Adam Cole is a lot of things. He's a two-time (and current) Ring of Honor world champion, a member of the wildly popular Bullet Club faction and a storyteller. But first and foremost, like so many of the fans who passionately cry out "Bay Bay" every time they hear his name, Cole is an endlessly passionate student of the craft and history of professional wrestling.
Cole's first conscious memories of the squared circle are probably a lot like yours, if you were a child of a certain age. At 9 years old, he caught a few precious moments of an episode of WCW Thunder before his dad turned off the TV and ushered him off to the dinner table.
"When I first discovered that professional wrestling existed, it was going through that transitional period where it was becoming more violent, more risqué, more TV-14," said Cole. "So initially, I was not permitted at all to watch pro wrestling."
In fact, it wasn't until a chance encounter that Cole stumbled upon an opportunity that would change his life.
"Fast-forward to a point in my life where I was taking karate lessons as a kid; I really enjoyed that, and I used to get there early and stay there late -- I just loved it," Cole said. "I got there early one day, and my instructor was watching a taped Monday Night Raw from the night before.
"I was watching it while he was checking it out, and he asked, 'Oh, do you watch wrestling?' and I said, 'Yeah, all the time,'" Cole continued. "But I'd never watched it before. I just wanted to fit in with him. Long story short, he lets me borrow WrestleMania 15, and I saw Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock for the first time. I remember just thinking, 'These guys are the coolest guys I've ever seen in my life.'"
When he watched that no-disqualification main event between The Rock and Austin, there was a moment when Cole was instantly hooked -- a moment that gave him goosebumps and changed his life. When the iconic glass crashing of Austin's entrance hit, Cole knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life.
By the time Cole was a high school senior, he began to look seriously at wrestling schools near his childhood home in Pennsylvania. It was (and still is) a hotbed for wrestling schools, and whichever one he chose to attend after graduating high school could have sent him in any number of directions in his career.
"I was considering a bunch of different options," said Cole. "There was the Wild Samoan training center in Allentown, Pennsylvania. For a while, I was considering the Chikara Wrestle Factory in Philadelphia, too. It got to a point where, because I was such a big fan of wrestling, I started to follow more promotions -- and one of them was called Combat Zone Wrestling, in South Philadelphia."
CZW cultivated a reputation over the years for having some of the most brutal and violent hard-core matches in the world of independent wrestling, including numerous bouts featuring Jon Moxley (now Dean Ambrose in the WWE) and Drake Younger (now WWE NXT referee Drake Wuertz), among many others.
Still, that style of match wasn't everything that CZW was about, and a young, impressionable Cole took a chance to try to meet some of the wrestlers and operators of CZW after attending "Best of the Best 7" -- an annual tournament that Cole was quite familiar with and fond of.
"I was out back, waiting to meet everybody, and one of the guys who walked out was DJ Hyde, who is the head trainer of the CZW wrestling academy. For whatever reason, I build up enough courage to tell him, 'By the way, when I graduate high school I'm gonna train to be a pro wrestler someday,'" Cole said. "And he stopped, and he turned and looked at me, and he asked, 'Why don't you wrestle now?'"
Cole, surprised for a moment by the question, rattled off all of the reasons that a high schooler wouldn't be able to make it work without dropping out of college: He didn't have the money. His parents would obviously be apprehensive. And the two-hour drive each way would be challenging, to say the least.
DJ Hyde extended an olive branch that would ultimately make a tremendous impact on the years that followed.
"He said, 'Listen, I'll work with you on money -- you pay me what you can, when you can, and you only have to come down one day a week," Cole recalled. "The following week, I started training as a pro wrestler."
"I talked to the three [aspiring wrestlers] and told them they needed to do a tryout," said Hyde. "The three of them all had a lot of potential -- Adam was not the guy he is now, but you could see something. He said, 'This is all I ever wanted to do.'"
"I use him as an example to the current students -- he wanted it more than anybody else -- anyone I've ever seen," said Hyde. "He was born to do this."
