Shawn S. Lealos sat down and spoke with Mike Bennett about his career taking him back to Ring of Honor and his upcoming match this weekend against Jonathan Gresham for the ROH Pure Championship.
Shawn Lealos: Hello Mike. So, how you doing today?
Mike Bennett: I’m great, man. Just real super busy this week sometimes it’s like real quiet and other times, shit just starts getting crazy. And it’s been crazy lately.
Shawn Lealos: Right? It’s gonna be a big weekend too, with the fans back and everything.
Mike Bennett: Right?
Shawn Lealos: What’s the feeling in the locker room right now when it comes to you guys working in front of fans for the first time in a year and a half?
Mike Bennett: You know, honestly, I think it’s like how everyone’s feeling, like, just super excited, ready to go. It’s been really cool with Ring of Honor the way they’ve handled the pandemic. And I think everyone really, truly appreciated the extra precautions they took to keep everyone safe. But I think we’re all kind of at the point where the silence in the arena is killing us. And we’re ready to start getting back to normal.
Shawn Lealos: How different is it to work with no fans in there? I assume you guys thrive and build on the cheers and the boos of the crowd. And if you don’t have any of that, I figure it makes it a lot harder for you guys to perform.
Mike Bennett: Yeah, you know, so it’s funny you bring that up because I’ve been thinking about that lately. And to me, the biggest difference is like, the bumps hurt a lot more because you don’t have the adrenaline of the crowd. There’s still a good amount of adrenaline just by being out there and knowing you’re putting on a product and stuff like that. But for me, I’ve kind of looked at it as a challenge where when you’re at a match in front of people, you’re putting the match together and wrestling in a way to elicit a crowd reaction. And that’s kind of your main goal is to take the crowd on this journey with you. So, then the people watching at home can kind of follow along with the live crowd. When there’s nobody there, you’re almost going to approach your match entirely differently. You do things differently because you’re not trying to elicit that live audience reaction. You’re trying to just tell the story directly to the people at home. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why the pure division has been able to get off its feet so well; it’s because we’ve been able to try different things and see what works and see what doesn’t, because you don’t have that crowd reaction that holds you accountable to whether a match is boring or good or bad. And I think it’s helped us kind of dictate, especially the pure division, I think it’s kind of helped us dictate what direction fans can expect those matches to go in.
Shawn Lealos: You’re the second person who mentioned to me how it hurts worse without the fans.
Mike Bennett: Yeah, I think there’s something, you know, when the fans are there, there’s more nerves and you’re more distracted. I think it’s just one of those things where when you take a bump, whether it’s off the top rope or outside the ring or whatever, and it hurts, but then you hear that reaction. It’s almost like this natural high, where you’re just like, okay, I’m good, I can keep going because those fans are kind of powering you through. It’s a very strange phenomenon. If you think about it, where it’s like, you can feel it when there’s no fans but can’t feel it when there is. But it’s definitely a real thing.
Shawn Lealos: You’re fighting for the pure title next. How different is it wrestling in these pure matches, compared to what you’ve been doing your entire career, which is a little more of the, I don’t want to say sports entertainment because obviously, that’s not really a good word for a lot of fans, but you know what I’m saying?
Mike Bennett: Yeah, and I don’t care if people say it, I’ve been very open about my change in how I want to wrestle, how I like wrestling, and the way I want to be perceived. And it’s very fair to say I was always considered the sports entertainer guy. It’s just the truth. When I first got to Ring of Honor, that was always my moniker – oh, he’s the guy that’s going to WWE because he’s a sports entertainer guy. I’m not oblivious to that. That’s how I wrestled because that’s how I wanted to be perceived. But I feel like, with the pure division, that’s more focused now on the sport of pro wrestling. It’s not as over the top. I don’t want to say it’s not as dramatic, but it’s not as hokey. It’s not as cartoony. There are rules to it. Like we have rules in professional wrestling, and the pure division is like, no, we follow these rules. Because at the end of the day, this is a sport you’re trying to win. It’s a competition, you have to abide by them, in these set of rules that we’ve laid out. And I think that’s the biggest difference is the pure division. I like to consider it more realistic. If you look at it, especially some of the stuff Jonathan Gresham has been doing, he’s been bringing so much realism to the sport where he’s won a match with something different every single time, it’s a submission hold or a move, or just this constant, the working of the body parts, or just how every match seems to be some sort of a chess match. And he’s putting all the chess pieces in the right places. But to me, to answer your question, long story short, the difference to me is pure division is just more focused on the actual competition of pro wrestling and less on the razzle-dazzle sports entertainment aspect of it.
Shawn Lealos: Is it still fun for you? I mean, is it more of a way of learning something new, of changing your game a little bit?
