Jay Lethal has been a mainstay on pro wrestling's indie circuit for more than 12 years, since making his Ring of Honor debut in 2003. Some discovered him then, or soon after, when he portrayed Samoa Joe's protégé and became ROH Pure Champion. Others discovered him when he moved to TNA, and became one of the cornerstones of the X Division. While in TNA, he made waves for becoming Black Machismo, his over-the-top homage to "Macho Man" Randy Savage. His portrayal of the character was so good that Savage himself gave his blessing to Lethal. After reverting back to his Jay Lethal character, he continued to be a standout in the X Division, winning the title six times before being released from the company in 2011. He returned to ROH, where he quickly won the TV title, but for four years he couldn't break through to the top.
That all changed on Friday, June 19, at ROH's Best in the World Pay-Per-View. After a 12-year journey, Jay Lethal finally won the big one, beating Jay Briscoe to become the Ring of Honor World Champion, and the only person to hold every singles title in the prestigious promotion's history. In his first interview since making it to the top of the mountain Rolling Stone spoke to Lethal about "the greatest night" of his life, his long journey through the indie world and what the future holds for both him and Ring of Honor.
What was Best in the World like for you?
I've never been married. I don't have any kids. So at this point in time, that was literally the greatest night of my life. That's the best way I can describe it. It was so full of emotion. One of the coolest parts was that I had my parents there. It was just the greatest night of my life.
Did your parents know that you were about to win the title?
Nope. I hadn't told them. They actually don't like knowing what's going to happen. They like the surprise, they like being fans. So all of that was legit emotion from them. I remember when I gave my speech afterward, I looked over at my dad and he was crying, which made me even more emotional. He's been there since the very beginning of my journey. The first time I even stepped foot into a building that had a wrestling ring, he sat in the back and recorded practice. He recorded practice for about a year of me going. He's actually getting those tapes transferred to DVD, which is pretty cool. I can go back and watch how I looked when I was training. I was like a totally different person.
Obviously the moment of holding up the belt was amazing. But what was the day like, coming to the venue knowing that you were going to walk out the champ?
All I could think of was being in the locker room and watching that moment happen for other people so many times. I had waited for this moment for so long. I remember thinking about how when everyone wins, they get a speech. Years ago I wondered what my speech would be about. We all picture ourselves winning the big one, and what we would do. If you can't picture that, then you're in the wrong business. I remember thinking about what my speech would be like. And let me tell you, it was nothing like that. I was nervous and I couldn't believe what was about to happen. It wasn't that I had butterflies in my stomach, because I was ready for the moment. I really felt that. I just couldn't believe that it was about to really happen. Even now, as I talk to you, or when I talked to my best friend Sonjay [Dutt, a former TNA wrestler] earlier, I can't believe that I am the undisputed champion of a company that is known around the world for its wrestling. I can't believe that I'm the number one guy here, after watching so many guys give that speech. Samoa Joe, Bryan Danielson – the list is so long. And now I get to be added to that list.
So if winning the ROH World Championship is the greatest moment in your life, what was the previous high-water mark in your career?
Before last Friday, the greatest night of my life was getting to wrestle Ric Flair [in TNA]. I'm such a big fan of his. You can see his influences in my work, especially lately being the bad guy. I remember sitting on my mom's couch years ago, watching Rumbles and Pay-Per-Views with Ric Flair. I remember watching countless promos of his, I have them memorized. I can remember meeting Ric Flair and doing Ric Flair impressions for him. And then I got to wrestle him on a live Pay-Per-View. It was his idea to have me beat him with the Figure Four. I beat Ric Flair, this guy that I idolized. That was the greatest night of my life before Friday. The match with Flair was like the guy who built the White House. It was a great feat, but I don't remember his name. My match against Jay Briscoe was actually getting to live in the White House, because those are the people that you remember. That's how I like to compare it.
You mentioned Ric Flair's influence on your character. Was this heel run something you were eager to do, and why do you think it's come so naturally for you?
It was my idea. Not many people wanted me to do it, because I consider myself to be a pretty good babyface. It was my idea to turn to the dark side though. It was something that I wanted to do for a long time. In fact, when I did the Black Machismo thing with Sonjay over SoCal Val, I wanted to be the bad guy. I wanted to be the one that was mistreating Val, yelling at her and berating her, and Sonjay would be the one that saved her. But they wanted to do it the other way around, which was cool. At one particular point in Ring of Honor, I decided that I wanted to do something fresh, that I hadn't done before.
I had fallen in love with Truth Martini's work. It wasn't until my second return to Ring of Honor that I learned who Truth Martini was. I would watch his stuff throughout the shows, and I was a huge fan of his work. Even standing behind the camera during some of his promos, I was such a big fan of what he was doing. I wanted to be a heel – of course I did; my idol was Ric Flair! – and seeing Truth do his work made me want to be a heel even more. I finally was able to convince Ring of Honor to let me do it. It wasn't something that I was nervous about. I had been the babyface for so long, and I had been in the ring with so many different types of heels. I was able to collect data from all that, and figure out what to use when I became a heel. I was able to mesh all of that together, and I have to tell you, this is the most fun I've ever had in wrestling.
There were a few times ROH had teased putting the belt on you. You had a heated feud with Kevin Steen when he had the belt, and you were a top contender when the title was vacated in 2013. Is it surprising that it's only happening now?
