By Chuck Carroll
In some ways professional wrestling is evolving at lightning speed. In other ways, it’s as if the industry has warped back two decades.
In recent years, for the first time ever WWE began embracing the beauty and spirit of independent wrestling. One needn’t look any farther than Daniel Bryan to realize that. But you could. NXT is a well-scripted show that has an independent flavor, but also the production value you’d expect from a major promotion.
After fighting the style made famous in bingo halls and community centers across the country, WWE is finally welcoming change. But it wasn’t as though they just gave in.
Fans demanded change just as they did around the turn of the century. At the time, Paul Heyman’s Extreme Championship Wrestling was captivating audiences who, in turn, challenged WWE and the now defunct World Championship Wrestling to bring a little more blood and violence to the show. It wasn’t long before Hardcore Titles were commonplace. At one point the belt was even more popular in WWE than the world title.
Flash forward to present day and WWE is adapting once again. This time, the influences of Ring of Honor and others have given birth to the Cruiserweight Classic and resurrected a full division of smaller wrestlers on Monday Night RAW.
One of the wrestlers most responsible for the change is yet to step inside Vince McMahon’s ring. His name is Adam Cole.
He’s a budding global superstar and one of only three men to be crowned ROH World Champion on multiple occasions. It seems the path in front of him is much the same as his friends who traveled before him and are now seen by millions of people each week.
Cole is one of the newest members of Bullet Club and is getting ready to embark on a duel career in New Japan Pro Wrestling and back at home. Sound familiar?
You’re one of three guys in history to hold the Ring of Honor World Championship more than once. You’re literally carrying history around your waist. How does that sit with you?
The big question I get asked is does it feel any different the second time? And it definitely does.
The first time I won the Ring of Honor World Championship I was a kid — I was 23 years old. Now I’ve matured and gotten to travel the world. I’ve wrestled main event matches as a main event guy for Ring of Honor. So holding this championship for a second time you can enjoy it a little bit more.
My family was there… it was an awesome time for me.
In other promotions, 15-time champions or 12-time champions are commonplace. But in Ring of Honor it’s different. Even though this is only the second, what type of meaning does this have for you and the promotion?
It’s huge. The number one factor is that it shows you the type of talent that are holding the Ring of Honor World Championship. If you go back and look at the lineage of the Ring of Honor World Championship… the guys that have held that belt are the who’s who of professional wrestling. And the guys who were able to win that belt are generally able to keep that belt for a very long time. It’s very rare that a repeat champion happens. So, it shows you how important and how much these guys fight for this championship.
To be on that elite list of the guys who have held the title more than once… I’d certainly say it’s my number one accomplishment in pro wrestling so far.
Tell us about the moment you learned you were becoming a two-time champion.
It was like a roller coaster for me. I remember coming back from injury. I had major surgery — three different types of surgeries on my left arm. And I remember coming back and just being more focused than ever to get back in that title picture. Fortunately for me, that happened all throughout 2015.
And then the news came to me that I was joining New Japan Pro Wrestling’s hottest faction — heck, the wrestling world’s hottest faction — Bullet Club. So I’m like, ‘yes, stuff is really really turning around for me now. I’m going to get to go over to New Japan.’
And then after I found out I was going to be ROH Champion again I would up getting diagnosed with pneumonia and losing 15 to 20 pounds. I remember thinking it was going to derail my Ring of Honor Championship run. But fortunately I was able to come back — a little bit lighter than I would have liked —but I was able to come back and perform and get back in the gym and work hard and get ready for the title match. It all worked out in the end.
What sort of trickle effect are you noticing that WWE’s NXT brand and the Cruiserweight Classic are having on independent promotions and Ring of Honor? Is attendance up?
I’ve noticed for sure that we have more and more people who are watching Ring of Honor and attending our live events. You can see generally across the board for pro wrestling that the power of the Internet is finally showcasing its strength.
Years ago, people used to say, “Don’t listen to the Internet. The Internet is just a vocal minority. That’s not something you need to pay attention to — you need to pay attention to the live crowds.”
Well, in 2016 the live crowds are people who are on the Internet — everybody is on the Internet. Everybody is voicing their opinion and saying what they like and don’t like.
You see that in what WWE fans or pro wrestling fans in general expect from a pro wrestler. You can see that effect in WWE. You can see that effect in Ring of Honor.
And another big factor for Ring of Honor as far as live attendance is that we’ve gotten on television. I’m seeing more and more people who come up to us at autograph signings and say, “I’m a huge fan of you guys. I watch you guys on TV all the time. I just started watching you six months ago.”
So, because of that and the effect the Internet has on the industry, that’s a big reason that not just WWE and Ring of Honor, but pro wrestling across the board has grown so much.
WWE is evolving… seemingly trying to catch up to where Ring of Honor was not long ago. How are independent promotions and ROH continuing to push the industry forward and stay ahead of the competition?
WWE has always been very smart about at least trying to evolve and stay ahead of the curve. You can see that now more than ever with the Cruiserweight Classic, NXT, their top stars on Monday Night RAW and Smackdown.
I’ve been asked before whether that threatens you guys. Does it make ROH or Pro Wrestling Guerrilla worried?
Not at all. To me it just compliments what we’re doing here in ROH a lot more. And on top of that, a lot of these guys getting opportunities in WWE are my friends. So to get to see them travel the world and become the megastars that they are is really cool.
Ring of Honor has always been a company that focuses on youths and being a true alternative. You can see more than ever with ROH associating itself with NJPW and CMLL down in Mexico — these other companies are top companies in the world of pro wrestling and have been for years. That’s a way for ROH to stay ahead of the curve.
