By Mike Mooneyham

April 1, 2007

It had been a long road home for Jeff Hardy.

Several short years ago, he was on top of the world, forming one of wrestling’s hottest tag teams with brother Matt and breaking out as a singles star, headlining against the likes of The Undertaker.

He was even given the unenviable tag of “the next Shawn Michaels,” a heavy burden for any young wrestler to carry.

The Hardy Boyz were considered part of the new generation of WWE, wrestlers who used aerial acrobatics more than physical brawn to amaze the crowd, talented risk-takers with dynamic in-ring chemistry.

The Hardys also had one of the strongest followings in the company, a corps of loyal fans who had followed them since the early days, and some dating back to the North Carolina-based OMEGA promotion that they were original members of.

Jeff Hardy

Jeff Hardy

The brothers helped revolutionized the art of tag-team wrestling and captured both the WWE and WCW tag-team titles. But they were pulled apart after the WWE brand extension in 2002, with Jeff being pushed as a singles star on Raw and Matt eventually being relegated to the cruiserweight division on Smackdown.

Jeff’s career took a sharp downward spiral in March 2003 when, after a series of showing up late for matches, failing drug tests and refusing to go to rehab, he was released by the company that had hired him as a teenager, had nurtured him and had watched him steadily progress through the ranks.

Hardy now says it was the best possible thing that could have happened. Refocusing his passions and energies, he spent a solid year combating his personal demons, eventually making a triumphant return to WWE rings last August. It was a long road back to get to the spot where he had started his career.

“More than anything, it was just that year away from wrestling,” says Hardy. “Just getting away from it (wrestling) for a year allowed me to really develop an interest in me again, and a little bit of that passion came back.”

He also was drawn to another passion, alternative rock music, and used part of his hiatus to display his musical, artistic and writing talents.

Hardy spent part of the next two years with the TNA (Total Nonstop Action) outfit. But, he admits, it wasn’t WWE.

“When I was on the road and I’d come home, I was into motocross, and I still am. I love it to life. I was in another organization the next couple of years, and it wasn’t near as busy. One day it just slapped me in the face. I would watch Raw and Smackdown every week. To watch it and know you could be there in the spotlight kind of got to me.”

Although Hardy still loves the business and has regained some of that zest, he’s older and wiser, seeing the big picture from a much different perspective.

“I’m 29 now, and I don’t think I’ll ever (have that same passion), but I’m in such a great spot now. To come back and have such a supportive fan base just blew my mind. Those fans really care and are glad that I’m back. That makes it all worthwhile.”

Since his return seven months ago, his career has undergone a resurgence, with Hardy being rewarded with a run as Intercontinental champion and a spot on tonight’s Wrestlemania pay-per-view where he will be one of the eight participants in a Money in the Bank ladder match.

Hardy, no stranger to ladders, says he’s in his element. It’s a natural extension from his days as a fearless teen when he and his brother would execute dives off the roof of their house.

One of the highlights of his career was a ladder match with The Undertaker for the WWE title in July 2002. With brother Matt, the Hardys provided WWE with spectacular highlight footage during their electrifying TLC (Tables, Ladders and Chairs) matches with teams such as The Dudley Boyz and Edge and Christian.

“I prefer that kind of match. It’s hard to explain, but it’s my favorite match,” says Hardy. “That’s where I’m comfortable. I think you can be safe, but at the same time it’s hard not to take risks in those matches. There’s always a chance you can get hurt, as we saw at Armageddon, where Joey Mercury’s face got demolished. But that can always happen in those types of matches.”

The Cameron, N.C., native admits he has eased up on his daredevil style.

“I don’t do near as much as I used to try. I’ve toned down quite a bit.”

As for comparisons to Michaels, Hardy says the label was flattering and there were a number of similarities, but that’s where it ended.

“I’ve never seen myself as the next anybody,” says Hardy. “I’ve just tried to be unique in what I do and consider myself the next me. But it was a total compliment. Shawn Michaels was a huge influence on Matt and myself growing up.”

Although he and Matt work on different brands, Raw and Smackdown respectively, the two still team up on occasion.

