Brodie Lee’s AEW Career Is Wrestling’s Biggest “What If?”

Brodie Lee is one of the biggest “what ifs?” in wrestling – with his premature death ending what could have been a legendary run in AEW.

The former WWE star passed away in late 2020 after less than a year with the company, in one of the most tragic moments in wrestling history. Leaving behind a wife, children and millions of fans excited to see what he could have been in AEW, his passing hit everyone hard and is something many will never recover from.

In this article, we will look through the incredible AEW run of Brodie Lee, analysing how he was the biggest waste of potential in wrestling and looking at how he is the biggest “what if” the wrestling world has ever seen. He could have been a world champion and a hall of famer, but sadly was taken from the world of wrestling far, far too soon.

His Release From WWE Was Long Overdue

Brodie Lee portrayed the deranged wrestler Luke Harper during his seven years wrestling for the WWE. He was part of the famous Wyatt Family, a cult who wrestled under the thumb of the maniacal Bray Wyatt and became one of the most legendary teams in the world during their time together.

Their feud with The Shield in 2014 brought on some of the best six-man tag team matches of all time – they battled numerous time in some of each man’s best matches and made both teams even more popular with the fans (Shield’s Dean Ambrose wanted to team with Brodie Lee in AEW). However, one the team broke up, Vince McMahon seemed intent not to push Luke Harper, leaving him on the side-lines for an extended period of team leading up to him signing with AEW.

Being disillusions with his time in WWE, he asked for his release from the company in April 2019. Given that AEW had been announced four months prior and was gearing up for their first show (Double or Nothing 2019), WWE were hesitant to release him just to sign for their new rivals – so instead just left him off the show for the remainder of his contract.

He was finally released eight months later in December 2019, after appearing very sparingly on WWE TV over that time. While he had a 90 day no-compete clause after being released (he was being paid for 90 days after his release being announced, to stop him appearing elsewhere), he soon signed a deal with AEW to make his debut in his hometown of Rochester, New York.

Brodie Lee’s AEW Debut

Brodie Lee made his debut in March 2020 as part of the well-received “Dark Order” storyline. The group had been teasing the debut of their “Exalted One”, the leader of their group and the one who would turn the group into a huge force going forward. His first appearance was one the March 18, 2020 episode of AEW Dynamite and caused a huge storm with fans who were excited to see one of their favourite WWE Superstars jumping ship to Tony Khan’s promotions.

The former Luke Harper was revealed as the Exalted One of the Dark Order, the mysterious leader at the head of the dark, cult-like faction. His debut had been long speculated, given the fact he had asked for his WWE release multiple times over the previous year. For weeks, various wrestlers had been teased as the leader, including Jake “The Snake” Roberts and ECW Legend Raven.

Matt Hardy even made his debut on the same show, with many theorising he would be the Exalted One as his “Broken” character. This swerved a lot of fans at home who were not expecting two big AEW debuts in one.

Sadly, due to the pandemic his debut took place in front of no fans. Due to the spread of COVID, fans were banned from attending any sort of show, with various restrictions put up on live events for years following this event. The show was also meant to be AEW’s first foray into Rochester, New York, which also happened to the hometown of Brodie Lee. He missed out on the hometown pop for his debut, which was likely to be one of the biggest in AEW history.

He quickly picked up a series of impressive victories in AEW, he became the number one contender for the AEW Champion. He challenged then-title holder Jon Moxley in a match at Double or Nothing 2020 in a match that many thought came too soon – Brodie had just come into the company and could have been built up better for an even bigger match further down the line. However, due to the uncertainty of the pandemic and wrestlers missing from the show due to illness, Tony Khan pushed this match forward as a huge title match for pay per view. Brodie Lee would lose in an impressive bout, but it would be his next spell which would cement him as a top star in the company.

His TNT Championship Victory Made Him A Star

Soon after losing to Jon Moxley in probably the best match of his career, Brodie Lee moved onto a new target. While the AEW Championship was out of his sight, a new title created for everyone’s favourite midcarder, Cody Rhodes, had recently been created and was up for grabs.

