The world of wrestling extends far beyond the WWE Universe.
Ring of Honor’s world champion, Jay Lethal, has yet to step foot on a WWE canvas. Lethal has, however, interacted with some of the biggest superstars to ever grace the business of professional wrestling, including Hulk Hogan and the “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
“Not too many people know this,” shared Lethal, “but we were supposed to do a story in TNA with Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan.”
The current Ring of Honor world and television champion, Lethal is defending his world title this Friday night at the old ECW Arena in Philadelphia, and then fighting in the main event this Saturday night in Brooklyn–opposite NXT at the Barclays Center–in a tag match with New Japan superstar Shinsuke Nakamura.
Since the WWE will be in Brooklyn at the same time as Ring of Honor, Lethal is advocating for a champion vs. champion match with WWE world heavyweight champion Seth Rollins.
“I would love to do that,” said Lethal. “How cool would it be if there was a champion versus champion match? There is no way I would turn that down. Whether or not both companies could get this on the same platform is a shot in the dark, but we’d have a tremendous match. I’ve never got to wrestle Rollins before, either, even though he’s a former Ring of Honor world champion, so he’s never experienced the ‘Lethal Injection.’”
Although NXT and Ring of Honor will be going head-to-head in Brooklyn, Lethal was quick to note that the ROH show was announced well in advance of NXT.
“It’s an honor to be going against NXT,” said Lethal. “We’ve got to be doing something right since the WWE doesn’t claim to pay attention to what anyone else is doing.”
As for why wrestling fans should chose to watch the Ring of Honor show on Saturday over an NXT card highlighted by a ladder match between Finn Bálor and former ROH champion Kevin Owens, Lethal was quick to answer.
“The proof is the fact that a couple NXT wrestlers are former Ring of Honor guys,” said Lethal. “Wouldn’t you just want to go straight to the source and watch the company that they’re pulling from? A lot of wrestling companies are trying to imitate what Ring of Honor does, so wouldn’t you rather see the best wrestling in the world for yourself instead of an imitation?”
Lethal’s popularity grew in TNA when he debuted his “Black Machismo” character, which was a play on Randy Savage’s gimmick.
“I had been doing my ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage imitation behind the scenes, in the locker room, whenever the camera wasn’t rolling, and everyone loved to hear me do it,” Lethal explained. “It was something that came easy to me because I’d watch and heard him for so many years.”
Hulk Hogan, who was also with TNA at the time, loved the impression.
“Hogan does a very good Savage impression, too,” added Lethal. “But he loved mine.”
Hogan spearheaded the idea for an angle with himself, Lethal, and Savage.
“The whole idea came from Hogan,” said Lethal. “Hogan was in charge and he had his own office. I would keep popping in on him doing my over-the-top Savage impression until finally it became creepy to him. He’d sit down at his desk, and I’d pop up from behind his chair saying, ‘How’s it going, Hulkster?’ Hogan would become super paranoid of me and didn’t even like me being around, then I would film these skits where you’d see me talking with someone.
“I’d be explaining, ‘We’ve got Hogan – he’s all paranoid, he’s scared, we’ve got him right where we want him.’ Eventually, you’d find out I was talking to Savage. Then we would have worked a program with Hogan.”
Savage agreed to the storyline, but he needed some time before coming on-screen. Before long, the idea was scrapped and never materialized.
“My brain may have exploded had I ever actually worked with Hogan and Savage,” said Lethal.
Lethal, who is African-American, was disappointed to hear Hulk Hogan’s recent racist comments.
“I was hurt,” admitted Lethal. “It didn’t resemble the Hulk Hogan that I got to meet. It broke my heart–but it didn’t sound like the man I met. We all say things that, if someone else heard it, could get us in trouble, but that doesn’t justify what he said. It did hurt to read those quotes.”
The 30-year-old Lethal–whose birth name is Jamar Shipman–grew up, appropriately, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Elizabeth, of course, was the name of Randy Savage’s first wife, and who was a critical piece in a memorable storyline between Savage and the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.
“The pieces always fit between myself and wrestling,” said Lethal. “Macho Man and Ric Flair were idols of mine–they did something to my brain. They stood out.”
