The Undisputed Era’s Roderick Strong Talks Finding and Being True To Himself as a Performer

LaToya Ferguson

As a 20-year veteran of this business, Roderick Strong has proven himself over and over again. He’s obviously proven himself in the ring, with his unparalleled wrestling ability and stamina, as well as his very existence as “The Messiah of the Backbreaker.” But he’s also proven himself as a performer, with his (also unparalleled) ability to be so unlikable as a character that even his name (there was a period of time where ROH fans would simply chant “Roderick” at him in a condescending tone) and wrestling boots can get the crowd to rally against him. spoke with Undisputed Era’s Roderick Strong about his evolution as a character and performer over the years, as well as his son Troy’s own professional wrestling obsession and his dream gimmick for when he eventually hits the twilight of his career.

This interview—which was conducted approximately a year ago—has been edited for clarity.

We talked the other day about how you and the rest of The Undisputed Era all unwind together, but how do you unwind as an individual? How do you get out of wrestling mode? Or are you always kind of in that mode? I feel like I can kind of guess what the answer is to this one…

Hahaha, yeah, I’m kind of always in that mode. But, I’ve really—over the last few months—tried to figure out a formula that helps me decompress a little bit, that kind of brings me back to reality. But it’s always on the back of my mind, in my brain. Because it’s the only thing I’ve ever really done in my life. So for me, it’s just the constant thought process—and I’m surrounded by it. Obviously, my wife [Marina Shafir] is now in the business, and then my son absolutely loves it.

But that is one of my goals, to figure out the perfect formula. Currently, I tend to—when we come back from the road—go and do an infrared sauna, I’ll do a float tank. And they just allow me to relax myself, calm my brain, and feel rested, so I can be a little recharged when I get home, and I can be a husband and a father.

You bring up your son, Troy—he’s actually gotten really into WWE and NXT. I’m sure that’s very exciting for you and Marina. But how did he get so into it? Was there a moment where you realized he thought, “Wow, this is the coolest thing in the world.”

Just being around it. But obviously, the level of his obsessiveness for this is kind of crazy for a child of his age. You can ask anybody that’s been around him—he knows everybody’s entrance. He can do it and duplicate pretty much everyone and their mannerisms. And he’s been doing that kind of stuff since he was super young—like a year, year and a half. His attention to detail with it is extremely impressive.

And I do enjoy it very much, but I didn’t realize the level he would be obsessed with it. It catches me off guard sometimes, because I’m like, “Oh my god, he’s like a little version of me.” Because since I was 12 years old, this industry has consumed my life. So, it’s pretty wild.

And when you were 12 years old, who were those guys you’d watch on TV that made you so obsessed with this business?

It’s interesting when it comes to WWE, like the way I looked at it. Because when I was younger—when I was little, little, like five, six—I was a Hulk Hogan guy. And the usual suspects when it comes to being a fan of certain people.

But when I got back into it, when I was 12, I got into it from the aspect of learning how to do it. My dad was being trained, and I was learning how to wrestle as well. So I then started watching it from a constructive criticism detail, from the perspective that it was a job. Then I started going towards like Bret Hart, Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith, Dynamite Kid, Shawn Michaels, the smaller guys.

And it was cruiserweights—Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero—just guys that I felt like I could relate to the style and size.

Flash forward and your boy Troy ended up engaged in a pretty nasty feud with Malcolm Bivens. How did that happen?

Hahaha. Yeah, I think Troy’s involved with a feud with everybody. But his biggest, hottest feud—this is, I feel, close to a blood feud, maybe—him and Malcolm Bivens.

You know, Malcolm Bivens is a loud, over the top guy, and Troy felt disrespected, I believe. We haven’t sat down to really dive into exactly why he hates Malcolm that much, but I just know Malcolm was a little disrespectful [to me and Marina].

And, I feel bad for Malcolm. Because Troy is still young, and as time goes on, he is going to get bigger. [Ed. note: The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Malcolm Bivens.] And I think he’s going to continue to beat him up, until Malcolm is no longer around.

Do you think we’ll ever see that match on an NXT TakeOver? I know that would mean Malcolm would actually have to be on TV though… [Ed. note: Malcolm Bivens has finally ended up on TV.]

I don’t know. Troy’s a big enough star now that maybe he will be able to bring Malcolm up, maybe on the pre-show. Maybe we can get them there.