No, I don't think that way. I still can't believe it's happened. I still don't think it's quite hit me yet. Yeah, it was teased a few times. I remember wrestling Steen and there was a big buildup, and I wrestled him in my hometown. He even spat on my parents. I wasn't the biggest fan of that, just because I don't like using my parents in angles. I just like that they can sit there and enjoy themselves. The minute I have to use them, I have to let them know what's going on, and they can't be fans anymore. So I wasn't the biggest fan of that angle...I also got to wrestle Davey Richards a few times when he was champion, and I was TV Champion at the time. So yeah, the moment was there, but I never thought about it like it was my turn. Like I said, I still can't believe it's my turn now.
In addition to being the champion, there's a case to be made that you are the face of Ring of Honor in a time that's really important to them, with the move to Destination America and the big plans they have. What does that mean to you?
When wrestlers are younger, everybody just wants to be the champion. That means that you're the best wrestler, or you're the bad ass or you're the greatest. When you get older though, and get into the business, you learn that it's much more than that. Yes, the company believes that you are one of the best at what you do, but from the official standpoint, it's such an honor, because they believe you can represent the company. That's another part that I can't believe. When you think about who has been the number-one guy, these huge stars. That's the thing that makes it unbelievable. What an honor.
One of the craziest things that happened is how many people I've heard from since it happened. I can't name names, but one of the best messages I got was from someone saying, "One man's trash is another man's treasure," talking about TNA getting rid of a number of people, including me. Now I'm on the same television station as them, and in a much better situation. It feels good.
It must have been painful when TNA let you go in 2011. Do you look back on that and now think it was the best thing that could've happened to you?
Everything happens for a reason. In this business you get hired and fired so many times it'll make your head spin. It was supposed to be one of the worst things that could happen, but as time progresses, you see that it's not. There's a reason everything happens, and if I didn't get let go from that company, then I wouldn't be talking to you about the greatest night of my life.
Do you follow what's happening with TNA, particularly the rumors regarding them being canceled by Destination America?
I follow everything when it comes to wrestling. I definitely follow TNA a little closer because I was there for seven years, and I still have a lot of friends that are there. Come to think of it, about half of those friends aren't there anymore, but I still have some friends there. So I follow what they're doing, just like I pay close attention to what my friends in WWE are doing.
In the wrestling business, it's impossible not to hear rumors. I don't go searching for them, but they're always there. I don't rejoice in the fact that those rumors are there. I wouldn't wish that my friends lose their jobs, or that the company fails. I think the more wrestling there is, the better it is for everyone.
While Best in the World was your showcase, the following night, Samoa Joe wrestled his final match for ROH. What was that like for you, especially since early in your career you worked with him a lot, and had a gimmick of being his protégé?
It was an awesome moment. When Joe took me under his wing, it wasn't just a storyline. It was for real, which was partially why they did it. Joe and I had a very cool chemistry with each other. We had this silly little game we played: Joe was awesome at grappling. Me being so young and stupid, I would try to randomly attack Joe and try to get him to tap out. It could be any time, sometimes I'd divebomb him on the way to the bathroom just in hopes that I could get him to tap out. Of course, it would always get turned around on me and I'd be the one tapping. Then the on-screen thing happened where he took me under his wing. So Joe legitimately taught me a lot about wrestling, both in the ring and how to carry myself outside of it. It wasn't just an angle. So getting to be there for that meant a lot to me. Granted, I live in Tampa, so we'll still see each other. I just won't get to work with him in the same company for the foreseeable future. That's kind of sad.
Most of the time, the champion is the leader in the locker room. Not to say that I'm the leader of the locker room, it just is usually someone in the championship picture, and who has been there a while. Samoa Joe, no matter how long he's been in Ring of Honor, or how long he's back, he's always the leader of the Ring of Honor locker room. It's sad to know that we'll never get that leader back. There's going to be a changing of the guard, someone will have to step up. If Joe ever came back though, he'd instantly get it back. It'll be sad that he's not going to be around the locker room though.
I do have to ask about this. A few days ago there was a report that WWE was eyeing you and a couple other ROH stars. Is there any truth to those rumors?
If there is, then they're keeping it very secret – they haven't even told me yet. I haven't heard anything from them. Right now, I'm having the time of my life. I just had the greatest night of my life, and I still have tunnel vision. I just want to build my reign and my legacy to hopefully be the greatest ROH champion.
I'd be lying if I said it wasn't cool to hear, though. Anybody in wrestling – especially those who are a part of my generation – their love of professional wrestling was created by WWE. I would have to say that most of the people from my generation, if given the chance, would definitely go to WWE. As time goes on, that goal changes as we develop a real, true, passion for wrestling. Whether or not that view changes for people in my generation, the goal is still there; it's something that you'd like to check off of your list. I would have to say that if the time is right, I would have to consider it, just to check it off that list.
Speaking of lists, obviously, winning the ROH world title was on yours. Now that you've got the belt, what else is left to do in Ring of Honor?
The next one that I want to get checked off is going to be hard to do. Not only do I want to become one of the greatest ROH champions ever, but there's a certain way that I determine whether or not you're a good champion. During my ROH Television Championship reign, never once have I heard people list the names of people who have had it before me, and I think part of that is because I do such a great job with it. If I can do that with the Ring of Honor World Championship, where I have it and never once in an interview does someone say, "Oh, like CM Punk" or "like Samoa Joe" or "like Bryan Danielson."
If I can get them to not bring up the other guys, because what I'm doing is so good and innovative, then I can check off that last box on my list. Not to take anything away from any of the past champions. They're all great wrestlers, but the cool thing to me will be holding a championship as prestigious as the World Championship, and to not be compared to anyone who came before me. It'll be a big challenge, but that's what I want to do.