PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRISTOPHER TOMAS | STYLING BY CHRISTOPHER RAO
A pro wrestler from Nutley, New Jersey who fell in love with the sport in high school. He believes that working hard and being yourself is the best way to stand up to the bullies.
How did you become a wrestler? Before pro wrestling, I played baseball from little league through college. I was an NCAA Division I athlete at Seton Hall University. I wanted to play baseball professionally. Eventually it didn’t really work out there and I transferred over to Montclair State University where I continued to play baseball. And also I got a degree in TV and radio production. I’ve always been a pro wrestling fan. As a child, I was pretty shy. I was timid. I was very skinny. So, becoming one wasn’t really an option. I would have loved to, but I just didn’t know how. So, I played baseball. I fell in love with that, played that through college and then once I got to my final year, I started having pain in my elbow and I just kind of lost my love of the game and I stopped.
There was this time period for five to six hours [a day] that I was used to being on a baseball field, for the last 11 years, which I was having trouble filling. So I wanted to find something fulfilling that I could fill that time with — a lot of filling. [Laughs] Pro wrestling has always been my second love. It was my first love and then baseball kind of took over, but it kind of popped back up. I forgot which hurricane it was, but it delayed my friends from moving into their dorms and we were bored. So we decided to make a wrestling video, like a funny YouTube wrestling video where we beat each other up around the house and there’s characters and stuff. It caught on locally on YouTube. So we had a little following and the feedback I would be getting was you look like a pro wrestler, it looks like you’ve been doing this for a while. Obviously I didn’t have any experience at the time. And that kind of planted the seed of maybe this is something that I could actually do because this was the first thing I fell in love with. I had all the toys. I was constantly thinking about wrestling, watching wrestling 24/7, my walls are covered with posters. So it was the first thing that I really sunk my teeth into. And at that specific period of time, it’s the first time I thought maybe this could be an option.
How did you fall in love with wrestling? It was the theatrics, the mystery behind the characters, the storylines — pro wrestling is unlike any kind of entertainment. It takes all these different things like acting, sport, drama, and it blends them into one and you get this beautiful package if you allow yourself to suspend your disbelief. Most people think, “Oh, well it’s fake. It’s very painful. It is scripted entertainment,” but you have to approach watching it like you’re sitting down and you’re watching Game of Thrones or some sort of TV show. Once you wrap your head around that and just dive into it, it’s unlike anything that’s out there.
BELT BY LOEWE, BOXER BRIEF BY CDLP, SHOES BY BERLUTI THROUGHOUT.
What happened after you graduated? In October of 2012, WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) was in the area and the wrestlers on their roster lifted at the gym that I went to. I wanted to meet the roster, so I called out sick from all my college classes. I went over there and I took photos with a bunch of the wrestlers and there was one particular guy, Santino Marella, he plays a a full-blooded Italian guy. I wanted to take a photo with him, but I was like, you know what? I don’t want to bother him. But at the same time, I’ll never see this guy again. So I went up to him, respectfully, took a photo. As I was walking away, he stopped me and he said, “Hey you look like a pro wrestler, ever thought about becoming one?” And I was like, “Yeah!”
He pulled out his cell phone and gave me the number of a guy named Pat Buck, who at the time was running a training school, a pro wrestling academy in New Jersey. He’s currently the producer for WWE Raw. I gave him a call, and two weeks later I started my wrestling training. I felt like it was fate ‘cause we had the YouTube thing, then you know, I walked up to this guy. If he didn’t say what he said, I don’t know what I would’ve been doing.
Well, you put it out there and that’s how it happened. You decided. When did you come out as queer to the wrestling world? I was in the closet until 2017. For four years of my career, I was closeted as a professional wrestler. A wrestler by the name of Darren Young (Fredrick Rosser III) came out in 2012 or 2013 with WWE. He was the first openly gay pro wrestler. So, I kept my eye on that just to see how he was treated and how people reacted. For myself, I didn’t know how fans were going to react. I didn’t know how my co-workers or the other wrestlers would react because you might find yourself in a situation where you’re in the ring and the guy across from you really doesn’t like you. I might have to defend myself for real in a situation where people would mess with me in the locker rooms. There were all these thoughts and fears that were going on in my head that kept me from ever saying anything.
At the same time I think it affected my performance in ways that I didn’t realize at the time because if you look at a match now, compared to a match then, all the physical stuff is there because I’m a confident professional wrestler, but the performance feels very uptight, rigid, closed-off, and hard to connect with. The other wrestlers look like they’re having fun and being themselves. I feel like being in the closet put up a wall that hindered me in a lot of ways. Then, once I did come out, all those walls just came crashing down and I felt so much freer and happier.
