Ring of Honor is home to some of the best wrestlers in the world, but for the last 400 plus days only one of them has been the champion. Jay Lethal has dominated the promotion since turning heel in 2014 and embracing an arrogant persona and interview style similar to Ric Flair’s at his mid ‘80s peak. For a while last year Lethal even held both of Ring of Honor’s singles titles simultaneously in an angle that WWE rushed to replicate with Seth Rollins. It’s a far cry from the lower card slots and comedy roles he was often relegated to during his five year stretch in TNA, but it’s also completely deserved: Lethal was always a talented wrestler, in the ring and on the microphone, but over the last few years in Ring of Honor he has reinvented himself as one of the most complete packages in the business.
Tomorrow night Lethal will be putting his title on the line against Adam Cole in the main event of Death Before Dishonor XIV, Ring of Honor’s latest pay-per-view event. It’s a storyline that has effectively turned Lethal face for the first time in two years, but like Ric Flair’s short-term face turn against Terry Funk in 1989 it’s less about Lethal becoming a good guy and more about Lethal going up against a meaner and more crooked heel in Cole, who is now the leader of Ring of Honor’s wing of the Bullet Club. Also like that Flair angle, this story is capitalizing on the fan’s legitimate respect for the champion they’ve been booing these last few years. That respect might have been begrudging at first, but after 15 months of successfully defending the title in a series of good-to-great matches, while also dependably dishing out the best promos in the company, Lethal has fully earned it, even while still playing the bad guy. (Of course, this is 2016, so traditional concepts of heel and babyface rarely apply anymore, especially among the hardcore fans of a promotion like Ring of Honor. Standard caveat, there.) And this isn’t just a match for the title, although both wrestlers and the promotion take that championship seriously: Cole and the Bullet Club shaved Lethal’s head during the build-up, wiping out the cornrows that have been as crucial to Lethal’s distinctive look as that peroxide mane was for Flair in the ‘80s.
Paste recently talked to Lethal about his career, Death Before Dishonor, and the glory and pressure of being the champ. Lethal’s insights into what makes pro wrestling tick show he could have a good future as a booker, promoter or commentator down the road.
Paste: You’ve been champ for over a year. That doesn’t happen often these days.
Jay Lethal: No, it doesn’t.
Paste: How do you keep on keeping that belt?
Jay Lethal: I haven’t changed anything that I’ve been doing because what I’ve been doing has gotten me all the way here. So why change the formula now, you know?
Paste: You’re coming in on Danielson for the third longest reign ever in Ring of Honor, I think?
Lethal: I think so. I think so. Although my sights are set on the number one reign, which would be Samoa Joe, who had it for almost two years, which is crazy to even think about. I plan on topping that one, too.
Paste: Do you care about records? Do you keep track of how long your reigns are?
Lethal: I don’t keep track. In fact I’ve never kept track of anything. I wish I did though because something I think is really cool is a buddy of mine who I started with after every single match he would go home and write down where the match was and who it was with and who it was against and he has this cool long record of every match he’s ever had, which I think is so cool. I’m really upset that I didn’t think to do that in the beginning. But I’ve never been much of a record keeper. Everybody always tells me, “Oh did you know that you’re such and such or that you had it for this long?” And I’m like “oh wow no that’s crazy. I didn’t even know that.”
Paste: Yeah, Wikipedia makes it easy. I just read all that off there like 10 minutes ago.
Jay Lethal: I’m afraid to go to Wikipedia because Sonjay [Dutt]and myself are big pranksters. And Wikipedia, anybody can go on there and edit anything, and we would always edit the Petey Williams Wikipedia page to say ridiculous things, and then we’d tell him about it and he’d go check it and get upset. But then the next day it’d be fixed.
Paste: What’s the funniest thing you’ve said about Petey Williams on Wikipedia?
Lethal: Some of the things I can’t mention. Those would be the funniest ones. But we would put on there all the time things like he had a couple of kids and stuff. Which he actually does now. I guess it was just foreshadowing.
Paste: You were seeing into the future through Wikipedia.
Paste: I’ve been watching you wrestle for a long time, since the TNA days. You’ve really grown tremendously as a performer. Could you tell how much you were improving as your career was going?
Lethal: No. Not at all. In fact my first run in Ring of Honor I actually felt like I didn’t even belong there. Those guys were so good. You had guys on the roster like Samoa Joe, Bryan Danielson, CM Punk, Nigel McGuiness, Doug Williams. I really felt like, the things that I knew paled in comparison to the things that they knew. I’ve never really looked at it like I’m doing great or big things are coming up. It’s actually a little bit of the opposite. I was kind of doubting myself for a long time.
Paste: Do you still have those doubts?
Lethal: No. Not anymore. Luckily. Although I don’t look at myself as like “oh man I’m doing so great,” I also don’t think that I’m as bad as I was before, and I don’t think like “oh man I just don’t know as much as this person who’s amazing.” I’m comfortable with my ability and I think that I’m a good wrestler. And yeah I think it’s a healthy view of myself.
