Juice Robinson is one of New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s recent breakout stars. The former NXT wrestler worked his way up through the NJPW training system, and finally, after several championship match losses, won the first singles title of his career: the IWGP United States Championship. Robinson became the first American to win this title at the G1 Special In San Francisco to overwhelming support from the audience. Watching that match in person in the Cow Palace, it was one of those special bouts where the crowd is so invested, you can practically feel the tension in your pores.
I talked to Robinson the week before the G1 Special In San Francisco about winning over the Japanese audience, his promos, dream matches, and more. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
With Spandex: So normally the first thing we ask people is ‘Who was your favorite wrestler as a kid?’
Juice Robinson: That’s always hard, because I have so many favorites. I think first it was Stone Cold Steve Austin when I was really little, and then I started looking back a little to like ’94, ’95, because I didn’t start watching wrestling until ’98, and then it became like Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, once I started renting the Coliseum Home Videos. I started appreciating them a little more. But I don’t know, I have so many. The Rock, he was one of my favorites. Macho Man. And then later on Dusty, of course. I don’t know, now I’m like into Roddy Piper, so I’m all over the place when it comes to favorites.
Was there any specific one of those guys, or any match or show that made you decide to be a wrestler?
Well, I remember for some reason… watching Shawn Michaels and Vader from SummerSlam ’96, like over and over and over, and WrestleMania 10 Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart. I used to try to memorize matches for some reason, I don’t know why, when I was a little kid, but those were the two that really psyched me up for how wrestling really works, and I think by that time I started to realize, you know, that it was a work and not a shoot, so those kind of matches were when I really started to picture myself as a wrestler and picture myself doing it, and learning how to do it like that.
When you started training… at the New Japan dojo, did you get a lot of new influences, or had you kind of looked into the style of how they do things beforehand?
I did a little bit. I watched a couple Wrestle Kingdoms before I went to the dojo, but then pretty much instantly when I got there I started wrestling all the guys. I was on the show, so I was getting to learn the guys, like, their styles, and appreciate who they were as wrestlers as I went wrestling them, and I think Tanahashi’s obviously a huge influence on me, and, you know, Kushida. I really like I get a lot from him. I think he’s so awesome. And even Taguchi, his timing and his, like, sense of humor. Makabe too, man. There’s so many. Yeah, when I started working with them is when I started appreciating their styles over here. Because it’s a little different, but it’s very similar in a lot of ways.
What do you think is the biggest thing that’s changed, that you’ve learned how to do differently since working in Japan?
That’s a good question. Well, when I was in NXT, I was kind of like a heel, so I would sell a little differently and be a little goofier, maybe a little more cartoony, when I was being beat up, and now as a babyface in Japan I’m really trying to connect with people. I want them to feel the pain, so it’s like I’m not trying to make them laugh, or I don’t want them think that what I’m doing is funny. I’m trying to make them forget, and actually think that I’m hurt. Sometimes I actually am. I’m just wrestling a totally different style now based on that alone, babyface and heel… I think being a babyface in WWE might be one of the hardest things in wrestling right now. Holy cow. I mean, Roman Reigns, he’s excellent, but… I know I couldn’t do it.
I think especially because a couple of your promos kind of went viral on the wrestling internet… over the past week a bunch of people who didn’t know how popular you are are suddenly aware of that.
Man, yeah, after I started getting all these texts from a lot of my friends, my brother… people I went to highschool with somehow saw it on Facebook; they’re not even wrestling fans. And then somebody said something, Dave Meltzer said something, I mean, everybody’s talking about these couple promos. But man, in FCW, shit, every Wednesday morning, all us – I’ve been doing so many promos like that. Even crazier ones. I think the big one with this was I was just myself and I wasn’t thinking, and I know I said the F word a lot. I think I might have offended people, or they take points off the promo for the F word, and, you know, they’re probably right. But man, I was just feeling it. I wasn’t thinking. I was just emoting, spitting venom, you know what I mean? I wasn’t even thinking what I was saying, so I do apologize for saying “motherf*cker” probably ten to twelve times. Holy cow, I was fired up.
Yeah, people are kind of divided. Some people think it’s very entertaining when people swear, but some people kind of hate it.
But you know what, those people that are offended with the F word and stuff, well, you know what, I’m sorry, but I’m not talking to you. If you don’t like it, then watch somebody else. That was just a human being being a human being, so if that’s not your kind of pro wrestling, sorry. I’ve got to continue to just be myself.