Is it because you were in your head when you were performing? Once I came out, I was able to just freely be myself. I didn’t have to pretend to be an overly tough guy. Now I can just authentically do it. Back then it was more forced because I didn’t want people to even question anything.
COAT BY BERLUTI, BRIEFS BY CALVIN KLEIN.
Do you still feel any discrimination? Surprisingly no, the biggest relief. I’m very lucky. I guess we live in the liberal Northeast, New York City area. It’s a very accepting environment, but since I’ve come out, professional wrestling has come so far. It’s so inclusive. A big show was going to happen before the pandemic on WrestleMania weekend that was exclusively for LGBTQ talent. The locker rooms have been so welcoming. I feel like my relationships have blossomed and become tighter because now I’m free to talk about myself. I don’t have to change [pronouns in] stories from “he” to “she.” I feel like it just made a tighter bond between everyone that I worked with or spent time with.
So, you’re expressing yourself better because this is your true self? The acceptance has not felt forced either which I am really happy with because you can tell when someone is almost like pity accepting you because it’s the right thing to do. And then there’s genuine inclusiveness where people don’t give a fuck who you are and they’re your friend. I feel like these are the kinds of relationships that I’ve had with a lot of the wrestlers. I feel like they’re my brothers.
Have you met more queer wrestlers since you came out? Yeah, quite a few who were closeted at the time they reached out and I’m happy that I’m able to lend them support. At the same time a ton of other LGBTQ wrestlers have come out since like Jake Atlas and Mike Parrow — there’s so many now I can’t even keep track which is fantastic because we need more representation in pro wrestling. We need more visibility and we need to show the entire world the talent that we have. I think even with the people who have come out, what’s even cooler is that they are all so different. It shows how beautiful and unique the LGBTQ community is, we all have our own personalities and our own way of moving in the ring and just being ourselves displaying who we are, and I think that’s really cool.
What or who inspires you? My goals, I guess inspire me. I have so many different things that I want to achieve becoming a pro wrestler, growing my YouTube channel, helping the LGBTQ community with visibility. There’s just so many different things that I want to dive into. I think that’s what keeps me motivated to work hard now because I’m really starting to see my resume pile up with all the cool things I’ve been able to accomplish just by focusing on something and working hard and putting all my energy into it. I feel like I can accomplish anything. That’s what keeps me motivated.
Have you gotten any negative criticism from your fans? The only negativity I got was online, I’ve never really experienced anything in person. But I think that kind of goes along with the privilege that I have to recognize that having a big and muscular body leads people to think, “Oh, this person is straight.” Also I’m the nicest person in the world, but I get told all the time when they first meet me, people are scared of me because I look like I’m perpetually angry. So I guess that helps. That’s why I don’t get much flack in person.
I guess it helps to be strong for the bullies. Yeah. [Laughs] You realize that there’s a lot of hateful people out there. There’s a lot of people who are struggling with things and they take it out on other people. So you just kind of have to take it with a grain of salt and ignore it, move on and focus on the positive things that are in your life.
COAT BY LOEWE.
When you’re not working, what’s a perfect day for you? Depending on where I am, if I’m home, I would like to get a good lift in and a good cardio session because it just makes me feel good for the rest of my day. I would probably just relax and play video games. I’m kind of boring in that sense. I watch wrestling, I study it. I like to collect retro toys. I like to collect vinyl records.
What music do you listen to? I’m open to everything. I think my main genre is probably alternative rock, punk rock kind of vibe, but I listen to everything. I’ll even listen to country music. I tend to shy away from more mainstream music. I’m pretty open to listening to anything as long as it hits the right vibe.
What’s your drink of choice? A Long Island iced tea. I’m not that much of a drinker. I’ll do it more socially. But sometimes if I feel like it, I’ll get the ingredients to make one myself. If I’m at a bar, I’ll get a mojito, more for the flavor.
What is a happy place for you? I’m happy in a wrestling ring and I’m happy when I’m able to be creative — in this case right now it’s making YouTube videos with my boyfriend Michael Pavano. Even though we sometimes have creative differences — every creative duo does, you can’t escape that — it’s just so much fun to be able to think of something, laugh at something, and then create it and get the feedback that comes afterwards. It’s super rewarding. And in terms of YouTube, it’s in the comments; in terms of wrestling, it’s the live fan reactions.
What advice do you have for an openly queer athlete in high school? Giving advice is always the hardest thing for me because I know people are in different scenarios that are unique to them. I usually end up saying, “you’ll know when the time is right,” because you’ll know when you just don’t want to deal with the burden of not being yourself anymore. Be confident in yourself and don’t be afraid to be yourself.
ROBE AND SHORTS BY CDLP.
PAJAMA PANT BY CDLP.