Remembering Brodie Lee

Jon Huber, known in wrestling as Brodie Lee and Luke Harper, passed away suddenly on December 26, from non-COVID related lung issues. He was 41. In a year rife with shock and tragedy within the wrestling industry, his passing registers as one of the biggest: Universally loved by his peers, lauded for his dedication to fatherhood and his commitment to his friends, and professionally in the middle of a creative renaissance that instantly made him one of the most compelling characters on television, it is hard—impossible, even—to imagine wrestling without Jon Huber, but here we are.

I don’t really know what to say, honestly. It’s hard to know what to say about anybody’s death, public figure or not, acquaintance or stranger, fan or ambivalent onlooker, because the stone heaviness of their passing obligates one to sum up what they meant to you, whatever your relationship to them was, before really, truly processing the sudden lack of that person in your life

So I would like to begin by saying that I am a fan of Jon Huber’s work. That delving into tweets and Instagram posts over the past days has fleshed him out as a man, but that I can’t pretend to know him. That this is one of the more difficult to articulate aspects of enjoying wrestling, how one expresses grief for someone they know as a performer playing a part in an elaborate fiction.

If you watch wrestling, even from a detached, dispassionate vantage point, you are simultaneously integrating the character and the person behind the character into your life in a way that’s largely different, I think, than one does with people who create other kinds of media. It’s an interesting phenomena, born from the necessary, welcomed intimacy between wrestler and wrestling fan, but one look at social media since Jon Huber’s death shows that this comes at a cost. When wrestlers die, fans grieve. As more and more stories emerge from wrestlers, staff, and other fans, that grief intensifies. As wrestling is a narrative that does not end, it isn’t possible to step outside of wrestling to take a breath. Weeks pass. Months. The ache of that loss doesn’t just go away—it’s a bruise you touch every time you watch the show. Even if the wrestler would want you to continue to enjoy the show. Especially because the wrestler would want you to continue to enjoy the show.

Death blurs the performer/performance line considerably, somehow shrinking and expanding the gap between the two. One is horrifyingly aware of two things: A real person is gone, and a thread in a fiction that wasn’t designed to have a conclusion is cut. Honoring that is hard, especially when the wrestler in question was active two months ago, when his last appearance was a match that, until yesterday, seemed like it was a piece of the puzzle that is a wrestler’s in-ring career, not the last one. We should be talking about Brodie Lee as someone who is still building his legacy, not determining what that legacy is. It is incredibly, obviously unfair. One feels the need to say something, but what can you say about a stranger you’ve known for more than a decade?

Since I am ill-equipped to talk about Jon Huber the man, the father, the husband, the friend, what I’m left with is what drew me to his work, what I admire about it, and how I think it will be contextualized in the broader context of professional wrestling history. Those things don’t feel very important at the moment, but speaking to what made a wrestler great is one of the few means of grieving wrestling fans have access to.

And Brodie Lee was a great wrestler. When I got into indie wrestling a decade ago, Lee already had a reputation as one of (if not the) best big man wrestlers in the world. Regardless of where he wrestled or how he was utilized, he never dropped that accolade. Given how much has changed about wrestling as a physical endeavor, how standing moonsaults and step-up topes are not uncommon out of men his size, that’s a massive accomplishment.

It had a lot to do with how real he made his various characters. Roughneck bully truck driver? Whacked out swamp cultist? Erudite cult leader prone to snapping at his underlings? There is a certain viciousness required to make these characters work, a way of throwing one’s weight around that’s simultaneously reckless and thoughtful. Not just “if I kick this man it will hurt,” but “if I kick this man here, when he’s least expecting it, I will ruin his entire world.”

This worked incredibly well in promotions like CHIKARA, where he could play the big bully against the company’s comparatively smaller roster. But being a big man isn’t just a matter of brutalizing every cruiserweight you come across. The trick to being a good big man is the ability to convey vulnerability. In the 1990s that mostly meant selling when you missed a big sit-down splash. After the ascent of wrestlers like Rey Mysterio Jr. and the sizing down of wrestling in general, that meant figuring out how to make size and reach seem like less of an advantage than they naturally are.

