Rich Swann was nervous as he climbed to the top rope. Even though it was a place where he'd all but lived throughout his 12-year professional wrestling career, it suddenly felt like unfriendly ground.
In January he'd heard an awful crack during a main event match in San Antonio, Texas, for Impact Wrestling. It was the kind of noise no athlete wants to hear, the sonic equivalent of a certified letter reading "life as you know it is over."
"You could hear the noise throughout the arena," Swann, who faces Eric Young for the Impact World Championship on Saturday at Bound for Glory, told Bleacher Report. "You could hear the pop. It was my leg. I looked down. I tried to get up for a second, and then I looked at everybody in the crowd, looked at the hard camera, and just, f-bomb, f-bomb, f-bomb. I probably dropped an f-bomb maybe 20 times in the matter of five seconds.
"My fibula was cracked in half to where it was a clean break, and it was poking at the skin, to where it could have been a compound fracture. My Achilles tendon was crushed like a soda can, the whole top of my foot was ripped off the bone, and the ankle was lodged up into my shin, on both sides. My foot was turned to the right, dangling."
Wrestling being wrestling, an industry full of people with pain tolerances built over the years to inhuman levels, Swann attempted to essentially walk it off. In the midst of the best run of his career with a tag title match on pay-per-view scheduled just two days later, he literally tried to ice away an injury that would have left most people completely unable to function, filling up buckets to help soothe the pain in his hotel room.
But eventually stubbornness gave way to acceptance. After a dicey flight back to Orlando, Florida, with his leg throbbing and the risk of a blood clot very real, he agreed to go see a doctor. Once he finally made it in to see a specialist, he was wheeled back into surgery that same day, his ruined leg and two fractured vertebrae in his back suddenly putting his entire career, his livelihood, at risk.
"I got the surgery and got the staples pulled out, got the boot on, and I'm sitting there and I'm like, 'Man, I'll never dive again, I'll never do a 450 again, I'll never Phoenix Splash again, I'll never moonsault again.' I got all these thoughts in my mind," Swann said. "I'm like, 'All right, I might have to just change my style, maybe that might work.' But I'm 185 pounds and 5'8". I can't be a powerhouse, I can't be powerbombing people everywhere. That doesn't make sense. What am I going to do?"
The uncertainty ate him up inside. He attacked his recovery with a vigor approaching unhealthy levels, spending hours each day just walking around his apartment and then doing lunges from the couch to the front door. He had to know—is it over? Is the dream, after finally appearing to be coming true, over before it began?
"The one thing you can't do to me is tell me that I'm not going to be able to do something because I'm going to do everything that I can to prove you wrong," Swann said. "Once I was able to walk, I just started doing lunges and just doing little runs across my house. Pushing myself the hardest I could ever push myself, and I got to the doctor, and he told me, after all the hard work and physical therapy, that, 'Man, your leg's looking great, your knee's looking great. You may be able to do this.'"
And so he ended up in the ring at a wrestling school near his home, months before anyone would have suggested this kind of physical activity. His plan was to do a backflip to the mat, landing on his feet and proving to himself that he was still able to survive the rigors of the ring. Instead, he chickened out a little, belly-flopping to his knees, an awkward landing notable for one thing only—he could take it.
Less than six months removed from an injury that doctors casually speculated would leave him walking with a limp for the rest of his life, the Impact Wrestling contender was not just back inside a ring, he was back in the ring doing daring stunts that most people would never even contemplate.
He immediately got back up on the top turnbuckle, five feet above the canvas, and did a perfect moonsault, landing on his feet with only a twinge of pain. Which, for Swann, was good news. The structural integrity of his leg was the main concern. Pain? He'd been living with that in different forms for a lifetime. Pain he could take.
Swann was inculcated in violence, raised and reared mostly in parts of Baltimore best known to Americans from HBO's starkly realistic The Wire. His father had alcoholism. His mother was unwell for most of his life. She had bipolar schizophrenia with lupus and a sometimes tenuous grasp on reality.
The world outside his often explosive home was rarely a respite from the violence within. His was a neighborhood that rewarded awareness, each day providing a reminder that the wrong decision about something as simple as what you wore could prove the difference between life and death.
"It was very rough," Swann said. "You have to watch out for which colors you wear, what you do. You just have to stay out of trouble the best way that you can, trying to pick up extracurricular activities outside of school. Other than that, if you're not trying to keep your head on a swivel and trying to keep yourself levelheaded, you're definitely bound to get in trouble."
