Nearly twenty years in the making, I recently had a chance to sit down with Rocky Romero for his first interview with SCU. We talked about the beginning of his career, the changes in the Southern California wrestling scene, his music, the plans for New Japan America and so much more. Click for the full interview.
Steve: All right. I’m here with Rocky Romero after Bar Wrestling. It’s crazy but I don’t think we’ve done an interview with you before on SCU…
Rocky Romero: I don’t think so. I’m not even sure.
Steve: I’d have to check that actually, maybe we did one with you and Ricky [Reyes], but I don’t know, I don’t remember for sure.
Rocky Romero: If we did it’s been like 15 or 20 years.
Steve: So let me start at the beginning then. How did you first get into wrestling and decide that you wanted to be a wrestler?
Rocky Romero: So I used to watch wrestling with my grandma. So my parents used to work during the weekends, so Saturday they would drop me off with my grandma. My grandma’s from Puerto Rico. She’s like an old Puerto Rican lady. So her regimen, she let me watch cartoons or whatever. Then at like one o’clock over here in LA Superstars would come on. So that was like a ritual. She’d make fucking Jello and we would sit down. She was diabetic, so it would be sugar-free Jello.
We’d watch Superstars at 1:00. She was like I said, she’s like an old Puerto Rican lady. So she used to get all hyped up and like get pissed off and throw chocolates at the TV. So I think her excitement and energy that she had for wrestling was kind of magnetic for me. Even though watching it through a TV screen it could get me excited because she was excited. So I think that that’s like my first memories of being pumped about wrestling.
Steve: And you trained at EWF?
Rocky Romero: Yeah, with Jesse [Hernandez] who’s right over there.
Steve: How did you find EWF? I mean because the internet wasn’t really as big of a thing back in the 90s yet?
Rocky Romero: So it was so weird. So the only school that I really knew of was APW, right? Because of the documentary, what’s it called?
Steve: Beyond the Mat.
Rocky Romero: Beyond the Mat. So I was like, “When I turn 18 I’m going to go.” I had called Roland [Alexander (APW promoter)] and talked to him. They had this pamphlet and they sent it to me and I was like, “Oh cool.” So I was treasuring this pamphlet. I was like, “Okay, when I turn 18 I’m going to move to San Francisco, I’m going to Hayward, I’m going to do the whole thing.”
Then maybe like six months later or so, I’m just on the internet, like the early days of the internet. So I’m looking, for wrestling stuff, and somehow I stumbled upon this EWF’s website and I see a School of Hard Knocks and they train people. I was like, “What this is real?!” I saw the Haystack Brothers and Iceman John Black, like nobody knows who any of those people are at this point. Except me and you.
Rocky Romero: So then I called the number for the wrestling school and Bill Anderson picks up and he’s like, “Yeah, how old are you?” you know, I’m like 15 or 16 or something and he’s like, “Well it’s so funny we actually have a kid who’s like 15 or 16 right around your age so if you come in and you train, we’ll just put you with him and you guys can train together. You just got to bring your parents and let them sign off on it.”
So I begged my mom to take me down there. So me and my friend who used to do backyard wrestling, we went to the school and met with Bill and my mom hung around and saw that it was a real school, nothing shady was happening. They started teaching us forward rolls and how to hit the ropes and since that day on I was just hooked.
So my friend never came back but I just waited till I was 16 and I started driving and I would just drive there three times a week. My parents were super trustworthy with me. I just made the effort to get there as much as possible, you know?
Steve: The guy that was starting at the same time, was that Ricky Reyes or?
Rocky Romero: Reyes probably started maybe like, six or eight months after I did it. So I was like 15 so I’d show up sporadically and then when I turned 16 I started like going there more often. So yeah, he started a little later. He started getting on the shows because he was older than me, so he got on the shows a little more, did more wrestling. Then finally one day Jesse was like, “Man, you know, both the guys are Puerto Rican, let’s put you guys together, put you in a tag team.” And we’re like, “Okay.” They’re like, “There’s too many Puerto Ricans, we’ll call you Los Cubanitos.” I said, “All right, cool.”