Cody (who was forced to drop the Rhodes name due to legal disputes) defended the title plentifully, in a series of open challengers against AEW talent and some surprise contenders from all over. Two of his open challenge opponents even got signed by AEW and received huge pushes over the next few years, with Eddie Kingston and Ricky Starks impressing as they fell victim to Cody during that period. Other stars who challenged him included Jungle Boy, Jake Hager and the forgotten indie flavour-of-the-month Warhorse.

From May to August, he defended the title without malice and without hesitation. Everyone who wanted to challenge for the belt usually got what they wanted – unsuccessfully. That was until Brodie Lee and his Dark Order minions came calling and made the son of Dusty Rhodes their number one target. After he defended the belt against Scorpio Sky on the August 12th, 2020 edition of AEW Dynamite, Brodie Lee appeared on screen and demanded a title match with the American Nightmare the following week – and boy did he make himself a star in that match.

On the special Saturday Night Dynamite episode (AEW had struggled in the early days with regularly changing days due to competition with other sports – luckily now they feature much less interruption), Cody Rhodes defended his TNT Championship against Mr Brodie Lee. It was the main event of that episode of the show, showing just how much Tony Khan valued both men’s participation in this title match.

The match Brodie Lee the biggest, most dangerous star in the company. In just three minutes, he destroyed Cody in one of the most dominant displays in all of AEW. For a man who was so misused in the WWE, Brodie Lee made sure he was every bit the star he could be in this bout. Rhodes came out the blocks quickly, but a series of big moves followed by an earth-shattering power bomb put the match to bed and set Cody out for weeks to recover.

His Final Matches Were Some Of His Best

After winning the TNT Championship, Brodie Lee embarked on what would be, unbeknownst to him, his final matches in his incredible career. As the TNT Champion, he oozed the charisma of a top star and became almost as legitimate as AEW Champion Jon Moxley – he seemed unbeatable, especially with the might of the Dark Order by his side.

He wrestled in three title defences during his short reign with the title. The first was a victory over Dustin Rhodes, the brother of his latest victim Cody. Dustin tried to avenge his brother by bringing the TNT title back into the Rhodes family, but ultimate was unable to defeat the larger Exalted One.

His next bout was an impressive victory over Orange Cassidy. Somewhat of a hidden gem of the pandemic era, Orange Cassidy vs Brodie Lee was a perfect example of using your characters perfectly in the match. Cassidy was quick, sold well and tried his best surprise roll-ups to try and sneak a victory of the more powerful, destructive Brodie Lee. Cassidy came close to winning, but a distraction from the Dark Order’s John Silver allowed Lee to smash him to the ground with a powerbomb, before a brutalising discuss lariat ended his night and his second TNT Championship defence.

Brodie Lee’s last match was against Cody Rhodes on October 7, 2020 episode of AEW Dynamite in a Dog Collar Match. The bout was for the TNT Championship, which Lee had defeated Cody Rhodes for in their previous encounter two months prior.

This match main evented AEW Dynamite and was a brutal and bloody match. It was the first Dog Collar Match in AEW history and was inspired by the Greg Valentine vs Roddy Pipe match at Starrcade in 1983. Being a big history buff, Rhodes sought inspiration from man old-school wrestlers, most notably his father Dusty Rhodes.

In the first ever Dog Collar match in AEW history, Cody Rhodes (now with black hair for some reason) defeated Lee to regain his title and send the Exalted One packing. Brodie was not seen again on TV after this, leaving to rehab an injury before making a grand return later in the year.

However, he never make a return to television.

He Passed Away On Boxing Day, 2020

AEW star Brodie Lee passed away on 26th December 2020, after a long and secret battle with illness. His death came as a huge shock to the wrestling world, with many people not even aware of him being ill. His death hit everyone hard, as Brodie Lee was considered one of the nicest men in wrestling and had a long, storied career that took him all over the world.