How did you become so, so popular with the audiences in Japan? Why do they love Juice Robinson so much?
Well, you know, the company have first of all done a real good job of helping me with booking in a way to give me a chance to be liked by them. It’s kind of slowly, it’s been a real slow burn, which is just perfect. I like that just sneaking up on them… You know, the first year I was with all the young boys wrestling the dads, and, you know, doing it the right way. Then eventually I just started losing less. But I don’t know, I think they just think that I’m having fun, because I am having fun… I’m lucky to have them because they changed my life, so I’m thankful. I don’t know why they like me, but I’m just trying to do more of it.
And you’re in Taguchi Japan, maybe the most confusing faction. What would you describe Taguchi Japan as?
Oh my gosh. Dude, okay, it’s like the land of the misfit toys. It’s like the guys nobody wants to team with. Like Bad News Bears… For some reason when we tag with Taguchi, you know, we’re dumber. We always try to do our same spots, but when we do them, the people love them. I don’t know, are we trying to win or are we just trying to have fun? It’s something totally opposite than any other faction, you know?
It’s loveable. It’s hard not to like Taguchi. He’s f*ckin’ hilarious… I love doing it, I know that. You can’t be serious the whole time, so for me to be in Taguchi Japan is a true gift, and I’m sure it makes people mad that sometimes we mess around a little in those undercard matches, but if you don’t have that then you don’t have the serious stories. I don’t want to be serious all the time, so Taguchi Japan is a good chance for me to just be a goofy bastard.
And you talked about tagging with Tanahashi… How as that? How did you learn from Tanahashi in that experience?
Man, I just got to do what he does… He’s like Ricky Morton of New Japan. He’s like top hunk. Yeah, he’s 45 now – no, he’s 42, but the chicks still all love him, all ages. All women love him. I don’t know how to do it, but he’s awesome. His selling is just so sympathetic. He told me one time his favorite wrestlers were Ricky Steamboat and Shawn Michaels, so, I mean, you can see that… He just has good fire… People don’t see like on these house shows after the main event’s over, he just can like talk and ham it up in front of a crowd for like 45 minutes after a show playing air guitar, just being silly… He’s a rock star. He’s the coolest. I’ll never be anything close to him, but if just a little Tanahashi dust falls on me I’ll be happy as hell.
And what do you think from Taguchi, because he’s just really good just at wrestling, and then…
He’s the most underrated wrestler. Do you remember a couple years ago when he wrestled Ospreay in the finals of the Super Junior? And they just had a badass match… And a couple years ago he had a singles match with Nakamura at Korakuen that was just badass too. But other than that he’s just squirrelling around having fun. They love him so much he just has to use his ass, and he gets one of the best reactions of the night. But on the other side of the coin, that motherf*cker can work his ass off. He can go, go, go, go, go. He does not get the respect he deserves. I cannot believe he’s not a bigger deal with the indies over here. I can’t believe people aren’t bringing him in constantly, because he can do it all. At the same time. He can be silly and having a badass match all rolled into one. He’s great.
Do you get a lot of calls from the indies these days?
Well, it’s kind of hard, because now me and David [Finlay] are, shit, we’re over there every tour pretty much. We didn’t do the Super Junior, but that was the first one we hadn’t done in three years. We kind of, when we get home… it’s hard to get out there and do an indie. It’s hard to get off your damn couch, to be honest. But I do. I definitely get a lot of offers – well, some offers, not a lot, but I’m always in Japan, so I just have to say sorry, but I won’t be able to do that. But I do a couple around, like Danny Daniels’ show in Chicago, AAW, that’s a real easy one for me, so I’ll do that every once in a while. I really have to try after the G1 to get over to England though, because I want to wrestle for Brian Dixon [of All Star Wrestling] again before I die. That’s the most fun in all of wrestling is wrestling for Brian Dixon. So I’m going to try to do that.
You did a little CMLL. How was that experience?
Well, I’ll tell you right now, I’m not a damn luchador. I can’t do all those tricks. I can run and hit the ropes and bump pretty good, but, fuck, I can’t do all them flips and stuff. And I’m not that good at doing the catching and basing part either. I suck when it comes to lucha libre, to be honest. I’m not comfortable in there. But it was fun. I got to take a dropkick from Negro Casas, so shoot, man, if that doesn’t do your wrestling soul good I don’t know what will. I got to go to Arena Mexico and bodyslam a midget guy and get a lot of heat and have them chant “gringo puto” at me, so I had a blast being like a little silly heel over there… I’m glad I did it. But it’s not New Japan, I’ll tell you that. It’s a little more wild wild west.
