(CBS Miami/CBS Local) — Staying at Ring of Honor was never an option. As The Young Bucks, Nick and Matt Jackson had become two the most highly sought-after free agents in pro wrestling history. And they knew it was time to leave and find out what they were truly worth.
For one, there was nothing left for them to accomplish there. They had checked all the boxes, been involved in enormous matches, including epic battles against the Hardy Boyz, and tens of thousands of fans were walking around with t-shirts proudly boasting of their support for the superkick party. They were regularly main-eventing shows, largely responsible for the promotion’s record-setting attendance and unprecedented popularity in recent years.
But it also boiled down to economics. The reality is that even the most generous offer from ROH wouldn’t be enough to match what they would be offered elsewhere. Not even close.
There really were only two choices for Nick and Matt: sign with WWE or attempt to build All Elite Wrestling from the ground up, so that it that will eventually compete against the undisputed longtime wrestling leader.
One was a guaranteed success, and the other was a gamble. In terms of capital, WWE is in the best shape in company history, having just signed a pair of billion-dollar television-rights deals. Signing there — and WWE very much wanted that to happen — would mean long-term financial security.
All Elite Wrestling could only offer the same financial security in the short term. There are major question marks surrounding the long-term viability of the new promotion, but the deep pockets of principal owner, Shahid Khan, help. The 68-year-old, who also owns the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham F.C. of the Premiere Soccer League, is worth an estimated $6.8 billion, according to Forbes.
The promotion is off to a solid start and has been the buzz of the sports entertainment world since more than 1,000 fans crammed into a rally in Jacksonville to announce its launch. And signing Chris Jericho was seen as a major coup for the group as well. Jericho, like the Jacksons and Cody, had reportedly been negotiating with WWE for a possible return. And the unquestioned future Hall of Famer will bring fans to AEW that otherwise would remain loyal to the current sports entertainment leader.
AEW’s first major test comes on May 25th in Las Vegas for Double Or Nothing. It is the successor to All-In, but the debut show of AEW. Will fans sell out the MGM Grand Garden Arena the same way they did the Sears Center in Chicago last September? And how many will watch at home, paying an additional one-time fee? Only time will tell.
I caught up with The Young Bucks for a wide-ranging exclusive interview to talk in-depth about their decision to walk away from ROH and reject lucrative contract offers from WWE, the challenges they face in AEW, and more.
This really does have to be an unbelievably exciting time. Talk to me about the emotions that you’ve been feeling over the last few months.
Matt Jackson: It really does feel like the culmination of our entire career, like everything we’ve done for 15 years has gotten us to this point. I think everything we’ve learned along the way, all of our failures, all of our successes, it certainly feels like this is it and this is what we’re destined to do. Less than 10 years ago, I was in a situation where I couldn’t even pay my bills, and I was close to quitting wrestling. And now, just to think about what we’re doing, it really blows me away, and I can’t even express into words how excited I am and how emotional I was signing the contract, and yeah. I can’t wait for this thing.
Nick Jackson: You know what, it’s funny. I was never at that point (of walking away), but Matt definitely was. I actually had to be the guy to say, “Hey Matt, there’s a reason why we’re doing this.” So, I told him we wouldn’t be doing something like this for eight years if there wasn’t something meant to be for us to do. And we’ve always looked at it as the big picture, and we always thought there’s a reason for everything. I just had a gut feeling that there’s something big upon us. I didn’t know it would lead to all of this stuff, but I’m glad that we stuck with it.
When did the Khan family really come aboard and approach you guys? Was it around the time of All-In?
Matt: I was first introduced to Tony probably around July, but it was more or less just kind of a friendly thing. Like, “Hey, I’m Tony. I’m a huge wrestling fan.” I was flattered and I learned who he was. And he really wasn’t kidding when he told me he was a wrestling fan, because he sent me a video of him wearing a Bullet Club shirt in the front row at one of the New Japan Long Beach shows. And actually, I think I went up and I might’ve “too sweeted” him or something.
And we got to talking, and it was all hypotheticals. What if we did this, and what if we did that? At first, it was almost like I was rolling my eyes a little bit like, oh, we’ve heard this a million times from people wanting to get in the wrestling business. We’re the biggest doubters and skeptics in the world, because everything changes on a weekly basis in wrestling. One day you’re promised you’re going to be the champion, and then you show up that day and then they’re like, oh, we changed it. Or your match gets cut from a pay-per-view.
Then it became more of us actually chatting about the possibilities. He basically told me, “I can only do this with you and Nick. I can only do this with you guys. I’m handpicking you two. I need to work with you because I see your vision, and it seems like it’s the same as mine. And I need you to do this project.” That put a lot of pressure on us. I was like maybe this might be a real thing. We had a lot of big offers on table, so we really didn’t know what we wanted to do and what was real or not. Being skeptics, we don’t know, you just never know, and the unknown is scary. Something brand new is scary.