So, he came up with Rocky Romero he came up with Ricky Reyes and yeah, from that day on we became Los Cubanitos.
Steve: Now back then I remember you guys had the rep as like the badasses, so to speak, of SoCal. So and I think it really-
Rocky Romero: Silly kids though right?
Steve: Well, I think it really started at MPW. There was a match with The Beautiful People and I don’t think they ever wrestled after that match. They looked shell shocked after.
Rocky Romero: The only tapes that we couldn’t get enough of was Japanese wrestling. So I knew that that’s where we, we both knew that that’s where we wanted to be. We wanted to wrestle in Japan, because we never thought that we could get into the WWF or even maybe WCW, that was a possibility, because there were cruiser weights at that time, but it just seemed so foreign, right?
So it seemed possible like, oh you know, Jesse knew people who work for FMW, so he was like, “Maybe we’ll get you in with Japan or something.” So that just kind of became the automatic goal, and then we were just watching Japanese wrestling tapes. We’re watching All Japan, this classic matches-
Rocky Romero: And we’re that’s how they wrestle every day. Not knowing the storylines, because we don’t speak Japanese. So we think that that’s every day in Japan. So that’s how you wrestle. Like big forearm exchanges and this and that. It couldn’t be further from the actual truth because it wasn’t like that, it was just these huge moments that were captured and of course the big matches were what made the tapes.
So yeah, I blame All Japan Pro Wrestling for that. Reyes just loved that UWF style. It felt like there was only a group of wrestlers that were really taking it seriously. You had your group from Rev Pro and then there were guys like Samoa Joe. It was really like there were two cliques for a while that were taking it seriously.
Steve: Yeah, I remember that was the big thing. It was the Rev Pro guys versus you and Ricky, Samoa Joe, TJ Perkins was kind of in there. It felt like there was a sort-of rivalry but maybe more fan directed. It was a weird sort of thing.
Rocky Romero: It was a weird time, it was a very weird time. It was, it was interesting. It was cool because… I guess I started, that’s when we started getting…
[B-Boy walks by]
B-Boy was there. B-Boy was part of that too. So it’s just… That’s when I started to kind of start to figure out wrestling a little bit, we were making a program, Joe really was spearheading it with him and Super Dragon, because remember they had that big match and it was a big deal at the time.
It wasn’t really legitimate heat behind it, you know? Like not really, but it just, it kind of felt that way. It’s not like now with Twitter where you could just talk shit on somebody and then it could kind of turn into an angle or it could be real, right? At that time, nobody was really saying anything but you could feel the tension between the groups and the only person that really took advantage of it was like Ron Rivera [Revolution Pro promoter] when he booked some matches there. And then like later PWG did some stuff but that was like a pivotal moment I remember in my brain going like, “Oh shit. Okay, that’s what this is.”
Steve: Yeah. There wasn’t a lot of mixing between promotions like there is now. It’s like EWF guys worked EWF and-
Rocky Romero: EWF was EWF.
Steve: Yeah and Rev Pro was Rev Pro, and it was then when wrestlers started working for different promotions beside their home promotion more often and I think it really improved the scene.
Rocky Romero: Absolutely.
Steve: And then after that, I’m trying to remember you guys started working Mexico after that? Or did you guys go to New Japan first?
Rocky Romero: Yeah, we went to New Japan first. So we were in UPW for a bit and then we met Justin Sane and the Hardkore Kid, they had a tag team. Samoa Joe introduced us to Justin, and then Justin was opening this dojo in Santa Monica, the New Japan Inoki Dojo. So they said “You know, we were looking for some guys who want to train.” So it was like, “Okay, yeah. That’s where we want to be. We want to be in Japan. So, great let’s go.” Zero One had already told us no. Zero One was linked to UPW and Hashimoto told us no, he passed on us. He really wanted big guys.
