Q&A: Roderick Strong Emerging as One of NXT’s Breakout Stars

“The Messiah of the Backbreaker” addresses his two big matches this week, his path to joining the Undisputed Era and more.
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WWE's Roderick Strong in the ring before a match on NXT

Roderick Strong defends his North American championship Wednesday night on NXT, wrestling Keith Lee in a match that is appointment viewing for wrestling fans.

The match represents a tremendous opportunity for both emerging stars to show their excellence on live television. Strong is approaching a critical week. He will have multiple eyes on him from the WWE office and its fan base during his match against Lee on Wednesday, as well as his eight-man tag with The Undisputed Era against Imperium at the “Worlds Collide” special Saturday night on the WWE Network. Following that, there is always the possibility that Strong could be a surprise entrant in Sunday’s Royal Rumble match.

The 35-year-old Strong, whose real name is Christopher Lindsey, is held in extremely high esteem by his peers. Having broken into the business in 2000, Strong is now in his 21st year as a professional, and he honed his craft in Ring of Honor, Full Impact Pro, and PWG in the United States, as well as Dragon Gate and Pro Wrestling NOAH in Japan, before arriving in NXT in 2016. His ability to execute in the ring is what makes Strong such an elite talent, and he is presented in an authentic and legitimate manner as part of The Undisputed Era.

Strong was a longtime babyface during his memorable run in Ring of Honor, but he has shined in NXT as a villain. He spoke with Sports Illustrated about his run thus far in NXT, his Survivor Series triple threat match against AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, the progress of his wife Marina Shafir in NXT, as well as the importance of his match against Lee.

Justin Barrasso: You are approaching a pretty significant week in your career, beginning with this Wednesday’s title match against Keith Lee. This is your twentieth year in pro wrestling, and you have seemingly wrestled everywhere. Do you prepare differently for televised matches in NXT than you did in Ring of Honor or PWG?

Roderick Strong: Honestly, not at all. For the longest time, I had to figure out what worked for me, and that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve found a formula that keeps me prepared, no matter the situation or whatever arises. That’s one of the things I pride myself on—I figured out what works for me and prepared for any opportunity that comes my way, no matter how big or small the match may be.

JB: Speaking of big matches, what excites you most about working with a super heavyweight like Keith Lee this Wednesday on NXT?

RS: Keith is definitely a super heavyweight, he is just such a special athlete and he knows that about himself. This is one of those matchups that mean the world to me. He is a unique athlete, and I feel like I am a unique athlete. There is no one else with my style—that is as aggressive or persistent and won’t stay down. There are a ton of good wrestlers out there, but no one just like me, and Keith understands that.

My question is, how will Keith last the longer the match goes? Does he have the gas tank? We don’t really know. He hasn’t been in a lot of matches that have taken him to the limit. I’m eager to get out there and show the world what I can do against someone as special as Keith Lee.

JB: Not that you and Lee are mirror images of each other, but you are both examples of people who bet on themselves when it appeared no one believed either of you would land in WWE. Now, you are two of NXT’s hottest stars.

RS: Definitely. I don’t know Keith’s whole story, but I know he broke out in the past couple years and started making a name for himself. That’s why he came to NXT, which is where you solidify your name in the WWE. NXT is the best wrestling there is. For me, and for my money, that locker room is unbelievable. From the top of the card to the bottom of the card, you’re getting people giving everything they have—for the sole purpose of making NXT the best it possibly can be. Wednesday night is going to be very, very special—win, lose, or draw. I’m excited to show the world what I can do against someone like Keith Lee.

JB: You helped solidify your status as one of the best wrestlers in the world this past November at the Survivor Series in a triple threat match that also included AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura. To date, that is the biggest spotlight you have had in WWE, and you came away victorious—as well as delivered a presence that showed that you belonged in the same ring as two of the most championed wrestlers in the world. What was your takeaway from the match at Survivor Series?

RS: That was a great opportunity to give the WWE universe just a taste, but not everything. Those are two guys that I have the utmost respect for, and obviously I’ve wrestled AJ quite a few times before and Nakamura quite a few times prior to coming to WWE. It was very, very special for me.

After the match, I was celebrating on the ground, and I got emotional. I take a lot of pride in what I do, and that was a big moment. I was very, very happy that I had the chance to do that with guys that I have so much respect for, and ones I feel that have the same respect for me. I’m just excited to continue, until the day I stop doing this, to show the world how good I am at this job.

