If you've gone to a pro wrestling show this year, then you've undoubtedly seen a Bullet Club T-shirt in the crowd. The black-and-white skull-style shirts advertising the independent wrestling faction have blanketed pro wrestling crowds in recent years, but never more than in 2017 after Hot Topic inked a deal to sell the shirt in its stores across North America.
The growing popularity of the shirt featuring the "Bone Soldier" logo design among pro wrestling fans is good news for Bullet Club members like Matt and Nick Jackson, a real-life sibling duo who wrestle as a tag team called the Young Bucks. "It's bigger than ever," Matt Jackson tells Rolling Stone. "We've helped build this giant empire now, and business is booming."
It's a side of the business that hasn't blown up like this in recent memory. With the WWE being the world's biggest professional wrestling company, independent promotions like the Bucks' Ring of Honor have never legitimately competed with the pro wrestling juggernaut. Now, Bullet Club T-shirts are even consistently popping up on the WWE crowd each week. The company even sent a cease and desist letter to the Young Bucks shortly after they, and other members of the Bullet Club, like former WWE star Cody Rhodes, showed up outside a WWE event in Ontario, California to film a spoof of the "DX Invasion" the WWE filmed outside of a WCW event during the Monday Night Wars. It was a move that clearly showed the Bullet Club has the WWE's eye on them, just like most pro wrestling fans have over the past year.
Speaking by phone from their home in California, the Young Bucks discussed how the Bullet Club shirts have changed their careers, how they're laying the landscape for the future of indie pro wrestling and their open invitation for CM Punk to join the Bullet Club as its newest member.
At this point, the two of you are pretty much running your own small business between booking your shows, organizing and selling merch, and running an episodic YouTube series ("Being the Elite"). What's it been like taking on that extra workload outside the ring?
Nick: That was probably the game plan for probably the last five-to-six years, because we'd see guys like Colt Cabana doing it and it made us envious. He would tell us the amount of money he was making, and we were like, "What? How do we get to that level?" We learned a lot from him and took it to a different level.
Matt: I remember literally taking a screenshot of Colt Cabana's shop and just going: "OK, he has these items, let's do that. It seems like it's working for him." Once we got our foot in the door and we saw what sold better for us, we got a better understanding of what our fans like.
You've always been wrestling in the "Internet Era" but right now you two seem like the two who really push to utilize social media. When did you start harnessing those tools?
Nick: I think after we asked for our release in TNA, because we realized we're not going to be on Spike TV every week now. We didn't have anything, and we had to use what we had and that was social media. We knew that we were outgoing – and our personalities are pretty out there and kind of crazy – so we were like, let's just up it up a little on Twitter. It sort of happened that at that time we had a little incident backstage with WWE and Booker T and he didn't like us. He said we were disrespecting all the veterans backstage, which was pretty far-fetched. From there it added to our characters, so we were like, "You know what, the Internet thinks we're cocky and arrogant, let's just act like we are and make it a whole gimmick." At that time, no one was doing it on Twitter, so we tried that, and it worked. We were getting bookings just because how arrogant and cocky we were acting.
Matt: It's funny because I think I've been privy to social media. I think I was the first person that had my Twitter handle on my gear, and I'm talking TNA days. I had @GenMeMax on my pants. [The Young Bucks' were known in TNA as Max and Jeremy Buck with the team name, "Generation Me."] As far as playing a character, like Nick said, I think it was when that Booker T incident happened. We decided not only to not deny what everybody was talking about but embrace it in a way. Again, we don't have the luxury of cable television and all this TV time to get over a character. However, we do have 140 characters – now 280 characters – to get ourselves over. You better believe we're going to use those tools. Every picture we post, every Tweet we post – it's all building blocks to what we're making a creating as characters. We always joke around that, no matter what, if we're booked weak somewhere, it doesn't matter. We want to be bullet proof, because ultimately, we have control over our characters and we will book ourselves as the strongest wrestlers in the world as long as we're in control. And with the way we do things, we're in full control. If you're a wrestler and are only as over as your push, you're in big trouble. You have to control your own destiny. Nick and I decided a long time ago that we're tired of anyone controlling our destiny. That was one thing we learned in TNA – they didn't book us right and we weren't over, so who's fault is that? Theirs a little bit, but ours, too.
Is that the mindset you have with avoiding signing with the WWE, that you want to stay in control?
