To say that Lio Rush has been through a lot in WWE over the past few years would be an understatement.
Just a few years into his career, he was already turning heads on the independent scene with his incredible athleticism and his gift for gab. So much so that in the summer of 2017, Rush was signed by WWE to be part of the NXT brand at only 22 years old.
The brash young star immediately gained attention — but some for the wrong reasons, including criticism for a tweet about Emma being released by the company that he felt was a joke. After a hiatus, he returned to the ring as part of 205 Live.
As talented as Rush was in the ring, his role shifted as he became the manager and hype man for Bobby Lashley to take advantage of his immense mic skills. That only lasted until WrestleMania 35, and then he disappeared.
Rush needed a mental break from what had become an overwhelming situation. He was earning a reputation for having a bad attitude, and several WWE legends, including Booker T and Mark Henry, spoke out about him, hoping that he would shape up and take advantage of the opportunity in front of him. However, there were questions as to whether he would get another chance.
The time off helped heal any wounds, and Rush made his return to NXT in September. Just three weeks later, he defeated Drew Gulak for the NXT cruiserweight championship. While he lost the title the following month to Angel Garza, Rush is finally back on track and putting on showcase matches to prove why he calls himself the “king of the cruiserweight division.”
Wednesday night on NXT television — airing from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET on the USA Network — Rush has an opportunity to win back the title when he faces Jordan Devlin for the NXT cruiserweight championship.
Sporting News caught up with Rush to discuss his NXT return, everything he has gone through these past few years, and his big championship match.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
SPORTING NEWS: Congrats on all of these great matches you’ve had over the last couple of months since we’ve seen you back in NXT. What have these last few months been like for you?
LIO RUSH: I feel like, with me returning to NXT, it was a huge opportunity for me to show the world, to show NXT, to show the people that have only seen me on 205 Live and Monday Night Raw and stuff like that, to show everybody that I got signed to the WWE because I was one of the greatest cruiserweights in the world. I know that my first run in NXT was very short, and a lot of people, they weren’t used to seeing me in the light that I was in.
On Monday Night Raw, I was just strictly in a manager role. So to be in NXT with the second run and to show everybody what I can do in the ring is pretty cool, and it’s been an incredible experience. I’ve been having tons of fun with it as well and just doing what I love doing and proving to everybody that I’m here for a reason. I got signed to the WWE because I’m the greatest cruiserweight in the world, so it’s pretty cool.
SN: You’re back in the ring and focused on having great matches. There’s a lot of amazing talent in NXT and in the cruiserweight division. You’ve been tearing it up with so many different guys lately including Angel Garza last week on television in a match that really got crazy. What’s it like being able to do what you enjoy most in being in the ring and having so many great people to work with?
LR: Yeah, man. It’s been rough the last few matches that I’ve had, and in NXT or just in general since I’ve been back have been, I feel like, some of my best performances to date. The amount of talent that’s in NXT right now is absolutely ridiculous. It’s incredibly stacked, just top-tier athletes and to be able to compete in the ring with them — well known, independent talent that got scouted by the WWE to come to NXT and prove why they’re there, to prove that they’re the best wrestlers in the world. And to test my skills up against guys like Angel Garza and Drew Gulak and Oney Lorcan and just veterans and experienced guys — it’s been quite the experience for me just to test myself to see if I’m as good as I think I am.
SN: We didn’t see you following WrestleMania 35 in April until last September when you rejoined NXT. What was going on with you during that sabbatical from WWE?
LR: During that time, I was in a bad mental space. I feel like I’ve been pretty open with the public about my issues with depression and anxiety and stuff like that. I just needed a little break. I needed some time away to rethink, to be with my family, to remind myself of why I wanted to be a sports entertainer in the first place and be in the WWE in the first place. And that experience that I had on “RAW” was a very cool experience. I got to work with veterans of this business, people that have been a part of this business for so long. I’ve gotten to be on every single last pay-per-view. I’ve gotten to walk out at the Royal Rumble. I’ve gotten to walk out at WrestleMania. All of the things that takes guys so long to accomplish and I accomplished it all in six months. And, that time, I’m incredibly grateful for but, at the same time, it was eating me up.
Just because, again, I got signed to the WWE to be one of the greatest cruiserweights, and it was hard for me. It was hard to not be in the ring. It’s hard to not show the world what I was capable of in the ring. So I accomplished what I accomplished on Monday Night Raw, and to come back to NXT was a huge, huge step for me. And yeah, I’m grateful that I’m here. I’m grateful that I’m a part of NXT, grateful that I’m in the ring with the amount of talent that I’m in the ring with. Yeah, just had to regroup, rethink, refocus, and get back to work.
SN: It feels like you’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in WWE and you’ve been there for only two and a half years. You’ve faced a lot of criticism and had a couple of breaks, but now you’re back in the fold in NXT. How would you describe your time so far with everything that has gone on?
