By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays) – Photo Credit: AEW
Well, 2020 can go get bent. As if this year hasn’t been one long cry in the first place, the death of Jon Huber (Brodie Lee in AEW; Luke Harper in WWE) over the weekend — the same weekend the world of professional wrestling lost one of its best-ever professional wrestlers, Danny Hodge – proved that just when you think the worst can’t get worse, it gets … well … worse.
But I’ll spare you the preamble this week. Instead, let’s get to it.
‘MY BROTHER, MY PARTNER, MY TERRY GORDY’ – Bray Wyatt
I learned about Huber’s passing late Saturday night, when a friend texted me a screenshot of AEW’s tribute. From there, I hit The Twitter to find an outpouring of emotions from anybody anywhere even remotely involved with the wrestling business. It got to a point where I had to look away from my phone because anytime I came across a tweet, my eyes welled up.
Then, a handful of hours later, when I got in bed to head for sleep, I checked again, thinking that perhaps the chatter might have turned to something else. Nope. Every single person I follow was still tweeting about it, still publicly grieving, still searching for words.
I woke up Sunday thinking that between football and the time that had elapsed, my feed would surely be infiltrated with other topics, right? Again, no. As I scrolled, I kept reading, and again, I kept tearing up. More details emerged, sure, but those details were buried beneath the memories so many people from every walk of wrestling life shared.
Finally, Monday morning, before I began work on this, I opened up Twitter one more time. Two days had passed. A full NFL slate was over. College football bowl games grew one day closer. New Year’s Eve was looming. But, again, no. Photos and videos and tributes and messages completely filled my timeline.
The message I wanted to see the most was whatever came from Bray Wyatt. Say what you want about his in-ring work, but as I stated in one of these pieces a few weeks back, the Wyatt Family was one of the biggest reasons I wandered my way back into wrestling fandom six or seven years ago. Those guys must have been close, I thought, and I’ve always been interested in what Bray Wyatt says or does outside of the wrestling realm for reasons I can’t even really explain.
That’s where I read the phrase, “You were my best friend. My brother, my partner, my Terry Gordy. We changed this whole game because we refused to do it any way but our way.”
After talking about how angry he was, how he missed Huber’s sarcasm and how the two of them were supposed to be “bald and useless running Wyatt Family spots in high school gyms in our 70s,” he addressed Huber’s family, specifically, his children.
“I will make sure your son knows the incredible man you were,” Wyatt wrote. “Not the legends people will tell, but the real you that very few people got to see. I promise I’ll put him over clean in dark matches when he’s old enough, just like I promised.”
And that was when, after two days of tearing up, I finally did it. I finally broke down for good. I finally cried.
‘WE ALL WORE THEM IN TRIBUTE’ – Chris Jericho
That comes from something Chris Jericho tweeted out, as he explained that Huber was once annoyed he didn’t have his own merch shirt in WWE. Naturally, then, after a while, one of the other wrestlers got a few made up and Jericho’s tweet was a picture of some of the guys wearing those shirts, complete with Huber’s face on them.
I bring this up, why? Because while entertainment deaths always have their share of people paying tribute on social media, I can’t ever recall a time when so many colleagues of the deceased came forth so honestly, so passionately and so communally in the wake of a friend’s death. Referees. Wrestlers. Officials. Podcast hosts. Wrestling journalists. You name them, each had something to say in tribute to the guy, and each tribute was unique, sincere and sometimes painfully honest.
It didn’t matter which company they worked for, it didn’t matter what their reputations were in or out of the ring, it didn’t matter how high on the food chain or how low on the food chain they were, it felt (and still feels, for that matter) like everybody who ever came in contact with Jon Huber, in any way whatsoever, was taken by how incredible of a human being he actually was.
That’s high praise coming from an industry filled with people who are notoriously paranoid, oftentimes egocentric and occasionally impossible to do business with – one guy, no matter where you look, was universally beloved, and universally respected. None of the social media messages came with caveats, and none of them, on any level, felt forced. Everyone shot from the hip, reiterating the precise value of the “first thought, best thought” mantra.
At the end of the day, it made anyone who never crossed paths with him jealous that they never got to say hello or even ask for an autograph. There are deaths that move people, there are deaths that are less surprising, there are deaths that make you pause for a moment of grief; this is a death that is shaking the professional wrestling world to its emotional core, which, to those of us who never had the privilege of knowing Huber, is kind of surprising.
And why is that?
‘EVERYONE KNEW BRODIE WAS GOING TO BE A BIG DEAL’ – Evil Uno
Because in WWE, Huber was always known as the guy who had all the talent in the world, but was one of the many who fell into the category of People They Don’t Know What To Do With. After getting to AEW, some of us saw for the first time what others knew for years prior as he took the Dark Order, a faction that fans and pundits alike dismissed incredulously for weeks on end (not unlike what Retribution in WWE is going through right now) and slowly turned it into both entertaining and credible television.
Of all his successes in and out of the ring, that must have been one of his largest accomplishments, and it’s one for which he didn’t even really get to see the fruits of his labor. One short run with the TNT Championship, and his health issues took hold until his death this weekend. For those of us just now seeing him get a run in a top-of-the-card slot, things felt like they were going to be a little different for the 41-year-old, when you consider his spotty run in WWE.
