'I was in a living hell': Inside AEW star Jon Moxley's battle with alcohol addiction

Jon Moxley returned to in-ring action with AEW three months after checking himself into an addiction rehabilitation center in Las Vegas. All Elite Wrestling

JON MOXLEY WOKE up hungover the morning of Oct. 31, 2021, in Des Moines, Iowa. He knew the feeling all too well.

For more than two years, the All Elite Wrestling (AEW) star said he drank alcohol almost daily, often to excess. Moxley tried to quit cold turkey on several occasions, but the withdrawals were unbearable with his schedule, and attempts to wean himself off weren't working, either.

Moxley, who wrestled on an independent show the night before, took a cab to the airport that morning. He was aware Southwest Airlines didn't serve alcohol on board during this time due to the pandemic, so he headed to a bar near his gate and "got loaded" before the flight home to Las Vegas.

At that point, Moxley said he didn't feel right without alcohol in his system. He had Googled the effects of withdrawal: seizures, cardiac arrest and death. His biggest fear was one of those things happening on a flight or on national television, so he felt like he had to continue drinking to avoid tragedy. It was a vicious cycle.

"I could feel the world closing in on me," Moxley told ESPN on Wednesday.

Moxley, whose real name is Jonathan Good, arrived home to his wife, Renee Paquette, and their then-3-month-old daughter Nora in a state of exhaustion. It was Halloween night and they were supposed to take Nora out trick-or-treating. Moxley was in no shape to go out and knew this was all coming to a head. He told Paquette that he needed to go to rehab. She agreed.

While passing out candy, Moxley dialed the Desert Hope Treatment Center. Within 15 minutes, he was in an Uber and shortly after he was at the facility -- a large, 148-bed compound 4 miles east of the Las Vegas Strip. They took his phone. No one knew except Paquette.

Five months after leaving Desert Hope, Moxley will perform Sunday in the main event of Forbidden Door, a joint pay-per-view event in Chicago promoted by AEW and New Japan Pro-Wrestling. His opponent in the interim world championship match is Hiroshi Tanahashi, one of Japan's biggest wrestling stars. Moxley has taken inspiration from him and has been calling out for more than two years.

Sunday's match will feel like a culmination of events, like everything has started falling into place for Moxley. But the journey hasn't been easy and is just beginning. Moxley, 36, described his alcohol addiction as a "living hell," something that seeped into every part of his life. He resented coming to work, grew terrified of being a father and was deeply afraid of losing his life in the ring.

"To admit that he needed help -- that took more manhood than not doing it," Moxley's close friend and fellow AEW wrestler Eddie Kingston said. "To me, being vulnerable, it takes a real man to be that."

MOXLEY DIDN'T THINK much about his drinking until he tried to quit. He said he had been "f---ed up for the better part of 18 years," since his wrestling career began in 2004. It was social drinking, nothing he thought he had to worry about. Like many wrestlers, he said he liked hitting the bar after the show with the boys or having a few drinks on a plane to relax.

When Paquette, a former WWE broadcaster and personality, told him she was pregnant in late 2020, Moxley figured it was time to curtail his alcohol intake.

"I was f---ing terrified that I was going to like drop it," Moxley said of the child. "I don't know how to have a f---ing kid, you know? That wasn't in my plans. What do you do with it? You got to hold it? What if I drop it? Babies are terrifying."

At the time, Moxley's usual selection was whiskey. He decided to stop cold turkey. Within two days, his body started to rebel. Moxley didn't know much about withdrawals at that point, but he found out quickly.

"When it's bad, it's bad -- you can't do anything," said Moxley. "The best way I can describe it is crushing physical anxiety. It's not like you have anything to be nervous about, but your hands are shaky and twitchy.

"It's hard to put into words. But it's f---ing horrible."

Feeling that way is untenable for anyone, but especially for one of AEW's top acts. He was expected to perform on television at least once per week, if not more. So, Moxley said he switched to beer, something with lower alcohol content, in an attempt to taper himself off. That didn't work, either.

At some point, Moxley said, his body became dependent on alcohol. He said he's not sure how much alcohol he consumed daily, but it was more than five drinks and "enough to kill a f---ing horse."

It was affecting his life. When he was younger, he said he could drink a 750-milliliter bottle of Jack Daniels at night, get up in the morning to run 5 miles and then work a 25-minute main-event match in the evening.