His battle with his illness was long, not that any of the fans would know. It was kept a total secret by everybody backstage in AEW, from the wrestlers, producers and Tony Khan himself. The secrecy in which AEW allowed him and his family to deal with the battle was admirable, not leaking a single detail to any dirt sheets prior to his untimely death. It was this sensitivity that inspired CM Punk to return to wrestling after seven years and sign for the company.

Brodie Lee’s death was tragic and hit the wrestling world hard. All the big promotions, including WWE, AEW and Impact, all made their own special tributes to him during their show – whether it was a mention at the start of the show, wrestlers paying their own special tribute to the man or the exceptional offering made by Tony Khan and All Elite Wrestling.

The week of his death, AEW scrapped their New Years Smash episode and moved it forward a week, in order to properly honour the life and legacy of the great Jon Huber, known professional as Brodie Lee or Luke Harper. They put on a special episode of AEW Dynamite called the “Brodie Lee Celebration of Life”, and put on a number of match ups that nobody could of expected – mainly because they were decided by his son, Brodie Lee Jr.

The show featured five matches and various video tributes to the man himself. A touching video package honouring his life was played during the show, with the son “Ol’ 55′” by Tom Waits being used for the music for it. The song is one not often sold for use in music videos, so it was a rare and expensive moment for AEW – Tony Khan even bought the rights in perpetuity, meaning that the video package would remain, honour Brodie Lee for years to come.

The Brodie Lee Celebration Of Life tribute show is what inspired Bryan Danielson to sign for AEW. Speaking at the All Out 2021 media scrum, he said;

“I heard something over the past week or something that one of the things that really turned Punk was the Brodie Lee show. That was also one of the things that… I saw it. And so many of us loved him so much, and so we saw how special it was, and we saw, ‘Okay, we’re gonna stop what we’re normally doing and do that’. And I thought that was really special to me. So that was when I really started kind of thinking about it (joining AEW), knowing that my contract was coming up.”

He Continues To Be Honoured By AEW Long After His Death

Since his death in late 2020, AEW have continued to honour the late Brodie Lee in their own way. They have worked with his wife Sarah and his children multiple times, inviting them to many AEW Dynamite tapings including the Celebration of Life.

Brodie Lee Jr was a big part of the episode – he was tasked with deciding on the match-ups and who was going to wrestle in the matches. This led to a one-of-a-kind tag team featuring all his favourites in the main event, when Cody Rhodes teamed with Orange Cassidy and Preston Vance in a six-man tag team match against Team Taz.

Brodie Lee Jr has also started to make appearances in AEW. He has been promoted as the new leader of the Dark Order, given the moniker of Negative One – an honour bestowed upon himself by his father prior to his death. He appears with the group for their entrances regularly, and forged a special relationship with Tay Melo during their time in AEW together – they became firm friends, with Melo saying she “loves” the child, revealing he has been helping her with her promo skills when speaking  on the Elite POV podcast.

“It’s crazy, I love those kids. I love them with all my heart. For me, they’re my family, you know? Sometimes, family is not blood it’s just love and I love them. I don’t know, I get emotional when I talk about them because they make me so happy. Every time they’re backstage, I have a blast.”

“Even if I am not doing anything on the show, I have the best day when I am with them,” she said. “Nolan now, in the beginning, I was close with Negative One and not too much with Nolan. Now it’s both of them. It’s kind of crazy because I feel like a kid. We are just fooling around or eating, sitting on the floor, just eating french fries.”

Brodie Lee has also been immortalised on a touching action figure two-pack alongside his son, negative 1. AEW released the set in 2022, depicting Brodie Lee Jr alongside his father, available for purchase by the general public, with all the proceeds going to his surviving family members. He will also be part of the new AEW Video Game, AEW Fight Forever and will continued to be honoured long past his death by the company. If AEW were to launch their own Hall of Fame, it’s certain he would be one of the first inductees.

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