His particular skill in this regard was hubris, an unrelenting belief that his size and ability could get him out of any circumstance. You can see the surprise on his face every time that doesn’t bear out, from his CHIKARA feud against Claudio Castagnoli that ended in a cage match to his loss to Cody Rhodes in a dog collar match. In a lot of ways, the way he carried himself from bell to bell reminds me of Big Van Vader—confident, prepared, completely unafraid, but capable of getting rocked as a consequence of overconfidence. The drama of a Brodie Lee match isn’t whether or not he loses, but whether or not he can recover from a killshot, whether the guy in the other corner can weather that comeback. It’s extremely difficult to cultivate an presence that suggests that your opponent has one shot to knock you out. Lee had it, and often without the kind of strong booking that gave wrestlers like Vader and Brock Lesnar a similar edge.

The most obvious wrestler to compare Brodie Lee to is Bruiser Brody. Once there was some separation between the Brodie Lee of the indies and the Luke Harper of WWE, that came into sharp relief. The hair, the beard, the inarticulate, doomed wailing during a match—in “regressing” from hickish truck driver to wild-eyed cultist, he managed to seamlessly integrate a style of big man wrestling WWE historically struggled with onto broadcast television, and in so doing was an essential aspect of one of the most important feuds of the last decade.

WWE

The first iteration of the Wyatt Family was almost too good to be true. Just in terms of how the group was constructed, there’d never been anything quite like it on WWE television. Three men, each one larger and more brutish than the last. What was scary about Bray Wyatt wasn’t his promos or his entrance or his wrestling, but the fact that he had two men, Harper and Erick Rowan, who believed in what he had to say to the extent that they said virtually nothing on their own behalf. Previous to the Wyatt Family, if you clocked Brodie Lee good, you might get the win. In WWE, catching Luke Harper on the jaw meant Wyatt or Rowan would be in to have his back.

It feels very simple in retrospect, but from the end of the manager-led factions of the 1980s until 2013, WWE’s idea of stable building was based on either the Four Horsemen or the new World order. The Wyatts grew and contracted in the five years between their 2012 debut in NXT and their 2017 disbanding, but in tightening the group to three (like the Freebirds, original nWo, original DX, and so on), Bray Wyatt, Luke Harper, and Erick Rowan weren’t just guys who liked wearing the same t-shirts. They were men with common cause. They didn’t just believe Bray Wyatt—they believed in each other

In the ring, Rowan was the invulnerable one and Wyatt the closer. Luke Harper, then, was the workhorse, the stamina, the technician of the crew, a mountain of a man who could do superkicks and headscissor takedowns and middle rope powerbombs and wild suplexes while managing to make his opponents look like they had more hope than they did. The structure and pacing the three figured out was brilliant, the kind of thing wrestling trainers will breathlessly speak about for the next decade and that a microgeneration of fans will hold up, not incorrectly, as some of the best wrestling of its time.

It’s impossible to single out a Shield vs. Wyatts match, so aside from choosing the above highlight video, I won’t. As a whole, they constituted WWE’s most successful project of the last decade, a feud that managed to define two factions, six individual wrestlers, and a highly successful tag team simultaneously. Four participants in the feud—Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, and Bray Wyatt—won various iterations of WWE’s world championship as a consequence of this feud. Erick Rowan and Luke Harper were one of the company’s signature teams during a brief but incredible period for tag team wrestling.

The Wyatt Family vs. The Shield is as important to the evolution of WWE’s in-ring style as its vaunted 1980s tag team division. They’re all bangers, even the odd castoffs that found their way onto shows like WWE Main Event in the early days of the WWE Network, two teams of three who had something to prove to each other even before creative added their bells and whistles. They were fast, chaotic affairs, life or death struggles that weren’t built on championship aspirations or a wrestler’s struggle against the machine, but on the desire to produce hard, irrefutable proof that one team was better than the other. Plain and simple wrestling. Blood and guts wrestling. Timeless wrestling.

