September 15th marks the ten year anniversary of one of the most iconic moments in ROH history, the culmination of months of speculation and the debut of a dangerous new faction that would run riot in Ring of Honor for the next few years. The brutality of that moment spoke for itself and ensured it would be remembered by those in attendance and watching on pay-per-view for years to come, but it wasn’t just plucked out of thin air. It wasn’t just a debut, a return, or a plot-twist. It was something that had taken a lot of work to achieve, the sort of storyline that had never before been attempted in wrestling and that hasn’t been replicated since.
But let’s rewind to March 31st, 2007. Ring of Honor was in Detroit, Michigan for the annual Supercard of Honor and one of its biggest shows to date. While the main event was a five-star classic tag match featuring some of the biggest names in Dragon Gate plying their brand of super fast-paced lucharesu tag action in front of American audiences for the first time, further down the card two men entered a cage in an attempt to end a bitter rivalry that had consumed their friendship and driven them to extreme levels of violence. Those men were BJ Whitmer and Jimmy Jacobs and for a year they’d been embroiled in an ever-escalating feud.
The resulting match was a bloody, action packed affair that saw both men busted open with railway spikes, a barbedwire bat brought into play, numerous chairs destroyed and a table through which Jacobs drove Whitmer with a senton off the very top of the cage. In victory Jacobs proved he was the better man that night, though the journey he’d taken to get there had led him down some darkening paths. Whitmer, meanwhile, gained the acceptance he craved even in defeat, the fans showing their appreciation for both he and Jacobs’ efforts. But for Jimmy it was a bittersweet victory, as he tore his ACL with the very move that won him the match and would be absent from ROH for months.
Jimmy’s big motivator along this journey was his manager, Lacey. It was entirely at her behest that he’d changed his attitude in the feud with Whitmer, becoming far removed from the furry boot wearing comedy character he’d been known as before him manager’s influence. His unrequited feelings for Lacey had pushed him to do some very violent things, but after the cage match the dynamic in their relationship changed. A series of videos posted to ROH’s youtube showed Jimmy in his absence from in-ring competition finally winning Lacey over. She was now smitten with him, but Jimmy felt only emptiness and he began to realise that his infatuation had been just that and, ultimately, love doesn’t save.
Meanwhile, strange things were afoot in ROH. Fans began to notice flyers reading “Abused Society” at events and soon a URL was distributed this way. With some digging the Abused Society website led to something called Project 161. Fans soon connected this to ROH’s 161st show in September and as Project 161 chatter on the ROH message boards increased, topics started being deleted. Newly registered accounts began to spam cryptic messages that mirrored the writing on the Abused Society site, but it wasn’t clear who was behind it. Speculation was rife with all manner of names suggested, ranging from the plausible (Adam Pearce), the hopeful (Eddie Kingston) and the highly unlikely (Paul Heyman).
But then things took a dark turn when the Abused Society website began posting personal information about ROH booker Gabe Sapolsky and his family. While many were sure this was all an angle, Gabe was becoming increasingly vocal about the severity of the situation. A fan blog that was collecting all Project 161 related material was asked to take everything down and Gabe claimed threatening calls were being made to his house, so the police had been involved. As some argued over the reality of what was happening, the Abused Society site continued its cryptic postings before abruptly disappearing. ROH claimed they’d had the site shut down and that the whole thing had been a prank played by fans.
The attacks on the ROH message board didn’t stop, however, and soon URLs were posted for a new Project 161 site and accompanying blog which began posting longer, more detailed (but no less cryptic) messages. Clever hints were placed throughout that kept fans guessing as the 161st show loomed ever closer, now only a month away. Groups of people were seen outside of shows selling Project 161-related t-shirts and DVD-Rs that contained a short movie of dark, unsettling abstract footage that brought up yet more clues. The Project 161 site updated with imagery that invoked the American Revolutionary War and soon made a “call to arms” to like minded fans, with emails being sent out.
