After long reigns as the Ring of Honor world champion and television champion, Jay Lethal is feeling rather strange these days not having a championship.
“I feel naked going out there with nothing around my waist,” Lethal said. “For three years straight, at least, I’ve had some kind of championship around my waist here at Ring of Honor. It definitely feels a little weird. When I cut my promos, I’m so used to being able to hold my belt or lay it across my shoulder, and now I don’t know what to do with my hands.”
Lethal will have to make due come Friday night at Final Battle when he squares off against former WWE star Cody Rhodes, who will be making his debut with the company.
Not having a championship isn’t the only recent change for Lethal, who had his head shaved this summer by Adam Cole — who would later beat Lethal for the ROH world championship — in a throwback storyline.
“I’d had the braids for a very, very long time,” Lethal said. “What’s old is new again. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen someone get their hair cut, and because it’s been so long, it makes it new again and fresh because no one is doing it or it hasn’t been done in a while. I’m all about doing things that haven’t been done in a while.”
Lethal held the ROH world championship for 427 days and the television championship even longer, a title reign that lasted 567 days. It was something he worked hard toward, hoping for years the day would come when he would win a title.
“I think you have to have this healthy appetite to always want the belt,” Lethal said. “It shows you’re working towards something. It shows that you’re trying to improve. It shows that you’re confident in yourself. But it has to be a healthy appetite. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there were times in the past where I felt that I wanted it then and there, and maybe if they just gave me a chance that I could have done it just as well.”
Though he had opportunities to become champion before, Lethal likes the way it worked out.
“I think not only the timing was right but the place where I won it was even better (Best in the World 2015, defeating Jay Briscoe), he said. “Timing is everything, especially in the wrestling business. I had just turned heel and everything was just right. I had Truth Martini at my side. The House of Truth was this cool, bad guy faction and I definitely think it was perfect timing.”
After years in the wrestling business and a stint with Ring of Honor, Lethal was already earning the reputation as a great in-ring worker. However, he still wasn’t comfortable with his persona and being on the microphone. That changed when he joined TNA Wrestling, where his locker room impressions of idols Randy Savage and Ric Flair spilled over into his on-screen character, including becoming Black Machismo.
“My charisma or being comfortable on the microphone, that didn’t come into play until I went to TNA and I got to do the Black Machismo character and to be the ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair himself,” Lethal said. “That’s what really helped my charisma and being comfortable on the microphone. Let’s face it: To be the Black Machismo, what it boiled down to for me in the back of my head is you can’t be afraid to look silly in some form or fashion.”
“I remember, I was so afraid to cut promos because I didn’t want to sound stupid. I was so afraid to do certain things in the ring because I didn’t want to look silly. It actually held me back and kept me in this little shell. But once I broke out of that shell, which I do credit the Black Machismo character, then the sky was the limit after that.”
Those characters allowed him to have a unique feud with the Nature Boy, which was a dream come true for the fan in Lethal.
“I remember at the end of that promo when we were face to face, nose to nose, I remember I was so nervous that my hands actually went numb,” he said. “I remember clear as day being face to face with him, (thinking) ‘This is so cool,’ and I was thinking my brothers and sisters are at home watching on TV. I’m face to face with Ric Flair and I remember thinking, ‘Why are my hands so numb? What is going on?’ It was nerve-wracking but an honor. It was literally in the top two moments of my wrestling career. Not only in my wrestling career, probably in the top two greatest moments of my life. “
Now back in Ring of Honor, the 31-year-old Lethal — whose real name is Jamar Shipman — has had another dream opportunity being able to work with talent from New Japan Pro Wrestling with the two companies having a working relationship. That has allowed Lethal to have matches with the likes of Tetsuya Naito, Hirooki Goto and teaming with Shinsuke Nakamura, who is now with NXT.
“These partnerships in wrestling are very rarely done on such a grand level,” Lethal said. “It really opens the doors for matches that weren’t possible before and probably weren’t thought of before. That’s a cool win-win for the fans, and anytime the fans get to win I’m all for it.”
With the changing landscape in the wrestling business these days, you have to wonder whether there could ever be a similar partnership between ROH and WWE.
“If I had to predict the future, I would think that at some point in time that, in my opinion, could be very possible,” Lethal said. “Look at the guys there who have come from Ring of Honor. Look at all the guys they’ve used and plucked from Ring of Honor. At some point, in my opinion, I would think they’d go, everybody we get from there really excels here so maybe should … I don’t know. That’s just my opinion. I think there definitely could be something in the future, some kind of working relationship.”
The list of talent that has come through ROH to have successful WWE careers is a long one, including Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, current WWE champion AJ Styles and NXT champion Samoa Joe. It’s never easy to lose talent, but ROH keeps finding others to take open spots.
“One of the coolest things about it, I think, Ring of Honor, they don’t hem and haw about it, all they do is go out and find other talent, not so much to replace them but other talent to build to that level as well,” Lethal said. “Ring of Honor helps them hone and to bring out that special thing that they see in them. And then all of a sudden, they get plucked. Once again, they go out and find the next talent. It’s this really cool but vicious cycle.”
That cycle most recently included the loss of “Mr. ROH” Roderick Strong, who recently signed with NXT after a 14-year run with the company. Lethal admits it’s weird not having him around.
“It does so much,” Lethal said. “Roddy was a really big part of Ring of Honor. I feel like we lost. That was a big hit losing Roderick Strong for us. And he’s such a great friend of mine too. That was a big one for me, anyway.
“Roddy is one of the greatest wrestlers in the world. In fact, his nickname in the locker room was ‘The Machine’ because he is literally a machine. You need him on your roster to help boost your company. You really do. Selfishly, yeah, I was hoping he would stay because we have a locker room full of guys that are trying to make Ring of Honor as big as we possibly can.”
While Lethal is at the top of his game, he concedes that he still get nervous before matches, but for the right reasons.
“My nervousness is more about I really want to give the fans a show,” Lethal said. “I’m just worried or nervous that maybe it won’t be as good as I’d hoped and I won’t entertain them as much as I hoped just because the Ring of Honor roster is full of some of the greatest wrestlers in the world. Literally, these guys have been wrestling for years honing their craft all over the world. To try and outdo some of these guys and their matches is going be tough, but I welcome the challenge.”
Another part of his 15-year career is having a supportive family, which has made this ride even sweeter.
“They’ve been so supportive and, for the first five, six years of my career, they went to every single show that I had. Well, sometimes my mom couldn’t make it but my dad, he had been to every single show,” Lethal said. “It was crazy. No matter if it was a 15-minute car ride or a 16-hour car ride, he was there.”
Unfortunately, his parents won’t be at Final Battle come Friday night.
“They will be watching from the comfort of their living room,” Lethal said. “The event is sold out and my dad has a long list of friends that he wanted to bring. So he’s going to invite them all over to the house, and they’re going to have a party and watch it on pay-per-view.”