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Q&A with Rocky Romero, on wrestling, backstage roles and NJPW STRONG

8 months ago Art by MP creative director Iwayan Setiawan

Art by MP creative director Iwayan Setiawan

Q&A with Rocky Romero, on wrestling, backstage roles and NJPW STRONG

By: Lyric Swinton

If you’re looking for a modern-day renaissance man in pro wrestling, Rocky Romero fits the bill. On one hand, he’s an excellent pro wrestler who is fundamentally sound and a confident veteran. 2023 has been a stellar one in the ring for Azucar. He’s had a rejuvenating year in CMLL as the World Historic Welterweight Champion and managed to pick up the MLW World Middleweight Championship along the way too. He’s wrestled in NJPW, CMLL, MLW, AEW, Impact, ROH, and is still known to take the occasional indie booking from time-to-time.

In his other roles in wrestling, Rocky Romero is one of the most important people in professional wrestling today. He’s the connector of the wrestling world that allows for a lot of the inter-promotional collaborations that fans have grown to look forward to, whether it’s AEWxNJPW Forbidden Door, IMPACTxNJPW Multiverse United, or more recently, a potential partnership between AEW and CMLL that landed Romero a well-received match versus Místico on AEW Rampage. He’s also the primary mind behind the NJPW STRONG brand and the King of Sports’ expansion throughout the United States.

He’s man who juggles wearing many hats. Monthly Puroresu was fortunate to catch up with him a few hours before NJPW STRONG’s last PPV of the year, Lonestar Shootout in Dallas, Texas.

Monthly Puroresu:
You’ve had a very long career, but what keeps you reinvigorated in 2023 to continue to just be a world beater and go everywhere and kill it?

Rocky Romero:
Honestly I think because I’ve had so many active years, I took kind of like a backstage role. But also I’ve just been in the back for the most part so that I feel like there’s still a lot left in the tank for me, knowing that I’m trying to do my best work that I can before it’s all said and done. I’m not trying to say that it’ll be hanging it up anytime soon, but you never know in this business, and you don’t know what opportunities might be presented to me because I’m doing more stuff backstage. I kind of wanted to take this year to kind of just focus on myself and my in-ring work.

Some amazing opportunities were presented to me. And Tony Khan (AEW) was very gracious in letting me have the stage on his show to work with Mistico and the same with MLW when they presented the idea to come over there and work with them, I was totally into it, and the same thing goes with CMLL. I feel like a lot of people kind of forget about me and kind of forget that I’m a pretty good wrestler and I have a ton of experience.

I want to keep proving that over the next couple years and really take what might be the last few years of my career in-ring and really give it the best shot that I can.

Monthly Puroresu:
Junior heavyweight wrestling has made a great resurgence here in the US and all over the world, and we’ve seen some awesome stuff, including All Star Jr. Festival USA. What is your vision for junior heavyweight wrestling, both in the US and globally as a wrestler and somebody who is making things happen behind the scenes as well?

Rocky Romero:
I feel like junior heavyweight wrestling is super important to me personally. My first introduction to Japanese wrestling was through the first two Super J Cup tournaments. It’s always had a big impact on me because I’m a junior heavyweight wrestler. I’ll never be a heavyweight wrestler. And that opened up the door for me to have a career. Then you talk about the cruiserweight division in WCW and what a huge impact that was on professional wrestling and especially on guys like me because I definitely felt like, “Wow, we can have jobs in big companies. Look how the sky’s the limit”. Right?

So for me, the business is changing and it’s more of an openweight business, especially in America. But I still do think for New Japan it’s such a staple and it’s kind of what sets NJPW apart from some of the other companies, especially AEW and WWE, that junior heavyweights are important, they’re successful, and you look at somebody like Hiromu Takahashi who has really transcended being a junior heavyweight and having that label. No one since Jushin “Thunder” Liger has done what he’s done.

