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Jay Lethal will headline the first non-WWE show in nearly 60 years at Madison Square Garden

Jamar Shipman, known in professional wrestling as Jay Lethal, is Ring of Honor world champion. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Jamar Shipman, known in professional wrestling as Jay Lethal, is Ring of Honor world champion. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Mar. 29

When professional wrestler Jamar Shipman was invited to throw out the first pitch at a 2017 Chicago White Sox game, he figured he had three options.

Shipman, who lives in Tampa and performs as Jay Lethal, could pitch a strike and basically go unnoticed.

He could throw the ball well short of the catcher and become a blooper.

Or he could hurl the ball into centerfield, storm away and go viral, boosting his wrestling career.

"Can you imagine the reaction if I did that?"

Shipman, 33, pitched a strike. As predicted, no one ever spoke of it.

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Two years later, he doesn't need a publicity stunt for attention. Shipman is now a household name with Ring of Honor, a professional wrestling group that has long been in the shadow of WWE.

On April 6 at 7:30 p.m., Ring of Honor will partner with the New Japan Pro-Wrestling for the "G-1 Supercard" pay-per-view show. It is the first time in nearly 60 years that a wrestling promotion other than the WWE has booked a show at Madison Square Garden.

It is sold out. And, as Ring of Honor world champion, Shipman is headlining in a match against both Matt Taven and "The Villain" Marty Scurll.

Madison Square Garden is "sacred ground in the pro-wrestling business," said wrestling historian Jason Powell, editor of prowrestling.net. "It's even more special for Jay Lethal to enter the venue as the Ring of Honor champion simply because of the stronghold that WWE has had on the building for decades."

Nov. 14, 1960, was the last time a non-WWE wrestling event was held at that arena, according to Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer newsletter. Jack Pfefer was the promoter and the headliner was Bruno Sammartino versus Antonino Rocca.

It's not clear why only WWE booked events there. Rumor has it, Shipman said, that the world's largest wrestling promotion and the arena had an exclusive deal that is no longer in effect. Or perhaps other promotions did not think they had a large enough following to pack the arena.

A spokesman for Madison Square Garden would only say the venue was excited to host the event.

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Owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, Ring of Honor's national television program has helped build its audience, making a Madison Square Garden show possible. In the Tampa Bay area, Ring of Honor is broadcast on WTTA-Ch. 38.

"Every wrestler from my generation thought that the only way to work in Madison Square Garden was to work for the WWE or fill out an application to work security," Shipman said. "I get to go there without doing either of those two things."

Sure, Shipman said, wrestling is scripted. But wrestling is entertainment, and being the face of Ring of Honor at the event is akin to starring in a summer blockbuster movie, or "equal to getting the corner office or that promotion you've always wanted," said Shipman, who also trains wrestling hopefuls at his Lethal Academy wrestling school in Pinellas Park.

"I feel like my career is like winning the lottery. Everything just seems to go right."

The native of Elizabeth, N.J., was only 15 when he got his first break.

Bayonne-based Jersey All Pro Wrestling held a contest in which participants learned the basics of the craft. The top three prospects would then be trained free at the promotion's school.

Shipman placed fourth, but organizers were so impressed that he, too, was awarded free training.

A few months later, he wrestled his first match at what he called a "bingo hall" in Bayonne in front of 60 or so people. Shipman was too young to drive, so his father was his ride.

"Can you not wrestle there anymore?" his dad asked on the way home. "It was too hot in there."

"Dad, it's not up to me," Shipman said. "I wrestle where they want me to."

In 2005, after working for a number of small promotions and a stint in Japan, Shipman earned a roster spot with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling that was then televised nationally on Spike TV.

Two years later he was still toiling in obscurity but was a hit in the locker room because of his spot-on imitation of Randy "Macho Man" Savage, the late Seminole resident whose real name was Randy Poffo.

"Anytime it got quiet, I would start talking like Savage," Shipman said. "Everyone loved it."

Fellow wrestler Kevin Nash suggested Shipman incorporate the imitation into his Jay Lethal character.

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Shipman donned similar flamboyant robes and took up the mannerisms of the iconic Slim Jim spokesman, used the same Pomp and Circumstance entrance music, spoke only in his Savage voice and dubbed himself "Black Machismo."

"Randy was very impressed by the talent Jay Lethal brought to the imitation," said Savage's brother, Lanny Poffo. "He enjoyed every performance he saw."

He wasn't alone. As "Black Machismo" Jay Lethal, Shipman became one of the company's biggest stars, plus a viral sensation.

"If there is a wrestling map," Shipman said, "that character put me on it."

But Savage was not the only wrestling icon Shipman could imitate. He could also do a Ric Flair, real name Richard Fliehr. And when Flair signed with Total Nonstop Action in 2010, the first thing he said to Shipman was, "Let me hear it, kid."

"From then on as soon as he got to a building he'd yell my name and have me do it for whomever he brought to the show," Shipman said.

The impression ultimately became a wrestling story line. The Lethal character performed it on TV. Flair's character was offended. The two wrestled, and Lethal won.

"That was the greatest night of my life," Shipman said.

In 2011, he signed with Ring of Honor. Shipman successfully reinvented Lethal as a serious character rather than a comedy act that imitated legends. Today, he is referred to as the "franchise of Ring of Honor."

"I couldn't write my story any better," Shipman said. "We are wrestling a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden and I am champion. A few years ago, I would have said this is impossible. But it is a reality."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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