If there's one pet peeve Jay Lethal has in terms of how fans and journalists alike describe the first weekend each year in April, it would be their choice of terminology.
"Not to take anything away from any company and how they are built throughout the years, but it really has seemed to be 'Wrestling Weekend,' not so much 'WrestleMania Weekend' because there has always been so many shows surrounding the big event," Lethal told CBS Sports last week.
The "big event" he's referencing, of course, is WrestleMania 35, WWE's version of a sports entertainment Super Bowl which emanates from MetLife Stadium on Sunday, April 7 as the crown jewel of a nearly week-long celebration in and around greater New York City.
But as Lethal references, WWE's extravaganza is not the only show in town. Wrestling promotions of all shapes and sizes have smartly benefitted from running big shows for years in the same city and on the same weekend as WrestleMania. This year, however, things feel different.
Lethal will enter a much-anticipated three-way ladder match as Ring of Honor world heavyweight champion on Saturday, April 6 when ROH and New Japan Pro-Wrestling team up to present G1 Supercard which airs on traditional pay-per-view (7:30 p.m. ET) and streams free for HonorClub members on the ROH and FITE apps and at ROHHonorClub.com.
The major significance in this case is that the sold-out show will be held at Madison Square Garden, which has long been considered home to WWE dating back to the origins of the company in the 1950s.
Not only has "The World's Most Famous Arena" served as the site for landmark WrestleManias I, X and XX, this year will mark the first time a wrestling promotion not owned by the McMahon family will run a show at MSG since 1960. G1 Supercard, which sold out the 18,500-seat venue in 19 minutes and will serve as NJPW's east coast debut in the U.S., will also shatter ROH's attendance record of 6,100 set during last year's WrestleMania weekend in New Orleans.
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Yet for all the talk about someone other than WWE providing real competition to the undisputed champion of wrestling promotions, Lethal said he and the other wrestlers in the ROH locker room aren't focused on that narrative, even after WWE chose to move its NXT TakeOver: New York card one day earlier as, in theory, to avoid directly competing with G1 Supercard.
"As cool and as catchy as that sounds, I actually don't think anyone sees it that way, at least not on our roster," Lethal said. "The way we see it is this is wrestling at its finest and wrestling is in a boom period right now. Because of this boom period, things that we thought were impossible -- including another company running at Madison Square Garden, let alone selling it out -- are now possible.
"Walls in this wrestling world that were up are now being broken down because of this boom period. What a fantastic time to be a professional wrestler and what a fantastic time to be a professional wrestling fan. It's an amazing time for wrestling right now."
It's also an amazing time to be Lethal, who is doing the best work of his career at age 33 as the longest-reigning ROH world champion in company history. The 18-year veteran is the rare worldwide star who hasn't wrestled a day in WWE and enters the biggest match of his career -- whether he wants to recognize it or not -- competing against said company on its biggest weekend.
G1 Supercard also represents a homecoming for Lethal, who resides in Tampa, Florida, today yet was born Jamar Shipman in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Not only has Lethal never wrestled at MSG, he has only entered the building one time before despite growing up just a 15-minute train ride from Penn Station, which serves as the basement to the arena.
"Growing up as one of six [children], when we had any type of outings, we couldn't take one or two kids, we had to take them all," Lethal said. "You couldn't single one out."
Lethal, the son of a blue-collar father and stay-at-home mother, calls it nothing short of "checking off your bucket list" to wrestle in MSG considering he grew up a then-WWF fan so close to the building. He visited the building just once for a WWE show with some friends in his early 20s but watched so many wrestling PPV cards from MSG from his home that he now looks back on his time as a young fan as being more strategic to helping him get to where he is today than he initially realized.
"I thought I was watching it as a fan, but what I was actually doing was studying it," Lethal said.
The education didn't end there, however. Always a willing student, Lethal describes the nearly two decades he has spent "under the learning tree" of veterans at ROH and TNA Impact Wrestling as having "won the lottery" due to how much it has helped him become the star he is today. Lethal's mentors are a who's who of pro wrestling over that time span, many of which headline WWE's biggest shows in the current era.
"Only about a year and a half [into my career], I had Samoa Joe take me under his wing," Lethal said. "I was learning from guys like CM Punk, who requested to work with me. I was getting to work with Bryan [Daniel Bryan] Danielson and Nigel McGuinness, and then shortly after, I got a trip to Japan where I learned how to wrestle different styles. Then I came back a few years later and I went to Impact Wrestling, where I got to step into the ring with one of the best technical wrestlers in the world, Kurt Angle, and get schooled on the aspects of technical wrestling.
"I learned politics in wrestling and how to carry yourself in and out of the ring by becoming friends with Kevin Nash. Then I learned how to cut wrestling promos from the master of wrestling promos, Ric Flair, by going into a program with him. Then I got to step into the ring with guys like Jeff Hardy and Sting. I feel like it all prepared me for the role I would assume here at a later date, which is becoming the face of Ring of Honor and becoming the world champion."
Lethal also credits his time in Impact Wrestling with breaking him out of his shell to develop the kind of charisma that has helped him stand out for his impressions of Flair or his tribute act to the late Randy Savage that he dubs the character "Black Machismo." Lethal wore one of Savage's jackets to the ring at the independent PPV "All In" last September and wrestled with Lanny Poffo, a WWE legend and Savage's younger brother, in his corner. The two have developed a friendship, which includes weekly lunch dates in Tampa.
Now, as the veteran in ROH, he is enjoying getting to help build up the younger talent while producing the best in-ring work of his career. At the ROH 17th anniversary show in Las Vegas on March 15, Lethal wrestled Matt Taven to a 60-minute draw that set up the three-way match on April 6 involving both wrestlers and Marty Scurll.
"I'm getting to be in there with guys who are super hungry like a Matt Taven and super underrated like a Jay Briscoe," Lethal said. "They are some of the best wrestlers that I have ever seen and I'm about to go into Madison Square Garden with them, and the coolest part about it is everybody on our roster goes out through the curtain with one main goal in mind and that's to make Ring of Honor as big as we can possibly make it.
"That's what every wrestler is attempting, and to see that we are now going into Madison Square Garden, a lot of the wrestlers are patting each other on the back and patting the legends who came before us like an AJ Styles and Samoa Joe for helping to pave the way for an opportunity to like this."
When Lethal talks about the current boom period and the opportunities it creates, he also isn't looking past his own situation.
Lethal enters ROH's biggest show in company history as not just its world champion but the first African-American world champion the promotion has ever crowned. In an industry where wrestlers of color haven't historically been given that distinction on a consistent basis -- during the same time frame that his friend, Kofi Kingston, has an opportunity to do something similar chasing the WWE championship at WrestleMania -- Lethal knows full well the gravity of what he has accomplished.
"I'm not saying that any company I have worked for has purposely avoided [booking African-American wrestlers as champion] but the company that I work for now, Ring of Honor wrestling, is giving me the chance to show the world what I can do and I'm not ignorant to the fact that not many African-American wrestlers have been given the chance that I have been given. It feels amazing, it feels so good.
"I couldn't have written a better story or paid for a better learning experience than I have had my entire career which not only prepared me to become a world champion of a company known around the world for its wrestling but actually being the champion going into a sold out Madison Square Garden, which is proof that the wrestling world is changing. Things that we thought were impossible are now becoming possible."