Jake the Snake Protege Lance Archer Believes He Belongs at the Top of AEW

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterMay 19, 2020

Photo courtesy of AEW

When Lance Archer steps into the ring at Double or Nothing this weekend, no doubt having already dispatched some foolish bystander on his way there, temporarily slaking the Murderhawk Monster's insatiable appetite for violence, there will be a lot to prove.

Across the way will stand Cody Rhodes, wrestling royalty, a man whose entire life has been a series of opportunities. Fighting for a championship on pay-per-view, show-closing spots on national television and the adoration of thousands of screaming fans are not particularly remarkable for Cody. What Archer calls the biggest chance of his career, Rhodes simply calls Saturday. 

Archer, truth be told, wants a taste of what that life is like. For almost a decade, he's been in Japan, fighting a losing battle as he attempted a march on the main event scene, shoved one step backward for every inch of ground he managed to earn. It gets exhausting, the long flights from Dallas to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Japan, the weeks camped in a hotel in a land that would never be his, only to be asked, when he returned home, 'Oh, are you still wrestling?'  

Last year, New Japan Pro-Wrestling came to his home base, bringing its famed G1 Climax tournament to America for the first time for a show in Dallas. Archer took the lead, a promotional whirlwind, determined to make it work. It was a rare chance for him to take center stage with the company—and it exposed a longing to be seen that he might not have otherwise known was there.

"Dallas was all-around an amazing experience for me," Archer told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "I took it upon myself to help promote and push because it's in my backyard. It was in my hometown. And it's around fans and friends and family that had been watching me wrestle for over 20 years. I started there with a small company called PCW, Professional Championship Wrestling. Many of those fans hadn't seen me since TNA, 10 years ago. Or my short time in WWE.

"My family were there. And they were like five rows back. You could see them from the ring. And my little nieces, they'd seen me wrestle before but when they were younger. Now they're actually old enough to kind of see what's going on and enjoy the environment.

"For me, to be the first G1 match ever in the United States was a really cool experience. And Will Ospreay and I, I think, went out there and tore the house down. People didn't know what to expect of me. That first match there in Dallas for the G1 was the first time they'd really seen me work as a singles competitor in a really long time. This was kind of a coming-out party. I took it as an opportunity to really kind of reinvent myself. And really start the journey that is The Murderhawk Monster. That G1 in Dallas was kind of where that first step was taken."

In the G1, Archer got a taste of what was possible for him, a role he hadn't played for years: top star. He sensed an opportunity not to take a single step forward but to make a huge leap. At 43, with 20 years of experience powering him, he truly felt ready to make the kind of mark he'd never quite managed before.

But doing it in Japan would be hard. Like it or not, he'd been firmly slotted into a position there. Only so much upward mobility was possible once promoters and fans had gotten used to viewing a wrestler a certain way. 

"I've been kind of a journeyman. My five-year stint at TNA. My short cup of coffee in WWE. The last eight-and-a-half years in Japan. I wanted to prove to the world that I absolutely belong as a singles competitor," he said. "I want people to look at what I'm doing now and judge me on what I'm doing now. Because it's hard to get over whatever history you have. And there's a lot of, I don't know, ideas that people have of what I was in this business or what I can be.

"I look at it as a way and an opportunity to continue to prove myself. And it keeps me on my toes. It keeps me pushing forward. It never lets me get complacent with what I'm doing or where I've been. I look at this as an absolute opportunity to prove people wrong that thought less than me. And to create a whole new image, become someone they didn't even realize they should be paying attention to."

When AEW called, he was ready to listen.

"Everything felt right," Archer said. "The opportunity that was being presented with a company like AEW that was just too good to pass up, man. There were too many cool things coming at me at the exact same time. 

"It's an opportunity to come home. An opportunity to be on TV in the United States of America. I hadn't done that on a regular basis in over 10 years. The opportunity to be in front of the U.S. fans and my family, my friends on a consistent basis, along with just the opportunity to be in there with so many different guys that I've never even touched the ring with.

"I worked with Kenny Omega in Japan. But we never wrestled each other. Sammy Guevara in Texas many years—never wrestled each other. Brodie Lee now at AEW. Never wrestled each other. I've wrestled Mox once. And that was in Japan. So I'd love to recreate that in the States. Cody and I have never wrestled each other. And we're going to do that on the 23rd at Double or Nothing. There's so many cool opportunities that kind of came my way all at the time. Family, friends, my faith, were all pointing in the direction of AEW. Here I am kicking ass."

In a business of shocking reveals and fast-moving storylines, Archer's AEW debut has been satisfyingly slow, anticipation building week after week as he inserted himself boldly in the path of one of the promotion's leading stars. Partnered with the legendary Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Archer has spent weeks establishing himself both as someone unafraid to wreak havoc on the entire wrestling world and as a performer unafraid to test the limits and then push fans to places beyond where they were willing to go on their own.

Photo courtesy of AEW

"Jake and I just kind of sauntered out to the ring and watched Cody," Archer said. "And there was no real interaction. And people in this day and age of wrestling, and in life, are so used to that big bang. That momentary bam, here it is, what's going on? We were telling a very cool, slow-burn story and making people go, 'Well, what's next? What are they going to do next? When is it going to explode?' 

