Ring of Honor TV champion Roderick Strong recalls how some off-the-cuff words of encouragement from a veteran of the squared circle lifted him from a childhood rife with poverty and violence to the point where he’s now…

LIVING STRONG
Text by Mike Bessler

FACING DOWN TRAGIC life experiences had left Roderick Strong an introspective man. But the problem with introspection is that it has no end. At 32 years old, Strong is finally ready to take the rest of us along on his journey.

“I don’t usually do interviews like this,” said Strong. “But I’ve been through a lot in my life, and it’s time people knew. I want to reach as many people as I can with my story.”

The tone of Strong’s voice is confident, buttressed with decades of growth and perspective as he recounts the most difficult years of his childhood. Born in Wisconsin, the longtime Ring of Honor standout moved with his family to Florida at a young age, but despite the oft-touted benefits of a change of scenery, Strong’s family remained enmeshed in a slew of difficult circumstances including poverty and substance abuse.

“Mom was addicted to drugs and Dad was an alcoholic,” Roderick recalled. “It was chaos all the time.”

Strong struggled with his own image as a young boy, especially after he was excluded from playing football because he weighed more than the other boys his age. Amidst his mounting crisis in self-confidence, things reached critical mass in the volatile relationship between his parents one night in a confrontation that brought Strong to reevaluate his own focus in life.

“My mom shot my dad when I was 12,” Strong said. “I was at my aunt’s house, so she woke me up to tell me what happened. My dad wasn’t alive when they found him and he died again on the way to the hospital. Mom went to jail for a while.”

Fortunately, Roderick’s dad pulled through that night and, after a remarkably brief recovery, he rejoined the family and went back to work. Some evenings, Roderick’s dad attended wrestling classes facilitated by Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart. Neidhart had a wrestling ring set up in his backyard and because Strong’s dad couldn’t afford a babysitter, the pre-teen Roderick tagged along to the sessions. During one visit, Roderick got into the ring and showed off a couple of playful moves, garnering words of encouragement from “The Anvil” himself.

“Jim told my dad, ‘He could be really good if he stuck with this.’ That was all it took. That was all I needed.”

It was a pivotal moment for the impressionable young Strong, motivating him to consider a career in professional wrestling as his true calling. Honing his skills with the help of his dad, Roderick wrestled sporadically in the years that followed, often under a mask. He even locked up with WCW’s Malia Hosaka for a bout at a biker bar when he was only 15. Strong debuted in Florida’s independent scene in 2000, making waves in promotions such as Independent Professional Wrestling and NWA Florida. His tenacity and dedication eventually drew the attention of Ring of Honor, who signed Strong in 2003. It was a major development in his career, providing an avenue for Strong to showcase his talents before a burgeoning fan base alongside the likes of CM Punk, Somoa Joe, and Bryan Danielson.

Indeed, Roderick Strong earned a reputation as one of Ring of Honor’s most technically proficient and thrilling performers, but by 2009, Strong felt as though his work had reached a plateau.

“I think I got caught up in working just hard enough to get by,” Strong said. “Looking at everyone’s success at that time, I had expected to be alongside them. I eventually decided I needed to stop blaming others and point the finger at myself.”

Buoyed by new attitude, Strong jump-started his career, climbing to the top of the heap in Ring of Honor in 2010 when he captured the company’s top title from Tyler Black (Seth Rollins). He wasn’t content to simply bask in the glow of a big championship win, though, having learned through his childhood struggles that happiness and success are contingent upon constant improvement and evolution.

“The past reminds me to keep on working,” Strong explains. “Wrestling is a legitimate sport to me. I never really had any goals before I got involved in it and I have taken it all very seriously. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve trained harder and smarter to become one of the best. When I get into the ring with someone, it’s just as important to make them look as good as they can be, too.”

Outside of the ring, things had improved dramatically for Strong’s family as well. With both parents clean and sober—and on a congenial footing with one another, as well—Strong enjoyed the support of both parents as his achievements in the wrestling world piled ever higher. His dad was on hand when Roderick captured Ring of Honor’s TV title for the first time in 2012. To this day, seeing his father’s face the moment that he won the title is still one of Strong’s proudest moments.

Strong faced a moment of truth in early-2014 when he suffered acute pain after taking a Styles Clash from AJ Styles. Roderick noted that it was not the maneuver itself that was the cause of his ensuing discomfort, explaining that the move exacerbated problems with some discs in his neck. While he underwent physical therapy, Strong decided once again that he needed to step things up to change the direction of his career.

He returned to action just six weeks later, working in Ring of Honor as well as continuing his lengthy stint in California’s Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. In PWG, Strong began utilizing unconventional and underhanded means to rack up wins and the strategy ultimately proved successful when he won the company’s heavyweight title from Kyle O’Reilly in December 2014. He had made successful defenses Trevor Lee, Zack Sabre Jr., Mike Bailey, Matt Sydal, and Chris Hero—and still held the title at press time.

Back east in Philadelphia, Strong wrestled a 60-minute classic draw with ROH heavyweight and TV champion Jay Lethal in July 2015 that received PWI readers’ consideration for Match of the Year. Three months later, he beat Lethal for the ROH TV title in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Although Strong looks back at the past few years with a profound sense of accomplishment, he now looks ahead to bigger and better things. While hanging on to title gold on two coasts might prove to be a daunting task for many grapplers, Strong remains up for to the task, having tempered his fortitude through the trials and triumphs of his remarkable life.

“Last year was a big year for me,” Strong noted with enthusiasm. “This year is a big test for me to prove that it wasn’t all a fluke. 2016 is where I start hammering things down and continue to build my legacy.”

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