’ve managed to increase her profile more than they did while she was the anchor of her division, and her treatment will be part of the ongoing discussion about how wrestling promotions treat labor. Those actions also validate many of Mercury’s claims so far as mismanagement of talent is concerned. Ring of Honor, meanwhile, is in damage control mode, though its failure to produce a concussion protocol at Newsweek‘s request feels like a real blunder so far as that’s concerned. The best thing I can say about their response is that their means of publicly complaining about wrestlers airing out their issues with the company online aren’t as petty as Triple H’s.
Talent evaluation—who, exactly, on the Ring of Honor roster draws cash?
Something that’s consistent across the tweets and emails divulged over the past two weeks that’s worth critical evaluation is Gilleland’s continued assertion that wrestlers signed to Ring of Honor aren’t capable of drawing money commensurate with their paycheck. ROH is struggling to attract a crowd for sure— TicketMaster’s diagram of seats available for December’s Final Battle PPV is particularly dire—but, at least in my opinion, that’s not on the wrestlers.
Ring of Honor was built as a workrate promotion, one where any match on the card could be the best of the night, and that’s not something that’s changed much, even with roster fluctuation. When workrate is the foundation of a promotion, it’s incumbent upon them to go out and put on matches that live up to that reputation. To the best of my knowledge, nobody in Ring of Honor is slacking off in the ring because the oversized venues they’re booked to wrestle in are 1/3 full. It’s incumbent upon management to assemble a roster and put those wrestlers in situations an audience will pay to see, which has historically been an issue for Sinclair-era Ring of Honor.
Looking through Joey Mercury’s feed for text messages Gilleland sent about individual talent, a number of questionable decisions and evaluations are laid out. The decision to have Matt Taven go over Marty Scurll in their ROH Championship Match at the Madison Square Garden with New Japan was motivated by the idea that Taven was the likelier of the two to stay in the promotion. However, the seven months between that match and Scurll’s November contract expiry is five months longer than CM Punk’s two month long reign in 2005. The “Summer of Punk” is still regarded as one of the best storylines in the company’s history.
Gilleland’s “We knew Taven would stay … but we couldn’t get him over” is a stark contrast to his early-year claim that the company wouldn’t struggle without The Elite. As the common refrain in Gilleland’s texts is that talents like Taven, Flip Gordon, and Bandido are incapable of drawing money, it’s worth looking through the Ring of Honor roster from 2015, when he became the General Manager of the company, to now, to see if a pattern emerges in who leaves the promotion and what happens after the fact. Here’s a sample of significant departures from ROH during Gilleland’s tenure and what they did during their time in the company:
- ACH (2012-2016): Zero title reigns.
- Cedric Alexander (2010-2016): Zero title reigns.
- Donovan Dijak (2014-2017): 2015 Top Prospect Tournament winner.
- Hansen and Ray Rowe (2014-2018): ROH Tag Team Championship (2015)
- Keith Lee (2016-2017): Zero title reigns.
- Hangman Adam Page (2011-2018): ROH Six-Man Tag Team Championship (2017)
- Punishment Martinez (2015-2018): ROH Television Champion (2018)
- Lio Rush (2015-2017): 2016 Top Prospect Tournament winner.
- Matt Sydal (2014-2017): Zero title reigns.
Obviously, title reigns aren’t everything—the company did well by the likes of SCU, Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly, Bobby Fish, Roderick Strong, The Elite, and others—but they also missed the boat on Stokely Hathaway, Trent Beretta, Chuck Taylor, and Deonna Purrazzo. With the exception of Sydal and ACH, every single one of those wrestlers is currently employed by either WWE or AEW. Nine of them have had a PPV match in the last month, with Lee stealing the show at Survivor Series by pinning Seth Rollins, WWE’s ace.
While most of those talents moved on due to opportunities with bigger promotions, Lee is the only member of that group that ROH didn’t have significant time with. That’s a significant amount of money left on the table in not recognizing the value of wrestlers like ACH, Alexander, Dijak, and Page, wrestlers who, incidentally, could have been used to build this generation of ROH talent like Taven, Bandido, and Scurll.
A significant amount of coverage on this subject has focused on whether or not Joey Mercury is well—his Twitter feed now is a sea of derogatory messages about drug use, mental instability, and negative feedback—but his tweets about wasted talent read to me like somebody with a significant amount of experience handling talent expressing justifiable frustration in his employers’ lack of vision, coupled with his rage over how Klein’s concussion and other injuries were handled by the company. Klein, for her part, has continued to tweet that she hopes fans continue to support Ring of Honor and her comrades who worked there, but as the instigating whistleblower of this story, Mercury is under no obligation to be polite in his misgivings about the company.
As a subsidiary of a broadcast conglomerate that uses it as a cheap means of filling hours in syndication, Ring of Honor isn’t likely to change things up too much. If the company does well, that’s great news, but otherwise it’s a toy sitting in the darkest corner of Sinclair Broadcast Group’s closet, gathering dust when it could be making money. What’ll be interesting to watch, beyond the Twitter accounts of those involved, is how ROH reacts now that its problems are in a venue like Newsweek. If the only consequence is that Klein had her contract pulled while recovering from a concussion, that’s not simply going to disappear. But Ring of Honor has had a habit of making these errors before, and as long as it can survive them, the question is whether or not they care enough to correct course. Right now, that answer appears to be no.