So it was still a big man’s world, you know? We went down there and started training. Brian Danielson came down, we were part of this first group of wrestlers training at the dojo and you would just show up every day for no money, spending, it was basically a full-time job with no money and you’re paying for the gas to drive there.
So finally after about a year, they were like “we’ll give you an opportunity, you guys have been working your ass off.” So they gave us a shot. We went to New Japan, we did okay. Not great. We were still pretty wet behind the ears and so they said they’ll send us to Mexico and that kind of changed everything.
Steve: I remember that you guys got over pretty great there and started getting-
Rocky Romero: We started terribly like real bad. If people want to go find that terrible promo that we did the first day, we’re so scared. You don’t know what, because there wasn’t really any information. There wasn’t like, “Oh you got to do this.” It was like nobody telling us like anything. We just showed up and they were like, “Okay, do your promo.”
Steve: And I remember Bobby Quance was the third member of the group.
Rocky Romero: Yeah, so Reyes got hurt. It was supposed to be me, Reyes and TJ Perkins. Reyes got hurt but they still wanted three guys and Bobby was like the next one in line. So they were just like, “Can Bobby go?” and he was like, “Okay.” Thank God that it happened that way because Bobby at that time was the only one that was doing that crazy shooting star, especially the one to the outside. And that was like the first big moment. He hit that one time and then that kind of changed everything. Everybody started really getting into our matches after that.
Then they started getting into the storyline that they belt between us and like Volador and Ricky Marvin etc. So, but thank God for Bobby because maybe I wouldn’t be here today. You know, in some kind of way.
Steve: I saw him recently and he still looks like he can hit the shooting star.
Rocky Romero: He’s a crazy, crazy dude.
Steve: Yeah, I guess he still does some training at like SoCal Pro every once in a while.
Rocky Romero: TJ just told me recently, because TJ has been on the New Japan tours, that Bobby’s been saying he’s going to come back and do a couple of shows with him. I’ll believe it when I see it, but TJ swears on it. So we’ll see.
Steve: I hope he does.
Rocky Romero: He’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen in my life.
That was a very cool time when you look at all the guys that came through that era that are doing it now still, you know? And doing it on such a high level now.
Steve: Yeah. I always think how indie wrestling wasn’t big like it is now then, and if a few of those guys held on a little bit longer like Scott Lost or Quance how big of stars they’d be.
Rocky Romero: I think Scorpio is a great example. Scorpio is one of the best stories because he never gave up and he was always so talented. Just everybody’s timing was different. Right?
So I think he needed to walk away like he did for a bit. He did MMA, came back and then I think that he fell in love with it again, and then by that time, the business had caught up to where he was at… So then he was able to transition, thank God, because he had all those connections and had done all the work before that. All the groundwork, you know. So he was like ready to go when wrestling started popping off.
Thank God he didn’t just stay away, because I mean it’s awesome. We’re talking about this now, next week he’s going to wrestle Chris Jericho for AEW World Title. What the fuck, you know. It’s amazing.
Steve: Yeah. On he’s national TV every week. If you look at AEW, that’s pretty much a SoCal show, half the roster is from here.
Rocky Romero: Yeah. Rick Knox is the referee. Another guy that started with me at EWF, you know, it’s crazy. Look what Joey Ryan has done. Well, obviously Chris Daniels, I mean Chris Daniels is one of the first guys I met at the School of Hard Knocks at the EWF. I hated him at first. I disliked him because he was such a hard trainer. But then like a couple of months after I started to realize that, “Oh, it’s not that he’s a dick, he’s just so passionate about what he’s doing.”
It made me want to work harder, not to not get yelled at, but to just work harder in general. He was one of the first people to kind of instill that hard work ethic. If you really want to do this, you’ve got to be above everybody else, you got to try harder. You got to put your time in, and I appreciate that. Another person that definitely, I wouldn’t be here running out today without him.
Steve: Yeah I mean I remember when I first heard about EWF was from “Cruiser” Eddie Williams.
Rocky Romero: Oh man, Cruiser was good!
