Oct. 15, 2017, was supposed to be the last time Bully Ray stepped into a wrestling ring.
On that night, in front of one of the biggest crowds in Ring of Honor history at Global Wars in Chicago, Bully Ray put Frankie Kazarian through a table and delivered an unexpected promo that made his future intentions clear.
"As most of you know by now, it's about that time for me," Bully Ray said as the crowd shouted "No! No! No!" "Listen, it's time. For the first time, I gotta worry about myself and my own health."
Three weeks earlier, Bully Ray had suffered a concussion that put him in the emergency room after Jay Briscoe launched a table at him, with the edge clipping his head. It wasn't the first time Bully Ray suffered a concussion. He was also infamously knocked out from taking a Chris Jericho bulldog off the top of a ladder in a TLC match in 2002. Tommy Dreamer, who spent that night in the hospital with him, said Bully Ray couldn't remember if he finished the match.
Fifteen years and thousands of bumps later, Bully Ray wanted everyone in Chicago and the fans watching at home to know he wasn't planning to take bumps like that ever again.
He broke off a piece of the table sitting in the ring, handed it to a young fan and said, "This is most definitely the last table I will ever break."
Bully Ray's career was seemingly over.
"I've never been a fan of scripted anything in pro wrestling, especially when you're talking about moments like the one I had in Chicago," Bully Ray said to ESPN on Tuesday. "There's too many emotions that run through your head a week before, a day before, 10 minutes before you're gonna go out there. It's not until you are out there and you feel the room, especially the arena that night with the overwhelming response from the fans in Chicago, and I just said what I felt in my heart. They were awesome. They gave me one helluva respectful moment. That's probably one of [the] things I will never forget in my career."
The internet was abuzz over Bully Ray's apparent retirement. He confirmed that he was indeed finished competing in the ring on Busted Open Radio for fans who couldn't believe it. However, for anyone who knows the old-school, character-driven nature of Bully Ray from his early days in ECW all the way until today with ROH, his promo in Chicago was just the first chapter of the final story of his career.
Bully Ray's plan started to come into focus five days later at the venue he is most synonymous with, ECW Arena in Philadelphia.
While he was saying his final farewell to the arena that made him famous, Jay Briscoe interrupted and began an all-out assault. Briscoe spit on Bully Ray, attacked him in front of his girlfriend, Velvet Sky, and then, alongside his brother Mark, beat down a helping Dreamer.
Any wrestling fan who witnessed the series of events was able to connect the dots. Bully Ray wasn't finished breaking tables. Instead, he was setting the stage for his match alongside Tommy Dreamer against the Briscoes in a New York City Street Fight at Final Battle on Friday.
"I don't think it could be any more fitting," Bully Ray said. "The Hammerstein Ballroom, where I have so much history, it's New York City where I have so much history. I think the name of the pay-per-view is probably the most fitting: Final Battle. I'll be the first one to admit: I know I don't belong anywhere near a ring right now. I didn't even really want it to happen, but it has to happen. It has to happen for closure, closure for me and closure for wrestling fans."
Bully Ray, upon his request when he signed with ROH in March, worked extensively with the Briscoes as tag-team partners. The three seemed like a perfect fit with Bully Ray's penchant for violence and the Briscoes' ultra-intense approach to their promos and in-ring work. As great of partners as the trio were, so far they have made for even better on-screen adversaries.
"I have always seen and still see a lot in the Briscoes," Bully Ray said. "They are the team when it comes to Ring of Honor. They have an edginess to them that I believe nobody else in the company has. I believe that they are a team that would have fit back in the day in ECW."
This feud has been a callback to the reality-based storylines that fueled ECW. The Briscoes' desecration of Bully Ray's Team 3D Academy in Kissimmee, Florida, on ROH TV was a visceral image and felt unscripted in a way most wrestling feuds don't today. The brothers' invasion of House of Hardcore inserted Dreamer into the fray and added another layer of depth to the story.
"The Briscoes wished they could have fought me and D-Von," Bully Ray said. "They're going to get as close as you possibly can get when they face me and Dreamer."
Dreamer didn't hesitate to join the match, despite not being signed to ROH. He couldn't pass up on an opportunity to not only create exposure for his House of Hardcore brand but also take part in a storyline with his longtime friend that bordered on reality.
"Bully Ray really did get hurt. Bully Ray has been my friend, and Bully Ray has had some concussion-related symptoms," Dreamer said in an interview with ESPN.com's Tim Fiorvanti. "I was in Las Vegas the same weekend they were doing a TV taping, and I said, 'Hey, me and Bully put this together in the sense of, let me go out there and just tell a real story' ... If I could help Ring of Honor get more eyes on their product from the old ECW fans, as well as the new House of Hardcore fans, they help me. I help them. [ROH COO] Joe Koff has been amazing to deal with, and that locker room is phenomenal, and I love it."
The two ECW originals' careers have intertwined ever since they met in 1995. Dreamer and Bully Ray have also grown close outside wrestling as they work together at Bully Ray's Team 3D Academy in Waterbury, Connecticut. With D-Von now working as a road agent for WWE, there's no one Bully Ray would rather fight beside.
"It's not really Tommy Dreamer being a part of my story. It's Tommy Dreamer being a part of my life," Bully Ray said. "Tommy knows at the end of the day, when it comes to the tag team the Dudley Boyz, it's all about Bubba and D-Von. But whenever I've needed help in the past or Dreamer's needed help in the past, we've always been by each other's side. There's even been times in the past where we beat the piss out of each other. In this very building, in the Hammerstein Ballroom in 2005 at ECW's One Night Stand, I carved my best friend to shreds with a cheese grater and powerbombed him through a flaming table.
"When you're friends, you're friends to the end. You take the good, you take the bad, but I don't think it's a coincidence we've been by each other's sides for so long, even outside the ring."
ROH's Final Battle card is littered with some of the best young athletes in wrestling today. Bully Ray is smart enough to know that at 46 years old, with the beating his body has taken, the only way to separate himself on a stacked card is through storytelling.
"The most important thing in professional wrestling is storytelling and character development," Bully Ray said. "I know in 2017 moving into 2018, there are a lot of wrestlers out there and a lot of fans out there who are not necessarily as much into the story and the characters as they are the actual wrestlers and the wrestling moves. But when you look at the history of wrestling, the foundation is storytelling and character development. I pride myself in the art of my storytelling. Anything I do in wrestling has to have substance. It has to have meaning. There has to be a foundation to it. There has to be a reason. I never go out there and do something just for the sake of doing it because then it's here today, gone tomorrow, and people will never talk about it again. We can talk about stuff I did from 20 years ago that is actually still relevant today. How many people can we say that about?"
Participating in this match is a calculated risk for Bully Ray, given his recent concussion and the accumulation of injuries he has endured in his nearly 27-year career. For that reason, he has signed off with Ring of Honor so that the company can't be held accountable if anything goes wrong in the match. Bully Ray has earned the reputation as one of the toughest guys in the business after years of risking his health in brutal, blood-shedding affairs.
On Dec. 15, 2017, at Final Battle, he's ready to do it one more time.
"From top to bottom, whether it's Cody vs. Dalton, or the Bucks, or Kazarian and Daniels vs. War Machine, or Ospreay vs. Taven, or the Jay Lethal match, it's all great stuff. What makes my match different is my match has nothing to do with wrestling moves," Bully Ray said. "My match has to do with violence -- pure, straight-up violence. There will be blood. There will be moments that people will be talking about 20 years from now. I think it's pretty apropos that Final Battle will be my final battle."