Wrestling fans in the area have a special opportunity this Friday to see some of the sport’s biggest stars in a very unique setting.
Total Nonstop Action Wrestling comes to Coney Island Brooklyn Friday night for a live event inside MCU Park – the home of the Mets’ minor league baseball franchise, the Brooklyn Cyclones. The outdoor show – one of TNA’s biggest since it began its live touring – starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are available by visiting the Cyclones’ web site or by calling 718-507-TIXX.
The loaded line up features TNA world champ Rob Van Dam defending his title against “The Phenomenal” AJ Styles, Jeff Hardy taking on Abyss, and Kurt Angle battling Desmond Wolfe.
Also on the card is one of TNA’s most charismatic young stars – Jay Lethal. After growing up in New Jersey as a passionate wrestling fan, Lethal is getting a chance to live out his dreams by interacting with such legends as Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair – who Lethal is set to wrestle at TNA’s next pay per view, Victory Road.
In this interview, Lethal talks about developing his uncanny impersonation of “The Nature Boy,” Flair’s reaction to it, his thoughts on WWE shying away from the term “wrestling,” criticisms of TNA’s product, and the dropped “Black Machismo Invitational” angle.
Alfonso Castillo: First of all, I wanted to take a look at the last few months for you in the company. Obviously, I have to think they’re some of the most exciting of your career. Can you tell me what it’s been like mixing it up with the likes of Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan?
Jay Lethal: Honestly, the only way to describe it is living my dream, especially since I can honestly say if it weren’t for like guys like Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan… if it weren’t for me being a fan of these guys, Flair and Hulk Hogan, I would not be a wrestler. So I’m not giving credit to these guys for what they’ve done in the business. I’m giving them credit because they got me into the sport. These last few months have been fantastic. I was just telling somebody the other day – I still can’t believe I’m in there with Ric Flair and jawing with him. I still can’t believe it. It hasn’t hit me yet.
AC: I thought the segment last week with you and Flair on Impact, for myself and for a lot of fans, was one of the most fun segments we’ve seen in wrestling in a long time. That was the dueling Ric Flairs, back and forth. How much of that just kind of came together and was organic? And how much fun was that to do?
JL: First of all, it was probably the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Second of all, it was definitely, definitely a little nerve racking – especially when you get to the building and you find out that you have to go back and forth with the master of the interview, the master of promos – Ric Flair. So right away, I was nervous. Right away, I couldn’t think of anything. “What am I going to say?” And, of course, Ric Flair is one of those guys that you can’t talk about anything with unless you’re out there. He’s the type of guy that, if the microphone is in his hand, then there’s no going over what he’s going to say. Everything he says he comes up with right then and there. So then, I have no choice but to react to what he’s going to say. There was no pre-planning of anything. He’s that kind of guy. He just has to do it out there. So that was nerve-racking also.
AC: How did the whole Ric Flair thing come about? You had been doing the Randy Savage impersonation for a while, and obviously a lot people think they can do Randy Savage. And I guess as far as wrestler impersonations go, it’s one of the easier ones to do, only in that he’s such a unique guy. But then you come out and do the Ric Flair and everybody did a double take. It was like, “Oh my God. That’s uncanny. It’s better than his Randy Savage.” And it’s not one that you hear people do a lot… Did you work on it? Is it something that you’ve been doing for years?
JL: It’s something that I’ve always been able to do, yeah. Actually – funny story – the Randy Savage I’ve been doing all my life. I’ve always known I could do a pretty good Randy Savage. But last year we were in the U.K., and there was one night when we were just sitting around and things had gotten a little bit boring. And out of nowhere I started doing this Ric Flair impression, and everybody said it was one of the greatest things they had ever seen. I didn’t even realize I could do Ric Flair until that day. So that was about a year ago that I found out I could do a pretty good Ric Flair impression.
AC: Can you tell me about the first time Ric Flair heard it and what his impression was?
JL: Oh, he absolutely loved it. As a matter of fact, he had a couple of people here with him, and they weren’t around the first time he heard it. But he made me do the impression for them a good four or five times that day. And everybody who he was with, he brought them each individually to me and made me do the impression for them. So it was pretty funny. He got a huge kick out of it. He loves it.
AC: So has this put pressure on you now to develop new impressions? Do you have people saying, “You’ve got to learn how to do this guy or this guy”?
JL: Yeah, that’s been said a couple of times. And my reply has been, “Well, you have to wait until January 2011.” That’s our next U.K. trip, and then I’ll find out who else I can do.
AC: Is it sort of a mixed blessing for you that you’re this incredibly talented athlete, and yet it’s these impressions that have made you stand out? Are you grateful to have that ability to stand out?
