Backstage with Dem Boys and the Loss of an Underground Wrestling Legend
Jay Briscoe (1984-2023)
-“Should we go up to him?”
-“I’m not sure. He looks pretty zoned in.”
-“No, you. You’'ll bond over tattoos and it will be easy.”
Backstage at the Crockett Cup, photographer Ryan Loco and I were huddled and as close to anxious as two terminally laid-back artsy types get. We’ve done a lot of work together, the bulk of it with the most dangerous hand-to-hand combatants in the world. Ryan, in particular, has an ease about him that makes people want to do whatever he asks.
Frankly, we were good at this shit and fearless. Billionaires and behemoths, felons and saints, beautiful women and harsh men—we’d engaged them all.
We’d photographed and interviewed a number of stars already that day, both contemporary independent wrestlers and icons of our childhood like Ricky Morton and Magnum T.A. We’d even gone into the bathroom with the Pierre Carl Oulett to watch his transformation into the indestructible PCO.
But neither of us was really very sure about approaching the Briscoe brothers, two chicken farmers from Delaware who looked like they’d been on their way to a Waylon Jennings concert only to suddenly discover the music of 2Pac en route, a mixture of rural and urban that reeked of violence. Pro wrestling isn’t always real. But the Briscoe Brothers? They sure seemed it.
It turns out, the bark was much worse than the bite. Jay and Mark Briscoe were full of positive energy, the kind that rendered Ryan’s lights moot. They were talkative, friendly, fun, agreeing to come by and pose for us. Later they bounced around the backstage area, play-acting their match with the Rock-and-Roll Express like a couple of rambunctious kids. Not too long after, blood was spilled, spattering the mat like a Pollock.
But, for a moment, it was all smiles.
Jay Briscoe (aka Jamin Pugh) died yesterday in a car accident on Little Hill Road in Laurel, Delaware. A Chevy Silverado crossed the center line and smashed into his own truck. Jay, who wasn’t properly restrained according to investigators, died at the site, as did the other driver. His two young daughters were both badly injured. One might never walk again.
In an instant, the world was a much poorer place.
The community has taken it hard, underscoring the place Jay occupied in this insular space. It’s one of the weird things about being a professional wrestling enthusiast. Jay was a singular performer in this most American of arts, along with jazz and baseball one of our most important contributions to world culture. Usually, when an artist of this caliber passes, the whole world mourns.
But, as wrestling fans, we shoulder it alone.
There’s something about wrestling that makes these losses feel especially painful. Wrestling is profoundly personal, especially the way Jay Briscoe did it, stripped to the waist, soaked in sweat and blood, everything he had left in liquid puddles in the ring.
We’d watched him and his brother Mark since before they were legally able to drink or vote, marveled as they became performers people in the industry placed on a pedestal, by-God-rasslers in the world of Instagram, Twitter and podcasts. Although they were physical geniuses in the ring, working unforgettable matches with Punk and Colt, Sami and Kevin, FTR and the Motor City Machine Guns, it was their interviews that really felt like a snapshot from another time. In an era of catchphrases and promos that all hit the same beats in rhythm, the Briscoes were delightfully off-sync.
Invariably, my wife Kristina would send me their latest production and we’d laugh and marvel at their audacity and authenticity. If you were from the rural America where we were raised, you know your own Briscoe brothers, scary men on the outside hiding a sweetness only the people they hold close will ever know. In the ring, Jay was a tough, scary customer. Outside it, he worked with his daughter on her cheer routines and posed for silly Christmas photos. He was a man’s man.
In Sussex County, Delaware, where Dem Boys kept their chickens and Jay’s wife Ashley worked at the local high school, the loss was felt profoundly. School was closed today. All that energy was needed to instead lift the Pugh family, especially their daughter Gracie whose fight continues. I don’t know if prayer works, but Jay damn sure believed it did. So I’ll add my voice to the wind and hope it finds its way to God’s ear.
Jay Briscoe (1984-2023)
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