I know you tend to say mostly things that are not positive about being in NXT, but did you enjoy being a heel in NXT at all?
You know, I loved NXT. Just, I just knew I was dead in the water, so I had to get out. So it wasn’t that it was bad, it was I turned it bad because I got sad. You know what I mean? So what was happening to me on a daily basis… it wasn’t like I was going home every night and crying in my room. I was still having fun and getting along with the coaches and the guys, and having fun at shows and stuff, but I just knew that CJ Parker was never going anywhere, so then I started to have negative feelings… just the whole thing, just my life, so I had to make a change, and now everything’s great. But yeah, NXT was fun. It’s a lot of fun. You work real hard there… For a while there it seemed like anytime we were… trying to lighten the mood, it was like, “Hey, get back in line!” It was a little militant there for a while, and everybody knows about that. But they’ve got a good guy there now, and everything’s really – I think it’s fun again. It’s good to hear. But I’m having more fun, so, haha.
Did you try to get the CJ Parker character changed? Did you think that could fix things?
No, I think I just started to realize, “I’m probably going to get fired pretty quick.” I don’t know… either I was going to keep doing what I was going to do, or I was going to get released eventually. I thought there was no more upward movement. I didn’t really think about changing the character or whatever. The New Japan thing just kind of happened really fast. It was more about leaving for me. I’ll be honest, I think I was a little immature in my head, and I was kind of mad at the system a little. I thought I was better than they thought I was, and I was told that once by somebody… It just wasn’t working out. Maybe I should have changed the character, but actually I’m glad I didn’t, because maybe I wouldn’t be where I am right now. So it all just works out.
We try not to ask people who are not WWE people too many WWE questions, but one WWE question. If you could wrestle, like, three people who are in that company, who would it be?
Right now? Okay, this is fun. God, there’s about twenty-five I’d want to wrestle right now. They’re all really good. I think I’d want to wrestle Braun – however they call him now, Braun Stowman or Braun Strowman. I want to wrestle him at Korakuen Hall, him as a bad guy, me as a good guy, hopefully. That match. I want to do that match. That would be awesome. Because he’s so damn good at things that he doesn’t even know he’s good at, and that’s what I love about watching him. You can see he’s still green, but, man, he’s really good at some shit that some people never figure out. You know what I mean?
Same with Brock Lesnar. I love watching those guys… Brock Lesnar could do anything at any second. He could grab a guy and just slam him through the f*ckin’ ring, through the floor, you know what I mean? Anything could happen with Brock Lesnar… He has this unpredictability about him, and I feel the same way about Braun Strowman. He could do anything… it’s awesome. So him, and then I’ve got to wrestle Seth [Rollins], obviously. And, fuck, Kevin [Owens], but I would love to get beat up by the Revival in a tag match too. That would be awesome. That would be great… Tagging with Roman Reigns would be cool.
In the US or in Japan?
Either way would just be cool. I would want to feel that kind of energy that he gets. He generates cool fan reactions. One way or another. I don’t know, any top guy I want to wrestle, because they’re probably pretty good. But yeah, Braun Strowman is who I’d want to wrestle the most.
Are there people in New Japan or other companies that you haven’t worked with a lot that you’d like to work with more?
Well, that’s kind of cool about the G1. I finally get to have a singles match with Ishii, and I’ve never had one with him, and I’m kind of pumped for that. And with Ibushi, minus me having to be in that whatever costume, that cartoon. Remember that, when he was Tiger and I was some red spider thing with a cowl? That was embarrassing as hell.
Oh, you were not a fan of being part of Tiger Mask W?
Sometimes you’ve got to take one for the team. Holy cow. My name got called on that. That was a bummer. But whatever. It’s kind of funny looking back on it. It’s hard to have a good match when you’re wearing that shit too. I could hardly see out of the ant eyes or whatever it was. So I’ve got [Ibushi] in the G1, and I’m really pumped for that, because he’s one of the best right now… I’m kind of excited to wrestle everybody in my block…
You don’t face the junior heavyweights as much except in tag matches. Are there any of those guys you’d really like to have a singles match with?
