"Why didn't he just pay for his surgery?"
That was a prevalent thought as I was watching "The Last of McGuinness," a documentary that chronicles the wrestling retirement tour of a man who chased his dream his entire adult life. Nigel McGuinness wanted to be a professional wrestler, making the most money possible, which meant working for WWE.
He achieved this goal. He had a contract in hand and needed only to pass a physical to be cleared and begin his journey to what he surely felt was stardom and millions of dollars. One challenge: an old bicep injury which was never operated on and essentially healed itself became an issue.
"The doctors asked me, 'Did I have any injury'", explained McGuinness. "I wanted to be honest. My Orthopedic Surgeon said I was fine. (WWE's) doctor told me that there was somebody in (WWE's developmental system) that lied (about not having an injury) in the pre-screening process and went to (developmental) and re-injured themselves and got fired over that. The Doctor probably got heat over that. He was very cautious that if there were any issues he wanted them to be known, so I told him."
Everything seemed to be fine, until he got new MRI's done on his arm. WWE's doctor's weren't too pleased with the results.
"He saw my MRI and said 'Wow you should have had surgery'. At this point I'm not making money, not wrestling anywhere. Everything is going on my credit card. Two weeks, three weeks I waited, finally they called up and said 'Sorry, we can't sign you'. I couldn't believe it, how could something so unfair and so unjust happen to me? I couldn't believe it but it was happening. My doctor wrote letter and explained his opinion. My doctor said I was no worse off if I had gotten surgery than if I never got injured."
The injury to repair his arm would have cost him $6,000.
To fully understand the predicament he was in, you must first understand the road he traveled to get to this point.
Born Steven Haworth, the future Nigel McGuinness made a decision at age 14 to become a pro wrestler. Growing up in England, he had the opportunity to attend Summerslam 1992 at Wembley Stadium, with Ultimate Warrior face paint in tow. He relocated to the United States in pursuit of his dream and learned the ropes through Les Thatacher in September 1998. A year later, he made his ring debut as Nigel McGuinness, and used that name throughout his entire career (save for his stint in TNA as "Desmond Wolfe"). He gained his biggest success in Ring of Honor, holding the World title for 545 days, with a ROH tying record 38 title defenses. Many of them against perhaps his biggest foe, Bryan Danielson, who WWE fans now know as Daniel Bryan.
"I was in talks with WWE originally in 2005,"McGuiness said. "Before I went to Japen, I was talking to Johnny Ace. I went to OVW and did dark matches. The interest dissipated, so I went to ROH and made a name for myself. When I talked with WWE the second time around, I felt as though I did everything I could and wanted to outside of WWE. I gained the respect of the people I respect. I learned the art form of pro wrestling around the world. This was it, I was getting my just rewards. This was the reason why, ever since I was 14, I believed I was going to make it."
Until his bicep became an obstacle.
One point of view to this situation might be, after putting so much of your heart and soul into this dream, money shouldn't be an obstacle. But we haven't been in that position. We weren't Nigel McGuinness presented with that dilemma, in that financial situation.
"For a company that pays hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to people they've employed, the fact that they weren't willing to pay for my surgery up front or give me a guarantee that once I got the surgery I'd get hired bothered me," he said. "Their top guys get millions of dollars a year. This was six grand for a bicep surgery. Here I am, feeling like they aren't that interested. All that time going back and forth, not taking bookings, ten, fifteen grand in debt. Then, TNA comes knocking and I have an opportunity to wrestle Kurt Angle in TNA. I literally had less than 48 hours to decide, I called two people who I trusted in the wrestling industry and made my decision".
His documentary makes a big reveal as to why things went south in TNA, one reason why it's worth the purchase.
Another part of the documentary that jumped out at me was when he received a rare text from his old foe Bryan Danielson, moments after he had won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, while McGuinness was at a low point on his retirement tour.
"The text was heartbreaking," admits McGuinness. "To see not just Dragon but to see so many other guys achieve their just rewards. To know how much they suffered. I feel guilty having that tiny tinge of sadness to see your friend there and not be able to fully enjoy that because you feel like you should be there too. Dragon hardly texts. He's texted me 3-4 times in my life. For him to text is really monumental, just as I'm coming to terms with the end of my career."
While the documentary is certainly a reality check for aspiring professional wrestlers, it also provides perspective and ends on a happy note. To create this documentary in the first place, McGuinness needed funds. His fans came to his aid.
"One thousand people donated $40,000," he said. "One thousand people were willing to donate with no guarantees that anything would happen. A couple people donated $2,500. Many people donated what they could - maybe they couldn't afford ten but they could afford four. How can you not be moved by that show of support."
Currently, McGuinness is creating an alternate version of the documentary, one more palpable to a wider audience that he can shop around to TV stations and distributors. The final original cut is available for purchase at www.nigelwrestling.com.
So how does he feel today about his in ring retirement?
"I'm more at peace now than I was six months ago, and I was more at peace then than six months before that," he said. "As time goes on I'll get even more at peace. When I watch WWE today its tough, I see so many of my friends and peers there, making all that money, and living the dream that I aspired to have. That's difficult. It's like breaking up with a girl you dated for your whole adult life. You don't want to see them dating anyone else. But I'm OK with where I am in my life. I didn't get to WWE because of what happened. I'm in a place I wouldn't have been otherwise."
McGuinness lives in Los Angeles and is pursuing stand-up comedy and acting, landing small roles and touring. He still dabbles in pro wrestling, working with ROH in a commentary and on air role, while attending select independent events, such as PWG in Reseda, California.
Another question that pro wrestling fans might be asking: What if WWE were to offer McGuinness a role backstage with the company?
"It would interest me to have a discussion," he said. "It's really difficult, to spend whole life with that dream (of being a professional wrestler) being your goal. I'd have to honor my 14-year-old kid."
This is not to say he isn't enjoying his new endeavors and wherever life takes him, including the success of his documentary. As someone who works in the independents and has seen so many of these dreams either get shattered or not pan out exactly how they had hoped, this DVD is a must-watch for those aspiring to be pro wrestlers but is also a good life story in terms of how to find happiness when faced with adversity.
After talking to McGuinness on the phone for 35 minutes for this piece, he did something not many interviewees do - he asked me a question. He asked me about blading -- intentional cutting to produce blood -- in pro wrestling. I wasn't prepared to be asked a question but I gave him my thoughts on the subject, how I don't really miss the days of the "crimson mask." While many will point to WrestleMania 13 as an example of how it can add drama to a match, McGuinness has become a champion for ridding wrestling of the practice.
"When we see somebody cut their head open... anybody I talk to who is at a high level, they walk away and they roll their eyes, like when you watch those awful reality TV shows," he said. "It hurts pro wrestling. Most wrestlers say no they don't do it, not because they are trying to keep it a secret. Everyone knows how it's done these days. The reason they don't admit it its because its embarrassing. Wrestling can flourish without it. My hope that arguably next generation of wrestlers will watch my documentary and not do that. I've bladed in my career, but I would gladly remove those instances from my career and be proud of everything else I've done in my career."
Much more on this topic can be found in the documentary, "The Last of McGuinness", which is available for purchase at www.nigelwrestling.com
Arda Ocal is an on air personality with theScore Television Network.