The first time Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin stepped into the ring together was on Nov. 10, 2002 in Warren, Michigan. Inside the Hot Rock Sports Bar & Music Café in the suburbs of Detroit -- a bar where Eminem, a guy forever linked to that city, was once arrested -- Sabin and Shelley went one-on-one midway through a Sunday Xtreme Intense Championship Wrestling show.
At that moment, neither could have known just how much their careers would be tied together or how much they too would come to be associated with the city of Detroit. Shelley was less than a year into his professional wrestling career, and Sabin less than a year-and-a-half into his. It would be almost four more years until they'd come together as the Motor City Machine Guns.
They tagged together a few months after their first match in a one-off match in March 2003 against Jimmy Jacobs and his partner "Gutter", but Shelley and Sabin went head-to-head far more often -- more than 40 times, in fact, over the next three years. Their most visible matches during that time came as each became more active in TNA, playing key roles in establishing the X-Division alongside guys like AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels and many others. But the two boys from Eastern Michigan were destined for greatness together.
From 2006, when they first joined forces for Zero-1 Max in Japan, through 2012, when Shelley left TNA to head to New Japan, Shelley and Sabin brought an energy and creativity that helped them become cornerstones of TNA's revolutionary X-Division as rivals and channeled it into a tag team unlike anything else that company had on its roster. They held the TNA heavyweight tag titles once, and also had a run with New Japan Pro Wrestling's IWGP junior heavyweight tag team championships, but the Motor City Machine Guns were far more defined by their in-ring performances and the moments they created than their championship pedigree.
Both played their parts in the early years of Ring of Honor, Shelley somewhat more so than Sabin, but every time they returned as a team, they tended to end up on the wrong side of the equation. They spent four years apart, as Shelley went to Japan and Sabin became TNA champion. Sabin returned to ROH in April 2015, and Shelley, who had made a few appearances for the company over the previous few years, followed full time that November.
It was only a matter of time before they came back together.
It took more than 14 years from the time they debuted in ROH, but the Motor City Machine Guns finally got their first taste of gold with Ring of Honor in September in Las Vegas when they defeated the Young Bucks to win the ROH world tag team titles.
"I think that's the kind of thing that never gets old," Sabin told ESPN.com, "The kind of thing that you always remember as motivation for why you're wrestler. When you do something special, like win a title, it's kind of like that dragon that you're always chasing. That feeling of adrenaline and accomplishment, it's a lot of feelings all in one, but it's such a great feeling overall that keeps you going in wrestling, regardless of all the pain and injuries."
Despite doing battle so frequently in Michigan indies, in TNA and elsewhere, the spark that set the Motor City Machine Guns came almost by accident.
"Sabin and I becoming the Motor City Machine Guns happened because I was working for Zero-1 Max pretty frequently at that point in time," recalled Shelley. "They wanted X-Division guys. They wanted me to pick a partner for a third [shot] and I said, 'Okay, well Sabin's really good, you guys would like him. I know he'll do well'. We won the titles in our first match and we just kind of went from there."
Sabin and Shelley brought those titles back to North America, and Zero-1 allowed them to defend those championships on home soil -- a mutually beneficial agreement that also helped catch the attention of some people in the TNA offices at the time.
"There weren't any teams like that in TNA -- smaller babyface tag teams, and we kind of filled that gap for them too," said Shelley, "At a time when their tag teams were just starting to come around and come on strong."
Over the next few years, they faced teams like Team 3D (Bubba Ray and D-Von Dudley), The Voodoo Kin Mafia (a.k.a the New Age Outlaws), LAX (Hernandez & Homicide) and Beer Money (Bobby Roode & James Storm), among many other challengers. Sporadic matches in ROH allowed the Machine Guns to face The Briscoes, El Generico (Sami Zayn) & Kevin Owens, The Age of the Fall (Jacobs & Seth Rollins) and The Kings of Wrestling (Cesaro and Kassius Ohno).
They even won the IWGP junior heavyweight tag titles from a young pairing that would go on to reach great heights in NJPW -- Tetsuya Naito and Yujiro Takahashi -- at Wrestle Kingdom III in 2009. But still, a major title win on American soil eluded them until July 2010, when the Motor City Machine Guns defeated Beer Money for the TNA tag team titles. They held onto those titles for six months, until they lost them back to Roode & Storm, and injury woes soon hit them hard. Shelley spent a few months on the shelf with a collarbone injury and Sabin tore up his knee on the same night, which sidelined him for the next nine months.
The Motor City Machine Guns would ultimately get one more high-profile shot at the TNA tag team titles, at TNA's Lockdown 2012 pay-per-view inside of a steel cage, but it was not to be. Within a few months, Shelley elected to let his contract expire, and the Motor City Machine Guns were no more
"I went my own way, and he did what he had to do for himself," said Shelley.
Sabin re-established himself as one of the pillars of the X-Division, where he'd ultimately become an eight-time champion with a combined reign of 432 days -- both still records in TNA -- but within a few months of setting out on his own, Sabin tore the ACL in his other knee in June 2012. That injury would claim more than a year of his career.
