By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
It seems like forever ago, but on Dec. 11, 2021, the Briscoe Brothers won the Ring of Honor tag-team titles for the 12th time. It happened at the Chesapeake Employers Insurance Arena in Baltimore, Maryland, and I was there. It was Final Battle and the name of the show took on an especially poignant life that night because many in the building believed it that it may have been the final ROH show ever.
After Jay Briscoe and Mark Briscoe defeated Matt Taven and Mike Bennett, the “FTR” duo of Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler showed up. It was the highlight of the night. The teams faced off, the crowd got as loud as it would get, and little did any of us know that it would be the precursor to perhaps the best trilogy of wrestling matches seen by a wide audience in 2022. FTR would win those ROH tag belts – and even go on to successfully defend them against the Briscoes before dropping them in an epic double dog-collar match nearly one year after that initial stare down.
The thing that struck me the most at that night of wrestling in 2021 was the reaction the Briscoes received when their music hit and they came to the ring as challengers. It didn’t matter if they were supposed to work as babyfaces or heels; the crowd was going to cheer them that night, especially considering how the future of that company – the company that became synonymous with those brothers – was very much up in the air. If Ring of Honor really was going to go under for good, what better team than the Briscoes to close things out as the final tag team champions?
That night and those reactions played in my head this last week as the news of Jay Briscoe’s death circulated throughout the wrestling world. That crowd loved Dem Boys. There’s no real other way to put it. Those brothers grew up in front of that fanbase. They became tag champions as villains and as heroes. Jay, himself, was a two-time ROH World Champion. The praise from the fans had little to do with the team’s in-ring ability (even though for my money, they’ve been one of the best tag-teams in the world for years now), and instead, that praise had everything to do with warmth. It was earned. It was looking back through a life and seeing that person who’s been there for it all. The ups, the downs, the successes, and the failures.
That’s what the Briscoes were to ROH that night. No matter which big name came into the company at any time, the Briscoes were Ring of Honor’s guiding light. No matter which up-and-comer took a step up from the lesser-known independents and stopped at ROH on their journey to the top of the pro wrestling mountain, the Briscoes were there to see them through. The drama, the uncertainty, the popularity, the rise, the fall … whatever era of Ring of Honor you want to celebrate, the Briscoes were there.
In my mind, at least some of that was a testament to the team’s loyalty. By all accounts – and especially in the wake of Jay’s passing – those two guys were among the nicest people anyone could come across. They did business the right way, they seemingly never became jaded with the wrestling world, and they welcomed any and everyone in with open arms.
The other end of that loyalty, of course, becomes a little more complicated when you consider the reported reasons why WWE or AEW distanced themselves from Dem Boys, and that includes a couple homophobic tweets Jay wrote a decade ago. The shiny mainstream companies couldn’t dare forgive Jay for what he said some ten years back. And despite the notion that AEW owner Tony Khan tried to bring them into his company multiple times in recent years, the networks on which his weekly shows appear wouldn’t let him because of those tweets.
Or, in other words, yeah, the Briscoes were loyal to ROH because they’re loyal people, but the Briscoes were also loyal to ROH because there weren’t many other options when it came to work stateside.
And now it’s too late. With Jay Briscoe gone, that team will forever exist on VHS tapes, DVDs, YouTube clips, and behind streaming service paywalls. Conversely, they will not exist in real time on the biggest platforms the wrestling industry offers. To say it’s a shame is a massive understatement. I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard over the last six days, but to be judged only by our worst moments is to be judged through a lens that lacks perspective. Sadly, that was the only lens offered to Jay Briscoe from the decision-makers behind wrestling’s most prominent vehicles before he died. It’s such a glaring example of hypocrisy that the hypocrisy itself has been at the center of a lot of dialogue since Jay’s passing, so you don’t need to hear more about that from me.
The notion of forgiveness, though? You can never say too much about that. In what some may consider an ironic twist, the Pugh family (Briscoe’s out-of-ring last name) has made it clear no more than a week after the pillar of their household died as a result of another driver crossing the middle line on a road that hate speech toward the driver that initiated the crash should not be tolerated. As Ashley Pugh wrote recently about the woman who also died in the car crash, “Please pray for the precious babies who also lost their mother. … We can not be angry. This was all God’s timing.”
One family invests in forgiveness less than a week removed from tragedy; corporate America can’t find the same in itself a decade removed from a couple tweets.
Things wouldn’t feel so dirty if Jay didn’t try so hard to make it right. So often, the public is brow-beaten into forgiving celebrities because those celebrities are the product of a machine that needs the celebrity to not go away. We’ve seen famous people get away with murder, incite riots filled with hate speech, sexually abuse others, and act like children on a regular basis only for those behaviors to be forgiven in as much time as it takes to craft a press release and appear on a daytime talk-show tour that’s supposed to convince us they’re sorry. Sometimes, we believe it. Sometimes, we don’t.
Jamin Pugh didn’t have the luxury of that type of forgiveness machine behind him. Instead, by all accounts, he did something novel: He did the actual work. He asked questions. He opened his mind. He apologized. Again. And again. And again. And again. He didn’t run from it – something so many of us can learn from as a principle to live by when we have to reckon with our own mistakes. He didn’t wait for it to go away so he could brush it off. He didn’t double-down and act defiant. He didn’t insist he was misunderstood. He heard the reactions. He accepted the ramifications. He grew. He adjusted. He tried. He changed.
But, as it turns out, the prize for doing the right thing sometimes isn’t the same prize some may think it ought to be – if there is any prize at all. Grand public breakthroughs and universal acclaim aren’t promised to those who take their errors seriously. Instead, the results are the results. Was the reward of evolving as a human being worth more to Jay than a WWE or AEW contract? I can’t speak to that because I did not know him. What I think we can all agree upon, though, after seeing the outpouring of support from the wrestling community in the wake of his death is that landing such a high-profile contract felt like the most secondary thing to him. He had his faith. He had his family. He had the things he loved and those were fulfilling enough – armed with those tools, that man could do anything, and among those things was change.
There’s been so much talk about Warner Bros. Discovery not allowing AEW to run more of a tribute to Briscoe as it did during Wednesday’s edition of Dynamite. There’s also been so much talk about how unfair Jay’s death is, how deserving he was to see through the rest of his wrestling career, the rest of his children’s journey into adulthood, the rest of life in Sandy Fork, Delaware. And that type of talk is warranted. There are so many what-if’s and there is so much heartbreak. Time is reserved for dialogue because it has to be. It’s part of healing. It’s part of acceptance.
Beyond the anger and the sadness and the tragedy, though, will be a family with a couple girls who have an infinite road to recovery as they work their way back from the same auto accident that killed their father. If you haven’t seen the photo of them in opposite hospital beds holding hands recently, go find it. It epitomizes hope and it stands for everything Jamin Pugh and the Pugh family embodies. There is no use for anger or resentment anymore – not that there ever was.
Because outside a pro wrestling world where forgiveness for Jay Briscoe from some became an impossibility resides a real world that includes a Pugh family dedicated to spreading love, brightness, and mercy for those who seek it. And there aren’t enough championship belts in the world that could measure up to the type of legacy those ethos leaves, the type of legacy those ethos breeds.
Jamin Pugh would be proud. As such, Jamin Pugh should never be forgotten.