All wrestlers have to start somewhere on the path to making their dreams a reality, whether it be a wrestling school, church basement, bingo hall, etc. From there, those wrestlers work their way up to the pinnacle of their dreams. For many, that’s a career in WWE. But sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination. In LWOPW’s newest feature, “Before They Were Famous,” we take a look at the pre-WWE careers of some of the company’s top current stars, following along on their road to superstardom. To kick off the series, we’re looking back at the independent career of Adam Cole.
He’s the only three-time Ring of Honor World Champion, the longest-reigning Pro Wrestling Guerrilla World Champion, the inaugural NXT North American Champion, the longest-reigning Combat Zone Wrestling Junior Heavyweight Champion, the first-ever NXT double-champion, current NXT Champion and so much more. He’s Adam Cole, BAY BAY, and this is his story.
For most high school seniors, their focus is primarily on colleges. Discovering them, visiting them, finding the right fit, applying and excitedly anticipating an acceptance letter. Most high school seniors aren’t focused on getting in a ring, running the ropes, taking bumps, and walking out of a curtain under the guise of a certain persona. But that was exactly what Adam Cole, real name Austin Jenkins, spent his senior year doing thanks to a bold decision he made one night in November 2007.
Born and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Adam Cole’s first exposure to pro wrestling came by accident as he stumbled upon his father watching an episode of WCW Thunder. Just nine at the time, Cole was quickly directed away from the product which his parents considered to be too violent. It wasn’t until a few years later, while taking karate lessons, that Cole truly had the opportunity to discover what would soon become his passion. In an interview Adam Cole did with ESPN, he recounted the first time he saw a WWF PPV. Having told his karate instructor, who was an avid fan, that he watched wrestling “all the time,” the instructor, after getting signed permission from his parents, lent Cole his DVD of WrestleMania 15. The event just so happened to have taken place in Philadelphia, a city that would have an incredible impact on Cole’s own wrestling career.
The main event pitted Stone Cold Steve Austin against the Rock in a no-disqualification match. As incredible as the match was, for the young Adam Cole, it was Austin’s entrance – the simply iconic sound of glass shattering – that made the difference. That was the moment that Cole knew what his future looked like. So as he got older, while his friends and classmates were discerning their career paths, Cole was merely cementing his. He picked up amateur wrestling in junior high and by high school, started attending as many wrestling shows as he could, even when it meant driving two-plus hours, with his younger brother in tow, to see Combat Zone Wrestling shows from the Alhambra Arena (aka the old ECW Arena and current 2300 Arena) in nearby Philadelphia.
“This is All I Ever Wanted to Do”
It was there, in Philadelphia, that Adam Cole’s life changed forever. Having dreamed of wrestling in South Philly’s iconic arena, following Best of the Best 7 in 2007, Adam Cole did what many fans still do as he waited to meet some of the wrestlers after the show. One of the men he just so happened to meet was DJ Hyde, who was running the CZW Academy at the time.
“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 told ESPN’s Tim Fiorvanti. “And he stopped, and he turned and looked at me, and he asked, ‘Why don’t you wrestle now?'”
Having just started his senior year of high school, Adam Cole didn’t really envision a way that could happen. For starters, he didn’t have the money he’d need to train and he certainly didn’t think he’d have the time. But Hyde was willing to work with him on the money and on the training commitment because he saw Cole’s potential. More importantly, he saw his passion and sensed his dedication.
While Adam Cole had previously been considering several different wrestling schools, the ability to start training immediately appealed to the young hopeful and he saw it as an opportunity he simply couldn’t pass up. A week later, he had his first training session at the CZW Academy under the guidance and mentorship of John Dahmer and Hyde. He made his pro wrestling debut a little over seven months later, teaming with The Reason to take on Alex Colon and Joe Gacy at CZW No Pun Intended. Adam Cole worked eight CZW events his first year as a wrestler, including all of the early CZW Academy shows where he became a focal point. He picked up his first win outside of the academy at Cage of Death X alongside LJ Cruz and Tyler Veritas. Outside of CZW, in his first year, Cole picked up bookings with World Xtreme Wrestling, American Championship Pro Wrestling, Maryland Championship Wrestling, IWA: Mid South and more.
The next year in CZW saw Adam Cole rise within the ranks of the company, all the while gaining the hard-earned respect and admiration of the “hard to please South Philadelphia fans of CZW.” For Cole, that was an experience he cites to this day as having an incredible impact on his career.
“Forever am I thankful that I got my start in Combat Zone I think mainly because those fans were not going to give you anything unless they were completely blown away,” Cole told Marc Madison of Pro Wrestling Post. “So as far as the CZW fans go they are really hard to please and really hard to impress. But once you have their respect you have it forever. Over time CZW fans, actually embraced who I was as a character because I stood tall as to who I was and who Adam Cole was going to be and therefore they respected me in the long run.”