Paste: When a promotion basically puts itself on your shoulders, like Ring of Honor has done, do they tell you in advance that, hey, you’re our guy? Or do they just put you in that position and sort of challenge you to carry that load?
Lethal: It’s a lot of pressure on someone if you say that I think. Luckily they never said it. I could almost see the writing on the wall. It wasn’t somebody sitting me down and saying “we’re going to do this, this and this and it’s going to be awesome for you.” I just watched things unfold with the fans as it was happening until finally they had to say “okay in case you haven’t realized this is what we’re doing.”
Paste: What’s your favorite part of wrestling, the in-ring action or cutting a promo? Because you’ve clearly worked hard at both aspects.
Lethal: There are two things: one, getting to do what I loved growing up, watching on TV. To relive those moments, but now I’m the one doing it, that’s one of my favorite parts. But my all time favorite part about wrestling in general are those emotional moments. For instance, the coolest part about wrestling, the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and possibly a part of wrestling that made me want to be a wrestler, was Roddy Piper versus Bret Hart from Wrestlemania VIII. Piper and Bret were such good friends, and before the match they had this promo where Piper was saying how much he loved Bret’s family and how many times he’s been over to their house, and he was cracking little jokes in-between, but you really got the sense that these guys are more than just wrestlers. That they’ve known each for years, that they’re really good friends, and then in the match Piper gets upset and the ref is down and Piper grabs the ring bell and is going to hit Bret Hart with it, and he raises the ring bell above his head . And before he lowers the boom he looks around the crowd, and the crowd is on their feet telling him not to do it, Bobby Heenan is screaming “Do it! Do it!” on commentary, and Bobby even says “Give it to me! I’ll do it!” And Piper’s looking around, he realizes that his temper’s gotten the best of him, and man, that moment just gives me goose bumps every time I even think about it. It was so much emotion in that moment, it really resonated with me. And that’s probably one of the biggest things that made me want to be a wrestler. Those moments like that. I try my hardest to create moments like that in my matches. It doesn’t always work, but I like to try.
And you mentioned I’m good at promos. That’s solely based on me being such a Ric Flair fan. If you really sit and watch any of my promos, you can tell I just love Ric Flair. Luckily nobody calls me out on it too much, and I think it’s because I got to actually work with him when I was in TNA. I think they give me the pass. But if it wasn’t for that moment, when it comes to my promos, I think they’d be like, “unh, this guy’s just doing Ric Flair stuff.”
Paste: How was working with Ric?
Lethal: Oh man, it was one of the greatest nights of my life. He was such a cool guy. To me, anyway. And it sucks, because he’s one of the guys where you either love him to death because he’s the coolest man in the world, or you caught him on a bad day and he was the worst. I’ve heard stories from both sides, but luckily he’s been nothing but great to me. I remember watching him on pay-per-view, sitting on my mom’s couch in the living room with my brothers, and then years later they’re sitting on the couch watching their brother in the ring with the same man that we watched growing up, Ric Flair. Man, it was one of the greatest moments of my life.
Paste: Man, I’m sure. You know, talking about your brothers, let’s go back to the beginning: what’s your first memory of pro wrestling?
Lethal: I think my love of wrestling started because my older two brothers loved wrestling. Mainly one of them. And I think it really happened to be one of those things where the younger sibling just wants to do what the older sibling’s doing. That happens so many times in life. And it just happened that my older siblings were watching and loving wrestling. There are two things that stick out in my head: Macho Man jumping on the outside and moving Elizabeth to the other side of the ring, even though she was standing in a spot that he had made her stand in to begin with. And the other clip I have in my head of the earliest memories I have of wrestling was Chris Benoit doing a snap suplex, and I remember, for years I had seen regular suplexes, I must have, but for some reason I watched, out of nowhere, I don’t even remember when this was, I remember I was watching TV with my brother and he got up to use the bathroom and wrestling came back on… One of my older brothers was a huge WCW fan, so that must’ve been what we were watching, and Benoit did a snap suplex and I felt like my brain exploded. I had never seen a suplex done that quick. And man, it was like, when you say what’s the earliest memories you have of watching wrestling on TV, it’s the two, Macho Man moving Elizabeth, and Benoit doing the snap suplex. Now I’m only 31, and I have a vast knowledge of wrestling only because after I fell in love with it I went back and watched all the old stuff, so how can Benoit doing a snap suplex be one of the earliest things I remember, well it wasn’t that long ago for me, to be honest. And like, how can this guy know so much about Ric Flair and be a Ric Flair fan when Ric Flair was like before he was even born, but yeah I went back and watched anything and everything wrestling that I could. And my two favorites because of that are Macho Man and Ric Flair.
Paste: I love to hear that. I’m a little bit older than you and when I was in elementary and middle school those two were also my two favorites, the best WWF guy and the best NWA/WCW guy. So you went back and watched a lot of tapes, learned about the history of wrestling. How crucial is that, you think, for a wrestler today, if they want to be successful?
