With their tag team the Young Bucks, brothers Matt and Nick Jackson have become the poster boys for independent stars who can make a great living outside the boundaries of WWE.
Thanks to an almost nonsensical mix of nWo nostalgia, ridiculous ring gear and flashy moves (including a heavy dose of superkicks), they have become one of the most popular attractions in pro wrestling by doing things their own way.
Beyond their look, acrobatic maneuvers and use of a resurgent "too sweet" hand gesture -- which has helped build the Bullet Club brand in Japan into something that has spread worldwide -- the biggest reason for the Young Bucks' success is their pure, unadulterated love for the business.
It was on display during the main event of Ring of Honor's "All Star Extravaganza" last Friday, as they squared off against reigning champions Christopher Daniels and Frankie Kazarian and the Motor City Machine Guns (Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin). The violent and visually stunning ladder war for the tag team titles received a tremendous reaction from fans inside the Lowell Memorial Auditorium in Massachusetts as well as the pay-per-view audience at home.
Even as Daniels and Kazarian bled profusely from wounds that would later require a trip to the emergency room, and the other four were left tremendously sore the next day, the effort was ultimately rewarding.
"It's the art ... [it] was almost like our baby," Matt Jackson told ESPN.com, while reflecting on the match the next day. "We asked for that match, we wanted the match, and they gave it to us. We felt a responsibility to really have a good one. There's something about being an artist and having this creative idea in your brain. Having it and writing it down on paper [is one thing], but actually doing it and seeing it and watching it, it's so fulfilling for me. It's so fulfilling for Nick. I think it's a thing that only an artist really understands -- you can't put a price tag on it."
There are many reasons that the Young Bucks thrive in such an environment and that their victory, becoming two-time ROH world tag team champions, has been widely praised as one of the strongest matches of the year. It all points back to the Jacksons' biggest inspirations.
"I think it has to do with us being such fans of the Hardy Boyz," Nick Jackson said. "That era of tag wrestling where we saw those great [tables, ladders and chairs] matches with the Dudleys, Hardys, Edge and Christian; that inspired us, so we wanted to try to live up to that."
The ROH ladder war certainly had echoes of those industry-changing TLC matches of that era. But despite their request for the dangerous match, and despite the enthusiasm all six men had going in, both Jackson brothers admitted there were still some nerves in the moments before they stepped through the curtain, largely attributed to a lack of buzz from the crowd.
"Then the music hit and we made our entrance, and they were already chanting our names," Nick said. "Matt and I looked at each other and we were like, 'Oh, we got it.'"
As Matt put it, for a team as seasoned as the Young Bucks, you know a great match when you're in it -- and sometimes it's clear before the opening bell even rings.
"We knew it during the entrance," Nick said.
"When things are going so right, you can feel everything building," Matt added. "You can feel it out there, [and] when four or five things went so right I was like, 'We're on to something like a classic tonight.'"
For a team that recovered from a potentially career-derailing run in TNA in 2011, and seemed to hit its peak shortly after joining Bullet Club in New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2013, the Young Bucks appear to have reached new, unprecedented heights with their work in the ring. They simultaneously hold the ROH, IWGP junior heavyweight and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla heavyweight tag team titles, and the matches they're putting on have set the wrestling world on fire.
Dave Meltzer, the veteran journalist for whom the Young Bucks named their most devastating finishing maneuver (and even plastered his face on a set of wrestling tights), has all but singled out the team for its levels of performance in the past few months. He was in attendance on Sept. 3 for Night 2 of PWG's Battle of Los Angeles as the Bucks and Adam Cole took on Will Ospreay, Ricochet and Matt Sydal.
That six-man tag team match received Meltzer's highest honor -- a rating of five (out of five) stars. It's the first match of any kind to receive this distinction in North America since a 2012 ROH showdown between Davey Richards and Michael Elgin, and only the third such match (along with the WWE championship match between CM Punk and John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011) to receive that rating in North America since March 2006.
It's a feather in the cap for the Young Bucks, who have traveled as many miles and worked as many shows of almost anyone wrestling on the independents in the past few years -- and it's allowed them to build a rabid following and have the platform needed to put on such strong matches.
"I think we just finally get it," Matt said. "We have an ear for what the audience wants and needs. We know what our fan base likes. We've done this for so long now that it comes with experience; it comes with working around the world and doing different styles."
The brothers go out there with a purpose, although that's no longer driven by a need to show that they can do it.
"I feel like our body of work has proved that we can have a 'match of the year' because we've had it many times," Nick said. "I love when someone comes in, a flavor of the month or the flavor of the year, and they come in and they say, 'This is the best tag team now.' I like that because it's competition. Matt and I go, 'OK, let's take that and use it as a motivation.'"
"As far as that goes, I don't think there's a team that can top the stuff that we do," Matt said.
"It's the starving artist in us that just wants to provide. It's the daddies in us," Matt said. "It's, 'I gotta stay on top if I want to make the most money to feed my kids.'
"If this is what it's going to take, then I'm going to do it. When we're out there busting our tails, we're doing it for our families. We want to be at the top of the mountain. We want to be the No. 1 team in the world. We can't let anybody take that away from us. This is ours, man."