By the end of 2009, Adam Cole found himself in his first singles title match as he faced off against Veritas for the vacant Wired TV Championship. A few months prior he teamed with Veritas in a losing effort for the tag team titles. Losses aside, it was clear, however, that Adam Cole was climbing the ladder and becoming one of the premier players in the company. By early 2010, Cole entered into the junior heavyweight picture, claiming the title in May at Fist Fight, by defeating Sabian and Ruckus in a three-way elimination match. It was Cole’s first CZW title but not his first career championship. That came in 2009 with MCW as he won the Rage Television Championship. In fact, the Wired Championship was Cole’s fifth career title, all won by the time he was just 21 years old.
No doubt destined for greatness, Adam Cole attended a WWE tryout in 2009, admitting later that he was way over his head at the time.
“I was a 19-year-old kid, I was 170 pounds soaking wet,” Cole told Pro Wrestling Post in 2015. “I didn’t have an identity. I didn’t have a look. I didn’t have the proper gear. I was just a young guy trying to be a wrestler. I don’t even know if they [WWE] looked me in the eyes based on my size, based on my experience. I literally looked like a child there. For me, it was more motivating as going forward and now I kind of have an idea of what I need to do. A lot of that just comes with time.”
Discovering His Honor and His Character
As he continued to endure tough training and initiation in CZW, Adam Cole was committed to learning from his experiences. Thanks to DJ Hyde, who often took his students to experience other wrestling events to get their names out there, Cole relished in the opportunities and being able to network in the industry. One such connection led him to ROH where he trained under Delirious, who Cole says took his “understanding of pro wrestling to the next level.”
Adam Cole spent parts of 2009 and 2010 simply wrestling dark matches for the company, doing everything in his power to impress company officials. According to Cole, each time it was the same. He would go out there and get told he was doing a good job. But much like when Cole had his WWE tryout, something was missing. His in-ring work was up-to-par but beyond that, he had nothing to separate him from the other talented wrestlers ROH was bringing in the door. Until one day, he sent a promo in that caught the eye of booker, Adam Pearce. Pearce made the decision for Cole to cut a dark promo as opposed to a match one week, and Jim Cornette just so happened to see it. As Adam Cole says, “the rest was history.”
From there on out, they [ROH] saw something in me that they had no been seeing while I was wrestling, and that kind of gave me the opportunity to shine, and to get a real chance with ROH.”
After winning the CZW junior title, Adam Cole cut a promo promising his would be “a reign to remember.” He was not wrong. Continuing to define his legacy in CZW with a record 554-day junior title reign, which stands as the longest ever and includes defenses against Sonjay Dutt, Zack Sabre Jr., Sabian, AR Fox, Sami Callihan, Rich Swann, Jonathan Gresham and Chuck Taylor to name a few, Cole was also beginning to create a new legacy in ROH.
After working dark matches for a year-and-a-half and one squash match in the midst of that period, Adam Cole was teamed with fellow ROH newcomer Kyle O’Reilly, in the team known as Future Shock. Two young stars ready to take on the world, one might say that Cole and O’Reilly “shocked the system” when they debuted together in ROH in the fall of 2010. It was just a few months after both had signed with the company and it soon became clear these two were destined for success. According to Adam Cole, who was named 2010’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter Rookie of the Year, his team with O’Reilly was beneficial for both of them in so many ways. O’Reilly helped Cole improve in-ring and Cole helped O’Reilly improve with promos. In that way, the two as a team compensated for each other’s weaknesses, but more than that, they had seamless chemistry, clicking in a way that in Cole’s words was “more so than anyone else that I’ve ever clicked with before.”
Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reilly spent their first two years in ROH wrestling some of the company’s top teams including Kevin Steen and Steve Corino, the All-Night Express (Kenny King and Rhett Titus), the Briscoes (Jay and Mark), Kings of Wrestling (Claudio Castagnoli and Chris Hero), Wrestling’s Greatest Tag Team (Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin), the Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) and the American Wolves (Eddie Edwards and Davey Richards). While the duo never won the tag titles, they put on impressive performances nearly every time out, including in PWG, where they teamed on several occasions, the first of which marked Cole’s debut with the promotion he would later come to reign over.
Following a tag title match against WGTT at Homecoming in 2012, Future Shock went their separate ways as Kyle O’Reilly began allying with his mentor Davey Richards as Team Ambition. Soon after, Adam Cole would align with Richards’ own spurned tag partner Eddie Edwards and the two teams of one-half Future Shock/one-half Wolves entered into a fantastic feud at the 10th Anniversary Show. While Edwards and Richards were already establishing themselves as main event talents, the 10th Anniversary match made two new ones in Cole and O’Reilly as it was evident both men were poised for singles success.