Steve: Yeah, he’s another guy who just gave up too soon. But yeah, he told me about it at a CCW show in San Diego and I drove up there and I remember-
Rocky Romero: The San Diego CCW?
Steve: Yeah, the Charles Gibbs promotion. But at EWF I remember seeing Daniels for the first time and [Frankie] Kazarian, Keiji Sakoda, all those guys. Mikey Henderson too.
Rocky Romero: No EWF had a really talented crew, a very talented crew at that time. I thought that, I mean this is such throwback, but that crew was probably one of the more solid crews in the area. I thought they were like fundamentally wise and everything like that. I think that they were the best. Out the area.
Steve: Yeah, I think so. I think a couple of years ago EWF was kind of back, I mean they had Andy Brown, Adrian Quest, TJ Perkins was wrestling under a mask, Scorpio Sky was there.
Rocky Romero: I feel like Jesse Hernandez does a really good job of finding these diamonds in the rough, you know? That was really great. Then Santino Bros. is the other school that has had some, that’s really great talent coming out from there you know?
Steve: That’s really been a game-changer for the area. I mean they pump out so many good wrestlers. I don’t know where they’re finding these guys.
Rocky Romero: Yeah, I have no idea. I have no idea. But yeah, there’s a lot of great guys coming from there too.
Steve: Yeah. So how did you get into doing your own music?
Rocky Romero: So I was living in Mexico and I was wrestling for AAA, and this is like 2009-ish when the crazy drug war started happening. So basically we went from four shows a week to no shows or one show a week or something. Just on TV. Then for some reason they weren’t booking me on TV. I was very unhappy and just like… I don’t know, just things got weird all of a sudden.
So I didn’t really have any creative outlet. So I found out online you can make music by using your laptop. So I got a laptop, I downloaded Fruity Loops, FL Studio and I just started working on that and playing with it and making beats, but I didn’t have anybody to rap on them.
My upstairs neighbor was Marco Corleone (Mark Jindrak), and he raps. So then we just started making music. We probably made in one year, like 300 songs. We were just doing it all the time. It was fun because we weren’t doing anything. So yeah, it just kind of fell into it and I just kind of continued to do it and then I started making my theme music and stuff like that. It just kind of progressed from there. Then I made two little mix-tapes. Then I just made the last one, the Sneaky Style one.
I feel like they’ve gotten better and better and as my fan base is growing and with New Japan, it’s kind of like grown along with it and it’s just kind of compliments each other in some kind of way.
It’s just been fun. It’s just another creative outlet to… When you’ve been doing wrestling this long, for 20 years or whatever, sometimes it’s not enough. Especially now that I’m taking a backseat with so many good young talents coming up, so I’m really there to help them.
So you know, I’m not the primary focus. They are. I’m in the background, so I just like, it’s nice to have that creative outlet to do something that’s different that I enjoy, you know?
Steve: So I mean it’s all self-taught?
Rocky Romero: Yeah, all self-taught. I mean man, I mean it’s crazy what you can do with the laptop nowadays. It’s really, really crazy. Even back in 2009, just YouTube and videos and trial and error and making some really bad songs and making some better songs and then make other bad songs.
Steve: I think the Roppongi 3K entrance music my be one of my favorite entrances…
Rocky Romero: I feel like it gets that energy up and it fits the guys. The funny thing is they’re not even rap fans at all or anything but like it’s very in tune with like Japanese pop music and their version of rap, which is very different from our version of rap. But it’s still kind of like both, communities combined.
Steve: Now, I know on the interview you did with Emily Pratt on Uproxx, you mentioned that you weren’t going to Roppongi as much, you’re going to Shinjuku more. Have you been to a glass bar?
Rocky Romero: No. What is that?
Steve: I don’t know. When I was there last summer there was maybe a prostitute. I don’t know, she had a sign, and I asked her in Japanese, I was like “what’s a glass bar?” She starts yelling “No! Japanese only! Japanese only! Japanese only!”
