By Chuck Carroll

Jay Lethal is all in. Not for what Cody Rhodes and Young Bucks have in the works for September. Well, not yet anyway. But he’s pushed all of his chips to the middle of the table and is ready to perform in front of what is expected to be the largest crowd in Ring of Honor history. The Baltimore-based promotion will hold its annual Supercard of Honor event just a short drive from where WWE will put on WrestleMania less than 24 hours later. The Saturday show is a big test for ROH as it breaks from the traditional pay-per-view model and will for the first time exclusively stream a major event live on its recently launched over-the-top network, HonorClub.

It was one year ago at Supercard of Honor that a match between The Hardy Boyz and Young Bucks set ROH’s high-water mark for attendance. This year, turmoil in Bullet Club and its two biggest names, Cody Rhodes and Kenny Omega, has a global wrestling audience hooked. The dream match is spurring ticket sales that will best the house drawn by The Hardyz dropping the tag team titles to the “Bucks of Youth.”

The tag titles are now worn by longtime ROH luminaries The Briscoes, who are putting up the gold against Lethal and New Japan Pro Wrestling star Hiroshi Tanahashi. For Lethal, this is a dream match of his own, as Tanahashi is a legend in the Land of the Rising Sun. It works out well, as it also strengthens ties between the two promotions. The partnership has led to a surge in new fans latching on to ROH. According to The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, attendance has jumped by 30 percent this year.

Here’s what’s particularly fun about the match. The Briscoes are no strangers to lobbing potatoes in the ring. Meanwhile, Tanahashi comes from NJPW — home of “strong style” wrestling — and Lethal also has a wealth of experience competing in Japan. Add it all up, and this one has the makings of a classic bruising battle.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Lethal as he prepared to travel to New Orleans for the match. He’s convinced that the worldwide growth of wrestling is no fluke, as fans have more choices than ever before. In today’s age, it’s doubtful that we’ll see another Monday Night War. But a streaming war seems highly plausible, as ROH and other companies are firing shots at WWE by launching their own over-the-top services to appease the modern fan. We also talked about the expectation that Daniel Bryan would return to ROH until WWE shockingly granted the leader of the Yes! Movement medical clearance to resume his in-ring career.

>>MORE: Pro Wrestling Coverage

Jay Lethal Ring Of Honor

Jay Lethal (Photo Credit: Ring Of Honor/Oli Sandler)

Supercard is expected to set the attendance record for ROH that was set at the same time last year. Is there a different feel for these shows with wrestling fans all over the globe converging to watch you guys?

I think there’s a little extra added pressure on all the guys. Pressure that we welcome anyway, because it’s such a huge weekend. It’s actually the number-one time we have when there are wrestling fans who have never seen our product before. Hardcore wrestling fans who know about us are going to watch anyway, because we deliver a really good product. But what we’re really trying to do that weekend is not only deliver the best wrestling on the planet, but also really make brand new fans, because these people come from all over the world.

From an in-ring standpoint, describe what it feels like with more signs and crazy reactions. I know in WWE they always talk about the Monday after WrestleMania being the most fun show of the year to work. As a performer in the ring, when you’re doing the match, are you aware of what’s going on?

No, no. Not really. That’s our crowd, normally, for our shows. … We knock the level up a few, as if it was like, pay-per-view, you always bring a little something extra. Those funky crowds, you really only get to see those on TV during this weekend, we go through that all the time. We live it. Those fans are awesome.

You’ve got the big show coming in New Orleans where an attendance record is expected to be broken. But attendance for all ROH shows this year is reportedly up 30% this year. Is that something that you guys have been aware of?

You notice it. It’s definitely noticeable by all the guys at each show. When we return, there’s more people than last time. … It goes without saying, it’s already noticeable. I think we’re all to credit. I think everybody in our roster, you could look at them and say, “This is one of the best rosters in the whole world.” We go out there, we deliver, as best as we can, whether we’re hurt or not. I mean, the proof’s in the pudding, what we’re doing.

