This is the first of two parts. The second half is here.
During his ten-plus year career, Nigel McGuinness, the former Ring of Honor World Champion, wasn’t recognized much away from wrestling. There was that one time on the New York City subway, but he was commuting to a match and there were wrestling fans on the train. Being spotted in the Tampa delicatessen where he sliced cold cuts for a living seemed unlikely. But one day in 2011, a customer ordering a quarter pound of ham gave him that curious look that could only mean one thing.
Please don’t fucking say it, McGuinness thought. Please don’t fucking say it. There was another part of him though, the self-loathing English part, that said, You arrogant motherfucker. You think that anyone knows who the fuck you are? And then it happened.
“You’re Nigel McGuinness, aren’t you? You’re Nigel McGuinness.”
He tried downplaying it. Oh, I get that all the time, McGuinness said. He envisioned the headlines on wrestling websites: Nigel McGuinness Working at Deli Cutting Ham. After a while, he lightened up. “I appreciated your matches,” gushed the fan. “You were awesome.” The recognition felt good. He wasn’t forgotten. Even if he had followed the career arc of Randy the Ram, the down-and-out former grappler portrayed by Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, who also ended up behind a deli counter. (McGuinness briefly appeared in The Wrestler, in a scene filmed at a Ring of Honor show.) McGuinness makes the comparison. Then quickly rescinds it.
“I never had that big money run,” he says. “That would be one thing if I got to do tons of coke and fuck girls everywhere. I just ate chicken every three hours, went to the gym five days a week and tried to be the best wrestler I could.”
McGuinness is right: He never enjoyed the spoils. Wrestling on the independent scene pays about as well as you’d imagine; McGuinness never sniffed six figures. Wrestlers must work for World Wrestling Entertainment, or, on a smaller scale, Total Nonstop Action wrestling, to earn a comfortable living. That was McGuinness’ plan. And he was on his way too, signing with WWE in 2009. But he flunked the physical and WWE withdrew the offer. “Absolutely tragic,” says ROH wrestler Chris “Jimmy Jacobs” Scobille. “He really dedicated himself to this dream and goal. So to get the rug pulled from underneath you like that, there’s not much worse that can happen as far as a wrestling career.”
McGuinness quickly regrouped and joined TNA, debuting in a spectacular main event program with 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist Kurt Angle. “[We] clicked,” Angle told me during a November 2011 interview. “I thought he was going to be the next champion. I told [everyone] that we got to push this kid. He’s awesome.”
His time on top was short lived, however, and he was disregarded once Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea took over the company—the Hulkster wasn’t much of a fan of McGuinness’ work. And then McGuinness contracted Hepatitis B, and was eventually fired from TNA, which is why he spent most of 2011 hopeless and bitter as a clerk in Tampa.
“After a long day someone is complaining that you cut the wrong amount of salmon off the fillet, you go, ‘God fucking hell, is there where I’ve ended up?’”
A year later, there’s a new ending. McGuinness no longer works at a deli. He lives in Los Angeles, pursuing acting and stand-up comedy. He made a documentary about his wrestling career, The Last of McGuinness. And though he’s retired from in-ring competition, he’s back with Ring of Honor as an on-camera authority figure. And here he is on a Sunday morning in December, standing outside the Hammerstein Ballroom in midtown Manhattan.
McGuinness, now 37, wears a baggy black suit—he’s swimming in the shoulders—an untucked white Nautica dress shirt and black shoes. He is 6’1”, around 200 pounds, and so down 15-20 lbs from his wrestling days. His hair is mowed close to the scalp. At first glance, he could pass for Jason Statham’s taller stunt double. We walk past security and enter the main ballroom where the ring is already set up for this afternoon’s Final Battle 2012: Doomsday, the last Ring of Honor internet pay-per-view of the year.
The main event features ROH champion Kevin Steen defending against Rami “El Generico” Sebei in a ladder match. It should be a doozy. Steen is a violent Quebecois who is agile and graceful despite his cartoonishly large belly. Fans chant “Kill Steen Kill” during his matches. Sebai plays a “generic” high-flying masked Mexican luchador except that he is not Mexican; he is white and redheaded. About a month later, he’ll sign with WWE.
In the storyline, Steen and Generico are former tag-team partners who have battled on-and-off for the past three years. This match is a blow-off to their feud. At the moment though, they are two co-workers running through their match in the ring. “This is really important,” McGuinness says watching from ringside, a slight Australian twang inflecting his London accent. “You are putting your body in someone else’s hands. It’s nice to do stuff on the fly and ad-lib but when you have things like a ladder involved, it’s very dangerous.”
Most ladder matches feature death-defying falls from preposterous heights. It’s one of the most hazardous contests in the wrestling canon. But there will not be blood in this afternoon’s match. Since McGuinness’ return, ROH has discouraged intentional bleeding, or “blading.” And in a few minutes, McGuinness and the company’s booker Hunter “Delirious” Johnson, will announce a strict ban.
The wrestlers congregate around Johnson and McGuinness. Shelton Benjamin holds a bag of Chipotle. Terry “Rhino” Gerin chugs a Red Bull. Matt Hardy sips from a Dunkin Donuts cup. It’s an eclectic roster comprised of youngsters dreaming of a WWE contract, indie stalwarts who never made it to the big leagues and former WWE stars on the downsides of their careers.
McGuinness is nervous but speaks clearly and with confidence about the company’s new edict. “I feel as though certain changes need to happen in the industry, certainly in Ring of Honor,” he says. “There are so many viruses that can be transmitted in blood. That being the case, I feel as though going forward, there should be no intentional blood on the shows.”
“Agreed,” shouts a voice from within the scrum.
“Yeah,” affirms another.
McGuinness also advises the wrestlers to get vaccinated for Hepatitis B. A few moments after wrapping up the speech, he looks pale. “I feel like I just came out,” he tells me. “I think everyone feels the same way [about blading]. You can still have great matches without the blood.”
But a match doesn’t need blood to be dangerous. Steen and Sebei crashed through a handful of ladders during their contest, which Steen won after piledriving Sebei onto a ladder that was laid down horizontally between two standing ladders. McGuinness admits the spot was risky. Insane? “Probably not,” he says.
The Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin versus BJ Whitmer and Rhett Titus street fight earlier in the card, however, ended with an insane spot. Haas launched Whitmer off the top rope and across the ring where Whitmer landed headfirst through a table. From where I sat in the front row, it looked nasty. The crowd roared—a mix of horror and astonishment—and the referee counted one-two-three ending the match. Whitmer wasn’t expected to get up immediately. In other words, he had to “sell the finish.” But most hardcore wrestling fans can differentiate between good selling and a legitimate injury. It got quiet real fast.
In an unscripted moment, McGuinness and other officials hurried to the ring. Whitmer somehow walked gingerly to the back, flexing his fingers.
After the event, I asked McGuinness what went through his mind while watching Whitmer crash through the table. “Is he alive?,” he answered. “You see so many of those sort of bumps that you almost become conditioned to them. You have that sense that they are going to get up. In the back of your mind though, you know there’s going to be a day when someone doesn’t get up. When that day comes, um”—he pauses searching for the right words—“it’s going to be a very bad day.”
Back in the 1980’s, an atomic drop was considered a devastating maneuver and violent gimmick matches were few and far between in the WWE (then known as the World Wrestling Federation). Promotions in Puerto Rico, Japan, Memphis and Texas were rougher and it wasn’t uncommon to see Jerry Lawler throw fireballs or Larry “Abdullah the Butcher” Shreve dig a fork into Carlos Colon’s forehead.
The National Wrestling Alliance, the mid-Atlantic based promotion that featured Ric Flair as champion, lurked somewhere in between. With a long-standing 6:05 p.m. Saturday time slot on Superstation TBS, the NWA had a national platform but was brutal compared to WWE. There were “I Quit” matches, dog-collar matches, scaffold matches and something called War Games. Still, it paled in comparison to the future of the business.
The 1990’s were a golden age for violence. Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling, a hardcore Japanese promotion, became popular at the outset of the decade. Extreme Championship Wrestling brought the wild gimmicks and gore stateside. Wrestlers bled buckets, swung Singapore canes and bashed each other with unprotected chair shots.
Terry Funk became a legend. Mick Foley became a star. The latter cut his teeth in the NWA, Japan and ECW before joining WWE in 1996. Foley was one of the biggest draws of the WWE’s Attitude Era—from 1997 to the early 2000’s, when the company pushed the envelope in violence, taste and decency. He’s best known for being thrown off the top of the Hell in a Cell structure twice during a match in 1998’s King of the Ring pay-per-view: once intentionally off the top through the announcers’ table, and once through the top of the Cell, unintentionally, to the ring 15 feet below (on top of a chair). “Good God…he’s broken in half,” howled announcer Jim Ross. It wasn’t completely hyperbole—one of Foley’s teeth was protruding from his nostril.
