What the Hell Is Happening in Ring of Honor?

Ring of Honor, once the promotion whose roster and style set the standard for independent wrestling and, later, brands like WWE’s NXT, has not fared well in the expansion of the wrestling marketplace. Attendance is down, hype is almost non-existent, and one gets the feeling that, were it not for the fact that they provide cheap content for parent company Sinclair Broadcast Group, other wrestling promotions would be circling it like vultures, ready to pick at ROH’s carcass for its roster and particularly enticing video library.

This past weekend was the most talked about for the promotion since they tagged along for New Japan Pro Wrestling’s sellout of Madison Square Garden back in April, but it wasn’t for anything that happened on a show. Joey Mercury, an ROH agent famous for his time as a performer and agent at WWE, quit the company, started a Twitter account, and got to talking about what he perceives as the issue with the ROH’s culture, namely the company’s General Manager, Greg Gilleland.

Gilleland was promoted to the role in 2015. While most of his tenure saw the company grow in comparison to companies like IMPACT Wrestling, much of that growth has to be attributed to things he wasn’t responsible for, like ROH’s working relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling and IMPACT’s television show jumping from network to network. When Cody and the Young Bucks left Ring of Honor to launch All Elite Wrestling, a number of talents left with them, including So-Cal Uncensored, producer BJ Whitmer, and, through leaving NJPW, Kenny Omega.

ROH has weathered roster-bleed before, but losing their biggest stars to a new, billionaire-backed company positioning itself as direct competition to WWE (the promotion that bled ROH’s the most over the years) is a different proposition. Instantly dropping from second to third place, ROH has since been battered by IMPACT moving to AXS TV, NJPW announcing an expansion into the US marketplace, and increasing access to smaller, hungrier companies. The company hasn’t just lost its momentum, they’ve lost their identity.

How much of that falls on Gilleland’s lap is unclear, but the case made by Mercury’s flurry of tweets over the weekend is that, if nothing else, Gilleland’s presence in the company has been just as detrimental to the company’s progress as wrestling’s radically altered landscape.

Contract woes.

One bit of information Mercury dropped over the weekend was details of contract negotiation emails between Gilleland and current Women of Honor champion Kelly Klein. The headline there is that Klein asked for $24,000 and was denied. According to an email from Klein to Gilleland,

I asked if it was possible to make the yearly amount $24,000 to make each monthly check and (sic) even $2,000. You said you couldn’t do that because then you would have to pay all of the other women that amount.

While it’s hard to suss out the specifics of Ring of Honor’s contracts beyond the details of Klein’s and Mercury’s that Mercury tweeted out, we can infer that of the nine women currently wrestling for Ring of Honor, zero make $24,000. Sinclair Broadcast Group, if you weren’t aware, is a company worth $3.6 billion. If the women of Women of Honor made $24,000 apiece, the company would pay $216,000. That’s barely a drop in the bucket for a company capable of scooping up local network affiliates and regional sports networks by the dozens.

Gilleland’s reasoning for denying Klein a raise is fairly genial, with a touch of carny bullshit:

[I]t is more so a fairness internally, aligning the compensations for the division as it continues to grow. If things take off or change for the better, we can review/renegotiate at any time.

As we all know, professional wrestling is a famously fair business with absolutely no history of suppressing women’s wages or booking women’s wrestling as a second intermission, so Gilleland’s invocation of fairness is definitely not in bad faith at all.

Without any specifics, it’s hard to know where the goalposts for the Women of Honor division are. At what point do things take off? What needs to change for the better? The division? The company? Neither instance is fully incumbent upon talent, as they have little say in the direction of their characters or how much or little they’re utilized.

Mercury also divulged information about Gilleland’s handling of Bandido’s contract. While the specifics weren’t leaked, Bandido’s deal is, according to Gilleland, both “more than we have paid anyone ever” and one where “there is no return on investment.” Bandido is a great wrestler at the beginning of his career, and signing him is one of the few genuinely good things ROH has done this year, but it is difficult to believe that he has the most lucrative contract on the current roster, let alone in company history. The Young Bucks and Cody Rhodes worked full schedules in ROH last year, and, according to a CBS Baltimore interview of Gilleland from February, his attempt to re-sign them for 2019 was “more aggressive than we’ve had with anybody in the past.” Maybe it’s easier to convince a CFO of the inherent value of three of the hottest acts in wrestling, but what business sense does it make to sign Bandido to a similar deal when he has much less exposure with ROH’s target demographic than the former Bullet Club guys who have hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers?

To Mercury, the answer is pretty simple: to exploit that contract, keeping Bandido’s pay the same, even as his star (and value to the company) rises. While Gilleland probably has the same “we can renegotiate at any time” policy with the men’s roster as he does the women’s, management already believes they won’t see any return on investment on Bandido, so renegotiation seems unlikely.

