Stardom in sight for Ring of Honor's Lio Rush

There's an undeniable youth movement going on in the world of independent wrestling as young performers are becoming stars at a quicker pace than ever before.

The reasons are clear: There are more viable wrestling schools in operation and a higher volume of shows are taking place around the world. There's also an ease with which fans can access content digitally and more opportunities for wrestlers to market themselves on social media.

It would seem as if there has never been a better time to be a young, hungry upstart. Lio Rush is the living proof.

Rush, a native of Maryland who was born Lionel Green, recently turned 22 and in just two years of active in-ring competition has made as much of an impression as anyone his age could hope for. But don't let his accelerated path fool you -- he has paid more than enough dues to deserve the position he has earned with Ring of Honor and other promotions on the independent circuit.

While the tail end of his story thus far is unlike most, Rush's first impressions of wrestling are familiar. It all started when he began watching WWE intently in middle school, and by the time Rush started high school, he had a clear path to greatness mapped out in his mind.

"I actually got into amateur wrestling because of what I saw on professional wrestling," Rush said. "I always wanted to be a professional wrestler and I didn't know exactly what path I should take, but listening to commentators always talk about the wrestlers having such accomplished amateur wrestling backgrounds -- guys like Brock Lesnar, Kurt Angle, Shelton Benjamin -- gave me a path to follow."

To be fair, there isn't a direct line from amateur to professional wrestling but there are similar elements centered around discipline and technique that can prove useful. But while Rush's thoughts always went back to future dreams of success as a pro wrestler, a funny thing happened once he began as an amateur -- he got really good, in a hurry.

"When I was in high school, my very first year I made it to National Prep," Rush said. "I qualified for state my second year, lost one match. And in my third year I became an All-American amateur wrestler."

Rush wasn't blessed with great size -- he wrestled at 112 pounds as a high school freshman, and even as a pro he has been billed (often generously) at 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds. But among the amateur ranks especially, his desire and discipline translated incredibly well. The draw of a collegiate wrestling career was strong, but a few factors contributed to swinging the decision toward pro wrestling.

Despite scholarship offers, his passion for the business was undeniable -- and then there was the matter of his first child, who was born just after Rush graduated from high school. The desire to provide for his family only strengthened Rush's resolve, which had previously been boosted once he sought out the requirements for becoming a professional wrestler directly from the source.

"It all fell into place when I was 16," said Rush. "I called the WWE office and, believe it or not, they picked up. I asked them how old do you have to be to become a professional wrestler, and they said I had to be 18.

"So when I was around 18, and as soon as I graduated, I'm like, 'Man, I'm old enough to be a professional wrestler.' And I already have this All-American amateur status under my belt, so let me try to see if I can find some kind of training to be a professional wrestler."

Balancing fatherhood with his wrestling dreams, while trying to secure a backup plan should that career not pan out, became a lot for an 18-year-old to process. But after graduating in the spring of 2013, Rush seemingly had an "Aha" moment where he came up with a solution for everything, all at once.

"I saw that WWE Performance Center was opening up," Rush said. "It was around Full Sail University and I was like, 'Perfect. I can train at the WWE Performance Center, and I can go to school regularly, working on videography at Full Sail.' I was already good at doing videos -- I was a videographer, and my dad and my mom were into video production and just media in general, so I grew up around that stuff."

"My mindset was always to just be the best at anything -- and I just knew I couldn't be the best unless I went out there and I messed up and I learned from my mistakes." Lio Rush

Rush took everything he had and moved to Orlando, Florida, with dreams of training in a state-of-the-art WWE facility running through his mind. There was only one problem, though -- when the Performance Center opened in July 2013, it quickly became clear they weren't taking walk-ins.

"I got almost a year in, and I found out that the WWE Performance Center was not a training school for just anybody that wanted to sign up," Rush said. "It discouraged me [as far as] being in Florida and at Full Sail University, so I went back home to Maryland."

That kind of misstep would be enough to derail even an optimistic person, but Rush was determined to follow his dreams. As luck would have it, just an hour north of his childhood home, a wrestling school that had been out of operation for some time roared back to life.

"MCW's training center was being reopened, so as soon I heard that they had an open house, I went there," Rush said. "I was literally one of the first students to sign up for the school, alongside my former tag team partner, Patrick Clark, who is currently signed to WWE."

Rush took to the ring quickly and developed a hybrid style of strikes and high-flying moves, all tied together by his lightning-fast pace. Within seven months of training he was having matches, and he made it a point of maximizing every opportunity given to him.

Word spread so quickly about the impression Rush was making that just over a year after he started training, he found himself in front of some important people in the wrestling industry.

"That first tryout with Ring of Honor is something I will never forget, because that is what lit the fire underneath me to excel as much as I did so quickly," Rush said. "I was six months into doing shows and traveling and trying to somewhat make a name for myself -- [and then] I tried out for Ring of Honor and I absolutely blew everyone away. I remember a lot of the active roster guys were there, and they were just like, 'Who is this kid that we never heard of before?'"

As strong as his first impression was, Rush was in for some humbling news despite having opened so many eyes with his performance.

