Lio Rush is probably sick of hearing about his age. That’s what happens when you’re phenomenally good at something when you’re only 21 years old. Rush debuted in Ring of Honor at the tail end of 2015, and very quickly established himself by winning the Top Prospect Tournament in February 2016. He immediately struck a chord with wrestling fans due to his death-defying acrobatics and his unique sense of style, and has brought a crucial injection of youth and energy to Ring of Honor shows all year long. He even went head-to-head with the champ, Jay Lethal, in a great match at Supercard of Honor over Wrestlemania weekend. And again, he’s done it at all at 21 years of age, and still has a lot of room to grow as a wrestler and performer.
Rush’s next major match is a fatal four way at Ring of Honor’s Death Before Dishonor pay-per-view on Friday, August 19, where he’ll be facing off against two rising stars from the New Japan Dojo, Kamaitachi and Jay White, and the 2015 Top Prospect Tournament winner, Donovan Dijak. Rush told us to expect something “insane” from that match in a far-ranging conversation about his career, how he became a fan of professional wrestling, and how it’s changed since he was a young boy watching WWE at his home in Maryland.
Paste: You’re 21 years old. What was your first memory of watching wrestling as a kid?
Lio Rush: I remember sitting down and just flipping through channels, I believe I was about five years old, and I stumbled across a match, I think Rikishi against Booker T on Smackdown. I remember Rikishi giving Booker T a stinkface, and he was throwing up everywhere, and I was just like, “what in the world?” It was so crazy to see how the crowd was reacting towards it. Everybody was going crazy, everybody was having fun. Something about it made me continue to watch it and stick to it. It just looked like a lot of fun to me.
Paste: So you became a regular fan at 5?
Paste: Who were your favorite guys when you were young?
Rush: My favorites growing up watching were guys like Jeff Hardy, Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero. All of those guys just had something about them that made the crowd react to them greater than anyone else on that roster. As soon as they came out they just grabbed everybody’s attention right away. Those were guys that I was pretty attracted towards, watching wrestling.
Paste: Have you gotten to wrestle Jeff Hardy?
Rush: I haven’t. I have come across a couple of Twitter mentions with me just simply telling him that he was a huge inspiration to me growing up, and I was able to be on two shows with him, so that meant a lot to me. One of my matches actually he came up to me and told me I did really good, so that moment alone just meant the world to me.
Paste: What did you think of The Final Deletion?
Rush: I thought that was the most entertaining thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I remember, I saw the very first video that they were building towards it and I didn’t know what in the world was going on. When I saw the Final Deletion one, because of how much I liked the Hardy Boys growing up, I had to stop watching it as a fan and watch it as a wrestler. I just thought to myself that this is so genius. They just knew that everybody was going to be talking about it, regardless of what they did, because it was just so out of this world and larger than life. I thought it was brilliant.
Paste: I feel like that’s the best way for TNA to salvage itself, to just let Matt Hardy take the whole promotion over. Make everything like that.
Rush: Ha, yeah.
Paste: So you didn’t even really have a chance to watch WCW. You grew up in a world where, as a kid, you only knew WWE. When did you start finding out about other types of wrestling?
Rush: I stumbled upon like Botchamania and CZW videos on Youtube. I didn’t know what it was, I just knew it was some kind of wrestling. Of course when I was younger i didn’t think about it or know it was called independent wrestling, or indie shows, or whatever—I just called it backyard wrestling. I grew up in the Ruthless Aggression Era, so right around when John Cena debuted is when I started watching. But later I was always on YouTube and just looking up crazy moves and seeing what I could practice on my little sister downstairs, throwing her into pillows and stuff. That’s when I started realizing there were other promotions out there, other than WWE, on Youtube.
Paste: When you were a kid how did you realize you had the athleticism required to pursue wrestling? Were you playing other sports and realized you had the skills that could translate, or did you actively try to cultivate those skills?
