You Couldn’t Be Him: Swerve Strickland Talks Wrestling, Hip-hop, and AEW’s All InPhotos courtesy of AEW TV Features wrestling
When Swerve Strickland walks into London’s Wembley Arena this weekend, he’ll be greeted by one of the largest pro wrestling crowds of all time. There’ll be over 80,000 people in attendance at All Elite Wrestling’s All In pay-per-view on Sunday, which is a phenomenal achievement for any wrestling promotion, especially one that’s only been around for four years. Strickland might be poised to steal the show in a coffin tag team match, where he’ll join up with long-time friend AR Fox to face Darby Allin and the wrestling legend Sting. It’ll be the biggest crowd any of them have ever wrestled in front of—even Sting, who had a memorable match at WrestleMania 31.
It took over a decade of hard work for Strickland to reach this point, with stints in almost every major wrestling promotion in America along the way. Always a fantastic in-ring talent, Swerve has developed into one of the best all-around performers in wrestling, with a dangerous, self-interested persona informed by his parallel career in hip-hop. During a recent conversation he revealed that he was spending his days before London working on multiple music videos in Atlanta, where this week’s pre-All In episodes of Dynamite and Collision are being held. We talked to Swerve about his music, his wrestling career, how it feels to have reached the top of the business with old friends like Allin and Fox, and what wrestling fans can expect from this weekend’s All In show.
The following has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
Paste: So obviously you have a big show this weekend in London with All In, maybe the biggest wrestling show of all time. You’ll be wrestling in front of more than 80,000 fans. How do you think it’s gonna feel to be in front of an audience that huge?
Swerve Strickland: It’s gonna feel unreal. Now, my mind is just on the task at hand. And it’s just like, the performance and getting to the match and being in that moment, and being that professional superstar that people want to see. It’s not going to hit ‘til like after, to me. That’s when it’s like, I’m settling in my hotel room afterwards. That’s where it’s really going to come down to like, a lot.
Paste: Do you watch your matches back after the fact?
Swerve: I do. If I have a good feeling about the match, I watch it back immediately. And then I want to try to watch them back more and maybe get into like, oh, “this would have worked better with this.” The timing, the crowd participation, when something could’ve been better used here rather than just going to do this. I get into stat mode, almost. But I gotta watch it a couple times to do that. But I do try to watch the enjoyment factor because at the end of the day, you still want to enjoy what you’re doing.
Paste: You gotta roll the tape back. What’s the biggest crowd you’ve wrestled in front of before All In?
Swerve: Arthur Ashe is one of the big ones, last year in New York. That was about 20,000. And I will say I did two Triple Manias [for AAA], and that was about 15,000 in Mexico.
Paste: Oh man, what’s it like wrestling at Triple Mania? It’s always so fun to watch. It’s such a different take on wrestling, even different than like a traditional lucha show. And as a performer how does that audience differ from say the crowd at Arthur Ashe? Or the crowd you expect to have in London over the weekend.
Swerve: Yeah, Triple Mania is just rowdy. They just, they really get involved with the crowd participation of things. There’s not like a cadence or a singalong that they like to do. They’re more just like up and rowdy and constantly making noise so it’s never a quiet audience and you can get a rise out of them. But it’s never really like a UK crowd who’s singing along and doing the “oh Oh OH!” and [football chants]. The Triple Mania crowd’s not too much about being a symphony, you could say.
Paste: Like when we think of lucha libre in America, obviously it’s the high flying stuff and I love that. But I also love watching a Triple Mania and seeing like two 60 year old guys just slowly brawl through an arena bleeding all over each other. It’s such a good diverse type of wrestling they have down there, you know.
Swerve: I just did a Triple Mania earlier this year, and they had like a bloody brawl tag with one of the older guys. It was a straight up brawl and they were so into it and I was into it watching it. It was just bloody, masks were ripped in half but still hanging on their faces by a thread, bleeding through, and it was punching and body slams on the floor. And it was like one of the most interactive matches on the entire show. Because a lot of the other cards suck so much great athleticism and lucha lirbre, these guys are just beating each other to death and punching and slapping and chopping and punching out, and it’s like so engaging.
Paste: Yeah, man, they really know how to do a whole card down there with all bases touched. So, AEW’s All In is coming up this Sunday. Obviously, like we said, it’s a huge show, maybe the biggest ever. What’s the attitude in the locker room? How are you and the othe wrestlers feeling about the show coming up this weekend?
