Record-breaking ROH Champion Jay Lethal never stops learning
By Mike Pankow
March 11, 2019
Don’t call Jay Lethal a veteran.
The record-breaking Ring of Honor World Champion bristles at the notion despite the fact he has been wrestling for nearly two decades.
“I don’t even like hearing anybody referring to me as a veteran,” said Lethal, who has been in the wrestling business since 2001. “I feel like there’s still a lot that I don’t know, there’s still a lot that I’m working on. Every wrestler can always strive to be a little better than they are now.”
Lethal is ready to add even more knowledge when he defends his ROH World Championship against Matt Taven at Friday night’s ROH 17th Anniversary Pay-per-view in Las Vegas.
Within the last few weeks, Lethal surpassed WWE Superstar and current United States Champion Samoa Joe as the longest reigning world champion in ROH history. Monday is the 681st day of Lethal being the ROH World Champion over two title reigns. Joe held the title for 645 days in 2003-04.
“It feels amazing,” said Lethal, who turns 34 on April 29. “In Ring of Honor, everyone who walks through the curtain, their goal is to make Ring of Honor bigger and/or better than it was yesterday. I think that puts us all on the same playing field.
“I’ve always had a tough time looking at myself as someone great or something great. I don’t have that view of myself. Although, I don’t think I’m awful (either).”
Lethal is riding high on top of a company that always seems to have reshuffle its roster every few years. The recent departures of talents such Cody, The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega and So Cal Uncensored to All Elite Wrestling delivered another blow to ROH, just as losses like CM Punk, Samoa Joe, Tyler Black (Seth Rollins), Claudio Castagnoli (Cesaro), Kevin Steen (Kevin Owens), El Generico (Sami Zayn) and Adam Cole to WWE and NXT were impactful.
Yet, ROH continues to find a way to find and cultivate talent from U.S. independent promotions and stars from around the world. Recent additions include independent standouts Brody King and Bandido and veteran PCO (who wrestled in WWE in the mid-90s as Quebecer Pierre and Jean-Pierre LaFitte).
“Ring of Honor does a great job of scouring the globe to find the next up-and-coming talent,” Lethal said. “How do you pick up and move on after losing someone like AJ Styles or CM Punk or Samoa Joe? They pick up and they move on by finding hungry, fresh talent, not to replace the guys that have left, because there’s no replacing some of them. But you just respect the fact they donated their time, their energy, their bodies to help build the company’s foundation and then you get some new guys that will add on to that foundation and so on and so on.”
Lethal’s match against Taven at the upcoming PPV is a rematch from a bout they had in 2014 when Lethal was ROH World Television Champion.
Taven, who was ROH World Tag Team Champions with Mike Bennett (now Mike Kanellis on WWE’s 205 Live), suffered a serious knee injury during a title defense at ROH Final Battle in December 2015 and was sidelined for about nine months.
Taven returned and reinvented himself following the departure of Bennett and his manager Maria Kanellis-Bennett to IMPACT Wrestling. He is currently one-third of the ROH World Six-Man Tag Team Champions with “Kingdom” partners TK O’Ryan and Vinny Marseglia.
While still TV champion, Lethal won his first ROH World Championship by defeating Jay Briscoe on June 19, 2015. He held the world title for 427 days during his first reign before losing to Cole.
Lethal began his second reign as champion on June 30, 2018 by winning a four-way match with Dalton Castle, Cody and Taven.
Lethal is excited for the opportunity to tangle with Taven one more time – this time in the main event.
“Every wrestler, especially when they’ve been in the ring (together) once, they want to make the second verse better than the first. We’ve both have grown. I’ve been through more. I’ve learned more. The company is in a different position than it was before. We are higher up in the card, different position on the show. I think all the elements are there for this to be better than all of the other encounters that we’ve ever had.”
Lethal’s next stop after his bout with Taven is a match during the ROH/New Japan Pro Wrestling G1 Supercard at Madison Square Garden on April 6.
The Elizabeth, N.J., native grew up just a short train ride away from MSG. He attended one WWE show there in his youth and is absolutely overwhelmed to be wrestling in “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
“I’m so nervous. It’s amazing. No one thought it was possible,” Lethal said. “The little kid inside of me is jumping for joy right now. He can’t contain himself. He knows he’s about to wrestle in the same building that he watched on his couch with his brothers, countless wrestling events. It’s unreal.”
