Jay Lethal Talks About Being a Teenage Pro WrestlerPhoto by Scott Finkelstein / courtesy of Ring of Honor Wrestling Features Ring of Honor
In the 15 year history of Ring of Honor, perhaps no wrestler has accomplished as much as Jay Lethal. Touting himself as the “Greatest First Generation Wrestler,” he has the distinction of being a two time ROH Television champion, as well as the longest reigning TV champion, with his second reign clocking in at 567 days. While he was enjoying the record-setting run, he captured the ROH World title as well, asserting himself as a dominant force, capable of carrying the company to new heights.
Despite not currently able to call himself the ROH World champion, Lethal is in the mix of those vying for the title as one of ROH’s top tier talents. He has recently resigned with the company, committing himself to be the franchise of a company that churns out wrestling talent that is coveted by the industry mega power WWE.
In spite of his success, Lethal is humble about his accomplishments and acknowledges the good fortune that has befallen him on his journey to fulfill his childhood dream, one that he began to pursue at the tender age of 15.
Paste chatted with Lethal about his career and his future in Ring of Honor. This Friday night, June 23, Lethal will be facing off against Silas Young at ROH’s latest pay per view, Best in the World.
Paste: What made you get into professional wrestling?
Jay Lethal: There is a question I haven’t been asked in a long time actually. You know, a lot of these interviews asked the same questions, but I haven’t been asked that question in a long time. I got into wrestling when MTV Tough Enough was big. No I didn’t go to Tough Enough.
Paste: I was going to ask you that very question next.
Lethal: No I didn’t go to Tough Enough. I was too afraid to. I went to a local indie show called Jersey All Pro Wrestling and at intermission they said “We love this show Tough Enough, so we are going to have a contest just like it.” Of course, they did not have the money they did, so no one was going to be living in this extravagant house. This wasn’t going to be a thing that went on for days. One day you would come in for four hours, they would show you how to do three things and whoever does it best, they’re gonna pick three winners to train for free. My dad took off of work, I remember, not a whole day, a half day to get me there on time. He sat in the back as they took 30 to 35 people trying out for this contest. They got you in the ring and they made you take a bump where you fall on the ground. They made you hit the ropes, run the ropes. They made you do two other things. I can’t really remember what they are. But he sat in the back and watched the whole time. Of course, every time I’d do something, I’d look in the back and he’s watching, you know. So I felt extra added pressure because my Dad was sitting there and he took a half day off work. So the pressure was really on me to deliver. Now sadly, I was not one of the three winners. So on my way to the back, I was asking him “Well, they still have a school, do you think I can sign up for it?” But before I made it to him, they made another announcement, they said “We’re gonna actually pick a fourth winner. We weren’t going to pick him because he was too young (because I was 15 about to turn 16), but we are going to take a chance.” The fourth winner was me, but there was only supposed to be three winners. And I have been in the wrestling business ever since. What a lucky break. You know, I feel like my whole wrestling career has been like that—just one lucky break after another. And now we are here, you know what I mean?
Paste: So you got that opportunity really young. Did you end up working side jobs to support your wrestling habit, as some say?
Lethal: No, because I had just gotten out of middle school going into high school and I wasn’t old enough to work any good jobs anyway. I remember I had a “good” job for a week. It was the worst job in the world. My brother actually got me the job. But it was hell. It was hell. Especially since I was still in high school and my schedule made it so that when the last bell rang I had to run with two of my buddies. If I didn’t run, there was no catching the train. I had to run to catch the train into NYC, then I had to catch the Long Island Railroad all the way to the last stop, Ronkonkoma, just to make it to practice. If I missed any one of those trains, I wouldn’t be able to make it to practice. Because at that point, five months after I won that contest, Jersey All Pro Wrestling School closed down. So then I had to find another training school. Luckily, I found Mikey Whipwreck’s school. He was in Long Island.
Paste: That would be the New York Wrestling Connection, right?
Lethal: Well, it wasn’t NYWC when I joined. After my class, then Mikey Whipwreck became the trainer at NYWC, but before then it was just us training in a little garage and if I didn’t keep up my grades then my parents said “you can’t do this anymore.” Because there was a lot of stress and running around. I was always so tired, I remember. I don’t know how I would have time to find a normal job. Luckily, my parents were very supportive. And if I ever needed cash, my dad was right there to help me out. I couldn’t have done this without him. That was my start. I never had a job.
Paste: Have you ever done anything on camera that your parents didn’t approve of, despite knowing all about how professional wrestling is presented and that you’re playing a role in the ring?
Lethal: That automatically reminds me about coming home with bumps and bruises and my mom not being too happy. But I think the only time they’ve never been happy with something they saw me do on TV was in TNA. The X Division was trying to be destroyed by the Dudley Boys along with Johnny Devine while I was trying to save it with Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin. We had to do this angle where we got beat up by the Dudleys and we ended up having to bleed. My parents saw that and they were like “no way, never again, what is going on here?” But they quickly got over that. I wouldn’t call it luck, but there would be certain times where I would bleed accidentally and they weren’t freaking out like they were that very first time. So they got used to it. But that was the very first time that they saw something that they didn’t like.