Lethal also dated one of the most mesmerizing women of the 21st century of pro wrestling in former WWE Diva AJ Lee, who is now married to CM Punk.
“That’s very true,” said Lethal. “I dated her for a little over two years.”
In addition to wrestling, Lethal trains aspiring wrestlers, which is how he met Lee.
“She had a really nice run in WWE, and what an honor it is to say I got to train her and start her out in the wrestling business,” said Lethal. “I can’t take full credit, because most of her training was done at [WWE’s] developmental place, but I did start her training. It’s cool to know I helped someone get that far.”
Lethal’s start in the business began when he was sixteen years old and only a junior in high school. The son of a carpenter and stay-at-home mother won a wrestling contest, and he has not stopped wrestling ever since.
“At the time [in 2001], the first season of WWE’s Tough Enough was super popular,” said Lethal, who grew up watching the World Wrestling Federation with his grandfather, father, and three brothers. “I had just learned about independent pro wrestling, and I learned at the intermission of a Jersey All Pro show that they were having a contest where the winner would be trained to be a professional wrestler for free.”
Lethal’s ears lit up. His life was consumed by pro wrestling, and this contest was the opportunity to live out his dream.
“My dad took off work to take me to the contest,” said Lethal. “It was a one-day thing, about 45 people showed up, and they showed us three things. They were picking three winners, so whoever could do those three things the best, they would pick as the winners.”
Lethal was too young for the contest, so he was not chosen as winner. But, before everyone filed out of the door, an announcement was made that – fourteen years later – still impacts his life.
“They announced, ‘We’re going to make an exception,’” explained Lethal. “They picked a fourth winner, which was me. Oddly enough, I’m the only one wrestling to this day.”
Lethal, who is one of six children, finished high school and even studied for a year-and-a-half as a communications major at Union County College. In addition to school, he honored his commitment to Jersey All Pro until the school closed, and then trained with former ECW star Mikey Whipwreck.
“I’d already had my first match, but I thought there were some things I just didn’t know,” said Lethal. “Whipwreck was amazing. Some of the old ECW guys would even come in. Unfortunately, all they’d do was beat us up.
“Tazz beat this one kid up and it just terrified me. After that, every time the door opened, I remember thinking, ‘Oh please, don’t let it be Tazz.’”
Lethal–who came up with his wrestling name on the Long Island Railroad with two friends on the way to train with Whipwreck – left college in 2003 when he was offered a chance to wrestle in Ring in Honor.
“I did not belong there,” said a very self-aware Lethal. “There were guys like Samoa Joe and CM Punk, who I got to wrestle a few times. I’d only been wrestling for three years, at that, and it blew my mind that I was even there. I thought everyone there was incredible, and I didn’t feel like I belonged.
“I got to wrestle CM Punk twice, and just sitting in front of him, listening to him talk, I wondered, ‘How can I get a wrestling brain like his?’ It seemed so easy for him. Punk could make anybody look amazing. But I slowly realized that I was the only one thinking that I wasn’t good enough.”
Ring of Honor’s reputation as the greatest wrestling business in the world was helped largely by the work of two former ROH world champions–Daniel Bryan and Punk.
“Punk and Bryan opened the door for my generation,” said Lethal. “There are rarely guys like the Big Show who exist. We’re all smaller guys now. Even Bret Hart, who didn’t appear to be a big guy on TV because everyone else was so big, is still a pretty big guy. Bryan and Punk, and Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero before them, allowed guys my size to be taken seriously.”
Lethal then debuted with TNA in December of 2005, and his career began to take off a year later with the birth of the “Black Machismo” character.
“Kevin Nash heard me do it a few times,” explained Lethal. “Nash said, ‘You’ve got to do that on television.’ I instantly thought I’d be making fun of Savage, but Nash convinced me otherwise when he said, ‘This is a chance to show him how big a fan of his you are.’”
At times, Lethal sounded more like the “Macho Man” character than Randy Savage himself. So as word spread about the character, he was encouraged by Lanny Poffo – Savage’s younger brother – to call the “Macho Man.”