LR: I feel like since day one in WWE, I’ve always had something going on with me. Like you said, I’ve faced a lot of criticism. I feel like going into the WWE, I kind of already had some criticism and not a very good, I guess, reputation that was formed by others about me. So walking into the WWE, I felt like I kind of already had to look over my shoulder to see who was watching stuff like that. But again, I feel like a lot of that has come from being only 21, 22 years old and being signed to the WWE already having years of experience on the independent circuit and being inside at such a young age. So a lot comes with that. A lot of good, a lot of bad comes with that.
And yes, I have experienced a lot of ups and downs within the company, probably a lot more than people 10-plus years in the company have experienced, and it was traumatizing for me in a sense. But the way that I grew up and the area that I grew up in and the things that I’ve been through as a teenager I feel like prepared me for everything that I’ve been going through in the WWE. It showed me to push through and to fight for the things that you want and what you believe in, and to never back down or be discouraged by criticism or people saying that you can’t do this, you can’t do that. I just had to push through all of it. It’s been one hell of a ride. Man, it’s been crazy.
SN: You mentioned this reputation that some people perceive when it comes to you. What have you been able to do over the last six months to try to get past that reputation whether it’s rightfully earned or not?
LR: I feel like much has changed from the person that people perceive me as before the six-month hiatus to now. Like I said, I felt like I was just in a very bad mental space and the frustrations of not being able to be in the ring and stuff like that. I guess through the six months, I kind of told myself that I need to focus, I need to remind myself why I’m here. I need to remind myself of who I’m doing this for. This started off as a dream, just for me, when I was a kid. I’ve always wanted to be a professional wrestler. I always wanted to be in the WWE, and it started off as a dream for me, but the older that I got, the more things that I’ve been through.
You know, having siblings, having parents that are getting older, having grandparents that are getting older, having a wife, having two kids. The dream for myself slowly started to develop as a dream and something that I wanted to pursue for the people that I love so that I can change people’s lives, change the situation, motivate people, inspire people. So, I feel like I’m doing this not only for myself but for so many people that look up to me and see me as a role model or a father figure or anything that is in that general area. All of that kind of helps me push through tough times. I have a lot of people that I would let down, a lot of people that would be discouraged. I feel like there’s an army behind me, and I’m leading the charge, so I gotta be there. I gotta put in the work and I have to push through.
SN: With all of that being said, are you surprised you’re still at WWE? There were times where I think a lot of people said he’s gone, he’s not going to make it.
LR: (Laughs) Man, I feel like I’ve asked myself this question a lot like. I’m not gonna lie to you, man. There were some times and some points where I thought that this was the end. And more than one occasion. More than twice, three times, four times. There were a bunch of times where I thought like, wow, this is it, and a bunch of times where I thought like, you know, where do I go from here? This is all I wanted to do since I was 5 years old. I wanted to be in the WWE, specifically. I wanted to be a part of the WWE. I wanted to have a long career. I wanted to be a Hall of Famer.
Am I surprised that I’m still in the WWE? I wouldn’t necessarily say surprised. I don’t know if surprise is the word that I would go for. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to still be here. I’m not going to say that I’m surprised that they still kept me here or anything like that because I feel like that would be a very arrogant thing to say. The one thing I am is grateful.
I’m grateful that I still have the opportunity to do what I love while making money and doing it. I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to work and wrestle as many guys as I have at the level and the caliber of entertainers and athletes that there are. I’m grateful that they see that I’m an asset to the company, in WWE, NXT. I’m grateful that they see something special in me at such a young age and that they’re willing to allow me to work out the kinks and go through these things to develop not only as a person but as a performer and businessman in the company.
SN: You’ve got this big match coming up on NXT television Wednesday night where you’ll face Jordan Devlin for the NXT cruiserweight championship. How is your approach now, especially mentally, considering everything you’ve gone through and having worked to get back to this position where you’re in a major match trying to win back this championship?
LR: I’m going into this match very confident. I said this a couple of days ago, but I think Jordan Devlin should be afraid. (laughs) I genuinely think that he should be afraid. I think that he’s saying that he doesn’t have butterflies, if he’s not nervous, he’s lying through his teeth. I’ve been through so much in the WWE. I’ve accomplished so many things. I’ve accomplished things that a lot of people are trying to accomplish. I’ve lived out other people’s dreams, and I’m still going after the things that they’re trying to get leverage on like Jordan Devlin saying that he’s the greatest cruiserweight champion.
I’ve already been a cruiserweight champion. He said that he’s the greatest in the world. I’ve proven that I’m one of the greatest not only in-ring performers in the world but sports entertainers in the world. I can literally do it all, and I’m not afraid to be thrown to the wolves because I’ve proven that I can excel and succeed in anything that is put in front of me. I’m as hungry as I’ve ever been before. I’m more driven than I’ve ever been before. I’ve never wanted to prove somebody wrong as much as I wanted to prove Jordan Devlin wrong because I feel like he’s underestimated me. I’m a different breed, man, and that’s what people aren’t understanding, but it’s going to stick. This Wednesday, they’re going to see that I’m only 25 years old. I’ve accomplished so much in the world of sports entertainment, professional wrestling, and I haven’t even gotten started yet. I’m hungry to show everybody that I am the greatest cruiserweight in the world and he should be afraid. He should truly be afraid.
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