Jay Lethal Ring Of Honor

Jay Lethal (Photo Credit: Ring Of Honor/Oli Sandler)

Do you think that part of that also is attributable to the fact that some wrestling fans are just kind of growing tired of a stale, typical wrestling formula?

Possibly. I always used to hear, when I got into the wrestling business earlier, the more options for a wrestling fan, the better the wrestling business as a whole will do. I believe that, and this is proof. Not saying that they’re growing tired of what they’ve been watching, but the fact that there are more options makes them want to watch more wrestling. And I hate to think about the negative side, but if there’s more people coming to us, than there are fewer people going other places.

If you look at the heyday of wrestling. You had three huge promotions. Now there are certainly more options, and it seems like all of them are kind of fitting almost a niche role. But do you think that maybe all of this is snowballing slowly toward that resurgence that we saw in the late ’90s? I’m not necessarily talking about Monday Night Wars, but I’m just talking about general interest, overall, in the wrestling product.

I sure hope so. I got my fingers crossed, that even Impact Wrestling does a full 180 bounce back and starts pumping out some great things. I believe, as a whole, the wrestling business is doing great.

At Super Card, you’re getting the opportunity to team with Tanahasi and going against the Briscoes for the tag titles. Was that an idea that you approached Ring of Honor with?

I have no idea how this came to pass. It wasn’t my idea, I don’t think it was the Briscoes’ idea. I just think it was, “Hmm, what could we do? Something different. What kind of match could we have, that’s never been done before?”

That’s what Ring of Honor loves doing, stuff that has never been done before. Which is the key to this New Japan working relationship. We can have these matches that have never been done before, and some people consider them to be dream matches. I’m not saying, my tag match is to be considered a dream match, but it definitely has never occurred before, which makes it super interesting. You got to keep delivering something new. You can only have the rematch happen several times, before it starts to get boring.

Jay Lethal Ring Of Honor

Jay Lethal (Photo Credit: Ring Of Honor/Oli Sandler)

Who told you that this was in the plans? Was this at the Vegas pay-per-view [Anniversary Show], that they pulled you aside or did you get a phone call?

Yeah. At the Vegas pay-per-view is when I was told about the match and I couldn’t be more excited. The Briscoes, I feel, are one of the greatest tag teams of my generation of wrestling. Any time I get to step into the ring with Jay Briscoe, I feel like, I’m really performing at my best. He really brings out the best in me. And then to put on top of that I’m teaming with a frigging rock star, Tanahasi. I mean, this match is going to be amazing.

At the last pay-per-view Austin Aries makes an appearance. He’s the Impact Champion and came in with three or four other belts. Then you’ve got Bully Ray who, although is under contract with Ring of Honor, obviously has the close ties to the WWE and has the Hall of Fame connection this year. Then you also have the working relationship with New Japan. Did you ever think we’d see a time like this? Is this a good idea for fans, or is it a little bit confusing to mix everything together?

I think it’s a great idea. I’ve never thought that I would see a time like this, but the more options, the better. The coolest part about wrestling, I think, is when you start delivering and doing things that have never been done before. That’s what keeps it fresh and interesting. So I think this is a win-win for everybody, especially because I can’t even remember a time when I thought this would even be possible. That really sparks interest. Plus, if everyone’s working together in some aspect, then the fans win.

The craziest part about wrestling has always been, if you want your particular promotion to succeed or to go as far as possible, then you got to get a little selfish. You only want your product sold, or your merchandise seen. You only want your stars on TV and nobody else’s. That’s the selfish mentality you have to have to make your wrestling product the best it possibly can be. But think about putting those selfish thoughts aside so that the fans can get something new and fresh and something that they never dreamed that they’d see before. I just think that’s amazing.

Daniel Bryan. Were you surprised that WWE cleared him to come back? I mean, what were you expecting there?