“The first time I spoke with him, I didn’t believe it was actually him,” said Lethal. “Surely someone had to be pulling my leg. And then Lanny Poffo told me it was actually him, so I was kicking myself–I’d wasted a phone call.
“But we spoke a few more times. He didn’t watch much TV, so he only saw my character through YouTube. He loved it, which brought a smile to my face. I didn’t want the character to make fun of him in any way because I idolized Randy growing up. I remember Kevin Nash saying to me, ‘This is your chance to not only help keep Savage’s name out there, but it’s your chance to show what an honor it is to be a fan of his. Show the little things you’ve picked up on that no one else has.’”
Many of the conversations, Lethal admitted, were simply a fan calling his boyhood hero.
“Sometimes he’d rush me off the phone, and he’d say, ‘Me and my girl are going to get somethin’ to eat,” said Lethal. “And no matter what I would say in the conversation, he’d always say, ‘Is that right?’
“The only wrestling stuff we talked about was only what I was doing at the time. The main thing, for me, was that he loved what he was seeing. There was no better advice than the words, ‘I’m lovin’ what I’m seeing.’ Hearing that he loved this tribute to him was amazing.”
Lethal’s confidence grew tremendously in TNA, as he had the opportunity to work with Nash, Hogan, and Flair.
“The moment I felt accepted into the wrestling business was getting to know Kevin Nash,” said Lethal. “He was just so amazingly cool and funny. ‘Wait, you’re not going to come and have dinner with us?’ Nash asked me. ‘Why not?’ I remember thinking, in the back of my head, ‘Kevin Nash is upset I’m not having dinner with him. I better go have dinner with him.’
“If you told me in middle school, when teachers were still taking away my wrestling magazines, that I was going to be in the locker room with Kevin Nash, having a drink at the bar with Ric Flair, or wrestling Kurt Angle, I would not have believed you.”
For what it is worth, Lethal admitted he cannot out-drink Flair.
“I didn’t even try,” he said with a laugh. “There is no way you can win that battle.”
Lethal and Flair engaged in a compelling feud during 2010. Unsurprisingly, the talented Lethal’s impression of Flair is also remarkable.
“Flair would actually say, ‘The kid does me better than I do myself,’” said Lethal. “Sometimes he’d bring people to the show with him just to hear me do the impression. He’d call me out of the locker room just to hear me do the impression. He’d call me up on the phone just to hear me do the impression. He really did love it.”
Despite Lethal’s talent, TNA made the decision to severe ties in 2011.
“TNA didn’t renew my contract,” said Lethal. “They said they were going to, but they didn’t, and then they let me go. But where one door closes, another opens. I called Ring of Honor and they were in the process of letting it be known they were about to be bought by Sinclair Broadcasting, so it was perfect timing.
“It didn’t feel like a favor at the time, but TNA did me a favor. When you’re released, it is a dream to go on and become bigger and more successful to prove to your old job that they made a mistake. And what an honor that I’m getting to do that.”
Instead of focusing on imitations, Lethal’s wrestling persona has evolved into the cocky, natural heel he now portrays.
“Part of the reason I felt so out of place when I was in Ring of Honor the first time was because, deep down inside, I was nervous to be in the ring,” said Lethal. “I didn’t know who I was. Then I went to TNA, and I still didn’t know who I was until the ‘Machismo’ character.
“I’d never cut a promo. They didn’t give me a chance. But then the ‘Black Machismo’ character put a crack in that shell surrounding me, just waiting for me to break out. Then I got to do the Ric Flair thing, which brought me all the way out of that shell. Now I’m totally comfortable being in the ring and with a camera in my face or a microphone in my hand. Everything I’ve done has helped me get to this point where I feel so comfortable and completely happy with what I’m doing.”
Lethal’s career gained even more steam when he turned heel and captured Ring of Honor’s Television title in April of 2014. He removed the word “Television” from the title because he believed he was better than any other wrestler. Lethal’s reign, which is still ongoing, was largely influenced by the men he grew up watching.
“As the Ring of Honor Television champion, I couldn’t stop thinking of Mr. Perfect,” said Lethal. “Now he was the Intercontinental champion, but he was just perfect for that belt. Also, in ECW, there was Rob Van Dam, who set a course to let everyone know that the ECW Television championship was the greatest belt in the world.