I’d like to see more of that. I’d like to see more crossover between the juniors, challenging the heavyweights and being successful instead of sitting back in the distance. I think having a strong junior heavyweight presence and being able to keep pushing the narrative of junior heavyweights because that’s what separates us from everybody else. I just really love the style and there’s so many great and talented wrestlers that fit in that category, and I want to see it continue to prosper.

Monthly Puroresu:
It was very special to be able to bring that many different talents from all over the world from different promotions for All Star Jr. Festival. You have people signed, promotions from the independent wrestling scene. But for the show, would you like to see it possibly be expanded? Are you happy with it turned out this year to keep doing that? What’s the future of a All Star Jr. Festival type event going forward?

Rocky Romero:
I had this conversation with [Hiromu] Takahashi after the show. Obviously something like that takes a lot of planning, and there’s a lot of favors that you’ve got to ask. It’s not something that’s easily done. So with that in mind, I don’t think it’s something that we could do every year. I think it’s more like a J-Cup which takes place every three to four years – something special like the Olympics that you wait for to come around. I think that that’s more of the plan and that’s more reasonable for setting it up and executing it well.

Plus, three or four years gives a chance for new talent to kind of come up so that we’re not just using the same thirty or forty guys. Here’s an opportunity to look for new, up and coming talent. Some people will have moved onto other things. So that gives a certain specialty around it. The J-Cup was the perfect model for it. Something similar to that would definitely be the way to go.

The participants of the Super J Cup in 1995.

Monthly Puroresu:
Speaking of that specific model, the New Japan STRONG brand has introduced a women’s division that has been extremely diverse. And so piggybacking off of that framework for the All Star Junior Festival, could there be a potential or any interest in doing that type of tournament but for women, bringing in from different promotions all over the world. Would that ever be something you’ve ever been interested in or ever even thought about?

Rocky Romero:
I haven’t really given it much thought, but I honestly think it’s a really, really great idea. Hopefully I’ll get to use that one day. Having a women’s division in STRONG especially is obviously super important. Especially trying to make STRONG as different as possible from the Japanese brand is important. It goes along with the same thing as setting ourselves apart, like the junior heavyweight division sets New Japan apart from everyone else. For the STRONG brand, it’s something that fans have been waiting for, for a long time. When we were able to introduce it our sister company STARDOM has so many great talents, unbelievable talents that don’t get to really come over to America much and or internationally, that we’re able to have on these shows.

We have this huge roster and it’s full of depth, so I feel like we should be using that. It’s also pointing back towards STARDOM and getting people to get introduced to their product. So it’s a win for everybody overall. And I do think a women’s wrestling summit of some sort could be a really cool idea in progressing that completely.

The perception in Japan – I’m not really sure. Obviously New Japan has its hardcore fans and they’re so into the traditional aspects of it. But then you go and see when we did New Japan STRONG in Japan, and how well received the women’s matches on both nights were, especially Giulia vs. Willow Nightingale.

So I think even if some fans are more traditionalists, I feel like they’re becoming more open to the idea of having women on a traditional New Japan card. STRONG was a good way to open the doors a little bit more, but also I think that fans really understand how talented the women are and how talented the roster really is. It’s just a cool new addition to New Japan and New Japan STRONG. I love being able to work with STARDOM and it’s been really cool. I feel like we’re just scratching the surface and we still got a lot more to go.

Obviously with the NJPW Academy being open we’re finding brand new talents, male and female. Like you said, Trish Adora is a standout. Johnnie Robbie is a standout from that first class, in my opinion. Those were the two that stood out the most. And that’s why when we did the Academy show, they were the main event. We were able to get Johnnie over to CMLL this year; she did the Grand Prix. I definitely want to reward people who are talented, who come through the doors of the Academy and give them opportunities just as much as we would if we had the traditional Dojo system. But as we go along and we find these great talents, giving them opportunities and trying to help their careers along in any way possible is super important.

I’m excited about the women’s division. I think there’s a lot left to prove and go, and I wish that we had–like right now we’re doing the pay-per-view model– but I wish that we had more shows in-between to really develop storylines and develop the characters the way that I would really, really love to. That’s like the one thing that I think STRONG is missing. I feel like we got spoiled with doing the STRONG tapings and being able to develop everybody the way we, we really liked. I enjoyed it.