Lethal: To be honest, I really don’t think it’s extremely crucial. It’s only something that can help. I don’t think it’s something that can make or break you because I’ve seen so many times people come into the wrestling business who’ve never watched wrestling before, and they decided, “hey, I’ve seen this on TV so I’ll give it a shot,” and they do great. I may have my facts wrong here, but I’m not so sure that Kurt Angle was a big pro wrestling fan before he got into it. I’m not 100% on that, but he was a natural because of his background. But I definitely don’t think that you have to have watched wrestling before to succeed at the wrestling business, I just think that it’ll help.
Paste: Talking again about the old-timers and how you grew up as a fan, I’m seeing with a lot of the younger wrestlers that they did grow up as wrestling fans. Like they watched it regularly as a kid, they played the videogames, they knew they wanted to do this from a young age.
Lethal: Oh yeah. We’re all living our dreams.
Paste: It seems like a lot of the older guys, they were more like, when their football dreams ended, or whatever, they wound up getting into this business that they could make money at. Is there any tension between the old-timers who are still around the business and the younger guys, in terms of being a fan versus being an insider, or anything like that?
Lethal: I don’t think so. I’ve never run into any situation like that. I don’t think so.
Paste: Cool. That’s good. So let’s talk about Death Before Dishonor. You’ve got a pretty big match with Adam Cole coming up.
Lethal: Oh yeah. And the coolest part about this is it’s one of those moments that’s been created. I got my head shaved by Adam Cole. I remember, while they were shaving my head, I was looking up and I saw people gasping in the crowd. One woman had her hand over her mouth, like she couldn’t believe it. She was in shock. That, to me, that’s what wrestling is all about. Wrestling is different to every wrestler. The coolest thing about this match is that Nigel McGuinness banned Adam Cole from having a match for the World title because he kept messing things up. So his way of getting the match was to get underneath my skin so much that I would go and beg McGuinness for this match. I think that’s a really cool story. And now it’s coming to a head in Las Vegas, and it should be really good. It’s one of the coolest stories I’ve been involved in.
Paste: Are you going to have any back-up? I guess Cole will probably have some of the Bullet Club guys around.
Lethal: I might. I might have some back-up. I’ve got friends in the wrestling business, all over the world.
Paste: And you keep pissing them off by editing their Wikipedias, so who knows if they’re going to show up for you?
Lethal: Right, right!
Paste: Another thing that’s interesting about Death Before Dishonor, or just Ring of Honor in general right now, is how closely you work with New Japan. Which I know has really helped New Japan’s profile in America. How is it working with their wrestlers compared to the regular Ring of Honor crew?
Lethal: It’s amazing. It’s the number two and number three wrestling companies in the world coming together. There are a lot of dream matches that we’ll be able to do that we weren’t able to do before or that weren’t possible before. For a joint measure like this, one of the coolest things about it is, in order to be the top wrestling company in the world, you kind of have to be selfish. You kind of have to want only your product shown to the masses. You’ve got to want only your merchandise to sell, only your wrestlers on your shows only to grow you brand. So to put all that aside and do a joint measure with another wrestling company, not only is it rare, but to me it’s a win-win. Not only do you get to do these dream matches, but the fans get something interesting other than just your product, which may be amazing, but how much cooler could it be if you did it with another wrestling company? It’s rarely done, and I think we’ve got something special going on. And New Japan has so many great wrestlers. This should go amazingly.
Paste: How do you communicate with them in the ring?
Lethal: Short-hand. A lot of visual cues. Some words are universal. Powerbomb is still a powerbomb over there. A lot of key words. Some of us learn a few Japanese words and they learn a few English words.
Paste: So like you mentioned, these are two of the biggest wrestling companies in the world. Obviously the biggest company in the world is just massive and gobbling up talent left and right. How do you feel about the state of the industry today, when it comes to being a wrestler?
Lethal: Right now it’s great. It’s great. One of the things that helps to be great is options. When there are different options to watch, that’s one of the main things that makes wrestling great. We’re really giving them a lot of options to choose from. There are a lot of cool things going on, like the Bullet Club, like I remember when the NWO was the big thing that helped boom professional wrestling at the time, now it’s the Bullet Club. I really do think the state is great. Now, the number one wrestling company in the world is putting on more shows and they need more talent so you’re getting to see some of your favorites move up onto the number one stage, and overall it’s great.
Paste: Are you able to keep track of other shows, or are you too busy working on your own stuff?
Lethal: I try my best to keep track. I do a good job. I think I like to keep up, not just because I’m a wrestler and I have to keep up with my field, but because I’ve got a lot of friends out there. Mostly we’re all a giant family of brothers and sisters and cousins and we all stay in touch with each other from time and time. When I was in TNA I made a lot of good friends. Sonjay [Dutt] became my best friend, just from working there. We talk every day. I have friends in every single company out there, so it’s always cool to get some time and see what my buddies are up to and what they’re doing on TV.
All photos courtesy of Ring of Honor. Main photo by Marvin Atwell. Mobile lead image by Lee South. In-ring photos by Devin Chen.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s wrestling, comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.