At the tail end of 2020, a lot of us were stuck reflecting on the year and the legacy of death and needless suffering that it entailed.
As a wrestling fan, this was driven home hard by the sudden, unexpected passing of Jon Huber at age 41 due to non-COVID lung issues.
You may have, if you explore Twitter or Instagram, seen a myriad of tributes to the man. Early death is common in professional wrestling, and so are shitty people. Jon was definitely not one of those from the accounts of everyone who knew him.
Over 10+ years of his career, he had been just about everywhere – from early large indie promotions like Chikara, to Japanese promotions like Dragon Gate, he came to be most known for a 6+ year main roster WWE stint as Luke Harper and the last year of his career, spent in AEW under one of his early ring names, Brodie Lee.
I got to see him perform a handful of times live, from a ladder match at Wrestlemania 31 which I watched from the nosebleeds in a stadium, to one of his WWE returns at No Mercy 2016, to one of his last WWE pay-per-view matches at Hell in a Cell 2019, and his breakout performances on the web series that led to AEW and now supplements it, Being the Elite, were absolutely some of the best comedic performances I have ever seen. Here’s a supercut I’ve probably watched about 4 times already, and yes it is a bit long, but it is well worth it and surprisingly light on wrestling content so I would argue it is worth watching regardless.
The interesting thing that tends to be true about wrestling is that the people who have the most intimidating and awful on-screen personas are often the best people behind the scenes. From all the accounts of his co-workers across more than a decade and companies of all sizes, he was a well-meaning, kind hearted person who got into wrestling as a passion and loved it and what it allowed him to provide his family, a wife and two children.
As a wrestling fan, it is easy to be detached and disappointed in most people in the business pre-emptively. It often attracts the worst types of people, who grow their platforms via the stage it offers and then use that to spew a lot of nonsense. Hulk Hogan is a virulent racist but was also my favorite wrestler as a child. Stone Cold Steve Austin is a legendary performer with a history of domestic violence. John Cena is a great role model for kids, provided you ignore his noted infidelity. Over the summer, at the same time I was writing here about Method’s issue with harboring a pedophile (the splinter guild Echo has a lot of attitude problems and clear issues, though thankfully nothing that bad…yet), wrestling was going through a similar movement, which came to be known as “Speaking Out” and revealed that a lot of talented and well-respected men in the industry used their positions of power in various locker rooms to harass and assault their fellow performers.
Luckily, Brodie Lee was none of those things, and it made the tributes that rolled in bittersweet, in a way. For as much as the business is exposed to the public as a show and performance, there are a lot of things that we aren’t privy to, and until his death, the character Brodie Lee was kept very much up as a large, intimidating, screaming man, who dominated opponents while leading the cult-adjacent Dark Order. When his death was announced, it came as a shock – he had disappeared in late October from TV and BTE on YouTube and a lot of fans were fantasy-booking his return and speculating that he was being kept off-screen for something big on his return. Instead, a flood of raw emotion from people around the world came in, and it was touching, in a way, to know that sometimes, pre-emptive disappointment in a wrestler isn’t needed and you could feel how good of a person he was by the fact that no one had anything bad to say about him, but unfortunate that his death is what triggered that understanding.
His tribute show last Wednesday on AEW Dynamite was also a surprising gesture, as wrestling so rarely puts the plot on hold to honor the fallen. When it has happened, they can be difficult shows to watch – Eddie Guerrero’s tribute in 2005 was rough because it was clear how loved he was, and the Chris Benoit show in 2007 was a hard watch in retrospect because of what we learned after the show about the nature of that particular death. The show from AEW was fantastic, both as a wrestling show but also as a tribute, in that it was booked with matches featuring his stablemates winning in a way that made sense and still kind of kept some storylines going without being over the top, and was full of nice touches like a match booked by his oldest son, tribute videos throughout, and retiring his boots with his family to close the show, which was a pretty raw display of emotion and certainly took a kind of strength that is hard to muster.
And I felt a lot of it keenly watching the show and seeing his oldest son throughout, both being made happy by the matches and entertainment (including him getting to smack a heel wrestler on the head with a kendo stick), but also because I’ve been in his shoes, albeit with a far less famous father. I lost my dad when I was 11, and to be fair, it wasn’t anything sudden or completely out of the blue, but when you’re 11, you’re also not realistically thinking about death rates and age and the like. His oldest son is only 8, and the youngest at 3 – and I felt some of what they were feeling. While I’m this deep anyways, I should say that my father’s death and absence through much of my life has been a defining, sharply painful thing about getting older, because even when you think you have made peace with it, it definitely comes back to stab you in the chest with every life event. From every level of school graduation to world trips to my marriage this last September, there’s this new sort of bubbling up of pain and thought about what he might say or feel with each event. Granted, if he were even still alive, it would be difficult to imagine (he’d be 88 going on 89!) but I know that so much of my life story is built on a foundation that involves that loss – sometimes in ways that make me stronger and more resilient, and sometimes in ways that make me feel weak and unsure.
I think about that loss a lot, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit of delight watching his oldest son on TV, knowing he was around a bunch of people who had made it their sole mission to take some of that pain away, even as they too were feeling that loss, and it feels comforting in a way. I know that some of my hangup on my father’s death is that I didn’t have that kind of support – my parents had divorced years before – so it often felt like I was alone with my grief and I never really got to talk through it at the time or process it in a healthy way with people that knew my dad or had anything to say about him. Even still, I have three half-brothers from his first marriage that I’ve never met and I wouldn’t even know where to begin searching, or even if it would be worthwhile (they would all be around 50-60, provided they are still alive). I’ve never been able to speak with my father’s side of the family at all after his death and wake, save for one call with his brother who worked at Intel. I did get to finish Sonic 3D Blast in the bereavement days I got from school, which is funny because as an adult I know that game is bad, but it also was good to me, in a weird sort of way!
And it’s interesting to me as a topic now, working through Shadowlands content and coming to terms with the various ways in which Warcraft handles death and the afterlife, and I think that done well, that could be a really interesting concept to explore. To Blizzard’s credit, the post-ICC scenes you can get for completing Shadowmourne actually touch on Arthas’ death from a lot of different angles and it is very well-done, in my opinion. I suppose it might be too real, might hit too close to home for some, but I kind of think that fiction winding to that topic is always an interesting way to explore the concept in what is a relatively comfortable setting. My hope for the future content of the expansion is that it takes that chance and works on expanding how the story of Warcraft handles death. We’ve dealt with a lot of it as the nature of a story about war, but with the character focus, I think there’s a lot that could be done better there.
But back to the original topic, the enduring legacy of Brodie Lee’s death is that he always made his friends feel comfortable and welcome and shared his love for them with them in the moment, never shying away from it. I think that’s a lesson I know I need sometimes, especially after the division I know I’ve felt from friends in 2020. This speech from Eddie Kingston to the AEW locker room after last Wednesday’s show says it so well, and it really wraps up all I wanted to share with this post, so here it is. I’ll be back with more actual WoW content tomorrow!