Three families met in secret in a Tokyo hotel room one night in 2016, their wrestling futures hanging on a single question—should they take their considerable talents to the WWE after years establishing their credentials as one of the top independent acts on the planet? Or should they defy convention and continue to carve out their own path in a mercurial and temperamental business?
For AJ Styles and Karl Anderson, the WWE was untried ground, wrestling's big leagues. For Doc Gallows, a veteran of the promotion, it was a time in his life best forgotten.
"We took a vote," Doc Gallows said. "My family was there. AJ's wife was there. Karl's mother was there, his wife, and it was two to one. They voted we go to WWE, and I voted no. So, I lost the bet, and off we went...We decided that we wanted to be a brand. And we knew that the strength of that brand was together."
There was reason to be optimistic that this time would be different for Gallows and his partners in crime with the Bullet Club. The heel faction was the hottest thing going in New Japan Pro Wrestling, the closest thing to cool the wrestling business had seen since the Attitude Era.
"The t-shirt, with the traditional skull logo, changed everything," Rocky Romero, New Japan wrestler and co-host of the Good Brothers' podcast Talk'n Shop, said. "I feel like that t-shirt had a lot to do with their success because it became kind of like the symbol for them. When AJ joined, that was a game-changer. Just him being a massive name and arguably one of the top five wrestlers probably ever.
"He kind of changed the game and people start to really take notice of the group. Then they saw the flags and they heard the music. They see all these kind of magnetic personalities who are also wrestlers. It wasn't just guys with gimmicks or guys with personalities who couldn't wrestle, the American wrestler we're kind of used to. These guys were dope on all levels, you know? So I think that it was just kind of a perfect storm and all kind of came together at the perfect time."
That Bullet Club t-shirt quickly became ubiquitous, not just in Japan, but in the United States as well. There were times it would be easier to glance at an independent wrestling crowd and pick out the people who weren't wearing one of the iconic black t-shirts rather than pick out the ones who were. Soon it invaded WWE shows as well, drawing the attention of executives curious about the act capable of creating that kind of buzz on the independent scene.
"We knew that Bullet Club was getting hot, but I don't know that we knew how hot it was getting over here," Gallows said. "Because we were in Japan working the whole time...I remember when Pro Wrestling Tees and New Japan came to the agreement for the licensing, and they sold 8,000 shirts in like the first hour, and they crashed their website.
"We were kind of like, 'oh s--t.' We keep saying 'this is real' in these promos, but this s--t is real. People are loving this. And that's when we kind of realized like, OK, we're really, really, really on to something cool here. And it grew from there, but I think that for all of us, we thought it was going to do well, we didn't know it was going to crash the f--king internet."
They were able to leverage that success and turn it into big money deals in the big leagues. But that foot in the door was just the beginning of the journey, the first battle in the never-ending war to stay relevant in the WWE. The promotion is well-stocked with prodigious talents who had success on a smaller level, a shark tank filled with the best wrestlers on the planet. Bullet Club was their entry point—and getting over would prove more difficult than getting in.
"I don't know that other than Triple H knowing a lot of independent talent, a lot of the international talent, I don't know that Vince or some of the people in charge of our futures there really knew what The Bullet Club was," Gallows said. "Other than they'd seen the shirts at their shows. I don't know that they even knew that Karl and I, per se, were really in it, or what we were to it.
"When there was never a point they were going to bring (former Bullet Club member) Finn (Balor), AJ, Karl and myself together, we kind of were like, 'man, that's a missed opportunity.' Even if it was brief and it spun out into some feud amongst each other or whatever, to not build to one Survivor Series match or something with the four of us—we could have even ran roughshod over one of the shows. But to not even give it one shot—that's when I was like, 'they don't understand what they have' or understand the power of what this thing could be."
Styles, spun off as a singles act, thrived. But the Good Brothers, known in WWE as "The Club," failed to thrive. They knew on some level what they were getting into. WWE is a multi-national powerhouse with over 100 wrestlers under contract. Once there, the images and brand they'd so carefully cultivated would no longer be under their control.