JL: Oh yeah. 100 percent. Because, honestly, if I couldn’t do these impressions – especially the one of Ric Flair – I do not believe for a single second that I would have the chance to be in the ring with him. I honestly think there would be a chance that I’d get lost in the shuffle here on our roster. So the fact that I can do these impressions has stood out in a lot of guys’ eyes. I think it’s one of the main reasons why I’ve been given the opportunity. I think if it weren’t for the impression, though, I doubt that I would even have the chance of being in there with him.
AC: What are your thoughts on moving away from the Black Machismo character? I guess that got you as far as you were going to go with it. And it’s not like you’re mini-Ric Flair now. You’re back to being Jay Lethal. You’re wrestling your ordinary trunks. It’s kind of like you’re yourself, while still having fun with this Flair impersonation.
JL: Right, I was tossing around a little joke earlier that when I was doing the Macho Man, I had been doing it for so long that I kind of got so comfortable with it, you know? And then when it was time to drop the Macho Man thing, I almost felt like I was leaving my comfort zone. I was telling my brother the other day, “You know, I can do a pretty good Macho Man impression. I can do a pretty good Ric Flair impression. But my Jay Lethal impression needs a little work.” (Laughs.)
AC: That’s an interesting point. Do you fear for the day that you’re not asked to do impressions any more and you’ve just got to be yourself?
JL: No, not at all. Actually, I find that the impressions actually help me come out of my shell. When I first got here to TNA five years ago, I was a little nervous – especially when I had to do an on-screen interview or promo, or whatever you want to call it. I do remember being really nervous, and having to do more than one take and jumbling up my words. But we’ve done a couple of them since, and I feel like the Macho Man and the Roc Flair impressions, they’ve help me come out of my shell and be more comfortable with the camera and with myself. I think it’s helped great.
AC: Obviously, the camera time you’ve been getting and the attention you’ve been getting coincide with Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff coming in and having influence on the product. Can you tell me what it’s been like working with them and what kind of input they’ve given you and how they’ve helped develop you?
JL: It’s unbelievable. Like I said, you’ll never understand what’s going through my head, and I’ll try to explain it the best way I can, but I’m in the locker room with, I swear, guys that I’ve watched on TV, guys that I’ve mimicked plenty of times at home – Eric Bischoff, Hulk Hogan. And one of the things I’ll never forget, one of the first times Eric was here, he actually pulled me aside and he told me he was one of my biggest fans. He gave me his number and told me to call him whenever I had a question. He gave me his email address. I’ll never forget that. This guy, I used to watch him on TV. I can probably say I’m one of his biggest fans, and he’s telling me he’s a fan of mine. I don’t think there’s any way to describe what happens inside a person when they hear that.
AC: Before they came in, was there a little apprehension? I mean, obviously, for better or for worse, Hulk Hogan has the reputation for being all about the big guys, the big seven-footers. And you’re one of the smaller guys in the locker room. Did you worry about how your career would change with Hogan there in the company?
JL: I never thought that for a single second. I just turned 25, so I’d like to think that I’m pretty young, and I feel like it was just yesterday that I was watching these guys on TV. So the only thing I could think of is, “Holy cow! Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff are coming.” I don’t think I ever had the chance to think about that.
AC: There’s been that report out – I think it’s Bischoff who’s said it – that one of the philosophies they’ve had is to try to concentrate on another guy every month and build a TNA original into a star. A few months ago that was The Pope. Then it was Abyss. And I guess the idea is that they’re doing you right now. What do you think of that philosophy – of one by one trying to make TNA originals, home grown stars, into big mega-stars?
JL: I think that’s awesome. What better way to do it than to take it one day at a time, you know? I haven’t heard that philosophy yet. It’s the first time I’m hearing it. I think that’s a great idea. One at a time. With so many guys, it’s definitely hard to do it overnight. You have to do it one day at a time. You’ve just got to wait your turn, you know. It’s a great idea, I think.
AC: So you’ve been in TNA for five years now. Obviously, there have been ups and downs. The last year, before these last several months, I imagine it wasn’t sort of the most spectacular time of your career. You spent a lot of that time in the tag team with Consequences Creed, and you guys were mostly sort of a mid-card, upper-card deal. Any frustrations over the last year, or did you always hold out hope that your time would come?
JL: There were no frustrations at all. Actually Creed and I were tag team champions – a belt that I never thought I’d have because I’m not a tag team guy, you know? So, no frustrations at all. That actually helped me achieve something that I never thought would ever possible, because I’m not a tag team guy.
