So when the 26-year-old watched the beloved superstar’s retirement announcement, it got him thinking about his own success and the impact the “American Dragon” had in making it possible.
“I became a bigger wrestling fan because of guys like Daniel Bryan and CM Punk,” Cole said.
“When I first started wrestling, all I really watched was WWE. I caught on late to WCW and ECW. Then, when I got the internet, I found out about guys like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan. Two of the first independent DVDs I ever purchased as a fan was the Best of CM Punk Volume 1 and the Best of Bryan Danielson Volume 1 in Ring of Honor. The first time I saw him wrestle I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy is amazing.’ So to get to go watch him in Ring of Honor was really cool and kind of expanded my knowledge as a wrestling fan.”
Cole says he will never forget sitting in the Hammerstein Ballroom, marveling at the 40-minute war between Bryan and KENTA. He recalls first breaking into the business and being on a few shows with Bryan, whom he describes as a “class act” and a guy the entire locker room would watch in the ring from backstage.
“We were eager to learn, and captivated by what he did — just like the fans were,” Cole said. “Fast-forwarding through the amazing career he has had in WWE, I know it has been said a lot, but it’s completely true — there is nothing fictional about this. Bryan was really one of the main catalysts of guys to completely break down that wall and create the perception — not only to the hardcore wrestling fan, but to the casual one as well — of what a professional wrestler can and should be. So I think the entire direction of what a WWE superstar, what a pro wrestler, what a sports entertainer is has completely changed because of Daniel Bryan.”
Cole is part of the current crop of talent turning heads with ROH, an organization in which Bryan made a name for himself. Many WWE athletes have honed their skills within the promotion for more than a decade. But within the last few months in particular, ROH and its partner New Japan Pro Wrestling, have been hit with a number of exits.
“It’s a certainly a combination of emotions, but I believe it’s all positive,” Cole said. “For example, even though we are sad to see some of our friends leave, we are happy they are going to make more money or do what is best for them and their families. This locker room is filled with a lot of tight-knit people that genuinely want success for each other. The other reason it is OK that guys leave is that Ring of Honor has always been a promotion that is built on creating future stars. This gives the chance for guys who maybe weren’t in the main event scene — who were on the cusp of being breakout guys within Ring of Honor — and giving them the chance to shine and showcase themselves.
“I stand by the fact that Ring of Honor has one of the best wrestling rosters in the entire world. so it gives guys a chance to step up and prove how valuable they really are. Ring of Honor will always be that company where people leave; that is just the nature of the beast. But I know I’m fully confident in our roster. Our fans are fully confident in our roster. There will always be people coming and going in Ring of Honor, and I think that helps make it such an exciting wrestling promotion.”
Listening to him, and observing how he carries himself, Cole has proven to be a tremendous ambassador for ROH. The former world champion is dedicated to helping his present employer reach new heights.
“If you were to ask me two or three years ago, I would say I definitely want to end up in WWE,” Cole said. “There is no doubt that is where I want to go and end up. For me to say today I don’t ever want to have a WrestleMania moment one day, I’d be lying to you. However, the growth of Ring of Honor over the years and the leaps we’ve made as a company is something I’m really proud of. I’m happy I got to be kind of at the forefront of that whole thing. Wrestling has gotten crazy lately in that guys can really make comfortable, good livings outside of WWE.
“So right now really is how I always been when I started wrestling at age 18,” Cole continues. “I focus on the task at hand and what is in front of me. I’m going to be with Ring of Honor for a while. So I’m focused on making Ring of Honor the best company it can be. As far as my future goes, it’s what they always say in wrestling, which is never say never.”
Much like Bryan, Cole has battled his share of injuries including a recent one to his shoulder. But absence made hearts grow fonder for him. He could feel a new level of respect from the audiences. They genuinely missed him, and let him know it when he returned late last year.
The outpouring of love certainly helped on his road to recovery.
“The mental aspect of rehab and getting surgery and sitting at home and not doing anything was definitely the most challenging thing,” Cole said. “As happy as I was for our roster and everyone doing so well, I wanted to be part of the action. I wanted to be involved. It’s very depressing. That’s just me being completely honest, because I’m so used to coming out weekly and performing. Instead, I had to sit at home and not do what I love to do. When I was really happy, I expressed myself with wrestling. When I was really sad about something, I expressed myself with wrestling.
“On a personal note, for example, my grandmother — who was like a second mother to me — passed away right around when I got surgery,” Cole continues. “So my way of dealing with it was pro wrestling — but I didn’t have pro wrestling to deal with it. It was a real challenging time. I could not wait to get back in the ring. Then when I did, obviously, I was ecstatic and excited to be back.”
Cole also credits his late grandmother with helping him cultivate his love for pro wrestling. He was introduced to it through a karate instructor, but she used to take him to the video stores.
“I come from a really small town, so there were literally just six wrestling VHS tapes you could borrow,” he said. “Every single week she would take me to the store and let me get a new tape. After I went through all six, I would just re-cycle through them. She would sit with me and watch the shows. And she wasn’t even that crazy into wrestling. She wasn’t that much of a fan. She just loved the way wrestling made me feel. My grandmother was very sick, so she wasn’t able to travel or get out of the house. I felt I had to get to a point where I could wrestle on TV or pay-per-view so she can see me wrestle. I’m very fortunate that she was able to see me wrestle before she passed away. I am grateful for and thankful for that.”
Cole is also appreciative for the chance to, once again, go for the ROH World Championship against current titleholder Jay Lethal and Kyle O’Reilly at the 14th Anniversary Show Friday, Feb. 26 at 9/8CT on pay-per-view. His history with O’Reilly in particular adds extra intrigue to the main event.
“Looking back at moments in ROH, my favorite was the ‘hybrid fighting rules’ match I had with Kyle O’Reilly in New York City in June 2012,” he says. “That was a match where we were fairly new to the company and still trying to get our feet wet as being recognized in Ring of Honor. That match, I happened to get my lip busted open. With it being in New York City and a rabid audience, the fans were going crazy. I had blood squirting all over the place. Kyle and I were made that night. I compared it to a lesser extent probably to the ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and Bret Hart match where the tide turned in one night. That was the case for me and Kyle. It was really special to me.
“…. I met Kyle even before we got into Ring of Honor,” Cole adds. “We had a pre-show match for Gabe Sapolsky for Dragon Gate USA. We met each other 20 minutes before we wrestled. That specific match put us on the map in the independents, and therefore got us signed with Ring of Honor. We both got signed at the exact same time. The company wasn’t sure what to do with us and threw us together as a tag team. It worked out great. We have as much chemistry now as we did then. It’s pretty cool to see how our careers have crossed paths since we met and will for years to come. This is another chapter with this saga.”
- Catch Ring of Honor on Comet TV Wednesdays at midnight ET and weekly on Sinclair Broadcast Group affiliates. Fans can also watch the action unfold on ROHWrestling.com.
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Photos Courtesy: ROH