"Bullet Club was something they just didn't want to run with," Anderson said. "They had their own factions and their own thing. And that's fine.
"...A couple of times in WWE, they tried to make us comedic in the way they want things to be comedic. We would try to do something the way we thought it would be funny and the audience, I'm pretty sure, have found funny. But they ended up having us do it a different way and came off as boring guys with no personality on screen. And it's like, 'f--k man, you guys told us to do it that way.' But Impact is going to be a whole different ball game."
Fast forward four years and all of Gallows concerns he presented so eloquently in that Tokyo hotel room felt prescient. As he feared, the WWE creative team didn't seem to understand the Good Brothers or how to make them work in a corporate environment.
There was a mold talent is supposed to fit into, a way of doing business that doesn't allow much flexibility in format. In a way, it makes sense—with so many wrestlers under contract and so many moving parts, it's easier to rely on a house style to help maintain quality control. There isn't always time to craft each segment for the talent involved. But it was a way of working that didn't fit the Good Brothers, more comfortable shooting from the hip and taking the kind of improvisational chances the company frowned on.
"We feel like we're better off the cuff," Gallows said. "We feel like we're one-take guys, we feel like, give us a mic and let us be us. And I guess to them, we weren't a proven entity that way maybe. But that's why we had to start squeezing stuff in. And I mean, some of it was really corny, but I started saying the nerds line. And then Karl and I were like, man, I think this could get over, so he started feeding it to me, but they never wrote that for us. And then eventually they wrote it for us for a while, and then they pulled it out.
"He dropped that 'hot Asian wife line,' which was great, got a big reaction every time he would get it in there, but it was never written for him. That was just something we snuck in there. And then they wrote it a few times, and then they didn't write it anymore. So it was just, we were trying to force things...and sneak in some stuff to try to get ourselves over. It was funny because our merch would move really well, and we'd have a little steam and then it would just kind of stop. There was never any consistent momentum with our booking."
It's not that chances didn't exist in WWE for the duo. But, when they did come, the fit wasn't exactly right. Success in wrestling requires a perfect alignment of talent and material—and the Good Brothers never had an opportunity that suited them.
"There was a time they made us doctors and we hit Big E in the balls and put him out of commission," Anderson said. "They were making us do these doctor vignettes in the back and we had different ideas about how to do it. We were making the jokes more the way we would make them. But when we did that, they stopped us and made us read directly from the script. And they wanted us to be completely straight. They didn't want us to make any jokes or smile.
"'Just stand there and read it as a doctor. Like a real doctor.' And, when we did that, nobody thought it was funny. It's not our fault, but the problem with that is, I think Vince watches it on TV and says 'oh, those guys aren't funny.' And that happened a couple of times. There's a couple of times that we should have stood up for ourselves. But at the end of the day, we're going to do what we're told. And 'f--k it, you know?"
Despite their struggles and gnawing unhappiness, the two re-signed with WWE late last year, taking advantage of AEW's presence in the market to drive up their price and (they thought) guarantee a final, lucrative run together. Though creatively unfulfilled, their bank accounts would be far from empty.
COVID-19, however, changed everything.
"(Being released) shocked me and surprised me," Anderson said. "We all had a feeling something was going to happen. They had told all the talent that there were layoffs and furloughs coming. But I thought 'I feel good.' That was foolish.
"I'm happy that I had the time I had in WWE...But, with the way we were let go, I've got a really big chip on my shoulder. I'm holding a grudge. I want to go out and show everybody how good I really am."
While Anderson stewed, Gallows refused to even glance in the rear-view mirror, instead focusing firmly on the future.
"I hung up the phone with (WWE executive) Mark Carrano, I called a promoter in Spain, took two bookings for Karl and I without his permission," Gallows said. "And then I started writing Talk 'N Shop A Mania. And I called him and Rocky, and I said, 'Listen, I'm running a pay-per-view from my backyard. You guys can be with me or you can't, but I'm doing it either way, and I'm self-funding it.'