AC: Did you like working with him?
JL: I loved it. Oh man, Creed is one of the only people ever – and I can honestly say this – that I’ve never seen upset. He’s always got a smile on. He’s got the most positive attitude. I’ve never seen him upset, ever. It’s impossible to make that guy upset.
AC: So when he left the company, was it bitter sweet at all? Did you worry what would become of you?
JL: You mean when they split us up?
AC: And when he left the company.
JL: Yeah, a little bit. But, as soon as they split us up, during the split I was already doing this Black Machismo Invitational. I mean I wasn’t too worried, I guess. But I can’t say that, because we could be here today, and gone tomorrow at the drop of a hat. So I was a little worried, yeah. And I was really sorry to see him go. We became really close friends.
AC: How about the Black Machismo Invitational? That seemed like an idea that kind of came and went. I don’t know if it was fully developed or carried to fruition.
JL: I think the downfall to the Black Machismo Invitational was when Hogan and Bischoff came and we turned the switch on to take the company to a new direction. That was just one of the things that had to go. When Hogan and Bischoff came we turned the company upside down to jump track on this new direction, which is what I feel is working. So that was just one of the casualties of the new direction that we were going in.
AC: And were you OK with that? Did you want to see the angle through?
JL: Well, part of me was, because I’m a big time wrestling fan. So – for instance I got to wrestle Jim “the Anvil” Neidhart and Tatanka. That stuff was all awesome. But compared to right now, I don’t think I miss it at all.
AC: Right. How could you complain?
JL: I have no right to complain right now.
AC: You mentioned the term a couple of times, and it strikes me. I interviewed Sheamus a couple of weeks ago, and one of the edicts I got from WWE was, “Don’t call him a wrestler and don’t refer to it as wrestling.” And throughout the whole interview, Sheamus was kind of tripping all over himself and correcting himself. But you seem to embrace the term, and I think TNA does, too. TNA has never said it’s anything else other than wrestling. What do you think about the whole “sports entertainment” thing and shying away from the term “wrestling”?
JL: Well, actually, I love the term “wrestling.” When I was growing up, all I knew was wrestling. All my school reports were on wrestling. And that word just does something to me inside when I hear it. So I’m a big fan of keeping that word, “wrestling,” alive. I love it.
AC: What do you think is behind that kind of movement to get away from it? It almost seems like there’s some kind of shame or embarrassment in the term.
JL: I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t agree with it. I love that word. It will always be wrestling to me.
AC: So, talking a bit about this Brooklyn show – TNA has gotten out on the road more in the last few years than it did before that. What’s it been like for you doing the live events? I know some of them are pretty small and intimate. This is one of the bigger ones.
JL: Oh yeah. And this one means a little more to me because it’s actually close to home for me.
AC: Yeah, you’re from Jersey right?
JL: I’m from right there in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It’s a 10 or 15 minute train ride right into the city.
AC: Are you going to have family there?
JL: Oh, I’m going to have them all there. Live events – I love them. I love the travel and I love gong out. Not to say anything bad about being in Orlando, Florida. I love it here. But there’s something about those fans out in different places other than Florida – the ones that don’t see us all the time. There’s something about that. I love it. I can’t get enough of it. I love these live events. And, like I said, this one on July 2nd, it’s so close to home. My friends are going to be there. It’s going to be awesome.
AC: And when you wrestle in the area, am I right that you’re family is often in the audience? I remember seeing you at an early TNA live event in Jersey a few years back. I think your mother was in the audience.
JL: Oh, my whole family was there.
AC: You wrestled Jarrett that night, right?
JL: Oh yeah. My mother got involved in that actually, too. That was great.
AC: So is it hard for you to have family there in the stands?
JL: No, actually it’s hard not for me to have family in the stands, believe it or not. Growing up, when I just got into the business, my family – I swear – would come to every single show that I had. They made the road trips with me. They did everything. But when I got here in TNA, of course my dad couldn’t take the time off of work too much to make the trip every other week to Florida here. So, since I go tot TNA, my family hasn’t been to the shows. Before I got to TNA, every single show they were at. So I miss them. It’s weird not to have family there.
AC: Yeah, so it’s got to me exciting to be here right in your backyard. You guys did a pay per view not far from your home a couple years back, right?
JL: Yeah, in Trenton.
AC: I imagine you had family there.
JL: Oh, of course.
AC: Actually, I’ve go to ask you about that. I remember the match and the angle (a “Black Tie Brawl and Chain match” against Sonjay Dutt) and I’ve got to say, it was not my favorite thing that TNA has done. You guys were wearing tuxedoes and had chains on or what have you. How do you remember that whole angle that some people kind of remember pretty badly?
