wrestling / Columns

Wrestling with Loss

January 9, 2021 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
AEW Double or Nothing Brodie Lee

It’s March of 2004. An awkward 15 year-old boy stands in line outside of a New York City sporting goods store with his mom. In the era of normalized cultural appropriation by white kids across America, a mechanics jacket (with a custom name tag inspired by Snoop Dogg’s distinct verbal stylings) keeps him warm as he learns what a wrestling 8×10 is from the guy in front of them. This dude’s got them all, from Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker, down the card to the recently released Spanky. The signatures on them looked a little fishy though, so his mom just politely declines as we keep shuffling through the line. Eventually, they’re actually inside. Shouldn’t be too long now as the labyrinthian line can’t go on forever, can it?

They round a corner and the boy catches his first glimpse of the man they’ve waited over two hours to meet. But he’s not lying, cheating, or stealing anything. No. His head is down as he’s signing posters, looking up to smile at whoever is in front of him and having a few words together. And then it’s on to the next. He looks truly exhausted, but at the same time proud. The WWE Championship is there at the table with him and occasionally he glances over to it for a seemingly rejuvenating effect. The boy watches this pattern repeat itself twenty or so times before it’s his turn to approach “Latino Heat” himself. ”Oh no! It’s my turn and I haven’t thought about what I’m going to say! Ah!!” Don’t worry kid. Mom’s got you.

They approach the table and every social skill this kid ever had just falls away. Completely tongue-tied, he just stammers, and ceases to make sounds. Mom takes over “Hi Mr. Guerrero, he’s just a little starstruck.” Eddie eyes the boy before noticing the name tag on the mechanics jacket. “Mizzle, huh*?” There’s an opening to respond! This kid has responded to things before! He can do this! He musters out a very concise “Yeah, it’s just a stupid inside joke…” but the champ doesn’t let this slide. “No man, it’s cool! Embrace it!” The boy lit up and mustered out a “You’re really awesome. I hope to see you win on Sunday!” to Eddie before shaking his hand, taking his signed poster, and being ushered away from the table.

*If you read that straight, you were incorrect. He said it exactly in the cadence of how he says “Órale” and it was SO charming.

Now obviously I wrote that in the third person to create some distance between myself and owning a mechanics jacket with the name “Mizzle” on it. But what I’d never want to create distance from is the warmth emanated by Latino Heat. I got maybe a full minute with him back in 2004, and I still remember it to this day. I remember him taking a goofy teen whose face was a pubescent battleground, and giving him a moment. He drew me out of my shell and made me a fan for life.

It was not long before this time that I discovered and started reading dirtsheets. And by dirtsheets, I mean specifically (and exclusively) 411mania. It was some time in 2003 that I found the site that would tell me the truth about where Jeff Hardy (one of my favorites at the time) had gone, because the story on wwe.com felt incomplete. I got addicted to this feeling of insider knowledge and before you knew it, this site was my homepage. I would get home from school and open every single piece of wrestling news that was posted since I’d last logged on.

I learned quickly though about the demons of the wrestling industry. Wrestlers just die young. I remember the first time I saw that when I logged onto 411. It was Road Warrior Hawk, a man I recognized but had never actually seen wrestle (my very first wrestling show was WrestleMania X-Seven, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since). He was 46, and was a part of “the previous era” in my mind. I didn’t really feel anything because of that disconnect, but a few weeks later Crash Holly died. It was surreal. I’d watched this guy enough to feel a sobering sense of loss from the world of my favorite form of entertainment. But then more wrestlers were dropping. You’d hear of drugs, overdoses, alcohol, pain pills, steroid abuse, suicide…it was a lot to take in. But it was never “my guy” who was on the headline.

Until it was. November 13th, 2005. Eddie Guerrero’s picture at the top of 411. “WWE Star Eddie Guerrero Dead at 38.” It broke me. I had lost my grandfather earlier that year, and then Eddie. The first loss I ever experienced, followed by the second in the span of five months. When my grandpa died, I didn’t know how to experience loss, but after going through it, I hated it. It hurts so fucking much. Your throat gets tight as tears fall, and all you think about is that person. I adored my grandfather. It wasn’t surprising to me that it hit me so hard, all I could do was listen to “My Hero” by Foo Fighters on repeat for what felt like two days straight as I cried nonstop. What did surprise me was how hard Eddie’s death hit me. I had almost 17 years with my grandpa. I met Eddie Guerrero for ninety seconds, tops.

