Long Live The King

Think about what your favorite match is. Got it? Now think about why it’s your favorite match. Did your hero finally win the championship? Or did the hero get revenge on a villain for some heinous deed? Or did your hero wrestle their final match and say goodbye? Regardless of the circumstance, I’m sure you felt emotion. Wrestling is a form of storytelling. What makes good matches great and great matches into classics is the connection we have to the characters we’re seeing perform in front of us. The very best matches makes us forget about everything and we’re drawn into story, completely invested in the outcome of the contest.

Such a match occurred at Ring of Honor’s Death Before Dishonor XIV between ROH World Champion Jay Lethal and the challenging former champion Adam Cole.

To give some background, Lethal, the self proclaimed “Greatest First Generation Wrestler,” had held the title for well over a year heading into DBD14. During that span, he went from villain to somewhat of an hero, never embracing the fans the way he had done for so long in his past, but he was still one that a good amount of the fan base respected. He was in a multitude of great matches and he held the title with dignity, not unlike how the Harley Races and the Ric Flairs did with the NWA title in decades past. In short, he was a champion’s champion. He was the man. He was God.

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Meanwhile, Cole had joined the Bullet Club (no explanation needed, you all know who they are) and was busy making ROH matchmaker Nigel McGuinness’ life a living hell. Cole along with a portion of the Bullet Club (most notably the Young Bucks) would create chaos at ROH events, prompting Nigel to proclaim that Cole would never receive a World title shot ever again, very much to the chagrin of the former champion. Taking matters into their own hands, Cole and the Bucks would attack Lethal and cut the world champion’s hair off. This, of course, would prompt Lethal to demand a match with Cole. Nigel would reluctantly agree.

The overall story of Lethal trying to get his revenge on Cole would play out viscerally between the ropes.

And so, it was set: August 19th at Sam’s Town in Las Vegas, NV. And I was front row for it. Cole would come out, arrogant and cocky as ever. The newly bald Lethal would come out angry. In fact, during the ring announcements, Lethal would stand in the middle of the ring, just staring an hole through Cole. Before they even started, Cole took out some of Lethal’s cut off braids and showed it to the champion…and we were off! Lethal furiously beat down Cole for the dignity that was stolen from him. He pummeled Cole. He slapped him in the face. It got to the point where Lethal’s anger got the better of him and he went for the elbow drop off the top rope to the outside, but Cole moved and Lethal went through a table with a horrendous crash.

From there, Cole would dissect the bloody champion. It was a clinic. Lethal would show signs, flurries really, of coming back, but each time his emotions would get in the way before he could fully capitalize. Sitting there, it was a feeling of impending doom. It just didn’t seem like Lethal, my champion, would walk out of there with the victory. Cole tore him to pieces. Lethal looked tired, like his time was up. But he never surrendered and would go on the brink of winning several times. Cole always had something up his sleeve, however, and in the end, he would flip the champion off, enraging Lethal. This would be his undoing as Cole turned the tide one more time and hit one final Last Shot for the win. Destiny had come calling. In a match that mirrored the one where Lethal bested Jay Briscoe for the title a year before, the challenger was just that much smarter, that much tougher, and was just that much better.

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While Cole would celebrate (and get attacked by former partner Kyle O’Reilly), Lethal laid there on his back, hand covering his face. After 427 days, his reign was over. And I, for one, was completely and utterly bummed about it. After the show went off the air, Nigel was speaking to play-by-play announcer as Lethal, the now former champion, got out of the ring. The crowd, who erupted in cheers when Cole emerged victorious, chanted, “Thank You, Jay,” as he walked toward the duo. Kelly asked him a question, Lethal paused with a shocked looked on his face before leaving ringside.

After the show, I was in the hallway hanging out with some friends. The lingering crowd had largely dissipated by the time Jay Lethal emerged. It was nice to get a chance to say thank you for the show he put on that night and the nights before that. I got to say that he was my champion. He probably thought I was a total dork (which I am), but I like to think he appreciated my compliment all the same.

That match stuck with me for a few days. Even while WWE took over the weekend with NXT Takeover and SummerSlam, my mind kept going back to Jay Lethal vs. Adam Cole. Why? Because of all the matches I saw during that week (and trust me, like all of you, I watched way too many matches during that stretch), that was the one I had the most emotional connection to and it’s one that the connection became even stronger as it progressed. Adam Cole is one of my favorite wrestlers. I should have been ecstatic that he won the title, but I wasn’t. And it’s not just because I like Jay Lethal just a little bit more. It was because I witnessed a proud champion give it his all and he came up short. It wasn’t his night and as things went along, it became more and more apparent. It was hard to watch, but I kept rooting for Lethal. Hoping.

When that final three count registered, I couldn’t help but to be sad. And that’s what it’s all about. The story has highs that we all love; those moments of pure joy when your favorite wins the big match. But equally as wonderful is when your favorite doesn’t win the big match. The lows are what make the highs so great. More importantly, it’s the lows that make these characters so relatable, so human. It’s the lows that make it real. And it’s the lows that really make us believe.

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Hail to the King.

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