Persistence pays off as Olympic wrestler Jeff Cobb breaks through with Ring of Honor

Fifteen years removed from his 2004 Olympics experience, Jeff Cobb is enjoying the results of a lifetime's effort in pursuit of pro wrestling success in Ring of Honor. RING OF HONOR / Devin Chen

NEW YORK -- As 36-year old Jeff Cobb stood backstage at Atlanta's Center Stage Theater in July, waiting for his cue before making his Ring of Honor wrestling debut, everything that got him to this point weighed on him.

It took Cobb the better part of a decade grinding away in the world of independent professional wrestling to get there, but now he was just moments away from walking down the ramp to perform for ROH -- one of the biggest stages the industry has to offer, outside of WWE.

Cobb had already wrestled all over world, but this was different. Different stakes and a different fan base, with a crowd he'd never performed in front of with hopes of impressing everyone right out of the gate.

After living a journeyman's life for almost a decade, fighting his way up the ladder at every stop along the way, Cobb was ready for a little more stability.

Unlike the imposing figure that the 5-foot-10, 263-pound former Olympic wrestler conveys for live audiences, Cobb's nerves were fraying in those final moments before stepping through the curtain.

"I was really worried, because I wasn't sure how much ROH fans follow indie wrestling," Cobb told ESPN in December. "My worst fear was that there would be crickets chirping. Thank god that wasn't the case."

The fears quickly disappeared. Cobb quickly made an impression with his midmatch interruption, drawing enthusiastic, "this is awesome chants" from the crowd.

Cobb's star has only continued to rise from that point. He became TV champion in the eight months that followed.

"The timing was right," Cobb said. "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. "

Fourteen years prior to his biggest break to date, Cobb was under one of the most intense spotlights the world of sports has to offer when he represented Guam at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

Guam, a tiny U.S. island territory located about 1,600 miles east of Manila in the western Pacific ocean, is where Cobb's family resides. Cobb's family on his mother Elaine's side can be traced back to the Philippines, but they moved to Guam before Elaine was born in search of better opportunities. While Cobb was born in Hawaii in 1982, and lived there until sixth grade, his family fell on financial hardships and returned to Guam.

Cobb became a standout amateur wrestler in his high school years, and while he was a student at Missouri Valley College, Cobb returned to Guam and earned his place in the Olympic freestyle wrestling competition by winning the 2004 Oceania Championship at 84 KG (185 lbs) in Dededo.

At a total of 212 square miles and a population of 160,000, Guam sent just four athletes to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, including the then-22-year-old Cobb. He was chosen to lead the team into the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremonies as the flag bearer for Guam (which you can see at 1:05:52 into this video).

"It was awesome," Cobb said. "One person from the whole country gets to do that every four years, so being chosen for that was amazing."

Cobb, a huge history buff, spent his down time during the Olympics sightseeing throughout Athens. He especially enjoyed seeing the ancient aqueducts and an ancient track and field stadium where kings used to sit.

"Those moments will live with me forever," Cobb said.

The outcome on the mat was a different story. In one of two matches during pool competition at 84 KG, Cobb stood opposite a chiseled, no nonsense Cuban grappler who already boasted a 1999 World Championship and 2000 Olympic silver medal -- current UFC middleweight title contender Yoel Romero.

Cobb would go on to lose that match by technical superiority 10-0 -- the wrestling equivalent of a mercy rule.

"He is probably one of the baddest men on the planet," Cobb said. "I remember 2003 at the world championships I watched him in the finals. To see that and then literally a year later having to step foot on the mat against him, I was intimidated.

"I knew his reputation 15 years ago. He was just a beast," Cobb continued. "Now he's killing people in the UFC. It's awesome to see. I still got a picture of us backstage at the Olympics, so if I ever run into him I'll be like, 'Hey man, you beat me up at the 2004 Olympics.'"

After the Olympics, Cobb continued his collegiate career at Missouri Valley (which is coincidentally where Bobby Lashley won three NAIA national titles) -- dreaming of an opportunity in the world of professional wrestling.

As soon as he graduated in 2008, Cobb made plans to train at Harley Race's academy while working as a graduate assistant at Missouri Valley College, but the coaching position fell through and Cobb moved back to Hawaii. Cobb was a newcomer to professional wrestling, but his amateur background and high fitness level offered a solid bridge once training began.

"I remember my first day we did 500 squats and I was like, 'All right, cool.' We're gonna go on a two-mile run. 'OK, where?'" Cobb recalled. "Physically, [amateur wrestling] definitely helped me out. Mentally as well, because I always go with that saying, 'once you amateur wrestled, everything else in life is easy.'"

Like Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar and many others who'd come before him in this business, Cobb capitalized on his amateur wrestling exposure by crafting his look and persona around that experience. He worked for years, slowly building up his reputation with smaller independent wrestling promotions on the West Coast of the United States.

Cobb would finally catch his big break when he got the type of incoming call almost every wrestler dreams of -- originating from a phone number in Stamford, Connecticut, headquarters of the WWE.

It didn't quite play out as he might have expected.

"'Holy s---,'" Cobb remembers thinking after looking at his caller ID. He had already scheduled a tryout with WWE in Orlando one week prior, but with this phone call he was hoping to skip the line and receive an outright offer for a contract.

The phone call wasn't from WWE.

It was, instead, from Chris DeJoseph -- a former WWE writer who still had a 203 area code on his phone. At the time, DeJoseph was putting together a roster for a new wrestling show called Lucha Underground. DeJoseph pitched Cobb on the new show, but Cobb already had his mind set on his upcoming WWE tryout.

DeJoseph understood and said, "If they don't pick you up, contact us and then we'll do something with you.'"

Cobb showed up for the WWE tryout camp in September 2014, alongside a promising class of aspiring wrestlers including Rich Swann, Montez Ford and No Way Jose. Cobb was singled out along with seven others to take promo pics and conduct an interview. Of those eight individuals, six were signed. Cobb was not.

WWE instead offered Cobb a spot on Season 6 of Tough Enough, but the soft-spoken Cobb politely declined.

"Eh, I'm not a Tough Enough guy," Cobb said. "I'm not a reality star man. I'm a wrestler. I'd be so boring. I don't think that's what a reality show wants. They want the over-the-top, crazy guys that drink and party all night and cause drama. I'm not that. I don't think the Tough Enough route would've been good for me."

After moving on from the WWE offer, Cobb reached back out to DeJoseph and signed on for Season 1 of Lucha Underground. Cobb wasn't on camera in the first season, instead wrestling in dark matches. The real opportunity came ahead of Season 2, when Cobb was approached by Lucha Underground writers about wearing a mask and wrestling as Matanza Cueto -- the monster brother of Lucha Underground's on-screen proprietor Dario Cueto.

It was a dramatic change for the typically straightforward Cobb, who had to adapt his in-ring style to fit the stoic, serial killer vibe of the character.

Matanza debuted at Aztec Warfare II, a Royal Rumble-esque contest that is arguably Lucha Underground's biggest match each season, wearing blood-stained overalls and a Jason Voorhees-like mask.

He entered the match and tore through his opponents one-by-one, with a repertoire ranging from Olympic-level suplexes to a standing shooting star press. He pinned the debuting Rey Mysterio in the finals of the match and was crowned the new Lucha Underground champion.

"When I finally realized what they were doing with it the day of Aztec Warfare, I was tripping man. It was crazy," Cobb said. "'Oh yeah, you're gonna come in at No. 21 and take out half the roster and then the last couple minutes you're gonna be with Rey Mysterio Jr. .... What!? That's awesome.' Yeah, it was crazy. I blew myself up so hard in that match -- because I was so excited -- that I made myself almost pass out."

Most fans, at least those in attendance, didn't know who was under the mask -- but they instantly connected to the character. Cobb continued to wrestle as one of the most prominent figures of Lucha Underground until his character was killed off of the show at the end of Season 4.

In reality, Matanza's storyline death was to allow Cobb to move on from Lucha Underground.

Once word got out that Cobb was a free agent, it didn't take long before he was drawing interest from other promotions. Delirious, the head booker of ROH, had already reached out to Cobb in the fall of 2017, before Cobb was free of his Lucha Underground contract.

The moment he was eligible, ROH made an offer and Cobb signed a one-year contract. It's the most significant deal Cobb has had in his career, and though it limits where he can perform in North America, he's thriving under his current arrangement. Not only is he a champion in Ring of Honor, but he's also the reigning champion of indie super-promotion Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and a former PWG tag team champion alongside current NXT standout Matt Riddle.

Cobb has been dominant from the earliest moments of his ROH career and won their TV title from Punishment Martinez in under two minutes in his very first ROH match in October.

"Not many people get introduced to a huge company like Ring of Honor in that fashion," Cobb noted.

He has already put on tremendous TV title defenses against "Hangman" Adam Page, Rocky Romero and Hirooki Goto, and on Friday's 17th Anniversary show Cobb faces Shane Taylor in a clash of big men. From there, it's onto the G1 Supercard at Madison Square Garden as ROH and NJPW run a historic show for both promotions.

"I'm excited, because I think that's what anybody does in any professional sport," Cobb said, of his journey to ROH and MSG. "You train hard in high school to get noticed and picked up by the big college, and picked up by an NFL team to join the NFL. Same thing with the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball -- you work your way up.

"Same thing with professional wrestling," Cobb continued. "You train, start working your local indies, start getting your name out, and eventually your goal is to sign a contract -- not turn your back on the indies, but there comes a point where you can't be on the indies forever. You gotta go up to a bigger company, and I think that's what my career is headed towards."