Paste: What was it like to do the work in TNA as Black Machismo and your program with Ric Flair? When did you discover that you were able to mimic those two legends so well?
Lethal: Ok, so the Macho Man impression I’ve always known. And I really feel like that Black Machismo character is what put Jay Lethal on the map. If it weren’t for that Machismo character, I’m sure I would have been looked over. Because I really had no character, I was just plain Jane wrestler. I was actually still in a shell too, kind of shy. That character really broke me out of that shell, man. Same with the Ric Flair stint that I did. It really made me loose and relaxed in front of a crowd. Because with that Ric Flair promo that I had with him, before then, I had never been given a microphone in front of a live crowd. That was my first time. All the Macho Man stuff I was doing—all that stuff was filmed in the locker room. And it was all “one take” stuff, because even if I said “banana” by mistake, they just let it go because it’s the character. I could almost say anything and get away with it. So I had never been in front of a live crowd with a live microphone until I got in the ring with Ric Flair.
How stressful was that? I mean, I was freaking out. But I love my time working in that company. I have no regrets. The only negative thing I have to say is that they released me at a time where I thought that I was doing really good. I feel that the Machismo character and the Flair character not only put me on the map, but prepared me for a lot of the stressful roles, or roles that could have been stressful for me. Here in Ring of Honor, for instance, being in the main event. Having to cut these promos, not selfishly [but] having to carry the company on my back—I had both singles titles at the same time. I really feel like those two characters prepared me for everything that I had to do later on in the wrestling business and I will be forever grateful for working there.
Paste: When was the first match that you attended as a fan? Growing up in Elizabeth, NJ, in the shadow of Madison Square Garden must have allowed you the opportunity to see many great events.
Lethal: I have never been to the Garden. See the problem was my dad was the only one who worked in my family. Especially after they had kid number four, the babysitting bill got too big. My parents had six kids. So you couldn’t just take one kid to a show, you had to take them all. So unfortunately never got to do that because it would have been too expensive. But later on, once we got into high school, while training, is where I found out about these indie wrestling shows. So that’s when me and my buddies would go to those shows. The largest indie wrestling show that I had seen was CZW’s Cage of Death. And that had to be about 200 to 300 people outside for an outside show. So that was big news, it was a big deal to me. But I have never been to the Garden, I have never been to a WWF show.
Paste: What venue would you say stuck out as the place that was special to you when you transitioned from being a fan to a wrestler?
Lethal: Oh, now I see why you asked that. I don’t think one stands above the other. Oh, maybe the Tokyo Dome. Because as I got more and more into the wrestling business, I would become more and more of a fan of all different kinds of wrestling and I remember becoming a big fan of Misawa vs. Kawada. That opened the door to so many other Japanese wrestlers that I would begin to like. I had so many Best of Japan tapes and a lot of them were in the Tokyo Dome. So maybe that was for me like “Wow, I can’t believe I’m wrestling in the Tokyo Dome.” So that’s probably the Arena that did it for me. Biggest crowd I have ever wrestled in front of, too.
Paste: In an arena that large with so many people can you even hear when you are walking down there?
Lethal: You can, but it seems—I’ve always heard The Rock say “the electricity was in the air.” I never grasped what that meant. I thought I knew. But when I was in the Tokyo Dome, when the crowd starts to react to something, it literally sounds like that buzzing electricity sound and grows and grows and grows and then you hear the full volume of the crowd. But because the echoes are coming from every direction of the crowd it really sounds like a buzzing electricity sound.
Paste: You resigned with Ring of Honor after carrying both singles titles, after you had accomplished as much as one could in the company. Many wrestlers essentially use Ring of Honor as a stepping stone to other places and because of that fact many Ring of Honor fans were very excited when you resigned and stayed instead of moving on. What are your intentions going forward? What does it mean to you to see guys leave while you’re still working here?
Lethal: So the goal here is to make Ring of Honor bigger and better than it was yesterday. And the fact that some of the guys leave…now think about the history of Ring of Honor, look at all of our past champions, look what they have gone on to do. They have all gone on to win other world championships in other companies. That to me shows that the proof is in the pudding. Ring of Honor has and always has had the greatest wrestling roster in the world. Other companies constantly pluck from our roster to make their roster better. And I’m real excited to be a part of the company that other companies pluck from to make their company better. And also, like I said before, everybody here in this locker room, everybody has one goal—and that is to make Ring of Honor the biggest we possibly can make it.
Rich Laconi is a writer whose specialty lies in professional wrestling. Aside from his work being found regularly at PWPonderings.com, LastWordOnProwresting.com and ROHWorld.com, you can follow him on Twitter and listen to him on RunningWildpodcast.com.