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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Jesse Neal heard the fans shouting his name after a frenzied night of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling.
The former sailor had come a long way in the more than nine years since his ship, the destroyer USS Cole, was attacked by terrorist bombers in Yemen.
On this February night, fans gathered around the six-sided ring at Old Dominion University’s Constant Center in Norfolk, Va., hoping for an autograph, or just an acknowledgement, from the wrestler.
Neal scanned the crowd, doing a double-take when he spotted his friends Tyrone McNeil, Bill Kramer and Matt Sanders.
“Oh my God, you guys came!” Neal said.
To the fans surrounding him, Neal was the wild man of the ring from Spike TV on Thursday nights — billed as 6-foot, 240 pounds, with a punk black Mohawk, piercings and ominous tribal tattoos.
But within that circle of friends, Jesse Neal was Pretty Boy Neal, the name McNeil gave him when they all served aboard the USS Cole 10 years ago.
“It was like five seconds had passed,” McNeil said. “For the first time in my life, I understood the way the older vets are, where they have that brotherhood bond, that look in their eye that says, ‘We were all there.’ ”
As Neal’s star rises as a pro wrestler, he says he will never forget what motivates him — and what has kept him from succumbing to a cycle of despair common to people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. On his right forearm, among the tattoos that snake along his muscled upper back and shoulders, are the initials of best friend Marc Nieto, one of 17 sailors killed in the attack on the Cole.
On Oct. 12, 2000, at 11:18 a.m., an explosion slung Neal out of his sleeping rack and against the metal wall. A sailor in another rack fell on top of him.
Two men aboard an explosive-laden boat in the Yemen’s Port of Aden had blown themselves up alongside the Cole.
The impact blew a 40-foot hole through the ship’s mess hall during lunchtime, turning the ship’s midsection into a tangled mass of crumpled steel, spattered fuel and broken machinery.
As the ship listed to its left, Neal threw on his coveralls and rushed toward the mess hall. Thick smoke blotted out nearly everything in front of him, but not the smells of singed wiring nor the sounds of his injured crew mates.
Fifteen men and two women died aboard Cole. Neal did not know until later that night that one of the dead was Nieto, who had been eating in the mess hall.
Neal had to break the news to Nieto’s fiancee, Jaimie Deguzman, also a crew member.
While Neal helped carry Nieto’s body off the ship, Neal’s Bulova watch got caught on the handle of the body bag.
Neal still has that watch — a Christmas gift from his father — but he never got it fixed. It remains a symbol, he says, of things that will always be broken.
In the ring
After the Cole’s sailors returned to Norfolk, each dealt with the tragedy as best they could. Many developed quick tempers or drank too much, Neal said.
He didn’t fall quite that far, but those who knew him say his personality changed.
“He was definitely a jokester on the ship,” said Kris Dettloff, a close friend of Neal and Nieto. “After the bombing, he kind of shut himself off. He wasn’t his normal, cheery self for sure.”
Neal was diagnosed with PTSD. He got counseling, but says he didn’t feel like it helped.
“Ten years and it hurts like it was still yesterday,” Neal said. “Some nights are worse than others, but the majority of nights I still lie awake. I still relive it when I close my eyes.”
Neal spent about a year on shore duty before leaving the Navy in 2002 and returning to his home in Orlando, Fla.
He thought about becoming a firefighter, but that never happened. He took a series of odd jobs.
In 2007, he was sitting in a parking lot with a couple of guys at the Blue Martini, where he worked as a bouncer. He began thinking about his life and about Nieto.
“What the hell am I doing here?” Neal remembers thinking. “This isn’t me. This wouldn’t make Marc happy, because I know I’m not happy. I need to do something huge to make up for that.”
Soon after, Neal found the Team 3D Academy of Professional Wrestling in nearby Kissimmee, Fla.
He met Brother Ray and Brother Devon, two wrestlers he idolized while growing up.
“Right there on that first day, I knew I was home,” Neal said.
He spent a year at the academy and then traveled along the independent circuit, where he wrestled in front of small-town crowds.
Ninety-nine percent of professional wrestlers never make it big. Neal knew the odds, but he also had his supporters at the academy — and those supporters had connections.
When TNA Wrestling president Dixie Carter heard Neal’s tragic tale, she thought someone had made it up as a wrestling storyline.
“Then I met him and he was the sweetest, most humble kid. And I realized it was all true,” said Carter by phone from her home in Nashville, Tenn.
TNA signed Neal to a contract in 2009. He became popular after a few appearances on the televised “TNA iMPACT!” shows.
“There are two ways that can happen: You write a story that makes it happen and forces fans to either cheer or boo,” Carter said. “In his case it happened organically. Fans saw something about him and really gravitated to him in a short period of time. ... It’s really something special.”
As part of Ink Inc., Neal is now a contender for TNA’s tag-team title. Sometimes the 30-year-old can’t believe he gets to wrestle in the big leagues.
“I was that little kid watching them, just wishing I could shake their hands,” Neal said. “Now I’m going to be beating their asses for the belt.”
Looking back, moving on
Friends like McNeil said they will make sure Neal stays grounded. After the show in Norfolk, they all went out for dinner and then hung out for a few hours. They remembered the good times and invited Neal to the annual USS Cole reunion in October.
Neal plans to go for the first time, and his friends say it will be good to have Pretty Boy back in the fold.
“I can’t say enough how proud I am of him for not letting a bad situation control his life and define who he is,” McNeil said. “Too many people go down a dark path and let their past rule their future. That to me is what’s most amazing about it. Not that he’s a wrestler, but that’s he’s been able to use what happened to him in a positive way.”