Rich Swann doesn’t fit the mold of what a professional wrestler looks like. He’s a 5-6, 160-pound African American who lacks a bodybuilder physique. But he more than makes up for it in sheer mind-blowing athleticism. After making a name for himself on the independent scene, Swann signed a deal with the WWE in 2015 and became the cruiserweight champion a year later.
However, an incident in Florida on Dec. 10, 2017, between Swann and his wife, fellow professional wrestler Su Yung, led to his arrest on charges of domestic battery and false imprisonment. Although details of the incident remained murky, Swann was released from the WWE. After contemplating retirement, Swann returned to pro wrestling and signed a deal with Impact in 2018. Two years later, Swann finds himself headlining the Bound for Glory pay-per-view against Eric Young for the Impact World Championship.
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But the road here has been a challenging one filled with debilitating injuries, hardships (lost both parents before 16), controversy (his 2017 arrest) and having to rebuild his image.
Swann talked with Sporting News to discuss, in his words, what happened on that fateful December 2017 night, his upcoming match with Young and breaking the mold on what a world champion in pro wrestling looks like.
Sporting News: You’re in a position to be the second African American to ever be Impact champion. How much does this mean to you?
Rich Swann: It means a lot. Bobby Lashley was the first and to have the opportunity to challenge for the championship when it is even rare to see an African American even headline a pay-per-view; it makes my heart soar. I’m able to be in this position to make everyone who supported me proud.
SN: You mention Lashley, but he’s a musclebound guy who fits the prototype of what a world champion is supposed to look like. And then there is you, who is of smaller stature and extraordinarily athletic. Once upon a time, a person of your stature and skin color would have never been in this position.
RS: It always runs through my mind. Up until 2015, somebody my size wouldn’t have had this opportunity. The industry has changed and allows the more athletic styles to shine. I’m fortunate to be my size and getting the opportunity to prove that this style is something that can draw attention to the product.
SN: Being from Baltimore and living the childhood that you did, it doesn’t get much more inspirational than your story. How much have you thought about there being a kid from your neighborhood who will watch you and be inspired to believe that they can do this too?
RS: That means the world to me. My mother was a huge inspiration to me. We loved wrestling and watched together. Being in Baltimore it’s easy to be a product of your environment. One thing my mother told was to go for what you believe and do something that will allow you to inspire others. I never thought I’d get to this point in my career. To be an inspiration to these kids from Baltimore or any type of poverty, it brings joy to my heart. I know what it’s like to not have anybody. Wrestlers were my role models. And now to think that I am that person to somebody, that brings me joy.
SN: You’ve done a lot in your career. Maybe the most memorable on the indie scene was when you formed a tag team with Ricochet as the Inner City Machine Guns.
RS: That’s one of my favorite times of my life! I hope we can do that again.
SN: It was one of those times when we got to see Black wrestlers be themselves and not be a caricature of themselves. How much have you enjoyed the opportunity to be yourself and not be shoved into a box of stereotypes?
RS: I never bullsh—ed anybody. I was always myself and was respectful to anybody I was around in this business. With me and Ricochet, people just saw us for who we were and our talent. We didn’t have to kiss any ass or dance because somebody told us to. We were just being ourselves. I took pride in that and that’s been my whole career where I refuse to be something that I am not.
SN: When you arrived in WWE, fans were excited yet cautious because we didn’t know how this would play out. You became cruiserweight champion and had a nice run, but do you think that you got what you needed out of that experience?
RS: You can think one thing about what your dream could be and it could end up being a disaster or a masterpiece. In my case, I never really thought about what it would be like in the WWE. I never thought I could make it to the WWE — especially being a Black man who is 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds. Once it became a reality, you can’t really imagine what it would be like. When I was there, I had no problems with anybody and nobody ever told me to do anything I didn’t want to do. I’m just being real. No wacky promos or anything. It was good. It was a job that I didn’t feel was a job. I feel like that at IMPACT as well.
