Ian Riccaboni, Ring of Honor's lead play-by-play announcer, remembers when fellow Pennsylvania native Adam Cole was a name known by only the most hard-core wrestling fans. Cole and a group of wrestlers from the Wild Samoan Training Center made an appearance on Riccaboni's public access show in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2010. Cole was only in his early 20s at the time and largely an unknown in wrestling. Even then, it was obvious he had a future in the business.
"I remember thinking, 'Man, this guy's really handsome'. I say that as a married man," Riccaboni said. "There are guys that you could kind of tell who -- even from just the way they carry themselves in the mundane parts of wrestling shows, whether that's setting up the ring, tearing down the ring -- who are happy and excited to do it just to be in that environment. You could tell he was definitely happy to be there. That was very early on in his career. He's somebody that's just blown me away."
Seven years and three Ring of Honor world championships later, Adam Cole is days away from becoming the biggest free agent pro wrestling has seen in a long, long time.
Pro wrestling doesn't have a draft like "real" sports. WWE might draft wrestlers to Raw or SmackDown, but that's all part of the show among their already-contracted stars. What pro wrestling does have is free agency. Knowledge of impending free agents isn't as publicly available in wrestling as it is in the sports world, but every now and then, word gets out that the contract of a sought-after talent is expiring. On May 1, Cole will test free agent waters for the first time in his nine-year career.
"For me, I've been very lucky because of my relationship with Ring of Honor," Cole told ESPN.com. "I'm very close with everyone there, and that includes the guys that negotiate the contracts. Literally my whole career, the process for me is we go back and forth a little bit. Ring of Honor always has a great general idea of what they think I need, and generally we agree pretty quickly on what I want to do.
"For me, which a lot of people ask this, I still haven't made a decision on what I'm doing. This is the first time I'm going to check and see the interests of other companies and see where everyone else stands. Since 2010, I've been just in Ring of Honor this entire time and never even considered the options of anything else. I'm gonna kind of look out and see what everyone else has going on and what else is out there and then kind of play it from there. We'll see as far as negotiating any type of contracts, whether that be with Ring of Honor or with another company."
Cole has certainly improved his stock since 2010. The 27-year-old is regarded as one of the top young talents in all of wrestling. Imagine a performer with the upside of an AJ Styles, only 12 years younger. He already has won the Ring of Honor world championship three times, a feat no one else has ever accomplished. To put the achievement in perspective, only three wrestlers have even won the belt two times in ROH's 15-year history -- Cole, Austin Aries and Jay Briscoe.
His successful, nearly decadelong run in the indies has helped Cole to build up an all-around skill set that is a rarity in pro wrestling.
"In baseball, they say 'five-tool prospect.' He's well beyond the prospect label," Riccaboni said. "He's got all five tools."
There might not be five tools in wrestling, but according to the infamous "Bret Hart scale," there's at least three -- look, in-ring ability and promo skills. There's nothing Cole can't do inside the squared circle.
Whether it's his bloody battles with Kyle O'Reilly or his five-star, six-man tag match at Pro Wrestling Guerrilla in September, Cole has proved he can hang in there with the best of them. He combines his sharp in-ring work with the kind of pretty boy looks wrestling promoters can only dream of. On top of that, he has the ability to articulate his words in flawless promos that few others in the business can replicate. Perhaps most importantly, Cole has established his own brand.
"There's so many talented, good independent wrestlers on the scene today," Cole said. "But being able to stick out and have a brand or a catchphrase or something that when someone does something, you know that it's yours. Like, 'Adam Cole Bay Bay' is my thing. Everyone knows that if anyone would stick their hands up and yell their name with 'Bay Bay' at the end, they would feel like that's my thing. Or the Young Bucks' superkick party. That is something I think that people focus -- it's not that they should lose focus on the matches that they're having and the promos that they're cutting -- but they should put just as much effort into establishing or creating even more things for their brand that could help them stick out and be different."
Even though he has yet to reach his 30s, Cole already has accomplished what many wrestlers would be fortunate to achieve over an entire career. He has been the top guy at ROH for years. He is the longest reigning PWG world champion in the company's history. He wrestled in front of over 25,000 fans inside the historic Tokyo Dome at Wrestle Kingdom 11. But no matter where he might end up in the future, there's still one thing that has to be checked off Cole's list.