“I try to incorporate all of those things I found cool in wrestling. I really wanted to add to that storyline, and it was my idea to take the word ‘Television’ off the belt. I really believed it was the greatest title in the world, so it surpassed that little title we gave it. It was much more than just the Television title to me.”
Lethal’s work in the ring became so good that Ring of Honor booker Hunter Johnston decided he was ready for a run as world champion.
“When I found out I’d be champion, I instantly remembered Samoa Joe winning the Ring of Honor world championship,” said Lethal. “I remembered Austin Aries dethroning Samoa Joe after a very long title reign. I remembered CM Punk winning and [Daniel] Bryan winning, and their moments were both incredible. And I thought back to all of their speeches after they’d won. I remembered thinking how I didn’t belong, and now I was thinking about my championship speech, and it was so cool to get to live that moment.”
Lethal actually defends both titles–the world and Television title–separately, which is a unique twist. He considers the night he defeated Jay Briscoe for the world title as the greatest night of his life.
“I’ve never been married and I don’t have any kids,” said Lethal. “Up until this point, the greatest night of my life was when I wrestled–and beat–Ric Flair with the figure four leg lock. I thought, unless I had kids, there would be nothing to top that, but now the greatest night of my life is actually beating Jay Briscoe for the Ring of Honor world championship.
“The piece that makes it the greatest night of my life goes back to the fact that my first day in professional wrestling was a day when my father took off of work and brought me to that wrestling contest. And then, for five years, my father went to every single one of my wrestling shows. After the match against Briscoe, I gave my speech how much of an honor it was to have that moment, and I looked over at my dad–he was actually crying. He was so proud for me–he’s seen everything I’ve gone through. There was no greater moment for me than looking over and seeing my dad in tears.”
Lethal celebrated the win with a deluxe cheeseburger and curly fries, then went back to the drawing board.
“I’ve been wrestling since ’02, but I haven’t stopped learning,” said Lethal. “You should never stop learning, especially in wrestling. You always learn some new way to generate a reaction from the crowd, and not all the learning is physical. A lot of it is mental–thinking about things differently than you thought about them before.
“If you watch my matches, you can tell there is influence from past wrestlers, most notably Ric Flair and Randy Savage. They are the greatest wrestlers I’ve ever seen, and you can see their influence in my matches.”
Lethal remains very much in love with the business of pro wrestling, and he still watches other wrestling companies, including the WWE. He believes former Ring of Honor talent Claudio Castagnoli–better known as Cesaro in WWE–is the most underrated wrestler in the world.
“Cesaro is, without a doubt, one of the greatest wrestling performers in the ring,” said Lethal. “I’ve wrestled with him, and he’s one of those guys who–not to give too much of the business away–but, let’s just say you can’t do a backflip. And you wrestle Cesaro. Somehow, in the match, he will get you to perfectly do a backflip. That’s just a small example of how great he is. For the role he is in, he’s completely underrated.”
Lethal grew up living and breathing the WWE product.
“Growing up in my generation, you were either a fan of Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels,” said Lethal. “Very rarely were you a fan of both. I was actually on the Bret Hart side.”
One day, Lethal admitted, he would be open to wrestling for WWE.
“I am the world champion of what I consider to be the greatest wrestling–wrestling–company in the world,” said Lethal. “I’m the champion of a company known around the world for its wrestling, and I am the number one guy. It’s an honor and a great place to be.
“But anyone in the wrestling business from my generation, their love for wrestling was created by WWE. So it would be cool to say you worked for the company that helped create your love for the business. If the timing was right and the setting was right, then yes, I would love to work there.”
Lethal takes a lot of pride in being an African American wrestler who is actually not in a stereotypical role.
“I can actually go out there and focus on professional wrestling,” said Lethal. “It’s an honor to be able to do that, and show that I can actually wrestle.
“But the best is yet to come. If you thought one of the highlight moments for Ring of Honor was when it crowned–for the first time ever–an undisputed champion, well, I’m just getting started.”