Lethal is a lifelong professional wrestling fan and even eschewed other sports when he was in high school, except for one year on the wrestling team. He is in the middle of a group of six siblings (four boys, two girls) and his brothers, while they loved wrestling, were engrossed in other sports growing up.
Lethal always had an itch to become a pro wrestler, then one day in 2001, an opportunity came up to scratch that itch. A local promotion, Jersey All Pro Wrestling, was having a contest for those who were interested in training to become a wrestler. The winner would get free training from their school.
“At the time on TV, “Tough Enough” was the big thing,” Lethal said of WWE’s reality series which aired on MTV. “[JAPW] didn’t have the money that WWE had to put this contest on and they weren’t going to be putting people in a house, eliminating them week by week. This was a one-day event in a small charity hall, bingo center which is now a liquor store. They squeezed about 50 to 60 kids in that little venue and set up that wrestling ring and they taught you four different things and whoever was able to perform these four different things the best would get trained for free.”
If that pressure wasn’t enough, Lethal’s father, also a huge wrestling fan, took in the contest and filmed Lethal’s exploits.
“I don’t want to walk back over to him a loser.”
Thankfully for Lethal, he didn’t have to make that walk of shame toward his father. He ended up getting trained for the duration that the school was open. He made his professional debut on Oct. 26, 2001 at JAPW’s “Class of 2001 Student Show,” and less than a year later, he secured championship gold by becoming the JAPW Television Champion.
Lethal entered ROH for the first time in 2003 while continuing to compete with JAPW. He debuted in IMPACT Wrestling (then TNA) in Dec. 2005 where he began to make a bigger name for himself.
In IMPACT, Lethal borrowed from a wrestling legend to make himself stand out further. After entertaining the locker room with a dead-on impression of “Macho Man” Randy Savage, it was time for Lethal to share it with a wider audience.
“It wasn’t until Kevin Nash heard it that he said ‘You know, I love that. We’ve got to put that on TV,’ ” Lethal said. “Of course, I didn’t want to because I didn’t want anybody to think I was making fun of Savage or anything. (Nash) got me to do it on TV and the rest is history. I couldn’t stop after that.”
Lethal even spoke with Savage over the phone and he was flattered by the imitation. Over the years, he also became friends with Lanny Poffo, Savage’s real-life brother. Last summer at ALL IN in suburban Chicago, Lethal resurrected the “Black Machismo” character in his ROH World Championship match against Flip Gordon and had Poffo accompany him to ringside.
“That was awesome,” Lethal said. “The reason I did it, because from top to bottom, the greatest wrestlers in the world were on that show. So I tried to think on a show where every match could be the main event, what could Jay Lethal bring to the table that no one else can? Other than good wrestling, what else could I bring to the table?”
Lethal’s bout with Gordon was a unique show-stealer at ALL IN, but he appreciates all of his various opponents with which he has squared off in his career. His list of favorite opponents includes Kurt Angle, Sting, Ric Flair, Briscoe, Castle and Roderick Strong.
“Every one of them,” Lethal said. “The guys with the big names and even the people you’ve never heard of. When I would do a one-off in Kentucky, I enjoyed stepped into the ring with any and everybody, because I’ve learned something from everybody that I’ve stepped into the ring with, no matter what their skill level. Even if it’s learning something about myself.”
Like my most fans, Lethal has a list of favorite wrestlers he grew up idolizing. To no one’s surprise, Flair, with whom Lethal had a “Woo-off” in IMPACT, and Savage topped his list. His No. 3? Technical stalwart Bret “The Hitman” Hart. He also mentioned Chris Benoit because of his technical abilities.
Lethal also added: “Of course as a kid, I was a Warrior fan. I was a Hogan fan (too), but if I had to pick, I would’ve picked the Ultimate Warrior.”
With nearly two decades in the books, Lethal is just enjoying the ride without setting specific goals for himself. From the looks of it, he probably has at least another 10 years or so of wrestling left in his body. Or at least a few more months as ROH World Champion – and he’ll still be continuing his education in the wrestling business.
“I never set a goal to become the face of a company known around the world for its wrestling. I never set a goal to be the Ring of Honor World Champion. I never set a goal to meet or work with Ric Flair. These things just kind of happened. I’m afraid that if I do set a goal, I’m going to be jinxing myself.”
Check out the full 17-minute audio interview with Lethal: