The ‘Man of the Hour’ debuts at Super J-Cup 2020
Super J-Cup has drawn hype and attention from all over the globe, and much of it has gone to Lio Rush. With an eight man field that sees five enter the tournament for the very first time, Rush comes into his first cup with a lot of eyes on him, and a lot of hype to live up to. We caught up with Lio before what could be a career defining night.
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The fact that I’m one of those eight is really special
–So Lio, I know you recently turned 26. Happy belated birthday.
Rush: Thank you very much!
–That means when the very first Super J-Cup happened in 1994 you weren’t even born yet; what does being a part of this historic tournament mean to you?
Rush: It means so much to me. Just to see the names that have been part of this tournament in the past, Liger, Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, some of the best junior heavyweights of all time.
–This year you’re one of just eight entrants.
Rush: And I think that shows just how talented everybody who made the cut is. There is a very large pool of people to pick from in the world of professional wrestling, and the fact that I’m one of those eight is really special. I’m super grateful.
–Apart from winning, obviously, what do you hope to achieve through the tournament?
Rush: I hope I can cement my legacy with the Japanese audience. There are some people who have seen me in WWE, I’m sure, but there will be a lot of people who have no idea who I am, so I’m going into this tournament like I’m making a first impression. I’m nervous, excited, and hungry. Maybe more than at any point in my career. So it all means a lot to me.
My goal was actually New Japan
Photos courtesy Marcus Stevens
–To the fans that are watching you for the first time, can you sum up who Lio Rush is?
Rush: I’m a loud, brash, confident 26 year old. I try to differentiate myself from everybody else, I try to innovate in the ring, and I use that to get the upper hand on people. I guess you could say I’m a trickster?
Rush: Yeah, I like to play mind games, I like to play tricks when it comes to being in the ring. I think that label sums up who I am. But I don’t back down from any challenge, I always try to make the impossible possible.
–You left WWE earlier this year, having spent three years there. So you joined very young in your career.
Rush: Yeah, I started training in the middle of 2014, so early on.
–Was WWE always the goal to you growing up?
Rush: Well, I actually chose to go to school at Full Sail University.
–Which is where WWE’s performance center is based.
Rush: I figured I could get an education and maybe get closer to WWE in the process. Thing is I thought the Performance Center was a place anybody could walk off the street and join!
–You thought it was like other wrestling schools.
Rush: Yeah! So when I learned that wasn’t the case, I was a bit discouraged. So I went back home to Maryland and trained there. That exposed me to the independent scene, and travelling, wrestling in front of different audiences.
–So your goals changed somewhat?
Rush: Yeah. I wanted to go to Mexico, Canada, Europe, everywhere. My goal at that point was actually New Japan.
–You wanted to be in NJPW.
Rush: Yeah, and things were moving in that direction, but just as my name was getting more buzz, I got picked up by WWE.
Photos courtesy Marcus Stevens
–Was that a difficult decision to make, to sign with WWE?
Rush: This was just when they were focusing on curiserweights, and they had the Cruiserweight Classic tournament.
–NJPW fans would recognize TJP, Kota Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr. in that tournament.
Rush: They were putting a spotlight on cruiserweights, so I thought while the attention was on them, this might have been the only chance I had.
–What was that environment like as a learning experience for you, personally and professionally?
Rush: I think the biggest thing I learned was patience. I’ve always been wanting to progress quickly, get to the next step quicker than anyone else. But in WWE there are so many people involved you can’t move at the pace you want to. That challenged me, but I’ve come out the other side more patient and able to focus on myself.
–You learned to slow down a little?
Rush: Exactly. I’m more focused on myself and my craft now, and doing something right rather than just trying something before I’m ready.
–What are the biggest differences between WWE and any other wrestling environment you’ve been in?
Rush: Take from this what you want, but at the end of the day, they put on a show. There’s much more in the way of theatrics. With New Japan, there’s so much respect for the sport itself. Both the company and the fans have a lot more respect for professional wrestling itself.
I don’t relate to ELP, and I don’t respect him
–Let’s look at the Super J-Cup bracket itself. Having been around the independent scene all over the world, you know a lot of these guys very well, but one person you don’t is the one you face in the first round.
Rush: El Phantasmo, yeah.
–What are your thoughts on him?
Rush: He’s very talented. There’s a reason why he’s in the position he’s in today. But he’s also a bit of a coward. He likes to take the easy route. That’s what’s different between he and I.
–You don’t like the easy route.
Rush: I’m not afraid of putting in the work and the effort. I don’t relate to ELP, I don’t respect him, but that seems to be the character traits of everyone in BULLET CLUB. I want to beat him and make a statement.
–You think he’s somewhat arrogant?
Rush: He is arrogant, he is cocky. I’ve been that way myself, but I’ve grown and changed where he hasn’t.
–We’ve all had to deal with the global pandemic this year, but Phantasmo in particular has been away from the ring for some ten months at this point. Is that something that’s going to make it difficult for him do you think?
