Sometimes it can take years before a pro wrestler finds the character that defines his career. Discovering that character is what separates a superstar from another run-of-the-mill wrestler.
Ring of Honor's Silas Young struggled to find his identity for a significant stretch of his up-and-down 15-year career. He knew that, without a character that fit his personality and resonated with fans, he'd have no chance of moving ahead in the wrestling landscape. He wasn't going to find that character by wrestling in the Wisconsin area, where he grew up. He needed to go somewhere else.
Young thought he found that place when he signed a developmental deal with WWE in 2007 after impressing in a couple of enhancement matches on the now-defunct Sunday Night Heat and ECW. The contract gave him no guarantees, but Ohio Valley Wrestling, one of WWE's developmental territories at the time, would give him the opportunity to refine his character in a system with a successful track record. OVW was a far cry from what WWE has now in NXT and the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, but the likes of Randy Orton, John Cena and Brock Lesnar all trained at OVW before becoming stars.
At that time, it simply was not meant to be. Young's contract was terminated shortly after he signed when WWE decided to end its relationship with OVW as a developmental territory. He was told the timing couldn't have been worse when he got the news that he was let go.
"It was kinda a huge kick in the nuts," Young told ESPN.com. "A lot of guys in wrestling view WWE as the end-all, be-all. Definitely at that time in my career, I felt, 'Oh, well, you had your opportunity and now it's gone'. It sucked. I was a fairly young guy at the time. I was 27 years old. It took me a little bit of time to bounce back from that."
Young was still trying to figure out who he was in wrestling, and there was very little that differentiated him from any other wrestler at the time. In his match against The Miz on ECW in 2007, which lasted all of two minutes, Young sported long, dirty-blonde hair with generic blue trunks and black boots. Nothing was memorable about his performance, his appearance and, perhaps most importantly, his character.
"I've been wrestling for about 15 years now and for a long time I was just Silas Young. Kinda just a guy with long hair and a beard," Young said. "People knew me as being a good wrestler, but there's definitely something I needed to do that was different."
It didn't come easily, and Young continued to search for a hook that would make him stand out from the crowd. After a decade of searching for the right character, Young realized what he had been looking for was right in front of him his entire life. He drew inspiration for the character from the original "Last Real Man" -- his hard-nosed, no-nonsense father James.
"I don't know exactly how I came up with it, but basically the 'Last Real Man' is my father."
Known as "Big Jim" to his close friends and family, Young's father wore his hair slicked back and had a thick mustache on his face. James, now in his mid-70s and still every bit as tough and feared as he was in his youth, is a man of old-school principles. He was a tireless worker, serving in the Navy and working as a firefighter for three decades while owning a painting business. James passed down his old-school, workmanlike mentality to his six sons and their friends.
Silas Young, who has wrestled with Ring of Honor full time since 2012, has experienced the best stretch of his career as "Pro Wrestling's Last Real Man." He has that same "man's man" look from another day and age - slicked-back dark hair, a hairy chest and, most notably, a thick, ever-growing mustache. He also has the physical in-ring chops to back it all up, and it works because Young draws from his own experiences as well as his father's.
"My dad wasn't afraid to rough up some of my older brothers' friends when they smart-mouthed him. He didn't take crap," Young said. "He grew up in a time where men weren't real big on their feelings or telling people they loved them or anything like that. They expected when you tell them to do something, you do it. Not to ask questions, not to talk back. Having five older brothers, he wasn't afraid to put them in their place."
Like father, like son.
Young's brash attitude isn't directed only at his opponents. If he's wrestling in a town that isn't worthy of the "Last Real Man," he'll make it known to the fans in attendance, even in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Young doesn't break from his principles, and if you hate him for it, that means he's doing his job.
"I think a lot of guys don't want to be hated," Young said. "There's a saying in wrestling that people like to be a 'Stone Cold' type of heel. People want to be the cool guy. When I'm trying to be that heel or be that bad guy, I really try to be that heel or be that bad guy. I don't want to be that cool bad guy. If guys want to do that, that's fine. Stuff like that just helps me stick out more."
Almost 10 years to the day after scratching and clawing just to appear on WWE TV for all of two minutes (on Sept. 25, 2007), Young is now in the midst of a monthslong feud with one of the most well-rounded talents in the world, Jay Lethal. The rivalry has already become a defining chapter in Young's career.
Young and Lethal have a combined 30-plus years of experience in the business, and that has been evident as they've built their feud. Their promo packages can be used as educational material for any wrestler who wants to create tension while building a match. Young and Lethal are thriving by telling a simple story -- the "Golden Boy" Jay Lethal, as Young likes to call him, pitted against the "Last Real Man," who feels wronged by not being afforded the same opportunities as his opponent.
Each word spoken by the raspy-voiced Young and the loudmouthed Lethal builds anticipation for the next time they have the chance to tear each other apart. Their conflict has been one of the most prominent feuds in ROH despite neither performer holding a title.
"In wrestling, especially nowadays, when you get people really behind something, there usually has to be a title involved," Young said. "A lot of times in wrestling we forget that a lot of what makes a really, really good story is just personal beef and having people that have an issue with each other. I think it's just two good personalities that people can identify with, and that's what helps make the story good and make people really invest in it."
Their rivalry culminates at ROH's Death Before Dishonor pay-per-view in Las Vegas, in a Last Man Standing match. After so many months of back-and-forth, Friday's match offers Young one of the biggest showcases of his career against a former ROH world and TV champion in Lethal.
It shows just how far Young has come in the last decade. Through hard work and determination, traits his father bestowed upon him before he ever adopted those aspects to an in-ring character, Young's success earned him an exclusive contract with ROH last fall. It's allowed him everything he'd ever hoped for when he started in wrestling -- an opportunity to provide for his wife and 9-year-old son, just like his father did for him.
"At the time it was really, really hard," Young said, reflecting on his WWE release. "But now I could look at it 10 years [later] and say things worked out the way they're s'posed to."