Originally published on Fanbyte on December 14, 2021

It’s a big night for wrestling fans in Piedmont, Alabama. The IWGP Heavyweight Champion is in town.

A small crowd has packed themselves into 627 Southern Avenue for the ProSouth Wrestling show. Ringside seats sell for $10 a pop, general seating only $8, a real bargain to see AJ Styles in person. Styles is just three months removed from defeating Hiroshi Tanahashi in Osaka to win his second IWGP Heavyweight Championship. He’s on top of the world, the champion of the most prestigious promotion anywhere on the planet, and he’s decided to make a stop in Piedmont to face an old friend.

AJ Styles might as well be from a whole other world. As such, he inspires awe here, but not love. He’s not the one coming in every month, working to give back to the southern independent scene. The fans may have come to see AJ Styles, but in their hearts, they want to a homer to get the win.

So while their respect goes out to the international superstar, their hearts stay with the hometown hero. They’re cheering for the man standing across from AJ Styles, a familiar foe from years ago.

On May 8th, 2015, the hero of Piedmont, Alabama, is one of the greatest professional wrestling villains of a generation: Jimmy Rave.

Jimmy Rave understood what it took to be hated. Few in the wrestling industry have ever done it with so much care and skill as Rave did. When the greats of the 2000s independent boom needed someone smarmy and loathsome to beat on for a few months, Jimmy Rave was the guy you could depend on.

There are so many great feuds and matches to note. The work he’ll be remembered best for is, of course, his run in Ring of Honor. Jimmy Rave’s time as the Crown Jewel of Prince Nana’s Embassy might be one of the most effective and memorable heel runs of the 2000s. They were a perfect combo together; Nana’s boisterous and energetic bravado complemented Rave’s sneering smugness.

Together, they terrorized a who’s who of indie legends.

In 2005, shortly after joining The Embassy, Rave embarked on a rivalry against CM Punk. The feud saw such heinous actions as Rave hitting Punk’s girlfriend Traci Brooks with the Rave Clash, spraying insect repellant into Punk’s eyes, and Rave trying to scrape off the “Straight Edge” tattoo on Punk’s belly with a cheese grater. All delightful, evil stuff to get the fans frothing at the mouth to see Rave get destroyed by Punk.

No better place to do it than in Chicago. CM Punk vs. Jimmy Rave inside a steel cage. Thanks to Prince Nana’s high priced legal team, the match can be won by escaping the cage as well as by pinfall or submission. Take a quick guess what Rave’s preferred strategy to win the match was.

It’s such a simple match, it plays off all the classic steel cage tropes. Rave wants badly to scurry out of the cage to steal a win but can’t get past Punk. As for Punk, he relishes in beating down Rave a little too much, and his dragging the fight out gives The Embassy the chance to use their dirty tactics and numbers to try and get Rave the win.

Rave’s performance in this is textbook. He spends the vast majority of it stooging for Punk, bumping for the Chicago native all around the cage. He’s the first to bleed too, fitting retribution for his sins in the preceding months. His selling straddles that delicate balance that the best heels always find: satisfying to watch without crossing over into becoming overly sympathetic.

All of the heels get a taste of Punk’s wrath before the match is over. Both Prince Nana and The Embassy’s valet, Jade Chung, end up in the cage. Nana gets thrashed by Punk as expected. Chung, meanwhile, finds herself on the wrong end of a spear from Rave. Even this despicable act in kayfabe—Rave harming a woman, one on his own team even—belies the care and consideration that the performer Rave brought to his performance.

“He was always respectful, very soft spoken,” wrote Chung on Twitter, “and [Rave] always asked ME if I was ok after HIS match.”

In the finish of the match, both Rave and Punk are perched at the top of the steel cage. It’s as tense and nerve-wracking to watch in 2021 as it must have been in 2005, one wrong step and both men can be severely injured. Instead, they pull off a spectacular finish: Punk superplexes Rave off the top of the cage to the canvas for the three-count and the victory. It’s a stunning bump that highlights Rave’s dedication to the industry, and to giving fans the catharsis they so badly craved.

One couldn’t be as good a heel as Rave was without a keen sense for ring psychology and timing. It’s why in a Philadelphia street fight against AJ Styles in July 2005, the very first piece of offense Rave hits when the bell rings is a thumb to the eye. It’s why when he challenges for the ROH World Championship against Bryan Danielson in 2006, he can’t quite get the technique on the Cattle Mutilation right when he steals the champion’s finisher.