Not only are we always looking for new hungry young talent, but we’re taking the top talent from Japan and Mexico and we’re bringing them to American soil. So, even the most die-hard wrestling fans are going to be able to say, “God, I would love to see Tanahashi live. I would love to see Okada live. I want to see the stars of CMLL live.”
That’s a different way that I believe our company is always staying ahead of the curve and delivering and offering something that WWE doesn’t offer.
Fewer people are tuning in to watch wrestling on TV, but we’re seeing an explosion in online viewership. Do you have any concerns that traditional ratings aren’t what they once were and that we’re headed for a digital future?
I think so. I think that the quicker we accept that’s the route we’re going the better it will be for everybody as far as the wrestling industry goes.
Don’t get me wrong… there’s nothing cooler than saying, “Hey friends or parents … you can watch me on television at this time on this channel.”
People from our generation get very excited because that’s what we know our entertainment platform as — television. However, more and more the younger generation is always on their iPads, they’re always on the Internet, they’re always on YouTube, they’re always on websites. They’re watching everything from either their phones, laptops or iPads. The generation underneath us really watches their entertainment and shows on the Internet.
The Internet as a platform I think is really fantastic. Promotions who didn’t have a chance to showcase themselves (can now do that) on a broader platform. More and more people are getting to check out these unknown promotions and popular promotions like Ring of Honor have more traffic on the Internet.
I think it’s great. It’s the wrestling industry moving forward and evolving like it always has. That’s the reason pro wrestling has stayed alive and relevant for so many years.
What’s your take on pro wrestling dirt sheets? For some reason wrestling insiders are often frowned upon even though the NFL, MLB, MMA all have beat writers.
There are good wrestling journalists and bad wrestling journalists. That’s for sure.
But that is like any job, any profession, that follows and reports on anything. I’m sure that musicians feel like there are good and bad journalists. Pro athletes in football and hockey feel like there are good and bad journalists.
I think that it’s fantastic there are good wrestling journalists out there who voice their opinion and give fans an option to check out a show or maybe it’s not one they want to check out. At the end of the day this is a way for someone else to make a living.
I can tell you many times that we do a show that a respectable journalist really enjoys and talks about how great it is — we’ll have a couple hundred people check out the show who otherwise wouldn’t have. So, that’s a positive across the board.
But at the same time he’s not going to sugarcoat it. If he felt like we didn’t deliver like we could have, he’s not going to promote it and say how fantastic and awesome it was. So then maybe people won’t check out the show.
That encourages the wrestlers and promotions to stay on top of their game and always deliver the best that it could. It’s another platform to expose our product and to get people talking about our product.
I don’t think you should hang on every single thing that wrestling journalists say, but I think journalists who report wrestling for what it is have a respected opinion. They certainly have their place in the wrestling world and show to fans what the wrestling product brings.
Has wrestling become a full-time job for you or are you still moonlighting in the “real world?”
It has. Fortunately for me, right around the time I won the ROH World Championship the first time I was able to just wrestle. I didn’t have to have any other form of income or any other job. As I sit here talking to you at 27-years-old, this has been the best year of my career both professionally and financially. I’m really blessed and lucky.
I remember being a 9-year-old kid and just saying, “Man, it would be really cool just to survive off of pro wrestling.” And being able to do more than that is really cool. I try to remember that 9-year-old kid in me that says that was my goal — pretty awesome.
Are you getting recognized more often now that you’re champion for a second time and getting global exposure?
Definitely! Whether it’s at airports or going out to eat. But, I’m not going to kid anyone and say I’m mobbed. That’s certainly not the case — absolutely not.
I definitely have some people come over and recognize me every now and then and say hello or ask for a picture. And it’s from multiple promotions. I’ve had one match so far in New Japan Pro Wrestling and I had a guy recognize me from there. I’ve had multiple people recognize me from ROH and PWG.
It’s cool. You’d be amazed. I’d say about 70 percent of wrestling fans who watch it are closet fans. They can’t wait to talk about it when they know someone is a wrestler or someone else is a wrestling fan. But they’re not going to go up and ask if anyone watched Monday Night RAW last week?
Do you ever try to impress friends or family by putting on a ROH or NJPW t-shirt so you’ll get recognized in public? Do a little showing off?
(laughs) I should do that! That’s a good idea!
I’m actually not big on wearing t-shirts that involve myself when I’m back home. You’ll probably see me quicker in a Dalton Castle t-shirt or a Young Bucks t-shirt before you see me in my own t-shirt.
What does the future hold for you? Is WWE still the goal or are you comfortable where you are?
I know this is going to be a rather generic answer, but it’s the truth and it’s really how I feel.
Pretty early in my career I made the decision to focus on the task at hand. Very early on I used to obsess with, “Oh man I gotta get to WWE. I gotta do everything I can to get to WWE because they’re number one and they’re the best.”
It goes without saying that WWE is the largest professional wrestling company in the world. But there are a lot of other companies — a lot of other ways to make an impact. And I have the chance right now as a two-time ROH champion to make this title run as good as I can. I’m about to start my career in New Japan Pro Wrestling. I have a lot of roadblocks and a lot of things I have to accomplish that are set in front of me right now.
If you were to ask me if I ever want a WrestleMania moment someday, I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t want a WrestleMania moment. That is in my sight line and something that I’ve thought about quite a bit.
But right now I’m focused on growing with Ring of Honor and making it as big as it can be. I’m focused on trying to become a star over in Japan.
The coolest part of professional wrestling right now is that any one of your favorites… they can wind up wherever. You see guys in WWE who are leaving to come and work the independent schedule, the ROH schedule, the PWG schedule. And then you see all of your independent favorites ending up in WWE.
This is the closest thing to me that we’ve had since the Attitude Era with guys popping up in different promotions. It’s an exciting time for the wrestlers, it’s an exciting time for the wrestling fan and I’m just going to enjoy the ride.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.