By Chuck Carroll
(CBS LA/CBS Local) — PJ Black, known to many as Justin Gabriel, had plenty of options.
He could stay the course on the independent wrestling scene, hustling from one promotion to the next to keep a roof over his head.
He could go to Impact Wrestling, whose shows have improved over the past year. But it is still struggling to attract viewers and find a permanent home on television, leaving the long-term future of the promotion in doubt.
The newly formed and heavily financed upstart All Elite Wrestling may have also been a possible landing point. He has plenty of friends in the locker room, but the timing wasn’t quite right, and there are still major pieces missing on the business side, including a broadcast deal.
There was an offer to return to WWE via the NXT brand that came about after he bumped into Vince McMahon and Triple H backstage at Survivor Series last fall. Many would say the deal would be ideal from a stability standpoint, something important to virtually any 38-year-old wrestler. It would also have marked the return of Justin Gabriel to the ring, a persona still far better known than PJ Black, despite the fact it was last used in early 2015. But there were also concerns. The money being offered was decent, but not quite what he had expected. The schedule raised a red flag, as he wasn’t anxious to put the daily wear and tear on his body that’s required to be there. And he also wanted to avoid an encore of the same creative frustration that he experienced during his first run with the company.
Then there was Ring of Honor. A promotion coming off of a record year and just weeks away from running its biggest show ever in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. Signing with ROH would also eliminate any creative concerns, as talents are routinely given liberties there that would be unheard of in rival promotions. The schedule is far lighter, which would allow his nearly four-decade-old body the time it needs to recover. Plus, the money was right, and executives took a no-pressure approach in getting him to sign his contract.
This was what he had been looking for. And with a decision made, pen was finally put to paper.
Black debuted in ROH last fall, but only recently signed a one-year contract rendering his services exclusive to the company as it prepares for their 17th Anniversary pay-per-view in Las Vegas this Friday. And while the contract may only be for one year, Black expects he’ll be around much longer than that.
ROH is still in the midst of a major roster reshuffling after top stars Cody, The Young Bucks, Adam Page, and SoCal Uncensored departed simultaneously to join AEW. Some fans worry that the void is too great to fill and the promotion’s best days are behind them. But executives say roster churn is nothing new, and they are prepared for another record year. Likewise, Black views the defections as an opportunity to pick up the torch and quickly climb the ranks to the top of the card. It’s a journey he’s anxious to begin.
I had an opportunity to speak with Black ahead of the PPV to go in-depth about his decision, the future of ROH, the state of wrestling, the lengths he goes to protect the identities of his celebrity friends while skydiving, and the many times he pitched the idea of parachuting into WrestleMania to Vince McMahon.
Before you signed with ROH, you got an opportunity to speak with others currently in the locker room and some who have previously been there. What kind of feedback did you get?
The guys that I got the feedback from, they were very encouraging and telling me how I would fit in with that brand. It’s funny because all those guys jumped ship to AEW now. Which is hilarious to me. I was like ah, okay. What was the point of that? Maybe they couldn’t tell me that whole venture, but whatever it is, either way, I’m super happy with the deal I got and the schedule. There are some good plans for me this year, which I’m very excited about.
So you got an opportunity then to talk about booking before you put pen to paper. How big of a factor was that in your decision?
A lot of people don’t know who PJ Black is. I’ve been PJ Black for 15 years. Most people just know Justin Gabriel because he was on TV for seven or eight years. It’s very important for me to show the personality and the character of PJ Black, which is completely different to Justin Gabriel. And they give me freedom and that was the main thing. It wasn’t so much booking and stories that they were gonna give me, but they give me freedom to do whatever I want and that’s how you get yourself over. If people tell you what to do, what to say, how long your match should go, then you don’t have a lot of freedom. So, there’s no way for you to get over. For some guys, there is, but for a lot of guys it’s kind of like being handcuffed in a way.
You just said that the guys that you had talked to all jumped ship over to AEW. With all those departures, do you see more of an opportunity for yourself at ROH, given the fact that there’s now this huge void at the top of the roster?
Yes, obviously. But even if those guys were there, it would have been exactly the same for me. I think it’s a fantastic time in wrestling right now, because that happened, because a lot of people had to step up their game. A lot of people are trying to get signed by AEW. WWE upped a lot of the guys’ contracts because they don’t want to lose them because there’s a lot of money being thrown around. Even ROH, they signed me, they signed Rush, they signed PCO, they signed Bandido, which I think is fantastic. WWE’s been trying to sign him for the longest time. So was AEW, and ROH snatched him up. So that means a lot.
When they got guys like that and me, it means that they’re trying really hard to build a better brand or trying to put some money into it all this year. By losing The Elite and all of the top guys, they had to do that. To be a wrestling fan right now is amazing. To be an actual wrestler is even better.
Did you ever get the opportunity to talk to those guys [AEW] about coming in and doing work for them or was that the timing, you just kind of missed it?
I did a little bit, and one of the main guys kind of in charge of talent relations, if you will, he was the guy who got me into ROH, and I’m not sure if he thought I wasn’t gonna get the deal or what, he thought I was gonna be left open. Obviously, it was in that transition year where they signed one or two people, but now they’re going all out trying to get a roster together. But again, they don’t have a TV deal yet, they don’t have anything yet, which I know they will get, and it will be super successful. I know that. But it takes time… and I wasn’t gonna wait around. Plus it’s only a year. Anything can happy in a year. A lot can happen in a year, in fact.
I can always revisit that in December.