Cole would've jumped at any opportunity to get into a wrestling ring as soon as humanly possible, and he simply couldn't deny an offer to train at CZW. In November 2007, Cole started down the long and winding path of an independent wrestling career. By the time he graduated high school, Cole's career was already in motion.
He quickly discovered that it wasn't all about learning to bump or mastering an in-ring technique. Cole's persistence and willingness to reach out to those who could help him in some way in his career was as valuable a skill as any he'd pick up in the ring.
"For independent wrestling, making connections is so important," said Cole. "Part of that process is traveling all over the country and going wherever you can, even if you're not on the event. It's the idea of showing up and meeting people and watching matches -- just creating relationships with people."
One relationship that allowed Cole to take another monumental step was with an Australian wrestler who was touring in the States and had started attending the Ring of Honor wrestling school.
When offered an opportunity to train with some of the brightest up-and-coming wrestlers on the independent scene, he simply couldn't pass it up.
"So I went down there, and I started training," said Cole. "The head trainer, Delirious, was there, and he will hate that I say this, but he's one of the smartest men in wrestling. I instantly knew that from the moment I met him. [Being there] really kind of took my understanding of pro wrestling to the next level."
At that point in time, around 2008 or 2009, Delirious was still an active performer for Ring of Honor. As he picked up more and more things in the ring, Cole asked if he could start attending shows. He did everything he could -- he helped set up chairs and the ring, served as security and a guy just there to get beat up.
Cole started on his long path to stardom in ROH in 2009, when he had his first "dark match" for the company. As hard as he worked to impress those in charge behind the curtain, Cole quickly found himself hitting a wall creatively.
"I did dark matches with Ring of Honor for a year and a half," said Cole. "And I got the same response every single time I got to the back -- 'Good job, keep it up.' That was cool the first two or three times, but then it was like, OK, what do I have to do differently to kind of stand out more?"
By tapping into what is now one of his most valuable tools in the ring, Cole utilized his personality to get noticed.
"I end up sending a promo in, and at the time the booker Adam Pearce saw that and said, 'OK, we're gonna have you cut a promo in the ring as dark,'" said Cole. "So instead of doing a match, I was actually talking, which was cool. Jim Cornette happened to be paying attention to the promo, and the rest was history. From there on out, they saw something in me that they had not been seeing while I was wrestling, and that kind of gave me the opportunity to shine, and to get a real chance with ROH."
Cole would soon find himself under contract with ROH, and he'd get paired up with another young upstart, Kyle O'Reilly. Books could be written about their partnership and eventual rivalry that carries on to this day, but in short, they teamed up under the moniker "Future Shock" and got to wrestle against some of the best in the world, including the Kings of Wrestling (Cesaro and Chris Hero), the Briscoes and former WWE tag team champions Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas, among many others.
It was against Haas and Benjamin, collectively known as the "World's Greatest Tag Team", that Cole received his first championship match in ROH. While he and O'Reilly failed to win the titles, the pair proved themselves worthy of the label of being future stars with the company. The pair soon split, but went right at it on opposite sides of another budding rivalry between the tag team formerly known as "The American Wolves" -- a conflict that ultimately shaped the careers of all four men.
"It was me and Eddie Edwards against Kyle O'Reilly and ROH world champion Davey Richards," said Cole. "That moment for us was Ring of Honor telling our fans, 'OK, these guys are main event guys now.' At that point in my career, it was the most pressure I had ever felt -- because the fans are either going to bite on this, or they weren't, so you really, really have to deliver."
Cole not only managed to hold his own in that match at ROH's 10th anniversary show, entitled "Young Wolves Rising," but he got the biggest victory of his career to that point. He pinned Richards -- the reigning ROH champion at the time -- in the main event of a major show at the Hammerstein Ballroom, and it was the catalyst for even bigger things to come. After dispatching O'Reilly in a grudge match three months later in that very same venue, Cole won his first championship in ROH by defeating Roderick Strong for the television championship in June 2012.
