This is the second part of a two-part story. Read the first part here.
Nigel McGuinness is not his real name. He was born Steven Haworth and grew up 61 kilometers southeast of London in a village called Staplehurst. At Les Thatcher’s wrestling school, Shark Boy dubbed him Nigel, a Welsh name, and it stuck. Nigel decided that his last name should embody the United Kingdom. “Mc” took care of Scotland. Guinness represented Ireland. His mom and sister call him Nigel McGuinness. So does his father, on occasion. His parents were both high school teachers. Mom worked with special needs children and also taught English, German and history; dad taught mathematics and computers.
McGuinness fell in love with wrestling after his friend snagged a VHS copy of Summer Slam ’92, which took place at London’s Wembley Stadium. Within a few weeks, most of his classmates had moved on. McGuinness became convinced that pro wrestling was his destiny. Needless to say, he wasn’t popular in high school.
McGuinness was struck with meningitis during his senior year. He spent three days in the hospital, unresponsive from swelling on the brain. Once recovered, he had a sense of urgency rare for a teenager.
Like most Europeans, he took time off following graduation and spent a year in Australia. Back in England, he studied chemistry in university. It came easy to him but it wasn’t pro wrestling. He applied to study abroad programs and enrolled at Kent State in Ohio, site of the infamous massacre of Vietnam protesters in 1970. Once again, McGuinness struggled to fit in. He was the weirdo with long pink hair who skateboarded around campus. He didn’t kiss a girl for the entire year. “I had pictures of Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior on my walls,” he says. “That didn’t help my efforts.”
But he landed at Les Thatcher’s wrestling school in Ohio, determined to make it. And he remembered a list he’d made in Australia. Written on a napkin, it contained his ten ambitions in life. He aspired to write a book, be a teacher, learn piano, make a movie, get married, have kids by the time he was 35 years old, and most importantly, become a WWE superstar.
After dropping the title to Lynn, McGuinness knew it was time to jump to WWE so he e-mailed John Laurinaitis, then-Executive VP of Talent Relations, who then invited him to a tryout in Louisville. About 15-20 wrestlers were there. And after wrestling legend Dory Funk Jr. gave a pep talk, Laurinaitis turned to McGuinness, and instructed him to get his gear, get in the ring and “beat someone up.”
McGuinness called the match on the fly. He was safe. He wasn’t reckless. For the finish, he allowed his opponent to make a comeback and then cut him off on the top rope and hit a superplex for the win. Afterwards, Laurinaitis, along with Dusty Rhodes, the writer Dave Lagana and former British star Norman Smiley, took McGuinness back to the office and told him how excited they were about him. He later signed a contract and took a physical. His dream was within reach.
He wrestled his last match for Ring of Honor in September 2009 against Danielson, who was also departing for WWE. On the day of the match, McGuinness received a call from a TNA executive wanting to hire him. McGuinness respectfully declined, citing the pending WWE deal. “Well, if it doesn’t work, you can always come here,” said the voice on the other end. McGuinness had a horrible premonition.
There was reason to worry. WWE said they couldn’t clear McGuinness to wrestle unless he surgically fixed his torn bicep. McGuiness had wrestled with the injury for years and was desperate to avoid surgery. He’d taken three months off earlier in 2009 so money was tight. He had $2000 of credit card debt. Surgery would cost between $4000-$6000 and he’d be out for four months. He faxed Laurinaitis a letter from his orthopedic surgeon who’d cleared him to wrestle, but WWE insisted on surgery. McGuinness declined. WWE pulled the offer.
“I felt like I really earned it. I learned the craft, paid a lot of sacrifices and was now getting my just rewards. When it didn’t work out, it was difficult for me to understand,” he says. “It’s like watching a movie and seeing a guy struggling and struggling and then towards the end of the movie, it’s like, here’s the happy moment, and then he walks outside and gets run over.”
The rescinded contract became fodder for the internet wrestling community. Was it due to multiple concussions? Something even more horrible? The questioning intensified after McGuinness debuted in TNA in October 2009, looking fit and healthy, throwing his trademark lariat with abandon. Now known as “Desmond Wolfe,” McGuinness says the next two months were the highlight of his career. His program with Kurt Angle drew raves. He was making good money, on pace for six figures in 2010, and he was relaxed. While once so nervous before his matches in Ring of Honor, working with a pro like Angle was a breeze. It was that magic he dreamed of as a kid in England.
His monster push ended almost as soon as Hulk Hogan debuted in TNA in January 2010. Hogan had an unclear role. He wasn’t wrestling or exactly booking the shows but he held considerable power and planned on using former WWE talent to attract casual wrestling fans. He also carried certain viewpoints about wrestling. One specific tenet was that heels can’t outwrestle baby faces. Back in the 1980’s, bad guys mostly kicked, punched or eye-gouged; King Kong Bundy didn’t chain wrestle. McGuinness, on the other hand, would go from an arm bar to an arm lock, showing off his repertoire. It didn’t go over well in Hogan’s locker room and McGuinness was nearly fired. He languished in the under-card for a few months. By September 2010, he was off television.
TNA explained it as a “personal issue.” McGuinness had actually tested positive for Hepatitis B. (Hepatitis B is an infectious inflammatory illness of the liver that can be transmitted by blood or body fluids like semen. Unlike Hepatitis C, there is a vaccine.) McGuinness received the phone call while at the gym. At first, he thought there might be an issue with a supplement. The diagnosis bewildered him. McGuinness says he’s never had unprotected sex or shared needles. And he was in the acute phase, which meant he’d contracted it within the past two months. Most likely it came from bleeding in the wrestling ring.