Every time that I’ve spoken with [executives] at Ring of Honor they’ll tell you that the idea is not to be a WWE competitor. But it sounds to me like you guys, you want to go right after it and be as big as possible. Is that accurate?
Nick: There hasn’t been a real alternative. I don’t know if that means competing, but it definitely gives Americans a choice, and there really hasn’t been a different choice in almost 20 years. I think saying that, because we have stars already like Chris Jericho, and Cody, and Matt, and myself, and the three of us, in particular, we’re in our prime. And that’s a big deal. I don’t think it’s realistic that we could compete right away, because that’s almost impossible, because they’ve been around forever, you know?
Matt: I don’t think that should be something that we’re even considering right now is competing. I think we should be worried about ourselves. I think we should set our own goals aside and think, okay, let’s accomplish these goals in year one. Because after all, we are a brand new business. I don’t think we should be even paying attention to what they’re doing. If we’re going to do any type of comparison, it should be, how could we be different? I don’t want to use the templates. I don’t want to use the terminology. I just want to be different… That’s how Nick and I have really competed in our entire career, always trying to be different and just doing our own thing. I think we’re a startup, and I don’t think we should be jumping the gun and going, let’s go to war with these guys. I think that would be irresponsible of us.
How aggressive was that ROH’s attempt to re-sign you, and how difficult was it to turn it down?
Nick: For a company of their size, I guess you could consider it aggressive. But Matt and I felt like we had peaked at that company money-wise. And, let’s be honest. If we would stay there, we would never be able to retire and help our families out. So, we were looking at this window we have, which is not long in pro wrestling. And we were like, “I think we need to make a change.
Matt: And I think that before it could really get really aggressive, we had already made the decision that we were leaving no matter what. We didn’t know where we would end up. We just knew that it was time to leave. I didn’t know if that meant going to WWE. I didn’t know if that meant going and just being competitors again or with this possible new project, that could happen hypothetically. There were just too many choices.
Also, we wanted to gauge our street value, because we had never really even looked before. We just didn’t know what we were worth. We knew in our hearts what we were worth, but until someone actually tells you this is the number that I think you are worth, you just don’t know.
What about the offers from WWE? Were those a little bit more difficult to walk away from?
Nick: Yeah, we could say that their offer was very aggressive.
Matt: I’ll tell you this. For a moment, I thought that we would probably be going to WWE. That was the closest that it’s ever come to us going there, for sure. And they were great. They were respectful, and they told us what our value was. I think it was really like a wake-up call for us. It was almost like, wow. It’s good to be wanted. These guys, they’re teaching us we are valuable and we’re worth this much. It was definitely something we were considering, and it was hard to turn down, because it would have been life-changing.
How long did you guys wrestle with the decision before choosing to go with AEW?
Nick: It seemed like months, and months, and months. It was probably the most stressful five months of my life.
Matt: Yeah, it was probably. We just had to do the best thing for our families. We’re family men, and we just want to take care of them, and we want to make the best decision, and we want to be home.
But again, with WWE, they were pretty much willing to do anything. Any type of concern we had, they had something good to say about it and how they would fix it. I can’t stress enough how friendly and how great they were to us. And I have nothing but good things to say about them.
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Obviously, you’re very plugged in with your own loyal fan base and the internet wrestling community, but reaching people outside of that is going to be critical to AEW’s success. What are the plans there to get some new eyeballs on the product?
Nick: I still like getting back to the old-school elements of what worked in pro wrestling years ago. I feel like one thing we will focus on more than anyone is not to insult the audience’s intelligence, and we want to do long-term storytelling, which is very rare these days. And Matt likes to say it like this, a lot of people are into binge-watching Netflix series, and they like the storytelling element. So, why can’t we put that into the wrestling world and make it work? So, we’re going to look into things like that.
Matt: Then you get a guy like Chris Jericho, who everybody knows, and not just in wrestling. You get a guy like that to help bridge that gap and the people who don’t necessarily know who The Young Bucks are, they probably know who Chris Jericho is.
The other one is, eventually we have to get on TV, on a network that supports us. That’s how you get eyeballs on your show. Everybody still watches television, I don’t care what anybody says. It’s very important. Also, you’ll hear wrestling fans [complain about storylines]. Sometimes there’s plot holes… I want to do bits on the show that carry over week, to week, to week, and I want to pay off every single thing. I want to tie up every loose end. I want to really pay off the viewer. I want them to watch and then to feel rewarded by the end of the storyline.
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.