I don’t think I need to tell you that 2020 was a tough year. Hell, 2021 hasn’t been that much better. As miserable, tragic, and depressing as life during a pandemic can be, though, there’s still room for personal victories and professional triumphs. And within the world of pro wrestling, there are few who had a more surprising and successful 2020 than AEW star Ricky Starks.
When 2020 began, Starks was a featured star with Billy Corgan’s NWA, wrestling in front of a couple of hundred fans at a studio in Atlanta for a show that was distributed on YouTube. He developed a notable buzz online as one of NWA’s most promising young wrestlers, but the NWA and most of the indies ground to a halt when the realities of the pandemic took hold in March. At a time when most of the wrestling industry was on ice, the two biggest American promotions, WWE and AEW, continued to run shows in isolated venues without fans; they weren’t just the biggest games in town for wrestlers looking for work, but now the only ones, as well, at least for part of 2020.
Given the lack of opportunity for wrestlers during the early days of the pandemic, it was big news for both Ricky Starks and his fans when he made a surprise appearance on AEW Dynamite on TNT in June. It was his first match since the NWA’s last tapings in January of that year, and also the biggest match of his life at that time—he was facing Cody Rhodes, at that time the AEW TNT champion, and one of the fledgling group’s biggest stars. Starks made such a great impression during this one-off appearance, coming off like a total star in and outside the ring, that it earned him a full-time job with AEW. Since then he’s been one of the company’s many highlights, putting on great, high-impact, fast-paced matches, while flashing his considerable charisma in interviews and as one of the most laid back color commentators you’ll ever hear. As the centerpiece of the stable Team Taz and the current holder of Taz’s own FTW Championship, Starks is a large part of AEW’s present, and should be an even bigger part of its future.
Paste talked to Starks this week on the verge of a major weekend for the company. Tonight AEW presents a dream match for hardcore wrestling fans on the YouTube special The Buy In, with Bryan Danielson, a beloved wrestler who reached the top of both the indies and WWE before debuting with AEW in September, squaring off against Japanese wrestling and MMA legend Minoru Suzuki. The Rampage Buy In streams live on the AEW YouTube page at 9 p.m. ET, right before a live episode of Rampage airs in its usual time slot on TNT at 10 p.m. Starks isn’t scheduled for action on either show, but he will be at the commentary booth, which is honestly as much of a selling point for many fans as a Starks match. And then tomorrow night AEW airs another live show from Miami, with a special Saturday night edition of Dynamite running on TNT at 8 p.m. ET.
Here’s what Starks had to tell us about his path to AEW, the vibe within the company right now, and the escalating “war” between WWE and AEW, which has dominated the wrestling conversation over the last few weeks, and comes to its latest head tonight.
Paste: I used to go to some of the NWA Powerrr tapings in Atlanta, and it’s been great to see—at the start of last year you were performing at Georgia Public Broadcasting in front of a couple hundred people, and just to see how huge of a 2020 you had, has been pretty cool.
Ricky Starks: It’s insane to think about, especially given everything else happening in the world at the time as well.
Paste: How did it feel to go from working with NWA to working with AEW?
RS: Honestly to me there wasn’t a big difference in terms of the work itself. Obviously the two locker rooms are a lot different than each other. And then you go from… you know, it was a small crowd for NWA, I’d say 250 was probably the max of it. To go to wrestling in front of your peers and, frankly, no-one [AEW ran shows with a small audience of wrestlers and no paying customers throughout the first year of the pandemic]... that was a bit of a weird thing for me at first. Otherwise there wasn’t that big of a discrepancy between getting in the ring and whatnot. The “no fans” part was a bit to used to, in my opinion.
Paste: I remember seeing you on Powerrr and thinking you had a bright future. And then you show up in AEW just a few months later and from day one you seemed to be just immediately on another level, like a complete star both in-ring and on promos. Do you find yourself suiting your performance to the venue, or I guess, like, to the expectations of the promotion or show you’re on?
RS: I think I fit my performance in everything I do to the expectations of myself. I’m a very… I’m a craftsman, right? So everything I touch has to be quality. In terms of being on television, and it’s not someone that told me this, but I took it upon myself to think of it in a bigger regard; if this is TV, everything has to go 100% correctly. So I’m a perfectionist on those terms. I do like having that type of—I call it a trip, because to me, I’m always pushing myself to see how much better I can get, and that drives me. Outside of being a perfectionist, I think having that in my back pocket… I like working under pressure a lot. It helps me quite a bit, because otherwise you’ve got to think about it, man. If I’m not able to work with people—you know, because we were low on talent at the time—I had to find something to push me and make me better and that came from within.
