A Philippine flag flies over a WWE ring

MANILA, Philippines - Though TJ Perkins had wrestled under a mask for most of his career, he had made no secrets about who he was. 

Perkins, a Los Angeles native of Filipino descent, had long worn the 3 stars and a sun of the Philippine flag on his ring attire, but was rarely able to wrestle for flag due to circumstances.

That opportunity came out of the blue when World Wrestling Entertainment came calling looking for participants for the Cruiserweight Classic, a tournament to reintroduce the much-beloved division of the 90s and 2000s which celebrated wrestling’s high flyers under 205 pounds. The tournament is shown exclusively on the WWE Network.

Perkins was one of 32 wrestlers picked to compete in the tournament and made it through a first round match against Da Mack, with a taped match against Johnny Gargano set to air next Thursday.

Billed as being from the Philippines, Filipino wrestling fans have shown support to him at his matches at Full Sail University in Florida, waving Philippine flags in support.

All he wanted was to be TJP and now he’s got his opportunity. 

“It makes me happy to be myself,” Perkins tells Rappler. “I’ve had a lot of different characters and different things that I’ve been able to do over the course of a long career, coming up on 18 years. One thing that I’ve never had the chance to do is just be myself and I think there’s so much that I come from that I wanted to represent. 

“When we showed up for entry in the Cruiserweight Classic, we had physicals, we did some training, we did interviews and things. I had a choice, America or the Philippines basically.  

“People know I’m from Los Angeles, people know I grew up in America but it’s a culture that runs through my family and it’s bigger than me, and that’s what I wanted to represent. I wanted to represent something that’s bigger than me. I wanted Filipino fans to see their flag up there, to see someone that’s representing them.” 

Perkins, 31, brings more to the ring than just your typical hurricanrana spotfest. Trained as a teenager in New Japan Pro Wrestling as the promotion’s youngest ever gaijin (non-Japanese wrestler) and having spent time in the lucha libre culture of Mexico, he blends his athletic style with smooth technical grappling and charisma (who else dabs while performing a submission hold?) which has gotten him over everywhere he has worked. 

While his wrestling ability has never been questioned, his future had not always been so certain. Perkins, a mainstay in the indy scene, had bounced around different companies, spending some time in the WWE developmental territory Florida Championship Wrestling (the predecessor to the wildly popular NXT), even wrestling one televised match against former champion Sheamus as JT Quinn, before spending time in Total Nonstop Action (TNA) as Manik.  

For a time Perkins had been homeless, and he looked doomed to play out the rest of his career on the indies after TNA decided not to renew his contract in January. Yet just as before, his self-belief and willingness to stick it out through the hard times kept him in the game until something bigger came up. 

“I just would probably say you have to keep the faith. It’s not faith in any one thing, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a person of God or anything like that, but I think its really faith in one’s self. Have faith that the answers you’re looking for will reveal themselves and that you’re gonna ask the right questions for yourself to find those answers,” Perkins says of how he kept from being discouraged. 

As one of the cruiserweight participants, Perkins carries the tradition started in World Championship Wrestling by his heroes like Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho and Dean Malenko during the golden age of sports entertainment. It also brings to fruition a prophecy made nearly 20 years ago by Japanese legend Jushin Liger. 

“I remember when I was younger and I was in Japan and Jushin Liger had pulled myself and another wrestler by the name of Rocky Romero. We were juniors, which is what cruiserweights are known as in Japan, which is where Eddie Guerrero and a lot of guys from that generation started perfecting their style. Jushin Liger had spoken to us very nonchalantly about being the next generation of guys after Eddie, Jericho, Malenko and all these guys. We kind of thought it was absurd at the time, we can’t touch our heroes.  

“It’s an honor that I’m able to be part of something so unprecedented as the Cruiserweight Classic and kind of be that sort of guiding light for the next generation of cruiserweights.” 

Whether or not he comes out on top in the final on September 14, there may still be a spot for Perkins. The cruiserweight division will be a staple of WWE Raw, the flagship show which airs on Mondays, and a division needs contenders to fill out the ranks. Perkins doesn’t know where he’ll end up, but is sure to keep the faith nonetheless.

“I don’t know what the future holds. I would hope so,” Perkins says of being signed full-time by the WWE. 

"This has been such a wonderful experience so far…this has been such a wonderful rollercoaster ride, and it’s one that I don’t ever want to get off of. But I’m very excited for the opportunity to be part of the reintroduction of cruiserweights to the mainstream stage.” – Rappler.com