Whether it’s Japan, Mexico, Canada or the United States, it seems like the entire world has seen T.J. Perkins rise to fame on the independent wrestling scene as Puma. He does still wear the mask on special occasions, but he is also trying to make a new name for himself without one.

“When I started wrestling at 14, I had to wear the mask, because I was told that I looked too young, and that no one would ever take me seriously without it,” Perkins told SLAM! Wrestling. “When I was 18, I took up boxing and catch wrestling just to get better, and I also started tagging with the fourth Tiger Mask. The promoters said they wanted me to be the American version of Tiger Mask. Personally, my favourite Tiger Mask has always been the first one, Sayama. But I also really liked the fourth one, who I thought was the closest thing to the first.”

TJ Perkins

He was born Teddy James Perkins in Los Angeles, CA. Both of his parents worked for airlines, so one might say that Perkins was born to fly. And this also may have prepared him for life on the road.

“I used to watch Saturday Night’s Main Event with my dad, who was more of a casual fan. But then I made some friends in school, who were all really into it, like I was,” Perkins said. “By the time I started wrestling, I was already used to the traveling.”

It’s hard not to have respect for a man who became a man at 13. While most teenagers were going to concerts or having parties when their parents were out of town, Perkins already had his career mapped out.

“I started training when I was 13, and then I was working at 14. I was already wrestling a full schedule, and I would say I was treated like any 30-year-old. At that time, guys didn’t really become wrestlers before they were 24,” Perkins said. “I kind of viewed wrestling as an internship. I would often have to ditch school on Fridays to be able to make the weekend loop of shows, and then I would get dropped off again on the following Monday.”

Perhaps one of the toughest decisions that a young wrestler has to make is to choose a wrestling school. Perkins may have had it a lot tougher than most, since he wasn’t old enough to drive. But that didn’t stop him.

“Back when I started in ’96-97, there wasn’t a lot to find on the Internet. At first, I wanted to go to Shawn Michaels’ gym, but that was all the way in Texas, so there was no way I could get there. Then I found one a little closer, but it was in San Francisco, which was still a six-hour commute from where I was. Eventually, I found one closer to my area. I’m from Los Angeles, and there’s an authentic Lucha Libre culture here. Lucha Libre was kind of an underground thing, which was really passed around through word of mouth,” Perkins said. “In wrestling school, you just kind of learn the basics, so you can go out there and not get hurt. And then you’re eventually placed on an undercard, where you’re basically kind of fed to the wolves. It’s a very seat-of-the-pants type learning, where you just kind of pick things up as you go. You learn through experience.”

After several years of paying his dues in the States, Perkins decided that it was time to take things to the next level. So he was off to Japan; New Japan to be exact.

“Going to Japan was like a big culture shock, but at the time, I thought I was bullet-proof and I felt like I could do anything, because I had already trained in authentic Lucha gyms in the States. The Japanese accept Lucha Libre as a great culture of wrestling, but it wasn’t until guys like Jushin Thunder Liger trained there with that style. So I was kind of able to cheat a little bit, since I had the same kind of style. I would say that New Japan taught me how to be a professional. It was at the point that I got to Japan, when I realized that I’m not a kid any more, and it was time to grow up,” Perkins said. “Everybody worked differently and they spoke differently, and it can be a really horrifying experience. But I looked at it like I was incredibly lucky.”

TJ Perkins in action in Japan.

If it wasn’t official already, it was certainly official by this point that Perkins was a man. After building up a few more years of experience overseas, Perkins was able to return to the States and lend advice to anyone who needed it; maybe even a future ROH World Champion.

“He found me and helped me when I first came to the L.A. New Japan dojo; he’s the one that took me under his wings,” said Ring of Honor’s Davey Richards. “He’d been there for a while and showed me the ropes, showed me how to deal with the crazy Japanese and just taught me a lot about wrestling. He’s always been one of those guys. He’s broken a lot of guys in, and yet he’s so young. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of T.J.”

At this point in time, Perkins certainly had the travel bug. He wanted to see more of the world, and quite frankly, the rest of the world wanted to see him. In 2005, Perkins headed north of the border and competed for Extreme Canadian Championship Wrestling. He’s also competed for the Mexican promotion Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL).

“Wrestling is really the same, no matter where you go; the only thing that changes is the flavour. It’s the same kind of thing as MMA. Sure there are a lot of different styles, but at the end of the day, everyone is essentially trying to do the same thing,” Perkins said. “You go to a different country, and they just try to teach you what they view as wrestling. It’s just like learning a different language. At the end of the day, we’re all trying to speak the same language.”

The Puma character seemed to be well received everywhere that Perkins went. Having so much international experience at such a young age definitely paid off in the end, as some of the major promotions in the States wanted to see Perkins in action.

TJ Perkins as Puma.

Perkins has had a few brief runs in TNA over the last decade, including a match at the recent X-Travaganza pay per view. He’s competed in several World X Cup tournaments, representing both Mexico and Japan in separate years. And both countries were certainly proud to have him on their side.

“Going to TNA was kind of a low key transition for me, since I had already worked in New Japan and CMLL. But when I went to TNA, I felt like I was being thrown into a major league. I loved the morale there,” Perkins said. “Sometimes, people think that things aren’t creatively looking good on TV, and that the workers must hate it there. But I’ve never been there at a time when it wasn’t a great working environment.”

The X-Division has always been known for its multiple-man matches, and Perkins has competed in his fair share.