Rocky Romero: That sounds shady.
Steve: I was like, I just got to get out of here. I tried to Google it and some stuff showed up but I probably shouldn’t talk about it on here, I’m not going for a hard R on this.
Rocky Romero: Yeah, no, never been there, but yeah, definitely hanging out in Shinjuku a little more, but the funny thing is now it’s all about like trying to find cool places that I haven’t been to ever. That’s like fun now. I don’t know because when I first started going to Japan, it was hard to find stuff, pre-Google.
So now it’s fun discovering new places to eat, new places to go drinking, new places to hang out and like I was talking about earlier, it’s like, I didn’t even know about Golden Gai and Golden Gai is a huge tourist place and I just barely went there this year.
Steve: So getting back to SoCal, you were talking about now versus back when you were starting out, 2000/2001 I mean it’s kind of night and day.
Rocky Romero: Absolutely you know the funny thing is, when we were wrestling out here in that time it felt like everything was popping off on the East Coast. Right? Basically, it felt like, SoCal was just this island on the other side of the world basically, nobody really cared about any SoCal talent. SoCal wasn’t really doing anything, until obviously PWG, the internet, the DVD trading or DVD sales.
That’s what kind of made it something. So it gave us, you know, some of us easy entry into the East Coast for ROH or TNA or wherever, but now the world is so small, right? Thank God for social media and everything. Now you could start at Santinos and definitely make it because people will see that. Everybody can see that from all over, you know.
Steve: For me, I mean it’s still kind of feels a little bit like an island where I think wrestlers are stylistically a little bit different than elsewhere. Maybe it is the bigger influence of lucha libre.
Rocky Romero: Definitely. I mean that’s a good thing about wrestling in SoCal, too. There’s always that lucha influence somewhere. So what’s good is that you become well versed in everything, you know.
You can do very technical wrestling, you can do straight-up brawling and there’s a little bit of everything and you actually learn lucha at a good level. Guys are doing it at a good level, not just imitating from something they saw on TV or something.
So it’s good fundamentals because you get to learn a lot. That’s what you need nowadays, especially to be a good base. Look at the Young Bucks, they can literally wrestle anybody and have a fantastic match because they’re so well versed in everything.
Steve: I’m not sure if you like to get the credit, but I think you are pretty instrumental in even New Japan starting to come to the United States. Now New Japan of America is starting at a time when it feels like the attendance has kind of gone down a little bit on some of the shows.
Rocky Romero: Yeah. I think that people think that, yes, attendance has gone down. When we knew we were first starting doing the shows in Long Beach, those first couple of shows, we knew that basically, this was kind of a bubble period. Do you know what I’m saying? Because it was like, “Oh, it’s the first time, we don’t know if they’re ever going to come back.”
So it’s really hard to gauge exactly where you are in the market and just, the group that was kind of putting everything together in the LA office and everything they knew that going in. They knew that eventually in a year or two this was going to be a drop. We’re going to really find out where we’re at.
So let’s take baby steps to prepare ourselves for that. So it’s kind of like all this was thought about beforehand. It wasn’t like “This is just happening”, you know what I’m saying? It’s funny because I remember people saying, “Oh they should be running 10,000 seat buildings,” “They should be running Staples.” It’s like, we’ll run Staples. We’ll do one and then when we can’t fill it the second time, then everyone’s going to say, “Oh they dropped off.”
It’s a bubble period. You know? It could happen to somebody even like AEW now, you really don’t know. It’s just because the demand was so high because we hadn’t been there. So at one point it’s just going to level off right?
So that’s why the plan, I think, has always been like, let’s run 2,000 seat venues. That’s probably going to be exactly where we fall, and funny that’s exactly where we’re falling now, right? So it’s like 2000/3000 seat venues. We could probably do a big show every year, Staples or MSG, whatever you know, and do well for like a super show type thing.
The plan has always been to make a foothold in America. Run it similar to the way it is in Japan where it’s basically a touring product and a merchandise product. That’s what we’re building on. We think that we’re a very good live experience for people to come and actually watch the shows.
