Leon Ruff surprised the NXT world last week, defeating Johnny Gargano to become the new North American champion.
The 24-year-old Dartanyon Ruffin has been wrestling since 2016, but he is new to WWE. Up until the Gargano upset, one of his top WWE highlights was his performance in a squash match against Aleister Black in March. Ruff’s enthusiasm for the craft of pro wrestling was evident in that one-sided loss, and he impressed backstage executives with his ability to make the most of that moment.
Originally from Detroit, Ruff has long dreamed of a full-time career in pro wrestling. His dedication was on display over the years with constant sacrifices throughout the indie scene, particularly in EVOLVE, where he was known for making long car rides just to help at shows when he wasn’t even on the card. But Ruff will certainly be on the NXT card on Wednesday night, as he begins his unexpected reign as North American champ in a rematch against Gargano.
Ruff spoke with Sports Illustrated to discuss the sudden title victory, his journey in wrestling and his dream opponents for a prolonged storyline with the belt.
How did you find out you were winning the North American championship last Wednesday? What was your initial reaction?
I found out that morning from one of the producers, and my initial reaction was that somebody was playing a prank on me. When I found it was really happening, there was a lot of excitement.
How did you realize it was legitimately going to take place?
I first heard in the morning, right before training, and I was very nervous. I texted Coach [Matt] Bloom and asked him what was really going on. And he said, “You don’t know what’s going on? You have a match today against Johnny Gargano, and you’re going over.” That was around 10:30 in the morning.
Finding out in the morning must have made for an extremely long day. How did you get through the day?
I’m already always nervous. I want to give everyone that’s watching a great show because they’re spending their time watching. And last week, there was just no way for me to calm my nerves. I was pacing back and forth and then there was more pacing. My girlfriend [NXT referee Aja Smith] helped calm me down, but then she had to go to work, and I got nervous all over again.
Then I thought about where I came from. I thought back to when I was a little kid and I dreamed about becoming a wrestler, about when I was working a dead-end job where I didn’t want to be, the times when I’d tell myself I could be a superstar if I put in the effort. I thought about all the days I spent training, all the nights spent sleeping in airports, all that time sleeping in the car to make different shows. That helped me realize that I worked for this and I was ready for this moment.
I know you have an encyclopedic memory, so did you think back to any matches to watch for inspiration, like the 1-2-3 Kid’s victory against Razor Ramon from 1993?
I started watching wrestling after that, during the Ruthless Aggression era, but yes, I had the pleasure of watching that 1-2-3 Kid match. I think I felt during my match how he felt in his match. We both had such small openings in our matches, and those were the moments we had to take.
You built a reputation on the indies for your willingness to travel long distances just so you could help however possible, even when you weren’t wrestling on the card. What were the longest drives?
Every time EVOLVE did a show in New York or Boston or Philly, I’d be coming from Atlanta, and those car rides were 14 to 16 hours. In the car would be me, Adrian Alanis, Liam Gray, AR Fox, Ayla Fox and sometimes Austin Theory.
What gave you the belief that your dreams could become reality?
When I was growing up, I had a big imagination. I never felt anything was impossible. Then I grew up, and I asked myself, “How am I going to wrestle if I have to work and pay bills?”
Unfortunately, somebody I knew was killed while working on a factory machine at work. It was terrible. And it really hit me how they had to fill the job and take new applications. That was the moment where I said, when it comes to wrestling, that I really needed to try.
I took a big step when my trainer, AR Fox, pulled me aside after a few months and said I could make it. He told me that if I came to training and worked hard, he believed I could make it, and that meant a lot to me.
It’s incredible how underrated AR Fox is as a wrestler. He is just so precise in the ring. Working with him in EVOLVE as part of the Skulk helped provide a whole new direction to your career, and even freshened up his act. What did that run mean to you?
It was such a great run. We were so happy to be in the Skulk and we wanted to help, and we learned so much from Fox. He wants to help every show and every match. When we came out to the ring with Fox, it felt so natural, that’s why it worked so well.
Up until last Wednesday, was the most meaningful moment of your career when you and Fox teamed together to defeat Eddie Kingston and Joe Lacy for the EVOLVE tag titles at the 10th-anniversary show? That was an especially big night since the card aired live on the WWE Network.
That was so special because it gave more people an opportunity to watch me wrestle. My family in Detroit usually couldn’t see me wrestle, and my family in Florida couldn’t always, either. But that EVOLVE show, my whole family got to watch. And it was on the WWE Network, which meant so many people got to see us wrestle, too. For a kid who dreamed about performing in front of a lot of people, that’s the first time I felt that I did.
Before that show, what was the first night you felt as though you had begun to make your wrestling ascent? When did you feel like you were starting to make it?
It was EVOLVE 106, wrestling with Tommy Maserati against Adrian Alanis and Liam Gray. That was in New York, and I kept thinking of that, saying, ‘If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.’ So my first time wrestling in New York was huge. All my hard work was paying off.
There have been so many special moments since winning the title. There is the photo you posted on social media of your father sitting proudly with the North American title, and there was that perfect made-for-TV moment when the belt fell off your waist while you were getting your hand raised by Priest. How did you celebrate after the show?
I spent most of the night on the phone with my family. We were online watching the match over and over, and I was taking it all in with family and sharing the moment with them. And my girlfriend, Aja, is such a big piece of my success, too. She loves me so much that it makes me want to be a better person. Without her, I was losing confidence in myself. She came and reminded me who I am, and she gave me that fresh breath I needed. She’s helped me get where I am.
Looking back at the match with Gargano, you finished the match with a crucifix driver. Is that the move you’re looking to establish as your own during your WWE career?
That’s the Ruff Rider. I always looked up to Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold and the Undertaker, and they all had their own finishing move that was so cool. I needed something of my own, but it needed to be cool and devastating and something no one else was doing. And that’s what I did with the crucifix driver, which is my Ruff Rider.
Some of the key moments of your career so far took place in squash match losses to Sheamus, Karrion Kross and, most of all, Aleister Black. The 60-second defeat to Aleister Black on Raw in March serves an incredible example of how to amplify a loss, and you put forth such an amazing sell of the Black Mass finisher. What is your mindset going into matches like those?
I’m really glad you asked me this, and I’ve been waiting to say this for the longest time. My thought process was that there are no small roles, only small actors. Being a smaller guy in wrestling, I am used as enhancement a lot. So many guys have told me they’d rather not wrestle than to have that job on TV. I don’t understand that mindset. When you have talent, you should add to the show. That’s what it means to be a performer.
When I was in the ring with Aleister Black, I knew I had less than a minute and I might not get any moves in, so how could I stand out? You do whatever you can do. All I could do was take a kick, and I took it the best I could.
There is so much for you to accomplish in pro wrestling, but who is someone you would like to have a prolonged feud with over the North American championship?
Timothy Thatcher. He is my favorite wrestler. I would love to work with Dolph Ziggler and Cesaro. There are so many names I can name. I would love to work with Randy Orton. I would do that for my mom, and because I’m a huge Randy Orton fan.
Starting this week in NXT, what is your first goal as North American Champion?
My goal is to be a champion who inspires people. I want to inspire people that anyone can be a champion if you work hard enough to achieve it. I’ll take on all challengers, and if Johnny Gargano has something to say about it, then I’ll see about that, too.