Rush: I never knew I had the physical skill for wrestling. I always knew I had the mindset for it, though, and that I was determined to do whatever it took to get those skills. I grew up playing sports. I was a baseball player, football, basketball. It wasn’t until high school when I actually became an amateur wrestler, and the reason I became an amateur wrestler is because I’ve seen guys like Kurt Angle and Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin and Brock Lesnar and guys that had that amateur wrestling background. So I thought, why not follow in those guys’ footsteps, and become an amateur wrestler, too. And hopefully that would progress my training when I became a professional wrestler.
Paste: Did you do gymnastics too?
Rush: Oh no. Strictly wrestling, all throughout high school.
Paste: You’re such an acrobatic, high flying guy, I think a lot of people would assume you had some gymnastic training.
Rush: I actually learned how to flip on my own. I was practicing a whole bunch of flips before amateur wrestling practice, and actually incorporated flips and different kinds of twists and pins in my amateur wrestling style. It’s funny, when I was in high school I always wrestled to get peoples’ attention. I know that’s weird, because a lot of people wrestle to win, but I always wrestled to stand out and stick out and have people remember who I was at the end of the day.
Paste: How big an asset is an amateur background for an aspiring professional wrestler today?
Rush: It’s very important. The way that professional wrestling is now, being so competitive with mixed martial arts, and the fans questioning the realism of it, I think it’s very key to have some kind of MMA or amateur wrestling background, to have something under your belt.
Paste: Have you ever thought about doing any MMA?
Rush: I have. My senior year, I really wanted to pursue a career in mixed martial arts. I had a lot of friends that graduated from my class and they didn’t want to wrestle in college, and neither did I. I didn’t really know how to get into professional wrestling so there was a point where I was like, not saying I’d forget professional wrestling, but not knowing how to get into it, I’d just do something else other than amateur wrestling that’d still keep my skill level up, so I definitely though about doing MMA.
Paste: Since then you’ve wrestled for CZW, and still do. And then you debuted in Ring of Honor at the start of the year, in the Top Prospect Tournament. There were a lot of good wrestlers there, but from your very first match you were the standout. How did it feel to be brought in and win that tournament right off the back?
Rush: It meant everything to me. Prior to that tournament I attended two of Ring of Honor’s try out camps. I remember the first camp I blew them away with how fast I was progressing in professional wrestling, being only six months in. The reason for them not wanting to use me back then was just because I was so young and I didn’t have much experience in pro wrestling. It hit me hard. They told me that was the only reason they didn’t want to use me, so I took those words and let that be my motivation. Six months later I came back, and within that time I had debuted for CZW and Beyond and Evolve. I traveled to Canada a couple of times. I definitely used [ROH]’s words for encouragement. For them to say that they didn’t want to use me, and then six months later wanting me in, absolutely meant the world to me.
Paste: What can we expect from Lio Rush at Death Before Dishonor?
Rush: There’s a fatal four way going on, with myself, [Donovan] Dijak, Kamaitachi and Jay White. That should be pretty insane.
Paste: Have you gotten to work against any of the New Japan guys when they come over?
Rush: I haven’t. The only guy that I’ve got to work from New Japan so far is Jay White, and that was in Baltimore. That match was everything that I thought it was going to be. I’ve heard about Jay White, that he trained in the [New Japan] Dojo for two years, and that we were similar in a lot of ways, in our work ethic and our age and how we handled ourselves inside and outside the ring. That was a good match-up for me.
Paste: So I know you just got into Ring of Honor, and obviously that’s your focus. But over the last few years we’ve seen WWE go from prioritizing guys who are over six feet tall and look like bodybuilders, to now being open to legitimately pushing guys who are 5’ 8” or even 5’ 7”, and running a heavily promoted tournament with some guys that are 5’ 6”. How does it feel to see the biggest company in wrestling become more open to different body types?
Rush: I was just talking about this with Drew Gulak, who’s in [WWE’s] Cruiserweight Classic. This tournament is just motivating guys so much, and it’s giving guys on the indie a lot more hope. It’s making them take wrestling a lot more seriously, because now they know WWE is watching, for sure. It’s amazing what wrestling has become. People want to see action now. They don’t want to just see giants. They want to see people go in there, put on a show and show off their athleticism. Give it their all every time they step in the ring.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s wrestling, comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.