That desire to be the best, and the ability to do so while staying true to who they are, has been an incredible asset for the Young Bucks -- especially in their role as a core element of the Bullet Club.
They joined the group a few months into its first incarnation, when Finn Balor was having his true breakout moment as Prince Devitt. As Balor got signed and left, the AJ Styles era began. And after another short but successful stretch, Styles too was signed to a WWE contract, along with early Bullet Club members Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson.
That kind of turnover could have scuttled Bullet Club, but the group instead continued to adapt and evolve, bringing in Kenny Omega and transitioning into yet another successful phase.
"We couldn't just beat that [same] Bullet Club, because everyone immediately is going to go, 'Eh, this Bullet Club's not as good as the other one,'" Matt said.
Styles' final appearance also allowed the trio of Omega and the Young Bucks an opportunity to separate themselves from the pack.
"We're the three guys that think ahead," Matt said, describing a friendship with Omega that dates to 2008. "We're going, 'OK, well we need to do something new and fresh.' On the fly, after Kenny turned on AJ, which was planned, the other Bullet Club members exited. Kenny turns to Nick and I, we've already at this point isolated ourselves from everybody else. I remember Kenny says to Nick, 'Should we get in the ring and give AJ Styles a Styles Clash and you guys superkick him?'"
Their collective ability to realize the potential in a moment as it was happening led them to take a chance that a lot of wrestlers wouldn't have been comfortable taking.
The immediate reaction on social media confirmed that they'd stumbled onto something big, and thus, "The Elite" was born.
"We're kind of just ...," Matt started.
"Guys who gravitate towards other things," continued Nick, explaining how the formation of the trio was a natural fit for doing their own thing within the Bullet Club. "We have different hobbies and opinions about things that the other guys are kind of like more party ..."
"[We're not really] the party guys," Matt said. "We're all brothers in Bullet Club, but the three of us were like gravitating towards each other. It was already becoming a divide in the system. Naturally, the three of us just work better together."
Their personalities and approach to the business also helped the social media-conscious brothers come up with an idea that started as something of a joke but quickly turned into a means of showing fans what life on the road as a professional wrestler is all about. That series, titled "Being the Elite," follows all three members of the group in their travels around the world.
"We wanted to give our fans something extra," Nick said. "We're not in the WWE, so we don't have an opening segment or five segments on a Monday, you know what I mean? Our platform is YouTube, and Facebook, and Vine and Twitter."
The connection with fans, whether it be through this series or fan meet-and-greets, has a real economic benefit for the Young Bucks.
"[When] we put out a new video, Matt will get alerts right away," said Nick, who edits each episode on his phone. "You just sold this shirt, and this shirt and this shirt."
Merchandise is the lifeblood of the independent wrestling world, and the Young Bucks likely have the widest variety of T-shirt designs among professional wrestlers.
"It's under 100, but it's probably between 80 and 90, I would think," Matt said. "I don't know an exact number."
"We have at least 100," Nick said.
"We've had over 100," Matt said, "but I always try to take some down and freshen it up. It's funny, because there's a lot of thought put into this, our catalog. I'm always looking at it. I'm having my wife pull numbers to see which ones are the best sellers. This is a science."
The Young Bucks have 92 items available on Pro Wrestling Tees' website, to be exact, including 83 T-shirt designs. They've also launched their own website, YoungBucksMerch.com, which has everything from signed 8x10 photos to trading cards and water bottles.
"It's cool because it's a DIY type of thing," Matt said, equating it to the lifestyle he already leads as an independent wrestler. "My wife does everything in-house. She does the shipping. She boxes everything. She does everything. She gets all the product.
"You have the posters, the pictures, we've had socks, we have DVDs, any type of autograph thing, we have stickers, T-shirts also, we have kids' shirts ..."
"Anything and everything," Nick added.
Between their in-ring performances, ability to connect with fans, position in ROH and NJPW and ability to sell merchandise, the Young Bucks have moved past a point in their careers where things could all come crumbling down -- they have guaranteed contracts and a willingness to do whatever it takes to stay on top.
As you might imagine with an act that's as popular as the Young Bucks, rumors continue to persist, as they have for the past three years, that they might end up in WWE. No matter what the future holds, right now the Young Bucks are, both in storyline and real life, at their absolute peak. Whether it's in Japan with Omega, in North America with new on-screen compatriots Cole and Adam Page, or anywhere in the world with any configuration of the Bullet Club that might come together, the Young Bucks have a built-in support system to help keep them from getting too worn down by their constant travels.
While it's a great time to be a part of a cultural phenomenon like the Bullet Club, it's also a heavy responsibility. As long as a desire to stay on top keeps driving the Young Bucks, both they and those who have the privilege of watching them should continue to enjoy the ride.
"Most of the ROH fans, they buy their tickets because we're the headliners," Matt said. "We're probably the most popular guys on the roster, so we feel like there's a responsibility to give these people who paid their hard-earned money for these tickets a show. They're going to get a show if we're on it."