I’m not surprised. I haven’t talked to Daniel Bryan, or Bryan Danielson, as I have known him. I haven’t talked to him in God knows how long. It’s been years. I don’t know any of the story, but something tells me that if they let him go, he would find a way to wrestle again. I really believe, in my heart, that he really does want to wrestle.

I think that he would do anything to get cleared. Like I said, I don’t know too much, but I think there’s a slight chance that he may have been on the cusp of getting cleared. But the WWE, you know, they’re so cautious and they take all proper measurements possible to ensure the safety of all of their talent. So I think that Bryan may have been on the cusp of getting cleared, but not fully. So maybe they just said, “We’re not going to risk it.” He may have been hurt inside, because of course, he wants to wrestle. I think that, once his deal ran up, whenever it does run up, I think he would have found a way to wrestle, eventually.

And I think, WrestleMania, like I said, it’s all about trying to find something new and interesting and exciting. Daniel Bryan’s been out of action for a while and how exciting is it to hear that he may be wrestling?

I definitely think that, if they let him, allow him to wrestle, then maybe his deal is up, it’d be easier to keep him around, than have him wrestle for someone else.

Jay Lethal Ring Of Honor

Jay Lethal (Photo Credit: Ring Of Honor/Joey DeFalco)

Did you ever think at some point as the whole thing was playing out that, “We got a pretty decent shot of getting him back in an ROH ring?”

Oh, God. No one’s really said it, but I think secretly we all thought that. I think that we were all praying for it, because it’d be amazing. It was so sad to see him go to begin with. I think we all were kind of keeping our fingers crossed for that one.

There’s the big All In show being run by Cody and The Young Bucks in September. They’re calling for a 10,000 attendance. They’ve got this big arena booked. For an indie show is that crazy talk?

It is. It is kind of crazy talk. But this Bullet Club, I didn’t expect it to get as big. I don’t know if anyone expected it. I think, fingers crossed, they hoped it would. But this Bullet Club mania is sweeping the globe right now, and anything is possible. It’s a tall order to fill, but I think they can do it. I got faith in them.

Any talk about you being there in Chicago for this one?

Yeah, possibly. Possibly. I wouldn’t mind being a part of this. I think it’s definitely something cool and exciting, and everyone wants to be there to see if it succeeds or fails. I definitely want to be there to watch them succeed.

WRESTLING NEWS & NOTES

WWE had a number of injury scares recently with little time before WrestleMania. SmackDown Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair was pulled from in-ring competition recently following dental surgery to treat an oral infection, according to The Wrestling Observer. Her absence threatened to derail her match against Asuka in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Shane McMahon was hospitalized with diverticulitis following a recent family vacation to the Caribbean. However, Daniel Bryan stated that McMahon is expected to compete at WrestleMania, while announcing that he would be teaming with the ailing commissioner to face Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens in New Orleans.

Flip Gordon and The Young Bucks challenging SoCal Uncensored in a ladder match for the ROH six-man tag team championship has been added to Supercard of Honor. Gordon tells me he was particularly excited when he found out about the contest. “Our styles are similar and we’re all crazy,” he said. “So adding ladders to the mix… just imagine what we’ll come up with.”

>>MORE: Flip Gordon, Pro Wrestling’s Next Big Name

Ring of Honor’s HonorClub app is now in beta testing. The company solicited fans to test out the app and provide feedback before its official launch, which has been promised for some time before Supercard of Honor next week. Features include access to live streams of all events, though access to pay-per-views costs slightly more. Trivia questions and polls offer users an interactive experience.

Major League Wrestling is the latest promotion to receive national television clearance. Major League Wrestling: FUSION marks the return of legendary WCW announcer Tony Schiavone who once again will be behind the microphone. The first episode is scheduled to air April 20th. Company sources say there have been discussions about touring, but nothing is concrete at the moment. The promotion is being run by former WWE writer Court Bauer.

Chuck Carroll is a former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality who now interviews the biggest names in wrestling. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.

Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.

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