Mike Bennett: Yeah. And it’s like, and you’ve been covering wrestling for a long time. So, it’s one of those things where you know, like, the best guys in this industry are the ones who can constantly reinvent themselves. And the hardest part about reinventing yourself is doing something you don’t normally do and jumping inside the uncomfortable. And it’s funny because I put out a tweet maybe like a couple of months ago, I was watching Bryan Danielson versus Nigel McGuinness in a unification match over in England for the pure title and the world title, and I just was putting over how much I liked this match, and I actually had a wrestling writer reach out to me and he goes, Is it strange that this is a match I didn’t think you would like? And I wrote back to him, I was like, no, that’s not strange, because the old me probably would not have liked it. But because of the way I’m trying to reinvent myself and the way my journey has taken me to where I always thought I wanted to be a WWE wrestler. But then I got there, and I was like, no, this isn’t the kind of wrestler I want to be. And then re-falling in love with NOAH, re-falling in love with old school Ring of Honor, New Japan, All Japan Pro Wrestling, and being like, this is a style I’ve never really tried. And I really do enjoy it. And I’ve really started to take a liking to it. And so, for me, it’s a challenge. And it’s also one of those things when you’ve been doing this for 20 years, you want to try stuff different, you want to make yourself excited and be like oh, I want to do something different. And that’s why I want to do the pure stuff because of that reason of people being like, oh we don’t see Mike Bennett doing that stuff, I want to be like, well then that’s exactly what I want to try to do.
Shawn Lealos: When I first started recapping wrestling shows, the first one I ever did was Ring of Honor when it first went nationwide. You were wrestling there at the time you were, I think, you were on that first show. How has Ring of Honor changed from when you were there then, to coming back to it within the last year? How is it different than it used to be?
Mike Bennett: So, I always feel like I mean clearly the cool thing about Ring of Honor is they’re constantly evolving. I always look at Ring of Honor as, if you want to know what’s going to be cool in wrestling in the years to come, follow Ring of Honor. And I feel like they’ve always done that before Sinclair took over after Sinclair took over, I feel like there’s just an environment that’s been cultivated, where it’s like, we’re always going to be at the forefront. And that hasn’t changed. That was there when I was there in 2010. And that’s there now in 2021. The people are different, the cast is different. But that’s what I always say. I call Ring of Honor, like the Law & Order of professional wrestling. The cast keeps leaving and changing, but the quality of the content continues to stay the same. And as much as Ring of Honor has changed where there’s more eyes on the product, more exposure, all this stuff, it’s still really the same. It’s still at its core, at least in the locker room, everyone views it as that kind of grimy and gritty company that sets the precedent for what’s going to be popular in wrestling to come.
Shawn Lealos: Right? One of the big guys that you first hooked up with when you came back was Matt Taven. You guys have a long history there together. I talked to Matt after his rise to the top when he won the World Title. You went to WWE, and we saw how they treated you and how that was nowhere near what you deserved when you got there. Do you feel it’s your time to reach where Matt reached and has he talked to you about his journey to where he finally hit the top?
Mike Bennett: So, the cool thing about me and Taven is we never really look at it as like, it’s my time, it’s your time. To us, we always look at it as like, to me, Matt is my brother, he’s family. So his career, any success, I get excited about. And he’s the same way with me when I have success, he gets excited about that, too. So it’s one of those things where again, I call me and Taven, we’re like the Avengers, we always come together when we need to, to form the Kingdom and do the stuff we need to together. But at the same token, we’re always going to go out, and we’re going to do our separate things because we have our individual goals and stuff we want to accomplish on our own. And I think that’s why we work so well together. Because we’re never like, oh, no, we got to do the team stuff and if you venture off into the pure division, then we hate each other. We’re just not like that. And like for me, if there was a time where Taven was to be like, hey, I’m gonna go win the World Title. Sweet, okay, I’ll be on the back burner, and I’ll be rooting, and he’ll be there rooting for me for the pure title on July 11. And so, I just think it’s a really cool dynamic. And so, I don’t really view it as like, oh, this is my time, that was his time. This is our time, we’re gonna go do our thing and just kind of see where it takes us. And I’m sure wherever it takes us, tag team gold will be in the picture at some point too. And then hopefully individual goals as well.
Shawn Lealos: How good is it to be back with him again after those years apart?
Mike Bennett: It’s the best. I mean, not even just from a storyline wrestling standpoint, but just from being like, oh, I get to work with my best friend again. Like, it’s just, you know, he’s my best friend in the whole world. So when you get to literally work with him on a daily basis, it’s awesome.
Shawn Lealos: Was that a big reason that you chose Ring of Honor over your other options? Or was that just a bonus to choose in Ring of Honor,
Mike Bennett: A little bit of both. I kind of always knew that Ring of Honor was where I was going to go as soon as the releases happened. I always, all through my WWE run, all through my Impact run, me and Tavan had been talking, we’d always been joking about when I’m going to come back when we’re going to reform the Kingdom. You know, but it’s like the Kingdom’s my baby, Taven’s my friend, Ring of Honor is my home. So you kind of throw all those things together. And you’re like, it’s kind of like this hodgepodge of reasons why Ring of Honor was just the perfect fit.