We were able to build a really hardcore audience in Japan and internationally as well. It’s so crazy to me that with the introduction of Tom Lawlor and Fred Rosser, kind of being the head of STRONG, how much over they were when they finally got to Japan, and people actually knew what they were doing through their characters. They knew their music, they knew everything. So in time, we’ll do the same thing with the with the women’s division.

Monthly Puroresu:
You’ve talked about it a little bit, but can you expand on what would you like to see going forward, especially in 2024 for New Japan STRONG and the integration of some of those New Japan Academy standouts going forward?

Rocky Romero:
Another cool concept that we’ve introduced is the STRONG Survivor Match. It started with Matt Vandergriff versus Buck Skynyr at the last show. And basically, you’ll be fighting for your spot on the card, which is kind of old school. I used to do it when I was an amateur wrestler in high school. Every week, even though like there might be a better guy at my weight, we’d have to do a wrestle-off every week to earn the spot to be in that weight class for that week in whatever tournament we were in. I think it’s cool concept, and obviously adds a bit more. It’s almost like the U.S of Jay story [with Jay White] and the fact that it’s not exactly a championship, but you have to defend something and there’s some stakes to it, rather than just doing a match.

So I think it’s a cool concept. It’s fresh and new, and probably in three or four shows time people will start to really catch onto it. Matt Vandergriff is a great standout from the NJPW Academy as well. I think there’s another way about it too, maybe having both the opening dark matches be one women’s match and one men’s match. That’s something I think could work out in the future. For now, it’s just about introducing overall here’s the championship, here’s the women that are in the division, and then maybe in the future we can get a STRONG Survivor match for the women’s division.

And then with STRONG: I would love to bring back some kind of weekly show for STRONG, on NJPW World and the hope would be that we can distribute it, whether it’s through television, through streaming or other places. But I think the concept works so well for the American division and it’s traditional to what American fans are used to. And then we put our own little twist on it where it’s really about the wrestling, it’s about the championships, it’s about these great rivalries when somebody does pick up a microphone to do a promo, it’s something that actually means something that’s important instead of just doing it to fill time.

Monthly Puroresu:
The name STRONG seems to have really woven its way both into New Japan and STARDOM with Giulia saying, “I want the strongest and only the strongest women.” then Trish Adora confronts her afterwards. Over in STARDOM at the Nagoya show on October 6th, Syuri took to the mic. She said: “I want all of the strongest women and only the strongest women to come fight me in Japan.”

Are you surprised as to how well the brand power has evolved and developed and the wrestlers that have taken to it over in Japan?

Rocky Romero:
Absolutely. When we were coming up with the name of what this product was going to be called, we knew we need to have a strong name for it <laugh>. I think it’s cool. It’s such a play-off of what New Japan is. Strong style is what it’s known for and has been known for, for the last 50 years. I love that the branding has started to really pick up and there’s so many plays on it because, it gets people to talk about the [STRONG] brand. So I do feel really good about the branding of New Japan of America. And I think for us, it’s just a matter of more people seeing the product, you know?

And that’s what it’s all about. We’re kind of like the underground version of New Japan in a way. It’s really for the hardcore hardcores that are looking for an alternative to the alternative, or looking for an alternative to some of the mainstream products that aren’t working for them. But when we were doing the taping shows, we would have a 40 minute show to an hour maximum. That was the cool thing about streaming on NJPW World, is that we could play with the times, and it doesn’t have to always be a two hour show. Some episodes you might get a little bonus of an extra five or ten minutes depending on if we had a big main event and you weren’t struggling with trying to make TV time work. There’s so many times when on TV, you have a big main event, but then some things go over time, and then you have to cut your main event down or maybe you might be able to get an extra two minutes on the backend.

