Ring of Honor world champion, Jay Lethal, is closing in on 20 years as one of wrestling’s most charismatic performers. Honing his craft while in high school, Lethal took his dream and combined it with enthusiasm to carve out a remarkable career, and days away from headlining Final Battle against Cody, he took the time to speak with Chris Walker from Sporting News.
Sporting News: You’re closing in on two decades in the wrestling business, can you remember what it was that first got you hooked?
Jay Lethal: You may be shocked to hear this, but it was the Macho Man that made me fall in love with this business when I was a kid. My older brothers were big wrestling fans and I just watched wrestling because they were interested in it, but when I saw the Macho Man with all the tassels and the bright colors, then that really stood out to me. The version that I first loved was the one that was getting down on one knee saying “Elizabeth, will you marry me?,” but as I got older, I started to understand the business more and it was the heel version doing the Macho King that I began to enjoy more. The Macho King was Savage at his best, but it was Macho as a face that got my attention firmly on wrestling. My brothers eventually lost interest in wrestling, so it was just me and my dad that used to watch it every week.
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What was it that made you want to cross the line from fan to performer?
There’s one match that made me want to become a professional wrestler when I was still a boy and I bet nobody could guess what it is. It was Bret Hart against Roddy Piper at WrestleMania VIII. The emotion and storytelling in the buildup and the match was some of the most believable wrestling I’ve ever seen. There was the interview segment where they’re talking like old friends before Piper ends up going off on one and then there’s the match itself. Piper goes to the outside and grabs the bell and he takes forever as he debates with himself whether he should hit Bret with it. Bobby Heenan is on commentary screaming “take his head off with it” and Piper has got this big decision to make. That few minutes in the match convinced me there and then that I wanted to be a professional wrestler because I wanted to be able to be involved in stuff like that.
You were trained in New Jersey and ended up receiving your tuition for free in the end, how did that materialize?
Right, this was about the time that “Tough Enough” was doing OK for the WWE and the Jersey All Pro Wrestling school were running their own competition and the winner would get trained for free. They announced three winners and I wasn’t one of them, but because I was so young — I was 16 at the time — they were impressed by how hard I had worked and how enthusiastic I was, so they announced a fourth winner and that was me. It meant a lot to get the training for free, but it didn’t really make a difference as I was going to find a way to pay for it anyway.
You debuted in Ring of Honor in 2003, and now you’re their world champion approaching 2019, what are the biggest differences between the company you walked into back then to the one you represent now?
On a personal level, the biggest thing I can remember from back then is that I didn’t belong there. It’s like someone just going into an office and trying to do the job of someone far more qualified and expecting to get good results for the company, but I had to stick around there so I could digest from the guys around me. Honestly, it felt like I had literally fallen through a crack in the floor and ended up in a wrestling company that had the best wrestlers in the world. I walked in there not knowing a lot and then I’m surrounded by guys like Christopher Daniels, Samoa Joe and Low Ki. I literally had no right to be in the ring with any of those guys. It gave me a solid foundation to become the wrestler I am today. Ring of Honor taught me so much about the wrestling business, and then I had to go to TNA to learn about wrestling on TV, in front of cameras, on PPV, and that was another part of my life that went a long way to shaping my character. Today I feel like I could offer an awful lot to any wrestling company, but there’s no way I felt like that back then.
From a business and marketing perspective, what differences do you see in Ring of Honor now compared to back then?
They’ve done so well to get eyes on the product in recent years and I think the way streaming is done now means it’s a lot easier to get people watching your stuff. One click of a button means you’re able to watch almost any wrestling company and it never used to be like that when Ring of Honor was first getting started. For me, Ring of Honor has always been the home of the best in-ring wrestling in America for a number of years now, but it was restricted to how it was able to be viewed. Look at the guys who’ve dominated the main event scene in various wrestling companies in the last 10 years and look how many started off with Ring of Honor. We’ve always been the home of quality wrestling and now you’re seeing us hopefully make the move into arenas on a regular basis. We’ve got Madison Square Garden next year and that’s a big deal for a Jersey boy like me, but I think that will tell us a lot about where we are at this moment.
You touched on TNA earlier, I’ve spoken with wrestlers who were there when you were and they mention the appointment of Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff as a major negative turning point in the company’s history. What are your thoughts on your time there before and after their arrival?
I’ve really only got good memories of TNA because it allowed me to take risks with my character and take it to places I never imagined. I got the chance to work with Kurt Angle and we tore the house down when we worked together. Do you know how grateful I am for an opportunity like that? On Hogan arriving, I ain’t going to lie or let the opinions of others change my mind, but I absolutely loved having him, Eric and Ric Flair in TNA. That was at the height of my Black Machismo days so the moment they saw me doing my thing they were all interested in working with me and doing stuff together because of their history with Macho Man. Hogan and Ric were had famous rivalries with Macho Man and when they saw me doing my impressions, they had so many ideas for different skits and angles. Talking to you now and recalling those days, I realize just how fortunate I am to have been working alongside these massive names that I spent my whole childhood looking up to.
Were you ever concerned that the Black Machismo gimmick would prevent you from portraying alternative roles?
Not at all. In my head, I had an idea how far I wanted to take it and there was never going to be the possibility of staying like that forever or returning to it if other things weren’t working out. It was so much fun playing that character and it allowed me opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have got if I wasn’t doing an impression of Macho Man, but I always knew that I’d call time on it at when the moment felt right.
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You currently hold the Ring of Honor world title and you will defend that belt against Cody on Dec. 14 at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. What can people expect?
First off it’ll be good to back in NYC as it means my friends can come over from Jersey and watch me do my thing. Onto the match, well, what you’re going to get is two guys who take their job so serious and give 100 percent every single time they step in the ring and [this weekend] will be no different. When I wrestle, my main priority is to make sure that I give the fans value for money and that they leave the venue and go home with some amazing memories from watching Jay Lethal. Cody is exactly the same and if he’s going into next week’s match the way I am then I’m certain that we can deliver something special and everyone will go home more than happy after watching us go all out for my Ring of Honor title.
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