BALTIMORE (WJZ/CBS Local) — Decked in brightly colored pineapple-print pants, PJ Black was smiling ear to ear high above the UMBC Event Center just outside Baltimore. The grin was easily outshining the blinding neon attire illuminating the lower half of his body. His mood was light and enthusiastic, and there was plenty to celebrate.
Just weeks earlier he signed a new multi-year deal to remain with Ring of Honor. (Black signed a one-year deal a year ago.) After a turbulent 18-month stretch that included the departures of its top stars, slumping attendance, frayed relationships with partner promotions, and allegations of negligence, the Maryland-based promotion is taking significant steps to re-stake its claim among the elite promotions in wrestling.
The moves being made by ROH have been met with rousing support of those on the roster, which is also undergoing a substantial makeover. The bevvy of new faces, including luchador Bandido and Dragon Lee, were a major factor in Black's decision to re-up with the promotion. He considers them to be the future of wrestling. He found that future enticing enough to turn down numerous offers on the table from other promotions.
At 38, Black already has nearly a quarter-century of experience under his belt. He skyrocketed to fame after becoming the first South African-born wrestler to sign with WWE. During his seven-year run as Justin Gabriel, he won the world tag team championships on three occasions. He split from the company in 2015 due to reported creative differences but never strayed far from the televisions of wrestling fans. In the years that followed, he would wrestle for Impact Wrestling, Lucha Underground and the National Wrestling Alliance before signing with ROH in 2018, where he has battled ever since.
Having traveled the globe with the biggest promotions in the business, there aren't many boxes still left unchecked on Black's list of career goals. Helping ROH climb out of the wrestling depths is one of them, and he's confident that too will soon be checked off.
In an offering of goodwill to fans, the promotion took the unprecedented step of holding a free show at a sizeable college arena recently, giving away thousands of tickets while eating the expense of running the venue. They've also shaken up the creative team, turning the reigns over to top star Marty Scurll whose influence is already being felt.
This too has Black fired up about what he perceives to be the rebirth of ROH, and he was all too happy to talk about what is on the horizon.
You just recently re-signed with Ring of Honor. How long can we expect to see you in an ROH ring?
[It was] a multi-year deal. I forget exactly how much it is, but, I mean, it's going so well right now that when that time comes up, I think I'm going to definitely stay here. I'm super happy, you know. I've been doing this for 22 years, and right now I'm really happy where I am.
I'm sure that there were opportunities to go elsewhere. What is it about this company that made you want to re-sign?
I actually had a couple of offers on the table, and for the first time in my life, I've made a pros and cons list of things that I wanted to achieve still. Things that I want out of wrestling. Because I've been doing it for a long time, so there's very few things that I have yet to accomplish on my wrestling bucket list. And I feel like, with this company, I can achieve those few last things that I want to do.
I also looked at the roster, and I was like, "Wow, they re-signed Flip, Bandido and Dragon Lee." These kids, to me, are the future of professional wrestling. So the fact that Ring of Honor went really hard and out of their way to sign these up-and-coming... I won't say up-and-coming talent, they're already established worldwide. And I was like, "Oh cool, I can definitely give something back to Ring of Honor and also help make it grow." We lost a lot of talent, but they also signed some phenomenal talent. And with the show tonight, I feel this is almost like a rebirth of Ring of Honor. I feel like this is going to be a big year to bring them on, and I really wanted to be a part of that.
What would you say your role was as far as keeping morale up last year during that time of transition? I would imagine, with all those departures seeing attendance start to dwindle [veteran leadership would be beneficial].
I've been doing this for a long time, and some of the younger talents, I won't mention their names, but they actually came to me and like, "Hey, what do I do here? You've been doing this for a long time, can you give me some advice?" And one of the young kids that I respect, I think is the future of the business, he came to me, he goes, "Hey, do you mind if I give you a call this week and discuss some of it?" And I lay it out straight. I'm like, "This is what's going to happen when you go somewhere else. This is what's going to happen if you stay. In my opinion, because I've been around the block a little bit." And just when these kids do that, it makes me feel proud in a way that they trust my judgment in a way. So that was cool. That was one of the deciding factors also.
We've seen Ring of Honor's partnerships rekindled with NWA and New Japan. The collaboration was working well for Ring of Honor when it reached that peak and ran Madison Square Garden. So how important would you say that those partnerships are as far as getting you guys back up?
Very, very, very important. Especially in this time and age of wrestling because there's so many companies trying to sign people exclusively. That's great for wrestlers. It's cool that these up-and-coming companies have the kind of money, but those partnerships are very, very important. The NWA is a partnership, I feel like it can benefit both companies and all the talent, obviously. We're partners with New Japan and also CMLL. So I feel like that's going to play a mass effect in this year.
Marty Scurll has taken over a lot of the creative since re-signing. How do you expect that the product itself, the presentation, is going to change moving forward?
I think it's incredible. Marty is super talented. He's very creative. A lot of people don't even know some of the creative stuff that he's involved in. I've known Marty since the first day he started training. So I know, I've seen him grow, and to see where he is right now, it's fantastic. I mean, he created that villain character, and it's one of the most fun characters to watch, I think.
He's number one in merchandise sales wherever he goes and that has something to say with it, it just shows. Because he created that. So he's very creative, and I cannot wait to see what he does with the book. I think it's a fantastic time. A lot of people weren't happy with it, but I was like, "How can you not be happy with it?" This guy is not in business for himself. He loves wrestling. He loves creating stuff like storylines and characters and stuff like that.
I think [the free] show is one of the first things that we've done with the new look and the new Ring of Honor. I feel like this is the rebirth almost for Ring of Honor.
Do you think we'll see the company be a little bit more storyline-driven [under Marty]? It had been built on pure wrestling for so long.
Totally. Totally. And you can see that with a lot of the over-the-top characters, these new characters coming in. It used to be, like you say, just pure wrestling with everyone wearing black trunks, and it was just about the wrestling. Look at the roster right now. There's some crazy characters, there's some amazing promo guys, and every single one of these kids can work. I feel like this is like a next level for ROH almost.
So you said that you didn't have a lot left on your bucket list, but what's left for you?
I don't want to tell you because I don't want to jinx it. But I feel like it's going to happen this year, and when it does happen, you'll know it. I'm sure I'll run into you sooner or later down the road, and then we can actually talk about that. It's one or two things that I have left. I mean, I've worked some of the biggest venues in the world, the Arena de Mexico, Korakuen Hall, Madison Square Garden. And just by my me listing that, you can probably kind of see where I'm going with that, but it's going to happen, I feel like.
I always like to think positive, and the best time of my life in wrestling was me trying to get signed by a big company. Looking back now, once I got there I was like, "Oh cool, what do I do now?" Then obviously you grow and you go forward, you grow as a performer and as a wrestler. I feel like I'm in that spot right now where I'm trying to achieve this one little thing. So I'm just kind of just enjoying the ride. Like back then it was just like, "I have to do this, I have to do this, I have to do this." Which is a good mentality to have. But if any kids out there listening, just enjoy the journey, man. Enjoy the ride. Whatever happens, you can never get that back. And if you're passionate about whatever you do, you'll achieve your goals.
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.
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