Editor's note: This story was originally published in November 2016, during Adam Cole's second reign as Ring of Honor world champion. Cole will face Kyle O'Reilly once again at NXT TakeOver: Stand and Deliver.
In the career of any professional wrestler that becomes a star, there are turning points when, often by complete accident, their life changes in a single moment or match.
For Ring of Honor world champion Adam Cole, there have been a handful of such occasions that have altered his career, with arguably the most memorable (and certainly the most violent) coming in June 2012 at ROH's "Best in the World" pay-per-view at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom.
"I'm a young upstart trying to make a name for myself in Ring of Honor, and my opponent Kyle O'Reilly is in the exact same position," said Cole, describing the circumstances leading into the match. "New York City is notoriously one of the most vocal and opinionated audiences [in the world]."
While the momentum for both young wrestlers was starting to build, it was one particular moment in the match -- one that led to Cole becoming a bloody mess -- that helped to push both careers to an entirely different level.
The rules for their "Hybrid Rules" bout, the only match of its kind ever contested in ROH, were a bit convoluted and represented a challenge for performer and audience alike. Add in the often hard-to-please New York crowd and there was a lot for Cole and O'Reilly (then just 23 and 25 years old, respectively) to overcome in the match, which was positioned right in the middle of the fight card.
"For me, at that stage of my career, there's this never-ending proving yourself process that happens where the fans don't really know who you are and they're getting comfortable with you," Cole said. "You're constantly having to earn their respect over and over and over again, and that can become exhausting, and very daunting."
This was far from the first match between these men, and far from the last; they'll be facing off once again, in the very same venue, on Dec. 2 at ROH's "Final Battle," with the world championship on the line. But before they had reached such lofty heights with ROH, they met on this smaller stage and did the same thing they'd end up doing dozens of times going forward -- they beat the crap out of each other.
"The first time we ever met was the first time we ever wrestled each other," Cole said. "I had to wrestle Kyle for a Dragon Gate USA pre-show for former booker Gabe Sapolsky, and I had the chance to kind of showcase myself -- Kyle, same thing. But Kyle was super late to the show, because there was horrible traffic, and he was coming a very long way."
The pair quickly introduced themselves to one another, and a short time later they were out in the ring, getting a taste of what would become so clear in the future -- they were incredible opponents for one another.
"I don't know what it is, I don't know why we gel so well," said Cole, "But that connection that we have in the ring is something that you don't have with a lot of people."
Despite their chemistry as opponents, Cole and O'Reilly actually entered ROH together as a tag team, collectively known as Future Shock, and held their own against teams like eight-time ROH world tag team champions The Briscoes, The Kings of Wrestling (Chris Hero and Cesaro), The World's Greatest Tag Team (former WWE tag team champions Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas) and The American Wolves (current TNA world heavyweight champion Eddie Edwards and Davey Richards).
Future Shock vied for the tag-team titles in a match where the crowd turned in their favor but, as has become abundantly clear in subsequent years, their breakup made for something special when the two eventually squared off. Both Cole and O'Reilly took another step at ROH's 10th anniversary show, "Young Wolves Rising," which also took place at the Hammerstein Ballroom (you can start to sense a pattern here). Freshly broken up and on competing sides of a tag team match which also featured The American Wolves, each wrestler was given a chance to shine in a contest that also featured then-ROH champion Richards.
"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 said. "I actually pinned Davey Richards, the ROH champion at the time, in the main event. At that point in my career, it was definitely the biggest moment for sure and the catalyst for things to come."
"I don't know what it is, I don't know why we gel so well. But that connection that we have in the ring is something that you don't have with a lot of people." Adam Cole on Kyle O'Reilly
The momentum of their feud continued to build heading into their June 2012 match at "Best in the World," but even as Cole and O'Reilly started to pour their hearts out in the ring, the temperamental New York crowd started to lose interest at the midway point of what had been a strong, if not spectacular, in-ring display.
Cole sensed the crowd starting to go the wrong way and utilized the traditional babyface tactic of turning to the crowd, lifting his arms up and down, trying to get them behind him again.
"At that stage of my career, when I was that inexperienced, I would do things like literally pandering to the crowd," Cole said. "Like, 'Please, come on, come on, let's go, let's go.'"
Little did Cole, or the crowd, know, what was about to happen. During an exchange of punches, one of O'Reilly's right hands visibly stunned Cole and his hand immediately went to his mouth. Within 10 or 15 seconds, Cole's mouth began bleeding profusely, to the delight of the crowd.
It was a moment he would never forget, and one that put him on a path to stardom.
"I didn't even know I was cut [at that point], I just heard the audience start to come up," Cole said.
It may have taken a little while for both Cole and the audience to get in sync, but the match reached an entirely different level of intensity from that point forward. The punches had more impact, and each exchange felt that much more real with blood covering everything from Cole's face to the bodies of each wrestler and the mat itself.
Cole's wound, which ultimately was discovered to be a chunk of his gumline that had been knocked out by O'Reilly's punch, got so bad that it led to one of the more memorable moments of this match.
"[After] I laid down, I popped right back up because I was choking on my own blood," Cole said.
As much as the crowd was into what was going on, not everyone was thrilled with this incredibly violent display.
"The audience started booing, and I asked the referee why, because I thought we really had them," said Cole. "The legitimate New York State athletic commissioner starts coming down, because there's not supposed to be blood in New York City in wrestling matches. I just turned to him and shook my head, telling him there's no way he's going to stop this match -- and then the crowd went crazy."
Cole went on to win the match when O'Reilly appeared to tap out to a figure four leg lock, something he went on to dispute, which only added further fuel to their rivalry. As Cole mouthed, "It's over" and extended his hand, O'Reilly slapped the taste out of his mouth and ignited the crowd into an even bigger furor.
Even as he held his face, Cole stayed in the ring for as long as he possibly could.
"It's just the absolute best feeling in the world," said Cole. "One of those nights where, not just because we were in pain, but it was hard to sleep that night because I had so much adrenaline. I was just trying to relish in it, because I knew I probably wasn't going to get anything like this again with how crazy the crowd was."
Both men have achieved a great deal since that night. Cole soon became ROH television champion and ultimately won the ROH world championship on two occasions (including his current reign which began in August). O'Reilly is a three-time ROH world tag team champion and two-time New Japan junior heavyweight tag team champion (with partner Bobby Fish). Both men have held the Pro Wrestling Guerilla world championship, and each has performed to sold-out crowds all over the world.
You don't often get to tell a long-term story outside the scope of WWE for any number of reasons, but at seven years and counting, O'Reilly versus Cole will go down as one of the biggest rivalries ever contested in ROH. Another chapter will be written in early December at "Final Battle," but you'd be foolish to consider it the last chapter, no matter the result.
"I think he will go down -- and I think this was the start of it -- as my greatest rival in pro wrestling," Cole said. "No doubt."