When you imagine an 18-year veteran of the ring game, the youthful T.J. Perkins probably isn’t what you picture. But the Los Angeles native is all that, and more. At an age when most kids are trying to navigate high school social circles without getting shoved into a locker, Perkins was regularly traveling to Tijuana to perform on lucha libre cards.
In the 18 years since, Perkins has experienced the highs and lows of chasing a dream. Motivated by the mantra "do what they say you can't," he has persevered through it all and won the inaugural WWE Cruiserweight Classic, becoming the first-ever WWE Cruiserweight Champion in the process. As The Fil-Am Flash gets ready to debut on Monday Night Raw, WWE.com caught up with the flashy technician to talk about his journey, the Superstars he has encountered along the way, and what he hopes to accomplish in WWE.
WWE.COM: You’ve been wrestling since you were 15 years old…
T.J. PERKINS: Thirteen.
WWE.COM: How did you get started at such a young age?
PERKINS: I thought I would have to wait [until I was 18]. It was 1998, and I was just starting my first week of high school. I already knew I wanted to be a wrestler. I was an all-sport athlete growing up. My dad, I think, hoped I would go to college on a scholarship. I was going to try and wrestle amateur, but during that first week, I found out they didn’t have an amateur program. So, I thought I would just try and find a gym to start out professionally.
WWE.COM: How did you find one?
PERKINS: The internet wasn’t big at the time. WWE.com was probably the only site for wrestling, so I’d write to schools I found in magazines. I was only 13, so I couldn’t relocate. Luckily, I’m from Los Angeles, and there’s a lot of lucha libre culture in Southern California. I found a gym that was willing to take me on, even though I was really young. The rest is history. From then until now, it feels like it happened in a flash.
WWE.COM: Who were your influences in wrestling?
PERKINS: I grew up on WWE. Eddie Guerrero is my everything. He’s my hero, as are Shawn Michaels and Tiger Mask. I tried to model myself after them. Lucha libre culture was part of my wrestling upbringing. I’m Filipino, so it wasn’t a part of my normal upbringing, but it’s what gave me my start. I get a lot of my technical and high-flying wrestling from that.
WWE.COM: What were your early days in wrestling like?
PERKINS: I would leave school on a Friday and make shows in San Francisco or Las Vegas, across the border in Tijuana, things like that. I’d travel all weekend with whoever was making those loops, then get dropped off at school on Mondays. For a while, it was just regional things like that, kind of treading water. Then, when I was about 16, I actually ended up in what was WWE developmental, at UPW, in the same class as John Cena and Victoria.
WWE.COM: What was it like at UPW?
PERKINS: I was really too young to be considered a serious part of the program. But I was good enough that they let me wrestle on the TV tapings, so I got a pretty good education in major league level things at that time.
WWE.COM: Did being in that environment open any doors for you?
PERKINS: When UPW finished its agreement with WWE, it moved onto Zero-One Wrestling in Japan. The Inoki office was managing Zero-One and opening a New Japan offshoot, and they wanted to recruit some guys. They looked at me and saw what they called a young boy. Like drafting a player out of college, they said they wanted a few guys, so I was part of the first group of New Japan dojo wrestlers out of Los Angeles.
WWE.COM: It seems that a lot of people who trained at New Japan’s L.A. Dojo have made an impact in WWE, like Daniel Bryan, Samoa Joe and Shinsuke Nakamura. What do you remember about that time?
PERKINS: Life was moving really fast for me, at the time. I went from English class to the Tokyo Dome in a matter of a month. As soon as I turned 18, they gave me a visa and a contract. It was fun, [but] the training was very grueling, like the stories you hear. Bryan came along a little later and joined us. He was part of the first group. We actually debuted in New Japan on the same card, one match away from each other. Samoa Joe was a training partner of ours there. I was in the same class as Nakamura. Even at that time, he was a phenom, just head and shoulders above everyone. It’s crazy to look back on that and see where everybody is now.
WWE.COM: How do all of those experiences influence you now?
PERKINS: I think that on the outside, I look like a young man who’s entering his prime. I hope that’s the case. [Laughs.] On the inside, I feel like a wrestling Yoda. I’ve lived in four different countries. From New Japan, they shipped me to Mexico City, where I lived for a year with CMLL. I set age records there, too. I’ve been to France, Barcelona, Canada, all these different places. Looking back, you have an amalgamation of experiences and become very versatile. The more you travel and experience, the more it affects you as a performer.
WWE.COM: So, after travelling the world, how did you end up being homeless?
