It's July 1, 2002, and Jeff Nero Hardy, 24, is standing atop a 15-foot steel ladder. The WWE title belt is dangling near his fingertips, just above the trademark torn stockings that cover his arms. His forehead drips with slime-green face paint. He's six feet tall, 200 pounds, bleached blond with the sides shaved, and lithe; unlike most burly professional wrestlers, Hardy looks like a skater. With three million people watching at home on TV, and thousands in attendance live, Hardy, mostly known for his tag-team work with brother Matt as the Hardy Boyz, is on the cusp of greatness.
"Climb the ladder, kid! Make yourself famous!” screamed commentator Jim Ross, who was losing his voice in what became one of the most heralded matches of Jeff Hardy's two-decade-long professional wrestling career. He would end up losing on that night — his opponent, the Undertaker, pulled him down before he could reach the title belt — but became a star in the process, like Rocky going the distance with Apollo Creed.
Fourteen years later, Jeff Hardy, now 38, is still climbing ladders, even though he probably shouldn't be jumping off them at this point in his career. But then again, Jeff Hardy is Evel Knievel for a generation of fans who grew up watching pro wrestling in the late '90s. When he takes flight, falling through tables or smashing through chairs, he's using his body like Picasso uses a canvas. He's a daredevil, the "Charismatic Enigma" who now wrestles for indie-major promotion TNA Impact, where he's their biggest star, performing regularly in front of about 2,000 people in Orlando's Universal Studios, with close to 400,000 viewers every week on TV.
It's Friday, July 22, the day after an Impact Wrestling taping. I'm standing in the hallway of a Holiday Inn Express in Columbus, Ohio, as Hardy, who's slightly bulkier these days and walking with a limp, approaches me wearing his earbuds, a gray flannel and colorful Billabong swim trunks. Hardy's been working out downstairs, as much as one can while suffering from a war-torn body that aches from countless injuries suffered from both wrestling and dirt biking. A year ago, he broke his leg and tore his PCL in a dirt biking accident. Right now, his arm is scraped and swollen from another dirt biking mishap, a midair fall suffered during a stunt for a follow-up to his viral hit short film, "The Final Deletion."
"Everything hurts," says Hardy, with his Southern drawl. "I've had a broken elbow, shoulder, leg ...”
"I've taken him to the hospital so many times," Beth interjects, his wife of five years, who's been with him since 1999, when they met at a bar in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In their hotel room, she's now helping him pack a purple hard-shelled luggage with his wrestling gear for the night.
"She takes care of me, man," says Hardy. He's booked tonight for Bloodymania 10, the top wrestling event at the Gathering of the Juggalos, which has a ring that sees action throughout the four-day festival. Gathering hosts Insane Clown Posse (ICP) have their own promotion, Juggalo Championship Wrestling (JCW), so wrestling is a key part of the event.
It's Hardy's first Gathering; mine as well. "I'm scared to death," says Beth. "Have you seen those pictures?"
"Insane Clown Posse undeleted me," Hardy says. He's referring metaphorically to the storyline of "The Final Deletion," which he and his brother Matt shot over the course of a day at Hardy's property in North Carolina. In the plot of the campy short film, Matt "deletes" his brother's identity from TNA television and enslaves him. He even gives him a curfew. "I’ll be out past my curfew tonight because of the Gathering," says Hardy, cheekily.
"The sequel's gonna be called 'The Final Liquidation.' We have so many outrageous ideas." When I ask him to give me more details about the second part of "The Final Deletion," he pauses, breaths in, and continues: "Man, you know what wrestling needs right now? That unbelievability about it."
Hardy lives in his hometown of Cameron, with his wife, two daughters (his "Hardy girls," Nera and Ruby), and seven dogs. His property has a swimming pool and dirt-biking path; the walls of his house are covered in his own abstract art. Jeff's wife hands him the phone as he shows me a pet cemetery he's building on his property. “Hi Ruby, we’ll be back tomorrow. We’re gonna jump in the pool. Just hang in there, OK?”
He hates being on the road. Like any dad, he misses his daughters. Every other week, Hardy must attend a TNA taping in Orlando, where he's underexposed on Pop TV, a network most wrestling fans haven't even heard of. It's allowed Hardy to spend the past few years of his career doing "whatever I want," but like many in his position, he hopes for one last run in the WWE.
When I ask Hardy about the WWE, or a possible last run with wrestling's biggest brand, he stands up and begins to use his hands to paint a picture for me of what he describes as his "home run match."