Swerve: Right now I see a lot of colm faces. I feel like it’s not gonna hit everybody ‘til we get there. I feel like we’re all in the same boat. We’re all focused on the arrival of getting to the big moment. And once the moment’s here then everybody’s gonna feel it. And I feel like nobody’s really going to feel that moment till they step into that stadium before the show, and really just take it all in. That’s going to be the moment for everybody. But right now everybody is really calm, cool, collected, and focused. We have a really focused locker room right now. I can honestly say a motivated locker room. And the people that aren’t on All In or All Out are even more motivated than the guys that are because they want to get to those next time.
Paste: Yeah. So when do y’all head over to London?
Swerve: I’m currently in Atlanta, I’ve been shooting music videos this entire week. So ever since Sunday, I drove up from Orlando and we’re shooting a music video. And the first Sunday and Monday is one music video that we separate the shoot days into two parts. So Monday we finished up and today we’re shooting a second music video all in one day, five hour shoot today and getting that done. And then we have AEW Dynamite in Duluth, Georgia tonight, with a tag match between myself and ARFox versus Nick Wayne and Darby Allin. We have that and then back home to Orlando, reshuffling my bags and then right to London the next day.
Paste: I was gonna get to your music career, but since you just brought it up, Atlanta, you know, is the rap capital of the world right now [and the home of Paste]. Have you been working with any of the local talent in town on your video shoots this week?
Swerve: Yesterday we had Fya Man who is like one of them. He has a lot of writer credits on the Kanye West album. And he worked with Chance the Rapper in the mid 2000s, very, very great, talented artist himself and he’s a great writer. He works with Sony now, signed with Sony. A lot of times he goes and takes trips up to the Sony building to record and put some music together and does whatever they need from him. He works with a lot of other upcoming artists as well. I was with him at the Grammys a year ago and watched him win two Grammys for his work on the Donda album with Kanye West. He’s directing my videos and producing as well. It’s been a great experience. It’s been like very smooth, very smooth production these last two days and we’re bringing it home today with our last on our second video “These Dreams” which is all on my album You Couldn’t Be Me.
Paste: Do you see similarities between your wrestling work and your music?
Swerve: Yeah, sometimes I pull from one of them to the other. Sometimes I pull from the wrestling a little bit, as far as the entertainment and the charismatic side of the wrestling, especially movement and flow. I pull from that into making the music or making the sound of the impact of the music. A lot of times I pull from the music side for my promos with my sound and my dialect and the slang and the terminology. The wardrobe I pull from one another all the time. You know that’s kind of like what I did last year a lot. You see like the entrance jackets, I use those jackets in my music videos. You’ll see those influences but then like sometimes I even use my podcast work with my promos. Because I found like a distinct way of talking and flowing and engaging with my guests and podcast listeners and viewers and stuff and I’ve gotten so much better at talking on microphone or camera in backstage segments and live segments. Doing live podcasting has helped me with that. So I kind of pull from all those different avenues that I’m working with.
Paste: So talking about your podcast, you had a newsworthy one recently with the Young Bucks on there. How important do you think it is for a wrestler today to have all these different outlets, like podcasting and music, in terms of getting your name out there and promoting yourself as a performer?
Swerve: I think it was important for me. I don’t know if it’s important to the rest of the world. Like if everybody has a podcast it doesn’t become an important thing anymore. It just becomes, like, junking up the waves. But I do think, for me, it’s been important. And it’s helped me build a lot of connections and relationships with people in my locker room, and instills trust, too. And now I just like talking with my guests. You get to understand a little more. [They start to feel more secure talking to me] because they see I’m not there to try to pull a sound bite out of them. I want to have a conversation. If anything I’m here—podcasting to me is easy when we’re doing these interviews, they’re more celebratory, we want to honor them, and who they are and for getting to where they are, and where they’re going to go afterwards. You know, it’s not too much like, “oh, you said so-and-so in a tweet about this? Oh, what about that promo you cut about so-and-so, what about your backstage heat with this guy, there’s always been rumors, talk about that”—like, you know, we don’t want to stir up the hornet’s nest with our talking points. We want to address where their mindset’s at and how they’ve grown from that, those things like that. They’re more celebratory, the podcasting, for me, but for wrestlers coming up, it is important to have some type of platform to be heard and seen. Whether or not it’s just straight through your wrestling, that’s great, you should do that. You don’t have to be an artist and have a TikTok and do this to get yourself seen, but you have to have some type of platform to have your stuff seen or your talents or like anything that you are trying to promote. What I always say is sell your best qualities about yourself, don’t sell your worst. If you make music, but you’re not that good at it, then like don’t sell that. Sell your best qualities first, then when you work on those other things, when they finally get good, and you start really excelling at it, and you can start selling it.