PERKINS: Things were going great for me right away. I was doing big things – New Japan, CMLL, I was on pay-per-view and TV here in the States. I didn’t want to stop there, so I tried to really pursue my dream of performing in WWE full-time. I moved to Florida to try and get to FCW. It was just one of those times where it didn’t pan out. I gave it my all, but I probably picked the worst time to do it, in the middle of the recession. I had no education and it didn’t work out. Before I knew it, I was struggling and I was homeless. My parents also went bankrupt back in Los Angeles, and they were relying on me.
WWE.COM: What did you do?
PERKINS: I had to try and find a way to get back on my feet and shoulder the whole family. Little by little, I was able to go back to the old places I wrestled. I kind of had to start my career over. I think it was God’s way of maturing me as a man. I was given a lot as a kid and maybe didn’t appreciate it. Now, this was a way of learning what’s most important. You hear about all the things that can and will happen when you start this. A lot of people don’t expect them to happen, but it does, and when it does, you have to be prepared. I wasn’t surprised, I got through it, got back on my feet and here I am.
WWE.COM: What does the Cruiserweight Classic mean to you?
PERKINS: I think about the Super J Cup, because it was one of my favorite things when I was younger and really enjoying wrestling as a fan. I thought it was amazing that they had all these global companies coming together and putting together these great talents — Jushin Liger, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko. The Cruiserweight Classic is the rebirth of that. It’s an opportunity for the best guys at this style of wrestling to have a platform to showcase what they do. It has been several generations since fans have been able to see this. It’s amazing because I think that’s a benchmark for the industry.
WWE.COM: What were you hoping to accomplish when you entered the Cruiserweight Classic?
PERKINS: I just wanted to show people who I am. I think everybody knows that we can go out there and rock and roll. I want to represent my Filipino fans and heritage. We don’t have a lot of heroes. We have Manny Pacquiao, and I look up to Batista a whole lot, because of our shared roots. I’d like to represent my heritage because they’re such passionate people. I want to give them a hero that they can look up to on a platform they’ve never seen.
WWE.COM: What did it mean for you to defy everyone’s expectations and defeat Kota Ibushi in the semifinals?
PERKINS: I took pride in being a bracket buster, round by round. With Kota, it was special because there was such a social significance among fans for that match. He was such a heavy favorite, and [he] is a performer. It meant a lot to be on that stage, in that position, and to move past him.
WWE.COM: What was going through your mind when Triple H revealed the WWE Cruiserweight Championship?
PERKINS: About the same thing [that was] going through everybody’s minds. I think the whole arena reacted the same way I did, inside my brain. I was wondering if the cameras picked up that I was freaking out.
WWE.COM: Did you know that was coming?
PERKINS: No, absolutely not. I knew there were going to be different ceremonies, that Triple H would probably come out and address the crowd and everything. I had no idea they were going to officially crown a new champion
WWE.COM: Fast-forwarding a bit, what were you thinking as Triple H put the title around your waist and you were announced not only as the winner of the Cruiserweight Classic, but the first WWE Cruiserweight Champion?
PERKINS: The whole time I’ve been involved in the CWC, I’ve thought this would be more than a footnote in history; that it would be a benchmark for future generations to look back on. I believed in the history we were creating. I always took pride in following in my heroes’ footsteps and achieving some of the things they achieved. Now, to be part of something that’s brand-new, starting over and paving a new road, to be the first is a huge part of history. I can’t express in words what that means to me.
WWE.COM: What does the future hold for T.J. Perkins?
PERKINS: A lot more flash. [Laughs] I try to take each moment at a time. I hold no expectations and try to stay in the moment. I used a Zen proverb after the Semifinals – that’s how I approach a lot of things – “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
WWE.COM: What does that mean to you?
PERKINS: It’s about staying in the moment, continuing on and not getting too ahead of yourself. I’m happy to cross new bridges as I come to them.
WWE.COM: How are you feeling about walking into Monday Night Raw?
PERKINS: Monday Night Raw is something that has been a part of my childhood, adolescence and now, my adulthood. To be a part of that, with such a great crew, great performers like Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins … I’m in very good company.
WWE.COM: You’ve been competing since you were 13 years old. Was it always your goal to be a WWE Superstar?
PERKINS: Every player wants to play for the greatest team in the world. It has always been my goal to do just that. Now that I’ve had the chance to perform on this stage and earned new opportunities, it’s a dream come true, as they say, to put on this uniform and represent this brand.