Swann's one refuge was a two-hour block on Monday nights where wrestling helped him escape from his surroundings. Bret Hart was the first to capture his eye, and then luchadores like Rey Mysterio and Psicosis, real-life Power Rangers who suddenly made the cartoon superheroes redundant in his mind. Soon enough, he and his brother Robert were trading for VHS tapes of esoteric wrestling from Japan, joining a growing group of hardcore fans who couldn't get enough of the sport.
His family life, never especially steady, took a turn for the worse when, with Swann on the cusp of teenagerdom, his mother's health declined. She could no longer even remember she had a son named Rich. His father, never a regular presence in his life, was killed by a girlfriend.
Swann was sent to live with family friends in Tucson, Arizona, for a year but eventually found his way home when his mother recovered well enough for him to return to the nest in Maryland. With his brother out of the house and his father gone, Swann was left to navigate her tricky health issues alone, a teenager with anger issues and without a clear path forward.
"At the age of 15, I'm running wild, doing things that I shouldn't be getting into, lots of drugs, fights, things like that," Swann said. "I needed something in my life to focus on. My mom found a wrestling school that was in Maryland, and she told me to go down there. From there, I really got my head out of any negativity, and I focused on trying to become a professional wrestler, living my dream from when I was a kid. Wrestling saved my life."
Being a student at the Eastern Wrestling Academy wasn't easy. Breaking into the wrestling business was difficult, and Swann spent hours learning his new craft, learning to put up and take down the ring and preparing himself for a profession that taxed the body, spirit and mind like few others.
Becoming too much for his mom to handle alone, Swann was sent to finish school with an aunt in Pennsylvania. But he couldn't get wrestling out of his mind. When his mother passed away when he was just 16, it almost solidified the sport's presence in his heart. It was something they enjoyed together, and her support had been critical to him beginning to believe that wrestling could be something more than a dream.
The sport had dug in deep and wouldn't let go.
He looked for another wrestling school, not expecting to find much in the Pennsylvania hinterlands, only to come across National Championship Wrestling, just 25 minutes away on the outskirts of Harrisburg. Swann wasn't sure what to anticipate—wrestling schools as a general rule had horrible reputations as the domain of conmen who would bilk prospective wrestlers out of thousands with very little promised in return.
But when he saw Adam Flash, a standout he had seen wrestle on the local scene in Maryland, his worries disappeared. Trent Acid and Johnny Kashmere, stalwarts of the Northeastern indie circuit, were there too, making it clear to the 15-year-old that this was the real deal. Another student named Ray Alexander had keys to the gym, and the two worked out whenever they could. As soon as he was of legal age, Swann was joining his friends in promotions like Combat Zone Wrestling, Jersey All Pro and every other independent on the Eastern seaboard.
"From there, it was nothing but wrestling," Swann said. "It's the passion that I had for it. Even if I couldn't wrestle, I'd feel like I'd always be doing something involving wrestling, whether it be writing about it, working within the industry somehow. Once I'd seen it, once I saw professional wrestling for the first time, I always knew, no matter what, I will do whatever I have to do to make it in this industry."
Swann was a standout from coast to coast on the indie circuit, entering the ring to Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" and wowing crowds with both his obvious enthusiasm and athleticism. Eventually, he took his talents worldwide, to Germany, Japan and China, among other faraway locales, before getting the offer to join WWE as the promotion began scooping up many of the sport's most promising prospects for its seemingly never-ending expansion.
NXT was a shark tank of young, hungry talent at the time, but Swann still managed to shine in a gimmick that highlighted his dance moves as much as his wrestling. He did well in the developmental territory and then won WWE's cruiserweight championship on the debut episode of 205 Live.
A year later, Swann was arrested on charges of domestic battery and false imprisonment in Gainesville, Florida, after a dispute with his wife, fellow wrestler Vanessa "Su Yung" Riggs. According to the police report, they were driving after a wrestling event earlier in the evening and Swann was criticizing Riggs' performance. Riggs said she got out of the car to avoid the argument escalating, at which point a witness said they saw Swann also get out, grab her by the arm, put her in a headlock and bring her back to the car. Though the charges were later dismissed, Swann and WWE agreed to part ways.
That spring, Swann announced on his Twitter account that his appearances for independent promotions over WrestleMania weekend in 2018 would be the final shows of his career. Just 27 years old, he was walking away from the only thing he'd ever wanted to do with his life.