"Man, I want to Swanton [a forward flip that's Hardy's finishing move] off the top of the cell, onto the commentary table," says Hardy, who says he wants to end his career in a match with the Undertaker, at WrestleMania, in a "Hell in the Cell" match. "Then, I want to climb the cell, cut the fucking cage, when Taker's back in the ring, and Swanton though the cage, miss, and then Tombstone 1-2-3." Hardy wants to lose to the Undertaker, which is the pro wrestling equivalent to an actor being offered a death scene in a Tarantino movie.
As a wrestling fan, I'd love to see that match. But I also wonder if Hardy would walk away from it on his own two feet. "Wrestling's not fucking real, but it’s not fucking fake. It’s predetermined. But it’s not fucking fake," says Hardy, who's knows there's nothing fake about being driven to the hospital by his wife too many times to remember. "Sometimes, I forget who I am," he add, smiling.
Hardy's phone rings; his ringtone is "Wicked Garden" by Stone Temple Pilots. JCW promoter Kevin "KG" Gill is telling him to go downstairs. A car is waiting to take him to the Gathering.
"We can play this in the car," he says, handing me a CD from his musical project Peroxwhygen (pronounced "Pure Oxygen"). On it is his entrance song, "Placate."
Once we arrive at the Gathering, the promoter hands Hardy his W9 paperwork and takes us to the wrestler's tent in a golf cart. Pro wrestlers don't have a union, which means Hardy is working freelance tonight. With us are his wife and Dylan "Swoggle" Postl, a midget who used to wrestle with the WWE under the name Hornswoggle. Hardy and Beth are arguing about something as the cart swerves through a crowd of Juggalos who seemingly all recognize him. Hardy's facepaint and nihilistic wrestling style have made him a Juggalo superhero.
"I've been watching you since I was a kid," says a skinny Juggalo who looks Jeff Hardy from 1999. The kid hands Hardy a lollipop as we're driven through the darkness of Legend Valley. It's now 9:45 p.m. and Hardy, the biggest star of the evening, is scheduled to go on around 3:00 a.m., which is normal or even early for a Bloodymania main event. Tommy Dreamer, a ring veteran who's working the show tonight, didn't go on until 5 a.m. at Bloodymania 8. Dreamer tells me he then had to rush to the airport in "full Tommy Dreamer regalia" because his flight was right after his late start.
When Hardy arrives at the arena, which is basically a wrestling ring constructed next to circus tent in the middle of the woods, he immediately heads to the ring. A 28-year-old wrestler named Hero, who's been wrestling for just four months, is warming up. Hero is a Juggalo from Long Island. Hardy walks up to him and starts circling him like a predator. He begins to choreograph some wrestlings moves on the spot; he's in the zone, for about two minutes, as he reverses a hip toss and poses for an empty arena.
"I immediately went to the back and started crying," Hero tells me following the impromptu wrestling match. "I first saw him wrestle when I was just 12. He's so smooth out there." Hardy began wrestling professionally for the WWE when he was 16 years old (he told the company he was 18 in order to get signed). His first match was against Razor Ramon on May 23, 1994, a match Hero says he saw.
Tonight, Hardy made a kid's dream come true.
Hardy then heads backstage, as Beth heads back to the hotel after losing her cellphone and getting into it with Hardy. "We're just your average American couple," says Hardy, distancing himself from the locker room for the moment to put on his gear, which includes black Kikwear cargo pants, wrestling boots, a black spandex top and facepaint he applies with a small mirror he borrows from another pro wrestler, a guy covered in white body paint called War Child. Hardy looks tired; maybe he's feeling pain in his bad shoulder, or thinking about the fight he just had with wife. Or maybe Jeff Hardy just wants to meditate in front of a mirror, away from everyone, giving him a rare moment where he can be alone.
An hour later, Hardy is in middle of the tent, smiling and cracking jokes with his two opponents for the evening, Willie Mack and current JCW heavyweight champion Kongo Kong, in what will be a three-way match for the title. He seems to be feeling better. For the next hour or so, he choreographs every single aspect of the match like a filmmaker planning a day of shooting. At one point, he retreats to a quiet corner in the bushes and leans against a chainlink fence, standing on top of a broken piece of plywood, and using his hands to visualize moves like he's conducting an orchestra.
"It's just like writing a song, man," he says, his hair now wet and tightly pulled back. I ask him when he thinks the match will start. "Matt told me it could take all night," he says. "I might go on at 3 or 4 in the morning, but I'm a fan of ICP. I'm just here for the experience."
When Hardy makes his entrance at about 3:45 a.m., the crowd goes absolutely batshit. His eyes light up as he enters the arena and feeds off the energy, all his pain seemingly quieted by the adrenaline. This is his element. It's like watching Elvis take the stage, where his voice always shined no matter what was troubling his body.
Hardy throws out copies of his Peroxwhygen CD into the crowd. He then walks into the ring and asks for the microphone.
