Ever since watching WrestleMania XV on a VHS cassette he borrowed from his karate teacher, Adam Cole aspired to become the next "Stone Cold" Steve Austin or "The Rock." But, at just 5-foot-9 and 145 pounds in high school, the Panama City, Fla., native worried his wrestling dreams would be out of reach.
"Then, fortunately for me, I discovered Ring of Honor," Cole said. "And I saw guys who were much smaller in stature, but were putting on these amazing matches that I had never seen in WWE before. So I thought, at the very least, I'd love the chance to be able to wrestle in a company like that someday."
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Not only did Cole get that chance, but on Saturday he'll come to New York City to defend the ROH heavyweight championship on the company's biggest show of the year, Final Battle 2013, at the Manhattan Center. (Tickets are available at rohwrestling.com.)
Wrestling in the show's main event against Jay Briscoe and Michael Elgin still feels a bit surreal to Cole, who first fell in love with ROH after buying a "Best of" DVD featuring one of its top stars at the time in 2005.
"I thought WWE was the only thing that existed. Then when I got onto the Internet, I kept hearing about this guy, CM Punk, and how he was the future of wrestling. So I was like, 'Who is this CM Punk guy?'" Cole said. "Then I got into the whole company, just because of the athleticism and the hard-hitting style. I started going to events . . . I was just as big a fan of Samoa Joe, Bryan Danielson and Nigel McGuinness as I was of Triple-H, Shawn Michaels and The Rock."
Shortly after his professional debut, Cole began wrestling for ROH in 2009 and quickly turned heads with his determination and fighting spirit. Still, he was considered an underdog when he entered a tournament this past summer to fill the vacated ROH heavyweight championship. In September, he upset Elgin in the final to capture the championship -- the same title once worn by Punk.
"It meant everything. I hate to sound cliché, but it was a dream come true for me," Cole said. "Being chosen as the guy to be the flagship and carry the torch coming up next is a great feeling. And it also became a great responsibility . . . but one I've thrived on and really enjoyed."
But Cole's title reign may never have happened if things had gone differently during a tryout match with WWE in February. Cole said he formed good relationships with WWE personnel, but ultimately the answer was "not 'no' forever, just 'no' right now."
"It wasn't the right place and the right time for me to work there, both for myself and for them," Cole said. "So the situation right now with me continuing to work for Ring of Honor has been a blessing. I'm actually so happy that it worked out the way it did. And, who knows? The future could hold anything."
ROH remains the third-biggest wrestling promotion, with a growing television presence thanks to its parent company, syndication juggernaut Sinclair Broadcasting Group. Still, the promotion has stumbled in recent years, including a failed bid to offer regular Internet pay-per-view events. After being plagued by technical glitches, ROH pulled the plug on its iPPV plan in September.
"We want as many eyes on what we're doing as possible, so when that gets taken away, it is frustrating because we wish that more people could see us," Cole said. "But at the same time, we do realize that the guys in charge are doing what they can. So we can't hyper-focus on the negatives too much. We have to focus on continuing to put on the best live shows and the best television shows that we can. And once we do get this i-pay per view thing figured out, obviously the game plan is to have the best i-pay per views that we can."
One key to putting on a quality product, Cole said, is pacing each show properly -- something that ROH struggled to do in its early years when live events would sometimes go on for more than five hours. Cole said that's changed, and that modern ROH shows last "2 ½, 3 hours tops" and are laid out more logically than ever before.
"Because of the fact that I am in the main events now, I understand even more that when guys go out [early in a show] and do everything under the sun, it makes it much more difficult for guys in the main event to get the fans on their feet," Cole said. "Now, because everyone on the roster understands their place on the card and understands that we're building to a crescendo, I think overall it creates a much more exciting show."