There's business to settle with fellow Bullet Club leader Kenny Omega before he's done with ROH and New Japan.
"The whole story with myself and Kenny is, the Young Bucks describe it perfectly -- they say, 'It's two alpha males who just don't see eye to eye.' That's exactly how we feel," Cole said. "I feel like I lead the charge for Bullet Club in the States. There's no question -- I'm not an idiot -- Kenny leads the charge for Bullet Club in Japan. Obviously, when we are together, it's very rare. When we are, we don't always agree or see eye to eye. As far as I'm concerned, I think you could expect or hopefully get to see a match with myself and Kenny very, very soon. We gotta have a friendly competition match where we could get this out of our system. We need to fight it out like brothers. Hopefully, very soon."
Cole can't help but imagine what a potential matchup with Omega would look like.
"To me, it would be the full spectrum of pro wrestling," Cole said. "Some people would probably laugh at some moments, some people would be elated, some people would be furious. The Young Bucks would probably try to get involved. There's so many different factors to what we could do, what could happen in this matchup. A lot of drama and a lot of excitement. There's no question in my mind it would be spectacular.
"For me, in a perfect world, I'm saying this because it's one of my favorite buildings; the idea of wrestling Kenny in the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City in our first match would be really cool. And then let's say we have our second match in New Japan at Korakuen Hall. That would be really cool. And then the third one, God, I don't know; maybe we'd be the first wrestling match on the moon. I think Adam Cole vs. Kenny Omega would be a really cool third and final encounter on the moon. At that point, we could make it happen. I think best two out of three with Kenny would be the way to go."
Rumors have heated up across the internet for months claiming Cole is WWE bound. Cole is "flattered" by WWE's perceived interest, but he hasn't had any discussions with the company. Although he's still undecided, Cole has a plan in place if he does end up signing with WWE.
"I would want to [start in NXT] because, first of all, I'm a fan of NXT," Cole said. "I think the brand is cool. I think the Takeover shows are awesome. I think the fans are great. I love the roster of guys. I think it's something that's going to be looked at as a very special time in pro wrestling, so I want to be a part of it. Secondly, of course in a perfect world if I went to NXT, I wouldn't want to be there forever; but I like the idea of going there and performing there and getting accustomed to the WWE audience and them getting accustomed to me and then eventually making the move to Raw or Smackdown. I think it'd be a lot of fun, and I think I would really enjoy working in front of that audience."
The eight-year ROH vet hopes his previous experience bargaining new contracts will help him make the biggest decision of his career.
"For me, it's always been a financial kind of scenario," Cole said. "I was actually the first one who signed the 'exclusive to Ring of Honor' contract. I was the first guy who ever signed one of those contracts. That was tough for me because I had no one to talk to. I had no examples to go on. I was the guinea pig. Of course, it's coming up with a number you feel comfortable with. Knowing this is the only company you work for and the only paycheck you get and making sure that's something that's worthwhile and something that works for you."
- Adam Cole (@AdamColePro) April 7, 2017
Cole plans on taking his time to come to a decision, even if it takes until well after his contract expires on Monday. He's going to field offers without an agent, an anomaly in the world of free agency.
"A lot of people think that's crazy," Cole said. "Some people do have agents. Some people do have guys that deal with things like that for them. For me, I've always handled my business myself. It gets very overwhelming sometimes, but that's the scenario you're put in sometimes. I do everything by myself."
And there has seemingly never been a more perfect moment in the history of the wrestling business for Cole to have as many options as possible. Cody Rhodes left WWE to compete in ROH, New Japan, TNA and several independent promotions all over the globe. Bully Ray left WWE and debuted for ROH in March. The Hardy Boyz left TNA, debuted for ROH (on the same Manhattan show as Bully Ray) and returned to WWE, all in the span of a couple of months. Whatever decision Cole makes, it will only add to what has been a wild year so far for the business.
"It's the crazy state of pro wrestling in 2017," Cole said. "Guys who you never thought were gonna leave WWE are leaving. Guys who you never thought were gonna go to WWE are going. It's the closest thing to the Attitude Era that we've had as far as not knowing where guys are gonna show up and who's gonna end up where. And in turn, it's created this really cool environment for the fans and for the wrestlers."