Both crews were dominant, but in completely different ways. There was something more precise about how The Shield operated, something neat and clean about their wrestling, despite Dean Ambrose being the group’s “lunatic fringe,” that would naturally rub the dirtier, meaner Wyatt Family the wrong way. When they wrestled, it was like watching a fire build from ignition to uncontrolled burn. There was so much weight behind each strike, each throw, each shift in momentum.

As the swing man of the Wyatts, Harper was frequently the fulcrum of these matches. On offense it was the suddenness of his kicks, the sound his throat chops made, his shocking agility. But I think of Harper most often on the sell. When Dean Ambrose flies at him with bar fight punches. When Seth Rollins catches him with multiple dives. When Roman Reigns hits him with a spear or a Superman punch or a running kick on the apron.

It was so satisfying to watch. Part of that is because this is the thrill offered by large wrestlers, the will they/won’t they of getting chopped down to size, of being made small literally and figuratively. Most of it is because Brodie Lee was so damn good at it. He took his licks from The Shield, from Daniel Bryan, from the New Day, from Randy Orton, and never came across as a beaten man despite playing support for a character who needed to be protected from losses to remain effective.

The Shield/Wyatts feud launched four of WWE’s biggest acts, but the slight misery of watching it back is that Harper ultimately wasn’t in the same orbit by the time the feud ended. This wasn’t unique to Harper—breakout midcard acts like Cesaro and Rusev stalled despite their size and obvious skill—but it was more keenly evident because there was no angle or match to point to as the moment Luke Harper hit his limit as a character in WWE. It just kind of happened.

The end of his run in WWE was ignoble, one of those things people will point to as illustrative of the company’s bad faith labor policies. In April 2019, largely unused on television since a return from injury, he asked for his release, even posting about it on social media. This request was denied and, according to Dave Meltzer, the time he took off due to injury was tacked onto the back end of a contract set to expire in November of that year. Given AEW’s launch in January and the growing relevance of New Japan Pro Wrestling in the United States, coupled with Dean Ambrose leaving the company at the end of April of that year and immediately becoming the hottest property in wrestling when he reclaimed his Jon Moxley mantle and began wrestling for WWE’s top two rivals, keeping Harper and inflating his contract without consent might have been a good idea in terms of business, but given that he was granted his release in early December, not long after his contract would have expired, it was just a waste.

AEW

Discounting his recovery from wrist surgery that lasted from September 2018 to March 2019, WWE effectively warehoused one of the most talented wrestlers on their roster—he wrestled all of four times on television last year, twice in battle royals. This is one of two means by which wrestling promotions devalue outgoing wrestlers, the other being to job them out relentlessly, but neither method works if the outgoing wrestler is good enough and determined enough to break out of that slump. Brodie Lee was good enough and determined enough. How good and how determined is evident in how quickly he made fans forget about how underutilized he was, which is a mark that follows ex-WWE talent around a lot  watching him from his AEW debut to his last match, you’d never know he had a second and third life elsewhere in professional wrestling. Mr. Brodie Lee, the Exalted One of the Dark Order, is that well-defined a character.

March 2020 feels like a decade ago, but the Dark Order was not the beloved group of misfit cult members it is today when he arrived. It felt like a weird lateral move, having this extremely good, extremely buzzed about wrestler debut in AEW as part of a different cult, but it worked. Wearing his hair and beard neater, Lee’s Exalted One leaned heavily on corporatized, multi level marketing esque cults like NXIVM, selling wrestlers on the concept of bettering themselves and losing less, enticing rank and file members to recruit others as a means of moving up the food chain, and abusing followers for their lack of success while doing nothing to help them succeed.

I think about the above promo a lot. I suspect I will be thinking about it for a long time. Sitting in one of those wrestling approximations of a dining room, Lee is at the head of the table, slowly making his way through an impossibly large steak while John Silver and Alex Reynolds, the Dark Order’s first real recruits, hungrily eye their own meals. But they’re not allowed to eat until Lee finishes. Silver can’t resist his filet mignon and steakhouse mac and cheese. Reynolds sneezes. The tension in the room is palpable, though Lee’s explosion is contained enough that an outsider might not call it abuse. It is one of the best promos of the year, a redefinition of the Dark Order as a wrestling stable and introduction to Mr. Brodie Lee as a character.