Safety concerns.

What’s even more damning are the accusations Mercury made about Gilleland and Ring of Honor’s handling of wrestler safety in and out of the ring. In June, ROH made headlines when a fan was pulled backstage by security after heckling Velvet Sky and Mandy Leon, where the fan was lectured by ROH performer Bully Ray. ROH opened and closed an “internal review” of the situation within a month, which revealed nothing. Until Mercury started tweeting, the fan’s and Bully Ray’s tweets were the only substantive statements put forward on the subject.

According to Mercury, ROH’s security policies weren’t discussed with the wrestlers or posted anywhere until after the Bully Ray incident on June 2. In addition to Mercury’s critiques, the policy is vague to the point of uselessness. Who determines when a fan goes beyond having fun? What is the point of contact or director of operations expected to do with that fan?

Mercury posted the guidelines as a means of saying that Bully Ray was offered up as a scapegoat for what happened, and points four and five under “Processes” and one and two under “Unique Scenarios” are specific enough to the details provided by both Ray and the fan— the fan was escorted to the back by security, where he, an unauthorized presence in that area, was confronted by a performer— that it reads more like a direct response than a contingency plan. None of this is to say that Bully Ray should be let off the hook, but that if that policy existed and was enforced before June 2, then the situation wouldn’t have been possible without actionable repercussions for both parties.

Worse, Mercury alleges that Ring of Honor, Gilleland specifically, is negligent in handling injuries, both when the injury occurs and after, and lacks a discernible concussion protocol. On the concussion front, he states that Kelly Klein was booked to wrestle in South Africa. Backdating Mercury’s screenshot of his text conversation with Gilleland from his November 1 tweets to Monday, October 28, one assumes that Klein’s South African booking was the Africa Wrestling Alliance’s October 30th date in Cape Town. Though she was announced, Klein did not wrestle, presumably due to Mercury’s intercession.

There’s a lot to parse here. Ring of Honor signs talent to exclusive contracts, and they’re usually reticent to let talent work for promotions they’re not in working relationships with. There are exceptions, as Bandido wrestles on plenty of Mexican indie shows, and a small South African promotion booking a woman who went to high school in South Africa is no skin off ROH’s back. But if Gilleland was aware of Klein’s concussion (which “she told me she felt better” implies), booking her outside of ROH, in South Africa, isn’t responsible to that performer, especially if they didn’t have clearance before the flight was booked.

In other tweets, Mercury was frank about resetting Flip Gordon’s dislocated elbow with Bandido and Brody King, with no medical staff or ambulance on site. Also, when Jay Lethal broke his arm on the October 29th Honor United show, Gilleland was allegedly off-site and unable to respond as quickly as one expects a General Manager would in that situation. It’s difficult to discern from Mercury’s tweets what the timeline of events that night were, whether Lethal waited in his hotel room for 90 minutes before the show or with a broken arm, or if the transportation issues Mercury laid out had to do with getting talent to and from the show or getting Lethal to the hospital. What is clear is that, according to Mercury, Gilleland wasn’t at the venue at all, and talent was left to fend for itself.

The scope of these accusations is broad and Mercury’s anger in making them is palpable. It’s worth noting, in piecing Mercury’s tweets into a narrative, that posting screenshots of e-mails and text messages is a selective process, and Mercury has no reason to present Gilleland in a positive light. By the same token, Mercury has nothing to gain and everything to lose in leaking these emails and text messages, especially when some of them show Gilleland casting aspersions upon Mercury’s trustworthiness based on his history of mental illness and substance abuse. As he has noted several times, Mercury has no job offers ahead of him and a number of burned bridges behind him. His goal in acting as a whistleblower is to improve what he sees as the company’s shortcomings on behalf of its performers, beginning with the removal of Gilleland.

As of the publishing of this article, Ring of Honor has not (and does not seem likely to) issued a public response to Mercury addressing any of his concerns, which have been corroborated by Klein and former ROH producer BJ Whitmer. Whether or not any other current or former ROH talent will speak for or against Mercury remains to be seen.

What’s clear is that the bravado of Gilleland’s early 2019 claim that the company wasn’t entering a rebuilding phase is largely unfounded. Ring of Honor is in chaos, and its relationships with New Japan and CMLL aren’t enough to buoy the company against the sudden glut of options in the segment of wrestling fandom they’ve traditionally appealed to. If the morale of its performers is as low as Mercury’s tweets indicate that it should be, then the company is in worse shape than anybody could have predicted. If ROH isn’t in a rebuilding phase already, it clearly needs to get there, and fast. More likely than not, that phase needs to move forward with somebody else at the helm.

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Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

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