When it was announced that Jon Huber, known as Luke Harper in WWE and Brodie Lee in AEW and elsewhere, passed away on December 26, 2020, the wrestling world reacted with shock and sadness. The 41-year-old Rochester, New York native was deeply admired and respected by both wrestlers and wrestling fans. And he got this admiration by not only being a great professional wrestler, but also by being a genuinely great human being, which is often hard to come by in the cut-throat and unforgiving professional wrestling industry.
Like many wrestlers, Huber grew up as a fan and wanted to try it for himself. But he wasn’t an amateur wrestler as a child, nor did he train in any combat sports before entering wrestling. Instead, Huber played team sports, especially lacrosse and hockey, throughout his time at McQuaid Jesuit High School. At one point, he even played alongside former Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres captain Brian Gionta. But there was something about seeing a big guy like him moving so fast while wielding a stick that made his friends recommend another profession to him: pro wrestling.
“My friends talked me into it, but they give you a 6-foot stick to hit people with and I said, ‘Well, that sounds fun,’ ” Huber recalled in an interview in May 2020.
Huber made his pro wrestling debut when he was 23 years old and first cut his teeth as a backyard wrestler. After trying that for some time, he received formal training from Tony Mamaluke and then began wrestling on New York’s independent circuit. And as soon as he started wrestling professionally and not as a backyarder, any doubts he had about being a wrestler disappeared from his mind completely.
“Once I got in that ring, though, it was just instant love,” he said. “It’s become a beautiful and cruel mistress in my life since then.”
This early period saw Huber experiment with different ideas to see what stuck and what didn’t. He admitted that he saw this early period as being all about “having fun and being a cruiserweight.” And that mentality led to him getting signed by CHIKARA in 2007, which brought him much wider exposure than the local New York independent scene, where he went as Big Rig.
CHIKARA, which ran shows until earlier in 2020, centered on lucha libre-inspired action and over-the-top characters. Many of that company’s wrestlers compensated for their relatively small stature by adopting colorful personalities. And when Huber joined them, he embraced that philosophy with gusto. Instead of being pigeonholed into being a prototypical slow-moving big man that has smaller guys bouncing off of him, Huber fought fire with fire. But in this case, that ‘fire’ meant dropkicks, hurricanranas, and other feats of agility that, in another era, would’ve been completely out of place and unacceptable for a man his size.
But by doing those things and flying in the face of wrestling tradition, Huber managed to further put himself on the map, which in turn led to more appearances for him. Aside from CHIKARA, Huber also wrestled for top independent companies like Jersey All-Pro Wrestling (JAPW), Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW), Ring of Honor (ROH), and EVOLVE. And in each company, Huber adapted to what was needed. If he wasn’t putting off lucha moves, he was having ultraviolent bloodbaths, wild brawls, or traditional wrestling matches. There just wasn’t any limit to what promoters could ask him to do.
In a 2010 interview with Monday Night Mayhem, as he was debuting with DragonGate USA, Huber described his plan: “Basically, my goal is to make an impact, to let the people know worldwide what I’m all about, and if have to do that by kicking and punching people in the face repeatedly, then I will do that.”
“He had size and agility and just this drive to want to get better,” said “Hellcat” Mike Rosario, the owner of Upstate Pro Wrestling. “He was one of the first guys in this area [New York State] to really branch out and just find any company that he could go work for and get his name out there and make more connections.
These skills, combined with his wild appearance, led to many observers comparing him to the late Bruiser Brody. Although it was presumed for many years that Huber did in fact take the name Brodie Lee from Bruiser Brody, it actually came from combining Mallrats actor Jason Lee and his character in that film, Brodie Bruce.
“By 2009, I used to tell him all the time, ‘WWE is going to sign you,’” said Josh Jeannerat, owner of Squared Circle Wrestling, which ran shows in Upstate New York from 2006-15. “He’s too good of a wrestler and had too much natural charisma. He’s super talented and it helps that he has size.”
But despite all of that praise and growing popularity, Huber never let success go to his head. He saw pro wrestling as a means to an end, and for him the end was providing for his family. Those close to him have spoken of Huber as a devoted family man. He cared deeply for the well-being of his wife and later his children, to the point that he was more than willing to sacrifice bigger wrestling opportunities for them. When his wife was pregnant with his first child, Huber gladly abandoned a huge opportunity to wrestle in Japan for a Dragon Gate tour to stay with her. He was even willing to go back to his day job as a Rochester City School District book clerk and wrestle only locally so that he could take care of her.
WWE star Big E tweeted, “I hope you all get to know someone like Jon. He was the biggest family man & someone who made me laugh daily. I’ll miss him every day for the rest of my life. I love you, Brodie, and I thank you so much for loving me.”
And for Huber, this humility stemmed from his upbringing in western New York. He was raised with the mindset that one has to work for everything and nothing gets handed out. From an early age, he valued the idea that good work turns into good things. And eventually, a really good thing did happen to him as he was offered a WWE contract.
When Lee arrived in WWE in 2012, the company was in the midst of a transitional phase. The landscape there was changing, with Triple H taking full control over the NXT brand and turned it into a full-fledged developmental entity. Huber, now going by the name Luke Harper, was one of the first acts to be pushed as part of Triple H’s new vision. He was the first person recruited by Bray Wyatt to become part of his Wyatt Family, and soon followed Wyatt to the main roster in 2013. As part of the Wyatt Family, Huber was able to have a spotlight shone on him like never before.