"That slow-burn story had been building it up. And then all of a sudden here I am exploding in the ring. And it was just like, holy crap. I think Chris Jericho said it great while he was on commentary. He was like, 'I had no idea where The Murderhawk Monster was. Now I know. It's standing right in front of me.' And that's kind of the whole idea." 

Two weeks ago, he and Roberts stood over Cody's wife Brandi, a snake slithering over her exposed body, all of this shocking, sexualized violence pulled from wrestling's less inhibited past. For Roberts, it was a reminder to the audience that he's a living legend beyond compare. For Archer, it's been a heck of an opportunity to make a first impression and stretch some of the performance muscles grown weak after years in Japan where most of the storytelling happens inside the ring.

Photo courtesy of AEW

"That's another reason why I chose to come back," Archer said. "Because it's a whole new avenue of my career that I'm getting an opportunity to experience and experiment with. And grow from. The Murderhawk Monster was a very straightforward, ass-kicking dude who stepped in the ring and nobody messed with. And now there's opportunities through Jake The Snake and his storytelling and the vignettes to show who I am, things that go along with what I can do in the ring.

"I like that kind of storytelling and stretching those performance muscles. And kind of creating that momentum so people started going, 'Okay, I understand it. I get it. I like it. I want more.' This was an opportunity for somebody who is a true legend in this business, a Hall of Famer by every sense of the word, Jake 'The Snake' Roberts to come out and help tell my story and tell people who I am. It helps them introduce me or reintroduce me back into the U.S. market. 

"He gives me a new platform that I wouldn't have had otherwise. And it is a really cool pairing. And I think it's worked out as good or better than anybody even expected it to. It's fun. It's fun listening to him say what he says. And it's fun for me to go out there and kick ass. It's a really cool, fun combination. And I think it's only scratching the surface of what he and I are going to do in AEW in the business of professional wrestling."

So far, all of Archer's major AEW segments have taken place in arenas devoid of fans. That won't change as he makes his in-ring pay-per-view debut, but he's not letting the state of the world impact how he approaches this opportunity. 

"After being in this business for about 20 years, man, I've wrestled in front of almost nobody. And I've wrestled in front of almost 80,000 people," Archer said. "And it's one of those things that ultimately I know that there's people watching. So even though technically there's nobody in the crowd, I'm performing for the people that are watching at home. There's millions and millions of watching at home on TNT, Fite TV around the world. 

"Once that red light turns on, I'm out there, and I'm performing. And I'm just having a damn good time. And I'd like to believe I've made a damn good impression considering everything. And it's just one of the things. It's a sign of our times, and you got to keep moving forward man."

For Archer, moving forward means showing the wrestling world things they've never seen before. It means, at 43, going out and setting a new standard for big men in the sport, building on the foundation firmly established by greats of the past. Wrestling fans in 2020 demand a certain level of performance—Archer believes he can meet that standard and throw in some things they might not even know they've been missing. 

"I think I bring a level of intensity that is unmatched in all of this business," he said. "This is no disrespect to anybody, whether it's in our company or any other company, but I have the fire, that monster aspect that I don't think anybody else has right now. There's guys that can do some really cool things. And there's some big, bad dudes. I am a big guy, but I don't necessarily wrestle just like a big guy.

"Obviously, it's 2020, it's a new era. The big man can't just be the lumbering 'stand there, don't do anything, never move-type guy.' So you have to add that athletic ability in there because that's what the fanbase wants and expects.

"But at the same time, I think it's being smart about it and not just overdoing it as the big man. Throwing those things like the rope-walk moonsault that I did with Dustin, and things like that. Where people kind of go wait, what just happened? They've seen the old-school rope-walk. That's famous. The Undertaker, he's influenced everybody that's ever existed in this business in the last 20 years. Then I throw my own twist and bust out a moonsault off the rope. You have to do those things, I think, as a big man in 2020.

"It's one of those things—I want people to look up my age and go, 'What? He's 43 years old? There's no way.' I even mentioned that to some people that I work with. And they said, 'You're 43? I had no idea. I figure you're maybe in your mid-30s.' Which is a huge compliment."  

Cody @CodyRhodes

It’s been a privilege to compete in this tournament. It’ll be an honor to finish it. The King of PPV, The Baddest Man On The Planet, Iron Mike Tyson to present the @tntdrama CHAMPIONSHIP #aew https://t.co/gShd18YUpX

The stakes at Double or Nothing are high. Not only will the winner walk away the first-ever TNT champion, but the title belt will be presented by boxing legend Mike Tyson. It's a chance to be seen by eyeballs all over the world that don't normally consume any kind of wrestling content. For Archer, that's one more step on the road to the top—which is where he feels he belongs.

"I don't see myself as anything less than a top guy or the top guy," Archer said. "And to be coming in and working with Cody, he's one of the top babyfaces in all of the business. Well, unfortunately, I'm going to have to take him out on May 23rd at Double or Nothing. And there's going to be one less top babyface. Cody's going to be gone. Because like I say, everybody...you know the rest.

"But it's really cool experience. Even with the situation that exists in the world today, we're moving forward. I'm moving forward. And this business is only going to keep going forward. And it's fun to be a part of that in a top story angle and for a brand new championship, the TNT championship. The first champion's going to be crowned on May 23rd at Double or Nothing. And it's going to be really cool for The Murderhawk Monster, Lance Archer, to be the very first TNT champion kicking Cody's ass."

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report. You can stream Double or Nothing Saturday on B/R Live