Roderick Strong’s rise to prominence in WWE may seem like a sudden success, but in truth this mat technician has been plying his trade all around the globe for 20 years. As the reigning NXT North American Champion, Strong will need every ounce of the experience he’s amassed to get past the powerful Keith Lee on Wednesday night.
Joining Adam Cole, Bobby Fish, and Kyle O’Reilly, Strong aligned himself with NXT’s The Undisputed Era faction in 2018 and is now an integral part of pro wrestling’s most decorated group. Together, the UE hold all the male titles available on NXT. The Tampa native’s winning resume was bulked up further during last November’s Survivor Series, when Strong brought bragging rights to the NXT brand as a result of beating SmackDown’s Shinsuke Nakamura and Raw’s AJ Styles in a thrilling encounter.
The road to the top of sports entertainment has been a winding one for a man who first appeared on SmackDown 15 years ago as part of a “Hometown Hero” challenge against the legendary Kurt Angle. Muscle & Fitness sat down with the 36-year-old pro wrestling veteran as he reflected on his journey to NXT, thoughts on entering the 2020 Royal Rumble, attitude toward health and fitness, and his game plan for hanging on to his title.
Your match with Keith Lee on Wednesday night is highly anticipated. How do you prepare for a big guy that weighs over 320 pounds, but can also pull off cruiserweight style maneuvers?
I just always stay ready. Keith is a very special athlete. He’s as athletic as can be. He’s so strong, and so big but he’s never been in this type of situation before. It’s live on the USA Network, the biggest match of his career, the lights are the brightest. Is the pressure going to be too much [for him]? I don’t know. Does he have the gas tank? We’ve wrestled before but this is a situation where everything is on the line, something that means the most to me. I’m preparing myself mentally and physically for this to be the hardest match of my life.
One of your mentors was another agile big guy, the legendary Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart. What did you learn from wrestling with bigger guys?
I was 12 when I started in wrestling. I was super young and everyone was bigger than me. I used to get beat up all the time, constantly. I had to work for every single thing that I got in a match, and that’s why I am as aggressive as I am.
It’s 15 years this very month since you first appeared on SmackDown and challenged Kurt Angle. Do you have any memories of that day?
I remember that day to a tee. I remember all the interactions I had, speaking with Kurt. It kind of really seems like it was yesterday, which I find very funny because it was so long ago.
I was super, super nervous but excited. For me, it was a big opportunity and I’m confident in the sense that I can do my job whatever may be asked of me, and I think I did [my job] that night. It was nice to dip my toes in that world, you know, WWE and being able to do it with an absolute legend like Kurt Angle made it that much better. I wish I would have had a chance to work with Kurt in a more competitive nature before he retired, but it’s something I will never forget.
At this point, it is fair to call you a pro wrestling veteran and someone who younger guys and girls will look up to. Fans are enjoying a time where there is more wrestling on TV than ever before, but how important is it for wrestlers to refine their character and in-ring skills before being propelled in front of a worldwide audience?
Oh, I think its huge and its different for each person. Adam [Cole] had an idea of his character probably before he wrestled, or even trained, just because he’s that type of guy and someone like me, for the longest time I defined myself only by my in-ring work. So, I was obsessive about becoming as good as I possibly could be inside the ring. I harp on the basics more than anything. A good foundation is extremely necessary for any sport that you do. Focus on that and the rest will come. Everything will work itself out the way that it is supposed to, it just may not be as fast as you may want it to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.
The roof almost blew off when you and the rest of the Undisputed Era showed up at NXT TakeOver: Blackpool II. What did you think of the crowd reaction?
Everyone talks about how awesome UK crowds are, but I really enjoy it over there. It’s something different. We don’t get exposed to [UK crowds] as often, so they make special moments even more special. I got so frikkin pumped just ripping my shirt off and dog tags, throwing them everywhere and acting like a maniac, there was just so much energy. It was amazing. It was something that we talked about for days after, and will probably talk about it forever.
It just really depends. Obviously taking advantage of opportunities is what the Undisputed Era does, so I would want it to be with all of us. We are a package deal.
Throughout your career you have been well poised to seize any opportunity, not least by staying in consistently great shape. Can you tell us about your approach to health and fitness?
I think, maybe 7 years ago, I started taking it a little more seriously. I have a good buddy, [MMA trainer] Josh Rafferty and I’ve picked up the mentality that I am training for sport. When I figured out how to train like an athlete it made a big difference. Now I train, be it with weights, or doing varied martial arts, just anything to constantly put myself in the best shape that I possibly can.
I’m being active five or six days a week, and then depending on the type of match I have coming up, I may go in training camp style and really focus on ‘Hey, ok I need to get just a little bit stronger,’ so I am going to lift heavier than I usually do. I try to stay in shape so that I don’t have to crash diet to get myself ready.
How do you approach nutrition?
I do intermittent fasting. I tried it in around 2011, and then again around 2 years ago and it’s something that I have stuck with since then. Sometimes I fast for 16-20 hours.
When the schedule permits, what is your favorite way to train?
I used to be just a gym guy, but now I like to get outdoors. Anywhere. I like to train outside quite a bit. I’ve also got a gym set up in my garage and backyard. My wife (former MMA star turned NXT superstar Marina Shafir) loves to train. We use kick pads, we grapple. I love the process of figuring out different things that I can do to keep myself in tip-top shape. I really fell in love with learning how to grapple and learning more about that has really helped me. I’ve been wrestling for so long, and you are always learning.
You definitely seem ready for Keith Lee! After that, what’s next?
On Wednesday night, live, I will drop the hulk of a human, Keith Lee in what I think will be a masterful performance by me. I’m going to show, like I do every time I go out there, that there’s just no one better than me. And then, after that, whoever else wants it can get it. 2019 was a just a little taste of the Undisputed Era. In 2020 we have NXT even more on our back, the number one wrestling show in the world today.
Roderick Strong plans to dish out a shock to the system when he defends the North American Championship this Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on USA Network.