Nick: That has some to do with it. Other parts, the schedule's just crazy and there's a lot of elements to that. There hasn't been a right situation for us to go there, so that's why nothing's ever gotten to the point where we did go there. There's never been a scenario where they called us or pitched an idea or any of that. The only communications we've really only ever had was a few years ago. They wanted us to come in for a tryout and at that time we felt like we were above tryouts, because we felt like we had enough work for them to watch and we didn't have to go there to do that. That was the last time we really communicated with them about coming to work there, but now I don't know. It would have to be a situation we'd be comfortable with and a situation we really wanted to do, because like Matt said, we're in control of our characters now and we're having a blast and we like our schedule. We're very happy.
Matt: It's funny, because when you're a teenager your goal is to go there, and you don't care what the circumstances would be, you just want to go there. But now, when you mature as an adult and a performer and you've built these characters and personalities for years and you do it yourself like Nick and I have, now we'd have to hand over the keys. And that's terrifying. It's like, "Here's all this hard work that we have done, now please, please don't ruin it." That's difficult and that's a gamble.
"I hate when most wrestlers say when you get into wrestling, your main goal should be to main event WrestleMania. No, it shouldn't be, because that's fake."
A lot of guys like to gamble, and it's their dream to go there and strike gold. I feel like we've already struck gold. Back in the day, the dream was to go there to maybe make money, get a t-shirt in a retail shop and maybe get a toy or have your own show. We're already doing all of those things. I really want to have a case to go there, but we've built a case to not go there so strongly at this point that it would take a lot of money, some type of guarantee in our creative that we'd be doing something interesting and they'd take care of our characters. Who's to say one person doesn't like us there and we go there, and their goal is just to get us there to bury us? Because I've heard horror stories.
That'll always be in the back of our minds: "Is it worth the gamble?" Maybe it's one of those things later in life where Nick and I will be like, "That's the one thing we haven't done. Let's go there and do it just so people can finally get it out of their system." Or maybe we never will, or maybe we'll go in a year. I don't know. Pro wrestling is so interesting; the landscape is so interesting.
Nick: We have 13 months left on our current contract, and I have no idea what we're going to be doing in 13 months. [Editor's note: The Young Bucks have a written contract with Ring of Honor and a "handshake contract" with New Japan Pro Wrestling, according to Nick.]
Matt: What's so funny is that, only in pro wrestling, can a company threaten legal action on you, but then probably offer you a job a year later. Of course [the WWE] is interested. They'd be interested in just taking us just so New Japan and ROH doesn't have us. In no other business would that be a thing.
Does it deter you away from the WWE when you see other wrestlers having issues with the company?
Nick: Oh, for sure. What it does is it makes us feel like we're making the right decision currently, because we're happy, we're not mad, we still love professional wrestling, we're not burnt out, our families are happy, we're healthy. When we see things like that, we feel like we're making the right decision. Maybe it's good that we didn't take a risk a few years ago and stuff like that.
At the same time, we have friends like AJ Styles who just became world champion again and we know how much money he's making. There's always that golden spoon over there, but for us as a tag team we know that some things like that would never be achievable. It would really just be a fake dream and it wouldn't be something that we'd be interested in. I never got into the business wanting to main event a WrestleMania. I wanted to do cool things with my brother. I hate when most wrestlers say when you get into wrestling, your main goal should be to main event WrestleMania. No, it shouldn't be, because that's fake. No one does that. Only a certain amount of people do that. It's like winning the lottery. If you get into wrestling thinking that you might be able to do that, let me cut your dream off right away and tell you it's not happening.
Matt: I always just wanted to jump off a ladder and put one of the Hardy's through a table – and I already did that. I always just wanted to be the Hardy Boyz or just have really kick-ass tag matches with my brother and make a living. I'm living my dream currently and so many people are looking at [pro wrestling] from a different perspective than Nick and I. All this time, you're chasing this dream when some of that time you've been chasing it you've been living it all along. I've already been living my dream for the last 15 years now we've been wrestling, specifically the last five where we've actually been making money doing this and I've been able to buy a house and cars and be able to hook up my family financially. It's a goal that we've already reached and now it's like everything else is like extra credit, you know?
Nick: I tell this to Matt all the time: That if this was it and the run was over, if for some reason Matt and I couldn't wrestle anymore, I would already say at this point that I'm happy with what we did. We've achieved a lot for what we were given. I could say that if it ended tomorrow, "Alright, I did it."
Matt: You say that, but at the same time we're the most competitive people in the world. Every show we're at, we want to have the biggest autographs for lines and we want to sell the most merch and have the best match. As long as we're in the business, we're going to make sure nobody's better than us. But like Nick said, if it did end, we'd both be satisfied with the places we've been, the places we've wrestled, the matches we've had, the people we've touched and the fans we've made. It's been a crazy, crazy, wild ride these last 15 years.