Foley suffered a dislocated shoulder and was knocked unconscious from the bumps in that match. Now retired, he’s a New York Times best-selling author and seemingly healthy—if you don’t count the part of his ear he’s missing, lost during a battle in Germany. He’s one of the lucky ones. Darren Drozdov broke his neck and never walked again. Japanese legend Mitsuharu Misawa died after a belly-to-back suplex.
The first time Nigel McGuinness got hurt in the ring he was training at Les Thatcher’s wrestling school outside of Cincinnati. His opponent, a former bodyguard attempting a career change, injured McGuinness after hitting him with a stiff shoulder block. McGuinness later blew out his knee attempting a moonsault. At that moment, he realized he’d never be a high-flyer and he crafted a technical, mat-based European style. Then, in 2003, McGuinness joined Ring of Honor, an East Coast based independent promotion. He noticed that the top wrestlers—Nuufolau “Samoa Joe” Seanoa, Brandon “Low Ki” Silvestry and Bryan “Daniel Bryan” Danielson—all deployed what McGuinness calls a more “realistic, believable” style. So he adapted, and he improved. His stuff became real and believable and good. He could also tell a story in the ring and had a natural connection with fans that can’t be taught or developed.
McGuinness meticulously crafted his character, a working class Brit with traces of punk rock and soccer hooligan culture; he was a Guy Ritchie character washed ashore into Ring of Honor. McGuinness had dyed-blond spiked hair, flipped the bird to fans (English style in the form of a “V”) and did little things to stick out, like entering the ring through the bottom rope. Oasis’ “Fuckin’ in the Bushes” was his entrance music. From his experience writing screenplays, he knew characters needed motivation and an origin story so he pondered questions like: Who is Nigel McGuinness after the show? Who is Nigel McGuinness at six o’clock in the morning when he has a hangover? If he knew the answers, it would show in the ring.
He was also in the right promotion; guys in Ring of Honor did anything—kamikaze dives onto the floor, chair shots, stiff head butts, blading—to get the product over with fans. It had strains of the old ECW—which had gone bankrupt and folded in 2001—combined with technical mat wrestling, Mixed Martial Arts style submission holds and, most of all, a love and respect of the craft that’s more common in Japan and Canada. “You were so full of bravado that you didn’t think of the physical repercussions of it,” McGuinness says. “You tried to protect yourself as best as you could. You understood that there were certain sacrifices that you were going to make for having this sort of a run in this sort of a company.”
As a finisher, he used the “Jawbreaker Lariat,” a modified clothesline. Instead of just sticking his arm out at the moment of impact, McGuinness swung his left arm like a boxer delivering a crushing hook. For a little extra oomph, sometimes he’d bounce in between the ropes and launch himself at his opponent. It looked devastating because it was. “He wound up using a move that knocked the hell out of you,” says Dean “Shark Boy” Roll, a wrestler who trained with McGuinness in Ohio. “I don’t think he sent anyone to the hospital. It was just a stiff move. The way he threw it though was beautiful. It looked like a finish.”
McGuinness moved up the card, had classic five-star matches with his great rival Bryan Danielson and in October 2007, he won the ROH World Title from Takeshi Morishima, a burly Japanese tank with a style and look resembling the late Terry Gordy. A week later, McGuinness tore his bicep. He missed some dates, let it scar in place and worked through the injury. It became a pattern.
The defining moment of his title reign occurred on December 29, 2007, during a match with Austin Aries at the Manhattan Center in New York City. Early on, while McGuinness was outside the ring trash-talking fans, Aries, a daredevil who reached unbelievable speeds and heights on his jumps, leaped through the ropes and into him. McGuinness’ head collided with the metal barricade separating the crowd from the wrestlers and a nasty gash opened over his eye; a fan in the front row recoiled after seeing blood gushing from the wound.
McGuinness was woozy, an almost bemused look splashed across his face. He doesn’t remember crashing into the guard rail and later said the blow briefly knocked him out. Somehow, he finished the match, which he won. He was in the hospital that night until 4 a.m. and received 27 stitches over his eye. “Looking back, I’m still proud of that match,” McGuinness says today. “I didn’t plan to get knocked out. I am certainly not glad that it happened but it added something to the match. Sometimes for a match to really stand out, something has to happen that wasn’t planned. How you respond to that and how you ad lib, creates that magic.”