It was a level I didn’t know he had. There was no need for adjustment or correcting the mistakes WWE had made with him. He was just there, completely and utterly turned on, turning one of 2019’s moribund acts into a highlight of weekly wrestling. He wasn’t alone in changing the Dark Order’s fortunes—the gimmick was on the cusp of finally breaking through—but his debut allowed the group a legitimate, world-beating star as its anchor, space to grow the other members of the group as characters, and provide a pretty convincing argument for others to actually join the cult.

I was so excited to see where that was going. The utter seriousness with which AEW treated Lee meant that all of his matches, whether they were squashes or title shots, had significance. When he showed up to watch a member of the Dark Order wrestle, it felt like a big deal. When he beat Cody Rhodes for the TNT Championship in just over three minutes, it was legitimately shocking. When Rhodes won the championship back, it was thrilling. In my review of that match, I said that Cody Rhodes was a great babyface, that I hadn’t felt that way since Cody and Dustin were a tag team wrestling The Shield back in 2014.

AEW

What I left out of that is that I rediscovered Cody as a great babyface because Brodie Lee was such a great heel. Consistently. Without fail. For over a decade. In feuding with The Shield, he made it possible to see Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns as faces. In feuding against Cody Rhodes, he managed to make a wealthy, second generation wrestler and executive of the company seem sympathetic after a weekly series of matches booked to make him appear overconfident to the point that it was impossible to really cheer him.

He did all of this in a year that will be marked by an unbridgeable distance between professional wrestling and its fans. And maybe that’s part of what makes this difficult as a fan, the fact that someone whose work I have appreciated for so long was finally having his long overdue moment in a vacuum, that when it is eventually safe enough to experience wrestling in person again, that moment will have long passed, and of no one’s doing but fate

I don’t know what to do with that emotion. I don’t think many wrestling fans do. But I am so broken up about the passing of this man that it came as a relief when Tony Khan announced that Dynamite would not be moving forward as planned tonight, pushing back night one of New Year’s Smash to accommodate a tribute to Jon Huber that is thick with in-ring rivals and compatriots from throughout his career, including the odd-looking trio of Orange Cassidy, Cody Rhodes, and 10, put together by Huber’s son Brodie.

It won’t be an easy show to watch. There will be people in the ring who knew Brodie Lee for his entire professional life. His family will likely be there. And, like vaseline over a camera lens, there will be the complicated, distant grief of having been a fan. Shows like tonight’s episode of Dynamite are, in their way, a service to all parties in that they offer a space to reflect on what a wrestler meant to their profession and their fans, an occasion of public mourning that exists outside the timeline of professional wrestling itself.

What I’ve come to realize, having seen a lot of memorial shows and matches, is that one week is never enough time. We can celebrate Brodie Lee. We can watch as much of his old material as we’re able to. We can cry with our favorite wrestlers as they cry. We can understand that our grief, while incredibly, painfully real, is not the same as those who knew him. But the medium dictates that we move forward from here, that Brodie Lee’s absence from wrestling is understood and borne by us as the march of a 52-week television schedule places him further and further in the past.

I know this. In a sense it’s what I signed up for when wrestling became my thing. But knowing that someone whose work you love may die suddenly cannot prepare you for when it happens. I am a mess about the passing of Jon Huber. I do not know when I’ll feel better, when I’ll be able to watch modern American wrestling without thinking about him. He left behind so much great work that I can spend weeks reliving it, clarifying what I loved about his big boot or chokeslam, hating that there won’t be more. I probably will. A year from now, five years from now, or 10 years from now, I’ll see someone throw a discus lariat that reminds me of his and I’ll dive into his body of work all over again. Yes, it’s a bruise. Yes, I’ll keep poking at it. It’s worth it. Watch a Brodie Lee match and tell me it’s not.

Tags

Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.