How much of your focus now is on your role as someone rewriting the rules of pro wrestling and laying the landscape for how future wrestlers navigate the business?
Matt: If there's any lasting impression that we've had on the business is you don't have to go there to make it. There's a different route you can take and we've finally carved our own path and I hope that motivates some of the other guys and makes them realize. Some of the guys who don't make it [in the WWE], don't be heartbroken. It's OK. You're fine. More people than ever, than I can remember in the business before, are realizing that. People are walking away from that place now. What we do in Ring of Honor and New Japan is more attractive than ever. We just landed Chris Jericho, you know? Cody coming in has been big, because I think a lot of people there are going, "Oh my god, you can not only leave this place, but you can survive and do well?" Cody is a pioneer and what he's done has been incredible for the business. This movement that we're trying to make, he's been a big part of that. I think that being successful in wrestling like us has helped other people go, "I don't have to go there to possibly get a T-shirt in every mall in America. Or I can make my own show too and I can get 100,000 views in 24 hours and people can see me." I hope people see what we're doing as we're trying to lead the next crop of guys and let them know. I call this the "DIY Era." More guys are investing in themselves and betting on themselves more than ever before. I love that, and guys like us are at the forefront of that movement.
Cody leaving the WWE and eventually joining the Bullet Club was a huge deal for that. Are there any other guys you're hoping will work with the Bullet Club?
Nick: Matt and I have been saying this a lot lately: We would love to work with CM Punk. I think it's just a matter of time for him to realize that he's missed so much. I don't think he realizes that the fans would just be so happy to see him back. To be able to work with him would help business even more, wherever that would be. It would be huge if we could get him over at Ring of Honor or New Japan and work something out. That would be one of my main goals, to get him back into wrestling.
Have you reached out to CM Punk about that?
Matt: I talk to him a lot. I bugged him for like, I don't know, a year or two? I was really aggressive and at one point I realized that I should probably let him make his own decisions. He knows that there's an offer there and he knows that I'm the first phone call that he should make if he decides to get back into the business. He's told me that, he says when or if or ever he does decide to possibly get back into it, I'll be the first guy he calls. It'll be interesting. Whether or not he plays on our team or an opposing team, it'd be fun. When we're talking about guys, another guy would be Bryan Danielson [WWE's Daniel Bryan]. I don't see him necessarily joining Bullet Club, but he'd be a fun guy to wrestle or to work with or whatever. Just to have him in the ring with us would be incredible.
Do you think guys like that – who have been out of the business but may get the taste to come back – do they see what you've done this year and look more at what you're doing rather than the WWE?
Nick: I think so, because it looks fun. What we're doing is fun and I think it translates. The fans see us having a good time, smiling and laughing. I really feel like it translates to the fans and the workers and it really looks like it's something fun to be a part of. I think what we're doing looks way more fun than what you see on TV right now.
Matt: I think that the whole independent landscape is something where they wouldn't even recognize the place anymore. It's a whole different place and has gotten so much bigger than it used to be before they all left. The crowds are bigger, the crowds are hotter, the lines are longer. It just seems like everybody's more invested in everything. Honestly, even like Kevin [Owens] and Sami [Zayn] – they really left before everything really, really blew up. I think they would be like, "Oh my god, this is what Ring of Honor is now? This is crazy." Even in Japan, the crowds are bigger there. They said that the Tokyo Dome is already on pace to being its best year in years. Wrestling's just hot right now. Sometimes when you're living in a bubble and you work for that place and you're on such a schedule, you may not see what's happening outside those doors. It's big, man. It's bigger than ever. We've helped build this giant empire now and business is booming.
Do you think a lot of guys in the WWE are realizing there's more of the "fun" stuff you mentioned on the outside?
Nick: They have to realize it at this point. If they don't, then they must be just so into their own product and that they're actually blind to what's outside of it. I can see sometimes why that happens, because when you're a WWE superstar, you live and breathe WWE and it's hard to see outside of that because five-to-six days out of the week you're on the road wrestling and doing things for the WWE, so that's all you can see. I totally get it and understand why, but if they don't see that there's a wrestling movement outside of that then it'd be crazy to me.
Matt: I think it gives them hope, too. They're seeing that things are still well outside the walls. It's hope that, "Maybe if I decide to leave one day or I get fired, I have some other place to work and make a decent living now." It used to be, 10 years ago, that if you got fired then you were probably going to be very poor. I remember making $100 a night. There was no money 10 years ago. A lot of the guys who have been there for over 10 years don't realize that it's not the same place anymore. I think it brings them hope and that maybe if things go array that there's a plan B now.