To some, it may seem like Rocky Romero has been wrestling for a very long time.
Romero is only 32-years-old though, and has wrestled all over the world. Having made his debut at 16-years-old and completing his first tour with New Japan Pro Wrestling at the age of 20, he is still going strong in the ring while expanding his horizons outside of it.
Romero was not the most intimidating figure at the start of his wrestling career, standing about 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds. In 2002, the top guys in WWE were Hulk Hogan, Triple H, Brock Lesnar, The Rock and Big Show. Romero understood where his opportunities for success would come, at least early in his career.
“If I do want to go to WWE later, I still need to make my career in Japan and make my career internationally so that people will take me seriously no matter what my size is,” Romero said.
Eddie Guerrero’s name consistently came up in talking to Romero. When starting his wrestling career, Romero clearly wanted to take the path of performers, like Guerrero, who thrived in Japan.
“This could be an opportunity to follow my dream and actually wrestle in Japan,” Romero said of starting to train at the New Japan dojo. “That was my only goal. That was the only thing I cared about, just getting to Japan.”
Romero began training in 2002 at New Japan’s dojo in Santa Monica. There he worked under the style that Antonio Inoki wanted from his performers: a mixture between professional wrestling and mixed martial arts. Many wrestlers that started their careers around that time had MMA fights, including Shinsuke Nakamura and Katsuyori Shibata (who left wrestling to pursue a full-time career in MMA at one point).
Romero debuted in New Japan in 2003 when he teamed with Ricky Reyes, as the Havana Pitbulls, and Bryan Danielson. The three were in a six-man tag team match at the famed Tokyo Dome and felt like they had done themselves justice. When they got to the back, though, Justin McCully, who had been training them in Los Angeles, delivered a slap to the face for each of them, from Inoki. The boss wasn’t happy with the style of match they had, and that’s how he decided to let them know.
“Inoki always used to preach he wanted us to change wrestling, but we were just kids trying to get booked,” Romero said. “He had higher expectations than we did at that time. We’re just trying to make the best of it and try hard.”
At the time, PRIDE Fighting Championships were hugely popular and Inoki wanted to mix in MMA to New Japan. Part of what made Inoki so popular in his prime was going up against fighters from outside professional wrestling. He even got in a ring with Muhammad Ali in 1976. Because of that, all wrestlers were encouraged to try MMA.
Romero was asked if he had interest in doing an MMA fight. He would be paid and would get a free trip to Brazil.
“I thought why not?” Romero said. “I get beat up all the time so who cares?”
The fight didn’t get through the first round, Romero lost to Masahito Kakihara. Romero wasn’t expecting or desiring a career in MMA, though. It was the experience of taking part in a fight he wanted, and got.
“I just wanted the experience,” Romero said. “I just didn’t want to get hurt. Keep your hands up, and if you get put in a situation you don’t want to be in, tap or give up. I knew I wouldn’t be going with an MMA career.”
Romero continued touring with New Japan, and eventually got a bit of a character change, it was one that meant a lot to him because it meant he’d follow in the footsteps of a wrestler he looked up to in Eddie Guerrero.
One day, after training at the dojo in Los Angeles in 2005, Simon Inoki offered Romero the opportunity to become the fourth incarnation of Black Tiger. Guerrero was the second Black Tiger, which made the career move even more meaningful for Romero.
“I was shocked and surprised and stoked about it,” Romero said. “This is obviously something that was going to be career changing for me. It’s nuts. It’s Black Tiger. That’s a huge deal.”
Black Tiger did well while Romero donned the mask, earning a 134-day IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship reign in 2005. He eventually lost the mask in 2009.
Romero’s Mexican Excursion
After Romero’s Tokyo Dome debut, New Japan decided to get him some more experience. He, along with T.J. Perkins and Ricky Reyes were sent to Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) in Mexico for more experience. Reyes was replaced by Bobby Quance due to an injury, and the foreign trio would make a big impact on their first tour.
Romero, Quance and Perkins would eventually team up against Ricky Marvin, Virus and Volador Jr. Romero credits those matches with putting the young trio on the map. The matches were, according to Romero, “basically a huge spot fest,” but they were able to stand out because of it.
“Nobody was doing that in Mexico at the time with the moves and stuff we were doing, and the way Virus put it together because of his psychology,” Romero said. “It blew people out of the water.”
Romero said many performers, including Mistico (now known as Myzteziz in AAA and formerly Sin Cara in WWE) and the legendary Negro Casas, took notice of their performances.
“Negro Casas would tell us stuff like that,” Romero said of the praise the six-man tag team matches received. “He’s a legend and he told us we’d made our mark on wrestling here because it’s been the same for 70 years and we were doing something different.
“Now the matches you see with the young guys that are crazy, we did that in 2003 when people weren’t doing that and that kind of changed everything and started a new trend.”
Romero enjoyed a very successful run with CMLL. He is a three-time CMLL World Lightweight Champion, having held the title for a combined 1,570 days before leaving the company in 2008. His third and final reign lasted over three years, spanning 1,168 days.
While working with CMLL, Romero was let go by New Japan and Simon Inoki. After a tour with Pro Wrestling NOAH, though, Simon Inoki had left New Japan and the company wanted to bring him back. Knowing he couldn’t jump straight back to New Japan from then rival NOAH, he moved to Mexico to work full-time for CMLL, whose working relationship with New Japan was being reignited.
Romero left CMLL in 2008 due to frustration with his gimmick and a desire to finally return to New Japan.