Roderick Strong, chopping it up with Keith Lee (source: WWE)
Roderick Strong, chopping it up with Keith Lee (source: WWE)

Prior to NXT, you were on the independent scene for many years. What is it that being on the independent scene did to prepare you for NXT and WWE? To prepare you for the Performance Center and that whole environment?

For me, personally, the biggest thing was just experience. And I had the opportunity to main event all over the world. You know, big crowds, small crowds, just feeling the pressure of that, is one of the things that really prepared me for coming to NXT and WWE, in general.

Because, a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to compete in the upper echelon, to main event for the length and amount of time as I was. Because I was in Ring of Honor for almost 13 years. So, just the opportunity to work with all of the guys that came through there and be in a program with a majority of them, to be able to headline shows with them and just feel all of that pressure. You can fail while doing that and succeed in certain areas.

It’s a lot of failing, and it prepared me to succeed when the lights are the brightest. And being able to work guys with so many different styles and realize that there’s so much for me to learn. Because I wasn’t necessarily traditionally-trained. So to work guys that had the British style or the lucha libre style or the Japanese strong style—they’re all just so drastically different. Kind of learning as I go.

So yeah, the bottom line is the experience of being in the tough spots, and failing quite a few times, just to learn how to succeed when the pressure was at its most.

You brought up how, as a kid, you were eventually able to watch constructively and kind of break it down in that way. Nowadays, as a performer yourself, when people watch a “Roderick Strong match,” it’s unlike anyone else’s match. So what exactly is your philosophy on wrestling? In the ring, in the business as a whole—what is it you want people to know about you as a performer?

I think the thing is, I just always give them my all. Not like everybody doesn’t try hard, but every time you see me, I want people to get lost in it. And I want people to question if I’m hurting my opponent with something or if they’re killing me. Like, to me, I want it to be as real as it possibly can be, for what it is. And that’s one of the things that took time, and I eventually found myself getting lost in it. No matter how big the matches, no matter how small it is. Just being able to lose myself in those five minutes to 60 minutes, it doesn’t matter. And I want people to do the same.

I love this business. I love doing it, I love everything about it. And I just want to, pay respect to the job I love every time I’m out there.

We talked before about your PWG Championship reign and how it was kind of unlike anything else you’d ever done in your career. People obviously knew before, like, “Roddy—he’s no-nonsense in the ring.” and that was it. But once you transitioned to that particular asshole character, it kind of became synonymous with you ever since.

Yeah, it was very interesting. It was in 2014, I had a [WWE] tryout alongside Kevin [Owens], ACH, a few other guys. And I got a, “No, we don’t have anything for you currently.” And it was one of those things, just kind of a come to Jesus meeting with myself. And it just was like, “Listen, you’ve got the technical part down. Now we need to show more of who you are.”

And I’d shown them little bits and bursts here and there in Ring of Honor and kind of everywhere else. But it was one of those things that changed my mind completely, and I said, “This is going to end up being the focal point of what you’re doing for the next few years.” To just show everybody. And just for myself, like a challenge of, “Can I really do it?” And just PWG, the guys that run it, just trusting me. Because I came to them and was like, “Listen, I want to do this. This is kind of my plan.” And I got to have my hand in all of that, the whole time that it was going on.

And for me, the trust from them in me, brought out a confidence that I never really had before. It’s not like any other company hadn’t trusted me and put me in great spots. But just allowing me to kind of do whatever I want, was huge. And that made me get so comfortable and realize like, “oh, this is the avenue that I need to go. Like, I get it.” You know, I can be a “good guy,” a “babyface.” But when it comes to my mentality, and what I feel money is for me, that’s as a bad guy, as the heel, is because of the way I work. Because, I don’t work like a traditional heel. And to me, that was the biggest thing. And it was, at the time, like the greatest two-year run of my life. It’s something that really helped get me prepared for coming to NXT and WWE. And, I’m so grateful for that time.

I mean, just personally as a fan, I remember that era. Everyone who saw you live at PWG or watched the DVDs at the time, they knew how great you had become. A lot of people who weren’t watching that, they still saw you as just Roderick, the quote-unquote generic guy and they missed out on something special. But I feel like you did change a lot of minds, honestly.

That was the goal. And it changed my mind too. When you’re in that position, and you’ve done something for so long, there is insecurity. The real life me, and the wrestler me, sometimes are too much one and the same. And I would let myself get in my own head about stuff. And just really trusting the whole process of that, made me far more comfortable in myself and my career.