Project 161 told fans to wear black ski masks and bandannas, to make their presence felt at the 161st show and thus give Project 161 a way to infiltrate ROH undetected. Even at this point, there was no clear consensus on who was responsible (although Jimmy Jacobs was one of the more likely names being bandied about). As the fateful day approached ROH continued to throw fuel on the fire, reporting that The Briscoes van had been broken into and a photo album stolen just as pictures of a young Jay & Mark Briscoe started appearing on the Project 161 website. It was now clear who the target was, but while The Briscoes had their own suspicions they were taken completely by surprise.
At ROH’s 3rd pay-per-view taping ‘Man Up’ The Briscoes defeated Kevin Steen & El Generico in a brutal ladder war to retain the ROH tag titles. As they celebrated, a large number of fans wearing ski masks rushed to the front of the crowd and started taunting Jay & Mark. Then, with the brothers sufficiently distracted, three men hit the ring: Jimmy Jacobs, Tyler Black and the Necro Butcher and began their assault. Jay was busted open by a mass of barbed wire wrapped around Necro’s fist, and as the crowd booed and tossed trash into the ring Jacobs & Black tied Jay’s legs together and had him hoisted up into the ceiling.
What happened next was one of most visually shocking and memorable moments in ROH history. Jacobs, clad in an all-white suit and flanked by his soldiers Tyler Black and the Necro Butcher, stood beneath the hanging Jay Briscoe, blood dripping from Jay’s lacerated forehead and coating Jacobs from head to toe. Jimmy cut a promo that laid out his motivations and put the entire ROH locker room on notice, and as Jay’s blood coursed down his face and into his open mouth he made it perfectly clear that the ‘project’ was over and that The Age of the Fall had just begun.Not everyone found the Project 161/Age of the Fall storyline to their tastes, however.
There were those who felt it was poorly conceived, another example of how the internet era was ruining wrestling, or the sort of cringe-worthy tale penned by a wannabe Raven-like character. But whether all of the fans were invested in Project 161 or not, one thing was undeniable: lots of people were talking and that was exactly what ROH needed in 2007, as the promotion struggled to reproduce the high standards of one of their most successful and critically acclaimed years to date. The angle had such buzz around it during those last few months and, ultimately, it was the storyline highlight for that year in ROH.
In the long run the Age of the Fall suffered from some of the directional problems that were weighing on ROH at the time. The faction warfare storyline that was ramping up during the whole Project 161 build had helped keep fans guessing as to who the culprits were, with numerous newly formed groups potentially behind it all, but faction warfare was ill-fated as an angle and largely failed to meet expectations. It also muddied the waters and took focus away from what could have been a promotion-wide event. Jacobs and Black continued to fued with The Briscoes and won the tag titles at Final Battle 2007, but Age of the Fall had lost some of the mystery and excitement that had surrounded Project 161.
Looking back a decade later it’s remarkable to think that while promotions have only increased their use of the internet to further their storylines, very few have attempted anything on the scale and depth of Project 161. It was a groundbreaking angle at a time when the concept of Alternate Reality Gaming was fresh in the public consciousness, thanks to some high-profile ARG campaigns such as Paramount’s promotion for its blockbuster Cloverfield. The detail that had gone into Project 161 and its related materials was remarkable (the blog is still active and can be viewed HERE), as was the inventiveness with which they reacted to the theories and speculation from the fans.
At times early on it felt like the interest had exceeded their expectations and they had to scramble to keep the wheels turning, but it was handled all very deftly in a way that allowed many to suspend their disbelief. The whole thing had a fresh, experimental vibe that was quite unlike anything in wrestling at the time and while some grumbled at the ultimate reveal, that had to have been expected. With so many theories and rumours, anticipation was running very high and of course some would be disappointed with the outcome, but the violent nature of the project’s final moment ensured it would be one long remembered regardless.