“I was just fed up with CMLL because I was working on this gimmick, Grey Shadow, and I’m just not getting over and people do not care about me, and I can’t really make a connection with the people through this plain gimmick they’ve given me,” Romero said. “I’m ready to go home then finally New Japan says they want to use me.”
Before Romero could commit to New Japan, though, he got a call from Asistencia Asesoría y Administración (AAA).
“The same week New Japan says they want to use me, AAA calls me and offers me a guaranteed deal, and they basically sold me on coming to AAA,” Romero said. “I thought maybe I could do both, and of course I can’t, so I end up jumping to AAA.”
Romero would be with AAA for a year and a half as part of Sean Waltman’s D-Generation MEX stable and then Konnan’s La Legion Extranjera.
Return to Japan
In 2010, things started going south in all of Mexico. Business was declining, and the quality of life in Mexico was doing the same. After living three years south of the border, Romero made the decision to move back to Los Angeles.
Fortunately, Romero placed a call to New Japan and they had a spot for him. It was in a tag team with Davey Richards, with whom he enjoyed a run with the ROH World Tag Team Championships in early 2008. The team started working together again in 2011 and began feuding immediately with Apollo 55 (Prince Devitt and Ryusuke Taguchi).
After two reigns as IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions, Richards left New Japan and Romero found a new partner in Alex Koslov.
Together, the Forever Hooligans won the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships twice together before Koslov left New Japan after Wrestle Kingdom 9 this past January.
Koslov became a huge star in Mexico, starting with CMLL and making the jump to AAA, like Romero, to join D-Generation MEX. He then spent over a year in WWE developmental where he failed to achieve the success he wanted.
Koslov’s hiatus is due to injuries that have bothered him for a while, and also to try new things. Romero is hopeful he makes a return to the ring in the future.
“I think his fire for wrestling kind of had gotten muddled up after WWE because he didn’t have the experience, I think, he was expecting to have,” Romero said of Koslov. “He was coming from Mexico where he was a huge star. He literally was a huge star, then he came to WWE to start over. Then that didn’t happen the way he had thought. WWE was his childhood dream, like Shawn Michaels winning the belt at WrestleMania: That’s what his dream was. I think when that happened, I think it kind of messed him up a bit and his drive for wrestling.
“But I know for a fact he’s more than welcome to come back to New Japan at any time.”
Now Romero is part of Roppongi Vice with Barreta, also known as Trent Baretta. After Koslov left New Japan, Romero was given a list of potential new tag team partners. Baretta’s name was on the list and a new tag team was eventually born.
Romero is a fan of Baretta in and out of the ring, noting they initially worked together during the 2012 Best of Super Juniors tournament for New Japan.
“He’s a really easygoing guy and his work is on point, and I thought this would be a good team,” Romero said. “And we’re very different, which I think is good in a team. It just made sense.”
Roppongi Vice is now part of an impressive group of tag teams in New Japan and Ring of Honor. They have done battle in both companies with teams like reDRagon (Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly), Time Splitters (Kushida and Alex Shelley), the Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) and more in the past year.
With that list of teams and others that feature in New Japan and Ring of Honor, Romero believes the two divisions in Japan need to be broken.
“I think that wall needs to come down eventually,” Romero said of the heavyweight and junior heavyweight tag team divisions. “I think it would be cool to have a mixed type of thing, whether it’s a tournament or something. Imagine an openweight tag team tournament. That would be nuts. (Doc) Gallows and Machine Gun (Karl Anderson) against us or the Young Bucks against (Hirooki) Goto and (Katsuyori) Shibata. I’d like to see it.
“That kind of needs to happen.”
The four junior heavyweight teams have delivered great matches in 2015, and the division itself has been on fire in the past couple years.
“We have four of the top teams that could wrestle in any company anywhere and be over,” Romero said. “Those are four very interesting teams. They’re all unique in their own right. They all have personality and character, and they can put on phenomenal matches.”
Out of the Ring
Outside of wrestling, Romero is working on forwarding his careers in acting and music.
In 2012, Romero was sent on an audition with no previous acting training or experience, for a Honda commercial. They were looking for a wrestler. He got the job. Romero then started taking classes and then also made an appearance on “Scorpion,” an action-drama on CBS.
Most recently, Romero auditioned for a lead role for the upcoming “Gambit” movie starring Channing Tatum. He’s realistic about his acting career, but is optimistic about his future.
“I feel very confident more bookings in television will be coming soon,” Romero said.
Romero also works in music, as evidence of the Roppongi Vice theme that he performed and produced.
He also works closely with The Asoka, an Indian rapper. Romero has produced previous tracks with The Asoka and is currently working on his latest album. There also are plans for a Roppongi Vice mixtape in the future, which would get Baretta and other wrestlers behind the microphone.
Romero has been wrestling all over the world since 2002 and has taken well over 100 trips to Japan in his career. He’s been able to make a living wrestling, and says every time he gets on a plane to go to Japan he reflects on what a journey it’s been and what is still to come, whether that be success in the ring, or even on a set or in the studio.
“It definitely still hits me,” Romero said of his success. “I’m so fortunate and it’s so weird this happened. It happened, and that’s kind of the thing that keeps me kind of grounded. Dreams are possible, and if you really work for them, and you need some luck and the skill and go for it and believe. That’s why I am the way I am. I want to try acting. I want to try this and I want to try that because who’s to stop me? The only person that can stop me is myself.
“I don’t want to be 60 years old later in life and wish I would’ve done something.”