Yeah, Hiromu, Ospreay. Those two. Obviously Kushida. These three for sure. Oh, Taguchi too. There’s like four right there. Dragon Lee would be – I don’t know, we already talked about my lucha experience, but he’s fun to team with, so I think he’d probably be fun to wrestle. But yeah, those guys are cool. They go fast as hell. I’d have to drink a lot of coffee. They’re incredible.
Yeah, Best of the Super Juniors is like the wrestling tournament that makes you realize your cardio is bad.
Dude, oh my god, and falling down and getting back up is one thing, but these guys are doing like Olympic gymnastic quality flips in there. It’s awesome.
What’s the hardest thing about being in the G1?
Well, last year I hurt my knee in like the second match, and it sucked really bad for like a week… It didn’t feel better ’til about the G1 was over. But yeah, being banged up a little, and then having to do another really good singles match, or another seven singles matches, you know? For another three weeks. It’s hard. It’s long. There’s a lot of driving. It sure is fun though, at the same time. But if you’re hurt in it, it sucks. Because, you know, you can’t be a baby… If you can work through it, you’ve got to work through it. I’m sure my hand – I think I’m just going to have a great summer. I’ll be gobbling Ibuprofen, I’ll tell you what, like it’s candy…
Forgive me if this is too much of an “exposing the business” question, but did you break your hand when you punched the chair, or… when did you break your hand in that?
Well, I think I definitely broke it when I punched it, because it was like sticking out, and it had to be adjusted and set backstage, and I was in a splint. And the next night didn’t help things. And then the day after that I went and it was broken. So I’m not exactly sure if it was the chair, but if it wasn’t broke, it was definitely broke when he Pillmanized – I saw somebody wrote that somewhere; I read that … Yeah, it’s broke. It’s in a splint as we speak.
How do you adjust to wrestling with a splint?
You just do the best you can, and you hope the audience understands, hey, that guy’s in there with a broken hand, so cut him some slack. I don’t know, that’s kind of how I felt at first. I was like, I don’t know if they understand that I’m trying hard, but I can’t go like I can when I’ve got all 206 bones, you know what I mean? So, I don’t know, it helps the story in a way. A lot of me thinks it’s awesome, but I don’t know. We’ll see… It’s going to be hard. I want to have a great match in San Francisco. I don’t want the hand to slow me down, you know?
I mean, it’s already got you a ton of sympathy.
Yeah, I think it’s going to help the story more than it’s going to hurt the match, and wrestling is not about – at least, my kind of wrestling that I like – it’s not about the moves. Who cares if the moves I’m going to do in San Francisco are not my normal moves? Who cares? My moves are all boring as hell anyways. You want moves? Watch Ospreay, he’s got all of them. Mike Elgin. Those guys can do cool moves. I don’t have cool moves. So I’ve got to make it a story… I think it’ll add more to the story than it will hurt my move-ability and stuff in the ring, so I’m cool with it.
I always wonder with you and David Finlay, do you think at some point you being a tag team is going to be more of a thing?
It was so weird, because last year we tagged all year. We were in all kinds of tag matches together. All of our matches were pretty much together, all of 2017. And then the tag league came along and he was with Kitamura and I was with Sami Callihan. We were both kind of like, “What the f*ck? Whatever.” But it was kind of weird, you know? But I’m assuming that we’ll be tag partners in the tag league, but I don’t know… I think we go good together, sort of. We’ll figure it out. If we did it more often, I think it would be better… I love wrestling with him. He’s my best little buddy over there, and he’s hilarious. And he’s a damn good wrestler, so there’s that. He acts like an idiot all day, and then he goes out there, curtain to curtain, and he’s one of the best…
What’s the deal with the Care Bear situation?
Oh, my tattoo. Everybody asks me about this… Well, what happened was, when I was in FCW… my high school friends came down for a weekend and we went to, I think, Daytona Beach, and we wanted to get tattoos… You can’t get a tattoo in WWE unless you pass it through legal or some bullcrap. But I don’t have time for that, because I’m on a beach, you know, I’ve caught a buzz with my friends, and I want a tattoo and I want one now. So the options were like I would have to either get something on my butt or like, I don’t know, my foot or ankle or something I could hide from WWE, because I was thinking they might get mad, I don’t know. So then somebody said, “Well, why don’t you get a tattoo on your ass?” And I thought that was hilarious, so that was all. That’s how it happened…
Then the tattoo guy was like, “I’m not tattooing your ass!” And then I was like, “Aw, come on, man,” and I explained the whole think to him, and he was like, “Okay, only if you do something off this page,” and it was like all silly stuff like a rabbit playing with a ball of yarn, or a kitten holding a flower, but like the sunflower was drooped over and dead and the kitten was crying – that was kind of creepy, but he’s like, “Pick something from this page” because it was all, like, small woodland creatures, like cartoon bears and bullshit. I just picked that one because I thought it was hilarious.