Paste: I feel like you’re talking to me directly with the “if you make music, but you’re not good at it, don’t sell it” thing. It’s like you’re giving me advice directly for my own life. Thank you for that.
Swerve: But that’s not also like just because you suck at something isn’t an indication to stop either. It’s just to keep going and keep improving. Keep raising the bar and excelling at it. Try to keep excelling, but sell it when it’s finally at the right time and you got it down pat. Like they always say, making a first impression is a big deal. But that’s something I always tell people, like some people on social media will say you suck every single day. That doesn’t mean to stop doing what you’re doing. “Oh, you suck at this. This is terrible. Why would you do this? I can’t stand watching this.” Okay, you’re telling me to stop. I’m gonna keep doing it. And you’re gonna keep commenting. But eventually I’m gonna get better. I’m gonna make you look stupid for doubting me in the first place. Yeah, and that’s my mantra on things, you know? Not everybody’s been the greatest of all time at the beginning and it takes those failures to build to that.
Paste: So you have a history with Darby Allin, and you’ll be wrestling him twice in tag matches in the next week. How’s it feel to be on this major stage with old friends like him and AR Fox?
Swerve: This is all really truly a divine moment we’re having because to me, everybody says the term “generational talent,” I really feel AR Fox was that from the early 2000s to like 2012, ‘13. Like he revolutionized the style that a lot of people, especially on the American side, that a lot of people have grown up watching and still try to replicate to this day. He truly generated a template, AR Fox. For him to have this moment is huge. It’s beautiful. Like he’s helped so many people, including myself and Darby Allin along the way, for me over the last 12 years, he’s been helping me so much. Darby was in a tough situation and he met AR Fox, and AR Fox brought him in without charging him a dime, and made him, brought his game up to another level for him to travel around the world and make money, make a living in the position he’s at in AEW. And I was along that way, wrestling Darby in AAW in Chicago, Defy in Seattle, and in LA at PCW Ultra, in Evolve and all these places, and helping groom him. And he’s helping me sharpen my tool in the same sense. For us to do this all together and get here, along with the cherry on top, which is the icon Sting involved in this whole thing, you can’t write something like this. It just happened. We have something and we’re all here and we all want to win. There’s no egos involved. There’s no gripes held or grudges from, whatever, five years ago from an argument we had, or anything like that. Everybody is in the role that they need to be in to elevate the other person and help the other person and bring the other person up. And put this on one of the biggest wrestling cards of all time, with no selfishness. And you can’t ask for a better group of guys.
Paste: It’s, you know, it’s nuts that you’re wrestling Sting. I mean, I’m from Atlanta, I grew up here, I used to go to the Omni to see WCW shows and the ‘80s and ‘90s. And the fact that Sting is still going in 2023 that he’s still fantastic at it. And that guys like you and Darby and AR—who AR is an Atlanta legend too, in his own right, you know—the fact that you guys get to be in a ring with Sting I mean, how does that feel?
Swerve: Honestly, it feels like we deserve it. It’s well-deserved. Everybody deserves what they’re getting. There have been moments where you see people get to where they are and you’re kind of questionable about it. Like you maybe feel it’s not well earned or you feel like this person is there for some political reason or like nepotism or something. Like somebody’s injured themselves, and now this guy steps in, and stuff like that. No, I feel like everybody truly put in so much work over the last couple of years and put their bodies on the line and risked so much to earn this spot. All of us deserve this opportunity to showcase to the world in one of the most historic wrestling events that you’ll ever see, and be a part of that, especially as an African American man, that’s really huge for our culture to show that you can do this, you know. Like, we did it my way. I never reformed or really manufactured into any of my opportunities. I truly went out, did the work, and earned it and got to where I am all through my beliefs, my instincts, my hard work, and a lot of other people that truly, that really believed in me and didn’t try to change me. They just embellished on who I was. Like, I truly encourage people like if it’s not working right now, just don’t quit. Don’t quit because it’s not working right now, because you’re not getting the results you need right now to keep going but keep adapting. And keep adding on and keep morphing. You got to be an amoeba in this entertainment business. And you got to gel with people that you do not necessarily have chemistry with. But that’s the challenge. That’s the art. There were times I didn’t think something would work, but I was happy I got to witness and experience it. That’s what this art is, and that’s the business of it. So that’s been like one of my biggest challenges in the last 15 years of wrestling, me failing at it and then succeeding at it is what got me here.