"I just wanted to say 'fuck,' because I can," he says. "And you guys fuckin' rock!"
Hardy works a very physical match. He takes two stiff turnbuckle bumps, where his chest slams into the corner and he falls on his back, hard, making a sound like a car crash. He also gets slapped in the chest a few times. Hardy then stumbles to get to the top rope, as the second rope is soaked from fans throwing beers and soda into the ring all night, and manages to execute one of his signature moves: "Whisper in the Wind," where he does a twisting backflip and lands on his opponents. He also executes three "Twists of Fate," another signature move.
"Jeff Hardy gives no fucks," declares ICP's Shaggy 2 Dope, the color commentator for the evening.
The story of the match is that two bigger wrestlers, Mack and Kong, end up double-teaming Hardy, the underdog. In the final sequence of the match, Hardy has Mack on the mat and dives from the top rope to hit his finishing move, the "Swanton Bomb." But the move results in Hardy hurting his back, and he loses the match to the winner, Kongo Kong, who retains his title with a big splash.
That's the official storyline, and the wrestlers all play their parts. But it's three unchoreographed incidents that still have fans on wrestlings sites talking about the match. The first, which immediately made me concerned, happened early. Kong, who had Hardy sitting on the corner with his neck against the fist turnbuckle, smashed into Hardy's face with his butt, a move known as a running stinkface. The move slammed Hardy's head against the turnbuckle and knocked him out for a brief second; his neck slammed back so hard that L.A. Weekly photographer Nate "Igor" Smith, who was close to the action, thought he broken it. Hardy continued the match, fueled by adrenaline, but he may have been concussed, or out on his feet for a portion of the match.
The second incident occurred after the match, when Hardy spent about 10 minutes destroying a ladder and a piece of a broken table, then climbing a ladder to the top and celebrating for longer than expected. The JCW crew had mostly left the arena, except for a cameraman. Hardy then removed most of his ring gear and threw it into the crowd, as a sign of respect for his fans, who were chanting, "Thank you, Jeff."
A fan then handed Hardy two cardboard cutouts, one of deceased wrestler Christ Benoit, and a second one, a wrestler that Hardy later said he believed to be deceased wrestler Eddie Guerrero, an old friend of his, which he took to the top of the ladder, looked at, said "I miss you," and pointed to the sky. Pro wrestling blogs are reporting the cutout was Arnold Schwarzenegger, but pro wrestling fan and L.A. Weekly contributor Jason Roche confirms it was El Dandy, a retired lucha libre wrestler.
Most of the crowd, about 200 people, stayed around to watch Hardy celebrate. I ran backstage and waited for Hardy, where a Juggalo who had snuck past Gathering staff was waiting to greet him. "Do you dab?" said the Juggalo, as Hardy walked through the curtain. "What?" Hardy responded. I tell Hardy that "dab" simply means marijuana extract. "Oh no, I'm drug free," he tells the Juggalo. "Yeah, I've done it all, man."
I ask him if he was injured during the match. "My neck, man. I felt like I got knocked out. But that was fun. It's probably just a stinger." Twenty-four hours later, his wife Beth posted the following update on Twitter: "My husband can barely walk & can’t turn his head after his match last night. It’s straight to the doctor when we land."
What exactly happened to Jeff Hardy at Bloodymania 10? Wrestling blogs are speculating that Hardy may have been under the influence, or that his "bizarre" behavior — where he destroyed a ladder and a table — may have been a "work," or staged part of the ongoing storyline of "The Final Deletion," which Matt seems to be maintaining on Twitter by staying in character, 24-7. It could also have been Hardy letting off some steam, or perhaps because he wanted to show the crowd that he's still got it after what seemed like a relatively average wrestling match for such a legend.
Or maybe he was concussed. Sources close to Hardy tell me he has bad whiplash. As of this writing, he cannot bend or turn his head, so the quality of his match and some of his actions after shouldn't be held against him, not until we know more, and a few fans on cellphone cameras aren't the best sources.
I also asked Hardy why he proceeded to destroy random tables and ladders, something I'd never seen him do before. He tells me it's something he actually has done before, describing it as "Sabu-style," a reference to a risk-taking wrestler who appeared as a suicidal Arabian sultan in the '90s. According to Hardy, it was all part of the show, which ended with him standing on top of a ladder. Perhaps that's how it should end one day, if Hardy can finish his career in a ladder match in the WWE. That would be the best place for him to write the final chapter, brush the final stroke, and execute the last stunt on a rollercoaster career as wrestling's most unpredictable hero.
Hardy remains under contract with TNA until February 2017. He says he would be open to negotiations with WWE, but unwilling to work a full-time schedule. "Matt and I are doing some great stuff in TNA right now, so I'll be happy to stay here until the end if that's how it works out."