That’s the power of streaming, being able to just do that freely. And it works for the New Japan product better than being constrained by TV time. But obviously if there was a TV deal that came through the pipeline, then we could easily adjust to it. We learned a lot in the two years that we ran STRONG on a weekly basis. It was a great opportunity for myself to learn in that process too because it’s not really my background. I’ve never been a TV wrestler. So I definitely learned a lot and I think that there’s still a lot of stuff that we could do better by far.

It was always cool to watch when people did praise STRONG and talk about it being, the best weekly TV show, or the best episodic wrestling. We were able to build a whole community of wrestling fans in Japan that were primarily watching STRONG every week and dedicated to the pay-per-views and tuning in. I think that the ultimate goal would be to bring that back and that format so that we can really produce strong angles, strong storylines, and also have focus on the up-and-coming wrestlers and giving them enough time to actually work things out and develop.

Monthly Puroresu:
You’re a man who wears many hats between being a wrestler, being a booker and also being a bridge-builder and a relationship manager in modern pro-wrestling between all of these different companies, promotions and styles. How do you balance all of those different hats that you’re wearing all at the same time?

Rocky Romero:
Balance is a good word. I don’t know how much I really am balancing all this. It’s more like the guys with the saucers on sticks. It feels like that sometimes. Sometimes you drop a bunch but you just keep going. I want to be remembered as a great wrestler and hopefully I’ll have some cool opportunities in the next few years before I do retire that people will remember me by, but at least if not, then I hope that they’ll remember all the cool things that I was able to connect really.  In the end, I’m just this connector. When stuff seems to make sense and there seems to be business there, it’s like: “Why are we so worried about our egos and things that have happened in the past and all this other stuff?”

If we really want to make a cool product and we really wanna bring in fans who have already seen everything. At this point, it’s hard to do new things. We’ve seen it all and done it all, so why not bring some of these walls down and try to do some cool stuff that will create business and it’ll work out for everybody.

Like with AEW and CMLL. AEW is in a highly Latino market and they could use something really special that week. Tony [Khan] and I had been talking about how could we bring Místico in, how we could get CMLL introduced into AEW. When that opportunity came, especially to where we were at, it helped AEW in selling more tickets and it also brought CMLL to a national light here in the United States, and people hadn’t seen Místico wrestle on national TV in a long time.

It was just a win-win for everybody. It all made sense. We saw when Tony put out the graphic it got millions of hits and millions and millions of views. So obviously it worked, so it’s nice when things kind of work out that way. The conversations between CMLL and trying to get them to work together wasn’t easy. They’re very traditional and they’ve been doing things one way for a very long time, so it’s hard to sometimes break that.  I’m just glad it worked out and I feel like there’s definitely gonna be some more crossover in the next couple months. There’s some stuff being discussed, hopefully it keeps going that route and still stays positive.

I’m doing the same thing with New Japan, whether they’re bigger deals like AEW and Forbidden Door or even smaller stuff with New Japan STRONG and MLW. I think MLW’s got a really great product, and what they’ve done and how they’ve built it has been really cool, primarily on YouTube and through those types of distribution platforms. It’s the perfect place to have New Japan STRONG talent, enter into MLW, and get the reps, especially since we’re not doing the weekly show. I feel like that’s a perfect place where we could have some crossover. We could also build some angles for our pay-per-views and have a system where people can go and work there and hone their skills.

And then our other big partner, IMPACT Wrestling, or soon to be TNA Wrestling – they’ve been awesome. Working with them got us back on AXS. Thursday nights are a big night for wrestling on AXS TV with the IMPACT show before and then the New Japan show after. Just building that relationship back and forth again; that was a completely dead relationship. New Japan said they would never work with TNA ever again. Now we’re both on the same night back to back. Scott D’Amore has been amazing to work with and TNA has an amazing roster.

They’ve also got the knockouts division which is spectacular. When you break it down, it’s one of the strongest women’s divisions in all of professional wrestling, so to introduce them into the STRONG side a little bit more would be cool, or maybe into STARDOM would be awesome. I think there’s just so much potential and it’s just another thing that we’re just kind of scratching the surface with but maybe in 2024, we can bring more of that stuff together.

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