The feud between Ring of Honor World champion Jay Lethal and Adam Cole has a decidedly old-school feel to it, with Lethal as the underdog babyface who constantly has to fend off the dastardly Cole and his Bullet Club cronies. Lethal gets his wish Friday night at Death Before Dishonor XIV in Las Vegas — a bout with Cole. As for Cole, he’s honestly been trying to be the bad guy.
“I think the skillset of me and Lethal allowed us to go down that road of traditional heel and babyface scenarios, whether it be promo-wise or in-ring angles, or even the in-ring matchups that we’ve had in tags and things like that,” Cole told SLAM! Wrestling on Wednesday.
Cole reinserted himself into the ROH World title picture — he held the title from September 2013 to June 2014 — at ROH’s Global Wars pay-per-view in May, when he joined the Bullet Club, and teamed with the Young Bucks and the Guerrillas of Destiny to destroy Lethal and Lethal’s challenger, Colt Cabana. Since then, Cole has been a thorn in Lethal’s side, including cutting off Lethal’s signature hair braids. Cole was initially prevented from challenging for the World title by matchmaker Nigel McGuinness, but Lethal begged and pleaded to get his hands on his nemesis.
The Death Before Dishonor XIV pay-per-view (9 pm ET, from Sam’s Town in Vegas) offers up a loaded card, including a host of New Japan Pro Wrestling talent and a TV title defense by Bobby Fish against Mark Briscoe.
“Ring of Honor will deliver the best possible pay-per-view that we can, and that’s what we always do. I think this entire lineup is stacked,” said Cole. “This match with myself and Jay Lethal is one that the fans have anticipated for quite some time. Las Vegas is one of the best cities that we go to. I know the fans are super-excited for this event, and we intend on delivering the best pro wrestling on the planet.”
The fans were a factor in the whole heel-babyface dynamic with Lethal, admitted Cole.
“Stuff with Ring of Honor, lots of times has happened naturally. Obviously a lot of the booking is really well thought out, but there’s a lot of things where we kind of let our fans decide and make decisions. We just give them scenarios to see how they react,” he said. “Fortunately the fans have acted exactly like we want them to react. In turn, it has morphed into this really cool, traditional pro wrestling feud. To me, aside from the fact that I want to beat him for the World title this weekend, Jay Lethal is one of the best, and one of my personal favourite performers in the world today. So getting to go toe-to-toe with him in promos, I get to go toe-to-toe with him this weekend, will be really, really cool for me.”
And ROH fans reward loyalty, said Cole, which means he often has to battle back to being disliked.
“I’ve embraced the fact that there’s local factors to this. One, I’ve been around in Ring of Honor long enough where they’re accustomed to me and they appreciate that I’ve been around for such a long time, so initially when I come out through the curtain, lots of times I get that cheer, that reaction that a babyface would,” he said. “But now I focus more so on while I’ll in that ring and while we’re telling that story, try to get the fans behind the babyface and try to get the fans behind my opponent. Normally, nine times out of ten we’re able to accomplish that, especially with a talent like Jay Lethal. Obviously, you’re going to have some fans that are going to cheer, support me, no matter what, and we’re not going to insult their intelligence and just completely disregard that fact. But my goal when I’m in there is while we’re telling that story, to get the fans, to get behind the babyface and get them to really want me to lose.”
Being a member of the Bullet Club has brought Cole a lot of attention and a better position on New Japan Pro Wrestling shows as well. In North America, the Bullet Club has had a cult status for a while now, even as its members move on from NJPW to WWE or NXT.
“You have your die-hard supporters of the Bullet Club and then you have the people that boo the Bullet Club, even though predominantly you see people really, really behind the Bullet Club,” explained Cole. “In terms for strictly Ring of Honor, but again you can see this across the board, is we’re just trying to create a buzz, we’re trying to create interaction and people getting invested in these characters. So because of the Bullet Club’s popularity, again, there’s not really much you can do to turn the tide on the people who support the Bullet Club. But in turn, if people are wearing Bullet Club t-shirts and people are talking about the Bullet Club and talking about Ring of Honor, that’s a positive in our mind.”
Though just 27 years of age, Cole (real name Austin Jenkins) is already an eight-year veteran. His mindset has changed through the years, including suffering through a shoulder injury that required surgery.
Since coming back in May, Cole has “focused a little more on what I do as a character and telling stories, almost like a movie character. … When you wrestle when you’re young, and you’ve never been hurt, you feel like you’re Superman, you feel like you can do anything, you can take any bump because you’ve never been hurt. But when I got those three surgeries on my arm, I realized that I’m not invincible.”
Returning to action meant reconnecting with the audience. “Fortunately for me, there’s something that happens too with a wrestler when he’s out for a while and you come back — the fans don’t realize that they missed you until you’re gone, so when you come back, you have a different perception with the audience, and a different relationship with the audience,” he said. “Focusing a little bit more on what the actual character is as opposed to what move I’m going to do has certainly changed when it comes to my outlook on wrestling. Of course, you’re always trying to reinvent yourself and do new things to keep the audience excited. But there are other things as a character, whether it be promo-wise or mannerisms or little things that the fans can go along with. Like the ‘Adam Cole Bay-Bay’ thing really seemed to take off after I got back from injury.”
Even Cole’s preparation for a major match has changed. Getting into Las Vegas a day early allows the roster to get settled (“nice just to adjust”), and a television taping on Saturday means they are in town for a couple of days, but for Cole, it’s a careful plan not to get overly into the moment.
“Really, for me, as far as a big pay-per-view, eyes on you scenario, now that I’ve matured and gotten older, I prepare for them exactly like I would prepare for any other wrestling weekend,” said Cole. “For me, the mental game of pro wrestling is the most difficult part. You can very easily get in your own head, you can over-hype scenarios, you can over-think. That’s where the anxiety and nerves really, really come in. For me, I’ve been down this road before, these high-pressure situations, for World championships. For me, I do my best when I treat this like any other wrestling match that I have. I take every wrestling match that I have very seriously, so I’m not going to take this huge weekend any more serious or any less serious. I’m going to do what I do and bring my A game like I always do.”