SN: We have to talk about the incident that caused your release, and you never really had the opportunity to discuss your side of it. Social media has run wild with different narratives but, tell me, in your own words, what happened?
RS: People saw a clip online and turned me into a monster. I’m not saying I was right in my actions but I’m not a domestic abuser. Everyone gets into arguments and this was something that was misconstrued. People ran with the worst possible outcome. You can have your opinion but if you know me, my wife and our marriage, there’s nothing to worry yourself about. It was a dark time in my life. We live, learn, make mistakes and grow from them. My wife and I have grown exponentially from that incident and there’s nothing anybody can say and no social media could ever destroy what we have built.
SN: Do you think the fact that you were in the South as a Black man in an argument with an Asian woman made this situation bigger than it should have been?
RS: You know, I never like to bring race into it because it’s a very strong subject in this country, especially with athletes. With this situation, I’m not going to say it was different from most racial profiling incidents because we were in a very, very Southern area of Florida which was certainly Confederate-like. And then there is what my wife was wearing at the time, which was her bloody makeup and gear. It occurred to me that we were clearly in the wrong part of town.
There are so many scandals in professional wrestling. People have lost their job in this business. I can’t say that I was screwed (by the WWE). I have to take responsibility for my own negligence, being where I was and what happened that night. I can’t put that on anybody else. My life is great now and I can’t be mad at anybody.
SN: After being released by the WWE, you met one of your idols, former pro wrestler and Impact producer D’Lo Brown. Can you talk about this meeting and how instrumental he was in you joining Impact?
RS: After I was released, I was at New York Comic Con. Maybe three weeks prior with all the social media backlash I thought it would be best if I stepped away from the business for good. Appearing at New York Comic Con to do a signing was going to be my last event. I didn’t know who was going to be there but I remember people were supporting me and asked me not to quit wrestling. I left my table for a bathroom break. When I returned, D’Lo was near my table. He told me that I was a good person, too young to retire and to think about what I was doing because the business needed more people of color in it. I didn’t even know he knew about me. All those words he told me was the final straw. I wasn’t going to quit. I decided to go to an Impact taping a month after that to see if they wanted to use me and, lo and behold, here we are today.
SN: When you see other Black wrestlers like Lio Rush and ACH talk about leaving the business after their experiences, have you had a chance to reach out to them and offer some advice?
RS: I didn’t have their numbers and don’t mess with social media anymore so I wasn’t really aware until I saw it on the dirt sheets and YouTube. I wanted to reach out to them immediately. My wife happened to be on the same flight as Lio and I asked her to get his number. When I talked to him, I told him he can’t quit. I’m not saying my words did anything to stop him from retiring. But he’s one of the best wrestlers I’ve seen. Just his speed, the way he carries himself, it’s all on another level. Him and Desmond Xavier are two of my favorite wrestlers to watch because their movement cannot be imitated by many other wrestlers. Lio is really one of the greats. I told him that he couldn’t quit. He has to go until he can’t go anymore.
With ACH and his situation, who is to say what happened? Was that straight ignorance or somebody playing around? I don’t know. I’m just happy he came back to wrestling. His personality, explosiveness and charisma are unmatched. I’d love to wrestle him and Lio.
SN: You will be standing across the ring from Eric Young. Both of you have had journeys through the independent scene, landed at WWE and were released, albeit for different reasons. What’s it feel like knowing that you two have gone from released to fighting for the top prize on PPV?
RS: I can’t even put it into words. That’s somebody who I wrestled in front of Dory Funk Jr. at NXT in Ocala, Florida. It was a blistering 120 degrees in that building. We could have done so much more in WWE. But now, being in IMPACT wrestling at Bound for Glory, we are headlining one of the biggest PPVs for the company. I was seen as someone who was underutilized and people see the change in me. He’s gone down a similar path. We have come a long way. Now we have a chance to show the world that we are more than what we’ve been given. That’s something that nobody will be able to take away from us.