Before going into rehab, a routine of waking up feeling terrible, chugging water, hitting the sauna and downing countless aspirin to feel somewhat normal became common. Moxley said when he arrived for matches or segments at AEW, he had to shake the brain fog caused by his hangovers and mentally prepare himself to get ready to perform in character.

The people closest to him began to notice, too. Kingston said he broached the topic with Moxley on a few occasions. Paquette said she started really seeing it when she was pregnant with Nora. She could no longer drink, but Moxley kept going. Over the years, she said he would watch the clock for 5 p.m. That time began getting earlier and earlier.

"Seeing him drinking the way that he was and the amount that he was putting back, it was a lot," Paquette said. "It's hard to watch your partner going through something like that and trying to point out to them like, 'Hey, it does not have to be like that -- you don't have to drink like that.'"

Over time, he started not even wanting to go to wrestle. For someone who has dedicated his life to the art, who will have physical, bloody matches on shows of all sizes worldwide, that was a dire realization. Moxley said he didn't know whether he was performing well in his matches and segments -- and didn't care.

"I started to resent having to go to work," Moxley said. "I was like, if I could just stay home and f---ing figure this out on my own -- if I could lock myself in a room, I could figure this out. But I have to keep going back on the road, back on a f---ing plane. I couldn't get out of it."

PAQUETTE REMEMBERS A morning last October when Moxley returned from a wrestling show already intoxicated from drinking on the plane ride.

"I was like, 'Holy s---, I've been waiting for you to get home so I can like pass the baby off to you so I can go and do my thing,'" Paquette said. "And he had to go to sleep because he wasn't feeling well, his body was sore."

That was when Paquette said she knew things had escalated with her husband's drinking to a no-longer-manageable degree. She talked to her father about the situation, then reached out to Kingston, AEW executive Megha Parekh and AEW president Tony Khan. Paquette said she mainly was met with surprise by those in AEW; few had noticed what was going on. Moxley wasn't exhibiting any significant warning signs, like getting into trouble while drunk or causing a commotion.

"[When he's drinking,] he's fun to be around. He's always in a good mood," Paquette said. "He's never the guy who you see who turns into a mean drunk or wants to get behind a wheel. He would just want to drink and fall asleep."

Paquette didn't know how to broach the topic of rehab with Moxley directly. Kingston, she said, was a good sounding board.

"I told her, 'He has a baby girl now, he has you -- he has to get help right away,'" Kingston said. "That was it. It was nothing like, 'Oh, he has this wrestling thing coming up, maybe he should wait.' Nah, f--- that. Get him help now."

The timing wasn't ideal. Nora was just 3 months old, Moxley and Paquette were in the process of moving from Las Vegas to Moxley's hometown of Cincinnati. His autobiography was set to be published on Nov. 2, 2021. In AEW, Moxley was one of the featured performers on every show.

Moxley said he was doing his best just to make it to the AEW pay-per-view show, Full Gear, scheduled for Nov. 13, 2021. Then he believed he could take some time off to figure things out.

"I don't want to tell anybody I'm going through this, because it's kind of embarrassing," Moxley said. "I got all these people counting on me for shows and pay-per-views and stuff. So I'm trying to deal with this just myself. Not put anybody else out or anything."

But, in Des Moines, he realized something had to give. He couldn't continue that way any longer. Moxley wanted to ensure he fulfilled that date, an Oct. 30 Iowa Street Fight match against Jimmy Jacobs, for his friend Sami Callihan's Wrestling Revolver promotion.

When he arrived home to Vegas in a daze and saw Paquette's expression, Moxley knew it was time.

"[It's] like going 12 rounds with a pro boxer and just getting your ass kicked every single day," Moxley said.

"There's no shot you're gonna win," he said. "You just keep going back in the ring and getting the f---ing s--- kicked out of you. I was just like, I couldn't go another day."

IT WAS UP to Paquette to tell everyone, including AEW, that Moxley had checked himself into an inpatient addiction rehabilitation center. Moxley said he had no idea how the news would be received.

"For all I know, everybody is like just mad at you," Moxley said. "Fans are like 'Oh, that guy is a f--- up. What an opportunity he ruined, he's a loser.' And I'm fired and everybody hates me."

