When I think of Brodie Lee, my mind goes to Clash of Champions 2019, when he (as Luke Harper) made a surprise return to aid his old partner, Erick Rowan, in his feud against Roman Reigns and Daniel Bryan. He had been out of action—and out of WWE’s plans—for six months, and it showed. He was noticeably thinner in the arms, sporting slightly paler skin. Word was that he was in Vince McMahon’s doghouse and had asked for his release, only to be denied to keep him from heading to AEW, the then-new challenger to WWE’s throne. That night, Harper emerged from what seemed like thin air and booted Reigns in the face, then turned around, looking half possessed.
He often looked half possessed—it was kind of his thing. In character, there was the implication of lunacy—he was the crazed hillbilly cultist, all the scarier for his lack of grounding. But there was another layer to it too: ecstasy, in the religious sense, the transcendence of pure connection with some higher power. It was in those moments of ecstasy that you could sense a wrestler at the full height of his powers, and on that night in 2019, it was in those ecstatic eyes that I could suddenly see myself. He was a little more human in form, and he had been subject of late to some very human obstacles. And yet in those wild eyes you could see nothing so much as pure passion, pure love for what he was doing. Jon Huber loved pro wrestling, and he loved being a pro wrestler. It was easy for fans to see themselves in that, monstrous as his performances may have been.
More than anything else, this generation of wrestlers is defined as largely being a group of pro wrestling fans. The sport that I grew up watching—that Jon Huber grew up watching—was heavily populated by second-generation (or third-generation) stars, born into the family business, by ex-football players who blew out a knee, and by bodybuilders and assorted other meatheads drafted into service in the ring. But the new generation grew up watching that one and rebuilt the industry as a more talented, passionate, and self-aware version of the previous one. Think Daniel Bryan slapping on submission holds out of a wrestling history book. For CM Punk, every top rope elbow he dropped was a childhood fantasy realized. The Young Bucks took postmodern slapstick to a self-referential acme. None of that makes sense outside of a lifelong passion for the sport.
Brodie Lee was a product of that. He started off backyard wrestling—a sign of punk rock cred that defined so many of today’s stars. He took his first ring name—Huberboy #2—from a tag team with his brother that never materialized, but he ran with the name. His second ring name, Brodie Lee, wasn’t taken, as was widely assumed, from Bruiser Brody, but rather from Brodie Bruce, Jason Lee’s lovable slacker character in Mallrats, to whom he bore a passing resemblance. The territorial era monster was nonetheless a part of his makeup. He worked in CHIKARA, a promotion steeped in the histories of Mexican and Japanese wrestling, in which cartoonish superheroics weren’t excess but a literary reference. He also spent time in Dragon Gate, where the mantra was up-tempo matches of mutual respect, and Ring of Honor, which was then a sort of unwitting farm team for WWE. He transformed from an overgrown luchador to a legitimate “big man,” a hirsute monster on the cusp of national relevance.
When Huber got to WWE he was paired with Bray Wyatt to be part of his Wyatt Family. It was a silly idea—though not that silly, when you consider the wider realm of pro wrestling—but they ran with it, and its sheer indulgence became one of the most compelling things in all of WWE. Bray Wyatt was the leader, the star, but Huber, as Harper, was right there, literally looming over his shoulder, his eyes twinkling with potential. Along with the Shield they were part of a youth movement in WWE, and present for the rise of Punk and Bryan and for the empowerment of the modern era of fans. The fans made Punk a top draw, and forced Bryan into the main event at WrestleMania, and in that very vein they erupted at every moment when it looked like Harper might get a shot at singles success.
Alas, it was never to be. Aside from a run as Intercontinental champion in 2014, it was a series of false starts and shocking returns with little payoff. The shock that matters most, of course, was his debut with rival AEW earlier this year in Jacksonville, but with no adoring fans due to the onset of the coronavirus. (The debut was originally meant to take place in his hometown, Rochester, New York.) As the leader of the Dark Order, he was finally living out his dream of creative control, of being a top star in his feud with company co-founder Cody Rhodes. He won AEW’s TNT title from Rhodes in August and dropped it back to him on October 7 in a spectacular dog collar match. And after that, he vanished.