But a good soul is a good soul.

I knew Eddie was this beacon of positivity because I met him. I saw it first-hand. And I also saw how devastated the wrestling world was when he passed. Wrestlers just die young. It’s what I was used to, and what I had learned. But this one seemed different. It wasn’t just because he was an active member of the roster; it was because he was a light in the darkness. You could hear it in every story told about him. Being painted before our eyes was the picture of a man who got swallowed by his personal evils only to emerge a man of faith, positivity, and sobriety. A locker room leader and veteran who was respected for his contributions to the industry both between the ropes and outside them. I cried my eyes out when Eddie left us, but spent the next few weeks binging his work and reading as many kind words about him as I could from his peers. I couldn’t help but feel this deeper love for the man, and the wrestling world was united in their love of him too.

Over fifteen years have passed since Eddie died, and I still think of him just as fondly. I bought a new Eddie Guerrero action figure as recently as four months ago. He’s still on the tip of my tongue when I get to talk about great wrestlers. Favorite wrestlers. Wrestlers who never achieved everything they could have had they just been around a little bit longer.

From the time of writing this, eleven days have passed since the death of Brodie Lee, and the parallels in my mourning are countless. This was a man who got a second chance, albeit in a professional sense. Lee, who I thought was awesome on the indies all those years ago, who the hipster in me was a fan of “before it was cool,” got his big break to be a top guy in All Elite Wrestling. I was thrilled. I always wanted more for Luke Harper, and it just never felt like he’d be one of the wrestlers WWE would push to his full potential.

When AEW formed, it rejuvenated my love for American wrestling. I started making dream matches in my head, and listing all the guys from WWE who aren’t being used to my liking who I want to see jump ship. Luke Harper was one of the first names I thought of. And then it happened! He debuted as the leader of The Dark Order, and instantly made AEW’s biggest flop interesting. But just because he was put in a position to show off that he was more than a deranged backwoods hillbilly doesn’t mean he’d be a main eventer. But then it happened! We got a taste of a main event level push for The Exalted One as he battled Jon Moxley in a great AEW Championship match. We got to see him destroy Cody’s TNT Championship run in the amount of time it took me to meet Eddie Guerrero. And he got to have a brutal dog collar match, making an instant classic that we’ll still be talking about in five years when we look back at Dynamite’s top matches…and then he was off TV for no apparent reason. Weeks went by, then a couple months, and then…it happened.

This wasn’t supposed to happen anymore. This new generation of wrestlers…they’re video game and comic book nerds. They’re not out partying and abusing drugs, alcohol, and whatever else. Guys like Brodie were too busy rushing home to spend every possible off-the-clock moment with their wife and kids. They’re not supposed to die in their 40s! I wasn’t ready for it. What felt like an all-too-familiar event at one point fifteen years ago now felt foreign to me.

I couldn’t process it. I’ve been so emotional over his passing, reading as many stories about him as I can. The way his fellow wrestlers talk about him is truly special and I haven’t heard anything quite like it since the passing of Eddie. The AEW Tribute show was perfect. It was cathartic. I cried at least seven different times within that span of two hours. Brodie was another good soul, and those are tough to cope with losing. The amount of love around him has been truly fandom-affirming. Wrestling has good people. From the top brass (Tony Khan has been a total class act in his handling of losing a member of his roster), to the performers, to other fans, and this online community.

I never got to meet Brodie Lee. I never knew about him being the definitive family man. I never got to have my “Mizzle” moment with him. But all the same, I miss him and have been crushed by his loss.

I’ve had exceedingly positive interactions with a few wrestlers who stand out. Each and every one of them got me to come out of my shell. Kenny Omega, Kevin Owens, Dalton Castle, Keith Lee, Drake Wuertz, and Eddie Guerrero are the ones who have made an impact on me with their genuineness in the brief amount of time I’ve had with them. Men whose kindness I will think about long after they’ve all retired.

A good soul is a good soul. Hold them close when you find them because you may not get a tomorrow with them, and you’ll never be ready for it when that day comes. The Eddies of this world, the Brodies…they’re special. I want to be the type of person that they were and I can only hope that when I’m gone, I’ll have touched people in such a way that earns me a unanimous outpouring of love as well.

Rest easy, Big Rig.