WWE’s newest champion was once homeless and wrestling in front of 10 people

The Cruiserweight Championship made a glorious return to the WWE with finale of the first Cruiserweight Classic Wednesday night, a 32-man tournament that featured some of the best wrestlers in the world.

T.J. Perkins defeated Gran Metalik in a thrilling final, and he’ll come to Raw on Monday night as one of the most experienced wrestlers in the company despite the fact that he just turned 32. Perkins has been wrestling professionally since he was 13, and his journey from hitting rock bottom and becoming homeless just a few years ago to eventually returning to WWE as a champion is nothing short of inspirational.

On the day after Triple H strapped the new Cruiserweight Championship around his waist, Perkins spoke with Fox Sports about his early start in the wrestling business, his experiences with NXT Champion Shinsuke Nakamura in Japan, and his dream match in WWE. The Cruiserweight division will officially return to Raw Monday night. 

Fox Sports: What have the last 12 hours been like for you

T.J. Perkins: Extremely busy and at least a little bit painful.

FS: Yeah, how is your shoulder? You finished the match with some nasty marks. 

TJP: I wish I could say that was the worst of it but I’m pretty sure I swallowed some of that confetti. Send help.

FS: You’ve had a very long journey in professional wrestling already. When did you start out and what inspired you to want to become a pro wrestler?

TJP: You know I actually started when I was 13, so a really unconventional, I guess you could say, beginning to it all. I grew up an all-sport athlete, and when I was getting to high school I thought I would continue on through varsity sports. My dad really wanted me to get a scholarship, or something, for sports, and I figured I’d wrestle after I graduated, I’ll try to do it. When I got to high school I asked about the amateur wrestling team because I thought that would be a good way to spend my time between now and then, they said they hadn’t had the program in years. I went home and decided I’d start looking for a place to train. 

Most places you had to be 18-to-21, and it’s really sort of a mature-person’s game to get into, but I lived in Los Angeles so thankfully there’s a lot of lucha libre culture out there, and there’s some gyms that were willing to let me come in and start. 

FS: Were your parents supportive of starting so early?

TJP: I grew up kind of self-supported, that kind of environment, because my parents both worked for airlines. I was used to them being gone a couple weeks at a time, and then my Filipino grandmother [took care] – we call [her] Lola in Filipino culture, that’s my grandma….. But I was kind of self-sufficient at a young age because of that, because I didn’t really have my parents around a lot, so I learned to do laundry and cook food and stuff when I was like 10. I could program the VCR when I was really young. So when I started doing wrestling, you know, they had never really kept tabs on me before and I was always a pretty good kid. I don’t drink or smoke cigarettes or get in any trouble, so they understood what it was about, that I’d be traveling. In a way I’m kind of continuing their life. 

FS: It was touched on in the CWC broadcast, but midway through your career you became homeless. What were the circumstances that put you in that position?

TJP: I got to do a lot of good things at a young age. I really kind of knocked out my bucket list when I was really young. I went to Japan and I lived there, I lived in Mexico for a year, I went to Europe, I lived in Canada. I wrestled for all the big companies I had wanted to go to at that time, and I had some experience being able to come in and work here at WWE as well. I wanted to further that opportunity… the opportunities won’t find you, you have to leave your backyard if you want to go get it. That’s how I approached everything else, it just so happened that I went out and moved and for the first time an opportunity didn’t really pan out. 

At the time [2009-2010] it was probably just a bad set of circumstances. I bet the farm like right when the recession was hitting, and you know I’ve been doing this since I was 13 so I don’t really have a lot of work experience or anything like that. So it was kind of hard make a backup plan when things went wrong. I struggled for a few years. You get hurt and things take time, and little by little I kind of just started all over. All the old spots I had in different places all over kind of evaporated, because ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ 

I had to start all over, wrestling in bars and pubs in front of 10 people. Just trying to collect coins in the Wal-Mart parking lot in the middle of the night just so I could buy canned food and stuff like that. Little by little I started to get back to bigger and bigger places and got everything back on track. I never thought I’d find myself back here so soon. 

FS: Early in your career you also trained with Shinsuke Nakamura and Daniel Bryan. What was that experience like?

TJP: In Japan they have what they call… each class they call them "young boys." It’s very military-esque, the type of training they have there. I was in the same recruit class as Shinsuke Nakamura. He was a superstar literally from day one. It was kind of like ‘one student is not like the others,’ that type of situation. 

I stayed in dorm rooms in Tokyo, and you get up, you sweep the floors, you cook the food, you do thousands of pushups, you get smacked for making mistakes. It’s very discipline-oriented. You carry bags and do all that sort of thing, and that was my upbringing. I was recruited in through an L.A. extension gym they had, and they also recruited Bryan as well, so that’s where Bryan and I started to become good friends. 

FS: You mentioned your short stint with WWE… 

TJP:  Yeah, it was really just individual appearances and things. They would give me a chance to come in and try out, work untelevised matches. I trained in a couple different development systems, sort of on scholarship. I wasn’t here, but I was here. So I got a lot of really, really valuable experience understanding the system and working with a lot of good people. When I was a teenager I was actually in one of the developmental systems for the company and I was in the same class as John Cena and Victoria [at Ultimate Pro Wrestling]. I remember they were learning moves on me. 

FS: What sets cruiserweight wrestling apart, in your eyes, from styles of wrestling fans are used to seeing on Raw?

TJP: You know I think it’s just really exciting to see somebody of a different statue do the same things you normally see. You see a powerbomb from a heavyweight … when you see it coming from a cruiserweight and the speed and the different type of intensity that we can do certain things, it really changes it. It’s a lot like watching any other sport with different weight classes, or you see guys from different positions doing certain things. It’s really cool to see a point guard dunk, even though you typically see a center or a forward do that. And I think that because of our style we are also very expressive in a different way. So the personalities that you see sometimes can be a little more vibrant because we’re proud to represent our division and what we do.

FS: What would be your dream match in WWE?

TJP: Ooooh, AJ Styles.

FS: Have you ever faced him?

TJP: No, it’s crazy. I’ve been wrestling now 18 years, AJ a little bit more. We come from the same generation and we’ve been a lot of the same places at the same time, but we’ve never shared a ring before. And I think he’s the one guy that fits that category. I started knocking some people off that list that I’ve been around, but AJ’s one guy that’s escaped me…. and, you know, he’s the best in the world right now.