"And they were like, 'Whoa, what the f--k are you talking about?' I said, 'I have to do this, it's the best creative expression we can ever do.' We were part of this epic WrestleMania main event, this cinematic match because of the pandemic, with the Undertaker and AJ Styles, and 11 days later, we're getting shit canned. If we don't spoof that, then what the f--k are we doing?"
With WWE, a wrestler simply had to show up, do what is asked, and collect a generous paycheck at the end of the month. But it also dulls the entrepreneurial edge Gallows believes a wrestler needs to truly succeed in the age of social media.
"My father, he was a hot tar roofer when I was born, making eight bucks an hour, now he owns five businesses," Gallows said. "And he said that to me a few times during the WWE run, 'You're making really good money, but I bet you miss the hustle.' Because I've always been like this...I've always been a pusher, and a hustler, and that's why the first thing I did, as soon as that release stuff was out, I started getting the word out about us.
"...(WWE) gives you that 90 days of severance, which is very kind of them, but let's be honest—it's so that you cool off, and you don't show up somewhere hotter than a firecracker on somebody else's TV. So I think we had to go, 'All right, we've got to stay hot, we got to keep people talking. We got to figure out how to do it. Let's do it.' We're coming out with the beer, we got the podcast rocking and rolling. We're supposed to do a whiskey line, coming up here in the wintertime. So there's a lot of cool shit that we're doing, and I think you got to do that. You got to take advantage of it, you got to strike while the iron's hot. Don't take no for an answer."
In the end, despite a global pandemic, things ended up working out nicely for the pair. In addition to the pay-per-view, they focused their energy on their personal brands, building a successful podcast, launching a beer and signing a lucrative deal with Impact Wrestling to appear regularly on AXS Television and launch their podcast as a television entity leading into the weekly show on Tuesdays.
One of the first texts the two got after the news of their release broke was from Impact producer Scott D'Amore. He believed, despite years basically in limbo, that fans would get behind the team when they returned unfettered by the WWE machine.
"Part of our deal with them—Impact owns the television station they run on," Anderson said. "And they want to give our podcast a 30-minute slot on their television channel as a lead into Impact.
"It's been amazing. And we're ready for this. If you ever go backstage at WWE and see all the people working, all the trucks, the cameras, the monitors, you realize it's a totally different ball game. There's nothing like it. There's nothing like WWE. I learned a lot from those guys. From the talent I wrestled and the higher-ups like Vince and Triple H. WWE is a completely different entity. You're working for a television audience. And the amount that I learned there was incredible and will definitely help as we move on to Impact."
As they proved with Bullet Club, when left to their own devices, there's something compelling about the Good Brothers, an energy and ethos that's hard to put into words. They feel real in a way that's unusual in the increasingly artificial wrestling world.
"They've got kind of a new age Hall and Nash feel to them," Romero said. "I feel like they can just be themselves now. Why can't they be funny and be badass? You know what I'm saying? That's how all my friends are that are fighters and true tough sons of bitches. They're charismatic and they're funny, but they'll also beat the f--k out of you. Why can't you do both?
"I feel like in WWE, they say, 'you're funny, you can only be funny.' And that's not true, I think, to people, because people are so multi-dimensional, so let them just be people on TV, instead of being a character that's one dimensional."
Based on the initial response from the internet, betting on the Good Brothers was good business. The response online was immediate and almost uniformly positive. The tweet announcing their debut was the biggest success in the history of Impact's social media efforts and enthusiasm remains high as they begin their run with the long-standing WWE competitor.
"What a breath of fresh air to not be handed a script," Gallows said. "They said 'You guys go out and be you.' I think that you'll get a lot more out of us, out of Karl and myself both, if you kind of take the handcuffs off, let us be us, and let us turn up those personalities. That's what makes wrestling fun...And that's a big deal for me."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.