But a talk with a childhood hero changed everything. With his career hanging in the balance, it was D-Lo Brown who convinced him that continuing wrestling was the right choice.
At a WrestleMania appearance shortly after his decision to walk away, Brown sat next to him. "What's this about you retiring?" he asked. "You can't retire," he said. "You're too good, too young, and pro wrestling needs talented young Black performers right now."
"I knew through friends that he was struggling a little bit," Brown said. "I just wanted to sit down and talk with him for a second and tell him how much that I admired his work and who he was, someone I consider a good person. I wanted to make sure that he knew that the business was better off with him in it than with him out of it. And that we needed strong men of color to stay in this business. It's a struggle, and you could easily be down on yourself when things don't go perfectly, according to your plan or how you envisioned it.
"Sometimes, things take a little bit more time to develop. And we're impatient. We want it yesterday. It didn't happen yesterday, and we start to get down on ourselves. And then, when you throw adversity in there or negative things happening in your life, they can really twist you and make you really second-guess and third-guess things. You question yourself and your place in the business. I think Impact is all about, no matter color or gender, giving those who deserve an opportunity their chance to shine in front of the world."
Soon after, Swann began attending Impact tapings with Riggs, who had caught on as one of the promotion's Knockouts. He liked the vibe, and the people there liked him—enough to play a few gentle ribs, like pointing him in the direction of executive Scott D'Amore's private bathroom.
Everyone at Impact seemingly loved Rich—and the feeling was mutual. D'Amore said Impact was aware of the allegations surrounding Swann's arrest but moved forward with the signing after talking to Swann and Riggs.
"We had heard about [the allegations] and whatever else and where he was and knowing Rich, knowing Su, we just felt good that the dots just didn't connect," he said.
"I don't know about you, but I would never want to be labeled and judged for my entire life by somebody else's interpretation of me at one point along the journey.
"Having watched with him some, how he interacted with our group, both roster- and crew-wise, it was like, OK, here's a guy that should be part of this team. I knew people that knew him who all swore by him."
Swann thrived as part of the new-look Impact. For years the promotion has been the loyal opposition to WWE, somehow surviving ownership and talent shake-ups while never really completely penetrating the wrestling culture. When fans thought about Impact, it was as home to nostalgia acts that had already worn out their welcome on the national stage.
Under D'Amore, Ed Nordholm and Don Callis, that changed. The promotion slowly built a reputation for both quality and featuring younger, fresher talent and still-in-their-prime wrestlers who didn't get a fair shot in WWE. Swann has been in the mix throughout his tenure there, challenging for championships and featured in a way that was always unlikely in WWE—until the injury put his future in doubt.
In June, he made a surprise return to the ring, only to be brutally attacked by now-Impact champion Eric Young. It's a story of art imitating life—Young, in Impact lore, put Swann's very career at risk. The emotional arcs that followed were easy for Swann to sink his teeth into. They were, after all, echoes of his real life.
"The story is tied into so much of what happened to me in January of this year," Swann said. "This thing I love almost slipped through my fingers. ... It's like, man, I feel the story. It's in there."
If Swann is honest, there are some nerves. D'Amore calls Bound for Glory the promotion's Super Bowl. Swann is in a key role despite having just a little more than 20 minutes inside a wrestling ring since January. Confidence, though, is high that he's put in the work to be ready for the biggest match of his career.
"When you see the workout that he's going through currently, I mean, he's training just like an NFL footballer would train, just like a UFC fighter would train getting ready for a big fight," D'Amore said. "I think he's in the best shape of his life. He physically looks amazing, and you watch the things that he's doing, and Rich Swann on the worst day of Rich Swann's life, he's a better athlete than 99.9 percent of the people in this world are ever going to be. And I think he's the best he's ever been."
Swann has been at the brink of quitting and then seen it almost ripped away when he decided to stay. On Saturday he will get the chance to prove to the entire wrestling world, to his peers, to himself, that he has what it takes to perform at the highest level of the entire sport.
"I'm very glad that I have this opportunity to showcase my talents, especially with somebody like Eric Young, who I think is a very great professional wrestler. I think he's one of the best at promos, I think he can do anything in the ring, and to have that opportunity to be in the main event, a main event of a pay-per-view that so many greats have been on—Kurt, Hogan, Sting, AJ.
"To have that bestowed upon us to be in the main event, the emotions are high, the pressure is real, and they say when you're squeezed, the pressure makes diamonds. So, that's what we're looking to do."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report. He is the author of Shamrock: The World's Most Dangerous Man.