But, as it goes, such was not to be. There is beauty in his final match being a dog-collar match against Cody, who, serendipitously, was the first and last person to pin Huber on television (the first happened in WWE, the last, obviously, in AEW). A dog-collar match is one of the most old-school things you can do these days, and if nothing else, so many of the tributes coming in proved that Huber was as big a fan of professional wrestling as anybody. So, naturally, you have to think he knew the significance of a dog-collar match, and naturally, you have to think he knew the significance of a dog-collar match with Dusty Rhodes’ son.
Speaking of Dusty, and speaking of old-school ethos, I’m sure there’s something to be said for Huber’s death coinciding with Danny Hodge’s passing; I’m just not sure what it is because my mind can hardly get past the fact that both guys are gone. You have the quintessential old-school guy who had all the potential in the world, yet suffered an impossible setback when he was involved in a car accident that broke his neck. Huber, meanwhile, was oozing potential and just starting to realize it on a major stage when his illness took him away from the wrestling world far too soon.
And to think, Hodge and Huber aren’t even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wrestling deaths in 2020.
‘GOODBYE FOREVER’ – Brodie Lee
To hell with this year. In addition to Hodge and Huber, perhaps the most heartbreaking story of 2020 came in the form of Shad Gaspard’s death, as he told a rescue crew to save his son rather than him as both were caught in a rip current in California in May. His son survived while Gaspard passed away, and the more you think of that, the more broken your heart becomes.
Then there’s Rocky Johnson, who not only is a former tag-team champion in WWE, but also the father of The Rock, who is perhaps the biggest wrestler-turned-actor success story in the history of the business. He passed away all the way back in January, and his legacy is one that will live forever, partly because of his son, but also because he was one of the two first-ever Black champions in WWE history.
James Harris, otherwise known as Kamala, also passed away this year (in August, to be exact), after a long battle with numerous health issues. Though he lived to be 70, I can’t imagine him looking like anything other than the person he was when he painted his face and stepped into the ring with Hulk Hogan. Paint was also a staple of Joe Laurinaitis’s act when he was a member of the Road Warriors/Legion Of Doom. Animal, as he was known to fans, died in September while he was on vacation.
We also can’t forget the workhorses who sadly left us in 2020. Bob Armstrong and Tracy Smothers were revered by their fellow professional wrestlers as some of the best workers in the business and both passed away this year, Smothers in October and Armstrong in August. Howard Finkel also left us in April, and it’s awfully hard to imagine any other ring announcer having the type of profile he had during all those years he introduced wrestlers as they walked to the ring.
Finally, while I know I’m leaving out others (Zeus, La Parka, etc.), I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out two more. The first is perhaps the saddest of 2020: Hana Kimura took her own life in May and at 22 years of age, that was far too young. Not only did it remind us all of the perils that diving into the social media world often brings, but it should also serve as one of the thousands of reasons you can’t put a price tag on kindness. The Stardom star deserved better.
Last, but never least, is of course Pat Patterson, whose death earlier this month is still ringing in our ears. It also proves once again that terrible things come in threes. First, the best finish man in the business dies, then the best pure wrestler in the business dies, and now, after seeing the outpouring of emotions coming from hundreds of his colleagues, arguably the best human in the business dies.
It’s all so much.
‘I GUESS IF I HAD A GOAL IN LIFE, IT WAS TO BE AS GOOD A DAD AS MY DAD AND I THINK I’M ON MY WAY’ – Jon Huber
There’s a video floating around somewhere with a WWE logo on it where Huber says that about his father and then begins tearing up himself. I’ve watched it three times now, and I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Deaths are always moments that give us pause, not just because of the pain we feel, but also because of the desire for perspective that evades us in normal, everyday life. When someone passes away, we tend to take stock of things we don’t often take stock of regularly, for better or for worse. We don’t have to know someone to be affected by their death; we can read about memories or listen to stories and paint a singular portrait for someone who instantly becomes less of a stranger and more of an inspiration.
That’s who Jon Huber was. I never met him and I can’t even speak all that well to his work, but I what I can do is tell you that seeing the flood of feelings that continues to rise makes the river basin feel a little more pure, a little more heartbreaking than it would on a day when rain isn’t in the forecast. Huber wasn’t just liked; he was beloved, he was cherished, he was respected, he was adored. Insert the cliche about how you can learn a lot about who a man really is by what other people say about him and in this case, that’s only the beginning. His death is one final boot to the face that 2020 couldn’t help but get in before it left us for good.
Even so, death is also a time to remind ourselves how fragile and cherished life itself should be. Jim Ross has said for years on his podcast that our tomorrows are never guaranteed, and those are wise words from a wise man. Maybe Huber’s death will inspire us to take a deeper breath the next time we need to settle down. Maybe it will inspire us to be a better partner, or a better father, or just an all-around better person. Maybe the next hug we give will be a little tighter. Maybe the next inconvenience we suffer will sting a little less.
Whatever it may be, the love generated online for someone who loved wrestling will forever serve as a massive example of the good that wrestling can bring into someone’s life. Huber was able to touch so many and inspire people he’ll never meet through this weird world, and those around him have reminded us of that in the wake of his passing. Some people live life for the journey; Huber appeared to live life for love. Love for others. Love for the pro wrestling business. Love for the roads that journey provided.
And if there’s any way we can honor him in the wake of his unexpected death, it’s the distribution of such love that will hopefully forever live on.