“One of the pros of working a multiple-man match is that you can pick your spots a lot better. When there are less people involved, you have more responsibility. Imagine if Manny Pacquiao was told before a fight that, ‘This fight will go 12 rounds,'” Perkins said. “I remember one time when they had a bunch of us X-Division guys in a cage at Lockdown. I actually had the idea to go up and ask the producers if it was possible to get through the hole where the camera gets in. Outside of Sonjay Dutt or [Amazing] Red, that’s kind of cutting it close, and I guess I was the only one stupid enough to ask. When you’re in a confined space like that, it can get a bit irritating.”

TJ Perkins tries to escape the grasp of Roderick Strong at Ring of Honor’s 10th Anniversary iPPV in March 2012. Photo by George Tahinos

It was only a matter of time until the WWE starting taking a look at Perkins. He actually had a couple of tryouts a few years ago, which unfortunately did not work out in his favour. At 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, Perkins might not have had the look that the WWE goes for, but it was certainly a major accomplishment just to be part of the biggest wrestling organization in the world.

“I have actually been to the WWE many times. In the span of about six months, they were holding a bunch of tryouts, which all just happened to be in the areas that I was in at the time; that’s just the way the schedule worked out. I was actually told that instead of going to all these tryouts, that it might be better to actually go train at the WWE developmental gym,” Perkins said. “I went to FCW (Florida Championship Wrestling), and I remember at one of the tapings in Jacksonville, I got into a bit of trouble for breaking protocol. I was facing The Miz on Raw one night, and I usually do this thing where I flip into the ring before my matches. So I look over, and Justin Roberts is just screaming at me, saying, ‘This is not about you! You’re not the star here!’ etc. And then for my next match, the referee walks with me to the ring, holding my hand like we’re on a date. And they just send me under the bottom rope and into the ring real fast. To make matters worse, I had cracked ribs from the night before and I was facing Sheamus, who’s a guy that works the body more than anybody. There was an incident at one of the shows, where Sheamus came up to me and asked about this submission hold that I used on Tyson Kidd at one of the tapings. So I kind of joked around and told him to give me 10 bucks for the move. He didn’t really find it funny though, and just kind of awkwardly walked away.”

Perkins might have hit a bump in the road in the WWE, but he wouldn’t let it get him down, as he then returned to Ring of Honor, where he was welcomed back with open arms. Years earlier, Perkins worked Ring of Honor’s Fifth Year Festival show, where he lost to Nigel McGuinness. But it was good for him to be back in the promotion and be reunited with old friends.

“I would say he’s definitely the smoothest wrestler in the entire world, that I’ve ever been in the ring with,” Richards said. “He’s technically proficient, he can fly and he’s wrestled all over the world; he’s got that experience from Mexico, Japan, Europe. He’s mastered all the styles and he’s extremely smooth.”

Perkins has always been one to pay it forward and lend out advice whenever he could. But he’s also been the recipient of some great advice.

“I remember when [Daniel] Bryan and I were training with Roland Alexander, Roland told us to not ever settle for less than what you are and what you do, or everyone will walk all over you for the rest of your life. Bryan actually took those words a little more seriously than I did, and since then, he’s had tremendous success,” Perkins said. “Another piece of great advice that I received was from Norman Smiley, who said the only thing that’s real in this business is the money and the miles, because when the sun goes down, the money is the only reality that you have.”

To mask or not to mask, that is the question…

When Perkins returned to Ring of Honor in 2010, he started competing without a mask, which the fans didn’t seem to mind. His latest ROH run was great while it lasted, but eventually, Perkins wanted to pursue other opportunities.

“I came to Ring of Honor when they were about a year old. And then I’ve come back a few times since then. Every time I was there, they’ve always had a different identity. It was always good and always cool, but it was always different,” Perkins said. “Without my mask, I feel like I’m having fun. I’m creating every moment as it happens, and I’m just being myself. But when I do put my mask back on, I’m still able to be myself, and it’s like the mask isn’t even there. I would say that my current status with Ring of Honor is more of a freelance one. I voluntarily asked for my release, and I’ve since come to work for TNA, and WWE is holding another string of tryouts in the summer. So I was getting a lot of calls that I couldn’t take, because I was still under contract. I’m officially still part of their (ROH) roster, but I’m just not under contract.”

Being a good friend of Perkins, Richards certainly didn’t want to see him go, but he ultimately respected his decision, and wishes him the best, no matter where he shows up next.

“He has accomplished a lot, but I think he can go back to those places, be it New Japan or CMLL, and be a champion; be a main eventer,” Richards said. “There’s no reason a guy like that couldn’t be used in WWE or TNA, or be main eventing Ring of Honor shows too. The sky’s the limit for that kind of talent.”

Those who have read this story, but don’t know who T.J. Perkins is and have never seen him in action, would probably be shocked to discover that he is only 28 years old. Perkins has done everything in the wrestling business that any young wrestler could have ever dreamed of, before he even reached his prime.

Nobody can predict the future, but if Perkins’ is greater than his past and present, then he will likely end up in a hall of fame someday.

“A lot of guys in our generation were not able to nail down steady careers until they were in their thirties, which is kind of scary, now that I know that the clock’s ticking for me,” he laughed. “For instance, a guy like Tyson Kidd is more than capable to have had the job that he has for a long, long time. But now that he has it, he’s a lot older. For a lot of guys, their best stuff doesn’t come until they’re 30-35.

“I saved money to be able to pay off my house by the time I was 21. I’ve already worked for New Japan and CMLL, and I’ve trained in a WWE ring, so I’ve really done everything that I’ve ever wanted to do by the time I was barely even old enough to drink. I’ve still got a lot of learning to do, and hopefully, I’ll get to pass it along to the younger generation. My main goal was to just have fun.”