Paste: It was also a weird situation where you went to a bigger company with a bigger show with viewers but a smaller audience live in the building because of the pandemic. How was it wrestling without live viewers?
RS: It was weird at first, but I think I fell into the groove of it. Especially with the help of the people at ringside that were cheering on. I had to assess it from a different viewpoint. Obviously when we look at wrestling we look at it as TV, fans, this and that. But I had to switch it up in my mind as far as what I was presenting. What kept me sane and what actually made it easier for me was just the idea that, hey, there are people at home who are relying on me to get their focus taken off of whatever’s happening at home, especially that early Covid period. I was essentially just wrestling for them. I used to go to parties [and wrestle with friends], or if you have siblings you’ll wrestle with them, while you’re watching watching; I kind of visualized it like that, I was just a dude chilling at their house, just wrestling in front of them and entertaining them in that way.
Paste: Right. So what’s been your personal highlight during your time in AEW?
RS: Damn, dude, that’s so hard. Honestly, a personal highlight would obviously—because no one else has done this in a while—is having a match, a live tryout match on national TV, and then getting signed off of that. I think that is, when I have to look at things from a total view, I think that’s really cool and endearing. It speaks to my younger self— “you know, man, you are good at something, obviously, because you got this.” So I think that would be the biggest highlight, just personally.
Professionally, I would have to say a big highlight would be getting to wrestle with Sting after six of seven years of him not wrestling at all and coming back from his neck injury. Those two things stack up there pretty high.
Paste: Did you know that match against Cody Rhodes on Dynamite was an official tryout when you were going in to it?
RS: I didn’t think it was a tryout. I thought it was a one-off. In my head it was a one-off in that I was going to have this match, and then, maybe, after the pandemic would over, they would circle back around to me and we’d touch base from that. And I’d go back to the indies and build up my time while I waited. I didn’t expect it to be a tryout, but when you look at it now, I guess it was.
Paste: I forget the timing. I know Eddie Kingston got signed off one of those TV title matches as well; was your match before or after Eddie’s?
RS: My match happened first. I was the first guy they brought in that was not signed at all. I was essentially an outsider. And then I think it went Eddie, and then Warhorse. I may have those two mixed up.
Paste: So you were the first. There was no precedent or example.
RS: I was the first. I was the first guy who came in and started it from there. Not started it, but the first guy they let come in that wasn’t a part of the roster at the time.
Paste: And from there you quickly joined up with Team Taz. How is it working with Taz and the boys?
RS: Taz has been great. I love working with Hobbs and Hook. It’s all been fun. It’s real cool to see each other try to push each other to be better, because there’s a lot of downtown sometimes and we have to entertain ourselves, whether that’s getting in the ring earlier in the day, or watching some wrestling backstage before the show starts. It’s cool to hang out with them and do things of that nature. It’s a real team bonding situation.
Paste: Is Hook aware of how wrestling fans have memed him over the last year?
RS: You know, he’s never brought it up to me, but I would think he is, man. He has to be. He’s never talked to me about it or said anything about it. Kind of makes me wonder.
Paste: So I guess over the course of your life, when did you realize pro wrestling was going to be your thing, that you wanted it to be your life or career?
RS: It was about when I was seven. I remember being seven and telling my mom that I was born to be a wrestler. My brother and my sister had actually watched it when I was younger, but I don’t have memories of that. But definitely seven was when I remember having this conversation, and telling her, “hey, this is gonna be what I do when I grow up.” And I like to be a man of my word on everything that I say, and so I grew up and I did it and now we’re here in this crazy year and a half.
Paste: What did you not realize about being a wrestler that you had to come to grips with as it became your career?
RS: It’s hard, because when I grew up, especially as I got older, I would read autobiographies, watch different interviews from wrestlers, and I kind of got an idea of how wrestling is and the hardship that they went through. I think personally, though, beyond all that, one of the things that I had to really check at the door was not only my ego, but… you know, things don’t always happen on your time in wrestling, or even in life. And that’s a hard pill to swallow. So you could be the hardest worker in the real, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get what you want at the time. And so, patience. That’s one thing I’ve learned a lot, patience. That’s been the biggest thing I’ve had to work on.
Paste: And speaking of patience and things not really going how you plan, how does your neck feel right now?