Millions of fans around the world watched him wrestle on RAW and SmackDown, and they got to see just why he was so praised. Whereas Bray Wyatt was the Family’s mouthpiece and charismatic leader, and Erick Rowan was the silent powerhouse, Huber (as Harper) was the stable’s workhorse. Of the three of them he was by far the most balanced and had better chemistry with different wrestlers. Even when he wasn’t the focal point of the Wyatt Family’s stories (which included other members like Braun Strowman, Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton at various times), he was easily the best part of their actual matches. All the skills he honed in smaller promotions he was able to put on display in WWE, leading many to wonder what would happen to him once his story with the Wyatt Family had run its course.
Unfortunately, his post-Wyatt WWE career was plagued by poorly-timed injuries and questionable creative decisions. He was ‘set free’ from the Family when they were still a hot act on the main roster, and he was left to bounce around aimless storylines without any idea of his character’s long-term future. And his hope of a high-profile encounter with John Cena and The Rock at WrestleMania 32 fell apart due to a knee injury that sidelined him for five months. From there, WWE kept putting him back together with Wyatt, but he was never put in a position whereby he could advance beyond being the fall guy in the story.
By the summer of 2017, he all but disappeared from WWE programming for several months, and didn’t return until later that year as part of a repackaged tag team alongside fellow Wyatt Family alumnus Erick Rowan. That tag team storyline peaked at WrestleMania 34, when the duo, called the Bludgeon Brothers, won the WWE SmackDown Tag Team Championships. Their reign lasted for 135 days, ending shortly after SummerSlam later that year.
It was around this time that Huber’s wrestling career became increasingly uncertain. He was sent home from WWE for lengthy periods of time and for different reasons. On some occasions it was to recover from injuries or to get a much-needed surgery. On others, it was due to the dreaded ‘creative has nothing for you’ answer from WWE higher-ups. Perhaps the biggest issue was that Huber found himself constantly disagreeing with Vince McMahon on how he was to be portrayed. By his own admission, Huber stated that he never was truly content or happy and wanted to change things with his WWE career. He wanted his character to be an intelligent and eloquent, while McMahon and WWE creative preferred he play more of a redneck stereotype. Those frustrations eventually caused Huber to request his release. Fortunately for him, in the time he spent formulating his post-WWE career, another player had entered the market and opened its arms to him.
Following his departure from WWE, Huber signed with All Elite Wrestling and was revealed to be the “Exalted One,” the leader of the Dark Order stable that had been terrorizing the roster for months. Now going by the name Mister Brodie Lee, Huber was able to showcase a personality he had longed to portray in WWE but couldn’t due to disagreement with WWE’s creative forces.
Having the actual powers that be listen to him was new, Huber told writer Scott Fishman after his AEW signing. “The positivity from everyone was something I wasn’t used to within professional wrestling over the last eight years … It was strange to me, but it also rubs off on you. From watching shows on TV to being in the crowd, I think that positivity and energy almost comes from the people sitting in the stands, the production crew, the people on commentary and people in the ring. We’re in this together to give the industry a special product. I’m very proud to be part of that.”
Huber’s new, well-spoken character as Brodie Lee was a stark contrast to the hillbilly-inspired Harper, and served two purposes. On one hand, it allowed Huber to portray something entirely different in the hopes of letting fans see a side of him that they may not have before. On the other hand, by acting as this cold-hearted cult leader that dished out brutal punishments on his underlings, Huber hoped to elevate lower-card stars by bringing them and their stories to the next level. Sadly, those potential stories will never be completed now that The Dark Order’s de facto leader has passed on.
As a pro wrestler, Lee was, is, and will be looked up to for being something of a pioneer. He took the concept of the modern big man and created something completely different. In an age when athleticism and doing something unexpected are huge for fans, Huber managed to meet all these requirements and then some. In his prime, Huber could land a Frankensteiner or a standing dropkick like a cruiserweight, and moved around the ring with incredible speed and grace. With fans no longer interested in seeing immobile big men, Huber caught their attention by keeping them guessing on what he would do next. And that unpredictability made him an awesome sight to behold.
I am heartbroken to hear of the passing of @ThisBrodieLee who was a a dear friend to so many of us. He was an amazing husband and a devoted father. His love for his family was immeasurable. I am sending prayers and love to Amanda, Brodie, Nolan and Jon Huber’s family~ pic.twitter.com/VTC0aC0dqJ
— NattieByNature (@NatbyNature) December 27, 2020
But Huber wasn’t just a consummate professional. He was incredibly well-liked by his peers and by others in the industry. He was committed to helping others in the business, and took time to critique others and provide positive feedback to those looking to succeed as he had.
“Utterly shocked about the pasting of Brodie Lee. He left an unforgettable impression on a younger me that I’ll never forget. I asked for 5 minutes of his time at a CHIKARA show in Toronto and he gave me 90 minutes with care,” wrote Toronto native and Smash Wrestling promoter Sebastien Suave.
Defiant Wrestling’s Kevin Blackwood also shared a heart-warming story about Huber’s kindness. Blackwood attended a wrestling seminar in 2018 and Huber was very generous with the help he gave Blackwood in improving his wrestling skills. Two years later, the two of them worked together in AEW and Huber treated him like they had been friends for years.
“That’s all you ever hear about him from people who know him. Just a great human being,” said Blackwood. “I really look up to him as someone who came from our area and made something of himself, I always will.”
TOP PHOTO: Luke Harper in Toronto in December 2015. Photo by Mike Mastrandrea, www.mikemastrandrea.com