Two days later, Moxley called Paquette from a pay phone at the center. Paquette said everything was fine and that AEW fully supported him. Khan, though, wanted to know what the promotion should say about Moxley's absence. Moxley was scheduled for a match on AEW's upcoming television show and obviously would not be there.

Moxley said he figured if he just told AEW to announce that he was out for personal reasons, the rumors would be worse than what was happening. He saw no reason to lie and felt a burden lifted when he told Paquette that AEW could say publicly that he was in rehab.

"Literally, I said to her, 'Tell him I don't give a f--- what he says,'" Moxley said.

Khan said he was surprised when Paquette told him what was going on, but he was clear that AEW was behind Moxley and their family. Khan had to make "major" changes to his creative plans, but he said it was a small price to pay to get someone he considers a friend the help they need.

At the treatment center, Moxley said his withdrawal symptoms, with the help of medication, got better within two days. Without his phone and with no television, Moxley attended group therapy, did a lot of reading and took walks. He compared the experience to being in high school, a mental hospital and jail.

But he didn't hate it. Moxley said he made friends there and it was easy to talk to people going through something similar without worrying about being judged. He said he had "decent times" there, even helping his team win the treatment center's volleyball championship.

More than anything, Moxley said the experience helped him and he wished he had checked himself in even earlier. Within days, he said, he "felt pretty good for the first time in a long time." There was lingering guilt that he had left his family, but he knew this was necessary for all parties.

"If your pipes break, you should probably call a plumber," Moxley said. "You might be able to figure it out, but he'll probably do a much more efficient, proper job, because he has the proper tools and he does that for a living. Sometimes it's much more efficient to just call a professional."

MOXLEY LEFT DESERT HOPE in January, but his recovery is ongoing. Moxley said he has been dealing with poor sleep, nightmares, night sweats and mood swings since being home. He said it took weeks to get his legs back under him as a wrestler. He said it hasn't been fun, but it's a welcome trade-off.

"I'll take this way over what I was going through before, especially the last several months [before rehab]," Moxley said. "I don't know. It all blurs together. I was in a living hell -- absolute hell."

One of the strangest things for him? Getting out of bed without a hangover.

"Some days I wake up and I feel good and I almost feel like I'm cheating," Moxley said. "I don't have to chug water or sit in a sauna or take a bunch of aspirin? I feel like I've got a cheat code. That's still kind of like a novelty for me."

Moxley's health was visibly evident when he returned. For the first time in his career, his abs were noticeable. Paquette said he looked 10 years younger. Khan said he was "in the best shape of his life." Kingston jokes that Moxley is too skinny now.

This new version of Moxley will go into Sunday against Tanahashi in a match born out of fate. Moxley had long taken inspiration from the Japanese star, as he'd become enamored with a match between Tanahashi and Minoru Suzuki in 2012. Moxley was heavily influenced by Tanahashi, a wrestling icon and eight-time IWGP heavyweight champion in Japan, due to his technical ability and signature flair inside the ring. Since leaving WWE, where he wrestled as Dean Ambrose, in 2019, Moxley has worked for both AEW and New Japan and has wanted to wrestle Tanahashi for so long that he thought it might never happen.

When AEW champion CM Punk suffered an injury earlier this month, knocking him out of a scheduled title defense against Tanahashi, the path was set up for Moxley, who feels like he has been the glue in keeping relations between AEW and New Japan strong. Moxley said he has the feeling now that everything is "fitting into place" after a far from easy journey.

"You see someone with the determination and work ethic that this guy has, that same thing applies going through this with alcohol," Paquette said. "To be kicking that, to go through the rehab and just be staying the course -- nothing gets [over on] him. He's really staying the course with everything, and I couldn't be more proud to see the work he's putting in."

"I was very grateful he came back," Khan added. "I'm very grateful and thankful to him. When I saw him in person, I was finally able to express what I didn't do a good enough job of expressing on the phone. I love him very much. He's so important to AEW and to me personally. I really care about Jon a lot."

The hangovers are gone. So is the resentment toward wrestling. Moxley has been back on the road working independent shows, bleeding and throwing lariats in places like Seattle and Dayton, Ohio. The Tanahashi bout, he said, is a pinnacle for him. Or maybe something more.

"This match this weekend could just be a jumping-off point to getting even better and reaching new heights and s--- like that," Moxley said.

"I got rid of a lot of baggage that I don't need anymore."