I think we’re really good at that. It’s like a tight show. It’s two and a half hours or something. It’s not like four hours and the presentation is very professional. So I think that that’s kind of like what it’s all about us.
They said it in the press conference, like 20/25 shows a year. All through different areas, all throughout the U.S. Basically we want to bring the product to you. We want to build our fan base slowly from the bottom every step of the way. And every once in a while we bring them a huge show so that everybody can come and see. We can get an IWGP title match or something like MSG, you know? It was a great example of “as big as we can go” and I think you’ll see that more.
Steve: Do you think there are plans to do more cities like San Diego or…?
Rocky Romero: Eventually, yeah. I know it’s been talked about… LA is definitely the home because we have the dojo here. The office is here, which is kind of cool that it’s here and you know, in our home town, which is dope as fuck.
Steve: I’ve been there, it’s nice.
Rocky Romero: Yeah, it’s awesome. I said it at the Globe Theater, I was like, this is our home. We’re going to continue to build it and bring it here because it’s important to us that LA knows that it’s the home of New Japan in America. You know, it’s like there’s Tokyo and there’s LA.
I want that to really be something to be prideful for the fans here, you know? Like, “Oh this is New Japan’s U.S home.” I think definitely we’ll end up in San Diego. San Jose was great. San Francisco is a great market for us…
Las Vegas could be a place I could see us going. Definitely probably two or three times a year in LA, I’d like to see the Lions Break stuff kind of pop off a little more in LA. I think that because the dojo is here, it would make the most sense to do some very small shows with some up and coming talent. People that you definitely could see in New Japan and opportunities even to people locally who wouldn’t maybe get the opportunity like that, you know?
So I think Lion’s Break that we’re doing in Anaheim on December 2nd it’s a good example of that. Some young guys from all over that have tried out at the dojo and got an opportunity to wrestle on a new Japan branded show, with some eyes on it.
I think that’s kind of cool.
Steve: Yeah. I noticed it’s a little bit different than last year where you had Kenny Omega, Jeff Cobb and everything in this year it’s got more younger guys.
Rocky Romero: Yeah. That’s what it’s supposed to be. In Japan, they do an offshoot called Lions Gate based around young talent being the stars and getting their moment to shine on smaller shows. So I want that to be a similar thing. I think that’s what New Japan is thinking.
A platform to do your thing. You know, like the guys on the Reigel Twins, you know, a lot of people don’t know who they are and they could be the next Young Bucks or something, you know?
Extremely athletic, good look to them, so maybe that’ll be the opportunity they need, who knows? Maybe you see then in the dojo in Japan next year or something. Nobody knows.
Steve: I was intrigued by Misterioso Jr. being on the Lion’s Break shows.
Rocky Romero: Yeah, he’s pretty good, but he’s been wrestling out here since he was like 16 or something. So that’s a guy who has been in the area for a long time waiting for a big shot. Maybe this is it. Why not?
Steve: I just noticed we are like the last two people in the building. Is there any last thing you want to cover before we wrap up?
Rocky Romero: No, you know I think it’s cool to finally sit down with SoCal Uncensored. I mean, for any wrestler who came through the area SoCal Uncensored was so important because that’s where you got your news. That’s where I used to find out about what shows are going on.
Where the directions to the show were, because nobody would give you directions back in the day, you know? So what a great place and it’s cool to see that it’s still going strong and that, it has the support that it does. Because it was very important, very vital for this area to grow, and it’s really cool to be sitting and talking to you about it.
I appreciate everybody who’s been supporting New Japan Pro Wrestling. Like I said, LA is our hometown and we’re just trying to build it better and better every time you come so that you know, you guys can just keep supporting us. Check out the album. Sneaky Style, it’s on Spotify, Apple, Google, pretty much anywhere you can get music.
Steve: Thank you again.
Rocky Romero will also be wrestling on both days of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Lion’s Break Project in Anaheim on December 7 and 8.