I think it shows, the level of comfort once the switch flipped, honestly. You just seemed more, I guess, at ease, possibly? If that makes sense.

Yeah. Because, then I’m not trying to be something that I’m not. Like personally, I know I’m a nice guy. I’m a good person, whatever. But deep down inside, there’s just stuff in me. And I just prefer it to be that way. I like to be disliked, I guess?

I worked my whole life as a child to try to be accepted because my childhood was tough. And you realize that it’s kind of a necessity, and just to be yourself. And the more I became comfortable with that, the more I was like, “Oh, I like not being liked.”

Well, it works for you.


Generation Next (Jack Evans, Austin Aries, Alex Shelley, Roderick Strong) (source: ROH Wrestling)
Generation Next (Jack Evans, Austin Aries, Alex Shelley, Roderick Strong) (source: ROH Wrestling)

Before we get more into present-day stuff, I want to turn back the clock a little bit more. Alex Shelley appeared in NXT, as part of the Dusty Classic, so I would love to talk about Generation Next and that whole experience back in the day in Ring of Honor.

Oh yeah. I mean, I just think about my current situation. When I joined Undisputed Era, that was one of the things I actually thought about: how I’ve just been in groups that were kind of thrown together, of random people. Obviously, other than Mount Rushmore 2.0.

But one of my goals in wrestling was to make it to Ring of Honor. And the fact that I had an opportunity to make it to Ring of Honor but also make such a big impact when I did, when I finally started with the company full-time, was unbelievable. It seemed surreal for the longest time. And then, being able to work with three guys that I didn’t really know at all—I had been on shows with them randomly. And being able to build a relationship with those guys, and kind of grow up together, was pretty wild. And it’s something that 15 years later, 16 years later, it’s still talked about. Couldn’t ask for something better.

No Remorse Corps (Davey Richards, Roderick Strong, Rocky Romero) (source: ROH Wrestling)
No Remorse Corps (Davey Richards, Roderick Strong, Rocky Romero) (source: ROH Wrestling)

Then after Generation Next, your next “thrown-together” group was you were part of the No Remorse Corps. Could you talk about that?

Yeah. I mean, for me, Gabe [Sapolsky] gave me an opportunity to be in the position that a lot of people said I could be in—and that’s being a leader and being in the forefront and kind of, taking Ring of Honor into its new era.

And I think for me personally, it was a failure for me.

Just because, I just wasn’t comfortable, and I tried to be something other than what I was. In the sense of, I changed my style. I just wasn’t being true to who I am. I don’t know, the more I think about that, the more it upsets me that I let myself do that. But it was a learning experience, and it prepared me for times like now. I think about that time a lot now. Like I said, I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. So I’m like, “I’m a bad guy now, so now I kind of do none of my cool moves. I can’t do anything. I don’t want a reaction at all.”

And I ended up taking away part of who I was, just to keep the attention, you know? If I was staying true to who I was as a performer, I’d still have the eyes on me and I could make small adjustments. But I didn’t. They were too drastic too quick. And I think it hurt me, for a couple of years. But you know, it was a learning experience. So I’m happy I went through it.

What about the House of Truth? Because I feel like that was more in line with the kind of character that you ended up becoming. Were you more comfortable in that position than you were when you were in the No Remorse Corps?

Oh, a hundred percent. And see that, Truth Martini’s amazing. He’s another guy that I didn’t really know though, and we got stuck together. But it was one of those things that clicked. We had constant communication. We were always or sort of on the same page. I learned a lot from him, when it comes to the character stuff. And his belief, in me as a performer, helped me a ton. And I think that run was fun for different reasons.

But I learned a lot from Truth. He’s extremely underrated in the fact that he’s just a great manager, and he was a great wrestler. I just learned a lot during that time. It was awesome. It was so random, but it was awesome at the same time.

As someone who’s done extensive work both in a singles career and in factions and tag teams, how would you describe the experiences of all of that? Some people are just singles forever, tag team or faction people forever. But you’ve kind of gotten to do it all, and for a substantial amount of time.

Singles is great, but I really truly enjoy the tag team and group situations. Just because there’s so much to learn in this business. And, with the guys like Adam [Cole], Bobby [Fish], and Kyle [O’Reilly], we’re constantly bouncing ideas off each other. They’re telling me stuff they’re thinking about, I’m telling them stuff I’m thinking about, and we can form our own opinions over time. But we’re really helping and pushing each other forward and trying to make the best person to then create the best group.