Shawn Lealos: Are there wrestlers in Ring of Honor right now that you see where when you win the pure title, that you’d like to wrestle in that style, defending your title against? Dream matches that you have looking at these different wrestlers that you might have never worked with before.
Mike Bennett: Yeah, so the one guy that I want to get in there with singles is Tracy Williams because we had a tag match with me and Taven vs. Rhett and Tracy for the tag titles about a month or a month and a half ago. And there were just moments where me and Tracy got in there. And again, like I said, you’ve been covering wrestling a long time. So, I’m sure you’ve heard guys talk about this, where you get in the ring with somebody. And instantly, you know, you just have really good chemistry with them. And that was how it was with Tracy. That was the first time we’d ever got in the ring, the first time we’d ever touched. And it was just one of those things where I was like, oh, this could be fun. If we took everything else out of the equation and just were able to go like pure rules, 30 minutes like this, this could be a lot of fun. And so, I mean, I get to wrestle the one guy I wanted to wrestle this whole time on July 11, which is Gresham, but hopefully, if and when I do beat him, the next guy in line can be Tracy Williams.
Shawn Lealos: One thing I like to ask wrestlers, especially those in Ring of Honor, now that fans are coming back, what can they expect? Compared to other wrestling shows they might have been to, what makes Ring of Honor different for the fans in attendance?
Mike Bennett: Wrestling. 100% wrestling, and not that there’s not other wrestling companies out there. I think what AEW is doing is fantastic. They’re unbelievable. I think what Impact is doing is awesome, and New Japan. But, at the core, Ring of Honor has always been about wrestling. And even if you take the pure title, I believe the pure title was brought to Ring of Honor because it’s like we’re sick of hokiness. We’re sick of cartoons. We’re sick of stupid storylines. This is just wrestling, this is the sport, we’re going to sit down like it’s UFC or we’re going to sit down like it’s the NFL. And we’re going to talk about what does this match mean to you? What does this specific match mean? And what would winning mean to you? Not like, oh, we just went and burnt someone’s house down, so what does that mean to you? And we’ll solve it in the wrestling ring. No, you’re competing, you’re a professional wrestler, who’s an athlete, and he wants to win World Championships because that elevates him to the next level. And it’s like, what does this mean to you as a person and as a fighter and as a professional. I think when fans come to Ring of Honor shows, you can be like, I’m going to a sporting event, I’m going to a very, very, very lively, entertaining sporting event, as opposed to like, I’m going to the circus, you know, and that’s not a bad thing. I love the circus. I’m just saying, if it’s like saying to someone, oh, you can go see a basketball game or you can go see the circus down the street, they’re going to get two different things. And so, to me, it’s like, okay, no, we’ll be the basketball game down the street where we’re focused on competition and sport.
Shawn Lealos: Excellent. I’m really looking forward to the show this weekend. You know, AEW had fans back when they hit the road this last Wednesday, and seeing the arena with fans, and WrestleMania too. Seeing the fans made such a difference in how everything felt. The chants, the boos, the cheers, you know, interrupting the promos.
Mike Bennett: AEW this past week was like, so I watched WrestleMania, but AEW specifically this past week, watching that crowd, I was like, okay, that’s what it’s like to have fans back. And I was like, yeah, that was the first time I went, okay, this is gonna be fun.
Shawn Lealos: The MJF-Chris Jericho promo when the fans were just interrupting MJF the entire time. That’s wrestling, you know, with the lights went out, and then they came on. And Tommy End was in the ring. And it’s the fans were like, “Oh my god,” you know, that’s wrestling.
Mike Bennett: That’s what I was talking about too, where it’s like, you dictate your shows differently based on a crowd reaction. You know, it’s like, you might put things in different places because you know how a crowd – like with MJF and Jericho, it might take a promo in a completely different direction than you expected, where if it’s like, just nobody in the crowd, you can just dictate this like it’s a normal TV show.
Shawn Lealos: So could you imagine the fans with the lights went out and they came on? And you were in the ring saving Taven?
Mike Bennett: I’ve been thinking about that for a long time. I try not to think about, oh god. But you know, I’m back and I still get to, like, I’m just thankful that the one match I wanted to have since I returned, I get to do it in front of fans. So, I’m still lucky.
Shawn Lealos: I’m excited for you this week. I’m excited for the entire Ring of Honor because it’s been a long time coming in.
Mike Bennett: Oh yeah. It’s gonna be fun.
Shawn Lealos: Alright, well, thanks a lot for talking to me. And I’m going to be watching the pay-per-view this weekend.
Mike Bennett: Absolutely, man, thank you. I always end all my interviews like this because it means a lot. It’s always humbling people give a shit what I have to say and want to talk to me. So thank you. That means a lot to me. I appreciate it.