It wasn’t a stunning disappearance—after all, AEW had a tendency to give its performers time off after a big loss to help sell the significance of it, and Lee’s character was a descendant of a long line of itinerant monsters. But then his absence became glaring, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, his death was announced.
The first time I felt shock—the clinical kind, the kind that tugs you by the nape of your neck and spits static in your ears—was when Jim Ross said that Owen Hart died. As with so many things in pro wrestling, it’s a moment that repeats itself. There have been too many deaths to count.
There are a lot of theories about how the end of kayfabe—the public recognition that pro wrestling is a performance rather than a real sport—came about, but the older I get, the more I hew toward the Von Erich argument, the idea that the deaths of Von Erich sons David, Chris, Mike, and Kerry (along with their foil Gino Hernandez) shoved their World Class Championship Wrestling audience into a state of hot-blooded disbelief. I don’t think that those North Texas tragedies changed the whole wrestling world, no, but I agree with the broader concept, that those moments of pain are what stun fans into reality.
The real aspects of pro wrestling are what we often thirst for, but they also are what chip way at the facade. The deaths, especially those of young, active wrestlers, are what destroy it. For fans, there’s no embracing the big lie, and embracing their part in the performance in those moments. And the betrayal is implicit: You told us this was fake, we yell at the TV set, or at the sky, or at our cardboard box of fucking LJN action figures. You lied.
If you’re a wrestling fan of my generation, your fandom is marked by obituaries; moments of sadness and terror and existential dilemma. The majority of them, even the tragic ones, didn’t give me that same shock that Owen’s death did. Maybe I was inured to it. To a large extent there was an otherness to them, even as they became recurrent. The comings and goings of wrestlers from our televisions throughout our lives made it feel like they continued to exist in some vague faraway territory, slugging on even after their deaths. But there are some moments when the shock climbs up onto my shoulders again. This Saturday was one of them, when word came down about Jon Huber’s death. He was 41 years old, in the prime of his career and, more importantly, his life.
His on-screen debut for AEW came in a video package, where he began as a mysterious shadowy figure and lifted his hood for the big reveal. “Let me make this one a little more personal, a little more tangible for you to feel,” he said, exposing his face. It was a cool moment, and it was meaningful for the weight behind it. Because everything Huber did on screen, every big boot he threw in the ring, felt tangible. It felt real. And for me it was because there was a real human doing it.
It sounds almost ridiculous to say this about a giant man with such an otherworldly presence, but the thing that made Jon Huber special was his humanity. You can see it in every word written about him over the past several days. There’s no justice I can do the man that his friends in the business already haven’t. I’d like to think I can see myself in those too, but that’s aspirational. I can grasp those human connections maybe more than I can grasp the epistemological struggles of the stars of the ’80s. But that level of love, to and from the people around you, is fantasy stuff. Huber was around my age, he had a family, and he loved pro wrestling. This is the first time I’ve heard about the death of a pro wrestler and seen myself. That’s a tiny sliver of what made Jon Huber so important.
And as much as I wished in my younger years to have some piece of the superhuman makeup of Andre the Giant or the Ultimate Warrior or Mr. Perfect, I know now there’s nothing more remarkable, more heroic, than the way Jon Huber lived his life, and the way he never had to enter the wrestling ring to accomplish it. You can see it in every tribute written about him, like the one by his old partner Erick Redbeard (formerly Erick Rowan): “He would always look forward to getting home to his family. After every loop he would say to me, ‘Goodbye forever,’ because he would want his one or two days with them, to feel like forever.”
It’s like an old story told about an old wrestler in the territorial days, except instead of it being about his drinking prowess or his fighting skills, it’s about love. I don’t have anything else to say, I’m just sitting here in awe of the man.