"After the first injury, it didn't do a lot of damage mentally," said Sabin. "I thought, 'Okay, this happens. I can come back from this. One ACL injury, I'll be out for six or seven months. I can come back, I'll be just as good, just as strong. One bad knee isn't gonna slow me down. Then I had 11 matches, and on my 11th match back, of course, I tore the other knee. That was a lot more draining.
"I wasn't sure if I was gonna be able to wrestle again because my right knee wasn't 100 percent at the time and there goes my left knee. I was kind of working with two bad wheels there," Sabin continued. "I just tried to stay as positive as possible. Luckily, I was still under contract so I was still able to pay my bills and keep myself afloat during that time."
Shelley stepped into NJPW's junior heavyweight division and made an immediate impact. He'd ultimately go on to form another successful partnership that would define the next three years of his wrestling career.
"Getting over there and having Kushida, who at that point in time was kind of a star on the rise and was as hungry as I was, was highly beneficial for me because I had somebody who matched my tenacity and my willingness to go out there and do whatever it took. If that included taking criticism from other people, no problem. If that included practicing at the dojo, no problem. If that included watching tapes for ideas, no problem."
As the Time Splitters, Shelley and Kushida won the IWGP junior heavyweight tag team titles twice, while battling teams like the Young Bucks, reDRagon and Roppongi Vice.
Meanwhile, Sabin worked as hard as he had in his entire career to come back from his second knee injury, and it paid off. He won his sixth career X-Division title, and through a loophole set up by wrestling legend Hulk Hogan, Sabin was able to trade the belt in for a shot at the TNA heavyweight title -- and he won, defeating Bubba Ray Dudley to achieve that company's greatest prize.
It was a whirlwind moment in Sabin's career, and while it didn't last long, it validated all of the efforts Sabin had sunk into his recovery.
"It was probably the darkest time in probably my entire life, because there was that question, as to whether I could come back from that physically," said Sabin. "But I did. I just worked as hard as I could and I was able to come back. I don't take any of this for granted anymore."
Sabin's run with TNA started to wind down by mid-2014, and at the same time, Shelley was coming to a crossroads in his New Japan career. The stars aligned as ROH made a push to expand its roster, and the wheels were set in motion. Sabin returned to aid fellow former TNA stars Daniels and Frankie Kazarian to help them win the ROH tag team titles in April 2015. That November, after finishing up his NJPW commitments, Shelley was revealed as a masked conspirator working against Daniels and Kazarian.
"Coming back to ROH was cool," said Shelley. "They had been sending talent over to New Japan, so I got to talk to a lot of the guys in the locker room there at that point in time, kind of get the lay of the land."
By February, Sabin had turned his back on his new compatriots, and the Motor City Machine Guns were whole once more. But it wasn't all smooth sailing.
"I think that was inevitably what was gonna happen," said Shelley. "And it happened, but I am not ashamed to say that I think we struggled for a minute to find our groove. There was an adjustment period. Especially because I'm a pretty good tag team wrestler, I have no qualms about saying that. I can kind of sync with my partner regardless of who it is, but especially if it's somebody who's on the same wavelength. You just have to find that wavelength first."
They'd eventually find their groove again, and it boiled down to the grinding, hard work and blue collar effort that encapsulate Shelley and Sabin's connection to their home city of Detroit.
"Probably starting in like summer 2016, we figured out exactly what we needed to do, and kind of became the Motor City Machine Guns again," said Shelley. "A lot of that came through practice. I was going to wrestling schools, watching tapes, doing all the things you do when you start out. It's like, you're not reinventing the wheel -- it's not rocket science."
That push towards the top of an ultra-competitive ROH tag team division took a big leap in September 2016, when Shelley and Sabin took on The Addiction and The Young Bucks in a Ladder War at All Star Extravaganza in Lowell, Massachusetts. It finally culminated in Las Vegas, as the Motor City Machine Guns finally broke through and beat The Young Bucks for the tag team titles in the co-main event of Death Before Dishonor XV. They successfully defended their tag team titles against The Kingdom and The Young Bucks in Pittsburgh, and put on another show-stealer in Chicago during ROH's recent Global Wars tour.
On Friday, they walk into their home state of Michigan as ROH champions for the very first time. As many great teams as the Motor City Machine Guns have faced over the years, the tag team division in ROH is currently as good as it's been in a long time.
"They are the best in the world," Shelley said. "The Briscoes, as an example. The Young Bucks are another. These guys are untouchable."
"I've been kind of enjoying each match as it comes along," said Sabin. "Ring of Honor has a really good tag division now and I would say probably the Young Bucks are probably our best opponents overall. We've wrestled them so many times over the past 10 years, and I'd say they're the number one team that I enjoy wrestling against. There are so many good tag teams from The Briscoes, to The Kingdom, then you have War Machine -- all those guys. It's an enjoyable time right now for tag team wrestling. "
They took the long way around at several points in their careers, but it's come full circle in almost every way. The Soaring Eagle Casino is not the Hot Rock Sports Bar & Music Café, but Shelley and Sabin appear to be enjoying themselves now as much as they ever did as young, hungry rookies.
In the wrestling business, that's as good as it gets.