Responsible for his team’s victory as he pinned the champion at the 10th Anniversary Show, Adam Cole received his first ROH world title match a few months later in a loss to Richards. In June of 2012, Cole’s climb toward the top of the ROH ladder reached its next rung as he won his first title, the world television championship by defeating Roderick Strong in an undisputed fashion. Adam Cole defended the belt against Michael Elgin, Mike Mondo, Edwards, O’Reilly and BJ Whitmer before losing it to Matt Taven in March 2013. A few months later, Cole returned to the world title scene in a losing effort against Jay Briscoe. Overall though, while he didn’t win the big one, Adam Cole found himself winning more matches than he was losing by 2013 (including getting the better of his feud with Strong), as he was being pushed strongly by ROH and PWG.
Dominance as a Double World Champ
Adam Cole took part in two huge tournaments in back to back years in 2012 and 2013, winning them both. In his first singles competition in PWG, Cole entered Battle of Los Angeles defeating El Generico, Sami Callihan, Eddie Edwards and Michael Elgin to win indie wrestling’s most prestigious tournament. Cole went on to use the title shot that is granted the winner, to defeat Kevin Steen and win the PWG World Championship, the first world title of his career. The following July, Adam Cole defeated Mark Briscoe, Jay Lethal, Tommaso Ciampa and Michael Elgin to win the ROH tournament to crown a new world champion.
By the end of 2014, Adam Cole was one of the top wrestlers on the independents, holding both the PWG and ROH world titles as well as being named the 9th best wrestler on the PWI 500. In PWG, he successfully defended against Drake Younger, Callihan, Steen, O’Reilly, Hero, Johnny Gargano and Candice LeRae before losing the belt to O’Reilly after a record 538-day reign. Cole’s ROH reign didn’t last quite as long as he lost the belt to Elgin after 275 days, but not before picking up successful defenses against Hero, Taven, Delirious, Steen, Jushin Thunder Liger, ACH and Ciampa.
It would take two years for Adam Cole to regain his ROH belt but in the meantime, he continued to be a main event player both in the company and throughout the indies. In that two-year span, Cole won the 2014 Survival of the Fittest tournament, made his debut for New Japan Pro Wrestling, and was involved in three dominant factions, the Kingdom (Cole, Taven and Mike Bennett) which he led in ROH, Mount Rushmore (Cole, the Young Bucks and Steen) in PWG and of course, Bullet Club.
Finding himself at a crossroads after returning from an injury, Cole’s career reached one of its best chapters, when he was revealed as ROH’s newest Bullet Club representative in May 2016. Alongside the Young Bucks as the SuperKLIQ, Adam Cole used his new allies to help him once again best O’Reilly and return to the world title picture in the process, promising his old partner that as long as Cole was in ROH, O’Reilly would never win the championship. In August, at Death Before Dishonor XIV, Adam Cole became just the third person in ROH history to win the title twice, defeating Jay Lethal for the belt. Cole successfully defended the title against both ROH and NJPW talent before ultimately failing to keep his promise, dropping the championship to O’Reilly in December at Final Battle.
The Final Chapter
Adam Cole kicked off his 10th year as a pro wrestler, in 2017, his last on the indies, in a huge way, as he regained the ROH world title from O’Reilly in the Tokyo Dome during the company’s match at Wrestle Kingdom 11. In doing so, Cole became the first, and so far the only man, to have won the ROH world title three times. His seven-year career with the promotion, which came to an end on May 14, 2017, goes down as one of the best in ROH’s history.
And as much as Adam Cole loved his time there and has had nothing but positive things to say about ROH (and the same goes vice versa as ROH and COO Joe Koff have only had positive things to say about him including Koff telling Josh Barnett of USA Today that there “forever will be a place in my heart for my time working with Adam Cole”), it was clear what Cole’s next chapter would be. After wrestling a few indie matches here and there, including his PWG farewell against Sami Callihan on May 19, Cole’s free agency ended after just a few months as he debuted in NXT, alongside Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly, targeting then-NXT champion Drew McIntyre.
In NXT, Adam Cole has enjoyed a great two-year run. Undisputed Era (Cole, Fish, O’Reilly and Strong) has been the most dominant faction in company history, and through it, Cole is a one-time tag team champion (freebird rules), one-time Dusty Rhodes Classic winner, took part in the first War Games match since 2000, is a one-time North American Champion, of which he was the first, and is the current NXT Champion, also in his first reign. Adam Cole also had the opportunity to make his WWE debut, taking part in the 2018 Royal Rumble, which just so happened to be in the city where it all began for him in more ways than one, Philadelphia.
Following his WWE debut, Cole said it best, “I could tell you that it was a once in a lifetime moment, I could tell you that this was dreams coming true but the reality is this is to be expected. Because I’m Adam Cole and I’ve dominated each and every place I go all over the world.”
Adam Cole’s 12-year journey through wrestling has yielded no shortage of accolades, including 19 titles, for the man who DJ Hyde once said, “was born to do this [wrestling].” An endless passion for his craft, a refusal to get complacent and a desire to always be the best have driven Adam Cole to be considered one of the best independent wrestlers in the last decade, if not beyond. And for a kid whose first real memory with wrestling came while watching WrestleMania, there is no question that Cole’s own “WrestleMania moment” isn’t far off, not at all.
Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world.