JB: You’ve come a long since your WWE debut on SmackDown, which took place 15 years ago this month in a segment and match against Kurt Angle. What do you remember most from the night of January 13, 2005 during the “Kurt Angle Invitational”?

RS: It’s weird—I had this nervous energy working with someone I was such a big fan of in Kurt. I honestly went to that SmackDown to see some friends, I didn’t expect to do anything. When the opportunity came about, it was a big deal for me, especially to have a chance to work against Kurt for something that was longer than 20 seconds.

It’s something that I’ll remember forever. It also bums me out knowing that Kurt is retired. I would have loved the opportunity to have more of a competitive matchup with him. As time went on, that match would have been exceptional. It’s one of the most memorable moments of my entire career.

JB: Another memorable moment was your move to The Undisputed Era. It seems to play to your in-ring strengths, and the group together as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but why was moving into group the right move for you personally and professionally?

RS: It gave me an opportunity to be true to myself. Anyone watching me prior to coming to NXT the last couple years, I had been more of that heel role. For me, that’s something that I’m far more comfortable with, and based off my style and character, it’s where my true value is. That just works better for me. And the minute I knew those guys were coming in to NXT, that was immediately where my mind went. Based on our history, a lot of fans’ minds immediately went there, too. In the last four months of me being with Ring of Honor, we were all in a tag match together. Me and Adam have been really good friends since the first couple months of him coming to Ring of Honor. He was a guy I tried to help when he was new, and it’s the same with Kyle and Bobby, who I’ve done tours of Japan with. We have a relationship that is a lot deeper than the surface, and we’re like brothers.

We are working to make The Undisputed Era better and each other better on a constant basis, and we have each other to depend on. It’s something super unique, and it doesn’t come around very often. We’re still trying to figure out exactly, in the grand scheme of things, what our legacy will be together, so I’m very intrigued to see where this will be in a couple years.

JB: Your wife Marina Shafir has been an incredible addition to the NXT roster. Do you ever think we’ll see the Four Horsewomen vs. Four Horsewomen match? And what has impressed you most about Marina?

RS: I would love to see them all have that opportunity, and it could be a WrestleMania moment. They’ve been teasing it here and there for quite some time now, and I really hope, for all the women involved, that they get the opportunity to do that match. It will be a banger, that’s for sure.

When it comes to my wife, I am so proud. This was so foreign to her, and to watch her—and I know it sounds weird to even say this—but I feel like a parent in that sense. She figured out a lot of this on her own. It’s been very interesting to see her creative side and take this a lot faster than I ever did. I am really intrigued to see how much she improves in the next year. She is beautiful, she’s charismatic, she’s a frickin’ beast of an athlete. When she gets 100 hundred percent comfortable with this, there is no stopping her.

JB: You are on the precipice of such a critical weekend. Have you put a lot of consideration into the eight-man tag against Imperium this Saturday at Worlds Collide? Or is all your focus on Keith Lee for this Wednesday?

RS: First things first, and that’s Wednesday night against Keith Lee. I get it—he is hot right now. He is a special athlete, he is a hulk-sized human and I am much smaller than him. I get it. But he is not me, and there is nobody in the world like me. Wednesday night, I get to show the world that it doesn’t matter how big you are—because they all fall. He’ll be another one on my list of people that step in the ring with me and see that I’m a whole other animal. It’s going to be a special night, but that North American championship is going to stay with me as long as I want it to.

Looking at Saturday’s Worlds Collide, it’s electric anytime when the four of us from The Undisputed Era can be together in the same match. And I can’t wait to get in the ring with WALTER. We wrestled in 2007, and everyone is talking about him chopping us, but I can’t wait to get my hands on him. I don’t think he’s been hit the way I hit. Fabian and Marcel are both special, and I can’t wait to see them against Kyle and Bobby. And then maybe the Rumble on Sunday, who knows, but it all starts on Wednesday live on the USA Network.

JB: With so much happening this Wednesday night, and AEW broadcasting from a cruise ship, why should viewers make sure your match is the one they are watching?

RS: Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish are also in action, and anytime The Undisputed Era is on television, you need to be watching. For me, this is going to be a war. Keith Lee is a very special athlete. Maybe a once-in-a-lifetime type athlete. The lights are going to be very bright and the pressure is going to be on. Can Keith do it? I honestly don’t think so.

He says he’s limitless, but I’m going to make him break. Maybe I’ll tap him out, maybe I’ll do a leg submission, who knows. It’s going to be a night you do not want to miss, and that is undisputed.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.