JL: I loved it. I know a couple of times me and Sonjay during that angle got to do some stuff with Jake “The Snake” and Kamala and Koko B. Ware. So I loved it all. And, actually, the part that made it really awesome is that Sonjay Dutt is actually my legit best friend. So, that made it just ten times better when you can be there with your best friend, and of course on a pay per view in your home town. You want to be the big star. Everybody wishes they could be in the main event. But it was just enough for me to just be in there with my best friend. I knew I was going to have a good match.
AC: It sounds like you’re a big proponent of TNA and a booster of the company. Does it bother you to hear a lot of criticisms? I know TNA gets its share of criticisms for a lot of what it does.
JL: Oh yeah.
AC: How do you deal with that?
JL: I put it out of my head. The only way I justify it is that those people that are saying that, they’re not here. They don’t know what goes on back here. All they know is what they think. So – a term that AJ and I use – we shake it off and we put it under our feet.
AC: So at 25 years old you’re a pretty young guy. Do you see yourself doing this for a long time – into your 40s even?
JL: Oh, yeah. Somebody asked me the other day - what’s the average number of years you could be a wrestler? And I told them, “You know, I can’t answer that yet, because Ric Flair hasn’t stopped wrestling.” (Laughs)
AC: Can you see yourself doing something like that – into your 60s theoretically?
JL: I swear to God, I cannot see myself doing anything else. All the time you here, “Save your money. You’ve got to have a back up plan” and all that. I cannot see myself doing anything else besides wrestling. It’s all I know.
AC: At 25 years old, if you have a long career ahead of you, what are some of the things you want to do? What are some of your goals?
JL: I’ve been asked that question a couple of times before. I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot answer that, only because I’ll jinx myself. For instance, I didn’t have the goal of getting into TNA, and I got into TNA. I didn’t set a goal when I was able to wrestle and defeat for the X-Division title Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle. And that was a dream come true. I didn’t say, “One day I’m going to get in there with Ric Flair. That’s my next goal.” And now I’m living it. I’m in there with Flair. I swear I’m afraid to set a goal because I think I’m going to jinx myself. Everything I’ve done so far, it’s just happened. I haven’t set a goal. I haven’t said, “I’m going to do this.” The only time I’ve said that was about seven years ago when I said, “I want to be a wrestler. That’s my goal.” And that’s the only time I’ve set a goal. I’m afraid to set a goal because I think I’ll jinx myself.
AC: This is going to be Ric Flair’s first singles match on pay per view since WrestleMania XXIV when he wrestled Shawn Michaels in his retirement match. There are people who still maybe are a little bitter about the fact that he came out of retirement and is now wrestling again. What’s your take on it – him being out of retirement and going back on his word from what he said about two years ago?
JL: Well, I’m sorry for the people who look down upon it. But looking at it from my point of view – I’m living my dream. I’m about to step foot in the ring with Ric Flair. It doesn’t get any better than that. And right now I don’t want to spoil it. I don’t want to ruin it for myself by thinking about what some of the people are saying, about some of the guys who look down on it – the fact that he said he retired and now he’s coming back. I can’t do that because then the greatest moment of my life will mean nothing to me. So I’m trying to think about any of that. All I’ve got in my head is that I’m about to step foot in the ring on pay per view with the Ric Flair.
AC: What’s your favorite Ric Flair moment or match?
JL: Favorite Ric Flair match? Definitely him vs. Steamboat is one of them. Him vs Bret Hart is another. As far as favorite moment, it would have to be one of the countless great Ric Flair promos. You know, actually, one just popped into my head. I was talking about this with Pat Kenny. It was the way the Horseman and Ric Flair would attack people in backstage segments. It’s hard to explain it without being able to show you, because, you know I‘ve got that great visual when I’m doing Ric Flair. I can do his mannerisms and everything. But just the way he used to attack people in the back, like the Rock N’ Roll Express. Those were my favorite times. And then later on in the day, you’d get that promo about why they attacked them. Those were the best. Those stand out in my head.
AC: You know, I’m 32, and I was really young during that time – the Horsemen and all that. You being 25, you must have been just a baby when some of this was going on.
JL: Oh, yeah. Most of it is me watching video tapes, because I had to. Some of this stuff happened before I was born. So most of it is watching video tapes and countless bootleg copies of DVDs. Youtube is pretty hot now.
AC: It’s cool to talk to a real fan, because I don’t know if you get too many of them in the wrestling business. But you’re a guy who sounds like a real fan – like the fans there in the audience.
JL: Oh yeah, I feel like I am.