And then I got it, and I was like, “Oh, this is so obnoxious.” In my trunks, especially when I was CJ Parker, I was like, dude, people are going to be hate if they can see an ass tat on a dude while he’s wrestling. So I made sure my trunks were cut so my ass tat would come out all the time, because I knew it would piss people off… Then a couple girls started liking it and thinking it was cute. So then when I went up to Japan, I just put it on the outside of my trunks too, directly over where it is on my actual body. And it would slip out every once in a while, and then I started getting all these tweets about it. Every day I would just, like, get pictures of my ass with my tattoo, like, coming out of my trunks… And I was like, “Holy cow, people are talking about this.” So then I put it on my jacket. And then I made it my merchandise thing, and I just started selling t-shirts, and they all know that it’s my ass tat. It’s really funny.
And actually, me and David were walking around the other day; we were talking about getting new tattoos. I was like, “I should get that bear.” I just was not thinking and totally spaced out, I guess. I was like, “Wait, that’s where it all came from.” I think it’s cool though. I’m glad I did it for sure. They say you’ll regret tattoos; I’ll never regret that… People are always asking me about that shit.
You’re – what’s a good way to ask this? Are you, like, way more popular with chicks in Japan than in the US, or is it, like, slightly? Because it seems like – no offense; this should not be taken in any way [personally] – chicks in Japan love you, man.
I think it’s just because I look, I don’t know, I guess I’m exotic over there. I couldn’t tell you. But yeah, they think I’m cute over there for some reason. And yeah, it’s cool. I’m cool with it, for sure. It’s funny, sometimes if I meet a girl they’ll be like, “Oh, you look like…” and I’m thinking, “Who? Who could it be?” I’ve heard Orlando Bloom over there quite a bit, and, okay, at least that’s same color hair and shit. But sometimes they were saying I looked like Brad Pitt, and I’m thinking, “I do not!” Me and my dad were just talking about this. I do not look like Brad Pitt at all, but if somebody’s saying that I look like Brad Pitt, he was like the hottest dude of all time, some would say, so I take it as a compliment. Whatever. I know I look like shit, but if they think I’m cute, I’m cool with it… I mean, I’m all beat up. I got chipped teeth. I got, you know, permanent bags under my eyes, crow’s feet… dreadlocks that are always, like, outgrown…
When you started wearing like the rave pants, that was some of the most memorable new gear recently. Are those just, like, from a store?
Oh man, I Twitter Googled myself or whatever, because I wanted to see what people were saying about those, because I knew I looked like an asshole. In a good way, though. I knew it was outrageous. It was definitely a statement, I thought. Man, everybody hated them! (laughs) It made me laugh so hard. And then that made me realize, oh, this is perfect, I’m going to make that part of my character. Because it’s fun… I like the crazy, colorful, flamboyant, rockstar costumes. They’re costumes. Fuck, I love that about pro wrestling. I watch wrestling now, and I’m like, “Oh, that was the one where Macho Man was dressed cool as hell,” or “Shawn Michaels had the blue on in that match.” I’m always a weird nerd when it comes to the flamboyant side of wrestling. That’s one of the coolest parts of it.
So I’m just going to start wearing outrageous shit, and I want it to be known. I want people to be like, “What the hell is this idiot going to wear now?” Because it’s fun… I want to be the guy who looks like a little girl’s bedroom, if it could kick your ass. I saw that somewhere and thought, “That’s a cool quote.” That was about the nicest one. I hope that the San Francisco fans don’t boo me out of the building, because I’m going to wear some red, white, and blue stuff for this G1 In San Francisco. But, you know… I tossed it around in my head for a while, because I thought, “Man, Americans, they might absolutely just shit all over this… like Apollo Creed coming out. They might just shit all over that.” But then I thought, I want to do it because it fits the story of it all, I think. It’s in America on Fourth of July weekend, for the American belt. American’s never had it. I’m America. If you’re ever going to wear f*ckin’ red, white, and blue, that’s the day. If somebody doesn’t like it, go ahead, boo me… I hope it’s as cool as I picture.