The Undisputed Era, draped in gold (source: WWE)

And I think that’s one of the things, as a singles performer, you don’t get. Obviously, you have your buddy that you can chat with and stuff. But it’s a lot different when everyone’s kind of affected by these decisions and the ideas that you have. There’s a little bit different pressure. And it’s more fun when Kyle’s got a sweet idea, we do it, and it turns out amazing. It’s awesome to celebrate those small victories with each other. And then when big stuff ends up being amazing, it’s even better.

So, I mean, I can do any situation, but I really prefer the group setting. I think it benefits everyone greatly.

With the way WWE signs people, you have people who’ve never wrestled before, but you also have veterans with years of experience from the indies. The latter category is probably filled with a lot of the people you’ve wrestled before signing to WWE. So do you prefer getting to mix it up again in a WWE ring with these veterans or do you prefer newcomers, who are kind of like a blank canvas in a way?

There’s no personal preference. I feel NXT—the Performance Center—is exactly what it should be, where you have people with experience from all over the world and then you have your people from whatever background they may have. It needs to vary like that.

For me, I enjoy wrestling people that have wrestled before. Especially if they never thought we would be in a WWE ring. But I also like working with the younger people. Because that is how I got to the point where I’m at now—I had the opportunity to work with CM Punk, Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, [Daniel Bryan], 2 Cold Scorpio, you name it. Matt Hardy. I got an opportunity when I was out and I was in Ring of Honor and on the indies to work with these guys. And it was just priceless experience. And a lot of the stuff I didn’t fully realize until years later. And it finally clicked, what they were talking about and their situations.

So for me, I think the Performance Center is set up just like I would expect it to be. And, it’s awesome. Just to see the growth of the people that really take the best and use it for what it is.

So who haven’t you been in the ring with yet that you’d love to go toe-to-toe with? In NXT, or anyone on the RAW or SmackDown?

I mean, I’ve said that Roman Reigns is a guy that I would love to work with. The Miz, John Morrison, The Usos. I’d like to work with Seth Rollins in a WWE ring. Because we had a nice little feud in Ring of Honor. Daniel Bryan, of course. I’d love a singles match with AJ. There’s just so many people. Just to think about the opportunity to work with all these guys. Unbelievable. Someone like Bobby Lashley, I’d love to work with.

You know, all the matches that you wouldn’t really have ever expected to see me have, those are the matches I’d want to have. And just really be able to tear the house down with those guys.

Absolutely. So now I have a very important question. We’ve talked about your prior struggles with finding your character. But, if you had to have a gimmick, like the ones in the ‘80s and early ‘90s—a professional gimmick like The Goon or IRS—what would your gimmick be?

I would do a fitness gimmick.

Like a Simon Dean?

Like a Simon Dean. That would be in my wheelhouse as a gimmick, because I am obsessed with that kind of stuff.

“The Strong System?”

Exactly. Yeah. Just drinking nothing but protein shakes.

Oh god, you’re just trying to get everyone else to drink the protein shakes?

That’s it! Now that would actually be kind of funny.

That might have to start being your gimmick now.

There’s also… This is a gimmick I talked about, like when I’m near the end of my run. Just turn into this character that just cries about everything. “Crybaby” Roderick Strong. I actually joked about it like 10 years ago. Because I found out I can make myself cry. I shouldn’t have put that out there—

Oh yeah.

But yeah, just everything that happens, just a fricken intense, intense cry. Sobbing. They’d be like, “But you just won the world title.” But it’s like this nasty cry. Not the like, “I’m so happy I did this.” Just nasty.

So, “Crybaby” Roderick Strong would probably be my gimmick.

I guess we have to close on that because how do you get better than “Crybaby” Roderick Strong?

True. One day when I’m like, 52 on the indies, I’m going to be weeping. And you’ll be like, “Oh, he told me about that.”

I might have to make that the headline. “Why Roderick Strong Would Like To Be Called ‘Crybaby’ Roderick Strong.” It’s a pretty amazing idea. I really do hope you’re able to follow through on that.

Yeah. Just at the end of my run though. I don’t want the middle of my run to be turned into that. That would be brutal.

If the wrong people hear about this, it might happen pretty soon.

Yeah, right? That’s funny.

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