Before McGuinness went to the hospital, he was photographed, still battered and bloody, gazing obsessively at his title belt. It’s one of his most popular 8 x 10’s. “There were a lot of questions going through my head,” McGuinness says of that photograph. “What have I done to myself?’ ‘Is this worth it?’ ‘What will be the payoff in the long run?’ ‘In ten years, will you be mentally defective?’ ‘Are you going to quit now?’”
He couldn’t quit. Independent wrestlers are paid per appearance. And so the next day, McGuinness reported for work. He was schedule to defend the title in the main event but then-Ring of Honor booker Gabe Sapolsky wouldn’t allow it. “Nigel is a really tough guy and was willing to work through pain,” Sapolsky says. “Sometimes he did have to be protected for his own good.”
Instead of wrestling, McGuinness addressed the crowd. He was still punch-drunk, so it took him four hours to grasp the talking points of the promo. McGuinness walked delicately toward the ring, swaying from side-to-side. His balance was shot, an obvious indication of a major concussion. He wasn’t selling. Some members of the crowd, disappointed in the cancellation of the main event and tired of McGuinness’ injuries, began chanting “Drop the belt! Drop the belt!” McGuinness was shocked.
On the verge of tears, he defended himself. “It’s the sacrifices I’ve made that allow me to stand in this ring as Ring of Honor champion,” he cried. Suddenly, he was no longer in character. He was no longer saying something to get a reaction. He was saying what he genuinely felt. And it worked. Wrestlers are not actors, so the best promos occur when they believe and are invested in the words coming out of their mouth. Soon, a louder chant of “Nigel! Nigel!” engulfed the jeers. He ended the promo defiant. “And for the rest of you [fans] who love this business, who respect the wrestlers, I’m going to keep this belt because of you. Thank you! And screw you!” Once backstage, he dropped to a knee in front of Sapolsky and cried. “To experience that venom after you spent twenty minutes the night before trying to entertain that same person and then five hours in the hospital,” McGuinness says, “it’s something that touches you deeply to the core.”
Ring of Honor wrestlers have a complicated relationship with their fans. There’s a bond and intimacy that’s impossible to replicate in a big company, no matter how much WWE hypes the “WWE Universe.” But there’s also a downside: ROH is a DVD-driven product, and so the fans have seen all the big matches. Most fans are walking encyclopedias of wrestling—wrestlers try not to replicate spots or work the same match twice. They are passionate. They are devoted. They are not easily impressed.
McGuinness couldn’t walk straight for a few weeks after the match with Aries. His testosterone levels plummeted. His libido vanished. He struggled with depression. He took some time off but not enough to heal completely. He couldn’t leave the money on the table. Pride also factored into his decision. Pro wrestling is about making money and getting out before you really get hurt. But McGuinness was concerned about his legacy. He wanted fans to hold him in the same esteem as past ROH champs like Samoa Joe, Phil “CM Punk” Brooks or Bryan Danielson.
“Nigel was always very hard on himself,” says ROH wrestler Jimmy Jacobs. “The pressure he put upon himself was unparalleled. He made sure to deliver something special every night and he destroyed his body because of that. I watched it and it was inspiring and tragic at the same time.”
While wrestling was destroying his body and mind—McGuinness would joke he’d end up like the main character in Flowers for Algernon— it had already taken a toll on his personal life. McGuinness and his wife divorced in 2006. “I feel like there were always going to be issues with any relationship but wrestling certainly exacerbated them,” he says. During his early ROH career, McGuinness wrestled on the weekends and held a night job during the week, delivering room service at a hotel in Louisville. “That’s what’s really difficult because ever since I was a kid, it was always my dream to be a professional wrestler. But it was also my dream to find a girl, fall in love, get married and be happy. I had that romantic notion as well so I was always torn between those two things knowing that for a large extent they were pulling against each other. I always had trouble justifying that in my head.”
After 545 days as ROH champion, McGuinness dropped the belt to the veteran Jerry Lynn in April 2009. He worked the match with two torn biceps, a neck injury and concussion issues. It was a relief. Being champion had broken him.
End of Part 1 | Part 2