The more the better, says Hardy, who thinks the two are more effective as a package.

“I enjoy the hell out of it (teaming with Matt),” he says. “They call us the Hardys now, and they kind of took off the Boyz. I really can’t understand it. Shawn Michaels is still the Heartbreak Kid. He’s not the Heartbreak Man.”

Hardy says it’s difficult to say how long he’ll remain in the business.

“I always think about maybe giving it up at age 35. I’d like to have kids and be home. But I’m sure that when that time rolls around, it’ll be hard to say goodbye. Look at Ric Flair. He amazes me to be able to still be out there doing what he does.”

“Sometimes I feel older than I am, because I’m always sore and there’s always little things that nag like bone chips in my elbows,” he adds. “My ankles have been my biggest problem since I’ve been back, and I have to get them taped up every night. They’re always bothersome, and they’re easy to tweak. Other than that I can’t complain. I’ve been extremely fortunate that I haven’t had any surgeries or broken bones, other than a collarbone I broke years ago on a dirt bike.”

Music, he says, may be the next form of entertainment he pursues as far as a livelihood goes.

“In that time away I recorded so many songs,” says Hardy. I feel there’s so many good ideas there. There’s some stuff nobody’s ever heard. Eventually, and I don’t know when, I’d like to pursue that … I’ve got some guys who are talented musicians. There are a lot of good songs and good chemistry among us. I’d like to eventually do that, but I don’t think I could manage the two at the same time.”

For now, says Hardy, he’s living a dream.

Although he and Matt started working for WWE in 1993, when Jeff was just 16 and Matt only three years older, it wasn’t until 1998 that the brothers were given full-time WWE deals. “Team Extreme” became one of the top teams in the company almost immediately.

“The way everything worked out with WWE was my greatest accomplishment. Just getting that contract. From the time I was in high school. I wanted to do this. Matt went to college for a couple of years, but about a year-and-a-half after I got out of high school, we signed that developmental deal. It was a pretty big victory.”

– John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels for the WWE heavyweight title is the main event at tonight’s Wrestlemania, although Batista said last week that his match with The Undertaker for the WWE world title will steal the show.

“We’re going to give them a match they’re going to remember. I guarantee it. We’re going to tear the house down.”

The most hyped match, of course, is Umaga vs. Bobby Lashley, with Vince McMahon and Donald Trump putting their hair on the line in the “Battle of the Billionaires.”

This year’s Wrestlemania looms as the biggest money event in pro wrestling history. Talks have been under way with Good Morning America to get McMahon or Trump on for Monday, with one obviously displaying his new chrome dome.

Seventy-five thousand fans are expected to pack Detroit’s Ford Field for the event, along with a projected one million pay-per-view buys (including international markets) at $49.95 apiece.

“I can’t imagine what it’s going to sound like,” Batista told the Detroit Free Press. “It’s just overwhelming how big that place is. … How the hell are we going to even get to the ring?”

– Joey Mercury, one third of the MNM trio with Johnny Nitro (John Hennigan) and Melina (Melina Perez), was released by WWE last week prior to Raw.

– Abe Coleman, 101, a Polish-born pro wrestler known as the “Hebrew Hercules” and “Jewish Tarzan” and credited in the 1930s with popularizing the dropkick, died of kidney failure Wednesday at a nursing home in Queens, N.Y. He was believed to be the oldest pro wrestler in the world.

One day, when he was in his 80s, teenagers tried to mug him. Family members say that he pinned them until police arrived. According to another version of the story, he gave one a right hook and the other a left hook, leaving them both unconscious.

– Sting (Steve Borden) teased possible retirement last week on the TNA Web site.

“Last year, I said 2006 probably would be my last year, my last hurrah in wrestling. But then (TNA president) Dixie (Carter) started talking to me about 2007, as well as other TNA executives. So I figured I’d go another year. But, after 2007, I can’t make any promises. I have a feeling this, 2007, will be it.”

He also ruled out other options in the wrestling business.

“I’m not a commentator or manager type. Not in my blood. Wrestling is the only thing in my blood.”

– George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the Wrestlemania PPV tonight at 7 p.m. Cover charge is $10.