"After we had the actual tryout matches, they'll line the two guys up and say if we will put you on Ring of Honor television tomorrow. And if there's a yes, then it's a yes. If there's a no, they'll say no, but they'll tell you why," Rush recalled. "When I got up there after my match, literally everybody said no to me."

At first he couldn't understand why, but Rush ultimately picked up their message and ran with it.

"They definitely wanted me to go through some more rough patches in the wrestling business and appreciate the wrestling business a little bit more -- not feel like I got handed an opportunity so easily," he said.

His discipline and resolve allowed him to take another hit and come back stronger for it. He wore it as a badge of honor, and became one of the busiest wrestlers on the independent circuit.

"My mindset was always to just be the best at anything -- and I just knew I couldn't be the best unless I went out there and I messed up and I learned from my mistakes," Rush said. "So I got myself booked [anywhere] and everywhere I could, no matter if it was two people in the crowd, five people in the crowd, 10, 50, or 100. I was there.

"It's so funny because I never knew how I was going get to where I was getting to, because I was just a kid. I was 19. I had a son, barely had money and I didn't have a car. I booked myself in so many different states, and I never knew how I was going to get there. But I always did. I always made it work."

Saying yes and performing when he received opportunities opened more and more doors for Rush. He found opportunities with Combat Zone Wrestling and Evolve, and soon he was wrestling all over North America. Within another six months, Rush was presented another chance to wow the ROH powers that be.

"He's [22], wrestling for [two] years, and if you haven't seen this guy, look him up. The skill and the talent he has at such a young age and his understanding of wrestling is scary to me." Adam Cole on Lio Rush

"I remember being at an Evolve show and seeing that the very next day they were going to have a Ring of Honor tryout again," Rush said. "So right after my match, I booked a flight back to Pennsylvania so I could try to make this tryout. I got to Pennsylvania that same morning of the tryout, flying in from Florida, and I just made it."

After all of the buzz that Rush had started to generate, ROH didn't want to miss an opportunity to bring in such a promising talent. Earlier this year, he was placed into the company's Top Prospect Tournament, and from the moment he stepped out in front of ROH's rabid audience there was an instant connection.

Rush advanced to the finals of the tournament, and on Feb. 6 in Nashville, Tennessee, he defeated veteran Brian Fury to win it all.

"Just being in the ring and hearing the announcers say, 'The 2016 ROH Top Prospect, Lio Rush,' that was unreal and actual tears were flowing that night," Rush said.

With the victory, Rush officially became a contracted member of the roster. He was guaranteed an ROH television championship match, but circumstances instead conspired to see him receive a shot at then-ROH world champion Jay Lethal in April in front of a big crowd in town for WrestleMania 32 in Arlington, Texas.

Rush proved his mettle on the big stage, and in his short time with ROH he has received plenty of support from the veterans in the locker room -- including another former ROH world champion, in particular.

"He's [22], wrestling for [two] years, and if you haven't seen this guy, look him up," Adam Cole said. "The skill and the talent he has at such a young age and his understanding of wrestling is scary to me. I don't know how great he's going to be three or four years from now, because he's already great.

"I know that's a lot of pressure for him, but I really believe he's that special. He's the No. 1 guy I think of when I think of the next breakout talent."

Rush had equal praise to offer for Cole in return.

"Adam Cole is one of the most down-to-earth guys I've ever met," he said. "When we first met, it was at one of those Ring of Honor tryouts, and I remember him giving me so many compliments and giving me so much advice and things that I didn't even ask for. He saw so much in me, so much potential."

This whirlwind year peaked in early December, when Rush was given a chance to contend for the new ROH six-man tag team championships in front of a sold out Hammerstein Ballroom in New York -- but it proved something of a bittersweet moment.

"The day of Ring of Honor's Final Battle pay-per-view was definitely a roller coaster of emotions for me," Rush said. "Happy, sad, anxious, angry -- it was a lot. I found out that my mom was in the hospital that day, and my mom has been sick for a number of years now, so I really didn't know what the outcome of that was going to be.

"It was just nerve-wracking, because every time my mom is in the hospital and I'm out doing a show or whatever, she never wants to tell me, or my dad never wants to tell me, because they don't want me to worry too much and lose my focus. But my mom was in the hospital while I'm having the biggest night of my life of my professional career."

It wasn't an easy thing to do, but Rush was able to set that aside to enjoy a surreal moment when he first entered the building.

"Being at the Hammerstein Ballroom was incredible," he said. "I remember being in the seventh grade and my very first pay-per-view that I ever watched was ECW's One Night Stand at that Hammerstein Ballroom."

While the match itself was ultimately a losing effort, Rush had yet another in what has become a series of coming-out parties. After winning the Top Prospect Tournament, shining brightly in a world title match and winning over the crowd in one of wrestling's greatest venues, 2016 was as strong a year as anyone in wrestling could ask for.

But Rush isn't one to rest on his laurels. On the contrary -- he vows to work even harder.

"I'm 22, two years in the business and I'm living out my dream wrestling with guys that I grew up watching, like the Motor City Machine Guns. You know I have nothing to complain about," Rush said. "I'm definitely keeping the same mindset for next year -- if you didn't know who Lio Rush was in 2016, in 2017, you definitely will."