Jay Lethal defends his Ring of Honor world title against New Japan star Will Ospreay on Friday night at the Death Before Dishonor pay per view.
Lethal and Ospreay are not in the middle of an extended feud, but they are two of the best pro wrestlers in the world. The match is set to be an old-school, ROH classic that is focused far more on the action in the ring than the storyline behind the match.
Speaking with Sports Illustrated, Lethal discussed his title reign, race in wrestling, and whether fans should suspend disbelief in his title match against a New Japan talent.
Justin Barrasso: The Ring of Honor title has been worn by worldwide stars like Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Samoa Joe, and Kevin Owens.
You have taken that lineage and placed an even brighter spotlight on the ROH world title, wrestling matches and cutting promos that represent the company in an extremely dignified and professional manner. How much pride do you take in wearing the ROH title?
Jay Lethal: I take a lot of pride in being the Ring of Honor world champion, and I have a lot of pride in being a part of Ring of Honor, but I don’t know that I’d say I’m doing a better job than those guys did. They’re pioneers.
I still look up to guys like Samoa Joe and Bryan Danielson. I still don’t feel that I have topped anything they have done. One thing I do have at my disposal is that Ring of Honor is much bigger than when they were here, and that’s due to their contributions and the notoriety they brought to the company.
The company is much healthier and bigger and better than it was when they were here, but I would never say I am better than they are. I do have a tremendous amount of pride for the company that had so much trust in me to make me the face of the company in and out of the ring—not just once, but twice. I still feel that I’m the face of the company whether or not I don the world title across my shoulder or around my waist.
JB: You have presented yourself entirely differently in this title reign as a babyface than you did in your last one as a heel. Do you have a completely different mindset during this run with the belt?
JL: The same fears from my first title run are still there in my mind now. Even though we’ve lost some pieces of our puzzle, like Ring of Honor always does because it’s a great roster, and losing Roderick Strong was like losing a pivotal piece of the Ring of Honor puzzle, we have moved on and still strive to have the greatest roster. As the champion, I have the stress of following all of them, and that stress makes me a better wrestler.
It is a different character, and only my name is the same in this run. I had a different persona and a group following me around, and I’m doing everything I can to make this run as good and as interesting as the run before. It’s shaping up to be a good trip, especially when you put me in the ring with a guy like Jonathan Gresham, who is one of the best technically-sound wrestlers I’ve ever seen, and getting the chance to wrestle the best high-flyer—Will Ospreay—in all of wrestling today on pay per view.
JB: WWE does not have a great history with world champions of different races, but that is far less of an issue in Ring of Honor.
JL: That means the world to me. I try to keep the topic upbeat, so I rarely bring that up, but it doesn’t mean that it is not an issue to me.
I am extremely happy that I can just go out there and be a good professional wrestler. I don’t have to play to borderline racist storylines. I’m so fortunate not to have to participate in anything like that, Ring of Honor just wants people to be the best wrestlers they can. If you’re a great wrestler, that’s all you need to be. You don’t need a catchy jingle, they just need to know you can hang with some of the best. I could be the color blue and still be presented with this opportunity because of what I bring to the table, and I’m grateful for that.
Wrestling is changing. Other companies, including specific ones, are changing, too. But I work for a company that is colorblind.
JB: Styles make a wrestling match. Will Ospreay’s style is so dynamic, and if people enjoyed your match against Flip Gordon at All In, then they are in store for an even more compelling affair this Friday at Death Before Dishonor.
But, in 2018, people always assume they know the finish ahead of time. Ospreay is signed with New Japan, not Ring of Honor. Now he could still win the title on Friday, but for you as champion, is it challenging to suspend disbelief in a match against someone who is not signed with ROH?
JL: There are a lot of preconceived notions. Who thinks that a belt will ever change hands on a TV taping? That’s a popular belief, even though that’s how I won the belt. I won the belt on a TV taping.
Part of my mindset in every match that I have, even small matches, like I had against Cheeseburger for the Television title, was to get people to believe for just a second. Our goal is to get you to believe, for even just one second, that he can defeat me.
Stepping into the ring with one of the best high-flyers in wrestling today shouldn’t make it too hard. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think Will Ospreay could be the world champion anywhere, any company would be proud to have him as world champ. But deep down inside, I’d love to keep this belt all the way until the Madison Square Garden show [in April] and be the first Ring of Honor champion to perform there, that would be something special.
JB: Any plans down the line to ever join Bullet Club?
JL: If I have my way, no.
But who knows what different opportunities will present themselves, but if I have my way, I would say no. I love the fact that there is always that person to rival and go against them. I love that stand, and I want to be the one standing against them.
Every time you’re going against those guys, whether it’s the Bucks or Cody or any of them, it’s always something special. If I have my way, I want to go against them.
JB: There were a good chunk of fans who expressed interest in watching Jay Lethal instead of your Black Machismo character at All In earlier this month. For years, you were known as the man who did incredible impressions of Ric Flair and Randy Savage. What does it mean to you that people are now pining to see Jay Lethal?
JL: It means a lot.
There was a funny thing about the All In show and me doing the Machismo character. When you have a show that is loaded with the best talent from around the world, you know every match is potentially going to be the greatest match ever. Every wrestler is going to go out in front of a sold-out Sears Centre and be the greatest match you’ve ever seen.
I decided to bring something to the table that only I can bring and no one else can. I could go out there and have a great match, but hell, so could Kenny Omega, who is possibly the greatest wrestler in the world. So I tried hard to think of something only I could bring, and it was definitely the machismo.
Flip was amazing. And when the ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ music hit, I knew I made the right choice.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.