As his liver enzymes went through the roof, he imagined the organ dissolving inside his body. Doctors were puzzled, unsure of the proper treatment. Amidst all this, having not worked for six months, he was also going broke. So he took that job at the deli in Tampa. Those were some of his darkest days. “There were times certainly when I had Hepatitis where I couldn’t get out of bed,” he says. “I could never kill myself. I could never subject my family, friends or the people that love me to that but there were definitely times when… It was the first time in my life where…I had known people who killed themselves and I thought, ‘How could you never have any hope to live anymore or have any reason to carry on?’ But there were times in my life that I just felt just…It’s weird how depression works there’s this feeling in your head that there is nothing left to live for.”
Luckily, he stumbled upon the Chance Center in St. Petersburg. He was prescribed an anti-viral medication and within six months, he was clear of the disease. All the while, he occasionally showed up at TNA tapings. He never divulged the ailment but talk of Hepatitis swirled around the locker room. “I heard Hepatitis right away but I thought it was C, the super bad one, the terminal one,” says Shark Boy. On the internet, McGuinness’ disappearance turned into a more salacious mystery than his failed WWE physical. Hepatitis was the prevailing rumor but AIDS, cancer, brain tumors and brain damage were also haphazardly tossed around comments sections.
TNA released McGuinness in June 2011. And though cleared to wrestle, he decided to retire. His body had been through too much. He was never going to sign with WWE. There was no point returning to the independents except for the obligatory retirement tour.
McGuinness dubbed the go-around The Last of McGuinness / What Wrestling Means to You. It was supposed to be a celebration of his career but McGuinness grew despondent. “The mood was somber,” says Shark Boy, who wrestled McGuinness in Middletown, Ohio. “Backstage, I was trying to cheer him up. It was like, ‘You’re not a failure. You achieved enough.’”
McGuinness wrestled his last match on December 17, 2011 in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The next day, Bryan Danielson (now wrestling in WWE as “Daniel Bryan”) won the World Heavyweight Championship. Danielson got in touch with McGuinness after the match. “He texted me after he won the belt ‘Wish that I was there with him,’” McGuinness said on the ROH-produced DVD The Best of McGuinness. He choked up and the camera briefly cut away, allowing him to regain composure. “Must be that time of the month. Crazy. Glad one of us made it.”
Nigel McGuinness was always introspective. Growing up, he loved television shows and movies that featured inner monologues like Stand by Me and The Wonder Years. He’s been in and out of therapy as an adult. And he’s written in a journal every day since he was 12-years-old. So it was only natural that he’d film his retirement tour. In early 2012, he raised over $48,000 on Kickstarter and then spent the next eight months editing over 70 hours of footage.
The first draft of The Last of McGuinness, which is on sale on his website and at Ring of Honor events, is a compelling story, emotional and true. What was planned as a tour documentary turned into a vehicle for McGuinness to make peace with his halted career. It took him a while, which is understandable. At a time when ROH peers like CM Punk and Danielson wrestled in main events of WWE pay-per-views and Austin Aries dominated TNA, McGuinness was scrapping by, wondering how he’d support himself.
The Last of McGuinness isn’t strictly for wrestling fans. Anyone who spent their life working towards an impractical goal — like being a famous singer, actor, writer or athlete — and then woke up one morning in their 30’s realizing it just wasn’t going to happen can relate to the film. There are many stories about people who overcame adversity and achieved their dreams. Most people don’t achieve their dreams. And sometimes that can be okay if the experience was worth the journey.
“As far as achieving my dream, I don’t think I did,” McGuinness says. “My dream was to be a WWE wrestler, to be like the Ultimate Warrior, to travel around the world and for everybody to know who I was and to make hundreds of thousands of dollars and then retire and get married and have kids. I certainly didn’t achieve that and I’m okay with that.”
Feedback from fans has been overwhelming so far but McGuinness is still tweaking the film. After the Ring of Honor show in Manhattan, he meets a filmmaker who recently placed a film in Cannes. It’s raining and McGuinness is running a little late so he hops in a cab. He fidgets and confirms the address of his destination —a café in Chelsea — with the driver three times.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “You’ll get there on time.”
“I’m real worried. You probably noticed, I am a perfectionist.”
“What else are you worried about?”
“Being late, meeting people, making sure I’m not letting people down. Back when I was wrestling, it was about having a good match and making sure the people were not going home disappointed. I don’t want to say the wrong thing to upset anybody. You wonder whether everybody feels that same way.”
We’re twenty minutes early, and once the filmmaker arrives, they enjoy a productive chat. She likes the film but shares my critiques — there’s a little too much wrestling for mass audiences, too many mentions of WWE and, at times, the documentary plays like a Nigel pity party. “There’s a little too much, ‘Woe is me,’” McGuinness concurs. In late January, he learns the documentary wasn’t accepted into South by Southwest. He’s now cutting twenty minutes from the running time. From there, its back to the festival route or maybe even a television deal.
Regardless, life is good at the moment. He’s booked stand-up comedy gigs in Los Angeles and San Diego (Demetri Martin, Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand are some of his heroes), scored a small role in the movie Puppet Master X: Axis Risingand hosted a recap show on After Buzz TV. Most importantly, he’s healthy and moving on with his life. “I just have a feeling that whatever is going to happen to me next is going to be okay,” McGuinness says.
He then tells me about a recent conversation with former Ring of Honor owner Cary Silkin. Occasionally, Silkin vacations in Puerto Rico with a few of the guys. McGuinness never went. He thinks he might join them next time. “They just go to the beach, have a few drinks, go to sleep, go back to the beach and then go have a burger. It seems so luxurious but it shouldn’t be,” McGuinness says. “I’m living my life. I’m not struggling.”