Let me ask you about WWE and NXT. How strong of a push did they make to bring you in? You said Ring of Honor was really kind of lax with you and they gave you two months to decide. How much pressure was WWE putting on you with NXT?
Oh, no pressure at all, because they kind of just remembered me from what I was doing when I was there. And while they did like me and stuff like that, they don’t know the stuff that I’m doing right now. I’ll give you an example, Drew McIntyre, he went back to the indies and just reinvented himself. He did fantastic, and they had to have him back. I was out for a year or two, three years due to a base jumping injury, so I feel like in wrestling, out of sight, out of mind.
So they kind of forgot about me, and while they did make a decent offer, it wasn’t strong enough for them and they didn’t force anything on it. Plus, I live in downtown LA, so Survivor Series was in Staples Center, and that’s a block away from my place. So I just walked over one day just to say hi to everyone, and that’s where it all happened. I ran into Vince McMahon, ran into [Triple H], and we started talking. It was never like they kind of reached out first. It was kind of like I was just being at the right place at the right time.
I never told them that I had other opportunities. Maybe that was my mistake. Maybe I should have, they would have pursued it more aggressively. But yeah, I did tell ROH I had another offer, and that’s maybe why they pursued it so hard. Which, again, they win.
How long was the NXT deal that they were offering? Was that more than one year?
Yes. They usually do three to five years, which is also very tough because a lot can happen in a year or two, and nothing’s guaranteed. In NXT, I don’t want to say too much about how they work, but they promise a lot of things, which 90% of the time they can’t keep to.
We’ve seen guys from NXT going up to the main roster that start hot but eventually fall off into oblivion. Would that be a concern of yours returning there?
That’s exactly what I was eluding to. They’d be like ‘oh, you’ll be on the main roster in six months or seven months, or whatever it is, and even if you’re not, you’ll still get your pay increase or whatever it is.’ I know for a fact because I speak to guys on a daily basis. All my friends are still in the WWE and in NXT, and I speak to these guys all the time, and I know for a fact none of the stuff that they were promised happened. Obviously, there are exceptions here and there, small exceptions, but those guys are just happy to be around and still be making money and being on TV. While most of them are not happy with where they are, that’s what they wanted to do. That’s still their dream job.
Why do you think that happens, though? Somebody who goes up from NXT, is red hot there, and then for whatever reason when they come onto the main roster, they just can’t get over to save their life. Why is there that disconnect?
I don’t know. I thought about this long and hard, too, and it’s tough. Let’s take one character, for example, like Adam Rose. The Adam Rose character was so hot in NXT. It was amazing. It was so over with the music and his entrance and everything. But somehow that just didn’t translate over to Smackdown TV. I don’t know if the set has anything to do with it. The set is so much bigger, so when Adam Rose came out on NXT on that stage, it was smaller. It was 10, 20 guys, it felt like a party. It felt like you were inside of a rave. The music was on point. Everyone was fired up. There was energy in the room. I don’t feel like that same energy translated to Smackdown TV because you had five, 10 people and you look at the stage and you’re like oh, wow. That’s a tiny little party when they showed the hard cam. That might be one of the reasons. I’m not sure.
There could be also a bunch of other things. Different visions, different writers. Like I said, WWE TV, there’s an agent, a producer, and a writer to your segment, and you have to follow their outline instead of sometimes I feel like I know better. I know exactly what should be done, but they’re like nope, this is the kind of script and you have to kind of stick to it.
That might be a problem. Who knows? Also then maybe someone else is in charge. Maybe there’s too many people in charge in WWE now. Like I said, you have the agent, the producer, and you have a bunch of writers and then a head writer, and then, ultimately, Vince has the last say and I feel like maybe Vince or Hunter, maybe they went back and forth. No, this is what I created in NXT. Vince is like ‘no, but this is what I want.’ Obviously, everyone’s gonna go with Vince, since he’s the boss. And Vince is a mad genius. I think he’s a mad, crazy genius. Maybe there’s just some conflict there. Who knows? It could be a million different things.
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Now let me ask you a fun question about your ROH contract. Does your deal forbid skydiving? You’re such a big skydiver, and you post a bunch of your jumps on YouTube. Is there anything in there that says that you can’t take any unnecessary risk that could cause injury?
You know, there isn’t. They haven’t even mentioned any of that stuff. They haven’t even asked me about any of that stuff. So that’s a good question. I wonder if they even know I do the stuff on the weekends that I’m not booked.
Interesting. Clauses like that are common in pro sports contract whether it be baseball, football, basketball, whatever the case may be.
I know, I know. I have quite a few friends who are professional race car drivers and they skydive. So when they do jumps, please, no posting of the stuff online, and they jump with blacked out helmets and blacked out goggles so no one can see it’s them.
That’s hysterical. Are we talking NASCAR guys or Formula 1 guys?
I have one guy NASCAR and I have one of my best friends is in Formula 3.
Have you thought about this: you do a stadium show, and for your entrance, you actually parachute into the stadium?
Oh, I’ve pitched that multiple times to Vince [McMahon] and he was like yeah, once you get better at this, we’ll do it. Mainly I was always open. Yeah, we’ve had multiple discussions on that. Even when I did the Global Force thing, Jeff Jarrett was like yeah, why don’t you just jump into, well I made a joke. I was like why don’t I jump into Mania with a Global Force parachute. I’m gonna get to go to jail, you might have to bail me out. I was just joking and he goes, that’s a great idea, let’s do it.
ROH presents the 17th Anniversary PPV on March 15 at 9PM from Las Vegas. The card is headlined by World Champion Jay Lethal defending his title against Matt Taven, while Kenny King will face “The Villain” Marty Scurll.