RS: The neck is feeling good. I got cleared in July. And thank God AEW has given me time to heal up a little bit more while still being active per se. But the neck is okay, I haven’t had any residual effects. Obviously I had the street fight with Brian Cage last week on Rampage, in the main event; I kind of got my ass whupped, to put it bluntly, and so I’m still dealing with that. I feel good, though. No issues, like I was having when it happened.
Paste: So that injury and its diagnosis was part of the first episode of Rhodes to the Top [a TNT reality series starring AEW’s Cody and Brandi Rhodes]. Have you been watching the reality show?
RS: I have, actually. I didn’t expect them to go all the way with how much stuff they’re showing—I thought I’d be a small, small part of it. But it’s cool to give people another side of the dangers of pro wrestling. We hear about it, but it’s rare that the public gets to see it in such a raw fashion
Paste: Yeah, it can be fascinating to get that behind-the-scenes look.
RS: Yeah. And I appreciate it, letting people know that this is what happens.
Paste: So Rampage and Dynamite are live in Miami this weekend…
RS: And the Buy-In! The Buy-In, before Rampage tonight. With Bryan Danielson vs. Minoru Suzuki and of course Lee Moriarty against Bobby Fish. I think that’s going to be… what an insane two days for Miami! Miami is spoiled at this point.
Paste: Well they need something with the Miami Hurricanes being so terrible at football right now. Do you know what you’ll be doing over the next two nights, who you’ll be working with?
RS: I don’t know, but you can definitely catch me on commentary for Rampage, for sure.
Paste: Thanks for mentioning commentary, because I totally forgot about that. You’re so unique at commentary; you mentioned patience, and you seem very patient as a commentator. Very laid back, very understated. You seem to wait for your spots and when you do talk what you say is generally very funny. Who are some commentators you’ve listened to to get a feel for what you want to do as a commentator?
RS: Oh, man. I’ll be straight with you: I have studied some people, before I started doing commentary, but there isn’t one specific person that stood out to me [as an influence]. I think what it is, is—and I’ve talked about this a lot—there are people from New Orleans that I always pull on, in terms of my cadence or the way I speak, so when I was growing up there was always one of my mom’s friends who always talked in a very laid back way. He didn’t say a lot but when he did it was funny, or just so out there that you’d laugh. I kind of just do that. Also, dude, that’s kind of how I am in real life. You’ve got to pick your battles with certain things, and no point trying to overtalk someone, especially when there’s four of us! [Laughs]
Also keep this in mind, man: I know that I’m doing commentary. But I’ve never considered myself a “commentator.” My idea of what a commentator is is like the King [Jerry Lawlery], Jim Ross, Jesse Ventura, Bobby Heenan, those kinds of people. And it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around that I’m doing what they essentially did. Although nowhere near as good as them. But I am trying, and I’m trying to make the best of it.
Paste: Yeah, that four-man booth does get really crowded at times, but you—like, Chris Jericho does a fantastic job on commentary, but he very much reshapes the booth in his image when he’s on there. But I can’t think of many wrestling commentators like you who just know their spot and hit it pretty much 100% of the time with something that’s really funny and unexpected and often insightful. You do a great job at it.
RS: Thanks, man. I’m not your stereotypical commentator and I think that’s why a lot of people get hung up when they hear me speak. I’m just there—like a dude, like your friend who watches wrestling, and provides funny commentary while you’re watching something. I try to do that.
Paste: So speaking about the Buy-In on YouTube tonight, there’s been a lot of hub-bub about how it’s going head to head with WWE’s Smackdown, and the extra half-hour of Smackdown going against Rampage. Is that concept of some kind of “war” with WWE something that y’all within the locker room really think about or care about? Or is that more blown up by the fans.
RS: I think we consider it definitely blown up by the fans. I also believe that there’s some type of feeling amongst the guys who want to provide the best wrestling product that we can, and so I think when you have people like that in your locker room, who also have that mindset, that the show overall is going to great—better than what it was on paper. Personally, I like competition. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I think that’s how people are ultimately benefiting from it. With competition you get the best out of both teams. No one says anything about competition when it comes to NFL, or basketball, or the two teams that talk trash to each other. Nobody says anything about that. But ultimately, at the end of the day, the viewers, the fans, they win, because you’re going to get great effort from either side.
The Buy In airs on AEW’s YouTube page tonight at 9 p.m. ET; AEW Rampage airs immediately afterward on 10 p.m. ET on TNT.
AEW Dynamite airs on TNT tomorrow, Saturday, Oct. 15, at 8 p.m. ET.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.