Rush: I don’t know what his workout schedule is like, but for me, I’ve been on the move training, wrestling, and I have a lot of conditioning that he doesn’t. Unless he’s running up those mountains in Canada every day, and I’m not sure he is, then I will have the edge conditioning wise. It won’t be fun for him.
–And this is a one night tournament as well. Ideally you’ll be wrestling three matches in one night against very different opposition. Is that especially challenging?
Rush: It is, but I thrive in that environment. I’m used to tournaments; I was an All American amateur wrestler in high school, and in those tournaments I’d have to wrestle five or six times in one night that makes you used to wrestling more than once in a night. I don’t plan on losing.
Horus is innovative, and very strong with it
–On the other side of the bracket are Rey Horus and Blake Christian, two names you’ve wrestled before.
Rush: Yeah. I wrestled Rey once down in Tijuana for The Crash. I’d heard his name mentioned, and I knew he was getting booked all over the place, but when I finally got in the ring with him, I understood why. He’s incredible.
–You rate him.
Rush: A lot of Mexican wrestlers tend to have a very similar backbone in training, so that lucha libre style can be very similar between wrestlers, but he stood out. He was very innovative, he can do stuff I’ve never seen before, and he has a lot of strength as well.
–You’ve wrestled Blake Christian for GCW as well.
Rush: Blake is super young, super talented. I see myself in him, but he is a bit reckless.
–He takes a lot of risks.
Rush: He’s in the air all the time, and sometimes when you wrestle that way, you don’t get a perfect landing. You can crash and burn. He needs to be smart, especially in the first round, of a one night tournament.
ACH might be the strongest guy in the tournament
–ACH and TJP face off on the other side of the bracket.
Rush: I know ACH very well.
–A lot of people watching ACH on NJPW STRONG, and in GCW and the independents have talked about how much more mature he’s become in the last few months, that he’s wrestling like a veteran.
Rush: He’s put on a lot of size since we teamed together in Ring of Honor as well. Style wise, he takes a lot fewer risks. If anything he’s a powerhouse now. He might be the strongest guy in this tournament.
–You think he’ll try and outpower TJP?
Rush: Yeah. TJP likes to stay on the ground. He’s more technical, and that’ll make this a great match to see.
Connors is going to be very hungry
–The other first round matchup is Clark Connors and Chris Bey. Clark Connors won the Lion’s Break Crown tournament a couple of months ago, so he’s in a very similar position to where you were in 2016, having won the Young Prospects tournament in ROH.
Rush: He’s going to be very hungry. He has something to prove, and he’ll be looking to keep his momentum going. I’m glad he’s in the other bracket to me, because he’s going to be a difficult guy to face. He’ll be looking to show that he’s more than a Young Lion. I’ve been in that position, so I know how he feels.
–Do you have any thoughts on Chris Bey?
Rush: I’ve seen what he’s done on IMPACT. He’s another one who’s very confident and a little cocky. That might put him in a dangerous spot, because Connors is going to be very focused, he won’t play games.
–Who do you see from that side of the bracket making it to the final?
Rush: I think TJP. He’s a versatile guy and can do everything really, so that will help him in a situation like this. If he flies too much in the first round and hurts something, well he can change it up and stay on the ground in the second round and be just as dangerous. So I’ll say he’s got a good chance of making the final.
–Super J-Cup takes place on December 12, not two days after the Best of the Super Jr. final. Do you have an eye on what’s happening in Japan, or are you focused on the Super J-Cup?
Rush: I’m trying to stay aware of what’s happening, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I don’t want to think ‘if I win this J-Cup I might face that guy down the line’ or anything like that. But I am staying up to date with the tournament.
I know I can beat Hiromu, so it’d be interesting if we met again…
–You were tweeting at Hiromu Takahashi recently.
Rush: He’s obviously one of the favourites to win it all, and someone I actually wrestled him in ROH.
–When he was wrestling as Kamaitachi.
Rush: Right, so I know what he’s about and I know I can beat him, I’ve done it before. So it’d be interesting if we met again. And then I have a certain connection to BULLET CLUB, too…
Rush: Well, it’s interesting I’m facing Phantasmo in the first round, because I was Jay White’s very first match in ROH.
–When he was on excursion in 2016.
Rush: And we wound up making a tag team there as well. So it’d be fun for me to shut one of his boys up in the first round.
–Staying with BULLET CLUB, Taiji Ishimori is the current IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion. Your thoughts on him?
Rush: I’ve been trying not to say his name (laughs). But since you brought it up, I’ll give my two cents. He’s impressive. We’re a similar size and build, and his track record, being the champion, he has a target on his back from a lot of people. I’m one of them. I’ve been watching him for years, and I think we would have a hell of a fight if we were in the ring.
–2020 has been a challenging year for everyone, but heading into 2021, and hopefully with the pandemic behind us, what are your goals?
Rush: It’s easy. In 2021, I want to be in New Japan Pro-Wrestling in Japan. I want to be a mainstay over in Japan. I want to show I’m not just the Man of the Hour (MOTH), but the Man In Japan as well. Before I wanted to be in WWE, I wanted to be in NJPW. So I have a lot of guys I want to wrestle, but as soon as New Japan come knocking, that’s my priority.