He’s always looking for that shortcut, that cheap advantage, and he always pays for it eventually.

All those little things built up to make Rave the most hated man in Ring of Honor. In a promotion where fans threw streamers at their most beloved wrestlers, crowds of people tossed rolls of toilet paper at Rave. He was furious every single time, a perfect heel selling even for the fans in attendance.

He did it all without compromising the quality of his ring work too. Mechanically, there’s nothing to complain about with Jimmy Rave’s work at his peak. He’s crisp, he moves at a great pace, his strikes look and sound wonderful. Anyone who pays attention can see that’s he’s an incredibly talented wrestler.

And by God, you still wanted him to lose anyway.

The apex of Rave’s heel run in ROH comes at the start of 2007. He’s spent the last few months feuding with Nigel McGuinness, submitting him on multiple occasions with a new heel hook finisher. Their rivalry has escalated to the point that they must now settle things in a Fight Without Honor in Nigel’s homeland of England.

The match is a brutal one, and as the heel, Rave gets the worst of things. He bumps and sells like a madman for the conquering hometown hero. He endures a back body drop over the top rope onto a guardrail perched between the ring and the barricade, a Tower of London face first into a steel chair, and another Tower of London onto the mangled remains of the aforementioned guardrail. He’s put away with a Rebound Lariat so powerful that from that day onwards, Nigel would dub it the Jawbreaker Lariat.

Rave did, in fact, have a broken jaw coming out of that match. But he walked into the match with it instead of sustaining it at Nigel’s hands.

In reality, he got it a month beforehand in a singles match against Samoa Joe. Rave relied heavily on medication to cope with the pain in his jaw as he continued working hard-hitting matches. Rave would later look to this time as the point when his problems with substance abuse really began to flare up.

His battles with addiction would follow him long after his time in ROH ended. It later led to the amputation of his arm and both legs. As of this writing, based on the official statement released by Bill Behrens, it is not entirely clear how much these issues related to Rave’s untimely passing at the age of 39.

Though best remembered for his ROH work, Rave was a well-travelled wrestler that achieved a lot in his career. He appeared regularly on TNA programming, perhaps most notably as one-half of a tag team with Lance Hoyt known as The Rock ‘N’ Rave Infection. He did multiple tours in Japan with both Dragon Gate and New Japan, the latter of which even saw him garner 6 points in the 2008 Best of the Super Juniors tournament.

Much of Jimmy Rave’s 2010s was dedicated to working on the southern independent scene in places such as Rampage Pro Wrestling, where he acted as booker; Atlanta Wrestling Entertainment, where he was the inaugural GWC Champion; and the annual Scenic City Invitational tournament, which he won in its first year. Wrestlers like Kyle Matthews and Anthony Henry have gone on the record to state that Jimmy Rave’s work in the southern indie scene did wonders for their respective careers.

It’s this version of Jimmy Rave, years removed from his peak of notoriety but still great in his own right, that stands across from AJ Styles in Piedmont, Alabama.

It’s a great match, a carefully plotted and paced piece of work that calls to mind classic championship-style wrestling. Even the dark arena, with lights only for the beaten down ring canvas, evokes the kind of smoky intimacy of an NWA Title match from the 70s or 80s.

Strong as the match is, there’s a very plain truth on display all throughout. Jimmy Rave is a great wrestler, and he holds his own, but there’s just no way he can come out with the victory over someone like AJ Styles, who’s at the top of his game. Styles stays just a step ahead of Rave the whole time, clearly the better in the match, but that never deters Rave. He keeps pushing and scraping and chasing that impossible victory anyway.

It pays off for him, but not in anything as miraculous as a win. He pushes Styles just far enough that the thing that puts Rave away is a second rope Styles Clash—one of Styles’ most devastating maneuvers. It’s a small boon for Rave to require such a powerful move to put him away.

More than the masterful pacing and excellent wrestling though, the most affecting thing about this match for me is the crowd and their love for Jimmy Rave. It is night and day to the reaction I’m used to seeing Rave get. In the mid-2000s, the ROH faithful pelted Jimmy Rave with toilet paper. A decade later, children in the audience chant his name, rooting for him against one of the best in the world.

He’s not what he was in the 2000s. Anyone who pays attention can see that he’s a little bit older, a little bit slower.

And by God, you still want him to win anyway.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *