If New York has Spider-Man, web-swinging and slinging through its busy streets in all his red and blue glory, the Philippines has TJ Perkins.
In 2016, in the chafing arena of Full Sail University, filled with anxious cheers and nervous drumming claps, Theodore James Perkins won the WWE Cruiserweight Classic. And with that one moment of glory, he also won the hearts of many die-hard wrestling fans.
The match was an adrenaline rush of the best technical wrestling performances to date–a classic indeed–but what I remember the most is the sweat-stained tears Perkins shared with fellow wrestler and opponent, Gran Metalik, as he was crowned the inaugural Cruiserweight champion of a new era in WWE history. And in that particular moment, Perkins humbly stood before the world and claimed the 32 competitors of the Cruiserweight Classic as his heroes: “This is bigger than me; this is not one person, this is 32 people.”
With the stars and sun on his sweat-drenched back and the heart and strive of one of our own, this 35-year-old Filipino-American has sparked for his Filipino and Asian community a chance in the ever-changing world of the wrestling hysteria. He is the real hero of this particular story. But with all that recognition, he never once forgot his humble beginnings as a SoCal boy born to two hardworking parents.
Perkins may not have some fancy and exaggerated origin story like those you see in comic books, but there was something endearing in the admiration he had for his father being around as he was growing up.
If Peter Parker had Uncle Ben, then TJ Perkins had his dad.
“When I was younger, he wasn’t really a big mentor for me,” he first says dismissively in our short conversation over the phone. But then—his tone shifts into something akin to respect and a sense of heavy gratefulness. “As I’ve gotten older, I realized how patient he is, and how strong he is because all he ever really wanted to do was take care of his family.”
Perkins’ father is not the only source of inspiration and aid he’s had over the years. When asked about other sources of mentor figures in his life, TJ cites the likes of the Guerrero family, mainly Hector, Mando, Chavo and Chavo Sr. whom he claimed he “got a lot of wisdom off of.”
In an unfortunate and ironic twist of events, the only Guerrero he was not able to meet in real life, was a long-time inspiration, Eddie Guerrero. Luckily for him, his time in WWE gave him a chance to be mentored by another one of his heroes, Shawn Michaels, who he deemed the biggest mentor he’s ever had.
“After we would finish work every week…I would fly to the East Coast and spend a day where I could just sit with him for an afternoon,” he talks fondly of the WWE Hall of Famer. “And you know, he would just sit…and just talk to me just for hours sometimes; sometimes about wrestling, sometimes just about life.”
While Perkins appraises these strong male figures in his life for their inspiration, TJ also inspires many with his ongoing campaign to represent Filipinos and Asian Americans, giving them a stage and spotlight to work from. And this makes him a hero to all of us; even more so than the bright colors of our flag that he wears, more so than him defying gravity with every breathtaking moment up in the air in that ring, and even more so than the personas and costumes he’s modeled after the likes of famous comic book characters, from Deadpool, Spider-Man, to Wolverine. And above all of that, TJ Perkins is a superhero because he is resilient.
Like every other superhero character that’s been portrayed in every form of media ever, there always seems to be one common theme—no matter how many hits they take, they always find a way to come back. And Perkins is no different. He even recounts a time in which he had given up some spots of wrestling up, spots he could never get back, to chase other opportunities that fell through.
“That lead to me having nothing; I had to start all over and then that’s where you know, I ended up homeless and struggling and didn’t really have anything, and the country had a recession and I wasn’t able to work, and I was older now so I didn’t have an education—obviously.”
Even beyond just that one moment of stagnation, he recalls a time in his career where he was given an opportunity under the condition that he could speak Spanish; “I remember thinking God, that’s like—that’s a really like racist thing to kind of like pinpoint on just me,” he chuckles nervously.
But past all of that, he braved through those times and got back up, still standing—representing. He never forgets to remind those he is representing that they, too, have the ability to be heroes of their own.
“Everybody has incredible strength, and I know especially, you know, Filipinos–we’re culture survivors, you know, we’re very resilient,” he valiantly reminds us. “So, if there’s anybody that I think should be a model in the world for strength and perseverance, it would be us.”
In the last few moments of our call, he breathes out a piece of advice to everyone and anybody out there who may need it.
“You don’t want to be the one to defeat yourself. Let the world try and do it, and trust me, the world won’t be able to.”