By the end of the year, he'd get the first world title win of his career by defeating Kevin Steen (Kevin Owens) for the Pro Wrestling Guerilla world heavyweight championship.
"It was scary man," said Cole. "I was 22 or 23 at that time, being put in a position where you're Ring of Honor television champion and the PWG world champion. This is no knock on the ROH television championship at all, but this was the first time any company had ever said, 'OK, you're our No. 1 guy, and we're expecting these shows to do well with you on top.'"
He'd ultimately go on to become a cult hero and the longest reigning PWG world champion in the company's history, but those concurrent title reigns -- despite being career-defining achievements -- offered little time for Cole to appreciate what he'd been able to do at such a young age.
"The thing that I regret the most, I think, looking back at that period of my life, was I didn't really get to enjoy it too much," Cole said. "I was so concerned and focused on doing better and improving. But at the same time, that's part of what success is -- getting better is about never settling, and realizing that you do have to always push forward and improve. Sometimes you can't sit back and smell the roses."
It's a tough balance to strike for a guy who's been as motivated as Cole. He has little issue taking care of business in the gym, with his diet and in studying tapes, but he occasionally falls victim to losing the big picture simply because he keeps his head down and keeps pushing toward greatness.
"The fear of failure with me is very real," said Cole. "I think the idea of me being 50 years old and thinking, 'Where could my career have been if I just worked a little bit harder' is a really tough pill to swallow -- and it scares me to death."
Over the entirety of his career, Cole has been able to push down those fears and keep them at bay by working as hard as possible. The results speak for themselves, with Cole earning the highest honor of his career in September 2013 by winning the ROH world championship.
Sometimes fate simply intervenes, though. The process was taken out of his hands entirely in late 2014, when a serious shoulder injury put him on the shelf for the longest stretch of his career.
"It's very, very hard to walk away from something that means a lot to you, [especially] not having that escape that wrestling has always been for me. When I was forced to miss four months of action because of shoulder, tricep and elbow surgery, it was tough -- and, of course, when it rains it pours. My grandmother passed away while I was out injured, and while I normally would have just focused on wrestling, I just sat at home and really had to deal with that."
After losing his grandmother, his No. 1 supporter and one of the most important people in his life, Cole sat back and reset his life and career. As he neared his return in May 2015, Cole was able to draw some positives from his time away from wrestling.
While the year following Cole's return was a net positive, with a number of big matches, things weren't quite clicking as well as they were before his injury. That all changed in May 2016, when Cole made a surprise appearance in the midst of a Jay Lethal-Colt Cabana ROH world championship match and revealed himself as the newest member of the Bullet Club.
That was soon followed by a second world championship reign, and almost everything Cole has done as part of the Bullet Club has been a revelation in his career. He's having some of the best matches of his career, including a recent five-star match in PWG, he's getting to live out his dreams of wrestling in New Japan Pro Wrestling and the future looks bright.
Still, no matter how much he tries to appreciate it all in the moment, his desire to squeeze every last drop out of his career can be overwhelming.
"When I win something like the Ring of Honor championship for a second time, I'm excited for a minute, but I'm already thinking, 'How can I win for a third time? What's my next goal?'" said Cole. "What's the next mountain I have to climb? I don't ever want to become content."
Cole is always striving for the next step in his career. He's incredibly happy with his current position -- which has him on top in ROH, able to work in NJPW, PWG and top Mexican promotion CMLL -- but even if it's two, three or five years down the line, it would be foolish to discount his desire to one day perform in or even main event a WrestleMania.
For the boy who grew up and fell in love with wrestling because of The Rock and Austin, and takes pride in having worked all the way up the ranks of professional wrestling, it might be the only way he'll ever truly be able to take a breath and stop to smell the roses.
"It's all part of the journey," said Cole. "In my dream pro-wrestling career, I would get to go and wrestle on all the corners of the planet -- get to wrestle for the smallest promotions all the way up to the biggest promotions. I love all the peaks and valleys."