Paste: Yeah. How much of a harder time do you think African American wrestlers have in terms of getting to be themselves in wrestling?
Swerve: We do get to be ourselves by sometimes. But sometimes we get put into a bubble in a box on how much we can grow as being ourselves, you know what I mean? That ceiling gets lower and lower and lower every time. And the ones that do breakthrough, like, every one that does break through to the top top top, like a Bianca Belair, are the really, really special ones. And you won’t see, that you won’t see another one of those for like, who knows how long, you know? AEW’s still waiting for that breakthrough African American top top star, and I’m feeling like I could be the one to do that. And I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t believe that. And I wouldn’t want to even have a job if I didn’t think that I could do that.
Paste: Yeah. I’d say a lot of fans agree with you on that point. You’ve shown so much the last several months, I mean, your personality and your character. It’s really been resonating with people, a lot of people are really excited to see where you go from here, you know?
Swerve: For them to want to see what happens next, want to see who’s next. Where is he, what’s his next match, what’s the next time he’s going to be on TV, who i’s he going to be involved with? That’s a really cool for me, like I always relate back to music like, “Man, I love that album. What’s the next album? Where are they going to go with the next sound? Who are they going to have featured on the next album?” Because you connected with an album and artists and the music so much you can’t wait to see where they go next and the next music video, stuff like that. And I try to always bring that same type of energy to my wrestling persona. You can’t wait to see what I do next, because you don’t know where I’m gonna go. And I feel like I’ve built that relationship with the fan base and the fan base is taken to it.
Paste: Exactly. So earlier you mentioned working for Defy, AAW, wrestling at Triple Mania… I think a lot of fans really became aware of you in Lucha Underground. Especially that insane match you had with AR Fox. Now you’re in AEW, obviously you got what might be the biggest show ever coming up this weekend. How does AEW, culturally and also the locker room atmosphere, compare to other places you’ve worked at in the past?
Swerve: Definitely the most depth of talent I’ve ever been a part of on all aspects of wrestling. You literally have the best luchadores here, you have the best Japanese wrestlers here, you have the best British wrestlers that come through, with Zack Sabre Jr. and Will Ospreay coming through. You know, you have the guys who’ve seen and done everything, pioneered this business like Chris Jericho, the icon Sting, Jeff Jarrett. You have Taz, who’s called some of the greatest matches that’s ever been produced in wrestling. We have Jim Ross, who’s helped shape what sports entertainment is. You name it, you go up and down the rocker room. You literally have someone who made it to the top like Jon Moxley, transitioned to AEW and is still on fire if not more than when he was over there. You know, you have so many guys to learn from. You have a [CM] Punk. You have a Jay White. Just those two guys are on such different spectrums. But they, I’ve literally reached the top of the business in two different realms, New Japan and WWE.. That’s crazy to think that you have that at your disposal in one wrestling company. That’s huge. And we are fortunate enough to be paired with these guys on a weekly basis. And literally wherever you go the fan base doesn’t know what’s gonna happen. I love the fact that Dynamite has that. I don’t know what’s gonna happen this week.
Paste: Who are some wrestlers you’re looking forward to potentially facing in the future that you haven’t had a match with yet?
Swerve: I’ve never had a singles match with Kenny Omega. I have a tag match with him in the books in the UK some years ago. I always say Kyle O’Reilly. I hope he’s rested up, healed up, ready to go, because that’s phenomenal talent and I’ve always adored his wrestling and his believability. A special talent. I’ve trained with Malakai Black for years and never got to have an official match with them. But he’s one of the key pieces of getting me into NXT years ago in 2018. And we’ve never had an official match. And I would say, I guess one more, a Hangman Page, I would say. He’s cornerstone in this company.
Paste: I’m surprised you’ve never wrestled O’Reilly but I guess thinking it over, I mean, he was always in Ring of Honor for years, and you’d ever worked there.
Swerve: And then, by the time I really started moving he was in NXT. We were both always moving, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.
Paste: Yeah. So I guess one last question andI’ll let you go. When are we getting a Keith Lee match, man? It’s been a while. I think fans really want to see you two settle it in the ring.
Swerve: I tell you man, like who knows. Maybe he’ll be my first title defense when I win that world championship.
Paste: That would be a good way to circle back to that. Definitely.
Swerve: Like, “I thought I was rid of you.”
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.